Friday, September 14, 2007 - Very Late Evening
Behind Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Years of dodging revenuers made Bobby Earl cautious by nature, and he circled the parking lot behind Kane Hall twice, looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Ducked down in a row of juniper bushes, hidden from view, he glanced at his watch. He had a few minutes to go before he was supposed to meet Officer Mendez, and he wasn't about to take chances. Not when there was a still at risk.
There was a slight rustle a dozen or so yards to his right, and he cautiously peered that direction, then looked around himself again. There! He spotted a shadow that seemed out of place against one of the cars, a shadow that hadn't been there only moments before. He looked more closely; the silhouette matched that of Officer Mendez. More surprisingly, the officer was looking his way.
Bobby Earl eased himself quietly backwards out of the bushes, then circled around behind them, coming into the open and walking boldly toward Mendez. "Evenin'," the boy said simply.
Mendez straightened up from leaning against a car. "Evening."
"Y'all messaged me?"
Mendez smiled. "Straight and to the point, not wasting time. I like that."
"Y'all like sneakin' around tryin' t' catch people?" Bobby Earl asked with a wry smile.
"I could ask you the same," Mendez retorted.
"Been livin' most of mah life spottin' revenuers and avoidin' 'em. Had a lot of fun makin' monkeys out of 'em. Ain't never been caught," the boy replied with a smile.
Mendez smiled. "Marine Corps. Scout-sniper. Sneaking up on people without being seen is the difference between life and death."
"So you're good at shootin', too?" Bobby Earl asked with a broad grin. "Been huntin' since Ah could hold a rifle. Ah can plug a rabbit square between the eyes at three hundred yards."
"An average scout-sniper can make a killing shot at fifteen hundred yards," Mendez retorted casually.
"Through brush, usin' iron sights?" Bobby Earl grinned.
Mendez chuckled. "That'd be some fair shooting. Too bad we can't have a little contest to see who's better."
The boy nodded. "Maybe we'll have t' figger somethin' out. But Ah'm sure you didn't message me in the middle of the night to have a 'bigger dick' contest 'bout who's a better shot."
"No," Mendez laughed. "I got a few security matters taken care of, so I got the first delivery ready to move to your lab."
"That's worth interruptin' a date," Bobby Earl grinned. "Although, t' be honest, the date was over and she weren't gonna do much besides a little kissin'."
"Business before pleasure?"
"As long as it's moonshinin'," the boy chuckled.
"If you were interrupting a little nookie to work on moonshining, I'd wonder about you," the security guard said with a laugh.
"Ain't got no hankerin' t' end up cursed like mah grandpappy!" the boy guffawed in response. Noting the perplexed look on Mendez's face, he continued, "He left old lady Larimore waitin' at the altar, and got hisself cursed 'cause of it." A grin practically split his face. "And Becky and Katie back home made sure Ah know that there's things better'n moonshinin'!" He smiled wistfully. "Katie's got jugs bigger'n her ma, and that's sayin' a lot. J-cup, I think she said. She don't mind a feller playin' with 'em a bit, so long as he don't forget t' tend to her 'other needs'!" he snickered. "Probably goin ' t' be a stripper. Or a porn star. She's friendly enough fer it."
"Two girls?" Mendez' eyebrows rose in surprise. "You like living dangerously!"
"Long as they don't know 'bout each other, it works out," the boy grinned.
Mendez snorted. "We'll see how you handle the two chasing you that do know about each other! Might be a hoot to watch!"
"A feller's gotta have some company, y'know."
"As long as they don't queer the deal we have," Mendez cautioned the boy. "I invested my resources in this deal. I don't want some two-bit bleach-blonde ruining it. Somehow, I don't think you do, either."
"Girl tries t' tell me t' stop moonshinin', she gets shown the door right quick!"
"I'll understand completely if we have to postpone some … deals because you're getting a piece of ass," Mendez said with a waggle of his eyebrows. "As long as you let me know so I don't waste my time," he added. "Up to that point, well, you and I have a deal. I expect you won't treat my time as something you can waste."
"Ah'll keep that in mind. You want to show me where you have the supplies? Then Ah'll move them t' mah lab."
"Okay, but I'll help move things."
"Ah. Just so's you can make sure Ah don't move things to a different secret lab?"
Mendez shrugged. "I've dealt with people who've double-crossed me before. I prefer to be careful. It helps keep people from being tempted." He smiled. "Besides, if you move things by yourself, it'll raise some eyebrows among the more curious. If you're with me, anyone who sees you moving things will think it's security business and you're doing work-study."
"Let's go move your supplies." Mendez turned toward the tunnel entrance, but then paused. "Also, it'll seem more natural if you follow me." Without any more discussion, Jerry led the boy down the tunnels to a side branch, down a level, and to a less-well-trafficked area of the rabbit warren, a section that was supposedly used mostly by faculty and staff for long-term storage of those odds and ends that were too valuable to throw out, but so rarely used that they got tucked in this out-of-the-way area. At least that was what Bunny McCormick had told all the newbie lab-coat-types during a detailed tour of the tunnels and labs.
In silence, each guiding a large anti-grav lifter that over the summer had become standard equipment in the tunnels, the two trudged through the tunnels and down two different elevators. As they neared one tunnel junction, Mendez signaled for the boy to stop, and he left his lifter to walk to one corner of the tunnel junction, taking his ID badge and waving it by one metallic box at the junction of several metal tubes. A barely-discernible 'beep' was the response to his action.
"Okay, now pass your badge by that same junction box," Mendez directed. After Bobby Earl had done so, Mendez added, "Again." This time, when the boy waved his badge, he was rewarded with the same soft 'beep'.
"Alarm system?" Bobby Earl speculated. "Or bypassin' the cameras and such?"
"Both. Chat later - we've got about two minutes to get clear of these cameras." Mendez began to shove his load; even though the lifter made it effectively weightless, it still had mass, and Newton's laws still applied. It still took force to get it moving.
Three cameras and one junction later, the duo stood outside Bobby Earl's private lab. After wrestling a couple hundred pounds of levitated inertia to a stop, which was harder than he'd anticipated, the boy turned to the chuckling guard, who'd been amused by his antics. "What?" he scowled at Mendez.
"Did'ja think about reducing the lift?"
Bobby Earl shook his head. "And have it crashin' t' the floor? Some of this is breakable, you know."
Mendez sighed. "You don't turn it completely off. Here, watch." He turned on his own lifter, then got it and its cargo moving. Then when it was moving fast enough to be a good demonstration, he twisted a control knob, and the lifter and pallet of material sank to the floor, scraping lightly as it dragged enough that friction stopped it. "Like that."
"Well, Ah'll be go t' hell!" Bobby Earl gawked. "Y'know, y'all could have let me in on that secret when we started, 'stead of lettin' me rassle this thing all the way."
Mendez shrugged with a wicked smile. "What, and spoil the entertainment? Besides," he smirked, "I thought all you evil geniuses already knew everything."
Bobby Earl resisted the temptation to reply, instead shoving his pallet back to the door and then stepping to the multi-function input device, and quickly went through the various biometric tests. Instead of simply opening the door like it had the first time he'd come to the lab after renting it from Jadis, it opened a panel that was well-hidden in the stone face of the tunnels, and a second scanner-device silently emerged. The boy manipulated the controls, then reached into his shirt pocket and produced a large, old-fashioned skeleton key, which he inserted into a lock and then twisted and turned. Moments later, the door unlatched and swung open.
"An old-fashioned skeleton key!' Mendez shook his head as he maneuvered his pallet into the small, well-lit, clean lab.
"This ain't no ordinary key," Bobby Earl replied lightly. "Mah new friend Reach made it fer me. Well, her girlfriend did." He shrugged. "They's kind of a complicated couple. Anyway, the key's got a lot of electronics and gyro stabilizers and such. It's kinda like a combination lock - Ah gotta turn it the right amounts of turn, in the right directions, and click on a transponder in the right places."
"What makes you think you can trust them, since they've probably got a copy?"
Bobby Earl began undoing the bungee cords which had held the gear down to the pallet. "They probably do. Don't matter. That's only one of four other locks from four different gadgeteers. Harley is one Ah can trust. Comes from the hills, like me. 'Sides,' he grinned, "Ah got me another trick." He moved to a spot on the wall, where there was a small indentation that resembled the bottom of a drill hole. With a smile, he pushed his thumb against the rock bottom.
Mendez nearly fell over as the section of wall he'd been leaning against vanished into nothingness, revealing a much larger lab space. "What? How …?"
The boy grinned. "You know how you fool a revenuer?" He didn't wait for Mendez to answer. "You give 'em what they want. You let 'em find a small still so they's happy. So someone comes lookin' fer mah lab, they find a small lab, with a small still and such."
"So you'll leave a few breadcrumbs out here," Mendez was starting to appreciate how clever the boy was from years of dodging federal lawmen, "and if someone goes through the trouble of breaking in, they find the bait, right?"
"They'll be happy and leave, never figgerin' that the real goodies are hidden behind a hard-light hologram. Ah might get in a bit of trouble, but they won't find mah real still." He smiled. "Ah got the hologram generator from another gadgeteer."
"It fooled me," Mendez said. "I was leaning on it and I never suspected a thing, although I was curious because the lab seemed smaller." He frowned. "And you trust me with knowing all this?"
Bobby Earl smiled. "Ah had some friends do some checkin' up on you. From what Ah can tell, you're a sneaky, thievin', connivin' operator who'd sell his mother for a hundred bucks. But one thing you ain't is a back-stabber. When you make a deal, you stick to it. They say you'd rather die than go back on your word."
Officer Mendez upped his estimation of the boy considerably. He was certainly no fool, that was for certain. "I haven't yet," he said slowly, "and I don't intend to. Hard to make deals when you've got a reputation as being unreliable." He put the bungees cords from his load on his lifter. "I figure we've got 2 more loads."
Saturday, September 15, 2007 - Early Morning
Outside Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"You'd think they'd open early so the bottomless pits could get their food after starving the last eight or ten hours," one kid ahead of Bobby Earl, also a devisor, grumbled as she shifted back and forth between her feet. Most of the early crowd were like Bobby Earl and his compatriot - lab-coat crew eager to get to the labs - or energizers.
"Aw, hell," Bobby Earl muttered in disgust. "Next time Ah've got a project to finish, Ah'll just pay someone to bring meals to mah lab."
The other devisor chuckled. "Yeah, and unless it's 'one of us'," she air-quoted the words, "they'll charge a fortune and take advantage of us."
Harley Sawyer overheard the comments. "Y'all must not know about the service Ayla set up last spring."
"What service?" the girl asked.
"Who is the heck is Ayla?" Bobby Earl asked the obvious question.
Harley chuckled. "Ayla Goodkind. She's pretty rich, and she's got some real good connections. Seems t' want t' help the gadgeteers and devisors mostly. She represents a lot of them in patents and marketing." It seemed that when Harley was around Bobby Earl, her accent increased to something more like a stereotypical Southern mountain redneck.
"So … she hooks us with a convenient food service, and then takes advantage of us lab-types and makes more money for herself marketing what we make?" the girl asked caustically.
Harley half chuckled while shaking her head. "Did ya get up on the cynical side of your bed this mornin'?" When the other girl flinched at Harley's blunt words and then grew visibly angry, Harley shook her head. "Ah suppose Ah'd be cynical, too, but Ayla's not like that. Just ask some of your own that Ayla represents - like Loophole and Moebius. Ah haven't heard anythin' but good from the ones Ayla represents. Even got some products t' new markets the inventors hadn't thought of - and for less than someone outside the school would charge."
"So this food service," Bobby Earl figured that the other girl was about to argue with Harley and that it might turn into a scene, "what's that all about?"
"Simple. You load an app from the food service website, and it'll let you pick what you want for meals, when you want them, and you only get charged a couple of bucks for delivery. Jenny said Ayla explained it to her - the school didn't want t' do it, sayin' that they'd actually lose money on the delivery, but Ayla reminded them how much they make on royalties from the gadgeteers and devisors, and they changed their minds right quick." Harley chuckled again. "Ah can just picture Ayla debating that with Mrs. Carson and Ms. Hartford. Woulda been fun t' watch. Ayla doesn't like losin', and neither do Mrs. Carson or Ms. Hartford. They'd have argued just t' keep Ayla from bein' able to say 'Ah told you so'."
"And they deliver it to our labs?" the girl asked.
"Yup. Almost like room service."
"Ah'll have to look into it," Bobby Earl said as he thought about the service, "Might be a mite interestin', considerin' all the security stuff they made me put in."
The girl gawked a moment, then smiled when she put two and two together. "Oh, so you're the one with the stills, right? Yeah, I can see where the administration might be a little … paranoid."
"Ah'd have t' figger out somethin'. Maybe if …," Bobby Earl started to say, but he didn't complete his thought.
"Bobby Earl!" a girl's dulcet voice called to him. "I thought you were going to have breakfast with me!" Heather covered the distance between them quickly, without running or looking awkward or ungraceful.
The boy winced at her reminder. "Was Ah? If so, Ah plumb forgot," he apologized. "Ah been … I mean, I've been thinking about how much I still have to get done before the trip to France."
"Well, we'll just have a quick breakfast, then," Heather decided, sidling up to Bobby Earl and practically wrapping herself around his upper arm, while her eyes shot daggers at the gadgeteer girl and at Harley.
Bobby Earl shook his head. "Ah'm sorry, but Ah've just got to grab somethin' t' go. Ah still gotta make up the rigs for the stills, then Ah've got t' figger out what Ah have to do t' age the output." He was too tired to keep up the less Southern accent.
Heather made a show of expressing her disappointment with a huge pout. "I was hoping that we could talk about what you're going to wear to the dance tonight."
"Oh, damn! Ah hadn't thought about that," Bobby Earl said slowly. "Ah've been busy thinkin' about the still mods and agin' rigs for France." The line ahead of them started to move, so Bobby Earl stepped forward, and because her arm was intertwined with his, Heather moved with him, even though she was only making moon eyes at the boy and not watching the line. Inside the door, most of the line curved toward the serving buffet, but Bobby Earl strode after a few others - all devisors, gadgeteers, or students with Saturday morning classes. They were heading for a much shorter serving line that had pre-packaged bags of breakfast.
"You can't even have a few minutes having breakfast with me?" Heather pouted again.
"Nope. Not if'n you want me t' take you to the dance tonight," Bobby Earl replied with a shrug. "Ah got so much work t' do that Ah'm apt to be missin' classes and such just t' get everythin' ready for the trip." He picked up a sack from the table, then turned to the checkout station. Since most people were going through the main buffet, which was huge and very long, the gadgeteers generally got to checkout first, even if they weren't the first through the door when the cafeteria opened. The boy waved his ID card by a reader at the 'cashiers' station, which registered his having partaken of breakfast.
"Someone said that there's a service t' get mah meals delivered t' mah lab. How do Ah sign up for that?" Bobby Earl requested.
"Oh, I'd be happy to deliver your meals if you're too busy to come here to eat!" Heather immediately offered, having followed the boy like a puppy. "And you need to practice your elocution!" she chided him in a whisper.
Bobby Earl glanced at her, and then shrugged. "If it ain't too much trouble," he drawled, "Ah s'pose you could bring 'em. But security's a mite antsy around mah lab - 'cause of what Ah make."
"How about if I go with you, and we can ask whichever officer is on duty in the lab area if it'll be okay?" She batted her eyes a bit. "While we're walking there, we can talk about the dance." She steered him toward the elevators down to the tunnels. "My RA told us that Melville dances and other events are a little more formal than the other cottages, so you can wear your new dress pants and shoes. Oh, and maybe that lavender shirt? With that tie I picked out for you, you'd look so sharp! Oh, but I don't have a dress that'd go with that! I'd look so sloppy next to you!" The sound of her enthusiastic voice echoing through Crystal Hall cut off abruptly as the elevator doors closed, but no doubt she was still talking to - or at - Bobby Earl.
Saturday, September 15, 2007 - Evening
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
One thing that Heather O'Neil excelled at was making an entrance. Even with all the A-listers, fashion mavens, and rich kids in Melville, she managed to present herself with a movie-star haircut, even on the arm of a boy everyone thought was an uncouth lout but was surprisingly nattily-attired in an obviously tailored and expensive suit, a perfectly-fitted shirt with French cuffs, and accessorized with a fashionable tie and brightly-contrasting pocket square. His shoes were polished to a near mirror-like sheen. The girl's dress looked like something one would find on a runway model, and it went perfectly with the boy's attire, instantly marking them as being together for the dance - just as Heather had intended.
"Damn!" a couple of people muttered softly to themselves in a strange kind of admiration at the strange metamorphosis of the hillbilly to a refined and stylish young man.
That wasn't exactly the reaction from Alexis, Heather's rival for Bobby Earl' affections; her eyes burned with fury that Heather had weaseled a date with Bobby Earl before she could manipulate the boy into taking her. Worse, she slowly realized that Heather was being extremely territorial, not leaving Bobby Earl's side for anything so no other girl could get near him for any reason - especially her. And she was pretty certain that the boy was going to follow some genteel code and not dance with other girls.
"Is that the new dress you were talking about this afternoon?" one of the freshman girls practically skipped over to Heather's side. "It's cute!"
"Yes, it is," Heather said with a slight turn that showed off her body inside the stylish, new dress she wore. She hugged Bobby Earl's arm tightly, pulling herself close against him, both in a display of possession and to help waft a bit of her perfume to his nose. She spoke loudly enough that nearby girls would overhear, and slowly enough that her words wouldn't be muddled, but not so slow that it sounded unnatural. "Since Bobby looks so nice," she clutched him tightly again, looking at him with adoring eyes for a moment, "I wanted to look nice, too."
"So why the new dress?" another of the freshmen asked.
"Well, you can't expect me to accompany such a well-dressed date in rags, can you?" Heather answered with a bit of a haughty air. "Besides, Bobby was insistent that he buy it for me!" she added with an innocent smile that fooled no-one present.
On the other side of the boy, Reach, wearing a cute red ensemble, leaned a bit closer to Bobby Earl. "You didn't buy her a dress, did you?" Reach asked sotto voce.
"Yeah, but it weren't that expensive," Bobby Earl answered the Kentucky boy-turned-girl. "'Sides, if'n Ah get a bit of action tonight," he grinned, "it'll be worth it."
"It sure looks expensive," Reach replied. "If Ah was you, Ah wouldn't have done that. It can lead to a lot of trouble."
"There you are!" called out a dulcet voice thick with a European accent. The girl who came up was pretty, with a cute little nose, soulful doe eyes, and somewhat short hair styled to look both sophisticated and playful at the same time. "Bonsoir, 'Shine," Geneviève Etincelle said warmly to Bobby Earl, giving him a quick hug before sidling up to Reach and clutching her possessively around the waist. Like her date Reach, she wore a red ensemble, but her skirt was a bit shorter than her partner's, and a little more daring in the cut of the neckline.
"Evenin'," Bobby Earl replied with a smile. "Looks like a good dance."
"Speaking of dances," Heather interrupted, her eyes shooting daggers at the perceived 'rivals' for Bobby Earl's attention, "why don't we go dance a little? We can always mingle, but right now, I feel like dancing."
A boy who was passing the small group paused and stared at the girl, and a smile broke over his face. "I feel like dancing, dancing, dance the night away! I feel like dancing, dancing. Oooohhh." Twisting and dancing to the song he was singing, he shuffled off merrily into the crowd doing a very credible imitation of the Bee Gees, his siren voice carrying well into the crowd of students.
"Who … or what … is that?" Bobby Earl asked once he'd recovered from the surprise of the boy interrupting with a song.
Reach smiled. "They call him Jukebox. He's got a perfect memory for music …."
"But not for Math or English, or so they say," Spark interjected.
"Yeah," Reach agreed. "Like Ah said, he's got a perfect musical memory, and he's a siren, so he can sound like any singer." Reach glanced in the direction that Jukebox had gone. "Kind of a joker, too. Any time he hears a line from a song, he's apt t' start singing the song."
"I 'eard that 'e answers questions in class with songs, too," Spark added.
"In the two classes I have with him," Heather pushed her way into the conversation, "that's exactly what he does. He kind of annoys the teachers. The only one that doesn't mind, evidently, is that strange art teacher." She slid her hand down to grasp Bobby Earl's hand, then tugged, taking a step toward the dance floor. "Now, let's dance."
Expecting the worst, Heather steeled herself for later criticism and mocking about dancing with a boy who jerked about the dance floor like a monkey tied up by the balls to an electric fence, with periodic, random shocks for stimulation. Surprisingly to her, Bobby Earl was a pretty good dancer. After a half dozen or so dances, the couple retired to a small table along the perimeter of the dance hall that Heather had zeroed in on the moment they started to leave the dance floor. Her intent had been to get a table for two, but those were all taken, so they had to sit at a table big enough for four people. Bobby Earl flagged down one of the wait-staff who was passing, and got soft drinks for the two of them.
His survey of the dance hall looked casual to any but a trained eye; in point of fact, he was very quickly and thoroughly scanning for chaperones and the RAs that had a reputation for being more retentive than average. Only after confirming that none of the 'responsible' people were in view or watching did his hand slip into his jacket, reappearing with a small silver flask in hand, which he unstoppered and poured some of the contents into his drink.
"Would you care for a little bourbon in your soda?" he asked his date.
Heather looked shocked, but only for a few milliseconds. "No thank you," she replied. "I'm not a fan of bourbons and whiskeys. But if you had some wine to offer, I wouldn't object."
Bobby Earl winced. "I haven't got any wine - yet. Best I can do," his hand slipped the flask back into his jacket, then reappeared with a different container, "is a little brandy." Heather nodded and guzzled her drink, then poured out the ice onto a small plate that had held hors d'oeuvres, and Bobby Earl poured her a generous amount of brandy.
It was obvious from Heather's reaction that she wasn't used to drinking distilled spirits, despite her protestations that she had often sneaked a little when her parents entertained. Still, she pretended to enjoy the drink mostly to continue her ploy of cozying up to the boy.
A large, beefy hand clasped down on Bobby Earl's shoulder, startling him. When he looked up, the slight fear he felt vanished. "Evenin', Wyatt," he said, relief in his voice.
"Evening, Bobby Earl," the big senior said with a smile. "I see you're busy." He smiled at Heather, which, unknown to Bobby Earl, made the girl feel all tingly inside. Being noticed by one of the older attractive A-list alpha males tended to do that to girls.
"Enjoyin' the dance?" Bobby Earl asked, gesturing to one of the vacant chairs at the table.
"No thanks," Wyatt shook his head quickly. "I've got to get back to my girls, and I don't want to distract you from your date."
"Girls?" Heather's eyes bulged in surprise. "Girls, as in more than one?" There was perhaps a hint of disappointment in her voice; maybe she'd entertained a thought or two of bedding the big man.
"Lanie and Tansy," Wyatt replied easily. "Don't know what I did to deserve them, but I'm not going to complain."
Bobby Earl had long ago learned to judge when people wanted something, and Wyatt had all the signs that he was going to ask Bobby Earl for something. Based on their conversation at a previous Melville gathering, the boy suspected what it was. With a smile, he glanced around, then slid the silver flask from his jacket and passed it to the senior, who also looked around before pouring a generous amount of the liquor into the soda he'd brought with him.
"I think I'll get back to the girls," Wyatt said as he stood. "Enjoy the dance." He looked around again, and his gaze focused on one point. "By the way," he leaned and whispered to Bobby Earl, "the other girl, Alexis?"
"Don't look, but she's looking at your date, and she really doesn't look happy."
"Well," Bobby Earl drawled softly so only Wyatt could hear, "she might could feel a tiny bit possessive after our date the other night. Ah thought she was goin' t' ask me to this shindig, but Heather did instead." He grinned. "Sides," he added, "you got yourself two gals. Why can't Ah?"
Wyatt shook his head, smiling. "Mostly because Lanie and Tansy really, really like each other. I don't think the same could be said for your two young ladies. I think they'd rather kill each other than share you," he added with a chuckle. He nodded and smiled toward Heather. "Evening." He turned to go, but then leaned over Bobby Earl's shoulder again. "If your date decides to end the evening early, come up to my room. I'd like to spend some quality time with your … experiments, if you know what I mean."
"Um," Bobby Earl stammered hesitantly, "won't you be kind of … busy?"
Wyatt smiled and leaned close to Bobby Earl again. "Sex I can get any time. Good booze? That's a lot harder to come by." With that, he turned and sauntered off, leaving Bobby Earl a little confused.
"Since this is a dance, we might as well dance some more," the boy suggested. Heather agreed, and the two went back to the dance floor. In the occasional slow dances, Heather always ensured there was at least a fist-width of distance between them, thus foiling the boy's ability to get 'handsy' - if that had been his intent.
As another song began to play, Bobby Earl picked up on the rhythm, and he smiled. "Do you know how to do more formal dances, like rumba or foxtrot?" he asked loudly to be heard over the music.
"Of course," Heather answered a bit haughtily. "One doesn't grow up in Chevy Chase without knowing a lot of the social skills in high society - and that includes ballroom dancing!" She frowned. "Why?"
The boy grinned a toothy grin. "Because if I'm not mistaken, this song has a perfect tempo for a rumba!"
"You know how to ballroom dance?" Heather asked in astonishment, then her expression changed to a frown. "Wait, that didn't come out right. But … do you?"
"Well, sure," Bobby Earl replied, ignoring his date's words and tone. He couldn't be offended by her condescension if he chose to ignore it. His speech was slower than normal, because he was being very careful with his diction so Heather wouldn't correct him. "Ma and Mr. Easterbrook were taking dance lessons after we moved to the city, and Ma dragged me along. They say I took to it like a fish takes to water. Several of the ladies and girls came just to practice with me because they said I was like Fred Astaire." He held out his hand toward Heather. "Shall we, then?"
At first, almost no-one noticed that the couple was doing a rumba, but soon, dancers paused to watch the two freshmen dancing. One or couples at a time, a few joined in - some hesitantly - and those who weren't doing a rumba yielded the floor.
The DJ picked up on what Bobby Earl and Heather had started, and the next number he played was one of Sinatra's songs, perfect for a Foxtrot.
As the third ballroom dance tune started, Heather felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned, and her jaw dropped at the sight of a gorgeous blonde upperclassman, who was smiling politely. "May I cut in?" she asked pleasantly.
"Um," Heather started to stammer.
"Oh, don't worry, hon," the blonde replied, still wearing a friendly smile. "I'm not trying to take him away from you so I can have my way with him later. I'd just like to see if I forgot some of my old dance lessons."
Surprised, and a little uneasy, Heather backed away, and soon, the floor was vacant but the one couple - Bobby Earl and the blonde, dancing with more style and grace than any other couples, putting on a show of how ballroom dancing should be done.
When that dance ended, the girl escorted Bobby Earl back to Heather. "Thank you," she said, still smiling. "That was fun." She flashed an even bigger smile to the boy. "You're quite good!" She looked at Heather. "I might have to … steal you … from your companion the next time there's a formal dance, so I can spend more time practicing all those dance steps I learned." She shot Bobby Earl a wink to let him know that she was teasing Heather. "Maybe." With that, she strode off, knowing that most of the boys were watching her perfectly-shaped derriere sway with each step of her high-heeled shoes. If anything, she was putting a little extra in every step just to exaggerate her hip motion.
"What are you looking at?" Heather demanded, scowling and slapping her date's arm.
Bobby Earl's gaze snapped away from the blonde's rear. "Um, nothing," he said, a lame excuse and he knew it. "Would you care to dance some more?"
After a couple more hours of dancing and socializing, during which many girls seemed to take an interest in Bobby Earl's dancing, much to Heather's annoyance and dismay, she suggested that she was tired of dancing, and besides, it was getting hot and stuffy inside Melville's ballroom. The last was a clear falsehood, but Bobby Earl wasn't going to object, since she'd taken him up on his suggestion that they could go outside for a bit of fresh air.
The two found themselves sitting in one of the little nooks away from the walkways, talking at first, and as the evening chill began to affect them, Heather scooted closer and Bobby Earl wrapped his jacket around her to help stay warm, and then held her close. It was only natural that the two teenagers would begin to kiss.
After a rather extended session of making out, Heather suggested that perhaps it would be best to not rush things, but reassured Bobby Earl that she had fun with him and was looking forward to spending more time with him. The pair walked back to Melville, with Bobby Earl's arm around Heather's shoulder and her head leaning on his shoulder. Most of the girls, but certainly not Alexis, would have said that they were a 'cute couple'.
Saying 'good night' at Heather's door yielded yet another kiss, but to Bobby Earl's disappointment, not an invitation inside her room. As the couple kissed again, a few doors opened and heads popped out to look. Heather smiled to herself, which was difficult mid-kiss, but the 'witnesses' would help bolster her position as Bobby Earl's girlfriend, and as a bonus, annoy the hell out of Alexis.
After Heather had gone into her room, Bobby Earl strode back to the elevators, a little disappointed but not surprised. It would have been nice, he mused to himself, to get at least to second base, but that would probably happen on future dates.
As he stepped into the elevator, he was surprised to see the cottage fixer. "Evening, Jadis."
"Good evening, Bobby Earl," the white-haired daughter of Dr. Diabolik replied casually. "I take it you were escorting your dance date to her room?"
"Yeah. Ah had a lot o' fun dancin', but Heather got a mite tuckered out." The boy's voice dropped back to its normal accent; the mental strain of keeping up his newly-learned formal diction was too much to continue all the time. He pressed the button for the sub-basement, the point where he could access the tunnels.
The doors shut and the elevator started moving downward. "Not going back to the dance?" Jadis asked. "I heard you and your ballroom dancing were quite the hit with the girls."
Bobby Earl shrugged nonchalantly. "Ah s'pose so."
"So those dance lessons your mother made you go to paid off after all?" Jadis asked with a knowing smile.
"I'd be a mite surprised that you knew that," the boy chuckled, "'cept'n Ah know how you deal in information. Tain't that hard t' find out, neither. Ah never made a secret of it. And it was on mah application under 'extra-curricular activities'." Silence reigned for a brief moment. "Ah noticed you weren't at the dance. Don't you like t' dance?"
It was Jadis' turn to chuckle. "I don't think I'd be very good at it."
"Nonsense. Y'all got a fine dancer's figure," the boy said. "All y'all need is some confidence and a good partner, and Ah bet you'd be the envy of the ballroom. Y'all just gotta go with the guy who's the best dancer. A gal like you must have your pick of the guys 'round here."
A very brief hint of discomfort or distress flitted across Jadis' features before she carefully schooled her features into her usual carefully neutral expression. "I'm not big on dating," she replied. "I take it you're not going back to the dance, since the dance isn't in the tunnels."
"Nah. Ah'm all danced out. 'Sides, Ah got a lot o' work t' do on mah rigs t' get 'em ready 'fore Ah leave for France."
"Well, that sounds like less fun than dancing, but who am I to say." The elevator stopped on the main floor. "Don't work too hard." She stepped off the elevator, leaving the boy alone.
Down in the tunnels, Bobby Earl started toward his 'public' lab, but as he walked, he realized he wasn't really in the mood to work. Not quite sure what he wanted to do, he found himself wandering toward his private lab.
Checking to see that no-one was following him, he dodged around the last few corners, then worked the lock and let himself in. Once the door was closed, he fetched the two flasks from inside his jacket pockets, then refilled them from bottles stored in a rack. Then he slipped back out of the lab, being careful to lock it after himself, and meandered down the tunnels until he was back at Melville Cottage.
The eighth floor had far fewer rooms than the other floors. Probably a perk of being at the top of the A-list crowd. Bobby Earl walked down the corridor, and when he got to eight-oh-four, he rapped on the door.
Presently, the door opened, and the boy found himself face-to-face with the drop-dead gorgeous blonde that had danced with him earlier. "Yes?" she asked.
"Who is it, Tansy?" another female voice called from somewhere inside the room.
"Wyatt's moonshining friend," Tansy replied over her shoulder.
"Wyatt said if'n Ah got bored with dancin', Ah ought t' come up, 'cuz he wanted to get t' know mah experiments, if'n y'all know what Ah mean."
"Wyatt," Tansy called out, "it's for you." She looked back at the boy. "Well, come on in. We're watching a movie."
Bobby Earl followed Tansy into Wyatt's room, and he stopped, gawking. It was definitely not a standard room; this looked more like a suite, or more accurately, a suite designed by someone who'd just finished decorating a northern wilderness hunting lodge and apparently hadn't realized they'd switched jobs. The furniture was rustic lodge style, with leather and timber, and the floor was covered by a huge bear-skin rug. Timber framed beams and posts - no doubt artificial - gave a sturdy feel to the room, and the ceiling was covered with what appeared to be pine boards.
"None of the other rooms or suites are decorated this way. This is all Wyatt's choice of décor," Lanie, the red-head gadgeteer explained. "He's been collecting bits and pieces of decoration for years, all so he could have a unique, custom room his senior year."
"Is that a real fireplace?" Bobby Earl was looking at a very realistic fire, feeling warmth radiate from the burning logs several feet away.
"Nah," Wyatt said, coming into the room with the sound of a flushing toilet betraying where he'd been. "It's got an electric heater and a holographic fire." He slid onto the huge rustic sofa beside Lanie, wrapping his arm around her shoulder easily and pulling her close. "I suppose you got tired of dancing."
"Wyatt said your bourbon is pretty good," Lanie volunteered. She pointed to a leather-upholstered chair that matched the sofa. "Pull up a seat and let's have a taste."
"Y'all want t' try mah bourbon, or mah brandy?" Bobby Earl inquired, sliding into the very comfortable chair. "Ah gotta get me one of these chairs," he said as he luxuriated in his seat. "Ah hope y'all don't mind tellin' me where you got them."
The big senior slid from beside Lanie and walked to a small table. "How do you want your bourbon?" he asked as he got some glasses from a small cupboard.
"What do you recommend?" Tansy asked the boy.
"If'n y'all ain't a bourbon connoisseur, Ah'd go with either soda or ginger ale. Most gals like a bourbon and ginger," Bobby Earl recommended.
"Ah'll go with bourbon and ginger," Lanie answered quickly. "Tansy, Ah'd suggest the same for you if you aren't sure."
"That sounds good," Tansy replied.
"Ah'll just have water with mine," the boy replied. "'Bout half and half."
After Wyatt mixed and distributed the drinks, he slid between Tansy and Lanie on the sofa. "Mud in your eye," he said simply, raising his glass in a simple gesture.
"This is good," Lanie said after taking a sip. "Ah've never had bourbon and ginger."
Bobby Earl shook his head. "And you call yourself a Southern gal!" he chuckled.
Tansy and Wyatt goggled at Lanie for a moment before starting to guffaw.
"Hey!" Lanie grumbled, frowning. "That may be a thing in Tennessee, but it isn't in Georgia!" That elicited smirks from her two companions. "'Sides, Ah got a bunch of barrels of good whiskey down in the cave."
"Cave?" Bobby Earl perked up. "So you caught the moonshinin' bug like your great-grandpappy, and you distill in a cave?"
Lanie snorted a chuckle. "No, not me. Great Grandpa was the moonshiner. He left a lot of barrels of his finest aging sometime during Prohibition." She saw the boy's expression of disbelief. "Yeah, Ah figured that the barrels would have rotted away, but somehow, they - and everything else in the cave - are in perfect shape."
"So you're tellin' me y'all got eighty-year-old whiskey in a cave somewhere?" The boy grinned. "Ah'd love to taste some o' that."
Lanie looked at Bobby Earl for a moment, then shot a questioning glance at Wyatt. "Your call," he replied simply.
Bobby Earl glanced back and forth between the redhead and the big man. "Whatever y'all ain't talking 'bout, Ah ain't gettin' it."
"Word in the labs is that one of your skills is discerning exactly what constitutes a distilled beverage," Wyatt answered.
"Yeah, that's easy for me. So?"
"Even if someone did something unusual? Like, say, aging whiskey in old wine barrels?" Tansy inquired.
"Yeah. Ah can …." Bobby Earl's voice trailed off, and his gaze fixed, until it seemed that he was staring right through the other three and through the wall behind them. "The barrels," he muttered to himself over and over. His eyes bulged, and his jaw dropped. "That's it! That's the taste Ah was missin'!"
"What?" the others asked, almost in chorus.
"The barrels!" Bobby Earl said, a huge grin on his face. "It don't make no sense, but the one Armagnac that's supposed to be so good? It's aged in twice-used barrels - once for bourbon and the second time for rum! That's why Ah missed it! It's got a hint o' good Kentucky bourbon in it, and a hint of rum! That's why the flavor is so complex! Ah wasn't thinkin' 'bout them doin' somethin' that odd with the aging barrels!"
Lanie watched him a moment, then she nodded slightly. "Y'see, that's the problem. If y'all can figure out how to replicate a good Armagnac, and you know how to age a beverage to taste like any age, what would stop you from duplicating mah Great Grandpa's recipe?"
"Any duplicate would really undercut the price that Lanie can get for her beverage," Tansy explained needlessly. The boy had already figured that part out.
"You're right," he acknowledged. "Nothin' ceptin' for mah honor as a Southerner. Ah ain't never reproduced someone else's recipe for sellin'. T'wouldn't be right. Ah've made a bottle or two t' see if'n Ah can, but Ah ain't never told no-one else, and Ah ain't never sold none."
Lanie glanced at Tansy, who simply nodded. The redhead stood up and retrieved a bottle from behind a secret panel, then opened it and poured a bit for Bobby Earl. Without another word, she handed him the glass before closing the bottle again and putting it back in its hiding place.
The boy seemed to transform into a quiet, thoughtful professional, and he took a good sniff of the beverage, savoring the aroma and closing his eyes to shut out other distractions. Then he took a sip, rolling the beverage around his mouth for a moment before swallowing. "Well," he finally said to break a long silence, "now Ah understand why you're great-grandpappy didn't want to share the recipe. This is one of the finest drinks Ah ever had!"
Wyatt smiled and pulled the redhead back onto the sofa, close to him. "I don't suppose it'd hurt anything if I contracted with Bobby Earl for a bottle or two, would it? That way, I could have some - occasionally - without cutting into your genuine supply."
"If we're going to talk about contract beverages, then perhaps you can make a bottle or two of a good Napoleon brandy?" Tansy asked. "That seems to be the only distilled beverage I ever developed a taste for. Normally, I only drink wine, though."
Bobby Earl grinned, then slid the second silver flask from his inside pocket and held it out to the blonde. "Well, then, y'all might like this more. It's mah version of a very good brandy that Mr. Easterbrook - he's mah Ma's fiance and mah agent. Mr. Easterbrook really likes this."
After talking for another round of drinks, Bobby Earl excused himself, saying accurately that he had to get to work in his lab early in the morning. That was only a partial truth, though; he could see that both girls were strongly attracted to the big senior, and quite probably to each other, and he got the distinct impression that they were being polite. As he walked to his room, he shook his head, smiling. Too bad Heather and Alexis didn't have the same friendship that Lanie and Tansy had. If they did, they could share him the same way.
Sunday, September 16, 2007 - Early Morning
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Shut that thing off!" Bobby Earl's roomate JB mumbled unhappily as he pulled his pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise.
"Sorry," Bobby Earl apologized, fighting to rouse himself as he groped for his cell phone to shut off the alarm. It turned out it wasn't the alarm, but rather the phone itself.
"Yeah?" the boy muttered into the phone, wincing when he saw his roommate clutch his pillow even more tightly to his head.
"Hi, Bobby," a familiar voice sounded through the phone. "Figured Ah ought t' call early, 'fore y'all got busy with your still."
"What time is it?" the bleary-eyed boy demanded. Slowly, he pulled himself out of his bed and staggered toward his balcony door, sliding it open and flinching slightly at the coolness of the morning air. He occasionally forgot how the altitude affected the overnight temperatures, and at that point, he wasn't exactly dressed for the weather.
"It's almost six thirty," the boy's mother replied. "Y'all ought t' have been up and at 'em by now."
The boy groaned softly as he tried to stretch his fatigued muscles. "We had a dance last night, so Ah was up late."
"Ah had a date, too," the boy admitted simply.
"Morning, Bobby Earl!" A soft, sweet voice rang out from above and to the left of the boy. Startled a bit, he looked up, startled to see Alexis up so early and out on her balcony.
"Mornin'," the boy replied to her through a yawn.
"Is someone else there?" Ma said to him through the phone.
"It's a girl Ah know," Bobby Earl replied.
"You want to go to breakfast with me?" Alexis asked, turning on her 'innocent schoolgirl' charm and expression.
"Ah gotta go work in mah lab," he replied to Alexis.
"Ah knew y'all would go to that still of yours instead of goin' t' church like y'all are s'posed to!" his mom chided him.
"Ma!" he countered, "Ah got a lot o' work to do 'fore mah trip to France. And that's comin' up pretty quick!"
"Have you thought any about my offer to help you on your trip?" Alexis purred sweetly.
"A boy o' mine always ought t' have time for the Lord!" Ma scolded.
"If Ah wasn't goin' to mah lab, Ma," Bobby Earl protested, "Ah'd be sleepin' in cause of the dance last night!"
"Well," Alexis snorted, "you could have had a better dance partner."
"Ah hope you wasn't up all night doin' some things y'all shouldn't be doing!"
"Ah didn't do nothing but kiss her some," Bobby Earl rebutted sternly into the phone. "Besides, Ma, if Ah had, Ah sure wouldn't be tellin' you!"
"Heather is kind of a prude," Alexis said suggestively, planting the idea that if Bobby had been with her, he might have gotten further.
"Ma, Alexis," the boy snapped in frustration, "Ah cain't keep both of y'alls conversations straight if'n y'all talk at the same time! 'Sides, Ah gotta get to mah lab. Bye, Ma. Ah'll call you later." He clicked off the phone. "See you later, Alexis," he called out to the girl.
"I'll bring you lunch. About noon?" Alexis called out, making it sound like a done deal.
"Sure," Bobby Earl replied without really thinking. As he ducked back into his dorm room, his head was still trying to unwind what his mother and Alexis had each said.
Sunday, September 16, 2007 - Late Evening
Devisor Labs, Whateley Academy
The alarm on his phone interrupted Bobby Earl's work on one of his aging devises. He was still trying to get the taste just right; thanks to the serendipitous revelation the previous evening, he was quite certain that the prized Armagnac had been aged in a used whiskey or bourbon barrel. That would account for the slightly odd taste. But he was still not sure what the barrel had contained. He was running out of time to test all the possible combinations. Instead, he knew he had to play detective and find some clues. Fortunately, he had a large supply of the rather undrinkable Ugni Blanc base wine and the oak from Gascony and Limousin. Unfortunately, he did not have a large supply of time; the trip was scheduled for only a few days away.
With a heavy sigh, the boy put down the aging rig he was fiddling with and pulled out his phone. "Hello," he said simply.
"Yeah, Ma," the boy answered, fatigue in his voice. "Ah'm a mite tired."
"Well, y'all need t' get some sleep, then!"
"Ah cain't, Ma," the boy objected. "Ah got that trip t' France, and Ah just cain't get the taste right. And once Ah get that problem licked, Ah gotta make up another dozen agin' rigs!"
"Well, Ah can talk t' Larry, and see if'n he cain't postpone the trip for y'all."
"Don't do that, Ma," Bobby Earl pleaded. "Ah had to postpone once already, and if'n Ah do it again, they might pull out of the contract!"
"Okay, but Ah think y'all should postpone the trip if'n y'all are havin' trouble."
"Ah'll get it figgered out. Long as those two girls let me be."
"Well, maybe this is a bad time, then. That feller that you asked me t' meet at the cabin? Well, he came, just like you said, and he had all the right code words, like you told me." She paused a moment, wondering if Bobby Earl was asleep on his feet. "He brought one of them fancy wheel-less anti-gravity carts, so it only took two trips t' get everythin' down from the cave."
"Good. Ah been missin' that old still!"
"He got the bottles you had stashed up there, too. 'Cept for the ones you set aside for your friends here. He had a bunch of crates and such in his big ol' truck, already made for the still and everything. He said he'd deliver it t' your contact in Berlin - the one near y'all, not the one in Germany - probably on Tuesday."
"But you gotta promise me you won't spend time messin' with that still if'n you're still workin' on the stuff for France!"
"Okay, Ma," the boy relented. "Ah promise."
"And no foolin' round with them girls, neither. We sent you there t' get an education, not to be some boozin, girl-chasin' playboy, y'hear?"
"Ah understand." His reply was more than a trifle reluctant.
"Okay. Ah'll hang up so's y'all can get back to work. We miss you, but we'll come 'round for that Parent's Day thing."
"Okay, Ma. Thanks for everythin'." He hung up his phone only after his mother disconnected, then he punched a number.
"Hello, 'Shine," the voice on the other end - Jerry Mendez - answered.
"Ma just told me that your guy will be droppin' off mah still and stuff in Berlin, probably on Tuesday."
"I know. He left me a message," Jerry replied. "I've already set up deliveries of your stuff between Wednesday and Saturday."
"Not all at once?" Bobby Earl asked, a little perplexed.
"Gotta fly under the radar here," Jerry noted. "You don't want me to get caught, do you?"
"No, Ah don't. Ah'll leave a couple of bottles in your truck 'fore Ah go back to mah cottage. In the parkin' lot, right?"
"One should taste like an XO Cognac," the boy said, sounding a little proud of his accomplishments, "and the other is a single-malt scotch. Cuz that's what y'all like, right?"
"Sounds good to me." Mendez' grin could practically be heard through the phone.
"Ah'll leave a down payment, too. When the parts are delivered, Ah'll take care of the rest of your fees."
"If your still is still in transit from Tennessee," Mendez asked, a little curious, "how did you manage to make some new products?"
"Weren't hard. Ah just got some regular lab supplies and whipped up a small still. Ain't good for much but a bottle or two at a time, but it's somethin'. Same for the agin' rig."
Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Whoa! It is real! And it lives!" the underdog new devisors and gadgeteers hooted and mocked Bobby Earl as he slid his tray on the table and plopped into a chair. It wouldn't take long for them to form little groups and cliques with others, but this early, they were still most comfortable among their own classmates. Besides JB, Fixx, Monkeywrench, Blackbox, and Breakdown, there was a pair of younger Japanese fraternal twins - one boy and the other a girl, a Hispanic girl, and a blonde with disheveled hair and thick glasses.
"Very funny - not!" Bobby Earl shot back.
"You have to admit that we haven't seen much of you for the past few days," one of the girls, Breakdown, noted.
"And when you're not working in your … ahem … secure lab, you're busy with those two … wenches!" Monkeywrench added with a hint of disapproval in his voice.
"Aw, knock it off," Bobby Earl protested weakly, interrupting his few words for a cavernous yawn. "Ah got t' get mah devises ready before Ah fly to France, and, well, Alex and Heather are fun t' be with."
Across the table, the young Japanese boy named Takashi was translating for his twin sister Natsuko. As he finished, her face wrinkled up in annoyance and she snapped out some reply, which no-one but Takashi understood. It was enough to cause him to laugh aloud, an uncharacteristic display from the normally very-reserved boy.
"What?" Fixx asked with a confused frown. "What did she say?"
"Sister say, she should slap you for naming girl ... wench, but this case, word too good to two girl!" Takashi made a rough translation for the others, which caused a general outburst of laughter, including from the female lab dwellers.
"Those two are bad news," the Hispanic girl, Angelina Luciana Maria Benevidez, said, shaking her head.
The blonde with the coke-bottle glasses, Anne Krauss, nodded her agreement with that assessment. "I heard they're only after you because you've got money."
"They ain't made a big deal 'bout mah money," Bobby Earl countered. He wrinkled his nose. "I mean," he said, much more slowly and minus the thick accent, "they haven't made a big deal about my money. Besides, both of their families are rich, so they have no reason." Around him, his fellow lab denizens gawked and wrinkled their noses at his speech pattern.
"Listen to you," Monkeywrench said, wrinkling his nose with disgust. "They've got you talking like some high-society snob!" The nods and murmurs of approval indicated that the other lab-coats at the table agreed with Monkeywrench's assessment.
"So, have you done anything with them? Or won't they even give you a kiss?" Blackbox asked sarcastically. "If they haven't, they're not that into you."
"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," Bobby Earl tried to protest.
"Which means he got nothing," Breakdown chuckled. "So all the 'gifts' they're cajoling out of you have been all for nothing!"
"It's only money," Bobby Earl replied. "And Ah ain't got them much."
"And speaking of wenches," Felicia snorted, "here they come, right on schedule. I suppose you're going to go dine with them again."
"Hi, Bobby Earl," the two girls chimed, almost in harmony, as they approached the table. "We were hoping you'd have dinner with us."
"Sorry, girls," Anne, the girl with the glasses, interrupted firmly, "but we're having a discussion of one of the classes we're all taking, so Bobby is dining with us."
"Yeah," Breakdown added with a nod. "Lab Safety. It's a mandatory class we have to pass, so we're studying together." Her lie was transparent to her fellow gadgeteers and devisors, but judging by their expressions, it fooled the girls.
"You know how us lab-coat types are," Monkeywrench added. "All for one and all of that."
"Oh, pooh!" Heather exclaimed with a feigned pout. "I suppose if you have to study …."
Bobby Earl glanced around the table, taking in all the expressions on his fellow gadgeteers and devisors. "I hate to disappoint you …."
"You'll have breakfast with me, won't you?" Alexis gave him a puppy-dog-eyes look as she practically begged the boy.
"No, with me!" Heather countered.
Bobby Earl glanced around the table again. "You don't have to fight!" he told the girls. "I'll have breakfast with you," he looked at Heather, "and lunch with you." His gaze went to Alexis. "That's fair, ain't it?"
"Isn't it," Heather corrected him. "I suppose."
After the two reluctantly left, Breakdown sighed, shaking her head. "Those two …."
"What's with how you're changing?" Felicia asked with a scowl.
"What do you mean, changing me?"
"And knock off that stupid fancy speech crap they're teaching you!" Fixx grumbled.
"Yeah! Part of your charm is your informal way of speaking," Anne added.
"There's nothing wrong with improving my speech," Bobby Earl shot right back. "Heather said it will help with a business image." He glanced around the table, scowling. "Can we change the subject, please?"
"Okay," Felicia said reluctantly. "But you're one of us. Just remember that when they break your heart, we're your friends."
"Yeah. All for one, and all that," JB said firmly, winning nods of agreement from the other gadgeteers gathered around the table.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - After Dinner
Devisor Labs, Whateley Academy
Wisely, the boy had put a simple photocell across the door of his main lab, not so much for security as to alert him when someone entered. Jerry Mendez saw the device that looked like a standard entry door chime, and knew he could slip under it, but from what he'd learned from Bobby Earl, he figured the boy had backups and backups to the backups. Give that the boy had all his attention focused on his workbench, back to door, it seemed a prudent precaution.
With a slight frown, Mendez studied the boy more closely, and he saw the thin wires running from somewhere on his body up to his ears. Obviously ear buds. He was probably listening to music as he worked, which made sense. Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Bobby Earl, Mendez reached out and swiped his hand through the invisible beam. Unexpectedly, there was no sound, no flashing lights, nothing to indicate that someone had broken the beam and entered the lab.
Mendez decided to see if the boy was on his toes; he started to slowly, cautiously, softly walk to circle around the room, wondering if he'd catch the boy by surprise.
"Y'all ain't very sneaky," Bobby Earl said without looking up from his work. Only then did he turn, grinning, to the officer.
"Audible alarm in your earphones?" Mendez asked as he walked directly to the boy.
"Among other things." Bobby Earl momentarily glanced up and to his side.
Mendez followed his glance and saw a shiny glint. "Mirror?" He smiled. "Simple, low-tech, hard to spoof. I like it."
"A little fancier'n just a mirror, but it's all passive optics. Hard to jam or spoof."
"Clever. Anyway, I've got a security matter to discuss with you."
Bobby Earl's eyes narrowed, then he nodded. "Give me a couple of minutes to finish this cell in this agin' tube." He turned back to his workbench.
To Mendez, it looked like the boy was fitting an intricately-bent copper tube to a long row of ten-inch glass disks perpendicular to three twelve-foot-long support rods. Each pair of disks was separated by layers with copper screen and coils of tubing that connected the disks. It looked nothing at all like part of a still, but according to the boy, it worked well, even if no-one else could figure out precisely how it worked. That was just how it went with devisors.
Moments later, the boy straightened and stretched. "Only 'bout twenty more cells on this'n, then seven more tubes." He shook his head. "Goin' t' be a long night."
"When are you traveling to France?" Mendez asked as the two left the lab, with Bobby Earl pausing to activate the locks and then pause by a tunnel junction where the cuts in the bedrock were a little rough. With a smile and whistling a catchy tune that Mendez figured had to be country or bluegrass music of some type, the boy ambled beside him in his unique easy gait.
"Ah leave Sunday," he replied. "The French are mighty fussy 'bout their workin' hours, and the distilleries don't want t' do installation or maintenance work on the weekends."
"MacTavish is assigned as your escort."
"Yeah, Ah know," Bobby Earl replied. "He's okay. He didn't say nothin' when Ah wanted t' sample the scotch, cept'n that any good Scots boy older'n ten already knew a good whiskey from bad."
The two trudged to Mendez' storeroom, and after loading a lifter, maneuvered it down the rocky tunnels and down two more levels. All of a sudden, Bobby Earl perked up. "We's bein' followed," he whispered.
Mendez nodded. "Yeah. But they're not very good. How do you want to handle this?"
"Got a little gizmo Ah picked up from mah friend Reach," the boy replied. He slid a little cube from his pocket, then glanced around. "There's a door t' a stair about ten yards past a cross tunnel comin' up. It's around this bend." The boy knew their tail would lose sight of them temporarily when they rounded the bend, and he used that to his advantage. He and Mendez wrestled the lifter into a small nook cut for an emergency exit stair, being careful to not let the lifter bump into anything lest it make noise. Bobby Earl pressed a button on the face of the little cube and dropped it on the floor. Instantly, a wall of stone, indistinguishable from the tunnels around them, appeared.
Mendez and Bobby Earl waited patiently and silently, as unable to see out of their nook as anyone on the other side would have been to see them, until they heard footsteps approach, then pass them and fade away. Bobby Earl figured he'd have to motion for the security officer to stay put for a bit, but when he saw Mendez waiting calmly, his whole body coiled to strike if necessary, he chuckled to himself; he'd forgotten that Mendez had been a scout sniper.
After three or four minutes with no other sounds, Bobby Earl picked up the cube and pressed a button on it, making the wall disappear. "These little hard light holoprojectors are mighty handy," he whispered with a grin. Still being observant, the two maneuvered the lifter back the direction they'd come, then into a cross tunnel, and into Bobby Earl's lab.
"I think someone's looking for your lab," Mendez said as he picked up a large part of a still from the lifter.
Bobby Earl smiled enigmatically. "Let 'em find it," he said. "They ain't gonna find anything valuable." He saw the officer's puzzled look. "If'n anyone takes the bait, Ah'll know. And if'n they … Hey, don't drink that."
Mendez was about to smell a bottle which ostensibly contained output from the micro-still that was the bait. "What?"
"Least, not if'n y' don't want a bad case of upset stomach." He chuckled when the officer's eyes bugged out. "Flavored with a special herb from back home. If'n someone drinks that, they's gonna have a bad stomach ache and nausea. Probably enough t' go to Doyle t' get something for it." The boy shrugged. "Then Ah just ask a friend who does work-study in Doyle if'n they know of anyone who had food poisoning, and we know who the thief is."
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - Very Late
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
No sooner had the girl knocked hesitantly on the door than it opened wide, startling her. The occupant of the room, a young man with the bronze skin of his Hispanic roots and too nattily attired for the lateness of the hour, smiled at the girl.
"Um," Alexis stammered a bit, not quite sure what she was doing or why, "I had a message that, um, you wanted to talk to me?"
"Yes, Ms. Scott," Sebastiano Valensuera, the Don, said smoothly. "Please come in." He swept his arm out in an inviting gesture.
Alexis' eyes narrowed. "I'd prefer to speak in public. Your reputation is, um, …."
The Don didn't bother to protest, but grinned even more broadly. "Yes, well," he shrugged. "To get power, one sometimes has to do some … unsavory things."
"Including rape?" Alexis accused.
This time, the Don did manage to look surprised. "You wound me, dear girl!" he replied. "I have never taken advantage of a girl! I wouldn't do anything without consent!"
"Well, don't plan on making me a notch on your bedpost," Alexis snarled. "And don't try any mind games. I'm a psi; you can't slip that sneaky shit past me."
The Don smiled. "Don't flatter yourself," he countered. "I have my entertainment."
"Then what?" Alexis was thoroughly confused; the warnings she'd gotten about the Don didn't match the direction this conversation was going.
"You and I have a common interest," the Don said. "A particular freshman by the name of Bobby Earl Fields." He smiled as he watched her defiant expression crack. "Oh, yes, dear girl. It's well known that you have your eye on Mr. Fields, and that you have a rival competing for his affection."
"I don't see how that involves you. Unless …."
"I assure you, I am most definitely not gay," the Don said firmly. "No, my interest is a little more financial. I could help him with, shall we say, distribution of his products on campus?"
"And you skim off part of the proceeds?"
The Don's smile looked positively predatory, enough so that Alexis couldn't help but shiver with a bit of fear of the older boy. "And your motives are pure as … as the white snow, I believe they say? Or are you also interested in his money, like your rival?"
"What of it?" Alexis demanded, her voice cracking. If this upperclassman could see through her scheming, who else could suss out her intentions?
"It's very simple. I don't see any reason we couldn't work as a team, you helping me gain his confidence, and me arranging to keep your rival away."
Alexis' eyes narrowed. "Go on," she said after thinking a fraction of a second. "You have my attention."
(To be concluded)