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Zazztra: Glowing Future (Sci-Fi Adventure, Fiction)

A young Las Vegas woman with superpowers has to defend her family against terrorists with an atom bomb.


1. Get a Job

No guns pointed at Liz Brass, at least none that the ex-superheroine formerly known as Zazztra could see in the dim of the streetlights. Heavy afternoon rush hour traffic still crowded the street, pestering the air with stench and noise, but with business winding down, few pedestrians wandered around the court district. Would the Mafia attempt a drive-by shooting with automatic weapons? Act on the contract of a mob father? Revenge for the son who ended up as a burned, comatose almost-corpse thanks to her. As a precaution, she stayed far behind her four high school best friends forever, her posse of besties, walking back to their cars.

How would the gangsters know where to find her? The five women had spontaneously celebrated the premiere of Liz’s afternoon magic show. Nobody had followed them. As far as she knew. The fall wind added its own chill, sweeping along her bare legs below a cinched polka-dot dress meant for an overheated casino, not the great Las Vegas outdoors.

What a great show, regardless. All the big resorts had turned down the newbie entertainer. Their loss, ha! She mentally gave the finger to the blaze of color on the Strip to the south. As the entertainment director of her small venue put it: “I've never seen anything like it.” Of course not. No one else has Blacky. She caressed the belt buckle where she kept the black ball that gave her superpowers. Worst or best day of her life when the meteorite landed in her pool—she could not decide. Ambiguous, like today when her Metro detective friend turned triumph into disaster with his revelations from the secret FBI surveillance in New York City. She took another paranoid look around the intersection.

A man in well-worn clothes from the last decade and his salt-and-pepper schnauzer loitered at a row of the ubiquitous newspaper dispensers. Typical for Las Vegas, instead of print for the brain, it held rags with pretty pictures of scantily clad women, colorful stars covering parts of their titillating bodies. With tongue lolling out of his gaping mouth, the voyeur ogled the full load of young femininity approaching him on the sidewalk. Or was he casing the scene to prepare a sneak attack? No weapons visible in his hands, not even a leash. The dog stood at attention, checking out a poodle walking with a woman on the other side of the street. A double-team of murderous, flesh-ripping beasts?

“Horny, stop,” the girl watcher screamed.

Ignoring the approaching wall of rolling steel, the schnauzer followed his hormones across the one-way street, his leash dangling behind him. Tires screeched, but cars mercilessly slid toward the furry mass on the asphalt.

Stupid dog. Her brain said “no,” but her heart could not leave a defenseless creature to suffer for the failings of his careless owner. Holding on to the belt clasp, Liz swiped with her other hand.

An energy beam lifted the schnauzer in the air. He sailed over the three lanes of skidding cars.

She lowered her arm and gently placed the dog next to the pooch of his affection, leaving him to bark at the rolling vehicles.

“Oh my gosh, did you see that?” Her girlfriends gawked at the poodle owner holding vigil over the two dogs sniffing each other while she waited for the man without fashion sense to cross the street.

Liz pointed at her non-existent wristwatch. “Nothing to see. Let’s move. I’m late for my date.” Her fingernails dug into her palm. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She relaxed her painful fist. You're in enough trouble. She had to quit advertising to evil people where to find the twenty-five-year-old girl who had put them in their place. No more saving the world. Time for it to save her. Starting with her ex. He owed her big time. And since he was old enough to be her father, he better act like one.

After she said goodbye to her besties, a short drive brought her to Robert James Earl Singleton III at Picasso, a five-diamond restaurant. He had forgone the terrace and chosen a table inside next to the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the Bellagio resort's famed dancing fountains. Since their reunion at her show downtown, the suave Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence had changed into a different British-style Brioni suit. Her state of underdress hit her. Nothing she could do. Her limited attention span had dealt with too many surprises today.

He rose and helped with her chair. Memories of their good times together flooded back after months away from him.

In the soft light of the table lamp, Robert’s carefully trimmed white mustache and graying sideburns accentuated his suntan. “My apologies, I pulled some strings to order the Fountain Show Menu with some of your favorites. Foie gras and lobster with Katy Perry and Madonna songs?”

She nodded. After a tense day full of surprises and little food, she was ready to pig out on anything. The restaurant’s aromas, like its famed sautéed quail or the balsamic vinaigrette, only deepened the hole in her stomach.

Robert going all out on the date held promise for a delectable evening. He wanted her back. Badly. Excellent prospects for safety in his arms.

He adjusted his black-rimmed glasses. “Impressive magic show. You never told me about your talent.”

“I hadn't planned on picking up my old hobby.” Liz spread the napkin over her lap. “Didn't have a choice after your terrorist friends in Sana'a fried me out of my job.” Although the casino had more reasons to fire her than her hospital stay after the embassy attack in Yemen, she wanted to lay a guilt trip on him. Time for him to pay her back. She was a marked woman.

The sommelier offered a taste of the wine when the waiter arrived with the first course.

Liz shifted uneasily in the wood chair, her wool dress rubbing against the black fabric of the backrest. While the water columns dancing to “Starstrukk” fascinated the other patrons, she stared at the poached oysters garnished with caviar in front of her. Did the menu have to include a Russian dish to remind her of Viktor, the big love she lost during their assault on Billy Boy’s fortress? Another secret she kept from Robert. How much could she reveal to him? How much should she reveal to him?

Bang!

Liz dove for cover, but the tablecloth did not reach to the floor. Her arm went up, ready to shield her with Blacky beams from the ugliness somewhere out there. Incredible. A vulgar mob hit in possibly the classiest restaurant in town.

“Sorry.” A female voice, mixed with giggling, came from the balcony overlooking the water.

Leaning against the open door, a young couple in formal eveningwear clung to each other. His laughter reached a hysterical pitch indistinguishable from hers. Two waiters helped them totter to the front of the establishment.

While Liz took her seat again, hushed voices threw around words like “drunk” and “disgusting.”

Robert remained his usual stoic, unreadable self. He stayed silent until she tried the hors d'oeuvre. “Liz, I've been thinking about us, about our future.”

Here it comes. Him starting the conversation with her name did not bode well. “Really?”

“In Sana'a a woman in the same burqa that you were carrying drops three terrorists at the embassy’s doorstep—coincidence.” Robert made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Second time there, a suicide bomber crash-lands in front of you before he can reach the ambassador and me—I don't think so. In the show, you levitated that bed as easily as that woman carried those three men. The Pentagon doesn't have that kind of technology. The CIA doesn't. I can't think of many countries that could pull that off. Japan? China? Korea?” He folded his hands together, rested his chin on them, and stared her down. “Who do you work for?”

Liz arched her brows. “You take me to one of the fanciest restaurants in town to talk about this?”

“Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what you did. You saved our lives. We can do so much more, if we work together. And, I…like you. I need to know. Is it Mossad, Shin Bet? You can tell me. I have close contact with them.”

Even without a kiss, her lover in shining armor had turned into a frog in business suit—more interested in her super-her-oism than her. Men. If a woman discovered Batman’s or Spidey’s secrets, she would be all over them for a date.

The arrival of the foie gras gave her time to digest her disappointment without answering.

With the waiters out of earshot, Robert continued his recruitment. “We're on the same side, Liz.”

Smile if you don't know something. A smile is surface sweetness. A lesson from her training as casino host worth remembering. “My dear Mr. Singleton, you watch too many spy movies. I'm a magician, not some…some exotic dancer prying secrets from unsuspecting men like that Merry Harry.”

“You'd make a great honey trap, better than Mata Hari. And the way you reacted to that inebriated couple slamming the door—incredible reflexes.”

“Whatev'. I'm no spy chick. I puke when I see blood. I've never held a gun. Nevah. Wouldn't know what…” Still groping for a response to his sneak attack, she threw her arms up.

“Please, Liz, I know you need to maintain cover, but you know you can trust me.”

“Trust you? You're a spook. You lie for a living.”

“That’s not fair. You've never been to my office.”

“Please, I've seen Spy Games. Everybody lies to get ahead and cover their butt.”

Robert’s brow furrowed. “You're judging me based on one movie?”

“No. Many, many. Netflix and Hulu make it so easy. I've seen Mission Incomprehensible three times. Enemy of the State, Body of Lies, Syria'a. You guys will burn someone as cute as George Clooney or Will Smith to save your sorry asses.”

“Is that really what you think of me? A movie cliché?”

“That Snowden guy said the same things.”

“Edward Snowden is a traitor who sold our secrets to the Russians. Most of the NSA acts within the limits of the laws. We've had a few outliers and we're dealing with them. The rest do their best to protect this country.”

“Really?” Her voice rose. “Protect us? Like 9/11? Like that dirty bomb here?” Liz covered her mouth. Ooops. Careless words got her into trouble again. Robert had not mentioned her most heroic deed, stopping terrorists from turning Las Vegas into a nuclear wasteland. Perhaps he had known nothing. She had screamed so loud that everybody in the restaurant now knew her secret, even if most feigned enough politeness to not stare.

His jaw dropped. Robert gawked at her with wide-open mouth. His hand slowly rose to slap his cheek. “Of course. The golden costume in Sana'a. The golden apparition here. That was no drone. That was you!”

She bit her lip. Every crime drama had that moment where the perpetrator revealed himself with a thoughtless remark. Hers had arrived.

The intelligence director adjusted his tie. “When the FBI figured out the truck tried to blow up a nuclear waste transport, all hell broke loose. Nobody in DHS knew anything. Only the Air Force could have sent an armed drone from the Creech base. They're investigating senior officers right now {forbids the use of the United States Army, and through it, its offspring, the United States Air Force as a posse comitatus or for law enforcement purposes}, but…” He leaned back in his chair and gave her an admiring smile. “…it was you all along. The locals, police, news, suspected nothing. Only we, the terrorists, and whoever stopped the attack know the truth. You saved this city.”

“So what? I had to. My mother, my besties all live here.”

Robert reached across the table. “Liz, it’s a big deal. You stopped a major terrorist attack. We were blindsided. Knew nothing. Don't you see what we can accomplish together?”

She withdrew her hands from his. “You want me to work for you?”

“Not exactly. The NIC only gathers information. I can't hire black ops.”

“Good. Black is so yesterday. My costume is gold and I like it.”

“You're amazing. With what you've done, you put James Bond to shame, yet you hide it so well. I've checked you out—birth certificate, report cards, detention records, articles on the cheer leading squad and the prom queen. Either you have the best deep cover I've ever seen, or you're a true-blooded all-American girl. Why not fight for your country instead of some foreign power?”

She could not tell him the truth. Not even the half-truth. Beyond her fears, irrational or otherwise, her radical sister, valiant fighter against global corporations, would certainly not approve. “Why should I help a government that only helps the rich?”

Robert fell silent. The arrival of the roasted lobster added to the awkwardness. He waited for the staff to leave the table. “I don't know what to say. I'll admit we have problems, but compared to others… You think communist China is better?”

She poked around in her lobster. He had her cornered. Unlike her younger sister, Liz could not hold her own in a debate on international politics. Avoiding eye contact, she mumbled toward the crustacean, “Never heard of any Occupational Wall Street guys protesting over there.”

“If they had a Wall Street to protest at, an Occupy movement in Shanghai wouldn't last a day. Rich people in China routinely buy politicians and police.”

“Not any different here. As my bestie Mandy’s father likes to say, ‘No peso, no say so’.”

“I understand you're frustrated with our government, but think of your family and friends. These terrorists are still out there and we have no leads on them. Liz, we need you. Your country needs you.” He dropped his voice. “I need you.”

The usual story. Everybody needed something from her. What about what she needed? She laid down her fork. Her appetite for lobster had died when her hunger for romance went unsatisfied, a famine an Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence was so obviously incapable of ending. “What about me? What I got was burns, broken bones, and psychos shooting at me.”

“Intelligence is a difficult, dangerous business. Nothing is as it seems. We deal with state actors with the means to confuse, obfuscate, assassinate. You've seen that. We need to work as a team.” Robert persisted on the wrong path. “Join us, please.”

She shook her head.

“Why? After all you have already done for us, why not?”

“I didn't do it for our country.” Liz slid off her chair. “I did it for you.”

“Who are you?”

While heading to the exit, she raised her arm and gave him the finger without looking back. “I'm the girl who used to love you.”

2. Family Affair

Ding-dang-dong. Liz opened the door and greeted Ellen with a hug. “Thanks for hustling up from LA. Mama's already here.”

Her younger sister—although the boyish looks and clothing gave her more the appearance of a brother—looked at her as if she had announced the end of the world.

“Don't worry,” Liz whispered. “This isn’t about you.”

“And I thought you had read my mind, like a psychic connection.”

Liz’s answered with a surprised expression.

“The wackos are at it again. This time they want to steal enriched uranium and blow up the city.”

And the hits keep coming. Under the relentless pounding by familiar bearers of bad news, the triumphant high from her successful magic premiere had yielded to the blues. “Why is everyone from my past coming back to haunt me today?” When her sister lost her smile, Liz hugged her again. “Sorry, Ellie, it’s not you. Just one of those days.”

“It’s okay. Where can you and I talk?”

“No more secrets in the family.” She responded to Ellen’s stone face by taking her hand. “You know what I mean. I'm not telling. You come out when you are ready.” Liz’s high heels click-clacked across the tile as she led the way into the living room, pulling along her sister in silent sneakers.

The two exchanged cheek kisses with their mother, Dana. The middle-aged copy of Liz, in fashionable black slacks and a cream sweater with a golden brooch pinned to the neckline, shook back her blonde ponytail, then faced her eldest. “Tell me! What’s this all about? The waiting’s killing me.”

Ellen responded instead. “The waiting’s nothing, Mama. These jihadists are trying to kill you for real.”

“What jihadists?” Dana’s makeup could not hide the color draining from her face.

“These wackos think they're waging jihad. Holy war or their version of it. Islam has this concept of struggle against those who don't believe in Allah, and some mean with the sword to—”

“Ellie, please, no sermons.” Liz butted in. “They want a nuculear bomb.”

“The way you pronounce ‘nuclear’, you could become president someday.”

“Whatev', Miss Assistant Deputy Professor.”

“Stop!” Dana raised her hands and shook her head. “Kill. Bomb. Who? Why?”

“Terrorists. This time they're going for an actual atom bomb. If it’s big enough, whoosh, Vegas gone.” Ellen held her mother’s arms to stop their frantic movements.

“This time? This happened before?”

The two sisters exchanged glances, then red-faced Ellen took the lead. “That week I asked you to come to LA, that wasn't because I was sick, Mama. Some loco terrorists were going to blow up a nuclear transport to rain their version of fire and brimstone on Sin City. A dirty bomb.”

“Dirty bomb.” Dana sank onto the sofa, her eyes staring straight at nothing.

Liz had seen that expression before, at New York Fashion Week, when terrified designers experienced the awesome aura of the super-powerful Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. “I've had it with these psychos threatening us. I'll tell Robert to bomb them away and end this nonsense.”

“Bomb whom?” Now Ellen emulated her mother talking with her arms. “These guys are mere handles in a chat room. E-phantoms. Besides, that is illogical. If you want this to end, you have to get at the masterminds.”

“Lovely. Why does everything have to be so complicated?” Liz searched her favorite place for elusive answers, the ceiling.

“I feel for you, Sis. Robert has mucho resources to find theses wackos. They'll lead us to the top.”

Dana’s shock thawed from her face. “How…how do you know these things?”

“Word-of-keyboard.”

“Mama, Ellie’s tracked these psychos on the Internet for months.” She handed her mother the glass of Pinot Noir from the coffee table. “Here. Calm your nerves. Don't worry. Once Ellie gives me the 4-1-1 on these turds, Robert will deal with them one way or another. Wine, Sis?”

Ellen waved off. “You know me and alcohol. Orange juice with soda water. Please.”

Liz headed to the open kitchen.

“Organic and fair trade, if you have—”

“Sorry, Ellie. All I have is regular OJ and Perrier. If I’d known—”

“I’ll live.”

The song “The Spy Who Loved Me” played.

“Call for you, dear.” Dana held up a smartphone.

“It’s okay. Just Robert.”

Her sister sat down on the love seat while studying the dining section across the half wall separating it from the living room. “Love your pictures. Nice touch. You know, what would make it even better? Some greenery.”

“You can have a cat or plants. I chose Tux.” Taking all the time she could possibly waste, Liz prepared her sister a drink.

 “You, a cat? Where? I never saw one here.”

“He's hiding. He doesn't know you yet.” Like she used to do before confession, she slow-walked to her congregation. Anything to postpone the admission of her disloyalty, keeping secret from her family the most momentous happening in her life. While handing her sister the glass, she took one last look around for Tuxedo, but her coward cat had robbed her of the pretext of taking care of him.

Showtime. She bent her knee and scooped with her hand. A pillow lying next to Ellen on the love seat rose and stayed aloft while Liz juggled the air.

“See, El'?” Dana clapped. “You gotta go to Liz’s magic show.”

Thunderous applause from her sister. “This is rad.”

Liz flicked a finger sideways.

A small Blacky beam sent the pillow and Ellen tumbling to the side. “What was that?” She straightened up and looked around as if searching for an invisible wire.

“It’s not a magic trick, Ellie. The meteorite that blew up my pool…” She fiddled with the clasp of her belt and retrieved the pea-sized black ball hidden there. “See, my little friend Blacky gives me superpowers. With him, I can leap tall buildings and move small mountains, for real.”

“What? Have you been hitting the cooking sherry?” Ellen raised a brow, then reached out. “May I…”

“If you can pick him up.” Liz laid the pebble on the floor. “He weighs like fifty pounds.”

“No way!” With her mother gawking at the spectacle, Ellen tried in vain to lift the tiny ball. “That’s so illogical. You carry this thing around as if it’s a green pea. How?”

“I don't know. Maybe all the radiation I got from it. Mama, give it a try.”

Dana begged off.

“C'mon. He doesn't bite. For science. For humanity.”

“Don't be such a drama queen.” Pursing her lips, Dana leaned forward on the sofa, carefully pulled at the object from space with her fingertips, then shook her head. “Your cat doesn't let me pick him up either, dear, and I know Tux much longer than…than that thing.”

“Bummer. It doesn't run in the family.” With two fingers, Liz lifted Blacky and stuffed him back into her belt clasp. “I’d hoped to share the burden.”

“What do you mean ‘burden’?” Ellen jumped to her feet while words poured out like a waterfall. Her euphoria had no bounds. “You can boldly go where no woman’s gone before. Do good with your gift, like…like…” Her arms went every which way while she searched the white ceiling for inspiration. “Stop the burning of the rain forests. Save elephants from ivory poachers. Prevent—”

“I knew it!” A pout settled on Liz’s face when she crossed her arms. “Bad enough ungallant men want me to do their dirty work and save the world. Not at all ladylike. You’d have me running around the planet for your nonsense. That’s why I didn't tell you.”

“You? What have you done to save the world?”

“I fight terrorists that kill people. Who cares about some critters in Africa?” Liz underscored the point with a frantic flick of her wrist, sending an energy beam askew. Two candleholders flew from the entertainment center and crashed on the tile floor.

Ignoring the mishap, Ellen’s arms reached out, like a frustrated parent wanting to shake some sense into a child. “Elephants are people, too.”

“SAYS WHO?”

“Genetically, we are closely related to them. In fact, we use the same aerobic energy metabolism to supply our big brains with—”

“Stop! I already have Professor Neil blowing my mind. I don't need you blinding me with science too.”

“So you, quoting a dance-pop philosopher like Thomas Dolby.”

“WHO?”

“Who’s Neil?” Their mother’s calming voice cut through the thick air between the two sisters, their eyes shooting darts at each other.

Liz took a deep breath, letting the rose aroma from the air fresheners calm her nerves. Mama still knew how to pacify her unruly brood.

After giving her mother a rueful glance, the younger sister took her place on the love seat again.

“Neil’s from UNLV,” Liz said.

Ellen looked up. “Neil Foster? I had to take physics from him. Cool guy.”

“Aha. He’s helped me with Blacky.” Liz managed a contorted smile while seeking eye contact with her. “That dirty bomb, I destroyed it, not some Air Force drone-thingy guy. I stopped those terrorists.”

“You? Really?” Ellen scowled.”

“Really.”

Three pairs of eyes did the silent talking for a long while. Blacky may have separated Liz from one boyfriend after another, but he had brought her family closer together.

Dana broke the silence. “Liz, you broke your hand that week.”

“Yes, Mama, it’s a dangerous business.”

A coy smile spread across her mother’s face. “I'm so proud of you.” She stood and took Liz in a deep embrace.

“Thanks, Mama.” A shudder rippled through her—a tingling sensation she had been waiting for, hoping for all her life—spreading warmth from her heart to her fingertips and toes. Tears welled. Finally. Those six words washed away years of playing second fiddle in the eyes of her mother to the second born. Liz basked in her moment of glory, but the storm clouds closing in from everywhere brought her back to reality. “Also…” Piling on to her mother’s worries bothered Liz more than she had expected, but she wanted to, had to honor the honesty pervading the room. “Fighting bad guys makes them mad. There's a contract out on me. I don't want you in the crossfire. You're going to Los Angeles with Ellen. Tonight.”

“No!” Dana wiped away any possible doubt with her hand. “I'm not leaving you to the clutches of evil. Your grandpa fled Czechoslovakia without his family. He never got over it.”

“I’m not going either!” Ellen underscored her resolution by taking a stand.

“What about your friend in Los Angeles?” Liz raised feeble objections to protect her family.

“She…Dan will manage without me for a while. You need me here. I can install cameras, booby-traps.”

“I don't think we…have stores for that. This is Vegas.”

“Please. All on the Internet.”

“I can't afford that stuff.”

“Made in China.”

“Okay. Fine.” She took her sister in a long embrace, joined soon after by her mother.

Ellen interrupted the harmony. “You have to quit your show. I can protect you here, but not—”

“No way! If the show doesn't run for a month at least, I'll never get another chance in this town.”

“But—”

Liz’s turn to take a stand. “You think you know surveillance? No one’s stupid enough to try a hit in a casino. There're cameras everywhere.”

“What about the parking garage? You're all alone there.”

“No problem. I valet park. I'm their fave.” Her looks and a few dollars settled that matter.

“Still—”

Ding-dang-dong. The doorbell ended any further argument.

“This late at night?” Liz headed for the front door, but her sister’s iron grip held her back.

“Are you loco?”

“Relax, I'm just going to look through the peephole.”

“So he can shoot you in the eye?”

Her sister had a point. The present situation demanded more Ellen-type caution than Liz-type carefree, but old habits die hard, even with a killer on the loose. Liz looked to her security consultant for advice.

“Do you have a window out to the door?”

“In the master bedroom.” She directed her to a door.

Imposing silence with a finger to her lips, Ellen led the way.

Liz peeked past the bedroom drapes with one eye, hiding off to the side as much as possible. “Robert!”

He stood at the front door fiddling with a light in his hand. The ringtone “The Spy Who Loved Me” erupted from her phone in the living room again.

“Good.” Ellen headed for the foyer. “Maybe he can get you a bodyguard.”

“I have one al…” Not the first time matters of the heart messed with matters of the mob. Las Vegas Metro detective Richard Rogan had offered her protection after telling her about the contracted hit. If she moved in with him. What a Dick. Of course, Mafioso Billy Boy Russo got her into this predicament to begin with by forcing his dick into her. A gang war between him and her last love, Russian mobster Viktor Sverkoff, left both on the verge of death. Now Billy’s father, don of an Italian crime family, wanted her dead, while her sort-of-still-or-maybe-not boyfriend outside wanted her back. “Yeah, Ellie, you can have my gift alright. See if you like being superchick,” she mumbled as she trotted past her King-sized bed protected by a menagerie of cuddly stuffed animals.

Robert, holding a bouquet of freshly doused red roses, looked like he had been left out in the rain—quite a feat in a town where it almost never rains. The sagging ends of his white moustache and his tired eyes ringed by black-rimmed glasses added to his sullen air. He greeted the two sisters with a teensy wave. “Can I talk to you in private, Liz?”

“Don't stand out front in view of any cars.” Newly self-appointed Chief Security Officer Ellen discharged her duties without asking.

“Why?” Robert, Worrier in Chief by virtue of his position in the Department of Homeland Security, had found his match.

“You know how neighbors talk.” Liz pulled him inside. Too early for a definite decision on making her still boyfriend and maybe future boss her Lord Protector. As she had learned from cable television, English ladies, particularly those married to Henry VIII, often lost their heads over their sovereign. She needed time to think this through, and his sad eyes begging her would not make things any easier. “We'll go into the backyard.” After introducing Robert to her mother and handing Ellen the roses to arrange in a vase, Liz dragged him out through one of the patio doors.

Befitting a Throwback Thursday, he hemmed and hawed the way he used to during his infatuation period.

After a long day, Liz had no patience left for a case of hesititis, so decided to end his indecision. “You confused me at dinner. I thought we're talking about us, then you turn all work, work, work.”

“I…I'm sorry.”

“I can't go back to Virginia until my show is done.”

“I understand. When's your Friday?”

At least he had learned the Las Vegas lingo. In a town where the weekends brought in much of the money, dating depended on coordinating both parties' days off. “My show is dark Monday through Wednesday.”

Despite not owning a dog, Robert had mastered the art of silent begging even a cat-person could not resist.

“You can book flights for Sunday evening and Thursday morning. And don't forget a ticket for Tux.” Until her new show made money, he would have to play sugar daddy again. Never mind her mortgage. Liz needed the cash stash she took from Billy Boy for a rainy day, rare as they were here in the desert. Plus her secret project. Too many people had already witnessed her in action, putting her and her family at risk. Ladyhawk, her flying motorcycle, needed a cloaking device, but Neil’s research drained more of her precious funds.

Robert’s mood failed to lighten. Time to up the heat. Her fingers gently played with his hair.

After months nursing one broken hand and two broken hearts, she deserved a delicious thrill. Barefoot, Liz rose on her toes while pulling his towering frame down. Time stood still as she let herself drown in the taste of him. More tickling than from clean-shaven Viktor, but wonderful nevertheless. When they parted, a hint of a smile showed on Robert’s face.

She caressed his face. “Who knows, maybe I can play Jane to your James Bond.”

“You would?”

“The psychos are going for an atom bomb.”

“What?” Robert’s eyes sprang into action. “Who told you?”

“I have to protect my sources, but I need your help. You gotta find the masterminds. End this craziness for good. I can't go chasing bombs every few months.”

“Whatever I can do, but officially I can't know about your alter ego. In your words, it’d be like the movie Nikita.”

“It’s actually Zazztra. Either way, I guess if the police get me, I'm on my own.”

“Not if I can help it.” He leaned down and worked his magic on her lips.

They engaged in mutual bonding a while longer, until she used her family in the house as an excuse to say goodbye to him for the night.

Robert headed to the door while Liz hung back in the living room. “Where’s Mama?”

Ellen, sitting cross-legged on the sofa with a laptop computer, was her usual busy self. “Mama’s getting stuff from home to spend the nights here. Hopefully all the cars out front will deter any hit men until I can install defenses. Move your faux furry friends to a back bedroom. I'm taking the master. It’s too exposed.”

Little big boss. After five years of separation, her sister was back with a vengeance. Liz sat down on the couch. “I'm kinda glad for family.”

Their fingers intertwined. “Me too.”

“You really believe I can save the elephants?”

“I cannot think of anyone better than my big sister.”

I can. She left the thought unspoken. The kudos from her super-smart sister felt too good.

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