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This story is Copyright ©2002 by Jacques LeBlanc. You may send it to your friends, save it to your hard drive, print it out to read at your leisure, and repost it (as long as no changes are made to any of the text, including this notice) in any free forum where you believe it will be well-received, but any commercial use is absolutely prohibited.
"This is a samba, and next up will be a tango, by request," the DJ announced. About time, I thought, having handed him the CD half an hour earlier, just after I arrived at the Chevy Chase Ballroom. I hope he remembers which track it is. I noted that Mina Patel had just arrived, and began working my way across the room to where she was sitting, threading my way past couples engrossed in the energetic Latin dance. I'd met Mina at a dance the previous winter, and been impressed with her talent. Though she'd only had a few ballroom lessons at that point, she followed well and learned quickly; I only had to show her a new figure once and she'd follow it perfectly from then on. Of course, her looks hadn't hurt any: petite and slim, Mina was blessed with a small chin, full, burgundy-red lips, prominent cheekbones, and enormous dark eyes that sparkled with merriment and mischief. I'd only seen her a couple of times since then, but the last time I'd given her and three of her friends from the American University Ballroom Club a ride back to their campus following a dance at the University of Maryland, where I was studying.
"Would you care to tango with me when the next song comes on?" I asked, as I came up to the bench where Mina sat.
Mina looked up from putting on her dance shoe and favored me with a dazzling smile, made brighter by the contrast between her white teeth and dark skin. "Hi, Nathan! I'd love to; just a moment." She finished adjusting the straps and turned to the other shoe. Finished with that, she rose gracefully to her feet, placing her small hand in mine. "I like your pin," she commented, touching the little silver Darwin fish on my lapel. "Just like the one on your car."
"Thank you," I said. "It lets people know where I stand; sort of like a believer wearing a crucifix or a Star of David. Of course, some people don't know what it means; that's led to some interesting conversations. Fortunately, ballroom dancers around here are a pretty liberal, secular-minded bunch; I've met a couple of good little Christian girls who were offended by it, but not a lot."
"Certainly not me," Mina said. "But you already knew that." I nodded, recalling her delight on first seeing the Darwin fish plaque and the bumper stickers that adorned my car: "When Religion Ruled the World, They Called it The Dark Ages;" "Freedom is the Distance Between Church and State;" and "Support the Theory of Evolution: 400 Billion Amphibians Can't Be Wrong!"
We stepped onto the floor and into closed dance position. A lot of women, especially beginners, tend to shy away from the suggestive physical contact that a proper closed position entails, and their dancing suffers for it. Mina did it right, flowing up against me with her right knee between my legs, her right breast brushing my chest, and our hips always in contact, because that's where the lead comes from. She wore an off-the-shoulder dress, and the fine, downy hairs on her upper back tickled my right hand where it rested behind her shoulder. I found the sensation vaguely sexy, which was odd when I thought about it; usually I found body hair on women something less than attractive.
As we squared up, the samba faded out and the next song began. After the opening dramatic musical flourish (an essential part of any good tango), Tom Lehrer's scratchy tenor filled the room: "I ache for the touch of your lips, dear/But much more for the touch of your whips, dear/You can raise welts like nobody else/as we dance to the Masochism Tango." Recognizing the song from the first couple of chords, Mina glanced up at me and grinned. "I might have known," she said. "This was your request, right?"
"Yup." I grinned back at her. "I seem to recall that you enjoyed this song last year." Then I straightened up, holding my head high and to the left as my instructor always insisted. I reminded myself to keep my steps small; even with her high heels, the top of Mina's head was barely higher than my chin, and her small size would make it all too easy for me to throw her off balance if I wasn't careful.
After taking a moment to catch the rhythm, I began to dance, leading Mina through several basic American tango figures. She followed even better than I remembered, so I risked leading something a bit trickier, an open fan reverse turn. She executed it perfectly, as Lehrer sang, "At your command/Before you here I stand/My heart is in my hand... ugh!/It's here that I must be!" Coming back together, we paused in promenade, and Mina arched gracefully over my arm as we waited for the rhythm to resume after the "ugh." Then we continued the dance, working our way around the floor twice before the song ended.
"You're getting really good, Mina," I complimented her, as we walked back to the bench. "I know girls who've been taking lessons longer than I have who don't follow that well."
"Thanks. I took an American Smooth class over the summer, and I think it helped a lot. Did I get that fan turn right? Sometimes I'm not sure which way to turn."
"You did it right. If you can't tell which way to turn, it's probably because your partner didn't lead it properly."
"That could be," she acknowledged. "Most of my partners are beginners like me. It's nice to be able to practice with someone a bit more experienced."
"I'm hardly the best man here for that, you know," I said. "Compared to most of these guys, I'm a beginner too."
"Maybe, but you have a year and a half of lessons on me, and you're patient when I make a mistake; most of the advanced dancers I know don't like dancing with newcomers..." She paused, noticing a couple from American University who had just arrived. "There's Vlad and Marina; I'm going to go say hi to them, okay? I'll see you in a bit."
"No problem," I replied. "Save me the next rumba, okay?"
"Sure thing," she said, and headed over to greet her friends, while I looked around for my next dance partner.
Most of my usual partners weren't there that evening, and Mina knew very few of the men in attendance, so I ended up dancing with her more often than not. Her sultry rumba, danced to Gloria Estefan's "I'm Not Giving You Up," made me wonder whether she was flirting with me, but I couldn't tell for sure. I've never been good with non-verbal communication, and the rumba, when done well, seems seductive whether that's the intent or not.
Delightful as her tango and rumba were, Mina really came into her own when we did swing, which she'd been studying much longer than ballroom; dancing to hits like "Jump, Jive, and Wail" and "Zoot Suit Riot," her energy and enthusiasm lit up the floor. At one point toward the end of the evening Marina and I sat out and watched while Mina and Vlad danced lindyhop to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Mina's small size making it easy for her partner to lead the spectacular dips, lifts, and aerials which are the hallmarks of advanced swing.
When it was time for the traditional good-night waltz, I sought Mina out, and we floated around the floor to the ethereal strains of Secret Garden's "Serenade to Spring." As the music ended I led Mina out into one last graceful turn, and bowed low over her hand. "Thank you," I said. "That was a lovely waltz."
"Thank you," she replied. "It's been a lovely evening all around. I missed this place over the summer. So, will I see you at Du Shor next Friday?"
"Indubitably. By the way, the evening isn't over yet, at least for me. A bunch of us are walking up the street to the Cheesecake Factory; we'll grab some dessert and hang out and chat for a while. Would you like to come?"
Mina looked crestfallen. "I'd like to, but I'm supposed to get a ride back with Vlad and Marina; I don't want to take the Metro this late at night. It's a long walk from the station back to my dorm."
"I wouldn't want you to have to do that. Tell you what, if you want to come to Cheesecake, I can drive you back to A.U. afterward; it's only a few minutes out of my way."
She brightened. "Oh, would you? That would be great! Let me just go tell Marina I've found another ride and I'll be right back." She hurried away to where her friend sat, while I sat down to change my shoes.
A few minutes later we headed out to Wisconsin Avenue together, both wearing our street shoes now. Outside the ballroom I paused. "If you don't mind, I'd like to put my backpack in the car before we go up to the restaurant."
"Sure," she said. "Is it back there?" She gestured at the parking lot behind the NationsBank, next to the building that housed the ballroom.
"Yeah, it'll just take a moment."
Just then the last few stragglers emerged from the ballroom door; among them was Julie Wallace, the president of the A.U. ballroom club. "Oh, Mina," she said, "I need to talk to you about the class schedule for this semester..."
Mina glanced at me inquiringly. "No trouble," I said. "I'll be back in a minute and we can go eat."
"Okay," Mina said. "Would you mind taking my stuff, too?"
"No problem." I took the bag with her dance shoes and headed around the corner to the parking lot. My car was parked at the opposite end, and before I reached it I was buttonholed by Jerry Wu, a classmate from my social ballroom class. Jerry was enraptured with a girl he'd met that evening, who I already knew from previous outings, and wanted to know if I knew whether she had a boyfriend. (I wasn't sure, but thought that she did.)
By the time I'd said goodbye to the disappointed Jerry, put the bags in the car, and come back around to the front, Julie had gone. Strangely, Mina was no longer waiting by the ballroom. Instead she was halfway up the block, walking away. With her was a young man I didn't recognize. He looked Indian, like her, and he had his left hand on her upper arm. Something very odd was going on. I opened my mouth to call to Mina, then thought better of it and simply quickened my pace to catch up with her and her mysterious escort.
As I got closer, my sense of "something wrong here" grew. The young man's grip on Mina's arm appeared excessively strong, and her dragging gait suggested she didn't want to go with him. He had a light jacket on, odd for such a warm September evening, and his right arm was held across his chest. What the hell? I thought. Is he carrying... oh, SHIT! Mina glanced back at me, just for an instant, and the terror in her eyes told me more than I wanted to know.
As I came up next to the young man, I could see that his right hand was hidden inside the jacket -- and I was all but certain that it held a gun pointed at Mina. Cursing silently, I tried to remember everything I'd learned about dealing with guns in the few martial arts lessons I'd taken. Luckily, my instructor had been very focused on practical self-defense, so we'd learned techniques for dealing with armed opponents -- but I didn't like the odds one bit. The first rule of trying to take a gun away from an opponent was an emphatic "don't." After drumming that into our heads, he'd shown us some moves to try if we didn't have a choice, but none of them had a great chance of success. But I couldn't just let Mina be abducted, could I... ?
All of this flashed through my mind in an instant, as my left hand fumbled for my pocket knife. It was only a little Swiss Army knife, more of a tool than a weapon, but it was better than nothing. I worked the blade open while it was still in my pocket, then got a good grip on it, drew a deep breath, and addressed Mina's would-be kidnapper: "Let her go, asshole."
The young man didn't answer; he merely threw me an irritated glance and quickened his pace, dragging Mina with him. I took in his scraggly beard, and the loose-fitting white pants he wore below the jacket, and something clicked in my head. "I said let her go, you stain of pig shit on the robe of the prophet."
This time he snarled something in a language I didn't recognize, shoved Mina forward and away from him, and turned towards me, pulling his hand out of the jacket. That was what I was waiting for; the moment the gun cleared his coat, before he could bring it to bear on me, I grabbed it with my right hand, fingers closing over the top of the slide, thumb jammed under the hammer so that it couldn't fire. At the same time, my left hand came up and drove six centimeters of Swiss steel into the back of my opponent's wrist. The blade went clean through, passing between the radius and ulna, severing tendons and veins. He shrieked, clutched at his arm with his other hand -- and let go of the gun.
I stepped back, putting some distance between myself and my opponent, who had fallen to his knees; then I dropped the knife and got a proper grip on my new weapon. Right up to that moment I'd assumed I was dealing with a simple stalker, perhaps a former boyfriend or even an older brother angry with Mina's rejection of the "True Faith." When a sedan parked in the next block pulled out of its space and roared toward us in reverse, it took me a precious second to realize what was really going on. As the car's passenger side window slid down, I caught a glimpse of a submachine gun inside.
Had the gunman simply smashed the window, my reaction would have been too late, and I have little doubt that Mina and I would both have died on that sidewalk. As it was, the slowness of the window mechanism saved us. I jerked my gun up from its low aim at the kidnapper, gripping it with both hands and focusing on the front sight, and snapped off two shots at the approaching car. My aim was off: I shattered the rear passenger's side window, then overcompensated for the recoil and put my second round into the rear door.
The gunman ducked down below the level of the window and the car braked hard, tires squealing, then shifted gears and sped away, disappearing around the corner of Jenifer Street. The entire incident had lasted less than a minute. The wounded man was on his knees, hunched over and cradling his right arm, muttering what I suspected were curses in his unfamiliar language. Mina had stumbled when he shoved her away, but had regained her balance and was glaring furiously down at him. She said something in what sounded like the same language, and he directed a louder curse at her; her face darkened, and she slapped him hard.
"Hey, take it easy," I said. "He can't hurt you now."
"You don't know what he just called me," she retorted, then softened. "Thanks a lot, Nathan; I think you just saved my life."
I shrugged, embarrassed. "You're welcome; it seemed like the right thing to do. Do you know this guy?"
"I never saw him before this evening, but I noticed him on the Metro when I rode over here. He kept staring at me, and I had the feeling he might be following me; that's why I didn't want to take the train home."
"Ah, I see. Well, stalker boy here isn't going anywhere now; why don't you go over to that pay phone and call the cops while I keep an eye on him?"
"All right," she said. She walked briskly to the phone by Paul's Liquors. I kept my attention on the erstwhile abductor. After a moment he looked up at me with a more contrite expression. "Please," he said, "I'm bleeding..."
"Serves you right," I observed, "But here, take this." I kept the gun on him with my left hand, while undoing my belt with the right. I pulled it off and tossed it to him, avoiding getting close enough for him to make a grab for the gun. He managed to loop it around his arm and pulled it tight, applying pressure to the wound.
"Thank you," he said, then lapsed into silence.
In a moment Mina returned. "The police are on their way."
"Good," I said. "The sooner I can get rid of this thing, the better. I don't care for guns."
"You did pretty well with it a moment ago," she observed.
"I like them even less when they're pointed at me. The passenger in that car had a submachine gun; we're damned lucky he decided to duck instead of shooting back."
Mina shivered and drew close to me. Without thinking about it, I wrapped my free arm around her shoulders and hugged her. She sighed and laid her head against my shoulder; our prisoner looked disgusted.
Moments later two police cars turned onto Wisconsin from Garrison Street and pulled up to the curb in front of us. "Put the gun down," the driver of the first one said through her loudspeaker. I placed the pistol on the sidewalk and kicked it away where neither I nor the injured kidnapper could reach it; then I raised my hands.
The cars disgorged an ethnically diverse quartet of cops. One of them, a compact young man with a blond crew-cut, covered the kneeling man with his pistol, while his Korean partner removed my belt from the man's wrist and began wrapping it with an Ace bandage from his first aid kit. The remaining two officers, both black, approached Mina and me.
The few times I have had any kind of dealings with the police, I have found African-American officers much pleasanter than Caucasian ones. It might be that they make a special effort to compensate for their community's sadly well-founded mistrust of the police, or it might be that the old boys' networks that still control many police departments set higher standards for black recruits than white ones, or perhaps a combination of the two. I wasn't sure how well either factor would stand up in a majority-black city with a majority-black police force, but I still felt slightly reassured. In any case, these two made an interesting pair. The woman, who appeared to be in charge of the group, was in her mid-thirties, short, wiry, and light-skinned, with hair teased straight and pulled back in a severe bun. Her partner was younger, about six-foot-three, and ebony dark, with broad shoulders and arms that hinted at thousands of hours of weight training. I thought he might be a first-generation immigrant; given an assegai and an oxhide shield he would have fit right in with Cetshwayo's regiments at Rorke's Drift.
"Are you the one who made the call?" the female officer asked, looking at Mina. Her imposing partner held a notebook and pencil ready to record our answers.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied. "This creep tried to kidnap me; Nathan here stopped him, at considerable risk to himself. I hope you're not thinking of charging him with anything."
"There were at least two others, in a gold sedan," I added. "A Toyota Camry, I think. The one on the passenger side had some kind of small automatic weapon -- an Uzi or a TEC-9, something like that. Luckily for us, they decided discretion was the better part of valor after I put a couple of rounds into the car. It shouldn't be too hard to find; the rear passenger side window is smashed, and there's a bullet hole in the rear door, too. I'm afraid I didn't get the license number, though."
"I did," Mina said. "It had Virginia plates: JMS 2261."
The female cop spoke into her radio, then returned her attention to me. "I'm Sergeant Dawes, and this is Sergeant LeCroix. We need your names and contact information, and then please tell us everything that happened, starting when you first noticed the kidnapper," she instructed. I proceeded to relate the entire incident; then Mina did the same, albeit in a slightly less detached fashion; her assessment of my courage in defending her caused me to blush and shuffle my feet in embarrassment. As we were talking an ambulance pulled up, and the injured man was driven off; one cop rode in the ambulance with him while his partner followed in their patrol car. Sergeant Dawes explained that he would be taken to the emergency room to have his arm stitched up, then to the lockup for booking. Since the charge was attempted kidnapping, the FBI would want to interview him, and us as well, but that could wait until tomorrow.
Shortly after the ambulance left, a call came in on the police radio. After a short, terse conversation, LeCroix stepped a little away and made a call on his cell phone, while Dawes explained to us they'd found the car abandoned a few blocks away. Nobody had seen where the suspects went. "That's pretty much what I expected," she said. "They probably had another vehicle parked there. We ran the plates, too; they belong to a Jonathan Palmer, of Falls Church. LeCroix is checking up on it, but my guess is the car was stolen, and the plates may have been switched as well. We're running the car's serial number now to see if it matches. Oh, and there was blood on the passenger seat. Not enough to indicate a serious injury, but you must have clipped the gunman with one of those shots."
"Really? I wouldn't have believed it, from where I hit the car. Well, that explains why he ducked."
"Yeah. We'll check with all the local emergency rooms, see if anybody comes in with a gun-shot wound tonight. Of course, in this town the answer is yes more often than not, but they usually happen in Southeast." She sighed. "I grew up in Anacostia; it's depressing to see what's become of my old neighborhood..." Then she shook her head, seemingly annoyed at herself. "Sorry; you have troubles enough of your own without having to listen to mine."
As she finished, LeCroix put away his phone and turned to us.
"Mrs. Palmer says her husband is off on a weekend business trip; his car is in long-term parking at the airport. Great place to steal plates without it being noticed right away." His mellifluous West African accent confirmed my initial impression.
"These guys were clever," I observed. "Any idea why they might have wanted to kidnap you, Mina?"
"I think so," she said. "The one you cut spoke Bengali, and he called me a murtad -- an apostate. I think this might be about my Aunt Nisrina; she wrote a book that got the Muslim fanatics in Bangladesh so pissed off she had to leave the country to avoid being hanged for blasphemy."
"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute," I said. "You're Nisrina Tasleem's niece? Damn. I heard her speak at a Humanist conference last year; it was the most powerful indictment of religious fanaticism I've ever heard."
"She is cool, isn't she?" Mina said. "I should have guessed you would know who she was."
Sergeant Dawes cleared her throat. "If we could just finish with your story?"
"Oh, right. Sorry. As I was saying, my aunt's made a lot of enemies, and I ran into one of them on campus recently. The Muslim Students' Association had a table set up in the student union to hand out their literature, and there was this really obnoxious Wahhabi type hanging around the table and heckling people about how the West is destroying Islam. I don't just mean the usual beefs about Israel and the sanctions on Iraq; he was mad about U.S. troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia -- that's Osama bin Laden's biggest pet peeve, too -- and even about Western countries refusing to recognize the 'legitimate government' of Afghanistan and harboring 'blasphemers' like Salman Rushdie and Aunt Nisrina, and publishing their books. My aunt's book is called 'Sins of the Faithful;' it's about the so-called 'holy war' that the Wahhabi crazies waged on Bangladesh's Hindu minority after some Hindu crazies destroyed a couple of mosques in India, and all the holy looting, holy kidnapping, holy rape, and holy murder that holy wars entail. This creep was calling it a pack of lies and saying that Aunt Nisrina should be stoned to death -- he thought hanging was too kind. At that point I went off on him; I said it was backward fanatics like him, not westerners, that were keeping the Muslim world in poverty, and the real reason he hated my aunt's book was that it was a mirror showing him the ugly truth about his religion, and if he hated the West so much why didn't he go live in the Talibarbarians' wonderful Islamic paradise. He got so angry I think he would have hit me if the MSA people hadn't intervened and asked us both to leave. They don't particularly like me -- I've argued with them before -- but they didn't want this guy making a scene. Apparently he wasn't even a student at A.U., just an acquaintance of some of their members from a local mosque who'd heard about the table they were running and decided to come stick his two cents in."
"Sounds like a good lead," Dawes said. "Can you give us his name?"
"I'm afraid not," Mina replied, "But Faisal Aziz could; he was one of the MSA representatives at the table that day. You can get his number from the campus switchboard."
"We'll talk to him," she promised. "I think that's about all we need from you for now; call me if you think of anything else." She gave us each her card. "I'll be in touch tomorrow. I need to get back to the station now so I can be there when they book the guy you caught." LeCroix was walking around to the driver's side of their squad car, while she opened the passenger door.
"Thank you very much, Sergeant Dawes," said Mina.
"Thanks a lot," I echoed.
"Just doing my job," she replied, climbing into the car. "Good night." Dawes and LeCroix pulled away from the curb, made a U-turn, and headed back down into the city.
"Well," I said, "I for one have lost my appetite for dessert; shall we get going?"
"I think that's a good idea," Mina replied. "We're probably going to be spending a lot of time talking to the cops and the feds tomorrow, so we'd best get some rest. Besides, it's past midnight; I don't think we could get into the Cheesecake Factory now."
"Probably not," I agreed.
"You know," Mina said thoughtfully, as we walked around the corner to the parking lot, "If those people followed me here, they've probably been watching me for a while. My dorm isn't the most secure place to stay, either; people are always going in and out on a Saturday night, and it's easy for someone who doesn't have a key card to get in by following someone who does. My room is on the ground floor, too; the window has a grille, but you could still shoot through it."
"That's a nasty thought," I said. "Maybe you should stay somewhere else tonight."
"That's what I was thinking, but I'm not sure where. I do have friends I could stay with, but someone who'd been watching me for a few days might well know where any or all of them lived. Maybe I'd better check into a motel for the night."
"Even that's not ideal if somebody is really determined to find you," I said. "Unless you check in under an assumed name. I'll tell you what, though: if you like, you could stay at my place tonight. There's only one bed, but I don't mind sleeping on the floor; I have a good air mattress for when I have overnight guests. No matter how long these creeps may have been watching you, they won't know me from Adam -- and my apartment is on the fourteenth floor of a high rise, with a doorman who won't let anyone in without a resident vouching for them."
"That sounds perfect! Thanks again, Nathan."
As we approached my car, Mina grinned at the three stickers. "I really have to get a copy of this one," she said, pointing to the "Dark Ages" sticker. "Where my family comes from, the Dark Ages are still going on."
"I sometimes feel like it's hard being an unbeliever in America," I observed, unlocking the car and climbing into the driver's seat. "But compared to most of the world, especially the Muslim countries, we have it pretty good here. Not as good as in Holland or Scandinavia, of course, but at least the government doesn't persecute us here." I started the car, and we rolled out of the parking lot, turning north on Wisconsin.
"That's part of the reason my parents moved here," Mina said. "They initially came here for school and met through the South Asian Culture Club at UCLA, but they stayed because it would have been dangerous for them to go home. See, my Mom's from Bangladesh, and her family were originally Muslims, but my Dad grew up in a Hindu family in New Delhi. Neither society is very tolerant of mixed couples, especially when they reject the religion they were raised in. They both did that; they joined the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and had a Humanist wedding ceremony."
"Really? I've met the Executive Director of IHEU; he comes to WASH meetings when he's in town."
Mina looked impressed. "You know Babu Gogineni, too? Cool. He did a lot to organize international support for Aunt Nisrina when she was under house arrest in Bangladesh. Is WASH the local Humanist group?"
"That's right, the Washington Area Secular Humanists. They're a good group; if you're interested, I can take you to our next meeting and introduce you around. Most of them are older, retired people with time on their hands, but there are also several NASA scientists, a couple of professors, and a few other younger professionals and grad students, like me."
"Sounds interesting. My Dad mentioned there was a Humanist organization in DC, but I've been busy with school and never got around to looking them up."
"I know how that is," I agreed. "It took me a while after I found out about the organization to actually make the time to go to a meeting, but I'm really glad I did."
We continued to chat about WASH and the Humanist movement in general as we drove up Wisconsin toward the Beltway. On previous occasions I hadn't spent a great deal of time talking to Mina; talking while I dance throws off my rhythm, the time I drove her and her friends home she'd been very tired and quiet as a result. Now, however, I found her as delightful a conversationalist as she was a dance partner. Her animated gestures and the way her bright smile and dark eyes sparkled in the transient light of the street lamps made it an effort for me to keep my eyes on the road. The conversation wandered over a wide range of subjects, but by unspoken agreement we didn't speak of the violence that had disrupted our otherwise pleasant evening. Around the time we turned off the Beltway, our discussion turned to books. I learned that Mina was a great fan of fantasy literature; she had recently reread "The Lord of the Rings," in anticipation of the upcoming movies, and then decided to tackle "The Silmarillion." "That one isn't really a novel at all," she observed. "It's more like reading the Bible or the Qur'an -- though Tolkien's mythology is more interesting."
"I think he based the style on the Elder Edda and the Kalevala," I said. "He wanted to build a mythology for England like the ones the old skalds created for the Scandinavian countries."
"Well, it's certainly a dark mythology, with all those defeats and betrayals and twisted oaths. The story of Beren and Luthien was beautiful, though."
"I always liked that one," I said. "I've never read the whole book, just parts of it, but I must have read that five or six times. It was Tolkien's favorite, too, you know."
"I'd heard that. It was about him and his wife, right?"
"Partly. He was sixteen when they met, a Catholic orphan who'd been raised by a priest. She was three years older, and a Protestant. When his guardian found out about the relationship he made Tolkien break it off, but in the end they got back together and married, and she converted to Catholicism."
"Which was the minority religion in England," Mina added. "They weren't being persecuted any more, but the Anglicans still considered them socially inferior, right? So it was kind of like Luthien giving up her Elvish heritage to marry a mere human."
"That's the gist of it," I concluded. We had reached the driveway of my building. I rolled down the window and ran my key card through the reader, and the garage door slid ponderously up its tracks, then closed again behind us as we rolled up the ramp to the second level and my designated parking space. "Well," I said, shutting off the engine, "Here we are."
"It must be nice not having to look for a parking space," Mina commented, as we exited the car and walked toward the elevators.
"We pay for the privilege," I said, "But we'd have to do that anyway; there's no such thing as free parking in downtown Silver Spring. And it is nice to have it out of the weather and away from the eyes of casual thieves -- not that anyone's too likely to steal a plum-colored Saturn wagon. It isn't exactly a sexy car."
"Hey, I think it's a very nice car," Mina admonished.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm very fond of that car; I wouldn't trade it for the kind that car thieves favor. From what I've read, they mainly go for SUVs these days -- nasty great gas-guzzling beasts. My little Saturn is a lot more practical for a student living alone." Reaching the elevator, I pressed the up button; the doors to the left car slid open almost immediately. "That's nice," I commented. "Usually I have to wait forever for these things." We stepped inside, and I hit fourteen.
"Hey, what happened to thirteen?" Mina asked, noting how the numbers jumped from twelve to fourteen.
"Superstition," I replied. "You see that in a lot of old buildings, and even some newer ones. People don't want to live on the thirteenth floor because they think it's unlucky. Of course, the floor where I live really is the thirteenth; calling it fourteen doesn't make it so. I haven't noticed any bad luck so far, though."
The elevator stopped, and we stepped out into the corridor. "So which one is yours?" Mina asked.
"The next to last door on the right, number 1411," I replied. We walked down the hall, opened the door, and stepped inside. "Welcome to my humble abode," I said, flipping on the hall light and locking the door behind us. "What do you think?"
Mina surveyed the apartment appreciatively. "This is nice," She said. "Very cozy." My apartment is an efficiency, but a fair-sized one. The front hall is about ten feet long, with the kitchen on one side and a small linen closet that you walk through to reach the bathroom on the other. It opens out into a main room roughly twenty feet square. On the left side of the room as you enter it I have a computer desk, a couple of book cases, my TV, and a tall halogen lamp. On the right are the main closet, my dresser, a double-bed-sized futon flanked by a pair of night stands, and a CD tower in the corner. The entire wall opposite the door, from two feet above the floor to one below the ceiling, is a window looking north over the heart of Silver Spring; in front of it is a small rectangular dining table. At the moment, the vertical-slat blinds were shut; I stepped up to the window and opened them.
"Oh, wow!" Mina said as she joined me at the window. "What a view."
"It was the view, more than anything else, that sold me on this place," I said. "That and the convenience. The Silver Spring Metro is only three blocks away, the mall is two, and I have a Safeway right across the street; I hardly ever need to drive."
"Sounds like a great place to live." She gazed out the window for a long moment, then turned to look up at me. "Is it okay if I use your shower before bed? I got pretty sweaty doing swing tonight."
"Go right ahead," I told her. "I could use a quick rinse myself, but you can go first; I'm going to check my e-mail."
"Thanks," she said. "Oh, could I borrow a robe or something?"
"Sure." I opened the closet. "Take your pick," I said, pointing to the two bathrobes hanging near the end of the bar.
"Ooh, I like this one," she said, removing my heavy black terrycloth robe from its hanger.
I got Mina a towel out of the smaller closet in the hall, and she shut the bathroom door behind her. I went to my desk, fired up my iMac, and began downloading my mail. I had the usual mixed bag of spam and mailing list material, as well as a "How's it going?" message from my brother in Berkeley. After clearing out the junk, I wrote a reply detailing the evening's bizarre events, sending it off just as Mina emerged from the bathroom. The black robe ended only an inch or so above the floor, her hands were completely hidden inside the sleeves, and she'd pulled the hood up, obscuring her face. I grinned. "You look a bit like a Jawa," I observed.
She giggled and pulled back the hood. "No glowing red eyes, though."
"Just as well; I've had enough scares this evening. Are you done in there? Do you need a comb or a toothbrush or anything?"
"No, thanks. I keep a toiletries kit and change of clothes in my bag, in case I decide to crash at a friend's apartment after the dance; it's been known to happen before."
"Good thinking." I went to the closet and fetched the light cotton robe that I usually used when the weather was warm. "I'll just be a few minutes, Mina. You can use the Mac; I have NiftyTelnet installed if you want to check your mail."
"Thanks, I should do that," she said, sitting in the black leather swivel chair I had just vacated.
I showered quickly, then brushed my teeth and combed my hair. I ran a finger along the part of my cheek that I keep clean-shaven, and decided it was smooth enough; I'd trimmed my beard and shaved that morning. When I came out of the bathroom, Mina was sitting cross-legged on the foot of the futon, her elbows resting on her knees and her chin on her clasped hands. She'd turned off the halogen lamp and the hall light, leaving only the small, green-shaded reading lamp on the night stand to provide a soft illumination. "You know," she said, looking up at me through long, black eyelashes and smiling coquettishly, "You don't have to sleep on the floor; this bed's plenty big enough for both of us."
I gazed back at her thoughtfully, trying to gauge how serious her intentions were. Mina, I thought, If you knew how much I want you right now, you might not be quite so ready to sleep next to me. Or would you... ? I shrugged. "True dat. I don't mind sharing if you don't."
"Not at all." She stood up, a graceful motion that made me think of a cat uncurling after a nap, and moved slowly toward me until we stood less than a foot apart. Then she whispered, "I don't mind sharing anything you want to share..."
I took Mina's small hands in my own and studied her face intently. "You don't have to do this, you know," I said. "Don't get me wrong, I want to make love with you, more than anything -- but not if you're going to regret it. My desire isn't worth hurting you for."