The First Mona Youngblood Story
Copyright© 2005, Rev. Cotton Mather
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Mona Youngblood had a good view of her apartment from her hidden vantage point. Which is, of course, the point of hiding for advantage. Or, in this particular case, hiding for safety, since there was an intruder standing not six meters away from her.
Having worked for several years on the fringes of society and the law, Mona had the foresight and the resources to extensively remodel this apartment. There was a very good wall safe behind an oil original in her bedroom. Inside the safe she kept a couple thousand U.S. dollars; the equivalent in British pounds, francs, lira, pesos, and euros; exact replicas of some of her better-known jewelry pieces; and cloth pouches with garnets and cubic zircona in them. The safe was vulnerable to a dedicated and knowledgeable thief, but would deter a garden-variety robber. She had it installed as a decoy, thinking of the contents as easily expendable and replaceable. Her reasoning was that anybody who found this safe would immediately set to work to open it, thereby giving up searching and possibly accidentally finding the real valuables, hidden away in an excellent safe that was buried in the floor of her pantry under a crate of potatoes. It would take a large explosion and heavy equipment to compromise that safe, something that residing on the seventeenth floor of her building helped to prevent.
There were a few other surprises in the apartment as well, not the least of which was the hidey-hole she was comfortably ensconced within. It was, in effect, a command center, a tiny room just big enough for a futon, a small stocked refrigerator, a secure telephone, and a monitor controlling the hidden cameras in the kitchen, the two bedrooms, the living room, and the entry hall.
She could also see her entire living room from the louvers and peepholes in the wall of her soundproofed enclosure if she wanted a more personal view that her cameras couldn't give her. She could keep close track of her would-be thief quite comfortably.
In addition, there was a false panel in the ceiling. A simple hotkey sequence on her computer would silently lower an aluminum staircase into her safe room. The staircase would lead to the apartment directly above her, which she also owned and used as a guest apartment. From that apartment she had provided for several options, including raising the ladder so that it became effectively hidden from below or, for an extreme situation, electrifying the ladder. The safe room in the eighteenth floor apartment was a near duplicate of the one below, including camera feeds. The situation she found herself in today, however, didn't cause her to feel like she would require her escape route.
Mona was not at all nervous or scared. If anything she was curious, wondering what this familiar man might be thinking, what he might be expecting to find. She smiled as she replayed the recent incidents that, now that she could reflect on them, had led them both to this particular moment.
It all started (she thought) at the party at the gallery owner's apartment on the eighth floor about a month before. It was rumored that Sir Elton was going to be there, so of course the apartment was crowded beyond its capacity. And, of course, Sir Elton never did show up. This disappointment for the gallery owner in no way affected Mona. She wandered around the apartment, admiring the wall hangings and paintings on display. Her practiced eye critiqued and valued the objets d'art, her mind automatically calculating the resale values, the costs to move each piece, and the list of potential buyers and brokers she knew by heart.
This apartment, however, was off-limits to her, seeing as it was in the same building as hers. She found herself casing it out anyway, more out of habit than anything else. It was good exercise for her, as it helped her keep her focus.
As she was studying a minor Dali piece, she was bumped.
"Ah, pardon me," a refined New England accent said.
Mona turned toward the voice. A tall, quite handsome man was fumbling with three drinks, trying desperately to keep from spilling them all across the carpet.
"Here, let me help you with that," said Mona laughingly as she reached to take one of the drinks from him. He gratefully released the drink into her custody, and smiled sheepishly.
"Thank you so much. It's not exactly the first impression I would have chosen, but..." He hesitated. "I'm Joshua Rush, by the way." He waited expectantly.
"Desdemona Youngblood. Everybody just calls me Mona, though," she replied. "Where are we going with these?" She indicated the drinks they were holding.
"Oh! That's right! Sorry about that," said Joshua with a start. "My friends are in the next room." He stepped aside, allowing Mona to walk first through the passageway. He pointed with one glass toward a couple looking out the window. "Over there," he said.
"Art, Peggy, I'd like you to meet Mona," Joshua said by way of introduction as they came up to his friends. "She was gracious enough to help me refrain from dropping these drinks all over the carpeting in the sitting room," he added.
Over the next hour or so, she learned that Art and Peggy Summers were married, they were both lawyers, and they were customers of Nathaniel Grant, the art dealer who was their evening's host. Art and Peggy had dragged a reluctant Joshua out to the party. "His girlfriend left him months ago, and he's practically become a hermit since," confided Peggy one time when Art and Joshua went off in search of a new bottle of wine. "He does something with computers, so he was able to work a lot from home, and I'm afraid all that solitude has been detrimental to his self-esteem."
Mona found herself moderately attracted to Joshua, but the last thing she wanted was an entanglement with someone on the rebound, so she kept a firm rein on her emotions. Joshua, on the other hand, was gazing at her with unabashed lust, undoubtedly fueled by the wine.
Mona was amused and a little flattered to be the object of such simple adoration. She found herself leading him on just a little: standing or sitting so he was seeing her better profile, holding her shoulders just a little straighter, hiking her dress up surreptitiously, just enough to accentuate her long legs, reaching out to lightly touch his hand or his knee when making a point.
You are a shameless flirt, Mona, she chastised herself several times during the evening. But old habits die hard.
The man standing on the other side of the wall was dressed in black. Turtleneck, soft cotton slacks, socks, and sneakers were all a uniform black. He certainly dresses the part, Mona reflected as she secretly observed him.
The man in black looked around the room, pivoting to take in what he could from his vantage point. Once he was satisfied he had seen what he needed to see, he walked to the door of the guest bedroom, careful not to touch anything yet.
He stood in the doorway for several moments, studying the room. Mona, watching now through the monitor, saw him nod to himself, as if confirming a suspicion. The man stepped over to the doorway to Mona's bedroom and paused for just a moment before stepping into the room.
Again the man stood in one spot, near the foot of the bed, and studied the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the furniture, as if gauging their weight or their worth. He still refrained from touching anything, though he was tempted to go to the Deborah Budney painting of the carousel horse above the dresser. It looked very much like an original.
He refrained, however, testing himself against the temptation. He reluctantly looked away from the oil painting and checked the rest of the room. What he didn't see interested him nearly as much as what he did find.
Mona's father was Jim Traveler Youngblood, a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota who owned a string of package liquor stores in small towns around the reservations and the military installations. Her mother, the former Audrey Felicia Glendenning, held an engineering degree from M.I.T. in Propulsion Systems and a Ph. D. in Aeronautics, courtesy of the United States Air Force. It was a case of rocket science meets tribal sachem, a match destined to burn hot and flame out fast, a pairing to go down in history both among the Native American tribes around Rapid City and among the rocket jockeys at Ellsworth.
Before the flameout, there were two children produced by the union. Desdemona Loretta Youngblood, named for maternal ancestors by her mother, and her two-years-younger brother, Edward Sees Far Youngblood. Jim Traveler named his son Edward so others could call the boy by a name. Shortly after Edward's second birthday, his father and the tribal elders gathered together to give the boy another, secret name, and Jim Traveler gave his son the additional name of Sees Far to commemorate what he considered to be Edward's gift.
Of course, Mona also got a Lakota name, unbeknownst at the time by her mother. She still used it to identify herself in her prayers to her God. It was a name known only to her, the Lakota elders involved in her naming ceremony, Jim Traveler, and God.
Jim Traveler and Audrey divorced when Mona was eight years old. Audrey took the children and moved to Houston to work with NASA, but Jim Traveler got custody of them every summer. He worked hard for nine months out of the year, through the brutal winters of the Dakotas, so he could spend the entire three months Mona and Eddie stayed with him, teaching his children of their heritage.
Each year they camped and traveled all through the West. The three Youngbloods spent a week at Wounded Knee, culminating in the rodeo and powwow held the first weekend of August each year. They canoed the upper Missouri River, following in the tracks of the Lewis and Clark expedition. They portaged to Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone, where they camped for days, tracking elk and moose, fishing each morning for their breakfast.
Jim Traveler taught them to listen to the wind and pray to the moon and the stars. He told them many tales and legends of the Sioux and the Cheyenne, the Apache and Comanche. He taught them about the great warriors, Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Cochise and Black Elk, and perhaps the greatest of the later chiefs, Tatanka Yotanka, known to the white man as Sitting Bull. He cried in the night with his children as he told them of the betrayals and deceptions their people endured.
Each summer Mona listened, and she learned. Her father taught her how to move quietly through woods and fields, so quietly the mule deer and the jackrabbits did not mark her passage. She grew strong and tall under his tutelage, returning to Texas every year leaner, happier, and more confident than before.
As the man carefully looked about the apartment, Mona watched him. She studied him just as he was studying her apartment.
"Why are you here?" she whispered to the monitor. She took a sip of water, unscrewing the top from the bottle without taking her eyes from the images displayed before her.
The man stepped back into the living room and walked over to look at the big salt-water tank that was set into the wall between the living room and the spare bedroom, Mona's "office." He bent low and stared at the gravel on the bottom, watching the colorful fish flash gracefully in and out of the artificial coral artfully placed in the tank. Was he looking for patterns in their movement?
Did he really think she would be so obvious as to hide something in the fish tank, a la A Fish Called Wanda? Really.
The man stood straight again, shaking his head. He must have had the same ridiculous thought.
Mona watched as the man pulled a pair of latex gloves from his rear pocket and slipped them on, snapping the wrists into place.
The summer Mona turned twelve, Jim Traveler took his family to a ranch in eastern Montana, and he taught the kids to ride. Eddie was ten, a typically rough-and-tumble Texas kid who had watched way too many Westerns on television. He hopped onto his cow pony, an experienced and crafty workhorse named Buster, and began whipping at it with his long reins. The pony, just shy of fifteen hands tall and older by half than Eddie, just looked back at the boy on his back.
"Giddyap," shouted Eddie. He tried kicking the pony with his boot heels, but Buster didn't budge.
"Whoa there," said Randall, one of the ranch hands. He strode up and grabbed the reins away from Eddie's hands. "Don't go beating on this here pony. You've got to earn his respect if you want him to work for you. Here," he continued as he tied a knot in the two long leather reins and handed them back to Eddie. "You hang on to these by the knot, and don't go waving them around. Me and your pa will show you how to get him to move for you in a minute. Okay?"
"Sure," Eddie said. He was still tempted to whip the reins like the cowboys did, but he was willing to wait.
Mona stood to the side and watched it all. She was tall and thin for her age, all skinny legs and big feet, and tanned to a deep brown. Her hair, so black and sleek it almost had a deep blue sheen to it, was tied back at the neck for comfort. It was gathered in a beaded hasp decorated with dyed turkey feathers that hung down her back in her hair. Unlike Eddie, she was naturally graceful and athletic, though she never would have agreed with anybody who might have told her she possessed such traits, particularly at that age.
Randall brought out another horse, this one for Mona.
"This here is Wichita," said Randall as he adjusted the stirrups for Mona. He glanced over to the girl, and Mona nodded. She was paying attention.
Mona stepped up into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. She settled comfortably and picked up the reins, careful not to startle the gelding.
"You've ridden before, haven't you." It was more of a statement than a question, but Mona nodded anyway.
"So has Eddie, but he's a boy," she said shyly.
Randall chuckled. "So he prob'ly wasn't paying no attention," he said. Mona smiled and nodded again.
Randall gave both kids some basic instructions on steering, stopping, and staying centered over the horse. He concentrated on Eddie, feeling confident Mona would be paying enough attention to understand the lesson. Once he was satisfied Eddie knew enough not to get himself hurt on Buddy, he left them in an empty paddock to practice turning at the walk.
In a few moments Randall and Jim Traveler came out of the corral with horses for themselves. They both stepped up into their saddles. Randall, who looked as if he was born with a horse between his legs, led them off across the hardpan flatland, heading for the foothills. Eddie kicked Buddy into a slow trot behind Randall, his elbows flapping in the hot breeze as he envisioned riding with Crazy Horse across the landscape. Mona posted efficiently behind Eddie, content to let Wichita choose his own speed, and Jim Traveler trailed, making sure the kids were okay as they headed toward the hills.
That was the same summer Jim Traveler started working with both kids on self-reliance. Every evening, around the campfire, he would teach them. He enlisted the help of Sioux experts at Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, and he called on the cowboys he knew to pass along their own brand of wilderness craftiness. The two children learned not only survival and defensive techniques, but also first-strike opportunities. They began to learn many of the old skills, starting with bows and arrows, knives, and lances, and progressing to rifles, handguns, and hand-to-hand combat.
It was a learning process that would continue for years.
Mona watched as the man walked over to her dining cabinet, which was against the wall and facing into her living room. He opened drawers and extracted silverware, setting the pieces carefully on the top of the base cabinet. After emptying a drawer, he would examine the pieces, and then replace them carefully back into the drawer, taking care to leave everything just as he had found them. He took his time, and he wrote copious notes in a small notebook he took from his pants pocket.
Once he was finished and everything was replaced, he stepped back and looked critically at the furniture piece.
"Is he thinking of trying to move the furniture out, too?" Mona muttered as she watched him. That was audacious, to her thinking, but she was willing to reserve judgment until she knew more of his intentions.
The man moved into the kitchen and took a long-handled fork out of a drawer. He used the fork to stir the canisters of flour and sugar on the counter, checking to see if there was anything of value hidden.
"Nothing there, was there?" murmured Mona to the monitor. She smirked just a little, feeling he might be just a little frustrated over not finding anything there. "Much too obvious," she whispered to him, though she knew he couldn't hear her.
Her heart beat just a little faster when she saw him examining the cut glass decanters of extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and clover honey she kept on the kitchen counter by the refrigerator. She had seen him looking at the Baccarat crystal decanters on the top of the dining cabinet, but she could deduce he would know that these kitchen jars were much more ordinary. He slid them out from the wall, gave them a cursory look, and slid them back to their places. He washed the fork off, dried it, and replaced it in the drawer. He carefully wiped the sink dry with a paper towel, which he then folded into a small and neat square and put in his pants pocket. He didn't want to leave any evidence of his presence behind.
He stood back and examined the kitchen once more before moving on. He bent down to make sure there was no telltale dusting of flour from his careful stirring. Once he was satisfied there was nothing to be seen, he moved on to Mona's bedroom, finally allowing himself to indulge his curiosity about the oil painting he had seen there.
A week after the cocktail party, Mona was pleasantly surprised to get a voicemail from Peggy Summers.
"Mona? Hello, dear. Listen, Art and I are supposed to be taking Joshua out for dinner on Saturday night, but we're having a little trouble convincing him to come. Could I impose on you to join us? If Joshua knew you were going to be there too, I'm positive he would even get dressed up for you. Besides, we would love to see you again. Please call me back, and I will give you the details about the restaurant and all that. Ta!"
Mona couldn't help smiling as she replayed the message. So I'm to be his social worker, am I? For some reason, the thought didn't disturb her nearly as much as it should have.
She returned Peggy's call to let her know she would be happy to join them on Saturday.
Mona took a long time getting ready for her evening out. She had worked all the way through Friday night, acquiring some small but expensive South American carvings for a customer. She had finally gotten to bed about six in the morning after enjoying a cup of soothing chamomile tea, and didn't get up until almost three on Saturday afternoon.
The hours always sounded worse than they actually were, even to Mona. By this time she was used to the odd hours she kept.
Like a courtesan, I do my best work at night, she thought as she tilted her head to put her earrings in. She smiled at her image in the mirror. She was dressed in a sleek and shimmering black dress with spaghetti straps that reached to just above her knees. She had on patent leather heels with a tiny heel strap that had cost over $200. Her elegantly long throat was accentuated by the single strand of pearls, which set off her dark skin tone beautifully. Her long, black hair nearly reached her waist, silky, straight, and unfettered.
The buzzer from the lobby intercom sounded, and she pressed the button to answer.
"Mona?" It was Peggy's voice.
"Yes, I'll be right down."
"We'll be in front, in the car, dear," said Peggy.
Mona switched off. She gave herself one last quick once-over in the hall mirror, and grabbed a short jacket as she opened her door.
She watched from the security monitor as the man examined the Budney. He peered at the painting closely without touching it, studying the signature, the brush strokes, even the frame. In spite of himself, he was impressed. Helluva painting to use as a decoy, he thought. He knew what lay behind the painting. He took the oil off the wall and examined the wall safe. Helluva safe, too, he said to himself. Not good enough, though. He knew that, given enough time, he could open it. Hell, he and two other guys could just cut out the wall and haul the thing off, and he could open it at his leisure. It was probably just bolted to the studs.
He twisted the dial to see how easily it turned. If it wasn't a well-maintained mechanism, it would feel a little sticky. It spun freely, though. He turned the dial so that it was in the same position as he had found it. He was a careful man.
He replaced the picture and began to methodically go through the dresser, looking for goodies and hidden compartments. He softly whistled happily as he emptied Mona's clothes onto the floor, keeping everything in proper order.
Mona was not happy about watching him going through her lingerie, but she wasn't in a position to stop him—yet. At least he isn't being prurient about it, she told herself. He was being neat and orderly, not pawing through everything. From watching him in the living room and the kitchen, she knew everything would find its way back into her drawers, just the way he had found them.
It took him nearly two hours to thoroughly examine Mona's apartment, and she watched him the whole time. She was moderately surprised he had resisted taking anything at all. Finally, he strode to the front door, paused for one last look around, and then opened it just a crack. He peeked out, making sure the hallway was empty, and then he opened the door wide. He punched in her security code to reactivate her alarm and, without a backward glance, left the apartment.
Mona waited another fifteen minutes before emerging from her safe room. She knew he would be back. She looked forward to the challenge he was unknowingly presenting.
By the time she was sixteen, Mona felt equally at home in downtown Houston and in the Black Hills. She moved soundlessly and efficiently in either environment. She was tall and strong, confident and a little bit aloof. Jim Traveler knew it was time to advance her education.
Mona was already quite familiar with reservation life, and she was a little disdainful of the despair so many Sioux families experienced. That was all about to change.
Eddie was staying for several weeks out on the ranch in Montana. Jim Traveler took Mona with him to visit some of the broken-down bars scattered across the landscape of the Dakotas. She met some of the most distasteful wrecks of humanity alive in some of the dives, and she endured the salacious looks of dozens of broken men. Jim Traveler seemed not to notice the leers his daughter was attracting, though Mona knew better. Her father noticed everything. He merely chose to ignore them.
Even one time, in a dingy tavern on the outskirts of Cherry Creek, when an old and toothless codger brushed his gnarled fingers up the back of her thigh, Jim Traveler seemed not to notice. Mona's skin crawled at the old man's touch, even through her jeans, but she did her best to ignore him. When he reached for her leg a second time, perhaps encouraged by her lack of response, she whirled and reached out. The old man, startled, jerked his hand back, but it was too late. Mona grabbed his fingers and flicked her wrist. The man cried out hoarsely and scrambled to his feet, trying in vain to take the pressure off his middle two fingers, which Mona had captured and bent painfully backwards. She held them firmly, about two ounces of pressure from snapping them.
The old man, standing straight up and on his toes, his eyes wide, the pain and surprise showing clearly on his unshaven face, managed to croak, "Easy there, honey, I didn't mean no harm..."
Jim Traveler leaned one elbow on the bar and turned to watch Mona and the old man. "Hello, Frank," he said quietly. "I see you've met my daughter."
That first night out to dinner with Art and Peggy started out poorly. The conversation, despite Peggy's efforts, coughed and wheezed in fitful starts and stops, reminding Mona of a Max Sennett comedy.
Finally, though, the very good wine (a wonderful conversational lubricant) contributed to a much more comfortable setting, and Mona felt the tension trickle down from her neck and shoulders. Just as importantly, she noted Joshua was sitting in a much more relaxed posture.
He's a very nice man, she decided. He's just as unsettled about this date as I am.
Much, much later, after late-night cocktails at The Top of the Town, a revolving nightclub in a downtown skyscraper, Art and Peggy finally declared their exhaustion. Mona, because of her odd hours, still was feeling quite refreshed, but she made sympathetic noises and suggested they call it a night.
Surprisingly, Joshua didn't look any more tired than Mona. He must keep odd hours because of his computer work, she told herself.
In the back seat of Art's car, Joshua quite naturally took Mona's hand in his. He placed their intertwined fingers on his knee, and they rested there quite comfortably for the rest of the ride back to Mona's building.
At the entrance, the doorman was quick to open the back door, and Mona gently took her hand back. She leaned forward and lightly touched Peggy's shoulder.
"Thank you for a perfectly lovely evening," she said with a smile.
Peggy turned a little in her seat. Her eyes were beginning to really show her weariness, but she smiled easily. "Can we get together again soon?"
"Of course," replied Mona. "Call me in the morning?"
Peggy nodded. Art blew her a kiss goodnight, and Mona slipped from the car.
"Just a moment," called Joshua. He stepped from the other side of the car and leaned back in to speak to Art and Peggy. "Can you give me just a moment more? I'll walk her at least to the elevator."
"Of course, dear," said Peggy with an indulgent smile.
Mona was taken a little by surprise, but she accepted Joshua's arm as he walked her through the front door of her apartment building. She was a bit unsettled, her mind twisting around. Will he try to kiss me? Will I let him?
The moment came upon her more quickly than she had anticipated, however, and her body took over. Joshua put his arms around her waist and stepped into her personal space. He lowered his face to hers, and gently gave her a soft kiss on her lips.
Very nice, she thought distractedly. Before she could do more than accept his kiss, he stepped back again.
"May I see you again?" he asked.
Mona smiled. "Call me," she whispered.
Joshua smiled, a big, happy, uncomplicated look, and he reached over and pressed the call button for the elevator. Mona couldn't help but feel a touch of affection, touched by his openness. She stepped into the elevator car and watched Joshua watching her as the doors closed. She smiled and shook her head as she was lifted to the seventeenth floor.
Jim Traveler carefully guided Mona into the seamier side of life in what was still considered to be the American frontier.
"I don't want you to be scared if you find yourself lost somewhere you shouldn't be," said her father. "You got to know what's out there so you can prepare for the worst."
Mona was surprised her father knew so much about the Indian Underworld, as she came to think of it. The subculture of thievery, cons, and legbreaking was very troubling to the girl, but she trusted her father completely.
That trust was not misplaced. Jim Traveler watched over Mona, ready to step in if necessary, but willing to stand by and let her work out her own situations whenever possible. After the first few forays, he never again had to interfere. Mona was tough, skilled, courageous, and confident, attributes immediately recognizable — and, generally, feared — where she now strode and learned.
It was surprising what these people knew. From art and jewelry, to cars and cameras, they could judge worth in seconds. There were experts in software and security systems in the most unexpected places, and Mona learned how to find them. And then, she began to learn what they knew.
Jim Traveler was calling in a lifetime of favors to give Mona the best education he could. He just hoped Audrey never found out about it.
Mona and Joshua were meeting that night for cocktails at D'Arcy, an elegant bar with a great view of the skyline. Mona took her time getting ready, brushing her long black hair and carefully applying her makeup. She decided on a red cocktail dress she had been saving for an occasion, and she opted for garters and silk stockings instead of more pedestrian pantyhose. She wasn't sure if Joshua would be granted the opportunity to appreciate her undergarments, but just the feel of the silk on her legs made her think sensual thoughts. She smiled to herself as she slipped on high heels that complimented her purse.
She gave herself one last critical inspection in the full-length mirror mounted on the back of the closet door in her spare bedroom. She leaned in toward her reflection and used the ball of her thumb to rub at the tiny lines in her skin between her eyes. She was vain enough to notice the wrinkles, but not so conceited as to take any drastic measures to get rid of them.
"I've earned them," she murmured. She smiled at her reflection; her reflection smiled back.
She turned and walked to her front door. She tapped in her new security code, waited for the red light to flash, and she closed the door firmly and walked the few steps to the elevator.
In the back seat of the cab, she took out her compact and made some last-second adjustments to her eye shadow. She noted the cabbie glancing appreciatively at her in the rearview mirror, and she smiled inwardly. Like any woman, she appreciated compliments, even silent ones from strangers. She crossed her legs, feeling the silk slide smoothly, luxuriating in the sensation.
She was fashionably late when she walked into the bar. It was not conceit, but rather a lifelong habit of not wanting to attract more notice than was usual for an attractive woman. And a woman such as Mona, sitting alone at a bar, would certainly draw a good deal more attention than she would ever want. A person in her profession just didn't want to be remembered for very long.
Joshua, who had been anxiously watching the front door, stood when he saw her enter. He felt something thump in the pit of his stomach when he saw her, and he distractedly noted how sweaty his palms had become.
He also noticed how heads turned as she walked toward him, eyes naturally following her. It made him swell up a little, knowing this woman was coming to him.
He stepped over and held her chair out for her, and she sat with graceful elegance. He fumbled a little with his napkin as he took his own seat, a little nervous now that she had arrived.
Mona, sensing his nervousness, glanced out the window. "A beautiful view," she said.
Joshua looked from Mona to the cityscape laid out below them, and back again. "It is, yes," he agreed.
By the time she was twenty, Mona had accumulated a lifetime of surreptitious knowledge. Along the way, she managed to also accumulate a sizeable bank account, courtesy of the fences and resellers who were coming to rely on her skills.
She had already moved to the city, but in her youth and inexperience she was still trying to live on the cheap. She had a dingy apartment on the North Side, in a nondescript neighborhood that should have attracted nobody's attention.
But, one night, it did.
Mona felt fortunate she was out that night. Around midnight she had fixed herself a cup of oolong tea, her ritual beginning to what she thought of as her "workday." When she was finished, she cleaned up her kitchen, walked into her bedroom, and changed into her work clothes for the evening: a black tee shirt with a pocket on the left breast, a pair of black cotton pants, black socks and black shoes with rubber soles. She carefully tied her hair up, pinned it in place, and put on a black billed cap.
On one of her nocturnal scouting missions, Mona had come across a small office and warehouse with a sign that read, "Morganstern Costume Jewelry." What intrigued her about the setup was the security system. It was a much better system than one would expect for a costume jewelry warehouse. Mona suspected there were items of greater value inside than the sign indicated, and she was determined to check it out.
She was able to circumvent the security, but when she finally got inside the main office, she didn't even find a decent safe. After searching the entire space carefully for hours, it became apparent the place really was a costume jewelry warehouse. She was disappointed, but not heartbroken.
The heartbreak didn't come until she got home. She found her front door splintered, her apartment ransacked, and her belongings strewn across the floor. The contents of all her drawers had been dumped on the floor and trampled, and the drawers themselves were piled haphazardly next to the overturned bed.
Mona checked her hiding places, but she knew whoever had gone through her place had found her valuables. Her stereo and television were gone, and so were the microwave and her coffeemaker. Her small stash of uncut gems, in a resealable plastic bag that had been taped to the inside of the toilet tank, was gone, and so were the original oils from her walls. The robbers didn't seem to realize the value of the two plain glazed bowls she found intact, however, artifacts from the Jin Dynasty of China, dating from the Twelfth Century. She carefully picked them up and returned them to her bookshelf.
She also found, to her surprise, the intruders missed the two small envelopes of cash she had taped to the inside header of her bedroom closet. Even though her clothes and shoes were all over the bedroom floor, apparently they never looked up at the walls. She ripped the envelopes down and riffled the cash, delighted to have kept at least a few of her treasures from the unknown robbers.
The next afternoon, her old place temporarily boarded up, Mona went apartment shopping.
Drinks at D'Arcy was followed by dinner at Bentley's. After the dishes had been cleared away, Joshua was sipping from a large snifter of good brandy, and Mona was enjoying a chocolate martini.
"You never did tell me what you do," said Joshua as offhandedly as he could. He was, in fact, intensely curious, having gotten no clues neither from Mona herself, nor from Art and Peggy.
"Oh, my work is terribly boring," said Mona with a deflecting smile. "But you were telling me about encryption methods?"
"Ah, yes, well..." Joshua knew he was being expertly redirected, but he went along with it. He was curious, but he was also very patient. "Actually, if you are interested in a nightcap, I could show you what I was talking about. I have a couple of my computers set up so I can demonstrate tunneling mode encryption." He took Mona's hand in his across the table. "And I have a very good white from France cooling as an enticement."
Mona laughed, and gently extricated her hand. "All right," she said with a smile.
Joshua was the perfect gentleman on the way to his apartment, but he was obviously very nervous. Mona smiled to herself, even though she was disinclined to do anything to assuage his nerves. I'd rather keep him on his heels than thinking he has an advantage, she reasoned.
Once they arrived at Joshua's place, computers and VPN tunneling were forgotten. Joshua got out a bottle of wine and rummaged in his kitchen drawer for a corkscrew, while Mona drifted around his living area, looking at the framed photos on the walls.
Joshua brought two glasses over and handed one to Mona. The look on his face, anxiousness and an overwhelming desire to please, melted her resolve. She reached for the glass, but before she took it, she gently placed her fingertips on his wrist.
"Shall we enjoy the wine in another room?" she suggested.
She felt his hand tremble, which pleased her even more.
"Of... of course," he stammered.
Mona took the glass from him and raised one eyebrow at him, an expression of Well, then, lead on. Joshua took the hint, held out his hand for her, and led her deeper into his apartment. When they got to his bedroom doorway, he reached for the light switch, and then changed his mind. He brought her into his room and turned to her. Mona stepped in closer to him and put her free hand behind his neck. She pulled him down — or did she pull herself up? — and kissed him for the first time.
The first kiss — Oh! — that magical first time, it never failed to send thrilling shivers down Mona's spine. The first time with Joshua was no different, and just as exciting as her first kiss ever.
After their kiss, Mona stepped away. She glanced at the bed, noted which side the alarm clock was on, and stepped over to the other side and set her glass of wine down. Joshua stood where he was, rooted to the floor, and watched her. She came back to him, smiled, and turned her back to him.
"Unzip me?" she asked, looking over her shoulder at him.
He brushed her hair aside and, seemingly all thumbs, worked at finding the tab to the zipper of her dress. He managed to pull it down about halfway when Mona stepped away from him and turned to face him. In the gloom of the darkened room, her red dress glowed faintly as she pulled the thin straps from her shoulders and held the material to her bosom with crossed arms.