A very ordinary-looking man sat behind the huge, elaborately inlaid desk.
Only the feverish glitter behind the brown eyes hinted at the extremes of
which he was capable.
Two men entered the room and hurried toward the desk. One was small
and ferret-like with furry, gray-brown eyebrows and close-cropped hair.
He glanced furtively around the room, his gaze resting only for moments
on the face behind the desk before darting away again.
The other man dwarfed his companion. He was almost as broad as he
was tall and as heavily muscled as a bison. He plodded a half-step behind
the smaller man, and his head, covered with thick dark curls that grew
almost down to his brows, swayed slightly from side to side as he walked.
"So," said the man behind the desk in a calm, quiet voice that covered the
menace underneath like a tree branch hiding a nest of yellow jackets,
"how did it happen?"
The small man spoke rapidly, stumbling a little over the words. "It was
the draftsman. He was rattled, he says, trying to beat the deadline. Then
the courier came, in a hurry like they always is, and wanted the blueprints
"Right away," the big man echoed, ponderously nodding his head.
"So, the draftsman, it’s the new one, Jim Stolz, says he grabbed up the
blueprints without really looking and handed ’em over to the courier.
When he realized it was the wrong set, he tried to get ’em back, but it
was too late—the messenger was already gone."
He paused and risked a glance at the inscrutable face across the desk. He
shifted his weight restlessly from one foot to the other. "Some kind of
There was a long silence broken by a slow, rumbling chuckle from the
big man. "Real dumb," he seconded. He opened his mouth to continue but
was effectively hushed by a sharp jab to his midsection, expertly delivered
by his skinny companion.
When the boss finally spoke, the men had to strain to hear. "Maybe
dumb." He rubbed his thumb over the bridge of his nose. "Maybe not. I’ll
deal with that later. Right now we’ve got to get those blueprints back
before Nielsen sees them."
He got up, planted his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Go after
that courier." He glanced at the clock on the office wall. "He can’t have
much of a head start. I got word of the mix-up just a few minutes ago,
and if we’re lucky, there’ll be other deliveries before ours. Do whatever is
necessary to recover the plans."
The big man’s face sagged into a mask of concern. "But the courier’s a
girl," he protested, "just a little girl."
A flash of contempt burned in the boss’s eyes, but his face didn’t change,
not by even a twitch, nor did he raise his voice when he repeated,
"Whatever is necessary."
With one final, lung-wrenching heave, April Thompkins powered her
battered, fixed-gear Cannondale over the crest of what had to be the
steepest street in Seattle. The bitter taste of extreme exertion flooded her
mouth. She was more than ready for the rush down the other side.
But she didn’t get a chance to coast. The black van she had noticed
pacing her in the left lane for the last block or so suddenly swerved in
front of her bike. A burly arm shot out of the passenger window and
clutched at her as the van zoomed down the street. Thick fingers
bounced off her shoulder bag and skimmed her arm. The van cut her off
and forced her directly into the path of a Metro bus just as it pulled away
from the curb.
April gasped and lunged down hard on the pedals, her handlebar missing
the bus by mere fractions of an inch as she whipped in front of the
startled, gray-haired bus driver.
Spurts of adrenaline pumped through her body as she raced down the hill,
leaving the bus and van behind in a splatter of mud thrown from her back
wheel. In the tiny side-view mirror fixed to her helmet, she saw both bus
and van drivers lift their arms at the same moment to shake their fists at
her in perfect synchronization.
April sucked in a great gulp of air and let out a hoot of laughter. As
though she were the one at fault. Few drivers ever extended any of the
normal rules-of-the-road courtesies to bicycle messengers anyway, but
what kind of sick mind would think it was funny to grab her? Was he
trying to steal her shoulder bag or what?
She rotated her shoulders quickly to release tension. She didn’t have time
to speculate about weirdoes. She had work to do.
April ripped open her Velcro arm pouch to glance at the slip of paper with
the address of her current delivery scribbled on it. It had to be on this
block. Dashing away the rain that dripped from her helmet, she scanned
the street numbers.
There. The tall, dark-blue building that loomed just ahead.
April hopped her bike up over the curb, unclipped her Shimano shoes
from the pedals while she was still moving, leaped off the leather seat and
dropped the Cannondale where she stopped. Triumphantly, she raised her
arms high above her head and did a victory dance right there on the
sidewalk, ignoring the covert stares of the few pedestrians braving the
foul weather. Inches from instant death, and she had made it—still
A brief frown flitted across April’s face as the adrenaline dissipated and
her thoughts returned to business. There was no nearby place to lock her
bike and no time to search out a safe spot. She was going for a personal
best. This was her forty-seventh delivery today. It was getting late in the
afternoon, but she still had time to beat her all-time record of forty-nine.
Fifty deliveries! Her eyes lit up as she thought about the possibility. That
would be the perfect cap to the day. She would be in the same league as
the courier stars at XPress Messenger Systems.
And she could use the extra commissions. April stared down ruefully at
her shredded kneepads. That last spill she had taken when she had
unexpectedly met a motorcycle at the end of an ally had really done a
number on them. She badly needed a new pair.
Resolutely, April snatched up her bike. She’d take it in with her. If she
could just sneak past the security guard, she would be in and out of the
building in a matter of minutes and on her way to delivery number forty-
The door to the building opened automatically in front of her. Great! she
thought. She didn’t have to wrestle with the door while holding on to her
bike. More good luck—there were two security guards, but they were
engrossed in answering the questions of a flock of Japanese businessmen
clutching electronic foreign language translators. The guards were turned
away from her just enough so she could whip past them through the
lobby and on to a long bank of elevators.
April sprinted toward an elevator door that was closing, karate-chopped it
open, shoved her bike inside and leaped in after it. Fortunately, there was
only one other occupant—a tall, lean, dark-haired man who started back
as she burst into the elevator. He might report her to security, but she
would be out of the building before they could do anything about it.
"Hi," April greeted him cheerfully, hoping to win him over with a little
Of course, he didn’t respond in kind. "Bicycles aren’t allowed in the
building," he said in a reproving tone.
He had a take-charge air about him, as though he expected people to pay
attention when he cited rules and regs. It was a beautiful, rich, deep
voice, really, one that would sound right at home narrating a PBS
television special on the endangered species of the Amazon.
She grimaced. Too bad he was using it more like a reprimanding parent.
"I thought my bike might enjoy a little elevator ride," she responded
flippantly and turned her back on him, determined to ignore him for the
remainder of what she fervently hoped would be a very short ascent.
As she whirled away from him, she heard the long waterproof tube of
blueprints that poked out of her shoulder bag soundly whack him across
She looked over her shoulder to assess the damage. "Oh, rats! Oh, really,
I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you."
Mortified, April spun around toward the man to try to make amends, her
jacket casting off a shower of water in the process. His once perfectly
groomed hair was now all mussed. Charmingly boyish-looking dark locks
spilled down across his forehead. His cheek was branded with a long, dull-
red streak and beaded with rain droplets.
"Are you all right?" she inquired anxiously.
He didn’t answer. Amazingly, though, he didn’t look angry. In fact, he
was actually grinning at her. True, it was a very condescending sort of
grin, but all things considered, his face could have expressed a whole
gamut of emotions that would have been a lot worse.
"Let me help," April said, as she whipped a cowboy-style bandanna out of
her fanny pack. She stood on tiptoe to dry his face, but the man took one
look at the red bandanna and her gauntlet glove with the fingers ripped out
and shot out his arm in an instantaneous block worthy of a Sonics
basketball champ. He gripped her arm tightly, holding her away from him,
as she stared into his amused-looking dark eyes.
They remained frozen in that tableau for what seemed an eternity. All was
silent except for the ping of the elevator counting the floors. His hand felt
very large and alarmingly strong, and she could feel its heat even through
the sleeve of her Gore-Tex jacket. April’s heart skipped a couple of beats
before she was able to step back.
"I think you’ve helped me more than enough for one day, thank you," he
said as he ran both hands through his hair to smooth it back.
"Well, I really am sorry," April repeated lamely before she turned away. "I
didn’t mean to."
She could feel his eyes inspect her as she watched the floor indicators on
the elevator panel light up as they ascended. She was acutely aware of the
tire tracks and the little puddles of mud and water accumulating on the
parquet floor as the elevator leisurely rose.
She hadn’t failed to notice his impeccably tailored and pressed navy suit
and pristine white shirt. On her own clothes she knew mud thrown from
her back tire splattered her from her calves to her neck.
Oh, to hell with it. April squared her shoulders and stood as tall as her
four feet, eleven and three quarter inches allowed. She didn’t give two
hoots if he didn’t like the way she looked. A stuffy, buttoned-down kind
of guy like he was probably never did anything more exciting than call his
stockbroker. He’d never know the thrill of trusting his life to his own
strength and wits to punch through a wall of blaring traffic and come out
on the other side a winner.
Still, she’d be happy to be out of the building in a few more minutes.
Something strange and disturbing had happened when he’d grabbed her
arm. It was a confusing feeling she didn’t understand or trust, and she
was glad she wouldn’t ever have to see him again.
Photos by Linda Wallace