Rhea groaned and rolled over. Her eyes felt glued shut, but there was a sibilant hissing coming from somewhere, then a dog's whine. Blinking, she rubbed her eyes and stretched, then levered herself to her elbows. "Huh... who?"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart." Her father's voice woke her a little bit more. "I've been trying to coax Bodie here out for a walk. It's nearly noon..."
"Noon?" Rhea turned to look at her alarm clock. The blue numbers shone an accusing 11:46 at her, and with another groan, she flopped back down on the bed. "God, how long did I sleep?"
"As long as you needed, too, I'd say," Jeff replied with a chuckle. "Jet lag is a pain in the ass, isn't it?"
"Yeah, especially when you add the IDL to the mix." She pulled back the covers and swung her feet over the side of the bed. "Bodie, go."
The dog looked up at her, and she made a shooing motion. "Go, Bodie. Go with Grandpa."
Bodie hauled herself to her feet and followed Jeff into the sitting room. He slid open the patio door, and the dog obediently trotted outside. Bruno was already there, lapping water from a bowl.
Rhea padded out into the sitting room, tying the sash of a light bathrobe around her waist. She stretched and yawned again, and ran her fingers through her disheveled hair. "Thanks for waking me, Dad. I might have slept all day, and poor Bodie would have been a mess when I finally got up to tend to her."
"I didn't mean to wake you up, Rhea, but Scott took Bruno out with him for his morning run, and when I hadn't seen you by eleven, I thought maybe Bodie could use some walkies herself." He glanced out the door. Bodie had pushed Bruno aside to get at the water bowl, which refreshed itself automatically from the household supply. "She wouldn't budge for me, though."
"At least she didn't growl at you," Rhea said, folding her arms. "I guess I'd better feed her. Has Bruno eaten? What's the weather like today?"
"Scott didn't feed him that I'm aware of, and it's warm and sticky out." Jeff opened the door again, and Rhea called for her dogs. "Not a good day to go running, especially if you're not used to the heat."
"Which I'm not." Rhea pulled two stainless steel bowls from a lower cupboard, put them on the floor, then hauled a large, airtight container out after them. She opened the container and scooped out two big scoops of dog kibble into each bowl, then opened the door and called the dogs inside.
"I'll let you get dressed, and see you in the dining room for lunch," Jeff said as he headed for her door.
She groaned again. "Lunch. John was right. So much for 'see you at breakfast'."
Her father laughed, and she waved him out. She watched the dogs eating for a moment, then said, "You two behave yourselves. I've got to get cleaned up."
Twenty minutes later, she entered the dining room again, dressed for a sunny, tropical day, her braided hair still wet. Her family was seated around the table, and instead of taking a chair near the end, she moved up to sit next to her father, and across from Scott.
"Good afternoon, sleepy head," John said jovially. "I warned you about the jet lag."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she muttered. "And good afternoon to you, too."
Kyrano put a chef's salad before her, and filled her glass up with iced tea. "Thanks, Kyrano. It looks delicious."
"You are most welcome, Miss Rhea," the retainer murmured before returning to the kitchen.
She glanced down the table. "Hey, there, Brains! Good to see you! Missed you last night."
"H-Hello, Rhea." Brains smiled her way. "Nice to, uh, see you, too."
"Burning the midnight oil these days?"
"I was, until M-Mr. Tracy chased me off to b-bed."
"I'm very glad to hear that," Patricia said as she poured herself some more iced tea, and squeezed some lemon into it. "I think you and Tin-Tin are working far too hard on this new project of Jeff's. Land's sakes, son, you could give them a day off now and then!"
"The project's at a very critical point, Mother," Jeff said mildly. "Things will ease off soon, once we have all our ducks in a row. Then they can each take a vacation for a bit."
John exchanged glances with Brains and Tin-Tin, while Rhea avoided eye contact with just about everyone. Scott cleared his throat.
"So, when will you be telling us about this project of yours, huh, Dad?"
Jeff stopped the fork halfway to his mouth long enough to say, "When the time is right, son."
This time it was the other three sons who exchanged glances, and Scott made it a point to catch Rhea's eye. She shrugged, sipped her tea, and said, "Thanks, Scott, for taking Bruno on your run this morning. I hope he behaved himself."
"Uh, yeah. You're welcome, Ray. I tried to keep him out of the deeper water. There have been some shark sightings."
"Shark sightings?" Rhea straightened up and looked interested. "What kinds have you seen? Gords?"
The talk turned to the sharks, and they discussed what could have been bringing them to the island's waters. "Just keep the dogs out of the surf, Ray," Gordon warned. "They'd make a great meal for those tiger sharks."
"I'll keep that in mind, Gords." She glanced around and her eye fell on Virgil. "Hey, Virge. You've been quiet."
"Trying to work through a fingering for the piano solo I got the other day," Virgil said. He glanced up and out the window. "Damn." He got up.
"Virgil! Language!" Patricia's voice was sharp as a whip.
"I'm sorry, Grandma," he said, getting up to leave. "Gotta go. I'm working on a painting... the lighting... have to take advantage of it." He gave his grandmother a kiss on the cheek as he hurried by. "Thanks for lunch. I'll see you later!" He hustled through the door, and those at the table were sure he'd broken into a sprint as soon as he was out of sight.
Rhea blinked. "Well, that was odd."
Scott chuckled. "Not really, that interview reminded him that he had a show coming up. He's been a painting fiend ever since." He took a bite of salad, chewed it while looking thoughtfully at his sister. "Y'know, I have a bone to pick with you about that."
"So do I," Gordon growled from down the table. "Why in the name of Princess Halitosia and all the flying petunias did you suggest I was suffering from PTSD?"
Rhea stared at him, stunned, then burst out laughing. John joined in, then Tin-Tin began to giggle, and Scott added his laughter. Even Jeff chuckled, and Patricia's attempt to keep a straight face failed. She smiled widely and shook her head with a murmured, "Oh, Gordon."
"Well, I didn't want to get chewed out for using bad language," Gordon explained, grinning.
Brains glanced down the table, and raised an eyebrow behind his thick blue frames. "Uh, would Princess H-Halitosia be the g-goddess of bad breath?" he asked, sounding totally serious. Only Tin-Tin sat close enough to see his sly wink.
Gordon stared at Brains, then he started laughing. "Goddess of bad breath!"
"Bad breath doesn't need a goddess," John spat out between guffaws. "It needs a demon!"
By this time, Jeff was laughing aloud, too, and Patricia was shaking as she tried to hide her own giggles. After a few moments, the laughter tapered off, and Rhea wiped her eyes. "God, I needed that," she said, gulping air. A deep, shaky breath, and she turned to her brother. "Gords, it seemed plausible, and I tried to be vague. I never came out and said you were suffering from it." She sighed. "It wasn't easy trying to come up with something on the spot that explained why you all were living with Dad. I didn't want to make you look like you were being selfish or lazy, just mooching off Dad's money." She shook her head. "I don't know that I did a very good job of it, anyway. If I'd had the questions beforehand, it would have been easier."
"Why did you agree to do the interview in the first place?" Scott asked. "You know how much we avoid publicity."
Rhea turned to her father for help. He nodded, and sat back in his seat, tapping together fingers steepled over his abdomen. "For one thing, there have been some concerns in the financial sectors about who is really in charge at Tracy Ventures, Rhea or me. Comments have been made, and rumors have been spread, that – when I pass on - Tracy Ventures would be split up into its component divisions, with some of you getting a division to run, and the others cut out completely. There was speculation that, when this came about, Tracy Ventures would be in disarray and there would be so much infighting among you six that the company would collapse... and be ripe for a takeover bid." He shifted in his seat, reaching out to take his glass of tea and sipping it before continuing. "Both Rhea and I thought it would be wise to put those rumors to rest by making it clear that she is in charge of Ventures, and will remain so."
"And there was all that speculation about the five of you, what you were doing... all that crap that Taylor asked about." Rhea took a sip of her tea, then picked up her fork. "Figured it was as good a time as any to set those rumors to rest as well.
"You mean that Rhea will be the sole heir when you pass on?" Scott frowned as he considered the implications. "She really is the 'heiress apparent'?"
"In a way, yes." Jeff took another, deeper swig, then set his glass down. "As you know, our company is private. Though we do have a number of shareholders, our corporate shares are not bought and sold on the stock market. Each of you boys will be major shareholders, with a combined total that is greater than what Rhea will hold. This way, if you five feel that she's not doing a good enough job, you can band together and force her out. However, barring such a move, she holds, and will hold, the reins at Tracy Ventures."
"What will that do for International Rescue?" Gordon asked, frowning. "I mean, it sounds like she'll be holding the purse strings."
"Look," Rhea said hastily. "If we're going to have an in-depth discussion of the family finances and how things work as far as IR is concerned, I'd rather do it when we're all available so we only have to explain it once. The fact remains: I did the interview - with Dad's blessing - to set the financial and personal rumors to rest, and assure everyone that Tracy Ventures will continue as a single entity." She glanced from Scott to Gordon to John and back again. "Does that answer the question?"
"It does... for now," Scott said.
"Good." Jeff pushed back his chair. "I think I'm finished. Mother, Kyrano, thank you for a delicious lunch."
"Yes, thank you," Rhea said, also rising. She picked up her plate, and her father's, stacking them and adding the utensils to the top plate.
"What are your plans this afternoon, Rhea?" Patricia asked.
"I'm going to check on the dogs and then get some sun, maybe some swimming." She made a wry face. "More than one person has told me I'm too pale."
"Well, then, let's get this table cleared quickly..."
"Mother." Jeff stopped at the door, and his voice was full of warning.
"...John." Patricia finished her sentence, seemingly ignoring Jeff's comment.
John looked surprised, but amiably said, "Sure, Grandma. Glad to help out."
Rhea sighed slightly, gave her father a smile, and walked into the kitchen with the dirty dishes she'd already picked up.
Rhea lay back with a sigh of relief. She'd put on a strapless two-piece bathing suit, slathered on the sunscreen, then taken a towel and a small canvas bag with her to the pool area. The sun felt good on her skin, and her sunglasses darkened to provide the highest protection possible. Her braided ponytail tickled between her bare shoulder blades. She'd put a wireless player in her ears; with a tap, she could change the song she was listening to. There was a novel in the bag for later reading. Bodie and Bruno both lay nearby in the dappled shade of some palm trees, a large tub of cold water sitting within easy reach.
She closed her eyes, semi-conscious of someone splashing in the pool, but letting the lyric rhythms of the Irish folk music wash over her. They brought out the memories of the trip she'd taken one summer to attend a folk music festival in Ireland. How long has it been since I've taken a vacation just for the heck of it? she wondered. How long has it been since any of my brothers have done the same? Maybe I need to bring this up to Dad; they'll need all their stamina when this project comes to fruition.
A low growl sounded behind her, and Rhea smiled. "Hey, Leroy." To her dog she said, "Down, Bodie."
"Aw, how'd you know it was me, Rat?" Gordon sat down on the lounger next to her, still dripping from his dip in the pool.
"Bodie told me." She tapped her left earphone to power down the volume on her music.
Gordon glanced over at the dog, who was watching him intently. "How come she doesn't like me?"
"Maybe because you usually tend to be carrying a water balloon or bucket or something else that makes me jump up and shriek." Rhea's answer was wry, but matter-of-fact. "So, what's up?"
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Getting comfortable here in the sun."
"That's not what I meant."
Gordon's tone made her sit up. She tapped her right earphone, then removed both pieces and put them in her bag. Slipping off her glasses, she gazed at him, small frown lines forming between her brows.
"Well, Dad told us about what happened on Wednesday." Gordon was leaning toward her, his face full of concern. "Then you called to come home early. You never do that." He shrugged. "We didn't get to grill you at lunch. So I'm asking now."
Rhea sighed. "Gords, I'm all right, really. I wasn't terribly scared while it was happening; I knew my security people were nearby. It was only afterwards that everything hit me so hard."
"When you found out about that?" Gordon pointed to the long, glued-together scratch, still looking pink around the edges.
"Yeah. And when I realized I could have been shot, and how stupid I was to let Bodie go, and a hundred different other things that sort of sledgehammered me into a nervous wreck for a bit." She reached out a hand. "See, I'm good now. No shaking."
He took her hand and looked at it closely. "No shaking, but you've been biting your nails again."
She yanked the hand back and examined the nails closely, muttering, "I thought I did a better job than that..." Glancing up, she saw the grin on Gordon's face.
"Gotcha!" he said, blowing her a kiss.
"I should sic Bodie on you for that," she said, her tone mock-threatening.
"She can't catch me in the pool!" Gordon sprang to his feet, and ran for the water.
"Yes, she could, but not today. I have no desire to wash the chlorine out of her fur." Rhea pulled her player out of the bag again, put on her sunglasses again, and settled back with her novel.
Gordon paused at the edge of the pool and watched her for a few minutes, then shook his head. "You're no fun!"
"I'll go swimming later, Leroy," Rhea replied without looking up from her book. "Right now, I need some sun." Smiling to herself, she added sotto voce, "And I'm not rising to the bait."
He looked at her for a moment longer, then a beach ball hit him upside the head.
"Get back in here, Gordon!" Scott called. "We're setting up a game of water polo." Glancing at his sister, he shouted, "Hey, Ray, wanna play?"
"Not right now, Scott, thanks," Rhea called back. "Maybe later."
"Okay! You're on!"
The game began, and Rhea let herself get lost for a time in book and music.
John, who had been downloading the latest data from the probes, glanced over at Brains. The solemn frown on his friend's face made him sit up, the download temporarily forgotten. "What's up, Brains?"
"Can you, uh, talk to him?" Brains asked. "We've tried and he's..." The engineer shook his head.
"Stubborn?" John supplied.
Brains's lips twisted into a wry expression and his voice was dry as he replied, "Very."
John nodded. "I told Rhea I would, and she said she'd back me up. Maybe if we all went to him, you and me and Rhea and Tin-Tin, he'd listen. The guys need to know. Never mind the situation with Alan, they're suspicious as it is and if they know that he's kept something this big from them... well, I foresee some trouble." He gave Brains an encouraging smile. "We'll talk to him together, okay?"
Brains looked relieved. "That sounds like a p-plan."
"I'll round everyone up after dinner. Let him get a good meal into him and he'll be more mellow." John returned to his download.
"I'll tell Tin-Tin," Brains said, nodding.
He returned to his drawing tablet, and they were silent for a while, then John huffed out an exasperated breath, throwing up his hands. "Y'know, Brains? I can't get into this right now." He pushed his chair back, setting his seat into a slow spin, stopping once he faced his friend. "Grandma says you're working too hard..."
"And your f-father agreed with her. He sent Tin-Tin and I off to, uh, bed last night." Brains started to save his work, already seeing where John was going with his idea.
"It's a beautiful day out, and my first full day home." John stood and stretched, fingers interlaced and reaching for the ceiling. He could feel and hear the bones in his spine realign. "The computer doesn't need me to watch it download this data."
"I think I could use some, uh, sunshine and fresh air myself." Brains put his computer in hibernate mode, and cracked his knuckles. "I'll see what Tin-Tin is up to. I wouldn't even mind, uh, cave diving."
John laughed. "Looking for those water mambas?"
Brains winked at him, and grinned. "You never know when you might, uh, find one."
"Well, I'm for some lazing around by the pool. Let's go." John clapped a hand on Brains's shoulder, and the two of them left together, locking the lab behind them.
Rhea had finally been coaxed into the pool by the time John and Brains appeared. Tin-Tin was already there, playing with the trio. The water polo game picked up one player per side, while Scott stepped out to referee, and Tin-Tin left the pool to enjoy some sun.
"Where's Virgil?" John asked. He dove into the pool before Scott could reply, so Scott waited for him to surface before doing so.
"He's either still painting or he's talking with Eva," Scott said. "I'm not sure which."
"Too bad! We could use another player! Then we'd have three per side," Gordon said. He held the ball in one hand and called, "Are you ready?"
He got a variety of answers, all in the affirmative. "Here goes!" With that, he tossed the beach ball in the air, and slapped it across the net.
Jeff wandered out onto the balcony, drawn by the vague happy noises from the pool area. He leaned on the balcony rail, hands loosely clasped, smiling as he watched his grown children play. A sigh sounded beside him, and he turned to see that his mother had joined him.
"I'm glad Brains and Tin-Tin took some time off today," she said, smiling. "I don't know what you're up to, Jefferson Tracy, but you're working your people to the bone, and that isn't like you."
Jeff's smile faded, and he reached out to put a hand on his mother's hand. "I know, Ma. But... this is..." He shook his head, and pulled his hand away. "I don't want to talk about it. Not yet. Not until I have..."
"'All your ducks in a row.' Yes, I've heard you say that time and time again. Just wish I knew what kind of ducks they were and how many you had to put in that row." Patricia didn't look at her son; she kept her eyes on her grandchildren. "I just had a long conversation with Clint. You should know that your brothers and sister want me in Kansas for Christmas. They wanted me to feel you out on coming and bringing the boys, maybe having Rhea meet us there..."
Before she'd finished speaking, Jeff was shaking his head. "No, Ma. We can't. You know that time of year is our busiest." He swallowed a little and let out a soft huff. "You're welcome to come and go as you please; you know that. If you want to see Reagan and the twins for Christmas, I won't stop you."
"I know you wouldn't." There was a long pause, as if Patricia was gathering the courage to say something more. "They're my children, too, and they have children who are my grandchildren. They're your brothers and sister, and your nieces and nephews. Some of them are getting up there, becoming adults. I hear that Ron is taking four Advanced Placement courses this year."
"Ron's a high school senior, right?" Jeff had to think hard about which nephew Ron was was, and how old; his brother Carter, a lawyer and state lawmaker, had quite the brood – all named after characters from a fantasy series. It was a Tracy family tradition to name their children after other people; after all, he and his siblings were all given the last names of presidents, and he had named his own children after astronauts (or, in the case of Rhea, almost-astronauts). His late sister Madison's two girls were Ariel and Aurora, named after Disney princesses. Ariel would have been older than Rhea, and Aurora was just a baby when she died.
"Yes, he is. Carter tells me all of his seven are planning on coming home for the holiday. With Clint's four and Reagan's two, the farmhouse will be full." She put a hand on his arm. "Don't you want to get to know them? Don't you want your children to know them? It was easier when they were younger, I know, but still... it's family."
Jeff was half-tempted to tell her everything, about the coming menace, the plans that they were making, the steps they were taking to stop it. Maybe then she'd understand why Brains and Tin-Tin were working so hard. Maybe then she'd understand why it was impossible for them to go to Kansas for the holidays. But if she knew, she'd insist that the boys know as well; might even take it upon herself to tell them. And he was still hesitant to do that. He didn't want his sons distracted when out on a rescue, or their energy and strength curbed in anticipation of the future. He certainly didn't want the fight he could see coming when he had to make the decision to go to the asteroids or not. But there was a voice inside him that said, "They're men. They will acquit themselves as men. You can't protect them; they need to know, and if they do know, they can help."
"No, Ma. As much as I would like to, we can't. At least, not all of us. Maybe I can send one of the boys, and have Rhea join you, like you suggested. It will be her call, though; she knows her own workload better than I do." He turned to smile at her, a tight, controlled expression. "Why don't you sound her out on it?"
"I think I will..." Patricia's sentence tapered off as she saw Kyrano cross the patio, a cordless phone in his hand. "That's the kitchen extension," she murmured. "I wonder what..."
Kyrano leaned over the pool, calling to one of the young people splashing within. It seemed to be Rhea who he wanted, and she climbed out, dripping. Scott tossed her a towel; she caught it and wiped her face, drying her hair a little. Taking the phone, she thanked Kyrano with a word and a smile, and sat down on the edge of a lounger. As she talked to her caller, her face grew serious, and frown lines creased her brow. Rising to her feet, she glanced up at the balcony, then wrapped the towel around herself, slipped her feet into her sandals, and headed up the stairs.
"It's Marilee," she said as she approached. "She has news of those two would-be kidnappers."
"Let me take that," Patricia said. "No use you tracking water all over the floor. Dry off a bit, then come in."
Without comment, Rhea handed the extension to her grandmother, then started applying the towel to her legs and arms. Patricia slipped the cordless phone into a slot next to the vidphone screen and turned the screen on, while Jeff took a seat behind his desk, turning to get a better view. The worried face of Marilee Henderson peered out at them.
"Hello, Mr. Tracy, Mrs. Tracy. Is Allison still there?"
"I'm here," Rhea said as she approached the desk, towel wrapped around her waist. "What's the news?"
Marilee moistened her lips, eyes darting between Rhea and Patricia. Rhea realized the problem.
"You might as well just tell me now; Grandma would hear about it anyway."
The security chief nodded, a single sharp movement. "The two nutcases who tried to abduct you? The judge set their bail at $1 million apiece since they targeted 'such an influential figure'." Rhea snorted at this. Marilee continued. "I don't know who's bankrolling them but they have deep pockets; bail was made within the hour."
Jeff whistled. "That's not good. You know they'll disappear."
"They did," Marilee's jaw clenched, and her words came out succinct and clipped. "For a while, anyway."
"Why do I think I'm not going to like what you have to say next?" Rhea asked, a serious frown on her face.
"Because you aren't. They turned up about an hour ago, both dead. The woman was found in a dumpster used by Tracy Tower Gamma; the man...," Marilee took in a deep breath, "... was discovered on your front doorstep."
"Oh, God." Rhea's face paled, and she put both hands on her father's desk for support. Alarmed, Patricia moved in, putting a hand on her granddaughter's shoulder. Jeff rose, reaching for his daughter.
"Come, sit down before you fall down," he said, offering his chair.
Rhea shook her head, then took in a deep breath and let it out. "Thanks, Dad, but I'm okay." She raised her head and looked at the screen again. "What do you need?"
"Whoever put that body on your doorstep set off the alarm system, which is what brought the police. They want to see the security recordings, and would rather have permission than get a warrant."
Rhea nodded. "You have my verbal permission now, and I'll send a copy you can print out as well." She straightened, and gave her grandmother as quick, grateful smile. "What time is it there? Nine? Okay. Both Legal and Public Relations need to be in on this. From now on, the police will have to go through Sean McNamara in Legal, and the press through Keifer Niven in Public Relations. This is going to be a media circus, but..." She shrugged. "Keifer can make sure that our side of the story gets out there, hard, fast, and loud."
She glanced at her grandmother, who had taken Jeff's seat, then at her father, who nodded. "This, more than anything, smacks of those Tellus Prime kooks. Have someone stationed at the house for the next week, and beef up security on the towers. Also put the branches and plants on alert. Who knows where they'll strike next."
"Tellus Prime?" Patricia asked, turning her attention to Rhea. "Why would they want to..."
"The shuttles, Grandma," Rhea explained. "We plan on using them to ferry supplies to the moon colonies. They go after anything to do with the colonization project, and now we're in their sights." Turning back to Marilee, she said, "Right now, I'm staying put." She gave her security chief a crooked, rueful smile. "At least I have an alibi..."
Marilee snorted. "I won't go into why that isn't exactly a good thing; I think you can figure it out for yourself what some of the press is likely to say – or what the public might possibly think."
"Yes. That had occurred to me." Rhea shook her head. "Still, if the police need to interview me, it will have to be long distance. Let them know that, please."
"I'll let McNamara know to tell them that. Just get me that permission. I know Wally keeps an eye on your property, too; they'll want to get into his files..."
Rhea interrupted. "Leave Wally out of it completely, and I do mean completely. I won't risk having some enterprising police computer geek slipping a virus or Trojan into him and him transmitting that to Deke. As far as the police are concerned, we have no AIs. None, zip, nada." She turned to Jeff. "Have you ever told..."
Jeff shook his head. "The only people outside your staff who know that Wally exists are the family, and Wilbur Dandridge, and even he doesn't know that we own Wally. I purchased the base program through Celestial Innovations, and let Brains tinker with it. And no one outside the family and a few select agents know about Deke."
"Then let's keep it that way." Rhea took the tablet sitting on her father's desk, and began to compose a permission letter. "McNamara can look this over, but I think I'm covering all the bases. I want to cooperate, but I'm not giving them the combination to the vault or anything." She glanced back up at Marilee. "You'll have this in a few minutes. Is there anything else we need to discuss?"
"If there is, I'll holler." Marilee looked relieved. "Sorry I got you out of the pool."
"It's okay. My team was losing anyway." When she saw the security chief's puzzled frown, she added, "Water polo."
Rhea tapped a final key and said, "There. Done. Let me know if there are any new developments."
"I will." Marilee nodded, first in Patricia's direction, then in Jeff's. "Mrs. Tracy. Mr. Tracy. Have a good day."
"Goodbye, Marilee. Talk with you again soon," Jeff replied. With that, the picture winked out and the words, "Call Disconnected," appeared on the screen.
"Well, that was certainly a surprise!" Patricia exclaimed. "To find a dead body on your doorstep...it's a good thing Therese has the week off!" She rose, smoothing down her skirt. "Now, what did Marilee mean by your alibi not being a good thing?"
Rhea, who was composing a missive to the company's legal counsel, glanced up. A corner of her mouth quirked upwards in an almost-smile. "Well, whoever bailed these two out had, as Mother Hen said, 'deep pockets'. So do I, as CEO of Tracy Ventures. What better way to throw suspicion off myself than to be out of town and have the bodies dumped on my own property?"
"Oh, come now," Patricia said, her tone one of dismissal. "Surely the police don't believe that kind of nonsense."
"If you watch or read police procedurals, they do," Jeff said. He glanced over at the portrait of Lady Penelope with a slightly proprietorial air. "I'd let Penny know about these developments, but it's after 2 a.m. at Foxleyheath and I don't want to wake her."
"Of course you don't," Patricia said. "You're a gentleman. Wait until this evening, when it's later in the morning there." She rose from Jeff's chair. "As for me, I think I'll go bake something for dessert tonight. Does a chocolate cake sound good, Rhea?"
"Sounds perfect, Grandma," Rhea said, looking up from the tablet, her eyes wide with delight. "You know how much I love chocolate."
"Then a chocolate cake it is." Grandma stepped close to Rhea, and put a hand to the younger woman's face, turning it so she could gaze into Rhea's eyes. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Rhea nodded, her soft smile genuine. "I'm fine, Grandma. In fact, once I'm finished with these two emails, I'm going back out to the pool and get some more sun."
Grandma patted Rhea's face gently. "You do that." She turned to her son. "Jeff, you know where I'll be if you need me."
"Yes, Ma. I know."
With that, Patricia left the room, passing through the grillwork door to the study. Jeff listened for the door to the hallway slide open and shut, then went to make sure his mother had actually left. When he was satisfied, he came back to sit at his desk and rub his temples, closing his eyes as if he had a headache.
He opened his eyes to see his daughter favoring him with a quizzical gaze. He nodded. "Yes. I'm fine. Just... tense."
"I can understand that," she replied, continuing to work on her messages. After a moment's pause, she remarked, "You didn't have much to say when I was talking with Marilee."
"There wasn't much for me to say," he replied. "You had things under control."
She hummed a little, expressing a vague opinion on his statement. He watched her for a moment, then added, "Thank you for coming up with a reason for Tellus Prime's possible involvement. Your grandmother has been pestering me about the project, and my making Brains and Tin-Tin work too hard."
"Yeah, about that." Rhea finished what she was doing, and with a flourish, handed the tablet back to her father. "John and I want to discuss it with you after dinner. There are some things you should know about."
"What things?" Jeff had a skeptical look on his face. "Can't you discuss this with me now?"
"Well, I didn't want to spoil your dinner, but... let me see if John's available. Hold on a sec."
Jeff watched her pad over to the balcony, and heard her call for her brother. There was some discussion that he couldn't really hear with the door closed, but within a few moments, a dripping John was toweling himself off. Brains and Tin-Tin had accompanied him but both of them were relatively dry. The quartet put their heads together for a moment; Brains stole a quick glance inside the lounge. Then John led the way to his father's desk.
"What is this?" Jeff said, half-facetiously. "Are you ganging up on me?"
"Well." John looked around at his companions. Rhea and Tin-Tin had both taken seats on the pleather couches, while Brains stood back a little bit and to his right. "Yeah. You could say that."
"All right." Jeff was wary, now, but still wanted to know what they had to say. "Rhea said there are some things I need to know."
"Well, actually, you already know them because we've reported them to you as part of our duties in IR," John explained, a little nervously. "But I think you need to see how the smaller pieces fit into the bigger puzzle."
"Well, you know that I heard from the lunar stations back in September. It was sheer luck that they called on a month where I was on duty. I was able to help them and reassure them. Had Alan been there, he wouldn't have known what to do, other than call base and ask."
Brains spoke up. "He was v-very nonplussed when I asked him to, uh, track the shuttle last month. I was able to smooth it over and come up with a p-plausible, uh, explanation, but it was a n-near thing. I'm r-rarely that good at, uh, thinking on my feet – at least, in a, uh, verbal fashion."
"In other words, you think Alan needs to know about the project?" Jeff asked, his face thoughtful.
"Yes, but not only him," John said. "Scott, Virgil, and Gordon need to know, too."
"You may have sold me on Alan, but why the others? Why do you think they should know now?" Jeff was beginning to sound stubborn. "Why can't they wait until I'm ready to tell them?"
"Mr. Tracy." Tin-Tin took her turn, her softly accented voice soothing. "We really could use Virgil's help with these deflector points. He designed most of the new flying camera based on the failings of the old one. Since we're trying to build on his ideas, his knowledge would be invaluable."
"All right, so maybe Virgil could be brought into the loop." Jeff's attitude was quickly spiraling into belligerent. "Give me a good reason why Scott and Gordon need to know." He glanced at Rhea. "You said that there was something you needed to tell me about all this. What is it?"
Rhea raised one eyebrow, and shrugged a little. "Just that if you tell them later, rather than sooner, they'll think you don't trust them."
Jeff glowered at her. "Why can't anyone understand that I want to have everything ready to go before I tell them? Before I thrust them into this dangerous situation?"
"Because by the time everything is ready, it may be too late." John's voice was impassioned. "Dad, they're not going to stress over this during rescues, which is what I think you're afraid of. There is no one more focused when in the danger zone than my brothers. If they know now, they'll be better prepared mentally for the challenge, and will be able to have some input on what we do. The more minds involved, the better."
"Besides," Brains said, "dangerous is what we, uh, do."
"And there's no guarantee that things will go smoothly on my end and you'll have everything 'ready' in time the way you want them," Rhea argued. "Tellus Prime knows what we're about with the shuttles, and they've already tried to disrupt things, in more ways than one. I wouldn't be surprised if they already knew IR was going to help the colonists; they seem to have ears and eyes everywhere." There was a momentary pause, then she added, "Dad, knowing what's going on will also help them protect themselves."
The silence was longer this time, and Jeff found himself bearing the brunt of four intense stares. Finally, he threw up his hands, exasperated. "All right! You win! But it'll wait until after Thanksgiving."
Brains and Tin-Tin exchanged glances and smiled, glad to have made their point. John and Rhea did the same, but they didn't smile. In near unison, they said, "Tonight."
"Tonight?" Jeff looked from son to daughter and back again. "Why?"
"Because you know Grandma is going to want to discuss what happened back in New York today," Rhea said, garnering curious looks from her brother and the two engineers. "I came up with an explanation that satisfied her, but I'm not sure the same will satisfy Scott. Besides, this is 'soonest'; if you stop hiding it from them right now, they'll be able to get over being kept in the dark, and you know everything will go down easier with that chocolate cake."
The room was silent for a moment, then Jeff snorted. "Chocolate fixes everything, huh?"
Rhea looked smug. "Yup. It does. At least, that's what Mom always used to say."
Jeff sat quietly for a while, then irritably waved a hand. "Tonight, then. After dinner. You four are responsible for getting the information together and explain it all to them. I'll make my apologies then." He rose from his seat. "I hope this all goes the way you think it will." With that, he stalked off, leaving the quartet behind.
Rhea glanced at the clock. "Well, so much for going back out and getting some sun."
"It's spring here, Ray," John reminded her. "The sun sets later."
"And you still can swim after dark," Tin-Tin said. She stood, rubbing her upper arms. "It's chilly in here. I think I'll get changed, and load up that holographic program."
"Hm. Sounds like you were prepared for this," John said as the foursome moved toward the study.
"We, uh, were hoping your f-father would agree to let us tell, uh, everyone," Brains said. "Now we can."
Rhea shook her head. "No matter how we present it, Scott's not going to like being kept in the dark for so long. Not when he finds out that I've known about it from almost the beginning."