At 19,074 words, the raw manuscript of Part 1/3 of Nichole5’s second book is complete. While trying to keep it light-hearted and romantic, I had no choice but to lay some groundwork for what’s coming: Nichole & John Brunelli personally reconning what’s going on across the Columbia River, to the far northeast of the City. Teresa both a passive informant as well as secretly excited at the possibility of succeeding her father in power*. And finally the simple girl, Mackenzie: who just wants to make beautiful art, about to become a double-agent.
Nearly 20k words, and not one battle! I must be thinking back to my roots as an author! Wonder what that bodes for Part 2/3? Will it open in the middle of combat, or will things continue to progress slow by slow? The world wonders. And for Nike and Zom’s? I’m not remotely close to looking past that curtain.
*I recalled the scene from Robert Graves “I, Claudius,” where, some days after being picked to be Emperor by the Praetorian Guard, Claudius meets with a select few of the Senate leadership:
A senator: “You are not fit for this job!”
Claudius: “I agree. I am old; some say I am without my wits. But I am alive while dozens of my family went to the grave with theirs fully intact! You say I have no experience… do you have more? I’ve been in the Imperial Household since my birth, watching how it works. Do you know more?”
Expect Teresa (via Nichole) to have a similar speech in Part 3/3… if she’s still alive. Also, I hope in this installment I’ve captured Nichole’s recognition of the moral grey zone she’s stepped out into, by asking what she does of her friend. I realized, just now, that she’s created a box of safety around her boyfriend. Good Lord, but that’s going to backfire.
She moved in a blur, opening the door so fast that it seemed Mackenzie was sucked into the room.
“What’s wrong?!” Nichole demanded in a compelling tone. “Tell me!”
Holding her, Nichole could immediately feel that her friend was more scared than sad.
“My… my room…” she muttered into Nichole’s chest.
Nichole raised her eyes to the open door just across the hall. She shifted her shoulders back to lift Mac’s feet off the ground and went forward and in. She heard Gil carefully come up behind them but pause in the other’s doorway.
Nichole took in the room’s condition and compared it to the many other times she’d been over to visit. The change was obvious: instead of the creative, artistic chaos, everything was clean, neat, and ordered.
She let her friend down, her feet touching the floor but her legs shaking.
“I don’t know who… why…?” Mackenzie began. Nichole firmly placed her index finger onto the girl’s mouth while she lowered her into the rickety chair she’d recently modeled in. Turning to Gil, still in the doorway, she pointed at her own mouth, rolling her tongue about, then to his left pants pocket.
He nodded once, getting her message: the transmitter.
Nichole tore a small piece of paper from one of the many sketchbooks and quickly wrote a short note which she put in front of her seated friend.
‘We’re going to put on a play!’ Mackenzie read. What…?
“I can understand why you’re so excited, friend! You’ve done such a good job cleaning up!” Nichole said with a wink. She turned away and began to walk, slowly, further into the studio flat, her eyes everywhere and her fingers brushing this and that.
“I… wanted to surprise you!” her mild friend managed. Gil was surprised she caught on so quickly.
Without turning Nichole gave a quick thumbs-up, continuing her slow pace. She saw the painting on the easel wasn’t covered. She removed her as-yet unbuttoned blouse and covered whatever her friend was making. The sigh from behind her was audible.
“I wonder what prompted you to this?” Nicole continued with a lilt. She was next to her friend’s bed. “Cleaning up ‘cause you’ve a boy coming over?”
Mackenzie turned bright red as she stared first at Nichole then whirling about to Gil.
“No! I don’t!” she sputtered. “I haven’t…! I’m not…!”
“Nichole,” Gil finally spoke, “showed me some images from when you were on the Japanese ship. You’re a beautiful girl when you want to be!”
“I am?! You did?!” She turned back to Nichole, who was now by the bathroom door and carefully coming back to the kitchenette. “What pictures?!”
Oops. I’d pushed images from my memory into Gil’s notebook. While they both know what I am, I’ve not finished my sweep…
“It was during dinner,” Nichole said, making an elastic statement. “I think the sake was getting to you!”
“Oh, yeah. That.” She slid a tiny glance toward the door. “Thank… you.”
“’Welcome,” he smiled, suddenly looking past her at Nichole, who’s gaze was fixed on the smoke detector above her head.
She took the only other chair, in front of the easel, and moved it before standing on it. Silently she took the safety device down and opened it. She held it in her left while beckoning Gil with her right. With him next to her, she reached into her left and handed him a black plastic disc about two-and-a-half inches across and an eighth inch thick. She pointed for him to go to the kitchen sink.
“Well, whatever the reason you did it, friend, it looks really nice!” She stepped off the chair. “But, human nature being what it is, I bet it’s cluttered again by the end of the week!”
She went to Gil and took the disc. He expected what happened next. Mackenzie did not.
“Whaa…?” she began as Nichole shoved it into her mouth. But then she remembered their game. “I… I’ll try to be good.”
She trailed off as Nichole took a bowl and ran water into it.
“Maybe,” she managed another furtive glance at Gil as she went red again, “just in case… if a boy did… well…”
She watched her special friend take the object from her mouth and put it under the water. After thirty seconds she took it out and ran her tongue around the edge.
“Neutralized.” She announced
“Won’t they know we did that?” Gil asked.
“Not likely,” she replied as she moved back to the chair and replaced it in the smoke detector, closing it. “Machines are so unreliable these days!”
She was happy both of her friends laughed, looked at one another, and laughed more.
“What if they break in again to replace it?” he continued.
“I’ll know if they do,” was her simple reply.
I bet you will. He glanced at his watch.
“Crap! Gonna be late!” as he ran back to Nichole’s room for the last of his things before he was back with a quick kiss for his girlfriend. Then gone again.
Nichole was curious that her friend’s eyes lingered on her door.
“I’d like to paint something like that…” she barely managed.
Our kiss or my man? Nichole wondered. Either would be fine!
She sat into the chair she’d been standing on.
“Yes?” she turned back.
“That,” she pointed straight up, “could have been done without anyone knowing. That means they wanted you to know. And that means they wanted me to know.”
Nichole could tell not all of the ramifications were sinking in.
“With their device broken, I would expect them to approach you again, about a job,” Nichole pressed on. “It will, in fact, be for two jobs.”
“Yes,” Nichole replied, scooting closer and taking her friend’s hands. “Officially? With the increase of trade I’m sure they do need more accounting help. Unofficially? They will want you to tell them all about me.”
“But… I can’t!” She tightly squeezed Nichole’s hands. “You’re my friend!”
“And that’s why,” she found she slightly disliked herself for the words she spoke, “I want you to agree. But, you will only be telling them what we want them to hear.”
I am making my friend into a double agent. I am older as what it is to feel despicable.
Mackenzie had lowered her eyes. She sighed.
“If that’s what you want… then, okay, I guess.”
“Well, now!” Nichole said, standing. “My beloved is right! It’s getting late; have you had dinner?”
Mackenzie shook her head as she struggled to her feet. Nichole embraced her.
“Th – thank you!” she said, returning the hug. “I need you so much!”
“The noodle place okay?” she asked, retrieving her blouse and making for her flat. “I can meet you in our lobby when you’re ready!”
She closed one door and then another, pausing in the quiet of her own flat. She recalled being very young in Somi, watching a video of Chinese acrobats keeping dozens of fragile plates spinning on the ends of whippy bamboo poles.
An apt metaphor.
The walk back to the Stratford after Mackenzie’s dinner was much better than their first time: no political police, no machine pistols, no Lincolns. It was more dark than twilight but there was no curfew.
And the young artist knew she was with her amazing friend. A friend who was hoping she got what she’d been told.
While she ate, I tried to flesh out, in the most oblique manner I could, what I’m trying to do here. Nichole’s eyes searched the corners of darkness as he hearing scavenged for the littlest sound in her range while they walked. Any Portlander would be concerned about relations to the Huns; she seemed to get that. But, undermining the Mayor’s power while laying the paving stones for a monarchy? Not a single word.
“I did offer to get a bowl, just to give it to you – ” Nichole began.
“And I told you my fridge is full of leftovers!” she said, jerking their held hands. “I’m not a charity case!”
Mackenzie’s new-found boldness surprised Nichole.
“I’m a spy, after all.”
Nichole overrode her flinch.
“I guess,” the grey ghost continued to muse, “that I’ll need a code name? In case they bug me or my place again?”
She’s getting the better of me. Did she read espionage books as a child?
“That… would make sense…” Nichole managed.
Mackenzie started to swing their hands as they walked.
“Your sister that paints; what was her name?”
“Then, when I’m in character, call me First.”
It was the first time Nichole had heard her retiring friend speak with a capital letter.
What has she seen that I have not? An artist, she must know she has a destiny…
“First.” Nichole echoed.
And Last, came into her mind. Only a block from their home, Nichole stopped so fast that her friend nearly fell down. She jerked her head right, just down the greenspace, to Zom’s.
“Nichole? What is it?” Mackenzie asked.
“Difficult question,” she prevaricated. Nichole tried a smile. “Let’s go home!”