Henry stuck a toe in the river water.
It was a lot warmer than he’d expected, thank God. It wouldn’t require any stall time. He glanced back at Alice. She was bent over and digging through a bright green bag a dozen yards back. Her towel was already at her feet and her butt was smiling happily up at the sun.
The coast was clear. He dropped his towel and slipped quickly into the water. Thankfully, it was also deeper than it looked. This’d be a hell of a lot easier if he had something to drink. He wondered if she had anything harder than water in that bag.
He drifted forward through the water, keeping his back to the shore. When he finally heard the safe splash of her entry, he looked back. Alice was already swimming toward him. She was moving through the water with the same ease that he walked down stairs.
She sailed up alongside him. “Water’s nice, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is.” It was also as clear as air. He paddled against the gentle current and ordered his eyes to remain above the waterline.
“What’s your last name, Henry?”
His alarm bells erupted. Last name? Bad sign. Last names only led to states, and then to cities, and then to email addresses, and even, just kill me now, phone numbers. His mind tripped through all the possible scenarios sharing that kind of information could bring about. None of them offered a happy ending.
“I’m waiting, Henry.”
“I’m aware of that, Alice,” he said seriously, “And I’d like to tell you, but I’d be in violation of the code if I did.”
She just looked at him for a moment as she agitated the water, her eyes carefully dissecting him. Then she said, “The code? Sounds mysterious.”
“You’ve no idea.”
“So, you’re a spy, then?”
“You can’t tell me. I see. Must be dangerous.”
“It has its moments.”
“Let me guess. You must spend your days skulking through the world, yeah? All discrete and under the radar? Danger lurking in every shadow? By night you hang in fancy bars drinking martinis and playing baccarat?”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“How very exciting, Henry. Really. I knew you were complicated.”
“You’re quite perceptive, Alice.”
“Hm. I guess this effectively explains your bum disguise, then? You’re obviously working undercover.”
“Exactly,” he said, “Worst part of the job is not being able to tell my friends that I’m not actually a bum. But, sadly, one breech of the code and I’d find my ass in the kind of prison you don’t walk out of.”
“Not that I’m afraid or anything.”
“Well, of course you aren’t,” she said too seriously, “You’re just being prudent.”
“Truth is I’m just not sure I’d do well in prison, what with this baby face and all.”
“Yeah, you’ve got some real purty lips.”
He watched her swim away from him with a sense of relief. She was dangerous, this one. He had the feeling there were no boundaries, no walls impermeable to her. He had to stay on guard for the short time he was forced to stay in her company. Once back at camp, he’d get his bearings and hit the road. If the water didn’t feel so damned good, he’d head back right now. Still, he’d just give it another fifteen minutes and then make some excuse. He was tired, or maybe his head ached.
She swam out a dozen yards before circling back toward him. She didn’t seem to have to put any effort into swimming. She floated in before him in that slowly flowing water as easily as a flower petal drifting on a stream. In comparison, he swam like a Volkswagen. Fortunately, the water here was only chest deep.
She slowed to a stop and treaded the crystal clear water directly before him, even though she could have easily put her feet down on the gravel bed and rested. As he looked at her, his gaze suddenly defied his orders and slipped below the surface. Her body poured away beneath her, flowing down into the depths like liquid crystal, perfectly curved, perfectly balanced, perfectly dangerous.
When he looked up at her again, her eyes were locked on him. At first, he thought he’d been busted, but he quickly realized the look spoke more of curiosity rather than condemnation. A question was brewing behind that gaze.
“What?” he said.
“Do you like games, Henry?”
Games? Jesus, no. Who the hell asks questions like that, anyway?
“Sure,” he said anyway, “I mean… you know, it depends.”
“Well, the type of game, of course.”
“The type of game,” she repeated, “Getting closer. What else?”
Jesus, she was relentless.
“What else, Henry?”
“What else what?” he said.
“What else defines whether you play games or not. Other than the type, I mean.”
Henry thought about it. What choice did he have? He had to come up with something. There was no evasion in sight.
“I like to gamble,” he said in surrender, “Black Jack, poker, craps. Almost any game where a good player has a degree of control and can walk away with some profit.” He immediately cursed himself. What the hell was that? He prayed she didn’t take it as a flirt.
“I see,” she said.
“You see?” he said back, “Seriously? You see?”
“Well, of course I see. It’s obvious. You need a trophy. You need some kind of prize to make the game worth pursuing, or it’s just no fun.”
“So, you’ve got me all figured out already,” he said. She did.
“It’s probably born of lousy parenting,” she said, smiling impishly, “Further driven by hidden feelings of worthlessness. I bet you don’t ever compete at anything unless you can walk away with some token proof of your manliness. Maybe a metal statue or a stuffed bear, or maybe a deer head for over the fireplace?”
As Henry looked at her, he wondered how afraid he should be. Not only was she damned near right, she seemed to have a penchant for digging through his psyche and finding the nuggets of truth. She kept pushing him off guard with no apparent effort at all. He really needed to steady himself.
“What’s the matter, Henry? Too close to the truth?
“No. It’s none of that manhood bullshit. Mostly I’m just greedy.”
“I suspect greed’s the least of your problems, Henry.”
He watched her watching him, and he felt a weird kind of exhilaration for it. He had a feeling that in another world, in another time, in another dimension, she might have had something to offer him.
Too bad it didn’t fit into his current agenda.
She dipped her face in the water, then flipped her multi-colored locks back. “Where are you from?” she asked as she wiped the water from her face.
Shit! Here we go.
“Michigan,” he said.
“Michigan? You’re a hell of a long way from home without a car.”
“Michigan isn’t my home.”
Alice resumed paddling the water. Then her brow tensed, and she leveled her guns at him. “I see.”
“Now what do you see?”
“That’s the kind of game you like, is it, Henry? Something with a bit of the bait and switch tactic? Cloak and dagger? Hints and innuendos? Because if it is, you should know I’m pretty good at it.”
“You didn’t ask where I lived,” he said quickly, “You asked where I was from.”
She floated up onto her back. Her body emerged from the waterline like a gift from above. Henry’s heart leaped ahead of him. He quickly found interest in the circling hawk.
“All right,” she said as she floated before him, “Where do you live, Henry? Right now, not five years ago.”
She glanced over at him. “You don’t sound sure. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, pretty sure. Riverside.”
“How’d you end up in the middle of New Mexico in such a… state of affairs?”
The temperature of the water dipped. He suddenly felt like he was sinking. Names, games, and addresses were one thing. But explaining his Epic Outing wasn’t a road he had any intention of turning down. Not today. And especially not with her.
She rolled over and swam closer to him, sailed up so close that her face floated just inches from his. Water beaded her face, glistening like liquid jewels in the breathless sun. Wet strands of florescent hair lounged around her smiling eyes. The pressure of the warm water agitated against his skin as she paddled. He felt the tickle of attraction.
He cursed himself and forced the sensation into retreat. Damn you, Henry! Defense already! What the hell are you doing? He dipped his face in the water and flipped his hair back on his head.
“I asked how you ended up here?” she pressed, “In New Mexico? With no car? No socks? The tattered remnants of what was once likely a styling suit.”
He again splashed a scoop of water on his face and smeared it up across his head. He started to speak, but the words simply wouldn’t come out. He felt like he was lost in the middle of the desert with no clue which way to run. And then he remembered that he actually was in the desert and couldn’t help laughing.
“Okay, I get it.” She said it like she’d just discovered another character flaw.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” she said, smiling politely, “It’s just… I see how this is going.”
“What?” he demanded, though he knew exactly what she meant. She was supposed to see how this was going.
“Nothing,” she said swimming backward from him, “Look, I need some exercise. I think I’m going to take some laps.”
He watched her swim away. And as she left him, he felt a strange kind of emptiness like he’d just lost an organ. His stomach felt unsettled. He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly feeling so uncomfortable, and he knew exactly why he was feeling so uncomfortable. Alice had the worst possible trait imaginable in a civilian. Alice had x-ray vision, and a lethal smile.