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The environment is fighting back and Earth’s inhabitants are dying. Several typically safe and naturally occurring elements are suddenly being released in quantities and places never before experienced by mankind. The deadly effects on all living species are alarming, while the cause of the toxic releases around the world remains a mystery. Are these environmental accidents, man-made catastrophes on an epic scale, acts of terrorism or are they due to something beyond human comprehension? Dr. Celia (Cile) Reid is an investigator with the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Along with her boyfriend, Tobias (Toby) Davis, professor of Physics at UCLA and a team of experts around the globe, the couple must overcome geopolitical obstacles, identify the causes for the toxic releases and find a way to stop the disasters without doing even greater damage to the environment.

Adventure / Romance
Alex Fogel
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:

Chapter One

It defied all logic.

Toby panted and attempted to calm his breathing. The beautiful creature smiling up at him with love and adoration was a logical anomaly that he had been unable to explain for almost a year.

It was like trying to explain how he had gotten one of the Nobel gases to react with another element. That just didn’t happen. In a synthesis reaction, two components bond to create a larger molecule. Energy is required and is stored in the bond.

As he smiled lovingly back at her, he closed his eyes and could practically envision a divine being, carefully mixing the essence of Toby with equal parts the essence of Cile. The shimmering, silverish vapor that resulted would be recognized by anyone as pure, undiluted love.

While he couldn’t explain it scientifically, Cile radiated energy that created a reaction in Toby that he had never experienced before, and she had reacted to his reaction. The love between them was real, even if he would never understand how it had occurred through any logical explanation. With dual doctorates in Chemistry and Physics, the human chemistry that existed between him and Celia Reid was beyond his comprehension.

Cile recognized the contemplative expression that she frequently saw on Toby’s face when he looked at her and she was always patient with his attempts at understanding her attraction to him. She had struggled with the question herself when they had first met.

Tobias Davis was not ‘nerdy’, but he appeared introverted and scholarly in the way that the world, and she, had originally viewed him. While the world’s view might not have changed, hers certainly had. She had recognized the compassion, intelligence, strength, and morality in Toby which had allowed her to express herself completely and openly to a man; something that she had never been able to fully do before. She was secure enough with Toby to hold nothing back from him. Nothing, with a capital ‘N’.

Toby remained far more introverted in social situations than Cile would have preferred, but the subtle changes she had coaxed him to make in his dress and appearance had produced the heartthrob that she was always so proud to be recognized as her guy.

Nothing gave her greater pleasure than when she could feel Toby’s strong, naked body against hers, and she could use every technique at her disposal to prove to him just how desirable she thought he was. He was a ‘hunk’, he was a ‘stud’, but most of all, he was hers.

“I love you, Professor,” Cile whispered up at him as she continued to caress his back with her fingers and tighten her vaginal muscles around his softening erection.

Toby leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose, “I love you, and I love you loving me.”

“Good,” she said, “because it’s dreary outside and not fit for your normal run, so we have time for me to love on you for a while this morning. Will you let me do that?”

“I thought that is what you just did.”

“No, that was us loving each other, which we can certainly do again once my loving on you has produced the desired result. Remember what I told you at Katie and Tyler’s reception?”

Toby laughed and asked, “That you thought I had too much gray matter?”

“That’s right,” Cile said, in the sultry, bedroom voice shared only with her man, “and I promised to screw your brains out.”

Toby smiled down at her, remembering how diligently she had been attempting to keep that promise for the past ten months, and he knew what Cile wanted from him at this moment. It had taken a few months, and several lengthy conversations between them about their mutual needs and desires, but he had finally abandoned his feelings of selfishness created by her attention to his pleasure alone. He put his arms around her and rolled onto his back, positioning her on top while remaining joined with the remnants of his erection still inside her. Cile immediately found his lips with hers and teased his tongue with the lightest brushes of her own before moving lower to kiss and nibble on his jaw, his neck, and eventually lower down his body. The feel of her long, soft wheat-colored hair caressing his body stimulated Toby almost as much as her lips and tongue.

Her loving attention never failed to get the desired results.

“Christ that hurts,” thought Vincent Barrow as another muscle cramp, this time in his back, almost brought him to his knees.

What had started last week as stomach cramps; including diarrhea and vomiting, had progressed to these muscle cramps in almost every part of his body. He had tried every self-help remedy he could find on the internet related to stomach and muscle cramps, but things only seemed to be getting worse.

He checked the time and saw that it was just after 8 am. That meant that if on schedule, the ferry had just departed Cheboygan on its maiden voyage of this season. The ferry ceased operation between the mainland and the island during the winter, leaving him and the other seventy or so permanent residents of Bois Blanc Island to find alternative methods for getting to the mainland of Michigan. There were plenty of smaller boats and even a few airplanes that could be used, but if one needed to get their vehicle across Lake Huron, the ferry was the only option.

He needed to get his US Forest Service vehicle to the ferry this morning by 9:30. The ferry made only one round-trip each day during May, and his instructions were to deliver the truck to the dealership in Cheboygan and to pick up a new vehicle. The old truck had less than seventy-five thousand miles on it; it was only driven on a small island after all, but it was more than ten years old, so policy mandated that it be replaced.

Vincent Barrow never got sick. Consequently, he had never bothered to establish a relationship with any doctors, on the island or elsewhere. For his yearly physical examination, he simply went to the doctor or clinic specified through the district office in St. Ignace.

Rising from the toilet and testing his stability while standing, he stared at the shower, trying to decide whether or not he wanted to chance using it this morning. He hadn’t showered for several days due to the cramps making him feel like his balance was unreliable.

Using countertops, doorframes, walls, and anything else he could reach while walking through his cabin, Vincent finally made it to the small dining table in the kitchen. He selected the closest wooden chair at the table and while using the back of the chair for support, he slowly slid it back towards the bathroom. He felt like an invalid old man using a walker. Not a pleasant image for him at only thirty-two years of age.

Lifting the chair the mere four inches required to clear the curb at the entrance to his shower resulted in both of his arms cramping so badly that it took ten minutes before they relaxed enough for him to turn on the water. He waited for the water to warm before slowly moving into his shower and taking a seat on the chair.

The warm water was soothing on his tired muscles and Vince wished that he could remain beneath the caressing stream indefinitely, but he knew that the water heater in his cabin had a small capacity and would only provide him with warm water for a few minutes. He quickly washed his hair and body, thankful that the full beard he always grew over the winter months would excuse him from needing to shave this morning.

It seemed as if his body knew exactly when the warm water was turned off because multiple muscle spasms and the cramping returned almost immediately, hampering his ability to dry off. The resulting chill on his wet skin only served to heighten both the frequency and the severity of the cramps. Damn, he could barely move.

It took him over half an hour to get dressed, with much of his body still damp. He dressed in layers to produce enough warmth against his body to minimize the pain he was experiencing every time one of the cramps occurred. His hands were shaking so badly that he had difficulty pouring coffee into his travel mug. Screw it; he’d clean up the spill when he got home.

Vince walked on shaky legs to his truck. He was glad that the skies were overcast because he was convinced that even his shadow would hurt this morning. The cramp that enveloped his back and chest when he climbed onto the driver’s seat took his breath away, and he almost passed out before he was finally able to once again suck oxygen into his body. He started the truck, set the heater for maximum heat, and waited for the cab to warm up. Closing his hands around the steering wheel resulted in his forearms cramping, locking his gloved fingers in place for several minutes.

The distance from his cabin on the most northwesterly point of the island to the Bois Blanc Township Marina was just over ten miles, and it would normally take him about twenty-five minutes to make the trip. He had thirty-five minutes until the ferry departed, so he had to tough these cramps out and get the truck moving.

Vince had never considered it, but the lack of curves and intersections on Lime Kiln Point Road was a blessing this morning since it minimized the number of turns he would have to negotiate with his hands and forearms cramping. He struggled through the left turn once he had reached Huron Drive, but the route was once again relatively straight from that point to the ferry dock.

Having made his reservation, and paying the ferry fee online, Vince didn’t have to stop for the transaction now. There was only one other vehicle, a small sedan, making the trip to the mainland, so Vince followed the hand directions of the ferry crew and was soon parked on the deck of the boat. He knew that he would be required to turn the engine off, and dreaded the cold that would soon result from the heater being deactivated.

As expected, one of the crew tapped on his driver’s side window and signaled for the truck’s engine to be turned off. Vince did as requested while glancing in the rearview mirror to watch the ramp gate being secured and feeling the motion of the ferry pulling away from the dock. The ferry crew had finished their departure tasks and were quickly retreating into the warmth of the ferry’s interior.

The cold lake surface winds quickly made their presence known inside the truck, rapidly dropping the temperature around Vince as he sat behind the wheel. As the spasms and cramps began returning to his body, the distance between the cab of his truck and the door to the warm interior of the ferry seemed to grow in Vince’s mind. If he chanced the journey, he would have to make it a second time once the ferry docked in Cheboygan, and he wasn’t confident that he could do it once, let alone twice, but he knew that he had to try.

Using his elbow to push the door handle upwards instead of his cramped hand, Vince leaned against the driver’s side door to push it open against the gusting winds outside. Sliding off the seat and trying to find stable footing on the rolling deck of the ferry, he simply had to step away from the door to allow the wind to push it closed.

That one step was all he could manage before the multiple cramps in his body evolved into violent convulsions that sent him crumbling to the deck. His out of control body was at the mercy of the turbulent lake surface as it pitched the ferry from side to side. He first rolled away from the truck towards the side of the ferry before being slid the other direction as the craft was directed by a gust of wind. The clearance height on his truck was just enough to permit his now unconscious body to be wedged under it, making him invisible to anyone else on the ferry until after it had docked.

He would be dead by then.

“When did Dr. Phelps say that the test results would be back?” asked Jessie Harris.

“Preliminary results should be back later today,” replied her husband Jake. “Those will dictate what additional tests they will need to run.”

Jake and Jessie were the head cowboy and cowgirl at the Dryhead Ranch, a working horse and cattle ranch year-round, and a guest ranch during the summer months. They had just assisted the chief veterinarian for the Crow Nation reservation load up two mature elk which had been discovered on the ranch that morning. While the ranch was privately owned, it was situated entirely within the western portion of the Indian reservation, which is why Dr. Phelps had been notified.

“There’s no indication that the chronic wasting disease he suspects has been found in any cattle or horses yet, is there?”

Jake shook his head and took his wife’s hand as they headed back to the stables, “No, but we’ll keep an eye out for any symptoms once the herds get moved back up here from Wyoming next week. We also need to let Iris know that any venison or byproducts from deer or elk in her freezers need to get destroyed so that no one eats any of it.”

“Shouldn’t we wait to see what the test results say?” Jessie asked. “That would prevent us from having to waste a bunch of perfectly good meat if the cause of death for the elk was something else besides the chronic wasting disease.”

“What else could it be?” Jake said. “You heard what Dr. Phelps said about all the reports throughout the reservation concerning the strange behavior of several deer and elk over the past few months. The stumbling, weight loss, drooling and lack of fear of humans are all symptoms.”

“I know they are, but waiting for confirmation won’t cost us anything,” Jessie said. “I’ll just make sure Iris keeps everything frozen until we know for sure.”

“I’m fine with that. When do you have to leave for your meeting at the school?”

Jessie checked the time on her cellphone before answering, “I’ll need to leave in about twenty minutes. I sure hope that they can shed some light on why our three normally happy kids have suddenly become so moody and depressed.”

Six-year-old Ginny, eight-year-old Leah, and ten-year-old Jace had grown up on the ranch and always been well-behaved and joyous personalities, loved by the staff and guests alike. Since right after the New Year, each had exhibited behavioral changes that their parents could not explain. It had started with irritability, followed by depression, and now was affecting their grades in school. Jessie suspected that someone at school was bullying her children, and she wanted to put an end to that today, if possible.

“I wish I could go with you,” Jake said, “but I need to have that talk with Phil and Josh. Letting them go now will send a message to the rest of the crew that fighting won’t be tolerated.”

“You still don’t have any idea what got into them?” Jessie asked. “I mean, there’s not a girl involved that they might have been fighting over or anything, is there?”

“Curt said that there wasn’t any reason that any of others knew about,” Jake said. “Neither of them had been drinking either. Typically, everyone starts getting excited about the weather improving and the upcoming drives, but just the opposite appears to be happening this year.”

“Are you sure there wasn’t any alcohol involved?” Jessie asked. “Because I have heard Phil and Josh both slurring their words and walking like drunken sailors on the way to the bunkhouse. I’ve also witnessed Josh falling out of his saddle while his horse was standing dead still.”

“When was this?” Jake asked.

Jessie stared at her husband for several seconds before admitting, “I don’t remember. Christ, I’m forgetting more and more all the time it seems.”

“Well, regardless of the reason, they’re both out of here as of today,” Jake said. He was shaking his right hand and Jessie noticed.

“Going numb on you again?”

“Yeah, it feels like I’ve been sleeping on it or something,” Jake confirmed.

“I can assure you, dear Husband, that you were not sleeping on that hand last night. I kept it firmly attached to my left breast from before you went to sleep until you awoke this morning.”

Jake chuckled and kissed his wife’s forehead, “There isn’t a part of your body that makes me numb, Babes. If us having three kids hasn’t proven it to you, know that your body has the exact opposite of numb on me.”

“Well, let me get to the school and back,” Jessie responded with a lustful look that her husband treasured. “Maybe we can work on making you ‘not numb’ before the kids get home this afternoon.”

“Don’t forget you said that,” Jake told her, patting her on her bottom as she walked to her car.


“Elliot, this is Clive Grey. We’ve got an issue at the winery that you need to be brought up to speed on. It will likely require you to get our lawyers involved.”

“They haven’t been selling to underage drinkers have they,” joked Elliot Greer. It was common for him to try to make light of any problem brought to him as the General Manager for Wallace International’s operations in Australia.

“We could all wish it was that minor,” said Clive. “One of our workers just died, and two more are in critical condition in the hospital.”

“Died?” exclaimed Elliot. “Died from what. It’s a bloody winery. There’s nothing dangerous at a winery, is there?”

“Evidently, there is at ours in McLaren-Vale,” said Clive. “The cause of death has been identified as radon poisoning. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered everyone off the premises until they identify the source.”

“Radon?” said Elliot. “Where would radon come from at a winery, and why haven’t I heard of this before?”

Clive attempted to explain, “The doctor I spoke with said that there has likely always been radon present since it is a naturally occurring gas from the decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth’s surface. It’s not generally a problem because the amount of radon normally occurring is small enough to get dissipated in the air and not cause any health problems for humans. The doctor also said that due to the amount of radon detected in the workers and the rapid onset of symptoms, the exposure levels must be off the charts. That is why he was required to notify the EPA.”

Elliot checked the time, “The EPA is already onsite? It’s almost midnight. They must think it’s serious to get some bureaucrats out of bed at this time of night. You mentioned one worker had died and two others were critical. Anything common in where they all worked or anything?”

Clive searched his records for a few seconds before replying, “I have a message in for Nelson Portman to call me. He’s the operations manager and should be able to verify my records. Those indicate that all three of the infected workers were assigned to the cask warehouse.”

“Then they worked primarily inside,” said Elliot. “I thought radon came from the soil. I would expect the workers assigned to the fields to be exposed before warehouse workers. Are any other properties around the winery reporting any radon?”

“Not from what I have learned so far,” said Clive, “Radon can build up inside a building if it is located on top of a radon source. Building requirements in place when we built our warehouse and distillery units twelve years ago would have included testing for radon. None was detected at the time, so something underground must have changed since then.”

“Obviously,” said Elliot. “Let me ask you this, if radon gas can penetrate a concrete floor, which is what you are suggesting, could we also assume that it could penetrate the wooden casks that the wine is stored in? Can radon contaminate a liquid such as wine?”

“That’s one of the things that the EPA will be testing,” Clive confirmed.

“And we don’t know how long the radon exposure could have been occurring?” asked Elliot.

“Sometime between when the facilities were built and now, is the closest we can estimate at this time. That’s twelve years.”

“Wonderful,” said Elliot. “Do you think we can be reasonably confident that we haven’t been poisoning people for twelve years with contaminated wine?”

“I think we can be confident in the first couple of years after we started using the new buildings,” Clive said, “but that’s as long a limb as I feel comfortable going out onto at this point.”

Elliot groaned before continuing, “Okay, I’ll let the Wallaces know. What arrangements are being put in place for the workers, both for medical testing and for the continuation of pay and benefits for the duration of the winery’s closure?”

“Human resources will have a compensation strategy prepared for your review by noon tomorrow,” Clive assured his boss. “Medical testing will be coordinated through the EPA staff onsite.”

“Very well,” Elliot said. “Please keep me updated. I’ll likely schedule a conference call with the lawyers and the Wallaces once we have an initial report on the scope of the situation, so let me know as soon as you learn anything new.”

“I most certainly will, Sir.”

“Thank you. Good night.”

Doctor Garima Kumar sipped her tea as her computer booted. Her assistant had prepared it perfectly, which brought a smile to her face.

While waiting for the sign-in screen to appear, Garima reflected on how much happier her staff claimed to be under her leadership as India’s Minister of Health and Family Services, compared to her predecessor. He had been the far too common physician with a ‘God complex’, and he had let his perceived superiority dictate his treatment of the people who reported to him. It was no wonder that the same people had been so easy for Garima to impress, with her friendly but firm leadership style.

Her assistant reappeared at the door to her office and said, “Minister, you have an urgent call from Dr. Nadal.”

Garima looked around her computer screen and said, “Thank you, Anna. Please tell him that I will be right with him.”

She entered her password for her computer and then picked up the phone on her desk, “Good morning Rishit, how can I help you?”

The voice on the other end of the line sounded panicked. That was out of character for the Rishit Nadal that Garima had promoted as one of her district administrators.

“Calm down, Rishit. Please repeat yourself slowly.”

“My apologies, Minister,” Rishit said. “I am reporting that all the Bhil Meena inhabitants on Baba ka Magra and the smaller island Piari are dead. The wildlife sanctuary at Lake Jaisamand is also reporting hundreds of dead birds and animals of every kind.”

“Do we know the cause?” asked the Minister, trying to keep her voice calm.

“Not yet,” Rishit stated. “Our team discovered the bodies this morning when they arrived on the islands to conduct yearly immunizations for the children of the tribe. There are no external injuries or indications of the cause, so of course, we are starting with tests of the lake’s water. We should have preliminary results on these tests shortly.”

Garima launched her e-mail application before replying, “Understood. Have there been reports of similar deaths elsewhere?”

“We were hoping that you would know and could tell us,” Rishit said.

Quickly scanning the subject lines for any e-mails that she received between leaving her office last evening and this morning, Garima saw nothing related to what was being reported to her now.

“I have heard nothing prior to your report,” she told Rishit. “How many fatalities are you reporting at this time?”

“The initial count provided was one-hundred-thirty-four individuals,” Rishit said. “Sixty-three were adults, and the rest were minor children.”

“I haven’t been to Lake Dhebar for several years,” Garima said, using the modern name for the lake. “There are no chemical plants or other industries near there, correct?”

“That is correct,” Rishit confirmed. “It is in a rural area in the Udaipur District. The primary industry in the area is agriculture. That fact could become important if the water in the lake is the cause of these deaths because the same water is used to irrigate many of the farms and fields in the area.”

“Understood. Please send me the preliminary test reports on the water as soon as you have them. Be certain that our people take the appropriate steps to protect themselves from whatever may be the cause, especially some virulent infectious disease or the like. Keep the bodies isolated on the islands until the cause of death has been determined. Have any pathologists been notified?”

Rishit responded immediately, “That is my next order of business after notifying you. The immunization teams have all retreated to the boats that they used to access the islands and will remain on them until further notice.”

“Fine. I am going to contact the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change right now. I will provide them with your contact information so that you can coordinate the investigation with their pollution control specialists.”

“Yes, Minister. I will keep you informed.”

“Thank you, Rishit. Stay safe.”

As soon as the call was disconnected, Garima called to her assistant, “Anna, please get me Darshan Sridhar. Please tell him it is urgent.”

“Yes, Minister.”

Garima contemplated whether to notify the Prime Minister, but decided to wait until more details were known. Her assistant notified her that her call was ready, so she wasted no time initiating the conversation with her counterpart.

Without the normal pleasantries, Garima said, “Minister, there has been an incident at Lake Dhebar that may require your ministry’s involvement.” She spent the next five minutes explaining every detail that she knew at this time.

After listening carefully, Darshan said, “The fact that the birds and animals at the sanctuary also were affected would tend to rule out biological or viral factors, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I do,” said Garima. “Which is why I wanted you to be informed as soon as possible. If this is an environmental pollution incident, you should be allowed the opportunity to get your teams involved as quickly as possible.”

“Minister, I appreciate your consideration more than I can express,” said Darshan. “Your predecessor certainly would not have extended a similar courtesy. Has the Prime Minister been notified?”

“To the best of my knowledge, she is unaware of the situation. Someone else may have informed her, but it did not come from my ministry. I prefer to have more details before conveying this type of news to the Prime Minister.”

Darshan chuckled, “I apologize. This is not something that I should be laughing about, but the differences between you and the man who held the position before you brings joy to those who knew him, and sometimes that joyousness gets expressed at inopportune times. I will get the pollution specialists heading towards Lake Dhebar immediately. Please keep me posted on what your team learns from the water tests and any autopsies of the bodies.”

“Of course, Minister. I would suggest that you notify the Prime Minister of the situation, though. Knowing that your ministry is reacting so soon would be viewed favorably in case she hears of it from another source.”

“I will notify her as soon as we are done,” Darshan assured his colleague. “Thank you once more for your professionalism and courtesy, Garima.”

“We must learn to work together, Darshan. Especially in situations such as this may turn out to be.”

“Garima, if you ever run for Prime Minister, you would have my complete support.”

“Just a minute, Didi. I’m getting out of the shower.” Julian Cabot turned off the water and reached for his towel.

“That’s okay, Jules,” said his personal assistant, Didi Kleinhans, “I was just letting you know that I was here. I brought some coffee up for you.”

Jules turned and smiled at her through the glass door of the shower. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed that the sight of her produced a visible bodily reaction, or that Didi was able to witness the reaction while waiting for him in his bathroom. Jules and his assistant had worked together for three years and were as close as siblings.

Both had seen the other naked, or close to it on several occasions; sharing rooms, giving each other massages after stressful meetings, or discussing business together in a sauna. While each had acknowledged the attractiveness of the other, their relationship had remained chaste.

He couldn’t recall at the moment what the exact relationship was; cousin, niece, or something like that, but one look at Didi reminded him of her kinship to Amy Kleinhans, who had been the first non-white Miss South Africa. Jules thought that Didi could walk away with any beauty pageant crown in the world. She knew this and appreciated the fact that her boss and one of the most eligible bachelors in the world valued and trusted her above almost everyone else in his life.

“Good morning Didi,” Jules said as he stepped out of the shower.

Didi handed Jules the coffee cup and said, “Good morning to you, or what’s left of it. Why did you want to get such a late start today?”

Jules took a sip of coffee and said, “I wanted to meet with Siphiwe Myeni on the boat this morning. We needed to discuss the timing for the replacement of the engine seals. We had breakfast at the Meerensee Boat Club after that.”

“So,” said Didi as she took his towel and folded it over the rack for him, “you’ve already started on your caffeine consumption for the day. When you suggested that I be here between ten and eleven, I thought it was to allow you time to sneak your latest tryst out of the house before I arrived.”

“Heavens no,” Jules chuckled. “It was to allow you more time to roust your latest paramour out of your own bed”

Didi smacked his bare bottom playfully and laughed, “Aren’t we the sad celibate lot. You get dressed and I’ll get our laptops ready in your study.”

“Why don’t you get undressed and I’ll get the laptops ready?” Jules teased.

Didi laughed again and said, “I would except that you then wouldn’t be able to sit at your desk.” She pointed to his erection, “You need clothes to corral that thing whenever I’m around, and we both know it.”

Jules laughed with her and said, “Touché. I’ll be down shortly. Do me a favor and start looking at dates in May that we can move the board meeting to. The second week in June won’t work for me now. I’ll explain it to you later.”

“You want the same location, just a different date?” Didi asked as she started for the door.

“If possible. Let’s find an open date in my calendar first since that’s the factor with the least flexibility. We can adjust the location and other details much easier.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Didi said, as she left him alone to dress.

Quickly combing his hair and getting dressed, Jules considered the words he would use to once again try to convince Didi to allow him to buy her a condo. She had to know how important she was to him, both personally and professionally. Providing her with a place to live in a safer neighborhood closer to his house only made sense. He could just buy the condo he had been considering and then order her to live there as a condition of her employment, but he knew that she would see right through that. Forcing someone to do something against their will was not his style.

Didi sensed his presence when he entered the study where she was seated at her desk. She smiled at Jules as he walked around her to his desk and sat.

“I have identified two dates in May where the board meeting could be moved to,” Didi started.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Jules said.

Didi nodded, “But, they are both rather early in the month. I’m concerned whether we’ll have the financial reports for the fiscal year prepared by then.”

“Let me pull up my calendar,” Jules said. “Why don’t you roll your chair around here and we’ll go over it together. There might be some reshuffling of things later in May that we could do.”

Didi moved her chair around the desks as Jules shifted his to allow her to sit beside him and share the view of his monitor.

“Okay, let’s take a look,” Jules said as they both watched him navigating his schedule calendar. “Well, we obviously can’t hold the board meeting before May 23rd because that’s the date planned for the contract to be signed. I can’t notify the board of my plans to sell a controlling interest in Cabot Geological’s mining operations to Anglo-American Mining while we’re still within the non-disclosure period.”

“Jules, I know that we’ve discussed this, but are you certain that you want to relinquish part of your family’s business?”

“Didi, I’m only divesting us of the mining operations. If we don’t make a move now to get out of mining, I’m afraid that we’ll miss the opportunity to do so on our own terms. It won’t take long for others to realize what I have about the future of Platinum Group Elements, and when they do, the value of all PGE mining operations will go into a free-fall.”

“I know,” Didi said in acceptance. “Once China, South Korea, and Japan mandate that only electric and hybrid vehicles be driven in those countries, the need for palladium and platinum for catalytic convertors will plummet. Palladium is currently selling short of five-thousand Rand per Troy ounce and the global decline has been happening for years, but what about the other ores?”

Jules was shaking his head before Didi finished, “The Bushveld Igneous Complex does have significant reserves of non-PGE ores, but our operations in the Platreef Reserve has the lowest inventory of those compared to our competitors. We couldn’t produce enough to make the required technological investments profitable.”

Didi placed her hand onto Jules’ forearm and said, “You know I fully support whatever you want to do, but you mean too much to me for me to not want to protect you from any possible regrets.”

“Let’s revisit the idea of protection in a few minutes,” Jules said dismissively. “Look at this; if we reschedule the conference call with Cyril Matunjwa from the 29th to one of the open dates earlier in the month, then we could move the board meeting to then. That would leave Monday the 28th as a travel day so that none of the board members would need to leave on Sunday.”

“That could actually work to our benefit,” said Didi. “Cyril will be intending to pressure you on new union demands, so he’ll welcome the opportunity to meet with you sooner. You can then push his demands off until after the board meeting when Anglo-American Mining will be the ones he has to deal with.”

Jules laughed, “The workers at all Anglo-America operations belong to the Association of Mineworkers Union. Cyril’s National Union of Mineworkers may be on the outside looking in for quite some time.”

Didi didn’t join Jules in laughing, “It couldn’t happen to a more deserving creature. Cyril Matunjwa is a cruel, contemptible excuse for a human being. The fact that he isn’t in prison only serves to prove how corrupt the system is where labor unions and politicians are concerned.”

Jules smiled and nodded, “I really hope that someday you’ll overcome this reluctance to tell me exactly how you feel.”

That made Didi laugh. “So, now that we have a new date for the board meeting, can you share with me why you wanted it changed?”

Jules opened his e-mail application and selected a message from the previous day. Once it was open, he clicked on a hyperlink within the e-mail and waited for the website to launch. Pointing to it, he said, “We’re going to be traveling to the United States to attend this symposium.”

Didi leaned closer to the monitor to read the fine print on the screen. “The 2029 Earth Science and Environmental Symposium?”

“That’s right. Apparently, the thesis written for my Master’s degree made it into the hands of the symposium organizers and they have invited me to be on a panel to discuss environmental responsibility within the mining industry. I will be representing South Africa and there will be others from Canada, Russia, China, Australia, and of course, America.”

“The dates for the symposium are June 8th through the 14th,” noted Didi. “Will you, or I should say ‘we’ be attending the entire time?”

“You’ve never been to the United States, have you?” Jules asked her.

“No. Why?”

Jules put his arm around her shoulder and said, “I think that our trip should be a comprehensive one. How about if we fly to New York and see the sights there, and then drive down their east coast to the city where the symposium is being held, Myrtle Beach. We can then spend the remainder of June visiting whatever other locations in America pique our interest.”

“A sort of working vacation?” Didi asked.

Jules squeezed her shoulder with his hand and said, “Sort of, but with the emphasis tilted strongly towards the vacation aspect.”

“Jules, I would love to experience America with you, but do you think that it would be wise for us to be seen together as much as the trip you described would do?”

Although Julian Cabot and Didi Kleinhans had expressed their fondness and attraction to one another, they had always been hesitant to express the same in public. Apartheid had ended, but the society in which they both lived still limited them. Jules was white, of English descent, and Didi was Cape Coloured. Not a suitable combination.

Jules leaned over and kissed Didi on her forehead, “No one in America will take notice of you and I being seen together in public or private. I have one of the most beautiful women in the world beside me daily and I want the opportunity for people to finally recognize that fact. I want any limits to be ones that you and I agree upon between man and woman, not what society sets for us.”

Didi just stared at Jules without speaking. She trusted him more than words could express, but could she trust herself and her feelings for him if the limits that had always been in place were suddenly removed? The idea of falling even more hopelessly in love with Julian Cabot, only to be forced back into the limited relationship that currently existed scared her to death.

As if reading her mind, Jules said, “Trust me, Didi. You are my priority. I want you to be happy, and I think that you want the same for me.”

Didi just nodded, afraid of how her voice might crack if she tried to speak.

Jules stood and began pushing Didi’s chair back to her desk. She giggled while raising her feet so that they wouldn’t drag on the floor as he playfully spun her chair and rolled her into position in front of her computer.

“Now, be the good little assistant and make me happy,” Jules said. “First, start making our travel arrangements to New York. Whether you have us seated next to each other on the flights or booked into separate hotel rooms, all those types of choices are yours to make. I’ll make our arrangements for the symposium itself. Everything after that we can play by ear.”

“Got it, Boss,” Didi said with a smile. “What else would make you happy?

Jules wanted to say, “Move in with me,” but instead said, “Locate a mover to start packing up that rat hole apartment that you live in. I want you to move into the condo I am buying a few miles from here in Arboretum.”

Didi surprised him by saying, “Who’s making who happy here?”

She then surprised him further by standing and kissing him lightly on the lips.


“Good morning, Ginger. Have you got a few minutes?”

“Oh, good morning Lacey. Sure, I was just reviewing my grant application. What’s up?”

“I just received confirmation that our girls will be seated second at the Coastal Invitational and wanted to know if you can still make the second week of June.”

Ginger Olsen had played on the women’s volleyball national championship team at UCLA with Lacey King while they were both undergraduates. Lacey had gone on to become captain of the gold-medal-winning Olympic team, and eventually became the head coach for the program at UCLA. Ginger had given up competitive volleyball to pursue her post-graduate studies in geology and was currently an associate professor in Earth Sciences at their alma mater.

Ginger had filled in for one of Lacey’s normal assistant coaches several times, and had enjoyed contributing what she could when her schedule permitted, so when Lacey had mentioned the possibility of accompanying the team to the invitational volleyball tournament, Ginger had tentatively agreed.

“What are the exact dates?” Ginger asked.

“The tournament starts on the ninth, but our first match isn’t until the tenth,” Lacey told her. “I’m confident that our girls will make the finals, so you should plan on being in Myrtle Beach until the fourteenth.”

“Those dates shouldn’t be a problem,” Ginger confirmed. “Who else do you have lined up to help out?”

“I’m hoping to get Toby Davis to agree to be my scout,” Lacey said, with an obvious smile in her voice.

“Give it up, Lace. I’ve told you that I am no longer interested in Professor Davis in that way.”

Lacey laughed and said, “Whether you are or not, he’s still one of the best analysts of the other teams’ strengths and weaknesses either of us have ever worked with. But seriously, you’re really backing off without ever really even trying to hook up with Toby? He’s hotter than ever.”

“I know he is,” Ginger said in frustration. “The problem is that the reason that he is ‘hotter than ever’, as you put it, is because he’s head over heels for the woman who is grooming him now.”

“How do you know this?” Lacey asked, disbelieving.

“He introduced me to her a few weeks ago when I ran into them at Venice Beach. Lacey, I know that I still look as good in a bikini as I did when you and I were modeling them to make spending money while in school. The new woman in Professor Davis’ life made me feel pre-pubescent in her presence. Plus, anyone who sees them together would know that he sees the sun rise over her right shoulder and set over her left. He is as completely in love as you will ever see a man.”

Lacey considered what her friend had mentioned, and then said, “Would you, or anyone you know purposely make a man that you were interested in more attractive to other women? Maybe she’s just some sort of style coach for him or something like that.”

Lacey laughed and continued, “Remember how we teased Toby about wearing sweat pants and shirt to play beach volleyball while everyone else was wearing swimsuits? If anyone ever needed a style coach, it’s definitely Toby Davis.”

“I remember,” said Ginger. “I also remember that we both noticed how even being covered top to bottom in ugly grey sweats, him being toned and athletic was still obvious. Now he’s got great looking hair and he’s wearing clothes that not only fail to disguise that he is a hunk, but they also accentuate the fact. As far as why a woman would purposely make her man more attractive, she would have to have complete confidence in her man’s love and devotion to her. She worships him, and Toby Davis certainly worships her. She has nothing to worry about, believe me. I’ve seen the way they look at each other.”

“Do you know what she does for a living?” Lacey asked. “I mean is there an intellectual synergy between them, do they have much in common, or is the attraction purely a physical one?”

“He introduced her as a doctor, but I can’t recall if that was a medical title or some other academic field,” Ginger said. “Wait, she did say that she worked for the United States Government. I remember that much.”

“That means that she probably isn’t a medical doctor,” Lacey said. “There aren’t many of those employed by the government.”

“But it would imply that her intellect is probably close to being on a par with a college professor’s,” Ginger said.

“Maybe,” agreed Lacey. “She would have to be more than just beautiful to land Toby Davis. We’ve both seen dozens of the most beautiful girls and women in Southern California make their moves on him and get politely ignored. I’m just disappointed that you never got a crack at him. I think you two would have been great together.”

“Lacey, once you meet this woman, you won’t believe that anyone else could ever be a match for Toby other than her. You’ll just know, as I did, that they are the real deal. I’m sure it’s obvious to anyone who ever sees them together. That’s why I am not disappointed. I know that even if Toby and I would have hooked up, as soon as this woman came along, he would belong to her and I would be left in the dust. Celia Reid and Toby Davis are soulmates if there ever were ones.”

“Why does that name sound familiar?” Lacey thought out loud. “Do you know where she is from?”

“They never mentioned,” said Ginger, “but she did have a sort of southern ‘twang’ when she spoke. Not real strong, but sort of in the background of her speech.”

Lacey sounded distracted as she said: “I wonder…”

“You wonder what?”

“Just a second,” said Lacey. “Ah! Found it. Do you remember the NCAA tournament our senior year?”

“Most of it. Why?”

“Who did we play in the finals?” Lacey asked.

“We played Baylor, didn’t we?”

“Exactly,” said Lacey, “and Baylor had that All-American on their team that almost beat us single-handed. Remember her?”

“Vaguely. Why?”

“Her name was Cile Reid. Could Cile be a nickname for Celia?” asked Lacey.

Ginger laughed and told her friend, “Well, if it’s the same person, you better hope that Baylor isn’t playing in the Coastal Invitational Tournament or you can be certain that Toby Davis won’t be helping you scout the other teams.”

“If it’s the same person, I think I’m going to be scouting her,” said Lacey. “For a friend, of course.”

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