The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 13

Back when Knox had been a Boy Scout and visited the Carlheim Hotel for special ceremonies, the building had struck him as being terribly out of place. The black timber framing on the outside, because the owners wanted it to look authentic, had been rough hewn. The brick walls, instead of being painted in the traditional white, were a light brown, making the whole sprawling structure dark and mysterious, too gothic for Knox’s tastes. It was three stories tall, the top two floors built with three-foot jettys. All those years ago, the Douglas Firs that lined the front sidewalk and all the promenade walks had been large. Now they were massive. Walking under the shaggy branches, Knox felt as if it was late afternoon instead of early morning. The trees gave off a distinctive evergreen scent, but it wasn’t the sharp tang of more modest pines. It was more of a spendrift turpentine.

The floor of the hotel’s front porch was the same dark slate at the steeply pitched roof. From all of the pictures that Knox had seen of Tudor homes, none of them had porches, certainly not this broad, wraparound porch that took him and Levinthia several seconds to cross. Authentic or not, the porch appealed to Knox. It was so completely unlike any of the buildings he frequented in his art rental business. This would be a perfect place to ride out a thunderstorm or monitor the progress of a snowstorm. All the shadow and shade, dark timber and dark stone made it a gloomy enterprise, but, surprisingly, not at all depressing.

Stepping inside the lobby, Knox was shocked by how familiar the interior looked. They had kept the profusion of potted plants and the gorgeously polished oak of the front counter, but no burgundy jacketed clerk stood behind it, alertly waiting to satisfy the needs of an out of town guest, those New York interior designers and German mechanical engineers who flowed through Hibriten in the golden age of the furniture factories. Knox remembered his mother and father talking about those exotic visitors in supple suits and shiny shoes touring the plants. From his own experience with having that industry cave in right under his feet, Knox doubted if Hibriten would ever see such glory days return. Strangely though, he felt an edge of homesickness so sharp that it interrupted his breathing for a moment.

Trying to catch his breath, Knox paused, surveying the hushed lobby. “When you said they’d renovated this place for condominiums, I expected fluorescent lights and plastic wall panels.”

Levinthia linked arms with Knox. “No. The Carlheim is on the historical register. The owners can make changes, but they can’t compromise the visible aspect of the building.”

“But didn’t you say the ballroom had been made into a spa?”

“That’s in the basement, and basements aren’t considered a “visible aspect.” Levinthia led Knox across the lobby, through a heavy wooden door, and into a dimly lit hallway.

“Your condo is ground floor?”

“The smallest ones are ground floor. Cheaper than the larger upper floor apartments.” She scooped her keys out of her purse.

What Knox first noticed when he stepped inside Levinthia’s apartment were the exposed ceiling beams. They were the same rough hewn timbers framing the outside walls. Vaguely, he recognized the paintings on her walls as Levinthia’s work, but for several minutes, he was distracted by the color of the walls themselves. Their neutral color mesmerized him. One chronic source of friction between Knox and Levinthia when they lived in Albany had been her preference for what she called “vivacious” wall colors. Knox admitted to himself as he examined her living room that her taste in wall paints never really leaked into gaudiness, but he still urged her to keep the lively colors for her canvasses. Definitely, these walls suited him more than her.

Rotating as he gazed at the dimensions of the living room, Knox drifted toward a couch that seemed to be upholstered in a Persian carpet. “You know, I think I could fit my entire apartment in your living room.”

“Space was definitely a selling point when I looked at this condo.” Levinthia sat down on the couch and patted the cushion next to her.

Knox sat down. “Have you lived here since . . .” he hesitated “. . . the divorce?”

“No. I put all of my settlement money into the art supply store.” Levinthia tilted her head back and laughed. “If the zoning had been different, I think I would have lived in the store, but I moved into a government subsidized apartment for two years.”

“And you made enough in two years to move into these grand accommodations?”

Levinthia laughed again. “Not really. But business was good.” She shimmied her shoulders and closed her eyes for a second. “I found some people who liked my paintings enough to pay me some embarrassing prices for them.”

Shifting around on the couch so he could consider Levinthia more completely, Knox stared at her. “You’ve got patrons?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Loomis and Lucy.” Levinthia folded her hands in her lap and arranged her face in an exaggerated expression of smugness.

“It’s hard for me to imagine anybody in my old neighborhood as art collectors.” Knox leaned slightly toward Levinthia. Her mock smugness was kinkily attractive—the way a fake orgasm could sometimes be arousing.

In the second that Levinthia caught Knox’s expression, her smugness softened into a flickering smile, and she leaned very close to his face, touching his jaw with her fingertips. “I hope I can explain what kind of collectors they are.”

For as long as Knox had known Levinthia, she’d never spoken to him like this. She actually sounded mysterious—not in the theatrical way she had sounded and looked smug just a minute earlier, but haunted. Now, he was concerned about her. At the same time, he shamefully realized that the haunted Levinthia was even more provocative than the playfully smug Levinthia.

While Knox tried to understand what Levinthia meant, she pulled away from him and leaned back against the arm of the couch. “Let me fix us something to eat. Then we can take a shower.” She watched Knox’s face as if to make sure he understood her insinuation. “It’ll save time if we shower together, and we don’t want to keep the police waiting.”

“Do you need help in the kitchen?”

“You can help me fix lunch if you don’t plan on going back to Atlanta once we get done at the police station.” Levinthia rested her hands on Knox’s thigh for a moment then pushed herself up from the couch. “While you’ve got the time, I’d really like you to look at what I’ve painted over the last few years. I’ve been evolving like you wouldn’t believe.” She swept her hand around the room where her paintings hung.

“Do I need to start with a particular picture?”

Levinthia led him to a painting beside the door to the kitchen. “I don’t think you need to worry about following the right sequence. This one might interest you. It’s very much like the one you saw me delivering to the Loomis’s yesterday.” She watched Knox closely. “Do you recognize the subject?”

“That’s Lucy’s Field.” The detailed brush work astounded Knox. “You didn’t even used to do landscapes.”

“They’re favorites of Mr. and Mrs. Loomis—and Lucy too, but since her parents don’t get out as much as they used to, they want me to bring the outside to them.” Levinthia crossed her arms and admired her work.

Despite the painting’s view being from the back yard of the Loomises’ house, Knox would have recognized Lucy’s Field because Levinthia had included that part of his parents’ property that bordered the field. She’d even included the lawn chair that he sat in when he practiced his trumpet there. He stepped closer to the picture. It was exactly like the lawn chair he had used. Down to the green and white mesh straps woven into a checkerboard seat and back. Why had Levinthia made the chair green and white instead of blue and white like most lawn chairs were back then?

“Do you like it?” Levinthia bumped her shoulder against Knox’s.

“Overwhelmed,” Knox replied simply, not able to take his eyes off the picture even when Levinthia disappeared into the kitchen.

Not only had Levinthia depicted the chair with the correct colors, but she’d also left out three of the green straps in the seat—the same three straps that had actually been missing from the chair. Several times, Knox counted those three missing straps. And Levinthia had even positioned them correctly, toward the back. He’d had to sit on the front half of the chair because when he did put his weight on the seat where the straps had been lost, he’d eventually feel parts of his butt oozing through the spaces.

Compelled to learn how Levinthia had known so much about a lawn chair that hadn’t been around for at least eighteen years, Knox turned his head toward the kitchen door and opened his mouth to speak. Though not as common as the blue and white lawn chairs, the green and white ones were by no means rare. Still, he was certain that Levinthia had never visited his house when they were in high school. They barely knew each other.

He had forgotten all about the chair until Levinthia had put him in front of her painting. He pulled his attention away from the chair, hoping he might find something else in the painting that could clarify how Levinthia rendered such a minor detail so correctly. Surely, she’d have some explanation. She’d probably remind him of the time that he had described his lawn chair in loving detail back when they were married. When he hoped to make her see that he had once been artistic too.

Letting his eyes travel across the minutely detailed barbed wire fence separating his lawn chair from Lucy’s Field, Knox involuntarily raised his hand to assure himself that Levinthia hadn’t glued miniature briar bushes to her painting. Even the scrub pines seemed flicker with his breath. Aware of how difficult it would be to explain to Levinthia why he was caressing her painting if she were to poke her head through the kitchen door, Knox eased his hand behind his back. But the more he gazed at the painting, the more tactile the images became. To his muscle memory came the tricky sway of clumpy soil that bred the briars and broomstraw. All breeds of tangled weeds seethed among stunted junipers. Yet, somehow, Levinthia’s landscape didn’t strike Knox as jumbled or arbitrary. In this field, he detected a harmony of parts that he’d never noticed in the actual field.

Now he had to step back from the painting. While all the vegetation was just as chaotic on the canvas as it was in Knox’s memory, a vague symmetry shimmered in the patches of shade cast by the small trees and clusters of bushes. Had she planted some sort of wash painting over her landscape? If Knox squinted, he could see a distinct outline—not exactly of a face, not a person’s face, anyway. Not an animal’s either. But if he focused his vision just slightly in front of the bushes, he could see two shadowed areas that might accommodate eyes. Then a suggestion of a nose. Right at the moment when Knox felt all the features about to clarify, he was shocked out of his concentration, two startlingly focused eyes seemed to jump out of the painting. His arms crossed in front of his face, Knox dodged what appeared to be a projectile stare. Even as he stumbled backwards onto the couch, he felt more startled by the eyes than threatened. Although he couldn’t recall if he had yelled when the eyes jumped out at him, before he could regain his composure, Levinthia stepped through the door and glanced from Knox to the painting.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I was just knocked off my feet by that painting.” Knox pulled himself to a less horizontal slant on the couch. “Something in that field looked at me.”

Levinthia took a step further into her living room and bowed. “Why thank you. All art should be interactive.”

With a shake of his head, Knox scrambled to his feet, keeping his eyes on the painting. “This is a little more intense than interactive. Do you have some kind of plasma screen disguised as a canvas?” Knox approached the painting from an oblique angle, letting his fingers skim along the wall, hoping he’d find a disguised depression around the painting.

Slightly alarmed, Levinthia tugged Knox back to the couch. “I didn’t expect my technique to upset you like this.”

“You mean you don’t have some computer graphics program drizzling pixels over that landscape?”

Going to the painting, Levinthia lifted it from the wall, and showed Knox the back and sides. “No wires, no wireless. Just incredible technique.”

“Now I am disturbed.” Knox ran his hand along the side of his head and stood up. He eased around Levinthia and ran his hands along the perimeter of the frame. “Let me hold it for a minute.”

As soon as Levinthia let go of the frame, Knox raised and lowered the painting several times, trying to determine if its weight didn’t correspond to its size. In his art rental business, he’d developed a very discerning sense of a picture’s weight in proportion to its size. Very careful to keep the picture side of the canvas turned away from him, Knox tilted the painting from side to side, back and forth. He couldn’t discern any sort of suspicious internal shifting.

“Do all of the other paintings in your apartment represent your incredible technique?” Knox hung the painting back on the wall, and when he had to stand in front of the painting to get it level, he tried not to think about the stare that had jumped out at him.

“I know what’s wrong with you!” Levinthia clapped once then pulled Knox into the kitchen where she sat him down in a breakfast nook. “You’re jittery because you haven’t eaten since last night.

Studying the layout of Levinthia’s kitchen, all stainless steel appliances and pink granite countertops, clear glass cabinet doors, Knox squared his shoulders and wondered if it was too late for him to shift his talents into the antique business. “That’s the way we art brokers conduct our lives, Levinthia. Many a night, I’ve gone without eating until breakfast.”

Levinthia patted his shoulder. “That’s no way for a sensitive man to live.” She went to the coffee brewer and fixed him a cup without asking how he wanted it. “What I meant was that both of us have had a pretty strenuous night and morning. Much more strenuous than I’m used to.”

As he raised the cup to his lips, Knox noticed that his hand did tremble faintly. “I know what you mean. People are always surprised when I tell them how mild the excitement is in the art rental business.”

One of the appliances beeped on the other side of the kitchen. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for.” Levinthia glided from one counter to the next, filling their plates, her motion sending billows of food scents in Knox’s direction: eggs, sausage, gravy, biscuits.

And underneath all those yeast and meat odors, Knox thought he detected fruit. Levinthia had always been a fruit in the morning person. “Are you hungrier than usual?”

“Famished.” She carried two plates to the nook and slid one in front of Knox. “Wrap yourself around that.” She slipped onto the bench opposite Knox and adjusted her plate as if she planned to eat with calipers instead of a fork.

In addition to the eggs with red and green peppers, the sausage, the gravy biscuit, the bacon, and the grits, Levinthia had also cooked silver dollar pancakes. For a moment, Knox stared at his breakfast, overwhelmed by the abundance. “I’m going to be all day eating this.”

“No, we got things to do.” Levinthia began eating.

“God, everything tastes so good.” Knox voluntarily removed himself from any further conversation when Levinthia nodded at his comment then dropped her attention to her plate.

After several minutes of uninterrupted eating, Levinthia looked up and exhaled deeply. “How about some mood music?”

Knox paused, almost panting. “Music good,” he grunted.

Levinthia walked to a far corner of her kitchen and turned on a sound system stored in its own cabinet. She hurried back to the nook, smiling madly. “Get ready.”

From plush, invisible speakers, Harry James played “Sleepy Lagoon.”

Leaning back in the breakfast booth, Knox felt his hands go numb, his nerves surrendering to a melody he hadn’t heard since he was a teenager. It named his longing as a boy for romance, for all those places and women who were far away. This music was strange to all that he knew growing up in Hibriten, selling furniture in southern Georgia and northern Florida, and renting art reproductions to business offices. For the duration of the song, Knox dipped into a profound melancholy. Nothing about his life measured up to this three minute performance. Except, he did have this song. It was woven into what he was, if not what he’d done. He had gotten to Hawaii with Levinthia. As the music unwound between him and her, Knox felt something hard and bright tighten the membranes between his heart and lungs. His eyes went blurry. He took a deep breath and stared down at his breakfast. He knew if he looked at Levinthia, she’d think he had lost his mind. Besides, he warned himself, if he had to accommodate her face and Harry James’s trumpet at the same time, he might explode.

For a while, they ate and listened to “Skylark” then “Stardust.” When Knox was able to raise his coffee cup with a steady hand, he took a chance and glanced at Levinthia. Relieved to find her looking at him, Knox asked, “Where did you get this music?”

Slowly, Levinthia pushed her empty plate to the side and rested her elbows on the table. “It’s a three disc set. Harry James and his Orchestra, Bandstand Memories, 1938-1948.”

“I didn’t know you liked Big Band music.”

“Well, one day, I was thinking about you. Mostly, I thought bad things about you. But this one day, I remembered your telling me about playing some of these old songs for Lucy Loomis. And I realized how sad that was—not that you had played for Lucy, but that you’d been an artist back then, and somehow found yourself as an adult selling furniture, living on the road, while I was at home, doing what I loved to do, all along resenting your condescending, patronizing attitude.” Levinthia dropped her eyes to her hands and started to rub her index fingers together. “So I started wondering what does the art of the trumpet sound like, and I remembered your mentioning Harry James. The rest is history.”

Too coincidentally, Harry James started playing “You Made Me Love You.”

When Levinthia glanced up at Knox, surprised as he was by this song, he asked in a whisper, “Did you rehearse this?”

She dropped her gaze for a moment and laughed through her nose. “Let me ask you, Knox,” she said looking him in the eye again, “do you like what you’re doing?”

“You mean with my art rental business?” Knox frowned. He could tell that Levinthia wasn’t criticizing his job, although he couldn’t understand how she refrained from patronizing him. Most of the people he knew from his days as a furniture representative, when they heard that he was dealing art out of a truck, assumed he was parked by the side of the road, selling senoritas and Elvises on velvet.

“I know you like the traveling part.” Levinthia pointed two fingers at Knox without moving her elbows from the table. “Admit it. You love being on the road.”

“I do. I like driving, especially at 9:45 in the morning when I know that everybody in town who works in an office is getting settled behind their desks and know they’ve got another seven or eight hours sitting at that same desk doing the same job they were doing yesterday and will be doing tomorrow, looking at the same row of desks or cubicles hour after hour.”

“But why art reproductions, Knox?” Levinthia shook her head. “It can’t be that profitable.”

“For a single painting, no. But to hire my services, the business has to rent at least five paintings per quarter. And I require a minimum one year contract. The secret is volume.”

“That philosophy is true for any sort of business, though, isn’t it?” Without waiting for Knox’s answer, Levinthia continued: “What I want to know is how much you like your job because you’re working with art. Or are you a frustrated interior designer?”

As much as he didn’t want to admit to himself, much less to Levinthia, he did have several Vermeer reproductions that he sometimes let ride in the front seat with him. He didn’t rent the Vermeers out to just anyone. Usually, he preferred to put those paintings in his favorite secretaries’ work spaces. Most of the male managers he encountered were perfectly content with Rembrandts and Remingtons. Woods and Hoppers. Wyeths and Rockwells. Of course, Knox had to admit, he liked them too. Although he did have to be careful which Wood paintings he showed his bankers and lawyers. Sitting in Levinthia’s breakfast nook with her showing such concern for his job satisfaction, all he could think about was that Grant Wood painting “Sultry Night.” She was like that bucket of water the naked man was pouring over his chest.

“I like a lot of the art I rent. And I like the mental challenge of picking the right painting for the right space.” Knox scratched his head. “I guess that means I do like interior design.”

“I thought as much.” Levinthia slid out of the breakfast nook booth. “Let’s have a little fruit for dessert then get ourselves ready.”

“To go to the police station?”

Briefly, Levinthia looked over her shoulder at Knox. “Well, yes. Where else would I be taking you?”

“Before we ate breakfast, you said something about taking a shower.” Knox saw himself as the naked man in “Sultry Night.” Just a few seconds after Levinthia opened the door of her refrigerator, Knox caught a whiff of sweetness. He rolled out of the booth and rushed to her side. “Is that cantaloupe?”

“The best I’ve ever tasted.” Levinthia lifted a large slice from the bowl. “I know it’s easier to eat when it’s cut in little chunks, but there’s more flavor if you have to wrestle with a whole slice.” She held up a slice with both hands, cradling it like she was going to summon a tribe of salamanders with it. But then she took a bite, smiling around the fruit at Knox.

“Did you buy this at that fruit stand down the road from your store?” Even as Knox spoke, feeling a smoky membrane of dread rise in his throat, he couldn’t help but reach for his own slice of cantaloupe.

“No.” Levinthia had to pause to wipe juice from the corner of her mouth. “The Loomises gave it to me a couple of days ago.”

Knox took a large bite. The flavor immediately suppressed his dread. “This is exactly the same kind of cantaloupe that the Samoan guy fed me yesterday at the fruit stand.”

“The one who said he was coming up to see me?”

“I think maybe we should mention him when we talk to the police.”

“And the woman who was in my shop.”

“Of course they’re working together.” Knox slid half of the cantaloupe slice into his mouth.

Levinthia picked up another slice. This time, she took a smaller bite and chewed meditatively. “They might have been who stole your truck.”

“I can see why you’d say that.” Knox finished off his cantaloupe. “But I really don’t like the idea of them being car jackers.”

“That’s a nice thing to say.” Levinthia’s voice softened unexpectedly, and she touched Knox’s cheeks with sticky fingers.

“Does this melon make you want to take off your clothes?” As he reached for another slice, Knox pressed against Levinthia.

“Yes.” Levinthia pressed back. “But I’m worried that you aren’t showing the proper concern for your stolen truck.”

Knox took a step back so he wouldn’t drip juice on Levinthia’s blouse. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get cantaloupe on your clothes.”

“You’re right.” Levinthia unbuttoned her blouse.

Watching his ex-wife undress, Knox wondered about his truck. At this moment, it was the least important thing on his mind. What would the police say, though, about how long it was taking him and Levinthia to visit them? Surely to somebody’s way of thinking, such a delay would have to look suspicious. Levinthia had finished taking off her clothes and began undressing Knox. He fed her two slices of cantaloupe as she got him naked and ate two himself. They took turns licking the juice off of each other. And when they finished making love, he wouldn’t want to separate from her. But they still had to take a shower, and who knew where that would lead? Knox couldn’t see himself ready to leave Levinthia’s condo for at least three or four days—or until they ran out of cantaloupe—even to report his stolen truck.

As he and Levinthia eased themselves to the sticky kitchen floor, Knox admitted to himself that he wasn’t all that anxious to find his truck and return to Atlanta in it. Especially knowing that the art he was carrying back with him had belonged to Levinthia. When they embraced, he thought of the Gauguin painting. Making love to Levinthia had never felt so tropical, so Pacific. Even on their honeymoon in Hawaii, Knox hadn’t felt so completely engulfed in his desire for Levinthia. Despite the depth of his passion, he couldn’t ignore the dull pain in his knees from their bumping into the tile floor. The discomfort only intensified the urgency of the sex. Framed the pleasure.

When they finished, they lay side by side on the floor, panting. Levinthia draped her arm clumsily across Knox’s chest. “The police are going to think we’ve been kidnapped.”

Knox slowly lifted his arm from the floor. The stickiness was almost audible. He took Levinthia’s hand. “We definitely need to take a shower, no matter how late it makes us.”

Easing onto her side, Levinthia frowned. “Did we dribble that much cantaloupe juice onto the floor? I knew we’d been a little messy when we were eating it, but I think I’m in a torso-sized puddle.”

As Knox rolled on his side to look at Levinthia face to face, he felt a tacky suction down the full length of his spine. “I guess it would look like we were genuinely concerned if we could get to the police station before lunch.” Knees throbbing, he struggled to his feet then helped Levinthia get up.

She led him into a large bathroom tiled in tropic green. Light came through a high, narrow window, but it suffused the room with a wavering glow that made Knox feel that he was underwater. Levinthia turned on the shower and adjusted the temperature. Knox observed that her back still retained the wavy texture of the kitchen tiles. He couldn’t remember how long they’d made love. The parts of him that had been in contact with Levinthia hinted at a few seconds, but the parts of him that had been in contact with the floor insisted it had been hours.

“I haven’t looked this forward to a shower in my whole life.” Knox touched Levinthia’s back and traced the indentations along her shoulder blades.

Levinthia gave into a charming slump. “Do you realize we’ve been together for nearly twelve hours?” She stood up and stepped into the steaming water. “I’m pleasantly exhausted, but I’m craving more.” As soon as Knox joined her, Levinthia turned to him, holding an oval bar of soap in her cupped hands. “Do you want to lather or be lathered first?”

“I’d better lather you first.” Knox took the soap from her hands. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to concentrate once we start getting slick.”

As Knox lathered and massaged Levinthia’s shoulders, arms, and back, he could feel her muscles relaxing. Occasionally, she’d moan softly. When he reached around from behind and lathered her chest and stomach, her moans sometimes began with a quiet gasp.

Breathing in rhythm with Knox’s lathering, Levinthia asked, “Do you like living in Atlanta?”

“That’s where most of my customers are. And then I can shoot up to Charlotte. Lots of companies with empty walls in the Queen City—not to mention Winston-Salem and Greensboro.”

“How often do you come up to Charlotte?” Levinthia turned to face Knox and took the soap from him.

As soon as she started lathering his shoulders, Knox had to lean against the wall. The weakness in his knees had nothing to do with how he’d abused them in the kitchen. He was surprised by how difficult it was to focus on Levinthia’s question. It had been a long night. Completely satisfying but not totally restful. Now an insistent peace settled over his muscles and drifted toward his brain. “Every couple of months.”

“So roughly, over the three years we’ve been divorced, you’ve been in Charlotte eighteen times?” She lathered his torso in long, slow strokes.

For a few seconds, Knox found himself counting the strokes, but he had trouble verifying Levinthia’s calculations. “You’ve gotten pretty good with the numbers, Levinthia.” He caressed her arm. “I guess it has been about eighteen or twenty times.”

“How many times did you come up to Hibriten when you were in Charlotte?”

“Two? Maybe?” Knox rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t tell if the steam from the shower or fatigue was blurring his vision.

“Do you dislike coming to Hibriten?” Levinthia stood up from lathering his thighs and studied Knox’s face. “Does this place make you sad or bore you?”

“Knox placed his hands on Levinthia’s hips and they rotated under the stream of hot water. “Since yesterday, Hibriten has become the most interesting place I’ve ever visited.”

“So, given the right incentives, you wouldn’t find it so unpleasant to move back here, permanently?” Levinthia turned off the water and pulled a towel from a rack beside the shower. Without waiting for an answer from Knox, she started drying him off.

“That feels just about as good as the shower.” Knox tried to remember Levinthia’s question. He felt so relaxed that he wasn’t sure if he could find his way out of the stall.

Drying herself off, Levinthia guided Knox from the bathroom into her bedroom. She was worried that she had miscalculated his reaction to the sedative. “Let’s just get you on the bed.”

“Too tired right now for bed,” Knox mumbled, still standing.

“Can you get some clothes on?” From a nearby chest, Levinthia pulled underwear and pants for Knox. She also had several shirts for him. Socks and shoes.

Knox found himself leaning heavily against Leventhia as she struggled to get his underwear adjusted properly. He patted her hair when she stooped over and lifted his leg into a pants leg. “Glad you’re strong,” he said after three attempts to speak her name. Although he couldn’t quite understand what she said in response, he was still conscious enough to hear a new voice approaching the bedroom. Just before he succumbed to the vertigo dissolving his vision, he recognized the exotic features of the Hawaiian man he’d met at the fruit stand.

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