RSA – “Payback”

Apologies for the delay, folks! Yesterday happened to be the longest day in creation–or at least it seemed that way. Full steam from 5:00 a.m. to nearly 11:00 p.m. It’s any wonder I am up right now composing this thirteen hours later and with two hours of sleep…oh well!

Anyhow, this is another installment from the Recon Specialist Agency. I wrote this one a little before my birthday this year; Zora and I share similar sentiments about birthdays. Sadly I was stuck in bed on the day of my birth–stupid sinus infection. I think at some point you’ll see Zora doing the same thing to John…that’s going to be a blast to write 🙂

I am planning a meeting with my “panel” so you might get some John/Zora backstory–I can’t wait to see what results from that…

_____

 

Prelude

 

She stood in a defensive stance, hands crossed over her chest. Her voice was filled with ice as sharp as her stilettos when she spoke. “You rang?”

He flicked a glance at her as he tweaked the circuitry in his new invention. “End that with Master.”

She fumed. “Leave me alone, J. I am not in the mood.”

The dark-haired man sitting behind the desk in jeans and a blazer over a T-shirt that proclaimed, Warning, If Zombies Chase Us, I Am Tripping You raised an eyebrow as he put his current project aside. “You’ve been acting like more of a bitch than usual. I just wanted to know what was wrong.”

She beaned him with a glare. “Yeah, I’m on my period, Neanderthal.”

That got the desired wince out of him. He hated blood. She smiled. Fractionally. After a moment, he frowned at her. “No you’re not. There wasn’t any blood on my sheets this morning.”

That earned another glare. “I wasn’t even in your bed this morning, John. It must have been one of your backup hoes that you’re mixing me up with. And I oughta kick your ass for that.”

He guffawed. “The hell? I don’t let those dirty hoes in my bed. Those sheets are freakin’ Egyptian.” She cocked an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to laugh right there. It was a joke.”

“Yeah ‘cause the thought of you having hoes with your dorky ass is hilarious,” she quipped with an ungraceful snort. After her mirth passed, she griped, “Could we get this over with? You know how it looks when you call me in here like this.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s not like I could bend you over the desk. Tends to be hard with the glass walls.”

“Like that would stop you.” He smirked. Yeah it wouldn’t. “Pervert.”

“I am trying to be serious here. Show some concern over you.” The more he stared at her, the less angry she became. In fact, she was starting to…fidget. “Is something going on that I should know about?”

“No. Not at all.” 

Insert bland stare here. “Don’t lie to me. I can make your life hell for lying to me. You’ve been treating everyone like shit for like a month, and Stella says you nearly killed Drake in the sparring ring with the new prototype I made for you. I know you want to be some badass vagina, but you will show some restraint with my inventions under my roof. Your coworkers are not sparring droids.”

Blink, blink. She put a hand to her chest. “Are you…scolding me, J?”

He leveled the sternest look he could manage upon her. “I am. And stop calling me J. The name is Andy.”

Pause. She guffawed so loud that the glass walls quivered. His face fell in complete shock. He watched as she stumbled to the door and let herself out, laughing so hard everyone turned to look at her, then at their esteemed boss, who looked like he had been poleaxed.

As the troops returned to their work, he could all but taste the acrid tang of mutiny in the air.

She was going to pay for that one.

 

 

I
That evening

 

“That bitch has no respect,” John groused into his glass of Guinness. “No respect at all.”

The Friday evening din at their regular bar nearly overshadowed their meager conversation and John had to raise his voice to be heard. Edward Dean, better known as Eddie, took a swig of his own beer. Beside him, Stella Stevens enjoyed a nice glass of wine and raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at their friend who seemed irritatingly angst-ridden and Rodney Dangerfield-esque for the evening.

“Yeah, I heard she was laughing her ass off when she left,” Stella said. “What did you say to her?” John told her. “And she laughed at that?” She shook her head in disbelief. “That bitch has balls.”

“Well, it doesn’t help Andy lets her get away with murder,” Eddie remarked. That earned a glare from John. “She’s a good recon agent with awesome instincts, but she has an insolent streak—one that Andy indulges.”

“I do not!” John protested. Eddie just gave him a bland stare. “I reprimand her on a regular basis. She has the wrong idea that she’s special or something, and there is nothing special about her.”

Eddie opened his mouth to say something, but Stella sent him a hard look. They weren’t supposed to know that tiny piece of information that John didn’t want them to know—and they weren’t going to reveal their knowing anytime soon. Eddie pursed his lips together and spoke on a slightly different course—one that wouldn’t get him in trouble with his best friend.

“Someone told me that she was having some kind of dinner party at her house tonight,” Eddie revealed.

“A dinner party?” John frowned. “Why is she having a dinner party?” And why wasn’t I invited?

“Word on the street is that it’s a special occasion.” Stella tapped her wineglass with a nail. “Apparently, it’s her birthday.” John’s face went slack with shock. How could he not have known this? “Maybe you should put in an appearance and score some cake and show her who’s boss.”

“Maybe that isn’t a good idea,” Eddie said primly.

Stella scoffed. “Like hell. I think it’s a brilliant one. That’s what she gets for not respecting his authority. After this, she won’t have any choice but to respect him.”

“Yeah, but there are better ways to set someone straight. Especially since he’s had like five beers since we got here. He’s gonna do something stupid and get in trouble.”

Stella looked at John with hawk eyes. “Andy, can you walk in a straight line?”

John shrugged. “I mean, probably.” He drained his glass.

Eddie shook his head. “I don’t believe it. He’s lying.” He watched as John took out his wallet. “You’re not going to Zora’s house to embarrass her. Leave it alone, Andy. Dock her pay or something. Or fire her.”

“No,” John disagreed, throwing a bill on the table. “Stella’s right. She messes with my reputation, I mess with hers.” He replaced his wallet and stalked off, a plan formulating in his head.

“Make sure to get it on video!” Stella called after him. Eddie gave her a reproachful look and she merely tossed her luxurious hair over her shoulder in a gesture of defiance.

 

 

Meanwhile…

 

So yes, if you were wondering, something was up with Zora Scott.

If you were to ask, she would shrug and say nothing or mind your own damn business. If you were John Anderson Leath asking, she would lie and say she was on her period. (That usually worked, but it was becoming a bit trite.) But if anyone at the Recon Specialist Agency had been paying attention, they would have noticed Zora’s attitude worsening in a crescendo. And today was the accent note.

It was the middle of July. For most, this particular block of the year meant nothing more than time spent poolside with a bimini. For Zora Neale Scott, it was a dreaded time—her birthday.

Unlike her contemporaries, the coming of her birthday brought dismay, not excitement. A day where she was the spotlight, the center of attention. A day where she was the butt of getting-old jokes, the recipient of too-sweet cake and sloppy kisses from relatives.

She would’ve taken a month-long sojourn to Spain if it wouldn’t have sent up red flags to the wrong people.

She stood in her kitchen, flushed in the face and wishing for a sleeping pill, and checked on the asparagus that her mother was cooking on the stovetop. She was antsy, wanting to do something to keep her mind off of her impending doom. She knew there was frosted angel food somewhere. She just wasn’t able to find it.

Zanelle Scott, her big sister, sauntered into the kitchen then. The air about her was decidedly smug. Zora couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t her birthday again—not for another six months.

“Having fun, sister boo?” Zanelle teased.

Zora grumbled. “I think an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills would be better than this.” Before Zanelle could comment, her doorbell rang. She sighed. “It’s my house, I’ll get it.”

“Who knows? It could be a birthday surprise.”

Zora smirked. “Only if it’s Henry Cavill in a Speedo would it be a worthy birthday surprise.”

It was a shame, she thought later, that it was not Henry Cavill standing on her doorstep. In fact, she would have taken any alternative over what was actually there.

Zora could do nothing but gape.

“Guess who’s here for dinner?” John Anderson Leath declared, holding up two bottles like award statues.

The gape turned into a glare. And she slammed the door in his face.

A second passed. The doorbell rang again. Zora growled.

Mama Scott frowned as she came around the corner, hearing the sound of the bell. “Zora, aren’t you going to answer the door?”

Zora grumbled something under her breath that was best left unheard. Grudgingly she opened the door again. John was still standing there grinning like a serial killer. Without preamble, a curly-haired streak came zipping out of the living room and ran into John. Thrown off balance—and drunk to boot, he stumbled and fell off of the porch.

A moment later, a woman with light brown hair appeared, slate-green eyes wide as she took in the scene. “Leila?!”

The pretty child grinned impishly at her mama. “Look, Mama! He hurt himself. I should help him.”

Zora grinned, too, but malice was in her eyes. “Yes sweet pea, you can help him all you want.”

Embarrassed, Leila’s mother ushered her to the bathroom to wash her hands for dinner. John appeared then, brandishing unbroken bottles. “No need,” he assured them. “I am quite all right.” He gave Zora a pointed look. “I decided to stop by and check out your dinner party since you mentioned it.”

Zora, smile fixed in place, said through her teeth, “I don’t recall mentioning it to you.”

“Word travels.” He grinned at Mama Scott. “You must be Zora’s mother. Wonderful to finally meet you.”

Mama Scott, who was well versed in the art of politeness, responded, “Yes…and you are, again?”

“John Anderson Leath,” John introduced himself. “But you can call me Andy. Zora works for me.”

A male voice radiated from the kitchen. “That’s the sonofabitch who nearly got her arrested and killed.”

Zora sighed, not wanting to be reminded of Nathaniel Cole’s debauchery (especially in front of her mother who was given a watered-down version that didn’t supply names—including John Anderson Leath). “Could we not talk about that?”

Winston Monroe, dishtowel in hand, stuck his head out of the kitchen. “If that asshole is here, we will be talking about it if I got something to say about it.”

“Winston,” Mama Scott admonished. Winston disappeared back into the kitchen, muttering irritably under his breath. Curious—and a mite suspicious—she turned to John. “Dinner is almost ready. We were just about to sit down if you would like to join us.”

Zanelle appeared and took the wine bottles. “I mean, he brought liquor so I’m down.”

John grinned that creepy serial killer smile again. “Yes, I would be happy to.” He wrapped an arm around Zora’s shoulders. “Give me the spot next to this one.”

Zora tried to smile, but it looked like she was going to attack instead.

 

 At the dinner table…

 Mama Scott was shrewd enough to seat Zora inbetween Winston and her little sister Zandra, who sullenly picked through her dinner. She wasn’t sure about this person who had shown up on her daughter’s doorstep, so she placed him at the other end of the table where she could look him in the eye. Zanelle sat across from her little sister Zandra while ZJ, their baby brother had the spot to John’s right. Faye and Leila sat next to Mama Scott.

“This is a lovely dinner,” John remarked. “I don’t think I’ve ever had asparagus this good.”

“If I’d’ve know you were coming I woulda put cyanide in it,” Winston muttered. Zora nudged him not-too-subtly. Zandra snickered.

“I don’t like asparagus,” ZJ remarked. “You can have mine if you want.”

“No he cannot,” Mama Scott said sternly. ZJ deflated. “So what is it that you do?” Zora’s mother asked John, a dubious note to her voice. “Zora has never…mentioned you.”

Zora squirmed under her mother’s heavy gaze.

John considered this a humming moment. In the silence, utensils clanked on plates. He gave a long explanation about what he did for his father’s company, making it comprehensible to his audience. Zanelle sipped wine and looked intrigued.

He paused for effect while he cut a bite of steak as the others processed this. “Oh yeah. And I’m also screwing your daughter.” The grin he wore after this explanation punctuated it perfectly.

Crickets. Zora’s eyes nearly exploded.

Sensing her will to maim, Zandra slid the knife away from her sister. Shaking his head, Winston slid it back.

Frowning, ZJ turned to John. “But Zora is not a nail! How would you screw her?”

“Yeah how?” added little Leila.

Zanelle choked on her rice. Zora snapped out of her stupor and stood. She reached out and grabbed John by his collar as her mother told her to calm down. Faye was admonishing her own child as she told Zora, “Stop being so mean to him!”

“Outside, now!” Zora snapped as she dragged him out by the collar. There was a lot of cursing and banging. Faye sighed and covered her daughter’s ears.

“If you kill his ass, I got shovels!” Winston called after her. Mama Scott gave him a reproachful look. He merely shrugged and ate his asparagus.

 

 

Outside…

 

“You motherfucking asshole!” Zora ranted. “I ought to take your testicles with my bare hands!”

John faced her calmly with his hands over his chest. “Problem, babe?”

Zora’s response sounded like the jagged lovechild of a scream and a growl. John just stared serenely.

“How dare you come into my house and make me out to be some sort of fornicating whore? And in front of my mother? My little brother and my goddaughter?”

Silence.

“Payback’s a bitch ain’t it?” John asked.

Zora’s eyes nearly exploded again.

“Payback?” Zora spat. “You came here on my birthday to embarrass me for payback?!” Fed up, she struck out with a fist and clipped him on the temple. He caught her fist before it could do anymore damage.

“Yes, I did,” John answered testily. “And to teach you a lesson. You need to show me some respect, Zora. You may be…I mean, we may be…”

“Screwing each other?” Zora offered blandly.

“Yeah, whatever,” John resumed hastily. “But that doesn’t mean that you can walk all over me when we’re at work. I’m the boss, you know. And how my workers regard me assures whether or not they trust me to lead them. When you undermine my authority, it makes me look like a bullshit leader.”

Zora groaned, her anger draining. “Dammit…”

He released her hand. “You see that I’m right, don’t you?”

“You’re not wrong,” Zora contended. “But you’re not right either.” She placed her hands on her hips. “You can’t walk all over me either, John. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can put footprints on my back. Respect is mutual.”

“I guess you’re not wrong either,” John admitted grudgingly. “Maybe we both need to work at it.”

“Damn straight.” She glanced at her front door. “But in the meantime, you need to go apologize to my mama before she gets the edge weapons.”

 

 

That Monday…

The agents and scientists of the RSA gathered in the conference room Monday morning. There was a distinct buzz in the air. All eyes were on Andy Leath and Zora Scott. Everyone wondered what they would say or do next.

The answer came when, in the middle of a tech briefing, John lifted his head and said, “Ms. Scott?”

Everyone looked to Zora.

Zora looked at him calmly. “Yes, Andy?”

“Could you get me a coffee please?”

The group barely managed to stifle a gasp. Oh shit! What was going to happen next? Was she going to issue a fuck you, get it yourself or pour the hot liquid on his lap or atop his head?

With rapt attention, the employees watched as Zora rose and smoothly retrieved his coffee. She held it for a moment, standing over him. Ah, this is it! they all thought.

They were disappointed when Zora merely handed it to him.

After he took a sip, she asked, “Is it satisfactory, sir?”

“Indeed,” he replied, and she regained her seat.

There was a change in the air then. John Anderson Leath had regained his greatness, and yes it felt so good.

John grinned into his cup. “Result,” he murmured.

 

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RSA – “Distraction”

No matter how introverted I become, the people I meet always inspire me. The experience of seeing a scene in my head on paper (or screen) makes the awkwardness of creativity seem meaningless. This entry, like most of my literary forays, was inspired by a stray thought during an errant conversation that flourished into a full-blown idea.

This–and its counterparts in random order–will be one of the few of my brainchildren that includes a character that closely resembles me: Zora Neale Scott, named after notable author Zora Neale Hurston (well of course she loves herself while laughing!).  She appeared in a couple of other works, but I dusted her off and refashioned her to be a Recon Specialist Agent. My “counterpart” (if you will) and male protagonist was modeled after someone that I know. (He probably knows who he is, that cocky you-know-what.)

If our dynamic was a story, this would be how I would tell it. Would I call these characterizations true? Not exactly, but one’s vantage point is different than another’s. I like to think of it as a caricature. Take from it what you will.

Needless to say, reading this always brings a smile to my face.

Prelude

She zipped up her favorite dark jeans and turned to gaze at him with a frown.

“J, what the hell?” The nearly naked man amid the sea of rumpled bed merely gazed back, not saying a word. His expression of dismay spoke as loud as a disgruntled black woman at a horror movie. “It’s Mother’s Day. Stop bitching and deal.” She bent to pick up her utility belt. “And you done lost your mind if you think I’m getting you out of this one.”

“But you don’t seem to understand,” the man insisted. “We’ve been through this. Sitting through church service when you don’t believe in God is as annoying as trying to get through an episode of Jersey Shore. I feel like I lose I.Q. points trying to reason with these people.”

She leveled a stern look upon him, managing to look hostile in jeans and a bra. “Look, it’s your mama, J. Don’t be foolish. You don’t have to be the incredible John Anderson Leath all the fucking time. It’s annoying.”

He smirked. He couldn’t help it. “And this from the person who was moaning my name a few minutes ago.”

Her response came flying at him at top speed.

Luckily he ducked. The nearly lethal stiletto landed in his freshly painted wall.

“Goddammit, woman!” he griped. “I just got this fucking place remodeled and now you’re putting holes in the walls?”

She remained silent. Her expression said, with as much attitude as it could muster, Mm-hmm. That’s what you get for being an arrogant ass. He could almost hear her neck working.

He sighed and stood. He retrieved his gray tailored slacks from the polished floor and decided on a new approach. “I would be indebted to you if you helped me. All I am asking is for a simple liberation maneuver. Nothing too elaborate.”

“I am not rescuing you from a church, J,” she said, pulling on her black tank top. “That’s wrong on so many levels.” She shuddered. “I’m not religious but that just gives me the chilly bumps.”

“You’re mistaken. I’m pretty sure my tongue did that.”

If looks could slay, she’d be up on her kill count by one and thus, bye, bye problem.

“Come on.” His voice was cajoling.

She strapped on her dual hip holster. “No.”

“Come on.” Adamant.

Then came the electromagnetic wrist cuffs. “Nope.”

“Come on!” Exasperated.

“You about to get backhanded, J. Settle.”

“Hey, I’ll give you a bonus. Free and clear, off the books.” He came up behind her and stood close enough to smell himself on her. He enjoyed her hastily in-drawn breath in reaction. “Would make it worth your while.”

Breaking herself from his pull, she strode around him to the bed and yanked the stiletto out of the wall. It joined the others in its sheath on her outer thigh holster. He was too agitated to notice the plaster dust. “Pretty awkward, considering the circumstances.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s enough I’m still on your payroll amid this shit. Drake is still trying to get me outed for fraternizing with you. He thinks I’m your favorite since you let me come back.” She guffawed. “My ass.”

“My favorite part of you.” She smacked him across the back of the head as she passed. “Ow, stop abusing me, dammit. I could kick you out again for your insolence, woman.”

She waved it off. An idle threat. “Yeah, yeah.”

Frustrated, he grabbed her and held her in a vise-like grip. “Look, if I buzz you, you will help me get out of this. No questions asked. I am not requesting now. I am telling you.”

She jerked out of his grip and tossed her head insolently. “You ain’t nobody to me. Like hell I will.”

He considered this. “That’s exactly how you would do it,” he retorted. She rolled her eyes and left.

I

Two days later

So that was the dilemma. The great John Anderson Leath, the CEO of the multi-million-dollar company JAL Inc., the creator of the RSA and all-around badass boss, was reduced to occupying a pew next to his mother at church on, ironically, Mother’s Day and listening to members of the congregation prattle about that morning’s sermon. His awesomeness shrank in the presence of these followers of a god that they could not see. How delightful.

Most of his exasperation resided with the futility of the act. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother or loathed being around her. She bore him, gave him life, and he appreciated the gift of existence greatly. It went beyond the magnitude of his being, the idea that the world would be bereft without him; it was a simple gratitude for being alive. The idea humbled him, something he didn’t mind so much. However, in the present context…

Here in this space, the general populace knew him as Andy Leath, the mysterious, unmarried, and slightly wayward son of JAL Inc. Chairman of the Board John and homemaker Teresa Leath. No one knew his net worth almost equaled his father’s due to his various business dealings and technological prowess. No one knew that he managed a cache of dangerous spies who flaunted his inventions. And no one knew that he believed the concept behind this whole custom was bullshit.

How he wished for a vodka and Red Bull.

“You have been awfully agitated today,” Teresa Leath remarked, placing a hand on his forearm. “Is everything all right, dear?”

He smiled at his mother, cursing himself for letting his inner restlessness show. “I’m fine, Mom. It’s…work-related. Nothing for you to worry about. It’s Mother’s Day. We’re supposed to be worried about you.”

Teresa sighed, shaking her head. “I told John that letting you step into his shoes too soon at JAL would ruin your life. You’re not even thirty yet and have a whole company on your shoulders. If you need to step down—”

John tried not to laugh. Running JAL was child’s play. It was the RSA end of things that kept him up at night. “Mom, stop worrying.”

“All right, all right.” She held up a hand. “I just don’t want my baby lonely and overworked, that’s all.”

He couldn’t help but think of his $300 bar tab from two nights ago. Lonely and overworked? Not in the slightest. Eddie and Stella could attest to that end. Luckily her focus had shifted.

“Oh Emma!” John froze in his seat. He knew that tone. That oh hey why don’t I introduce you to my son so I can get some grandbabies! tone. He stifled a wince. His mother was relentless. “This is my son Anderson. He lives in the city so he doesn’t get to see us much.”

The young woman his mother addressed was a petite blonde with gray eyes. She wore a flowered dress that made her look twice her age. She beamed at him, and he already knew what she was thinking. And again with this, Mom? Ah, she meant well. Might as well play along. He wouldn’t be here for much longer.

“Hi, I’m Andy,” John greeted her. His mother had taught him manners. “Nice to meet you, Emma.”

“Thank you,” Emma said. “You know it is so encouraging to meet someone like you who has Jesus in their life.” John opened his mouth to speak, but Emma droned on. “All the guys I have met have nothing on their minds but sex and alcohol. And I am sanctified. I am a lady of the Lord and I believe in the preservation of my immortal soul.”

“Oh really now?” John prompted, feeling like he had fallen into a viper pit.

Emma nodded and smiled, and Teresa beamed expectantly at her son. Look at this lovely girl I’ve found for you. If you mess this up, you will be unforgiven for the rest of your natural life. John’s lips tightened over his teeth. Damn.

“Well…that is quite interesting,” John managed, hesitation only noticed by him. Putting his hands behind his back, John hastily pushed a button on his wrist unit. It was time for backup.

MEANWHILE…

Several miles away, in the cozy living room of Recon Specialist Agent Zora Neale Scott, the 2011 release of Mortal Kombat played on-screen. Sitting on the plush carpet, the owner of the house battled as Sonya Blade against her big brother’s pick, Jade. A fierce battle ensued that included name-calling, intermittent shoving between finger play, and a great deal of cursing. A cavernous bowl of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns between them and two glasses of orange soda nearby (and safely out of the way) completed the scene.

Winston Monroe, Zora’s self-proclaimed brother and best friend, exclaimed in triumph as Jade delivered a debilitating kick upon Sonya. Zora shoved him and moved her thumbs in quick succession to execute a response. She stuck her tongue out at him when Jade faltered.

“You little bitch,” Win said. “I’m gonna whup your ass.”

“You better be glad Mama isn’t here,” Zora said, biting her lip in concentration. “Or you would be the one getting the whuppin’.”

Win waved it off. “Mama wouldn’t care. Thanks to me, she’s getting rubbed down in baby oil by a guy who looks like Dwayne Johnson. She loves me more than you.”

A counter rested on her lips, but the sensation of being zapped by her RSA-issue wrist unit skewed her focus. “Fuck!” Zora swore. She rubbed where she had been shocked. “What the hell does he want now?”

Frowning, Win put the controller aside. Jade was frozen in mid-kick, dangerously close to Sonya’s head. “Who is it?”

Fuming she worked off the offending wrist unit. “I’ll give you a hint. He’s tall, dark, and aggravating as hell.”

Pause. 

“Leath,” Win growled, eyes narrowed. He stared at his younger sister with reproach. “Zor, I thought you were done being his bitch.” Zora looked away and said nothing. “Why would you go back to him after what he did? You nearly got yourself killed.”

“The fucker didn’t know what he was doing,” Zora burst out, instantly regretting the moment the statement crossed her lips. That was the lamest argument ever.

“Oh, so you’re working for a dumbass,” Win shot back. “How comforting to know.”

“He’s not a dumbass, Win—he just had to make a hard decision. I know it hurt, but kicking me out of the RSA happened to be the best thing at the time. How would he have known that Nathaniel Cole would betray him and rig his place to explode on the same day I stormed over to kick his ass over it?”

“Because he’s a brilliant but egocentric jackass with a set of cajones the size of marbles, that’s how,” Win countered. “Nathaniel Cole makes asylum patients look like child’s play. His rigging Leath’s house to kill him would be as obvious as Heather Locklear’s roots on old school Melrose Place.”

Zora waved an impatient hand. “Don’t have time for arguing over this.” She screeched as she was buzzed again. “Dammit, Leath!” She set her mouth in a line as she rose to her feet. “Well, if it’s a distraction he wants, he better get ready for the Mount Vesuvius of distractions.”

Win grabbed a Flamin’ Hot Funyun from the bowl in his midst. “How pathetic it is that he needs you to rescue him from some boring meeting…”

Zora shook her head as she went to the far side of the room. “Not a meeting. It’s a church service.”

Win sputtered. Funyun bits flew everywhere, even on the gigantic flat screen. Here we go. “The hell is wrong witchu, girl? You could get struck down for that shit.” Zora only sighed. “What kinda man needs rescuing from a church?” She didn’t bother to answer; after he gulped down orange soda, Win barreled on. “You goin’ to Hell. You a-goin’ to Hell. And I ain’t gonna be saving your blaspheming ass either.”

Zora purposefully went for her closet, Hell in mind. “Well, hopefully they serve Peach Nehi and parfaits.”

BACK AT CHURCH…

The congregation moved outside to where the abundant Mother’s Day banquet was laid out for their perusal. They took their spots at a long table covered in a delicate white tablecloth. Teresa sat to his left, and Emma Collins had attached herself to his right. John silently perished on the inside as Emma recounted the emotional tale of how God delivered her from the clutches of the evil scourge of drinking and partying. His mother had momentarily abandoned him for some of her friends. He felt perilously close to panic. Where the hell was Zora?

“Don’t you think?” Emma was saying, eyes wide and guileless.

Dammit. “Oh sure,” John hazarded. “God is great. Real splendid.”

Emma brightened. Ding, ding—right answer, John! He couldn’t take much more of this. How long did it take to coordinate a simple distraction? He had taken down clever foes with little more than his cell phone and a tazer. Zora Scott possessed a great deal of ingenuity as well. So why wasn’t she here?

“Oh look!” Emma cried. “They’re bringing out the pig!”

From what his mother had told him the day before, there had been significant upheaval over this pig, which had been made especially by Reverend Petrie’s wife Donna and a couple more of the elders’ wives assisting. It was the centerpiece of the banquet, and Donna Petrie beamed with pride and the congregation clapped its approval. John joined in. It was fascinatingly huge, glazed in honey with an apple in its maw. It took three strong men to get it onto the table in front of the Reverend. Reverend Petrie announced their bounty, consecrating it with a prayer to which everyone lowered their heads in reverence.

Reverend Petrie poised to cut the pig. Everyone watched in rapt interest.

Suddenly, without any warning, a fireball came whizzing toward the table. It all happened so fast that no one reacted until the special Mother’s Day offering exploded into a million fiery pork pieces.

Reverend Petrie was knocked onto his ass. Most people fell out of their seats with surprise, not injury. John just blinked at the spot where the empty platter sat. What the fuck just happened?

“Oh milord!” Emma screeched as pig meat landed on her face. “It’s Armageddon!”

Someone screamed, and chaos ensued. Reverend Petrie, scrambling to his feet, tried to calm his flock in firm, gentle tones, but the sight of the exploding pig had sent them into the throes of irrational terror. John could feel a tension headache forming in the front of his skull. He braved the teeming crowd and located his mother. That was more paramount than feeding into this madness.

He found his mother scanning the crowd worriedly. She had been looking for him. She raised a hand to her heart in relief when she spied him coming near.

“Oh Andy!” she cried. “There you are. I was starting to get worried.” He took her hands, knowing she would need the contact to soothe her worry. “Bizarre thing that just happened, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was. Are you okay? Were you hurt?”

“Oh no, dear,” Teresa assured him. “Mostly startled. I suppose it wasn’t meant to be for us to have that pig. The Lord made that quite clear. But Donna Petrie must be livid. Lucky thing Anna wasn’t here. She would’ve had a coronary over that wasted pig.”

John was sure God had nothing to do with it. But he knew who did.

He spotted a familiar figure several yards away, perched on a tree branch. His eyes narrowed. Zora.

“Mom,” John began, already forming the harangue for his underling, “I’ll be back in a second.”

Teresa agreed, perplexed, and John lost himself in the crowd again. He dodged the chaos, making sure that he mother did not see him, and stopped in front of a group of trees. From the tallest, a short-haired woman clad in black stared at him from her perch, a rocket launcher in her lap.

“You smell like bacon,” Zora greeted him. She smirked. “Your little girlfriend likes pork, doesn’t she?”

John fumed. She must have seen him talking to Emma Collins. But he didn’t want to dwell on that. Instead, he demanded, “What the hell was that?”

Zora preened. “Pretty effective, don’t you think?”

John glared up at her, amber eyes blazing and hands on hips. “What was it about simple liberation maneuver did you not understand, Zora? My mother was scared shitless.”

Zora was slightly taken-aback. “I’m sorry I scared Mama Leath, but damn, I only did what you asked,” Zora pointed out, her voice taking that defensive, high-pitched tone. “It wasn’t like you drew me a freaking diagram or somethin’. Next time you want me to save your ass, be more specific. Maybe show me a YouTube tutorial.”

“You blew up a dead animal with a fucking rocket launcher in the midst of devout Christians,” John groused. “You shoulda just threw in some locusts and talking serpents to complete the lunacy.”

She peered at him with insouciance as sirens blared in the background. It seemed a small fire had broken out from the flaming apple. She hopped down and landed on her feet smoothly. “In John Leath terms, I figured a rocket launcher at the Mother’s Day banquet would be spectacularly fitting,” Zora countered, and shouldered the weapon like it was a Nerf Blaster. “So excuse me if I pegged you wrong. And you’re welcome. Ungrateful ass.” She whistled the theme to Sanford and Son as she sauntered away, hips twisting.

After a lengthy, humming moment, he could only fight a smile and flick pork bits from his silk dress shirt. Indeed, he mused.