Contractual obligation

Quicker than she could really take it in, Lia was back in the faculty building saying hello to Gihon’s fearsomely capable assistant. Petite and pale skinned, with sharp features and smouldering eyes that looked out from a tumble of sable hair, Elvira Lopéz was another European émigré. While they had met previously it had mostly been the accidental contact of people frequenting the same corridors. The formal introduction, more than anything, was what had finally convinced the woman that Gihon was serious in his offer. Elvira had been with the department for years and, everyone knew, was the person who really ran things in the faculty. Though he could clearly speak the language, he had little chance of winning any argument once it switched to Spanish and Elvira’s excited staccato delivery. Gihon, like others before him, had quickly learned to take advantage of her abilities and accept the situation with good humour.

In a something of a daze Lia listened absent-mindedly while they ran through the impressively vague contract and wondered what had happened to the interview. The quietly organised corner of her mind noted that the position was being entirely funded by the Jensson Foundation, unusual but not unheard of, and that that the substantial salary meant she wouldn’t have to worry about her father withdrawing his financial support. Still, getting the position had seemed easier than expected and she briefly wondered what the catch would be. Knowing that at least no one would be able to ascribe sexual connotations to the appointment she still felt the need for clarification. The large man and his elfin amanuensis shared an amused glance at her question before he answered her, his deep tones indulgent and gently mocking.

“Come on, you didn’t really think anyone else had a chance did you? I might be henpecked by this one but I do still have some say in what goes on around here. Getting the Foundation to play nice is just one of my many talents. It meant I got to decide the best candidate, and I see no reason why you shouldn’t be suitably recompensed while you put up with some of the quirks of working for the old man. Look, I pulled your files; I’ve seen your work. Rachel couldn’t recommend you enough. I think you’re the right person for the job … that I also happen to like you is just an added bonus. Nothing to do with my decision. At all. Honest.” Gihon treated Lia to the big smile again. “Now, if your sense of fair play will still allow you to sign your immediate future away, we’ll go down to the car and get you on your way.”

The mid-morning sunlight left Lia blinking in the glare after leaving the cool dimness of the faculty building. She looked around for the now familiar off-roader. Under the line of trees she recognised most of the handful of cars parked up at the side of the building but there was no sign of Gihon’s usual ridiculous transport. Producing an old fashioned key fob from a pocket he triggered the remote and there was a corresponding tone from a low-slung car she’d overlooked at the kerbside. Other than recognising that it was clearly something powerful Lia had no idea what it was. Sinuous, with long sweeping curves and flared wheel arches, it looked as fast as quicksilver, crouched like a cat waiting to pounce. The paintwork was an indeterminate red that seemed to shift from black to carmine as light and shade fell across it, tiny metallic flecks scintillating in the sunlight. She didn’t know why but the colour made her think of blood. Looking between the low car and the intimidating block of the man next to her Lia held back from asking him how he managed to fit into it to drive it. Arkhangelskeyev was shorter; maybe he’d dropped it off at the building for his friend.

“OK, you are it. I’m pushed for time and Elvira keeps reminding me that I have to be elsewhere. You’ll need these.” The fob and attached keys were placed rather daintily in her hand. Lia wondered if Gihon took as much care around other people as he seemed to do with her – sometimes she thought it was as if he was scared of breaking her if he touched her. “The Russian flight is due at midday, go pick him up from the cargo helipad and take him back to my place. This will get you through security and back out again with no trouble.” A small envelope appeared from the folds of a waist-coat so long that the full hem swished and swirled around his booted ankles. “Don’t worry about trying to recognise him – this was always his favourite car. Just park as close as you can to the pad and he will come over to you. The apartment is expecting you. Park in the garage and take the stairs up to the main floor. You’re off for the rest of the day so take things as they come. What else, what else ….yes, whatever he looks like and whatever he says just go with it – he’s been out of circulation for a while and he has a tendency to let himself go if he’s by himself.”

He looked at the big watch again. Lia guessed that the impending arrival was the cause of some perturbation for the normally calm man. If not checking the time, then he had been adjusting the ornate gold and platinum clasps holding the two long braids in place at his left temple. The barrette that normally held the great mass of his hair back must have been discarded as an early victim of this uncharacteristic restlessness. Looking at his extravagant tresses she was not sure if she wanted to tell him to quit the fidgeting, or just give in to the old urge to run her own fingers through the unbound thigh-length waves. The accidental brush of hair across the back of her hand in the Library had given her a thrill that she could still feel. She had to remind herself to concentrate.

“There is something I should really know before you turn me loose.” Distracted by some inner train of thought, he didn’t seem to realise the important fact he’d missed out. She jangled the keys in her hand. “Whose favourite car am I driving?”

“Didn’t we say upstairs? I could have sworn I mentioned it … no, no, you’re right. I’m so sorry, forget my head if it was loose today. You’re off to collect Dave Jensson.” He pronounced the surname with distinct syllables ‘Jens-son’. At a loss, she didn’t know what to say and stared back at him while her mind freewheeled, no wonder he was acting oddly. Dave Jensson. Dave. Jensson. Reclusive, rich, feted, the founder and sponsor of the eponymous foundation that funded students and universities around the world. Dave Jensson slumming it in New York doing maternity cover? Why? How? “You still OK with that? Not a problem? I can hold the contracts for a couple of weeks while you see how things go if you want some time.”

“No problem, just a bit of a surprise. Correction … actually that’s quite a lot of a surprise.” For a moment they stood and grinned at each other. “Wow.” She imagined that internally he was saying ‘ta-daaaa!’ like an old-time magician pulling an elephant from a top hat. A very large elephant. A very small top hat. This was some impressive coup in academic circles. And she was going to be his research assistant. She wanted to pinch herself. “Hang on, how have you got Dave Jensson’s favourite car? What else haven’t you told me?”

“Well, along with everything else you might have heard about him, true or false, he also just happens to be my very oldest friend. I look after all kinds of things for him. It’s been years since we’ve actually seen each other. I thought I’d chance my luck and invite him over on the pretext of filling in for Rachel Pullen.” The grin looked to be on the verge of turning into a giggle before he collected himself. “I can’t really believe he’ll soon be here. Typical of the man though – must be nearly ten years and he has to go and arrive earlier than expected. You’d better get a move on – I’d prefer it if you got there before his flight gets in. So, pick him up, take him back to mine … oh, and I’ll be at the Feathered Serpent for some late lunch if you can drag him over to meet me there. You’re more than welcome to join us … but I’m guessing you might prefer to sit at your usual table with your friends and enjoy watching them stare.” This time, the smile clearly said ‘busted’. “Yes, I do know what they consider entertainment some days. It’s flattering, but I wish the little Mexican wasn’t so obvious about it, he’s been terrible since he split up with his last boyfriend.”

He motioned to her to get in the car – only two seats, leather upholstered and highly contoured. The cockpit was roomier than she had first thought. If he wasn’t in a rush maybe he could squeeze his wide frame into it after all. Five minutes to familiarise her with the controls (same basic layout as the off-roader, even down to the navigation system – “assistance not management, your fault if you do something stupid with it” had been his reminder) then Plaisir surprised her with a reassuring touch on her shoulder. The gesture was somehow very intimate from someone she’d never even shaken hands with.  “Don’t worry about meeting him, there’s no way he won’t like you. I think you’ll get on just fine.”