Authors: Carolyn Jewel
11:25 AM, present day. Lobby of 101 California Street, San Francisco, California Lys blinked once when Telos Khūnbish’s black BMW pulled up to the curb. She wasn’t going to cry. She never did. Not for any reason. Emotion meant you were weak, and if you were weak, people found ways to make you pay. She was done paying. But it was such a relief to see Khūnbish that, for a moment, she teetered on the edge of tears.
While she waited to make sure it was really Khūnbish in the car, a man in a suit strode past her, heading for the glass doors that faced Front Street. He was thirty-ish, good looking and in shape. Company ID dangled from a lanyard clipped to his belt. He kept walking and came within ten feet of her. Too close. He was too close. Panic rose up again. She needed to get away. Away from all these people and their lives.
He looks left as he steps off the curb, smiling, on his way to meet the woman he loves. A
traffic light reflects green in the lenses of his glasses. He doesn’t see the car that runs the light.
Pain streaked along the left side of her face from just behind her eye through to back of her head as she fought to keep her insanity at bay. Blocking her connection shouldn’t be this hard, but the last several days had been. . . difficult. Not enough sleep.
Not enough to eat. Too much caffeine. Far too much stress. Lys was at the limit of her ability to compensate. She succeeded in smothering the contact. Barely. The barrier was Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
thin enough that the other lives thrummed in the back of her head like another heartbeat, but out of rhythm and out of control.
The price of her sanity was a headache that forced her to dig in her purse for her sunglasses. Her skull felt like it was in a vice and about to fracture. Dark glasses or not, her ability to insulate herself from other people continued to erode. A sour taste coated the inside of her mouth. She hadn’t lost control since her college days, but she was close now.
Around her, office workers streamed out of the elevators, on their way to an early lunch or maybe sent on some errand for their overpaid bosses. More came in to keep appointments, make deliveries or head back to offices or cubicles. A few people stood in the lobby with a cell phone to an ear, talking away without the least privacy.
The ones with bluetooth enabled devices looked like psych cases, ranting to invisible people. Voices hammered at her, pounding at the barrier. She cut herself off from everything until they might as well be speaking Swahili as English.
She needed to get out. A place like this wasn’t good for someone like her. Not when she was so close to breaking down. Her heart raced so fast that if she ended up in the hospital again, she’d need a cardiologist instead of an ER doc.
What was taking him so long?
That man who just came off the elevator will ignore the first symptoms; the sense of
something off, the clammy sweat, the pinch in the left side of his rib cage. Pain crushes his chest,
and he can’t get enough air.
She looked out the glass lobby walls. Maybe it wasn’t him. The driver of the Beemer was waiting for a brown delivery van to pull away. The van bulled its way into traffic, and the sleek black car slid into the vacated space. They had a lunch meeting, calendared two weeks ago by her admin. He expected to talk about his upcoming deposition testimony. On the clock and on her client’s dime. She ought to feel guilty Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
about involving Khūnbish in her train wreck of a life.
It occurred to her that if that was Khūnbish, wouldn’t he park in one of the downtown garages? Her firm would bill his expenses to the client anyway. He was crazy to risk a ticket and a tow. The Beemer’s headlights switched off. The driver got out— yes, it was Khūnbish. Her chest constricted at the same time the tension in her shoulders released. She had a crystal clear view of him pressing his key fob.
It was a fact of life that there were certain men no one messed with, not if you were in your right mind. Telos Khūnbish was one of those men; scary at some primordial, brainstem level.
He paused by his car and lifted a hand like he was blessing the damn thing against Parking Control. A bike messenger zipped past him. From where she stood in the lobby, traffic noise was a dull rumble. Telos headed across the plaza with its series of concrete risers and planters. On a nice day, support staff who made shit money and had to bring their lunch, could eat outside.
She adjusted her sunglasses. He reappeared from between two of the planter structures, heading for the glass lobby doors. His long black hair fell behind his shoulders, twisting slightly in the wind. His goatee, as usual, seemed to be barely getting started.
Lys knew him because she defended high stakes corporate cases involving computer hacking and Khūnbish was her Information Security expert. Though he’d never admitted anything under oath, he was what industry insiders called a gray-hat, that is, someone who navigated between the black-hats who stole corporate databases and credit card numbers and the white-hats who warned companies about their security vulnerabilities.
What mattered about Khūnbish today was that he looked more like a gang member than a tech geek, and oddly enough for a lawyer who billed out at five Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
hundred dollars an hour, that was exactly what she needed. Someone scary.
Outside, he paused at a trash can, tossed something in, then kept walking. She pushed the lobby door open and headed onto the plaza. The blast of foggy air made her head pound. She smiled, but it felt fake.
His unbuttoned flannel shirt flapped in the breeze and showed off the physique under the close fitting T-shirt he wore underneath.. He didn’t fit with the suit and tie crowd, and the bandanna around his head didn’t do much to make him look like anything but trouble in a dark alley.
Fuck a suit and tie.
Lys walked outside and made sure she was blocking even though it made the pain worse. Khūnbish slowed when he saw her heading toward him. She reached him and stuck out her hand. “Mr. Khūnbish.” She gave him her best Litigation Lawyer smile. “Nice to see you.”
“Counselor.” He sounded a bit growly, as if he smoked cigars and drank whiskey every day for breakfast. His expression didn’t register any curiosity about the reason she’d met him out here. On a personal level, she knew he didn’t like her. Not many people did, but she was used to that. He looked Lys up and down, nothing sexual or insulting, and ended up at her face. The way his eyebrows drew together told her she looked worse than she thought. “Everything all right?”
“Of course.” Her voice was calm. Serene even. She was in control at all times.
Including now when she was about to derail her life, his life, and possibly her career.
He cocked his head and shoved his hands into his front pockets. Jesus, her head hurt.
He held her gaze longer than he should have. Her heart thumped because she knew he wasn’t going to play along with the
I need your help
bullshit she’d planned. Her stomach did a slow flip-flop because she’d stepped onto a tightrope here with Khūnbish, and there wasn’t any net. “Counselor,” he said in a low voice, “why are we Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
standing out here in the cold?”
She waited for a group of people to pass them on their way to Front Street. On a purely selfish level, she’d been right to think of him. He was perfect. She needed someone mean and dangerous, and Khūnbish fit the bill. “I need a ride.”
His eyebrows quirked. “Where to?”
For half a second she considered walking back inside and to hell with everything. But she didn’t do that. Right now she didn’t like herself very much, but she gave him her address anyway.
“That’s Noe Valley.”
“Why do you need a ride all the way out there?”
“I need to pick up a few things.”
He shot her a look full of suspicion. “If I do give you a ride, I’m sending you a bill.”
“Track your mileage and time, Mr. Khūnbish, and submit it to me personally.
Not the firm.”
He blew out a breath. “I don’t do favors for anyone without knowing what for and why.”
Words jammed up in her throat so she could hardly breathe let alone talk. “I left Michael. My fiancé.”
“He was upset.” She looked him in the eye. “I don’t have a car right now.”
“You must have friends.” His voice had a hint of a growl.
“They’re Michael’s friends.”
“I can call you a cab.”
“That’s no good. I might end up with a skinny driver, and I need someone like Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
you with me. In case Michael’s there.”
“I get it,” he said in the same tight voice as before. “You want someone who can take a beating if your jealous boyfriend shows up.”
“No.” She hunched her shoulders against the wind. “If he’s there, I want someone he’ll be afraid to beat up. Someone who’ll scare him.”
“Muscle for hire.” The wind caught his hair. She didn’t answer but, then, she didn’t need to. “Fuck you, Counselor.”
“If I did, would you drive me there afterward?”
His eyes glinted so, whatever he said now, they both knew he was thinking about sex. “No.”
“Well,” she said. “That’s too bad.” There went her legal career down the toilet.
She turned to head back to her office, but he caught her elbow. A sizzle shot up her arm and headed for regions south. His fingers tightened on her when she brought her arm closer to her body. “Let go of me.”
“If you left your boyfriend, where are you staying?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“It is if I’m doing you a favor.”
The wind whipped past her, pulling several strands of hair from her chignon.
She flinched when he tucked the strands behind her ear. He wasn’t fooled by the shiver she faked to cover for the reaction. “Where did you sleep last night?”
“I didn’t sleep last night.”
“What happened to your car?”
She didn’t answer. The wind blew those strands of hair free again.
Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
“Tell me where you were last night, and I’ll drive you to your house and scare the hell out of your boyfriend, too.” He waited and then said, “If you’d rather, I’ll take you up on your offer to get horizontal with me.” The corner of his mouth twitched.
“Just so you know, I like it dirty.”
“San Francisco General.”
She drew in a breath and let it out. “Some idiot in a cheap import changed lanes without looking. That’s the last thing I remember until the paramedics pulled me out of my car.”
“Before or after you left the boyfriend?”
He cocked his head toward California Street where his shiny black car was parked.
“Do I have to fuck you?”
“No.” He started walking, and Lys followed him to his car. A meter maid puttered past and didn’t even look at the Beemer. Khūnbish went around to the passenger side door and opened it for her.
Lys got in and sat with her purse on her lap. This was a high end model BMW
with plenty of leg room. Newer than her white one, but other than that, more or less the same car. Hers had a black interior, too. Panic eroded her control. The sound of breaking glass and the hollow thump of metal against metal echoed in her head, so clear that she thought there’d been a real accident. But traffic on California Street moved with the usual controlled chaos.
Khūnbish didn’t close the door, and she glanced up to see why. He had a hand on the roof of his car and was leaning down, staring at her with his black, black eyes. A frown put a crease between his eyebrows. She couldn’t tell his pupils from his irises.
Jewel/Future Tense— Chapter 0
She set her purse on the floorboard and gave him a cool look. One thing she’d learned over the years was how to appear calm and controlled when she was neither.
“I won’t drive like a maniac,” he said, as if he’d read her thoughts. Maybe he had. In her current condition, her state of mind couldn’t be that hard to guess.
“Thank you,” she said. She gave him a businesslike smile intended to counteract his lingering attention on her. He wasn’t her type. At all. “I appreciate that.”
He knew, she thought. Somehow, he knew she was breaking apart inside. She kept her smile in place. Denial was everything. He reached in to fasten her seat belt for her. His hair, dark as night, spilled over one shoulder as he did. He was big and rough.
Dangerous. Exactly what she needed.
They both looked when a disheveled woman pushed a shopping cart piled with bulging plastic bags in front of his car. She continued going, right into traffic. Horns blared but the woman kept going. She didn’t care about anything, did she? Bent over and shuffling, the woman looked sixty, but Lys figured she was probably half that age.