Unaccustomed, Michael Blanc found solar heat weighed his every step. A lean, sharply defined shadow pulled almost physically at the heels of his trendy platform soles. The shoes were also practical, distancing his tender feet from the earth’s scorching surface. Gratefully, he hadn’t descended from the skyway since that day Simon orchestrated capture of Anthony Greer’s killer.
Had it really been over a year? With a flutter in his chest, Michael realized he’d been wearing Simon’s corporate symbol nearly that long. Glancing fondly at the ring adorning his finger, Michael knew his late, beloved Anthony would be pleased for him.
Priceless, the tasteful iron jewelry didn’t reflect the dangerous rays of the sun; nor did the expensive cloth of Michael’s sable suit. A wide-brimmed fedora, every bit as dark, helped protect his face. He’d worn no color in public except iron and obsidian for years.
Today, that changed. Michael had been forced to commit a severe fashion offense among his social peers – he actually wore tan! The tacky silk scarf wrapped his hair and loosely muffled fair features beneath protective glasses. He fiddled with it continuously, disdainful of the concession.
Actually, Michael wouldn’t have conceded if Simon hadn’t laid out the article with a pointed request. Despite the temperature, chills marched up his arms at remembering the words scrawled in the angular script of that center of his world, his Mr. X.
Wear it for me. No argument, Michael. You will protect that perfect skin.
Love-struck, Michael reluctantly heeded and now walked along with soft fabric tickling his lips. He wondered again why he’d received this request. The fact he walked instead of riding only made it all the more mysterious. The war required a lot of fuel, certainly, but his paramour was the most prominent attorney in New York!
He didn’t even know his destination. The directions cryptically excluded all but street names and the turns he was to take. Well, that and a notation to get in line when he reached the crowd.
“Crowd,” Michael muttered under his breath. “A line?! If anybody else had asked this I’d tell them to get sunburned. It better be good.”
Then again, perhaps he’d be meeting a secret off-world shuttle! That would definitely be good. But Michael knew the unlikelihood. Politico or not, Simon Montague hadn’t been able to book a single seat, let alone two. Not one flight had come available in a month of calling in favors. And the small space-worthy craft weren’t exactly crowd appropriate. All the same, he couldn’t resist dreaming.
Rounding the final turn listed on his instructions, he found his hopes withered in the unrelenting sun. Crowd definitely described the chaotically milling citizens. The end of a line, however, was nowhere to be found. Michael hoped he’d wake from this nightmare at any moment. Here before his disbelieving eyes were folks from every economic and social echelon.
He saw white-robed people by the dozens, sexless under their ugly peasant apparel. Among the obvious poorest, he couldn’t even determine gender by their weathered features. Those individuals marginally more fortunate wore safety gear over their caftans. The occasional hint of gender in undernourished physiques only made the figures more repulsive to the privileged Michael Blanc.
Against his will, Michael’s stride slowed. He didn’t want to go near the unfortunates, as if their wrinkles and inevitable skin cancers were contagious. Seeking a group of black-suited men and women, he wished to insulate himself anonymously in their midst.
Where was Simon? Of course, he might not have arrived yet. The busy man’s message promised only his inevitable appearance, not a time. Schedules were what others rearranged to accommodate powerful entities such as Simon.
A uniformed military officer appeared suddenly and barked at the gathered group. Michael resisted the urge to jump, though he was sure his gray/green eyes bulged a little.
“You ‘robes’ step to my left, ‘suits’ line up to my right. Let’s go, people! I want to get out of this sun-blasted city.”
A wealthy man addressed Michael with panicky concern, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you get one of these? It told me nothing but where and when to come. I don’t think they’re planning to hand out flight coupons. Do you?”
The man waved an ominous document, fancy parchment bearing the official seal of the Governor of New York. Michael shook his head and stepped back, distancing himself from the order. Wildly he searched for escape.
‘This can’t be good. Perhaps Simon made a mistake,’ he thought desperately.
Simon didn’t make mistakes. Michael, feeling dizzy, took another step and prepared to turn. Only athletic grace saved him when he knocked blindly into another man. Large hands clasped his upper arms. Turned in the strong grip, he nearly attacked his captor with practiced fight skills before Simon’s nearly black eyes swam into focus above a white-pinstriped, brown scarf.
“It’s okay, Michael. Don’t be afraid.”
“What’s going on? I want to go home,” Michael demanded, regretting the childish tone.
“We will. Soon. I promise. We just need to turn in your ring, first.”
“What?! You can’t be serious! When you gave this to me you said never to take it off, Simon.”
Unwillingly led by Simon’s steady gait and set mouth, Michael found himself facing the soldier. Horrified eyes recognized bolt cutters in the fellow’s hands.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Montague,” the officer assured Simon past his shoulder. “We won’t harm him. This is just in case some folks can’t remove their jewelry.”
“Perhaps I will need the cutters,” the man said, oddly amused. “Mr. Montague?”
“Of course not! He wouldn’t cut your finger, just the iron, Michael. But give him the ring. It’s to support the war effort. I have to set a good example for the rest of New York. Would you rather donate blood like the less fortunate?”
“What? No! But…”
“Now. No argument. Here. Put this on in its place. It matches your eyes better, anyway.”
Smiling, Simon cupped Michael’s hanging jaw. His other palm opened upward to offer a ring of tiny, interlocking emeralds. Without another word Michael slipped off the band inscribed boldly with the letters “SM”. The new ring didn't need those initials to proclaim ownership and it fit his slender finger much like his heart in Simon's hands.
“See, Michael? I always take care of what is mine.”