MacGyver winced. The blood had stopped trickling out of his nose, and the ache in his ribs began to lessen from a stinging stab to a painful ache. He cowered a bit and pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose as the menacing voice growled,
"That's just a taste, Mr. Fillmore, of vhat ve can do. I'm sure you vouldn't vant a full treatment."
"That hurrrrrrt--" Mac managed to whine through his gritted teeth, grateful that his Dexter Fillmore persona let him indulge in a behavior he'd normally never do. The voice merely chuckled at his pain; when he looked up at the man sitting across from him, the hard green eyes were smiling.
"It's supposed to, geek. So you run on home to vhatever basement you're living in, and bring that chip to the varehouse tomorrow, or--"
The threat hung in the air, and Mac dropped his gaze, knowing exactly what it meant. He didn't have to fake a shudder. He let himself be pushed out the door of the Limo, let himself fall to the curb as the vehicle roared away.
Things were not exactly going as planned.
It was to have been a simple con to string along a gang of Russian thugs intent on reconfiguring a load of highjacked slot machines destined for Las Vegas. Enter Dexter Fillmore, disgruntled, underpaid geek. Unfortunately, Boris Vorsoff was much cagier than anticipated, and not eager to commit to Dexter's offer of a marvelous chip to override the systems until this evening, long after the Feds had left.
MacGyver sighed and slowly got up. No one in this part of town would ever offer to help, and he was grateful for the chance to collect this thoughts. He wondered whom to call. Pete was the logical choice, but unless he used a payphone, the connection to the Foundation would be traced--Vorsoff would make sure of that. On the other hand, Mac knew he couldn't very well drop character and go home either, not with the knowledge that he was probably being watched. He hesitated, and then slowly made his way down the street, hugging his ribs, thinking hard.
He found a phone in front of an adult bookstore and dialed quickly. Pete was on the line by the second ring.
"Not good news. Vorsoff wants the chip by tomorrow, and unfortunately he's got some muscle to back it up."
"Can you bluff?" It wasn't an easy question for either of them, and Mac hesitated long enough for Pete to intuitively demand,
"MacGyver, you're not hurt are you?"
"Nothing I can't handle," he lied, all too familiar with the pain of a cracked rib.
"Forget it! I'm sending someone to help you out," Pete growled.
"Pete, I'm still undercover," Mac replied testily. "Don't put the whole plan in jeopardy over a few bruises. I can rig the chip by morning."
"Fine. But I know someone who can read Russian, and I won't let your stubbornness put you at any more risk than we have to. Now tell me where you are."
Reluctantly MacGyver told him. Twilight had turned to night, and streetlights were coming on up and down the lonely stretch of dirty sidewalk. Mac didn't dare glance behind him at the bookstore; it wasn't prudishness that kept him from the garish displays, but a strong suspicion that someone inside was watching him. He hunched his shoulders against the cold, wishing his Dexter persona had a car, or at the very least, a thicker jacket.
The better part of an hour passed, and Mac began to wonder if anyone was coming. There were shadowy figures on the street now, and not all of them were winos. Finally a car was approaching; Mac looked up to see a green pickup truck slow to a stop at the curb. The driver parked and scrambled out, reaching Mac within a few minutes.
"Dexter, baby, are you hurt?" the soft voice breathlessly demanded. Startled, Mac looked down into at the face of the woman right in front of him. He blinked.
She was dressed as nerdily as he was.
Her bright blue eyes were framed with black cat's eye glasses, and her auburn hair had been tied in two ponytails so long that they dangled like spaniel ears to her shoulders. Both her sweater and white blouse were misbuttoned, her tight plaid skirt had safety pins holding it together, and along with mismatched knee socks she wore a scuffed pair of black and white saddle shoes.
"Peter Thornton sent me," she whispered right before cupping his cheeks and planting a kiss on his stunned face. For a second, Mac froze, but instinct and a flare of lust kicked in. He kissed back, but just as the kiss deepened she pulled away, grinning, and wiped his nose with her sweater sleeve.
"Call me Rose," she added softly.
Then, cooing loudly, she put an arm around him, walking by his side to the truck, and pretending to help him in. He slouched down and complained loudly for the benefit of anyone in the vicinity.
"Geez, Rosie, it took you long enough to get here--whadda ya do, stop for dinner first? I coulda bled to death--"
"Ooooooo, I'm sorry, Dex, but dad wouldn't let me borrow the truck until I promised to fill the tank . . ."
She slid into her seat and started the engine. Mac flashed her a quick grin before adding under his breath, "Thanks for the ride. Nice outfit--sort of a matching piece?"
"Pete's idea," she admitted wryly. "I'm taking you to my place."
"We're going to be followed," he warned.
"Yeah, we figured that too. After a few hours I can create a distraction and you can get away--there's a Foundation car in the lot for my building."
"These guys play rough--I don't think it's a good idea to let them know where you live--" Mac argued. He felt fatigue seep through his entire body as he began to relax in the warmth of the cab.
"Don't worry. I live in a really good spot," she responded confidently. "That's one of the other reasons Pete picked me."
"Yeah, well I can't say I'm too happy about dragging anybody else into this--"
"Objection noted. You've got some paperwork for me to look at?" Rose replied smoothly.
Mac sighed. "When we get there," he
muttered, pulling his baseball cap down over his eyes.
'There' turned out to be a building loft above a pet shop. Rose led the way up the side entrance stairs while Mac noted the police station across the street and grinned.
"Okay, I think we can safely assume that even if we were followed, we probably won't be assaulted . . . but I guess we'd better keep our nerd look for a while longer," his voice trailed off as he climbed the stairs. Rose fumbled with the lock and pushed the door open.
"Here it is. I think you ought to wash up and I can whip up some dinner. Do you mind French toast?" she called over her shoulder as she moved through the room, turning on lights. Mac looked around with interest.
The cheery apartment was divided into two large rooms by a green beaded curtain. The one they were standing in had some sofas, a huge battered roll top desk and more bookcases than Mac had ever seen outside of a library. At least ten of them lined the walls, and as he stepped closer he could see that the books within them were an odd mix of subjects: knitting, ichthyology, German, poetry, car repair, erotica, underwater photography, juggling--
"French toast?" she asked again, moving around him.
He glanced at her. "Uh, that would be
"Okay. The bathroom's that way--" she pointed to the left to a door, "And you can use some of the towels in the green cabinet." She stepped over to a kitchenette in one corner and began to pull out utensils.
"Oh hey, I don't want to put you out--" Mac protested, but Rose shook her head.
"I owe Peter a big favor. I promised him I'd take care of you and I intend to keep that promise. Now go get washed up while I make some food." Her tone was stern and light, and when she flashed a smile at him, he grinned.
Washing up was harder than he wanted to admit: at least one rib was broken and three others were seriously battered. Mac gingerly poked his side, wincing at the darkening bruises there.
"You need wrapping," Rose commented as she peeked in. Startled, Mac grabbed a towel and held it to his chest.
"You could at least knock," he complained. She giggled; shaking her head at the sight of him bare-chested with his Dexter glasses still on.
"Oh honestly, I've seen half-dressed men before. I really think we ought to get a support bandage around those ribs."
"It would help," Mac admitted. In the mirror, he grimaced at his reflection, pushing up the nerd glasses with his index finger. Rose pointed her chin at the medicine cabinet.
"In there--bring them out and after dinner we'll get you properly mummified, Dexter."
*** *** ***
The French toast was good; Mac ate almost four pieces before slowing down. When Rose passed him the syrup in silent astonishment he looked up to catch her expression.
"Sorry--I guess I was hungrier than I thought."
"I guess--" she responded. "Because I never thought my cooking was any great shakes." Before he could put in a protest, she shook her head, the two ponytails whipping around.
"Listen, if you want me to translate, let me work on it while you finish eating."
"There--in the inside pocket of my jacket on the sofa," Mac directed as he swigged a glass of orange juice. Rose fished it out, and unfolded it, concentrating. The phone rang and she picked it up, speaking absently.
"Hello Mrs. Todd. How are you? That's good. Well, Yes I did bring a man up to my apartment. No, he and I aren't planning on any wild sex--"
Mac looked up sharply as Rose grinned and mouthed 'nosey old neighbor' to him. "No, he's not gay--I don't think," Rose shot another glance at Mac, who raised an eyebrow and shook his head firmly.
"No, it's not a date, Mrs. Todd. I don't know--he hasn't mentioned any evil intentions to me. Yes ma'am, I think it's a pity too. Peeping toms? Where?" Rose's absent tone became sharper. Mac turned his attention to the windows facing the street.
"Okay, you go ahead and let the cops know then, Mrs. Todd. I appreciate you looking out for me. Yes ma'am. Goodnight."
"So . . . you have a neighbor who keeps track of your love life?" The amusement in Mac's voice was evident. Rose shrugged, only slightly embarrassed.
"She's old, she's nosey, but she's one of the best pair of eyes I have to keep me safe. And I get some of the most interesting advice from her too--"
"So--" she changed the subject quickly, "Do you want to hear what this e-mail says?"
"Yeah," Mac picked up the empty dishes from the table and carried them over to the sink. Rose cleared her throat.
"It's a letter to his mother?"
"Looks like it . . . Stuff about his family near Belarusse, a few health comments . . . ah, here we go--your little Bobo is about to take the gambling world for everything they can spare. Once I get the . . . I guess this word is schematics, but there's no real Russian equivalent . . . I'll have them shipped to you and Gosoff. This will be better than the imports racket when the . . . ah, nerd, comes through--"
"Nerd?" he shot her a questioning look.
"Well not really--I did some editing on what he called you . . ." she admitted, her face pink. "An awful lot of idiomatic Russian insults have to do with male genitalia--"
"Sorry about that," she grinned. "Anyway, it looks as if he's planned on dealing with you, so that's good, right?"
"Yes. Now all I have to do is get home, finish up the fake chip and get it back to him without getting myself or anybody else killed in the process. Oh, and the FBI should be informed too," came his slight exasperated reply. Rose handed him the letter.
"Oh well if *that's* all--"
For the first time he looked at her, really looked at her. She met his gaze forthrightly as he studied her features. Rose had a sharp nose, softened by a full lower lip and a dusting of freckles across each cheek. Behind the tatty cat's eye glasses, her eyes were bright blue, fringed with thick black lashes. Her expression was of patient amusement as she stared back at him.
"--Then let's wrap you up, and get you out of the building, okay?" she offered with elegant pragmatism as she reached for the ace bandages.
Off with the plaid shirt . . ." she ordered. MacGyver slowly peeled it off again.
"You look pretty sore," she commented, studying the pattern of splotchy bruises. Before he could say anything, she dropped her head and planted a soft kiss on his damaged ribs, her touch as gentle as a butterfly wing. Startled, Mac shivered at the sensation. Rose pressed the end of the bandage in the middle of his chest, and began to wind it around him in methodical neat turns, concentrating. Mac held his arms out and looked down at the top of her head, trying to figure out exactly what it was about her that was so offsetting.
"Do you work for the Foundation?" He finally asked.
"As of three months ago. Pete got me hired for the environmental division, ocean studies. I'm working on my Masters in marine biology right now."
"So what's with the Russian?" She was getting lower with the wrap, and her touch was hitting some ticklish areas. Rose grinned up at him.
"My mom was a teenage immigrant from the south of Moscow. She took English at night, got hired to work for my dad as his secretary. Boom! Day they met they got married. My brother Newt came along exactly nine months later, and I followed two years after that," she announced. Mac gave an abashed look, trying desperately not to notice that she was on her knees in front of him.
"Wow. Sounds like quite a story."
"Amazing if you think about it--Hillbilly professor takes Russian bride--the food alone was pretty unique. I bet I'm the only person in this city who's ever eaten Borscht with possum in it."
"Yes, very." she giggled, standing up again, "But we digress. I think this ought to hold your ribs in place for a while. Feel better?"
Mac realized he did--the food and care had done a good job in restoring his spirits; he grinned.
"Yeah I do. So where's the back door?" he asked, gingerly rebuttoning his shirt and grabbing his jacket.
"Through here--" she led the way to the back of the apartment through the other beaded curtains and into her bedroom. Mac followed her, but stopped abruptly.
"Whoa--" It was an understatement. The four-poster bed itself was quite nice, but it was the massive ceiling to floor aquarium that stopped him in his tracks. The impression it made was of a wall into the ocean, and Rose blushed when she noticed his reaction.
"Nice, huh? I stocked it myself, from fish to gastropods to brine--I'm trying to get the coral to grow, but I don't think I have enough bacteria started to support it yet. If you look carefully, you can see the octopus, although he usually doesn't come out until late at night--"
"You did this?" The awe in his voice was evident.
"Well yeah--I am studying marine life, you know," she reminded him. He turned to her, a hint of envy behind his nerd glasses.
"So you get to lie in bed late at night and watch that . . ."
"Yep. Better than TV," she sighed happily. "I love it when the conch comes out and starts foraging for food--you ought to see it," she pinkened, realizing the implications of her words, but Mac smiled.
"Wish I could--" he murmured with genuine regret, "But I've got to jam."
"I know. I'll give a Pete a call to let him know you're on your way, okay?" She rose up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek; he gave her a pleased smile and slipped out the back door.
*** *** ***
The growling siren of the police cruiser faded into the distance, and Pete Thornton gave the satisfied smile of a man pleased with the events of the day. Next to him, MacGyver pulled his nerd glasses off and jammed them into the pocket of his baseball jacket. He tossed the chip into the air and caught it again, equally pleased.
"Not a bad day's work. Vorsoff's off to chat with the FBI, and we've got enough evidence to make sure the discussion is a long one. Time to ride off into the sunset."
"Great work. How are the ribs?" Pete asked as they strolled back to the car. MacGyver ran a hand over his chest.
"Aching, but they'll mend--Who's this Rose person, anyway Pete?"
"Ms Briar Rose Althea Thais Clowderbock," Thornton gave a laugh. "Someone with a name almost as interesting as yours. Quite a girl, isn't she? I hired her away from Shoreline Aquarium--long story. Hanna and Trevor needed a new intern anyway, and she seemed to fit the bill."
"Certainly knows her own mind." They reached the car and climbed in.
"That she does--just don't ask her about fish unless you have about two days to spare."
"So she's serious about the ichthyology."
"Very. I expect she'll be at Trevor's Marine Studies meeting on Thursday if you want to say thanks--" Pete teased.
Mac smiled broadly."I just might," he admitted.
Pete cast a speculative look at his friend and shook his head. "Just remember she's not your type, MacGyver."
"From what I can tell you like them dainty, feminine and somewhat helpless-- Rose isn't any of those things." Pete pointed out. "She can take care of herself."
"Oh really?" MacGyver responded, slightly miffed. Pete grinned and drove on, letting the silence between them stretch out until he added,
"Of course if you've had her cooking, you're a goner. She's got one of the best home-made ice creams I've ever had--brought it to Helen's party and it was gone in four minutes."
"You don't say--" came the noncommittal response. Pete shrugged, wondering if he'd hurt MacGyver's feelings and continued.
"Come on, MacGyver, I didn't mean to rub you the wrong way--"
"No, No, you're probably right. I had to admit that I was kind of impressed by that fish tank in her bedroom, though."
"You were in her bedroom?" Pete's eyebrows went up and Mac flushed.
"Only in passing since that's where the back door was!"
"Back off, Pete--she fed me, wrapped me and sent me on my merry way. End of story."
Pete said nothing more, but the smirk on his face stayed for the rest of the drive.
*** *** ***
The meeting broke up; little groups of two and three lingered, getting more coffee and chatting. MacGyver peeked in, and Hanna Kong waved.
"MacGyver! Long time no see, young man--what's the matter, Marine Studies department got cooties or something?" she teased. He strode over and gave her a hug. Trevor Buchanan shook his hand.
"Mac," came his soft English drawl, "Back for more?"
"No, I just wanted to thank your new intern, Rose, if she was here--" he admitted. Hanna and Trevor looked at each other a knowing twinkle passing between them.
"Rose? You just missed her--she's off to the mid water lab I think--"
He took the stairs two at a time, and made it down to the coastal tank out of breath. The lab was empty; as he looked around a tiny flare of disappointment hit him. Mac turned to go but heard footsteps.
"I'm a honky tonk Womaaaan--" came the musical wail as Rose, wearing a bathing suit, danced into view carrying a Walkman. She gave a waggle of her hips. "Gimmee, Gimmee, Gimmee th' honky tonk bluessss--"
Spinning, she caught sight of a grinning MacGyver and her mouth dropped open in surprise. Quickly, she wrenched the earpieces out, blushing. The Rolling Stones continued to blare out until she snapped the Walkman off.
"I'm sorry sir, but the dive lab is off-limits to--"
"Hey, it's me--" he protested. She looked at him more carefully.
"Dexter," When she continued to give him a blank look, he pulled up the edge of his shirt to reveal the bandages underneath. "AKA MacGyver?"
Rose cocked her head and burst into a big smile as she set the Walkman down on the lab table.
"Wow--you clean up good-- very good." She studied his face. "So how'd it go? Did you manage to convince Vorsoff to take the chip?"
"Yep. The whole thing went off without a hitch, and the FBI is talking to him right now."
"Well great! Nice to know the good guys win some of the time," she congratulated him.
"Thanks for your help--" Mac admitted shyly. "It kinda gave me an edge."
"Oh hey, no problem," she brushed it away with a wave of her hand. "The least I could do for Pete and you."
"So I was hoping if you weren't doing anything for lunch--" Mac asked awkwardly. She grinned, looking down at her blue Lycra bathing suit and swim goggles hanging from her neck.
"I'd love to go grab something, but at the moment I'm not exactly dressed for it. If you can wait a few minutes after I feed the groupers, sure."
"Uh, okay--" Mac shrugged with a smile. She pointed at the glass wall behind him.
"Best view of an underwater ham--I'll be right there," she cheerfully admitted. Rose climbed up the stairs, and MacGyver waited, studying the fish for a few moments. A clear air hose dropped into view; he watched as a pair of long shapely legs descended down in to the water, followed by the rest of Rose. She had a weight belt riding low on her hips and the goggles on, but no tank or regulator; instead, she took the end of the hose, delicately sucked air out of it, and waved at Mac.
For long moments he was entranced, thinking she looked like a sea nymph. The filtered sunlight from above played over her freckled skin. Rose's long reddish brown hair drifted in a nimbus around her, and she seemed completely relaxed, wafting on the surge of the water. On one hip she had hooked a bag of dried meal cakes, and the groupers began to orbit around her impatiently, some rubbing against her thighs. She rolled her eyes and reached for one of the cakes, crumbling it while sucking in another breath from the hose. One of the biggest fish in the tank darted forward and grabbed a chunk of cake from her fingers; Rose batted him away with easy familiarity. She looped the air hose through one of the shoulder straps of her bathing suit and dug out more meal cakes.
Mac tried not to notice the translucent quality of the Lycra, and effects of the cold water on her generous chest. He tried and failed, wondering if she could see his blush through the glass as he constantly struggled to keep his eyes strictly on the fish. She held out one of the cakes and a grouper the size of a toaster oven glided over and nibbled it out of her hand. Slowly Rose emptied the bag, taking a puff from the air hose every minute or so. Once she was done, she swam over to the glass, grinning at Mac. He dimpled back as she turned a graceful somersault, and then pointed to the surface.
A few minutes later MacGyver heard her come down the steps. She was in faded white jeans and a striped bandeau sweater, toweling her hair dry.
"Pretty good presentation--too bad it's a research lab and not an aquarium," he told her. She nodded.
"You ever see the Weeki Wachi mermaids in Florida? They have this great underwater show. Man, I saw it when I was seven and for years I wanted to be a mermaid in the worst way."
"Oh I remember the show--explains how you did the air hose thing, but a mermaid?" Mac asked with amusement. Rose nodded and scooped up her purse from the table.
"Oh yeah--I knew I'd get the chest for it, but the legs wouldn't grow into a long fish tail. When I got old enough, I did a stint at Weeki Wachi for two summers and loved it, but Pa insisted I go to college and get a degree in something--anything, so marine biology seemed a natural."
"Ah," Mac shot her a thoughtful look; she was busy staring through the glass at the groupers and waved him over.
"See that one? Specimen 23B?"
"The older one with the green and silver scales?"
"Yeah. He's the dominant male of the tank. I've been trying to get him to accept me, but he's really defense of his territory, and even though I feed him every day, he still gets annoyed if I get too close."
"I don't know why . . . you seem pretty harmless, " Mac commented gently. Rose shot him a sidelong look and a smirk that hinted of impishness.
"Not to him. I can hold my own on his turf, and because I won't fall into line like the other females in the tank. In his eyes, I've got cheek."
It seemed a slightly outrageous thing to say, particularly about a fish, but as MacGyver stared at the grouper a small voice in the back of his mind wondered if the woman beside him was talking about more than just a reluctant grouper. Other parts of him certainly hoped so.
"He'll come around," Mac finally announced. "Give him time and affection--"
"Oh I intend to--"' Rose laughed, looking into Mac's face. "I love a challenge."