It Started with a KissbyAlex De Kok©
I suppose you could say it started with a kiss. Yes, that was it, with a kiss. But not the warm lips, soft murmurs, and low-light romance kind of kiss. That came later. No, it was the kiss of fender against fender, and the tortured squeal of tires on tarmac in harsh daylight.
It was a warm day in August. No, I tell a lie. It was a hot day in August. Hot, but wet, the first rain we'd had for several weeks, and I think it was the rain that led to the crash. Contributory factor, at least, but it wasn't my fault, it wasn't Roxanne's fault, and it wasn't the fault of the driver of the eighteen-wheeler.
I guess we have to blame the idiot in the stolen Mustang. Him, and the booze and drugs he'd consumed. I don't know if he'd ever been told that excess booze would kill him, but it did. The two-lane blacktop meandered through the woodland, an attractive road to drive, even in the rain, but a road that demanded attention; attention it was getting from me, from the dusty Ford up ahead, and the eighteen-wheeler we'd just overtaken on a straight stretch. We were comfortably below the posted limit, heading upgrade and, for me at least, content.
The Mustang was heading downgrade. Way too fast, explained partly by the black-and-white chasing him, lights and siren working overtime. The Mustang driver lost it on the downgrade curve, and the back end started to try to overtake the front as the car tried to take the bend. The Ford driver had no chance, but tried, tried very hard, to get out of the way. She - I didn't know it was a woman at the time - managed to get part-way onto the shoulder, almost losing it under heavy braking, but the Mustang still hit her, only it was a glancing blow and not the head-on she'd just avoided. The Mustang spun, across the carriageway, into the opposite guardrail, and bounced off straight into the front of the eighteen-wheeler.
I'd managed to brake by then, pulling in behind the Ford, which was now in the ditch where the Mustang had forced it. The driver was getting out, and I stepped out of the pickup, noting only that it was a woman, a young woman, and attractive, too. Tall, well-made. Very well made, curved in all the places where a woman ought to be curved.
"You okay?" I said.
She looked shaken, pale, but she nodded. "Yes, I think so. Not so sure about the car, though. What about the truck driver? Is he okay?"
"Let's find out, shall we?" We made our way downgrade, to where the driver of the eighteen-wheeler was still sitting in his cab, staring at the pieces of Mustang, and driver, scattered around him. The police car had stopped short of the carnage, and the two cops got out. The younger one trotted upgrade towards us, holding up his hand.
"I wouldn't go any closer, folks. Not pretty. Hi, Jack, how you doin'?"
"Pretty good, Pete." Pete Winslow, we'd been in high school together. "Mustang driver dead?" I asked. He had to be, the mess the car was in.
Pete nodded. "Yeah, he's dead."
"What about the truck driver?" said the woman. "Is he okay?"
"Looks like it," said Pete, glancing over his shoulder to where the truck driver was talking to the other officer. He turned back to us. "Are you both okay?"
"I am," I said, "it all missed me. Ma'am?"
The woman gave us a wry look. "I'm okay, but I don't think I'm going anywhere with my car in the ditch."
"If it's okay, I can probably pull you out," I said.
"Look," said Pete. "Can I just get your name and address, please, ma'am. I don't think we'll need you at the moment. My partner and me, we saw what happened, and if we need any statements we'll get them later. Is that okay?" A few minutes later, details taken, Pete trotted off to join his partner. I turned to the woman.
"Okay, let's have a look at your car. My name's Jack Allen, by the way."
"Roxanne Delacour. Hi." She gave me a wry grin. "Hell of a way to get acquainted." She gestured. "Let's go check the mess."
It didn't take long. There was no way the Ford was going anywhere, not under its own power. The front suspension was damaged where a rock had caught it on the way into the ditch.
"Damn," said Delacour, turning to me. "Any chance of a ride?"
"No problem. What about the car?"
"It's a rental, from the airport. Dunno if it was premonition or what, but I paid extra for collision insurance, so it can take its chances. Guess I'll need to tell somebody, so it can be collected. I'll have to wait until I can find a phone, 'cause my cell needs charging."
"Here, use mine. I'll just go tell the law what's happening. Anything you've got in the car that you need, just shove it in the back of the cab on my pickup. Okay?"
Pete saw me coming and moved to meet me. I gestured towards the Ford.
"Suspension's damaged. No way it's moving under its own power. Lady says it's a rental, and she's calling the company now. I said I'd give her a ride, okay?"
He nodded. "Coroner's coming, and the wrecker's on its way. Al always has one of those front axle carrier doodads on his truck, so we'll get him to take the Ford into Corby, after we finish scraping Mustang off the road. Rental company can take it from there. No need for you to stick around, Jack, I know where to find you, and I got the lady's details if we need either of you."
"Okay, Pete, thanks." I gestured towards the wreckage. "Anyone we know?"
He shook his head. "Never seen him before. Least, as far as I can tell."
"Okay, Pete, I'm off. See ya." But Pete's attention was back at the crash. I made my way back to my pickup. Roxanne Delacour was waiting, holding my phone. She gestured with it.
"The rental company want to know where the car is. First time I've been in these parts, so I'm not sure."
"They still on the line? Let me speak to them." A couple of minutes later and that problem was sorted, and I helped Roxanne Delacour move her things into the pickup. Carry-all, another bag, and what looked like a laptop case. It only took a moment, and I helped her into the cab and went round to the driver's seat. "Okay, Ms Delacour, where am I taking you?"
"Corby, please. And I need to find somewhere to stay for a couple of nights."
"Motel? Or better?"
She grimaced. "Cheap!"
"Mountain Vista Motel, then. It's quiet, it's clean, and I know the folks who run it."
"Great, let's go." She frowned.
"Tomorrow, I need transport. I have a job interview with Alton Software at one. Does Corby have car rental?"
"It does, but I'd be glad to give you a ride. Just say when."
She frowned. "Don't you have work to do? Or are you on vacation?"
"I'm working part-time at the moment. Tomorrow is free."
"If you're sure?" And I could hear the doubt.
"Absolutely. I'll collect you from the motel and take you to your interview, and I'll take you back to the motel, later." She stared at me for a long moment, and I grinned. "There's a price. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow evening? I would have said tonight, but I have a prior commitment."
"Let me get this straight," she said, her tone dry. "In return for my letting you give me a ride to my interview, and back again, you'll take me to dinner?"
She looked at me again, and then smiled. A good smile, that lit her face. "Can't see any major flaws. Yes, please."
"Great! Right, let's go see Marie and José at the motel."
An hour later, Roxanne Delacour was relaxing in room 5 at the Mountain Vista Motel, and I was on my way home. I'd managed to have a quiet word with Marie and José and asked them not to say anything about my business. They wondered, but I had known them for a long time; in fact when José came out of the Army, I'd staked them. My investment had paid off well, because the restaurant that Marie opened next door drew diners from miles around. If I didn't want them saying anything about how I made my living to Roxanne Delacour, well, they wouldn't.
Back home, I rang my partner.
"Bill? It's Jack. Tomorrow, the interviews? Remind me of the names, please. Uhuh, yes. Okay, got it. Thanks." I paused for a moment, then went on. "Bill, I need a favor. Will you sit in for me on the interviews, please? Yes, I have a reason. I might even tell you, sometime soon. Great! I owe you one, buddy. Not tomorrow night, sorry. I have a dinner engagement. Maybe Saturday, or Sunday? Okay, I'll look forward to it." I hung up and sat back, staring at the three names I'd written down.
Alan Chester, Peter Koslowski and Roxanne Delacour. Ms Delacour was not only very attractive, but a little bit of a mystery, too. I wondered what went on in the mind behind the gray eyes, under the shining mane of copper-colored curls. Maybe tomorrow I'd find out.
She was abstracted next day when I collected her from the motel. She looked very smart in a tailored suit, a touch of make-up on her face. Subtle, very nice. I'd brought the BMW rather than the pickup; seemed a better idea. I guessed her abstraction was understandable, with a job interview in the offing. She gave me a shaky smile.
"Do you know where Alton Software is?" she said.
"I do." Yes, I certainly did. I ought to, since it was my company. But now wasn't the time to tell Roxanne Delacour.
"Fifteen minutes to get there?"
"About that. Why?"
"I want to be early."
I nodded. "Wise, I think. You're ready?"
"I am, but I need a coffee first."
"I know just the place."
I dropped her half a block from the office. Okay, I could have parked in my reserved bay, but I wanted her normally nervous, the way anyone is at a job interview, not wondering what the heck I was playing at.
"Did you get any indication of how long the interview will take?" I asked her, already knowing the answer.
"About two hours."
"It's what, fifteen minutes before one. You should be out about three, yes?"
I pointed. "See the parking lot? I'll be waiting there from about two-thirty, to take you back to the motel. Okay?"
"Okay. Wish me luck?"
"Good luck, Roxanne. Not that you'll need it, of course."
"Be straight, be honest, and give it your best shot, okay?"
She nodded and gave me a wry smile. "'Once more unto the breach!', I guess."
I could see her steel herself, and then she was away, walking tall. Good luck, Roxanne Delacour. I started the car and pulled out into the afternoon traffic.
It was ten after three when I saw her coming towards where I waited beside the BMW.
"Well?" I said.
"Okay, I guess." She shrugged. "I gave it my best shot. I'll find out later today, or first thing tomorrow, apparently." She grimaced. "I guess I wait."
"I guess so. come on, let's get you back to the motel." It didn't take long, and we sat for a moment outside her room. My cell phone buzzed. Text message. "Excuse me while I check this." I held it so that Roxanne couldn't see the message. It was from Bill, and it was to the point. 'Delacour best of the three. I vote we give her the job.' I replied immediately. 'Agreed.' I turned to Roxanne, who had been waiting patiently. "Sorry about that."
She shrugged, smiling. "No big deal. Whoever called the telephone the invention of the devil was obviously predicting the cell phone."
I laughed. "Yeah! Um, Roxanne, I have something I need to tell you. Actually, a couple of things."
"Oh, yes. Like what?"
"An apology for deception, first."
Her smile faded, and a wary look came into her eyes. "What deception?"
"Alton Software? I own it. At least, I co-own it."
"You own it?"
I shrugged. "Yeah. I was supposed to be interviewing the candidates today, but I asked my partner to sit in for me."
"Mr Tonesen did say something about that, that his partner was indisposed. You?"
"And now you're going to tell me that I'm not getting the job." Her tone was bitter, resigned.
"No," I said, "it's yours if you want it."
She stared at me for a moment. "Why didn't you take the interview?"
I shrugged. "I'd already asked you to have dinner with me. I didn't want you to have to wonder how to play it, with me interviewing you. I wanted the normal you to be the one interviewed."
Her smile was faint, but genuine. "Is anyone normal at a job interview?"
I laughed. "I'll ask Bill, when I see him. He said you were the best of the three candidates. That was the phone message I took. Like I said, the job with Alton Software is yours, if you want it."
"I need it," she said, her expression wry. "A girl needs to eat now and then."
"Yeah, well, we pay well. You might even be able to afford meat twice a month," I added with a wink to show I was joking.
She hadn't lost her sense of humor, because that comment invoked a hearty laugh, almost a chortle. "Wow! Twice a month? Whatever next?" She grinned. "Okay. Is that it?"
I shook my head. "Not quite. Be ready for seven. We have a dinner date, remember?"
She laughed. "So we have. Do I dress up?"
"Only if you want to. We're not going far. Just next door to the motel, in fact. Marie's restaurant is one of the two best in town. Simple fare, superbly cooked."
"You sound like a regular."
She nodded. "See you at seven." A smile tweaked her features. "The dressing up?"
"Not going to happen. I only have casual or interview clothes with me."
"You feel better in jeans and a sweater?"
She nodded and gave me a wry smile. "Yeah, I do."
"So wear them. Marie doesn't care what you wear -- well, within reason -- just so long as you give the food the attention it deserves."
She grinned. "I can manage that, Jack." She frowned. "Or do I have to call you Mister Allen?"
I laughed out loud. "No way, Roxanne. We hire your talent, not your social skills. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and see Bill Tonesen."
She nodded. "See you at seven."
She wasn't wearing the jeans and sweater, but a simple blouse and skirt combination, with a light jacket, her purse under her arm, when I collected her at seven. In her heels, she was only an inch or two shorter than my own six foot three, and almost matched my stride on the walk to the restaurant. Short, less than a hundred feet, in fact. I'd booked, and Marie's maitre d' showed us to my favorite table, with a view across the river towards the mountains.
Roxanne looked around curiously after I'd seated her, then looked back at me and smiled as I took my own seat.
"Nice, Jack, very nice." She picked up her menu. "Any recommendations?"
"Follow your favorites, if you have some."
"Hmm, chili chicken. Any idea how hot that one is? I haven't had a decent chili chicken for ages."
"Marie makes it hot, but not mouth-blistering. A good tingle on the tongue."
"That's for me, then. You?"
"The same, I think. Haven't had it for a while." Not since last week, anyway.
We chatted while we waited for our food, chatted while we ate, chatted over dessert and coffee. Roxanne was nice to be with, easy in her manner, intelligent, a good conversationalist. I knew I wanted to see her again. I mean socially, because we'd be working together, at least some of the time. And that was where the problems might arise. Boss, and employee. It was Roxanne who brought it up as we were getting ready to leave.
"Tonight has been lovely, thank you, but I think that's it, don't you? I mean, boss and employee relationships are dangerous, no?" She grimaced. "I almost wish I hadn't got the job, now."
"You won't be working for me, if that's all that bothers you."
She frowned. "But you co-own the company, don't you?"
"Sorry, I wasn't very clear there. I meant you won't be working directly to me. Your immediate boss will be Martha Akers. She works for Bill Tonesen. He heads the main development side of Alton Software. Me? I'm head of research, and main liaison with client companies. I'm usually away from the office two or three times each month. We might, probably will, see each other in passing around the office, but that's all. In normal day-to-day stuff, we won't see each other in any official capacity. Martha, and Bill, will be your line management. I'll have nothing to do with that, nothing at all."
She frowned. "But you were originally scheduled to interview me? Not Bill Tonesen?"
I nodded. "True, but Bill and I have known each other so long, and done so much interviewing of employees, we're essentially interchangeable in that aspect. Originally, I was doing him a favor, but the need for that had gone, hence me asking Bill to sit in. To be honest, I'm glad it was Bill, particularly as the recruitment was for his side of the business, and you'll be working for him. So, if I ask you to have dinner with me again on Friday, will you say yes?"
She smiled, wide, "Yes, I will. I'd like that." She frowned. "When do I find out when I start?"
"Do we have a mail address for you?"
"Yes, but it's back home, my parents' address."
"Are you staying around Corby? I can ask Bill to send written confirmation here, to the motel, if you like."
"Please, yes. And I need to see about somewhere to live."
"Well, there I can help you. My cousin Sally works for a letting agency. She can steer you to an apartment, if that's what you're after."
"Please. My motel room's fine for the moment, but I'd like somewhere to call my own."
"Give me your cell phone number, and I'll ask Sally to get in touch. Okay?"
"Okay." She opened her purse, took out a little notebook and pencil, and scribbled the number. She tore it out and handed it to me. "There you go. It's been on charge since I booked in, so it will be good for tomorrow."
"Okay, and now it's time to walk you home." I grinned and she laughed.
"Oh, my goodness. So far! Are you sure?"
"Of course. A gentleman never allows a lady to make her own way home."
The walk was far too short and thirty seconds later she turned to face me outside her motel room door. She smiled.
"Thank you for a lovely evening, Jack." She laughed. "And the job, of course."
"Of course." I wanted to kiss her, but I didn't want to push it. I liked Roxanne Delacour, a lot, and I had the feeling that I should go slowly. "I'll leave a message for Sally to get in touch, and I'll see Bill in the morning about your start date. Sooner rather than later?"
"Please. As soon as possible, in fact. I'm living on savings and my parents' charity at the moment." She laughed. "They thought they had me off their hands."
"I'll tell Bill, then. For now, goodnight, but see you Friday. Seven again?"
"Fine. Ring me to make sure where I am, okay? I presume I won't be at the office."
"That's for Martha and Bill to say." I held out my hand, but she surprised me, stepping close and kissing me lightly, quickly, on the lips.
"Goodnight, Jack, and thank you again."
"Goodnight, Roxanne. sleep well."
She smiled, unlocked her door, and with a little wave, was gone. I gazed at the closed door for a moment, then made my way back to my car. The drive home took only minutes, and fifteen minutes after I'd said goodnight, I was in my apartment, thinking. Thinking about Roxanne Delacour.
I was in Bill's office first thing next morning. He greeted me cheerfully.
"Jack! What brings you here? I thought you were on your way to Atlanta?"
"Flight's at eleven. I wanted to talk to you about Roxanne Delacour."
"Yes. I don't know if she mentioned the accident she had the day before the interview?"
Bill gazed at me for a moment. "No, she didn't. But you obviously know about it, so tell."
"I was driving back from my Mom's, and heading up Stellern Hill. You know that long curve, halfway up?" Bill nodded. "A drunk in a Mustang was being chased by a black-and-white, lost control, and ran into Delacour, bounced off her, hit the opposite guardrail, and totaled himself on the front of an eighteen-wheeler. She'd managed to swerve, avoid a head-on, but her rental bust its suspension. I gave her a ride, and, well, we had dinner together last night."