"I'd like to propose a toast, if I may." Ansel Kendrick was tapping on his glass.
Ansel's barber was not an uncommon sight on the elevator. No doubt, she had been there today. The edge of his combed gray hair was razor sharp. One button held the coat of his charcoal suit across his trim abdomen. I was loathed to admit that Ansel had charisma to go with the suit; had there been a fire, everyone in the room would have followed him to the exit of his choosing. Not surprising, for he was CEO of Imagineer Chemical and my boss.
"Many of us have a stake in this company," Ansel's clear baritone filled the room. "Those of us who do, and even the independent contractors here, owe a tremendous debt to our very own, Kevin Joyce."
A smattering of applause began. It grew as people set down their drinks to join in. Kendrick raised his glass to me. I gave him a tight smile and nodded. During such moments, I missed the comfort of the lab.
Not to be denied his time on the stage, Ansel continued, "Angiorent has been purchased by a major pharmaceutical company--the name of which will be revealed next week--for a very healthy sum. This drug opens the door for a completely new class of anti-hypertensive medication. It promises to sustain our company for a very long time, and we owe it all to Dr. Joyce."
Once again, I gave them the tight smile, saluted with my water, disguised as a cocktail over ice in a short tumbler, and retreated through the crowd to the hors d'oeuvre table.
"You're the hero of the hour, Joyce," Raylene Talbot said from my elbow. Like everyone else, she used my last name, a lifelong plague I lived with.
She flipped her straight, short red hair behind her ear as she eyed the food through stylish, black plastic eyeglasses.
"You're supposed to be my friend, Ray." Talbot was, in fact, my only friend at Imagineer Chemical.
"Don't remind me," she joked.
"Kevin!" Ansel Kendricks had come up behind us.
"Yes, sir!" I turned and flashed my brightest smile.
"I just wanted to add my personal congratulations. It's just a fantastic discovery."
"Thank you, sir."
"Doctor," he said to Raylene. After giving her a nod, he made his way back across the room.
"Is my wig on backwards?" Talbot said. "I've been working trans-dermal medications here for three years; you would think the son-of-a-bitch could at least recognize me and call me by name."
"Under the radar. You should be pleased."
"Well, I haven't seen the other side like you, Mr. Hero of the Hour--no, the year! Maybe even the decade!
"Don't get carried away. Tuesday, they'll be on my ass again, and it'll be, 'What have you done for me lately?'"
Canapes in hand, we had turned in time to see Allie Nielsen and Brad Cagle approaching the table--and, by default, us.
Brad reached past me for several of the appetizers. "Way to go, Joyce," he said, as he slipped one of the gook-laden crackers in him mouth.
"I didn't know you were interested in the laboratory news, Brad," Raylene said sarcastically to Cagle, who worked in sales.
"Only when it adds to my bottom line, Talbot," Brad replied. He was five inches taller than my 5'11" and fifty pounds heavier than my 160. Rumored not to have the grades for a university, he had played football at a small school, starting as a freshman.
Allie Nielsen, who had been with the company for a year, worked in accounting. Her one hundred and fifteen pounds was distributed so perfectly on her 5'7" frame, I would not have moved one ounce! Her bright blue eyes glowed with intelligence; she was summa cum laude from the same university that Cagle couldn't get in.
"I see you don't have a tan, Joyce," Brad observed.
"Try not to get one. I want your ass in that lab, hitting another home run for me."
He reached on the table, took one more appetizer, placed it in his mouth whole and chased it with a sip of red wine from the glass in his left hand. With a slight smirk, he turned and moved back toward the crowd in the middle of the room.
Dutifully, Allie Nielsen fell in behind his right shoulder. Her brown hair, streaked with blonde, hung to her shoulders. Through her cream-colored blouse, I could see her bra clasp. Black pants hugged her perfectly-formed ass.
"Doesn't that make your mouth water," Ray commented. I knew she was speaking of Allie and not Brad. For the most part, Raylene was indeed under the radar, but I was one of the few in the office--maybe the only one--who knew for a fact that she was gay.
"I'd give all of my stock options for one night with that. Yours too, as a matter of fact."
"I wondered if you had noticed," Raylene said.
"Noticed! Since I went to accounting last year for a purchase order and saw her, she's been walking my dreams. And, man, can she walk!"
"Why don't you ask her out?"
"Come on, Ray! This is Kevin. Lab rat Kevin. Never-had-a-date Kevin! Even if I had the balls, you think I can compete with someone like Brad!"
"He doesn't do anything for me." She raised an eyebrow at me as she laid her forearm across her waist, propping up her drink arm.
"Why don't you ask her out!" I countered. "You're the one talking about her ass."
"She's not my type: too tall, too strong."
Talbot was 5'2" and slender. She was not unattractive but not destined for anyone's center-fold either.
"Why would she be with a guy like that?" I asked. "He wasn't nice to her: didn't offer her food, walked around as if he expected her to follow--and she did!"
Raylene continued gazing across the room at the crowd.
"Why would she be with him?" I repeated.
"I don't know. The birds and the bees. Hormones is my guess."
She had an answer no better than mine. But then if I could understand that question, Allie Nielsen would be with me and not Brad Cagle.
"Too much noise here," Ray observed. "I think I'll go by Bradley's for a nightcap. You want to come?"
"No, but thanks."
"See you Tuesday."
Raylene downed her wine and I watched move through the crowd toward the door. I decided to follow, but to a different destination.
"Kevin," someone called when I was a few feet from the door.
I turned and found Allie Nielsen's blue eyes looking at me.
"Hi," I managed to stammer.
"I'm sorry about Brad," she said. "Sometimes he can be a real asshole."
I thought, "How about all the time," but what came out of my mouth was, "It's okay."
Her hand moved forward, but she didn't touch me.
"Congratulations on the Angiorent," she said.
"Thank you," I quickly replied, but unable to think of what I should say in follow-up and without a workable tongue to say it should it come to me, I uttered the only thing I could get out of my mouth, "Good night."
Quickly, I scrambled through the door. I was a nervous wreck. A guy like Brad would have been completely at ease, almost disdainful of her. If he had feelings for her, they were vieled, yet mine seemed clumsily painted all over my face. Why was he so much more of a "man?"
What was it Ray had said? "The birds and the bees, or hormones!" Maybe that was it: testosterone.
The elevator opened and I stepped off, on the level that housed the lab. This was the one place where I was completely at ease.
After placing my thumb in the reader, the door beeped and I stepped through. If there was something that would make me a man, someone worthy of a girl like Allie, it would come from here, not from dicking around at an office party.
Testosterone is not complicated, just an androgen. I knew the chemical formula by heart. Using the computer on my lab table, I modeled the molecule in
3-D. This was the essence of maleness. One couldn't simply take testosterone. There were side effects: hair loss, it swelled the prostate, even increasing the risk of prostate cancer, and--heaven help us--it shrunk the gonads. If I could make some changes to the molecule, maybe add a side-chain...
By 3:30 a.m. I had two groups of rats in cages and injections awaiting them. Group A would get the molecule I had spent the night synthesizing and Group B would get a placebo injection.
For the first time in my career, a trial hardly seemed worthwhile. Even so, I injected the little shits and then retired to the cot I kept in my office for just such night.
"You look like shit, Joyce," Raylene said the next morning as she stepped beside me in line at Dailey's Coffee Bar, one block from the office.
"Thanks," I responded. "It must be my new tan."
"So you've been working again. What are you after this time, an anti-wrinkle cream that works, I pray."
"Are you really interested?" I challenged her.
"Sure," she answered, "but don't get all huffy.
"Get your latte in a go-cup and come on. I'll show you."
We took our coffee and walked back to Imagineer Chemical, our steps quickened by the challenge. Once in the lab, I retrieved the two cages as sat them on the counter.
The rats in Group B walked about the cage, their noses moving, contorting, presumably scanning the air for food. Despite the seedy reputation of all rats, the Group B rats were up to no mischief at all.
"Jeez, what have you done to Group A!" Raylene exlaimed. "Two of them are trying to knock off a piece here in broad daylight in front of God and country."
Another rat mounted an apparently willing female making a total of three Group A couples in rat ecstasy.
"They're screwing their brains out, Joyce! Is it a new scent?"
"They are rather amorous, aren't they," I joined in. "Not only that, they seem more alive to me. But no, it's not a new scent; it's a hormone, a derivative of testosterone."
"Can it be made available to humans?"
"According to the chemistry, there should be no problem. It should be non-toxic, completely bio-degradeable. In fact, I'm ready to conduct a human experiment already."
"Yes, I want you to inject me, Talbot."
"Wouldn't you say that's a little risky, Joyce? How premature is this experiment."
"You forget who you're talking to, Talbot. Employee of the decade, remember. Believe me, it's safe. The biochemistry is unquestionable."
The eagerness on her face belied her words of caution. A few minutes later I was looking away as she jabbed the needle into my shoulder and pushed the plunger, emptying half of the total solution I had made into my body.
"Are you feeling horny, Joyce?"
"Is that a proposition, Ray?"
"Could be--I've swung both ways, you know."
"Despite your devilish grin, you know as well as I do that nothing works that fast. I'm not sure I'm capable of feeling anything now anyway. I was up practically all night. Speaking of which, I'm going home and clean up, catch a few Zs."
"Phone me if anything happens," she called after me, "and come to the coffee shop in the a.m."
Imagineer had always provided employee parking in the basement--a huge benefit, considering what lots charge. Even so, I had always eschewed automobile ownership and rode a bicycle. Feet on the pedals, I turned for home.
The injection had not affected me. Whatever my feelings were, I was not sick. Instead, the breeze from riding felt good. The expanse of the outdoors was invigorating after my night in the lab. My thighs and calves engaged the pedals and seemed to welcome the challenge of the hills.
Once home, for six hours, I slept more deeply than I had in years and awoke completely refreshed. While shaving, I looked at my face for some change and could discern nothing different except for, perhaps, the intensity of the look I gave myself in the mirror.
A bottle of outrageously expensive cologne set on the bathroom vanity. It was practically full. My sister had given it to me last Christmas with a note that said, "Santa doesn't get out enough." I liberally splashed it on my face and rubbed it into my jawline.
It was too late to return to the office. I decided to drop by Hawthorne's, a watering hole near the office popular with the financial and executive crowd. My few previous trips had been with people from the office for a birthday or some other celebration. After undergraduate school, I had given up alcohol, for the sole reason that it kills brain cells. "But what's wrong with losing a few," I thought, "a few shitty ones I don't need."
The place was packed--people turned sideways to slide through the crowd. All the tables were taken, as were the stools at the bar. I decided to get a drink and mill around.
I slid into an narrow space at the bar. I could read the barkeep's name tag on his white shirt at the other end of the bar where he was working over a mixer.
"Hey, Randy!" I called.
"Excuse me." A thick-bodied guy next to me in a sweater vest and a corduroy jacket was talking. "That space is taken."
I looked back and forth across the bar and down at my feet.
"What are you talking about? It's just a goddamn place to stand! Besides, I'm only ordering a drink. Keep your fucking shirt on."
"Can I get you something?" Randy said, having moved to our end of the bar. His blond hair stood in spires; he had stiffened it with something and ran his fingers through it. A gold medallion hung on the front of his white shirt.
"Yeah, a gin martini with a couple of olives."
Soon it was on the bar as was my money. The vest guy said nothing as I walked away with my drink. I weaved my way through the crowd, turning to slide like an untethered sail through the wind. Three women occupied a table in the alcove to my right.
There were pairs of women sparingly scattered in the long three-feet-deep line of men facing the bar. Rather than approach any of them I decided to move to my left and check out the alcove at the other end. As I headed in that direction, a movement caught my eye, and I looked back over my right shoulder in time to see Allie Nielsen step through the door.
Kitty Bledsoe from purchasing was with her. They scanned the bar before Allie saw me and gave a half-hearted wave. I walked to the where they stood just inside the door.
"Hi," I said above the crowd noise.
"Hello," Allie offered.
"Hiya Joyce," Kitty replied. "What's in the martini glass? Rumor at the office is that you never drink anything but water."
"Don't believe everything you hear--especially at the office," I retorted.
"There's no place to sit," Allie said.
"I know," I replied. "It's been like this. Financial and legal geeks."
Then I said directly to Allie, "May I have a word with you?"
Kitty gave her a questioning look and then said, "I'll look for a table." She moved past me in the direction I had been walking.
Before I could say anything, Allie, her brows pinched together, began, "I've already apologized about last night, Kevin."
Last night wasn't on my mind at all, but I decided to play along. "You can make it up to me."
"An apology should be enough, I think, but what do you mean?"
"Have dinner with me tonight."
For a moment, she simply stared at me with a somewhat puzzled look.
"I can't," she finally replied, "I'm with Kitty."
"You can't stay here all night. It's much too crowded and there's no food. You don't plan on spending the night with her, do you?"
"No," she answered, somewhat irritated.
"Have a couple of drinks with her and I'll meet you at Rossier's at eight. It's the least you can do."
She looked at me for a moment, giving nothing away with her eyes.
"See you there," I said as she followed Kitty. I stuck my glass through the row of people, left it on the bar, and walked out.
The bicycle had already pissed me off, during my ride to Hawthorne's. The salesman at the car dealership didn't realize how near the truth he was when he joked, "Bringing it in for a trade?"
"Just let me leave it here a day. I want to stay in shape, but I'm driving out of here tonight in a car."
At eight, I drove a new 350Z drop-top into the valet lane at Rossier's. A punk too young to be trusted with such a machine whistled through closed teeth when I dropped the key in his hand.
Allie wasn't in the waiting area, so I gave the maitre d' my name and stepped into the lounge for a drink. The first one at Hawthorne's hadn't dented my psyche. I had drained the martini and was watching the small amount of alcohol slide down the side of the glass when Allie came in.
She was in black pants again, but these were silkier and, if possible, hugged her ass even more than the pair she had worn to the party. Rather than the blouse, she wore a light pull-over sweater and a jacket that matched the pants.
"You look different," she said, as she slid onto the stool beside me. "What did you do to your hair?"
"It's a 35,000 dollar 'do.'"
"What are you talking about?"
"I bought a car, a little black sports car, a convertible."
"Has something happened to you, Kevin?" Shaking her head slightly, she looked at me. "This is not what I heard you were like. Take me for a ride."
"You're not hungry?"
"I can wait. Can you?"
"For food. Oh, yeah."
The valet had left the top down. I goosed the accelerator. We scooted up Fourth Street and I took the little double-turn onto Riverside Drive. Fourth gear was more than fast enough for the traffic flow; I had yet to put it in sixth. Lights reflected across the water from the far shore. The air flow, partially blocked by her visor, gently blew her hair. We drove into the subdivision past the lake. With the engine roaring as I caught gears, I cut through housing north of the lake and soon we were cruising back down the opposite shore.
"Are you hungry yet?" I asked.
"It's up to you," she answered.
"I'd like some wine and dinner, but if we go back to Rossier's, I shouldn't drink anymore and drive."
She studied my face, as I traded glances between her and the road.
"Let's get take-out steaks," I suggested, "a cabernet sauvignon, and go to your place."
"The car is not the only thing that's fast."
"What! You think I'm afraid of Kevin Joyce? But, just so you know--damn right you will. The wine and the take-out sound good. There's a place not far from where I live. If you can take directions, I'll get us there."
Allie's townhouse sat high on a ridge that overlooked the river. Through the patio door to her deck, I could see the steep drop-off and the lights of the houses on the river's banks far below. She poured each of us a glass of wine and handed mine to me as I stood gazing through the door.
Balancing the wine in my left hand, I pulled her to me and placed my lips on hers. When she didn't back away, I massaged her lips with my mouth. The tips of my tongue sought an opening in her lips and finding it, teased her tongue. She backed away, gently smiling.
"If you weren't planning on drinking any more before you drove, just how do you intend to get home?"
"I haven't thought about it much," I answered.
"Let me set this down," I said, indicating the wine. Looking around, I found a small metal table with a colored glass top. We sat our glasses there. With both arms free, I wrapped them tightly around her and kissed her harder. The odd feeling in my groin changed and I begin to feel a bit crowded. Holding her close only caused the problem to grow. I led her upstairs, and though it was my first time in her house, I was certain I could find a bed.
Despite kissing most of the way up the stairs, we managed to lose my shirt, her sweater, and the black pants. Her legs were long and muscular. When her bra fell away, I saw that her breasts were also tanned. They were not large but they hung perfectly and more beautiful than any I have ever seen were her nipples. They were a dark alizarin crimson. They hardened as I watched, turning stiff and long, extending beyond their aureola a full inch. I touched them and incredibly they extended a bit further.
So inviting they were that I couldn't resist and touched the right one with the tip of my tongue. She put her hand in my hair and I put my tongue underneath her breast and licked up across the breast and her nipple. A soft moan escaped her lips.