The Query : Thomas Pryce

©2018 Thomas Pryce

All rights reserved.


This novelette is a work of fiction. Any names, places, characters, businesses, organizations, events and/or incidents portrayed within are a product of the author’s imagination, and as such, fictitious. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. Use of this work without prior written permission from the author and/or Cenozoic Publishing, Inc. (save for the purpose of review) is prohibited.


Edited by Tim Marquitz




Built to the same template, NASCAR race cars generally run very close, even after hurtling over hundreds of miles of banked macadam. Drafting is one-way drivers try to gain advantage, two cars running nose to tail (sometimes even side-by-side) to increase speed, save fuel, and win the race. It’s a tactic I’ve adopted to writing. The Query was the drafting partner to the novel Unfathomable (my third book, soon to be released).

Though there’s some shared nuance between the two stories, like the drivers of those race cars, they are very different, their plotlines and themes as divergent as their final word counts (a 17,000-word short and a 75,000-word novel). But by running the two works in tandem over the recent miles of life, the drafting strategy has definitely helped advance the process. Each piece gaining a shove from the other and, hopefully, achieving better finish as a result.

The Query is a loose fusion of ideas plucked from a Word.doc of potential concepts saved behind a tiny icon on my laptop—a jotter for random thoughts, bits of discovery and assorted alpha wave ruminations. Divided into five parts, The Query is a speculative exploration of some of those notes. More specifically, it’s a fictional visit with literary agent Andrea Lu Davis in the year 2028, a look-in on her handling of the query process, her ordeals with an intrusive new technology as well as a possible medical condition, all set amid a backdrop of behavioral politics so often a part of the human experience.

As always, it’s my hope that the reader finds the story entertaining (should you decide to give it a looksee). Of all the goals set for my writing, at least to this point, this has been the number one objective. The Query was hugely fun to write, I had a blast getting to know the characters, and I hope it brings you some amusement. And if it happens to land with you on some level, this author would be totally stoked and immensely grateful if you’d consider a quick run over to Amazon to check out some of my other work; perhaps a look-in on the novel, Unnatural Selection or maybe a peek at Cosmosis (a compilation anchored by two novellas). And be sure to keep an eye out for the release of the novel Unfathomable.

A final note/disclaimer: The Query contains adult content (mostly regarding sexual subject matter). So fair warning, if this is a topic that might not resonate with your sensibilities or you simply just don’t dig that kind of stuff, this one might not be for you. But if you do decide to give it a read and find it enjoyable (or even if you didn’t) and feel like dropping a review on Amazon, Goodreads or elsewhere, that’d be greatly appreciated.


Thank you!



*Let’s link up on social media!


Twitter: @ThomPryce






                                                                                      The Query





 “Unbelievable,” Andrea muttered as she used the neurocursor to hastily slide the file to the recycle bin. Query day. She sighed, shaking her head. First one she’d clicked on, a typo, a there/their usage error and—one of the imprecisions she found particularly abrading—a writer referring to their MS as a fictional novel. And all in the first paragraph.

Ugh, coffee STAT!

Andrea reached for the steaming cup of Columbian Select on the nightstand beside her, took a sip—black Xanax—her best hope, she knew, to salvage a souring mood. Sorry, Mr. Gary Goodreiser, Andrea then mimed, the promise of the coming caffeine kiss already reviving her. Don’t think we’ll be able to review your fictional novel, Peeping Zombie, at the moment. Please accept my apologetic apology.

OK, what’s next? Andrea mused with little enthusiasm as she scanned the virtual screen for the Slush Pile folder, still getting used to the operational nuances of the MindTouch App. The file had just been right in front of her, now it was nowhere to be found. Maybe she accidentally deleted it. She mentally winced as she realized the notion was not all that upsetting.

Just use your eyes to move the cursor, the tech had told her last week after the install. Then wink when you wanna open a link, he’d said, blinking his eyes in cheery demonstration, works similar to your Eye-Fi lens-top computer. She had tuned him out like a pop-up ad when he’d launched into the geek-speak about cyber-cellular uplinks between optic nerve, the lens-top computer, and the MindTouch’s holographic monitor.

It was clear he was trying to impress her—way too hard—hoping his quirky intellect and cutesy boy-band appeal might sway her to swipe right. Adorable as he was, she was not interested in him beyond his technical skills. He just wasn’t her type, not to mention the age gap. At twenty-two, he was simply too young to have acquired the other skills she found appealing. Like her taste in coffee, her relationship palate had changed over the years. Long had she ditched the sweet creamy quaffs bereft of staying power for more balanced blends; rich character and carefully cultivated organic breeding the qualities that revved her engine these days. All that said, she was not averse to the occasional harmless reminder that, even at a pre-owned forty-five with two kids at NYU, she still had it.

Just use your eyes, she mouthed absently as she perused the laser sharp 3-D Holo-monitor spread before her. Ah, there it was, back left corner, Slush Pile scrawled across an icon lit in perfectly pixilated manila. She must’ve accidentally minimized it. Having an app installed in her brain was not an idea Andrea was all that excited about, especially the tiny titanium USB-like outlet that had been drilled into the occipital bone behind her ear. A flash drive about the size of a dime (colloquially known as a button-drive) was plugged into it now. The Slush Pile folder having been downloaded onto it last night to have her setup and ready to go first thing in the morning.

Reaching up, she gently touched the button-drive, fingering it in mindless obligation as she’d been doing ever since plugging it in a few minutes ago. Even after a week and a half, the implant still felt strange as she touched it, sensory neurons signaling back a confused phantom limb read of hard plastic where skin had once been. Tapping the button-drive, she could feel the tiny clicks of her fingernail pass from plastic to bone and diffuse through the tender tissue that surrounded it, yet to fully heal.

She still found the whole notion a bit unsettling, wondered if she’d ever get used to it, not to mention the whole area still itched like heat rash. On the upside, she reminded herself in what’sdone-is-done resignation, it was impossible not to be awed by the rich three-dimensional mat and hyper-saturated clarity of it all.

She scanned the screen now, allowed herself a moment of awe. It couldn’t be any more convenient, she self-talked once again to help reassure herself she’d made the right decision. Along with her Eye-Fi contact lens she had virtually her entire office right in front of her. Hard to beat that. It made running her literary agency so much easier. Allowing her to work anywhere, anytime, even in bed. As she was now.

Centering the neurocursor over the Slush Pile folder, Andrea winked. The file opened, and she quickly scanned its contents. Seventy-seven more queries to go. Reaching for her cup of coffee, she glanced at the clock. 7:45 am. Ugh. It was going to be a long morning.

Early in her career, reading query letters was one of her favorite parts of the job. Digging through submissions with the restless enthusiasm of a prospector. These days, given the ultra-competitive climate and diluted talent pool, she pretty much hated it, found the chore only marginally less dreadful than a root-canal. The only thing worse about her job, perhaps, was a face-to-face with Roger Keating, head editor over at Upper Echelon Publishing. The guy was a lust monger, a dinosaur who’d managed to survive the modern corporate ecosystem by adapting, cleverly shapeshifting to the new rules, walnut brain evolving to avoid the squish of legal meteors—Tyrannosaurs Letch.

Unfortunately, there were no laws against creepy fuck-me eyes or carefully concealed pay-for-play innuendo. As many times as Andrea conveyed her lack of interest in any such arrangement, it was always there—sleazily implied in his wink-wink body language and nerve-grating saccharine sweet voice—a novel version of the age-old power play, carnal dickering, the mid-millennial edition. She often found herself wondering how many young literary agents had taken the bait and spread, ambition superseding integrity and skeeve circuits in the name of a sale and/or the hope of a quick rise up the corporate ladder. She felt sorry for any who might’ve fallen for it, and even those who may’ve jumped in willingly, and hoped they’d at least managed to squeeze him for max deals.

But alas, like reading queries, dealing with Roger Keating and a few other bottom dwellers in the biz was, on occasion, a necessary part of the job. College tuition wasn’t getting any cheaper and the competition from the young guns was fierce. The industry was wide open anymore. Even Andrea’s track record of success, which was as impressive as any, carried little sway in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately publishing game of 2028. She needed to be ever-vigilant and unswervingly on-point if she were to keep the business open and food in the fridge. And those Christian Louboutin pumps she had her eye on weren’t going to just magically appear in her closet on their own.

With a sigh, Andrea shelved the digression and winked open the next query and almost immediately regretted it. Dear Agent, blah blah blah. Was this person for real? Dear Agent! Do any of these people bother to read the basic guidelines on query letters? Writer’s Digest alone had countless articles on the topic. A Google search would spit back a zillion more. Hell, she’d written a dozen articles herself, posted half as many YouTube vids on the topic.

Despite the pre-migraine ache that began squeezing her skull like a diastolic python, Andrea finished reading the query. And it was bad, maybe worse than the first. Aside from being a form letter that’d probably been buckshot to every literary agent from here to Timbuktu, it was boring. Andrea could overlook its artless form, its unimaginative ransom-note prose. As far as query letters went, simple was always better. But it was the content that had her shaking her head in mind-numbing tedium, neurocursor cutting swaths across the holographic monitor like an impish child teasing a cat with a laser light.

She knew halfway through the first paragraph the book had no chance. An autobiography about the life of a single mother living in Manhattan dealing with an abusive ex, struggling to make ends meet, working as a virtual customer service rep for Amazon days and operating a Dominos delivery drone nights to survive. Much as Andrea was sympathetic toward the woman’s plight, no legit publisher would touch it. Simply put, the story lacked energy, had been done a thousand times over. It was trite and tiresome, fifty shades of cliché. Not every book had to be a profit bonanza but there had to be at least some potential. This was still a business. Beyond family, friends, and the occasional social media sale, the book had zero marketability.

Without hesitation, Andrea closed the file and slid it toward the recycle icon. Later, she’d upload the email address, along with the other rejections from this batch, to the auto reply app on her lens-top computer. On occasion, she’d second guess herself, wonder if some other agent would see something she missed and hit pay dirt. No worry of that here. One could agree to hump Roger Keating six ways till Sunday and even that wouldn’t get it published.

“Dear writer,” Andrea then said with an outbreath of frustration as the trash-pail icon flashed in acknowledgement of contents received, “next time please remember that, yes, even literary agents have actual names…”

Falling into a rhythm, Andrea ripped through another three-dozen query letters, skimming most, reading a few. To her mild surprise, she found a couple hopefuls and a third that had her thoroughly charmed. It was a novel titled Last Will. Her heart pounded with promise and curiosity. So much so she circled back to read the blurb portion again:

Will Hastings is going to die. At least that’s what the doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital have told him. And having been diagnosed with ALS, he has no reason not to believe them.

Only thirty-two, future bleak, Will decides to use whatever energy he has left on a bucket-list crusade. To eschew the NYC rat race and shuffling hospice death march to see the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and visit the Olympic National Forest where his parents honeymooned. To squeeze what he could from his remaining days. And, ultimately, to die on his own terms, returning seed to the soils where he’d been conceived, surrounded by earth and wonder and vast open skies.

But Will’s end-of-life plans don’t go quite as expected, his journey taking a radical shift once immersed in the rambunctious ecosystem of fate. Because there’s a serial killer in the woods. Bodies piling up in gruesome numbers, and in such random Rorschach patterns of slaughter, that the authorities have no clue who—or what—might be the culprit.

The situation is compounded by an escalating series of strange sightings, footprints, and folklore whirling in a high-mountain haze of intrigue. All taking place under the larger shroud of questionable corporate interests as environmental protections in National Parklands are eased.

Throughout it all, a beautiful Native American girl, Nina, the daughter of a local shaman, tries to help Will with his condition. Spending time together in a healing cabin built by her father, Will and Nina become close. And when the crosshairs of danger suddenly turn upon Nina, Will must summon everything he has left to help her. He’ll do whatever it takes—risk everything, spend every breath—to try and protect her. Because he loves her now and, as it happens, has nothing to lose.

After all, he came here to die.

The execution wasn’t perfect Andrea noted on the second read-through, but it definitely had energy. Highlighting the query with a wow-face emoji, Andrea neurocursored it off to the side. She’d send the author a note later requesting more info. Andrea felt a rush of excitement that had nothing to do with caffeine. Along with the other leads, the story had her feeling a little of the old mojo.

She checked the time: 8:30. Not bad. With her assistant, Mandy, opening the office today and things beginning to trend positive, she might even have time to bang out a few chores, maybe even slip in a visit to the gym on the way to the office. Another twenty-minute push here and she was out the door.

“Refill first,” she whispered to Sigmund, the feline fur ball curled up beside her, as she grabbed her coffee cup and disentangled from the blankets. The cat, not a morning person, replied with a grumpy meow and gaze of disapproval, as if wondering where the fire was.

Walking down the hall, heading toward the kitchen, Andrea took the opportunity to check out the handling on the new MindTouch program. The tech had said the app could be used during almost any activity—walking, jogging, in an elevator, even in the shower—and nobody would even know. Only she could see the screen.

Downing the last sip of coffee, she used her sightline to move the neurocursor atop the Slush Pile file, the steady strut of her slippered feet and hardwood floor gliding beneath the virtual monitor. “Come on,” she urged, working to center the jiggling neurocursor, feeling a little of the old magic. Make me squirt, she mouthed playfully. Hovering the cursor over the next query letter, she winked it open.

A flash filled her brain and Andrea went down. She couldn’t see, hands flailing for the wall as gravity opened up like a trapdoor. Scrabbling for balance, she dropped the mug, sending porcelain shrapnel skittering across hardwood. WTF, she screamed in her mind, grasping behind her ear and ripping out the button-drive as she slid down the wall. “Dammit,” she muttered, shaking her head, body trembling. She knew this was a bad idea.





Tying the examination gown behind her neck, fingers trembling, Andrea hopped up on the exam table. The doctor had already been in; vitals, blood draw, x-rays, and MindTouch diagnostics had been done by staff after that. When the nurses are finished, get undressed and put on a gown. I want to do a full physical, Dr. Reinhardt had said after listening to her story. I’ll be right back, he then added with a genial smile as he’d left the room.

Andrea’s regular PCP was Dr. Marie Gonzalez, and she was excellent. And under ordinary circumstances, she’d have gone to see her. But this was anything but ordinary, not to mention pressing. The staff over at Dr. Gonzalez’s office was great, but it was unlikely they’d have been able to book Andrea today. Let alone within the hour, as Reinhardt had.

It wasn’t that Reinhardt’s clinic wasn’t busy. In fact, it was one of the hardest appointments in all of Manhattan. Right up there with getting a chair at the trendy and well-celebed GlitzChics Salon on the Upper Eastside. Ever since the New York Times piece about him last month, Reinhardt’s stock had spiked, his standing on an asymptotic upswing on par with historic trends like Beanie Babies, Bitcoin, and Martian rock mood rings. He was the talk of the town.

But that wasn’t the reason Andrea had chosen to see him. Because, beyond the flavor-of-the-month hype inspired by recent press, and the fact that he was one of the most eligible bachelors in the city, the guy had talent. Reinhardt was widely recognized as a leading researcher in the burgeoning industry of cyber-bionics and, as both gifted physician and computer engineer, he was one of the few doctors with the integrative skillset to work the delicate medical middle ground between body and tech. The clinic also had a DaigKnowIt supercomputer, first in the country, an FDA approved fully automated diagnostic device. Input blood, urine, and saliva along with keyed-in clinical history and within seconds you had a full patient profile, from DDX to treatment options, all of it disgorged with vending machine simplicity. Smart medicine compliments of the latest AI. Facts that had been chronicled in the recent Times feature. An article that had not only put him on the map, the story going wildly viral, but earned him the nickname RoboDoc. A clever quip the author had used to help carry the article and soften the techy tone.

Andrea had actually had her ex-husband, Max, call him a few weeks back to ask him his opinion on the MindTouch app, which he had endorsed wholeheartedly. Max may have been an epic ass in many regards, fidelity being one of them, suffering a case of seven-year-itch at about year four, doing every eager bimbo that strutted the halls of his law firm, but he was also a man who got things done. He was the reason she’d been able to get in to see Reinhardt on such short notice today.

Several years back, Max had defended Dr. Reinhardt in a malpractice case…and won. Exposing the plaintiff as a scam artist, the claim trumped up, and got the suit tossed out, keeping the doctor free of any damage to his reputation.

Following the victory, Reinhardt had put Max’s firm on retainer and, in the years since, the two had become friends. Though Andrea had never seen him as a patient before, she’d met him once at a TedTalk at CUNY college titled Zen and the Art of Multitasking…and liked him. He was professional and bright, with a warm personality. Which was an especially important factor today, given the nature of her symptoms, one in particular, which she knew she’d have to share with him.

After she’d fallen in the apartment and hastily unplugged the button-drive, her vision had slowly returned. Able to see again, her panic had drawn back from utter to merely sheer. Minutes later, she had managed to get to her feet and find her phone. Pacing the bedroom, her anxiety receding as dizziness and nausea continued to fade, she’d decided an office visit with Dr. Gonzalez would be sufficient, next available.

But as the physical symptoms pulled back across the threshold of panic and she slowly stabilized, a new symptom had appeared. One that had her both frightened and confused. Frightened because it was in her brain, the sensation penetrating her emotional firewall to touch her psyche in a way she could only describe as primal. And confused because, strange and powerful as the feeling was, it was not entirely unpleasant.

All of this had revived the alarm bells, sending her level of concern ringing back to DEFCON One, and had her reexamining the course of action. It was clear this needed the eye of a specialist, concierge attention. A heartbeat later, she was on the phone with Max.

The paper liner on the exam table crinkled as Andrea shifted, startling her back to the moment. Breathe, she told herself, wishing the doctor would hurry up. She really wanted to hear what he had to say, get on with the exam, and still had a few more questions. With a meditative exhalation, she looked down to see her nipples jutting beneath the gown like gumdrops. A reaction that had nothing to do with the chilly room. She reached up and gently touched them. They were pebble hard, almost to the point of painful. She figured she could use them to key a car if she had the inclination to do so. She tried to slouch, make them less noticeable. But it helped little and may’ve actually made the situation worse, the cotton fabric brushing softly across her skin to send a fresh round of arousal through her body. Great, just what I need, gritting her teeth. Fuel on the fire.

“Fuck,” she muttered. What the hell’s going on? She began to wonder if maybe she shouldn’t have gone to see a shrink instead. She’d always had what she considered a healthy sexual appetite, but this was ridiculous.

The door eased open, and Dr. Reinhardt stepped quietly through. Inwardly, she applauded his effort at stealth. She was jumpy enough as it was.

“Okay,” he said neutrally as he peered through reading glasses at a clipboard resting in the crook of his arm. “Preliminary labs are back.” He glanced up, a gentle smile. “Everything looks good.”

A clipboard. Interesting, Andrea thought. Robodoc’s kickin’ it old-school. She could feel her anxiety drop a degree, but then ratchet back up as she realized she was kind of hoping the labs showed something. A minor glitch, an anomaly. Something explicable, something easily fixed. “My hormones are good? This isn’t menopause, is it?”

The doctor looked at her over his glasses. “There’s still a few numbers pending, but based on what’s come back so far, everything looks pretty good. CBC, CMP, all good. No major genetic glitches. Estrogen and cortisol are a little high, and I’d like to run those again. Maybe expand the panel.” A pause as he seemed to gage the vibe. “Not to worry, though. Based on what I see here, and the report from the DiagKnowit,” he said, a finger drumming on the clipboard, “I’m not expecting anything unusual to come back.”

“So, no hot flashes anytime soon? Whew.” She rolled her eyes sarcastically and drew a hand across her forehead. A defense mechanism, doing her best to redirect the frustration rising within.

“No, you should be okay there…for now anyway.” He smiled. He had great teeth, full lips, a Hollywood smile. Andrea couldn’t help but smile back, appreciating his sensitivity. The man had amazing bedside manner for someone so left-brain dominant. His genius clearly went beyond techno nitty-gritty, had a caring human tact she found reassuring and anything but robotic. His nickname really didn’t fit, she mused. #RoboNot

“I thought for sure it was gonna be something hormonal,” she said as much to herself as the doctor. “I mean, my sexual desire has always been typical, I think, but this is anything but. It feels really powerful, more like an insatiable itch or a sneeze that’s stuck. I don’t know…” She sighed, her voice trailing off.

“Well,” he said, his regard easy and non-judgmental, “if it helps, as symptoms go, this is not one generally considered serious. There are some conditions I want to look into and will likely refer you to a specialist if this continues beyond a day or two. But I’m not overly concerned at this point.” She could find no indication he wasn’t giving it to her straight.

“I don’t know, Doc,” Andrea said, doing a quick head to toe internal assessment despite his encouraging remarks. “Something just doesn’t feel right.”

“If there’s something wrong, I assure you, we’ll figure it out, no matter how long it takes.” He made eye contact, held her gaze, his blue eyes bright with confidence. “Are you currently sexually active?” he then asked.

“Not really,” she said with a self-mocking snort. “Been so busy with work lately, it just hasn’t been a priority.”

He nodded, breathing a gentle I-get-it sigh. “Well, keep in mind that balance is important, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

“Yeah.” Andrea mirrored his gesture with a nod of her own. “Something to keep in mind.”

Reinhardt smiled and made a quick note on his clipboard. “Have you ever had a panic attack?” he then asked. The question did not surprise her.

“No.” Shaking her head. “Do you think that’s what this could be?”

“Not likely, but I want to be sure and get an accurate history. They can be quite distressing, though, especially the first time. Most people think they’re having a heart attack or going crazy.”

“Aha.” She nodded, meeting his frank eyes as he looked up from his clipboard. “So, you’re sure it has nothing to do with the MindTouch app?” Andrea asked, circling back to her biggest concern, reaching up to touch the implant behind her ear. “Or this damn thing I have drilled in my skull?” She was doing her best to keep her worry in check.

A nod. “I’m certain.” Going back to the clipboard, flipping a page. “The diagnostics on the app are clean. The system seems in perfect working order. These units are not as invasive as people think and, as a precaution, this particular model is outfitted with protective software from the manufacturer that’s second to none.”

Andrea shook her head in restless resignation.

Moving with able grace, Dr. Reinhardt put down the clipboard and sidled up beside her. “Let’s get a look at you,” he said, stethoscope coming to level with the practiced skill of a gunslinger. “My concern here, Andrea,” he said gliding deftly through the examination, “is that you may’ve jostled something when you fell to the floor.”

“But I didn’t fall that hard,” she explained, breathing in and out as he listened to her heart.

“Sometimes it doesn’t take much. A lot depends on angles, how your body may have twisted on impact. The brain is a—”

“Wait, you’re saying I might have brain damage?” Andrea interrupted.

“No.” The doctor shook his head, lifting his eyes from the exam to meet her gaze. “But I want to be sure and check everything.” He made a twirling motion with his hand. “Skootch around if you would. I wanna take a closer look at that implant.” He had big hands Andrea noticed. Proportionate and strong and steadied with confidence.

He rested a palm on her shoulder as she adjusted, the soft gown drawing tight across her body, the exam paper sticking to her leg and tearing, the rip spreading wider as she shifted. Feeling him lean in from behind for a closer look at the implant, Andrea flinched, expecting to feel a rush of arousal. Not only was he caring and smart and every bit of six-foot-three—and standing close enough that she could feel his breath on her neck—he was handsome. #RoboHot.

Really, what normal red-blooded American woman wouldn’t feel at least a tinge of excitement? Even if she hadn’t been pre-lubed and a few finger swipes from orgasm, she’d have likely reacted to his pheromonal proximity anyway. No guilt in that.

But she felt nothing.

At least nothing she could relate to him. It didn’t make any sense, and she shook her head in exasperation as she scoured her mind for plausible explanation.

“Hold still,” he said, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze as he leaned closer, holding some kind of scope to examine the implant behind her ear.

She complied, stopped fidgeting, but went back inside her mind to think on it further, trying to get a hold on the slippery-soap-bar logic of what was going on with her.

Because it made no sense. And it was starting to really scare her, had her thinking in terms of witchcraft or curses or psychosis or some other mind-altering lunacy. The fact was, given the circumstances, she should’ve had some kind of reaction to him—slightly elevated pulse, an innocent stir of her libido—something. Hell, even if she’d been married and totally committed, as she’d been in the early days with Max, she’d have felt something. Nothing she’d consider acting on outside of fantasy, of course, just a normal response. Harmless. Healthy. Human. Animal.

And it was at that moment she realized there was something going on that was, if not life threatening, certainly significant. Something odd. Something not easily explained. Something that was possibly even outside the scope of RoboDoc’s vast and learned purview. Because she had done an experiment, the conditions perfect, setting up a visualization game to try and gain some understanding. Once she was certain she had not been sexually aroused by the doctor, she’d changed it up, doing a little plug and play. Closing her eyes, she swapped out the imagery of the doctor with another face. The one that had been lodged in her mind ever since her little episode. The one that hung in her mind now.

And she flinched again, this time almost to seizure, a ten-point-oh shudder on the lust Richter scale. She almost came on the spot. She even had to stifle a moan, was only semi-successful.

“You okay?” the doctor asked, noticing her quiver.

“I’m just worried about what you said about my brain…from the fall,” she stammered, trying to cover. Doing her best to ride out the wave of excitement set loose by her erotic impromptu switch-a-roo.

He stepped back in front of her. “The x-rays of your neck and head look fine,” he said assuredly, “but there are certain subtle issues that I may not be able to see.” A pause. “If you’re up for it, I’d like to send you over to New York Medical to have a CAT scan, just to be sure.”

Andrea sighed, pondered the request, still trying to rein in her unbridled desire.

“It’s up to you, of course,” he said when Andrea didn’t immediately respond. “Again, I don’t expect to find anything major. I’m certain you’re fine here. But in the name of due diligence, I’d feel better if we ruled everything out.” He put the scope in the pocket of his lab coat, leveled the clipboard back in the crook of his arm. “It wouldn’t be today, mind you, but I should be able to get you in within the next few days.”

“Can I get back to you later, Doc?” Andrea said numbly. “I just need some time to process.”

“Sure.” He nodded, soft lines rising around his blue eyes.

Andrea looked at him, smiling as she again explored his masculine features. Noting his chiseled jaw, his slightly mussed brown hair, the testosterone charge in the air around him, another quick test to double check the initial. Her smile faded. Nope…nothing, the well was dry.

“Thanks for everything, Doc.” She reached out and shook his hand. “And I appreciate you getting me in so fast.”

“No worries.” He smiled as he turned to leave. At the door, he looked back. “Be sure and check in with me tomorrow, email or phone. And on your way out, see Jessica at the front desk. I’ve written you a script, something to help you relax, take the edge off.”

“Thanks,” she mouthed as she slid off the exam table.

With the doctor gone, she quickly dressed, eager to get out of there. She was frustrated. Not only by the lack of a diagnosis but by the continued escalation of her symptom. She’d come in hot and horny and ready to blow, and now, those feelings had only grown stronger. Especially after her visualization experiment. She hadn’t told the doctor about the face she was seeing. She was not shy by nature, and the doctor was clearly understanding and professional, but she just didn’t feel comfortable disclosing it to him. TMI, at least as she felt now. If things persisted, and she couldn’t figure it out on her own, she’d make another appointment and tell him then. At the moment, she had more pressing matters to attend to.

Dressed and ready, she hit the door and hustled down the hall. She needed to get out of there to try and get some relief. She dropped a business card at the front desk as she swept by, telling Jessica to email her any paperwork or prescriptions and that she had an important meeting she had to get to.

In the hallway, heading toward the elevator, she pressed the Uber Drone app, bringing her intelli-phone to her ear in one move. Her body was an inferno of estrogen, and she needed to vent, do something to offload the lust building inside her. And since riding her fantasy man to shivering climax was not an option, there was only one other way to achieve it.





Andrea panted and strained, felt the satisfying shudder in her thighs as she finished pressing out the squat. The treadmill was her favorite fitness genre but, craving brute exertion, decided to hit the weights instead. The seated squat rack her punishment of choice. So, as soon as she’d changed into her workout gear, she went straight for the free weights. No stretching, no warm-up, no aerobic foreplay.

Attainment Health and Wellness was a state-of-the-art facility that catered to NYC’s economic upper percentile. Smartly-appointed, the center was a pert fusion of fitness and spa and staffed with a team of skilled trainers, each one a rep of the modern Darwinian ideal, beautiful and fit and meticulously sculpted to ultimate buffness. Upscale and exclusive, yes, AHW was also decked with plenty of raw steel and challenging physical pursuits to satisfy even the most extreme fitness aficionado. It wasn’t unusual to see one of the NY Knicks or the occasional professional bodybuilder working out there, hulking physiques hoisting barbells two or three times Andrea’s body mass.

On her way in, she’d noticed her old pal Otis jogging on one of the treadmills. Another reason she’d chosen to forego aerobics. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Otis. Actually, she found him witty and wonderfully amusing. But he was the living embodiment of Adderall, perpetual motion on two skinny white legs, no way of slipping past him without having to engage. And she just wasn’t in the mood for that kind of full-frontal energy at the moment. The free weights were in the back, well-removed from the commotion of treadmills, ellipticals, and upright bikes splayed in zoo-view behind a massive street-side span of plate glass. Aside from being an Otis-free zone, there was less traffic in the back, easier for her to find that just-do-it mindset.

Otis wasn’t actually his real name. It was a nickname Andrea had given him a few years back somewhere around the umpteenth time he’d hit her with an idea for a new novel. His real name was Randy Ballantine, an unpublished writer ever in search of representation. Andrea doubted he even had a completed manuscript, but he was always on, always ready to chat about his writing, no matter the time or place. The gym, the sidewalk, a conference, an elevator, Otis was always ready with a pitch.

Outgoing and fun loving, Andrea saw Otis as more of a fanboy than a writer—no harm in that—his aspirations less about getting published than being seen in certain circles. The son of a wealthy Manhattan business exec, with his natural charm and legacy privilege, he managed invites to most of the big social events around town. Well-known for nothing in particular, a conversation piece—an asteroid sand hourglass, a selfie with President Miley Cyrus, a shark penis in a pickle jar, a modern-day Kato Kaelin (the big city edition)—people liked having him around. Andrea sometimes wondered if he didn’t have better access to some of the publishing VIPs than she did.

“…eight…nine…ten,” Andrea gasped as she locked out her knees, then shifted the safety bar into place to chock the weight stack. Drawing her knees fetal, she closed her eyes and blew a taut recovery breath. She was pleased. It was a good set, her body hunched and humming with adrenaline as she sat like an Apollo astronaut in the inclined squat rack. She actually felt somewhat better. Yeah, her frustration had yet to fully recede, and she still probably had enough sexual amperage to light up half of Times Square, but the exertion had clearly helped, sponging off some of her drive by the simple physics of biologic priority. The activity also had the effect of getting her outside of her head for a while. Another plus.

With a centering breath, she lifted back into position, ready for takeoff. One more set and she’d hit upper body. Pound out a few sets of bench-press and she’d be too tired to even think about sex, let alone partake. Then maybe she’d be able to get some work done.

Feet square on the metal push plate, she took the weight with her legs and removed the safety lever. Midway through a long Lamaze outbreath, she stopped, her attention grabbed by a flash of recognition. What the…?

Her legs began to tremble, went suddenly weak. Panic swelling, she quickly slapped the safety lever home before the weight stack slid back and squished her.

It couldn’t be, was the first thought to shine through the deluge of confusion. I have to be wrong, she thought to help steady her heartrate and quiet the rising spike of excitement. She needed another look.

Raising arms overhead, she leaned and feigned a recovery stretch, doing her best to keep it casual. The first image had been fleeting, a glance in the mirror. She could’ve been mistaken, or duped by her senses. Having his face fixed in her mind all day, as it’d been, her brain could’ve easily cross-wired fact with fantasy, creating an optical delusion, a mirage conceived on wishful thinking and photoshopped hope.

It’s him, she mouthed, eyes going wide as she got a better look. No doubt about it, this was no hallucination. There he was, doing bicep curls in the mirror directly behind her. She stared, momentarily dazed, heart galloping behind her breastplate. Keeping it breezy, she withdrew and hunched for cover. She needed a minute to think.

How could this be? The whole thing was absurd, it made no sense. An attractive guy she’d never met appears in her mind, then abracadabra, he materializes a few hours later, as if the imagery had been downloaded from her mind and spun out by a giant 3D printer. Pretty neat trick, she had to admit, her inner voice going suddenly sarcastic to suggest that maybe she was a genie. It was certainly a skill to make her friends envious, definitely gave a whole new meaning to the word manifest. She’d be a hit at the next girls-night-out gathering, that was for sure.

There’s gotta be a logical explanation, she thought, pulling from the reverie. Or I’m crazy. Which, though not an explanation she found particularly uplifting, it was at least logical. But I feel great, the voice of reason declared to counter the ominous prospect of a psychiatric DX. Aside from a little anxiety and sweaty palms, she felt better than ever.

Just go over there and say hi, the idea shining obvious as rationality finally cut through the shock. But as she tried to get up, she realized she couldn’t move, her body frozen with apprehension. Looking down, she noticed her hands were trembling. She was nervous, strangely hesitant, like a teen about to ask her crush to the junior prom. Maybe she was crazy, after all, she began to think, because this was totally out of character for her. She was strong, confident, and highly-accomplished, not at all prone to such behavior.

On top of it all, she wasn’t even sure if he was all that good looking. Average height, regular build, everyday face she noted as she stole another glance at him in the mirror. By all statistical measures, he was ordinary. Yet a mere glimpse his way sent her desire circuits into overload, the chemicals of passion revving her limbic with anticipatory ecstasy. It was like she was under hypnosis, her judgement dumbed down by infatuation. Even now, as she continued to eye him furtively, she could feel his radiant sexual energy hot against her skin, gliding across her lips, penetrating her normally sturdy floodwalls of caution to get inside and spread warmly within.

“Whoa.” She shuddered, wrenching free of his spell by sheer dint of will. She really needed a reality check. She wished her best friend Magda was there, or almost anyone for that matter. Someone to offer an impartial opinion, fact check her sanity.

Otis, she suddenly thought, swiveling to see if he was still around. Yes. He was there, still jogging on the treadmill. He’d be perfect, couldn’t get a better arbiter if you tried. Otis was openly gay and easy going, always up to chat. And it wouldn’t be at all out of place. Just a couple fans of the male form checking out the talent in the gym. Nothing more natural than that.

With the covertness of a spy, Andrea made her way across the gym and hopped up on the treadmill next to Otis. “Andrea Lu Davis seven seventeen, start warm up program,” she said into the speaker on the machine. As the belt started to gain speed beneath her feet, she leaned and waved to Otis.

“Andrea,” Otis yipped with a paper-cut judder. “How are you?” he said without breaking stride, a smile rising easy as he leaned and gave her a cheery pat on the shoulder.

“I’m good Ooo…Randy,” she said, correcting herself an instant before accidentally calling him Otis. “How’re you?” She smiled, too. His energy was so infectious, no way not to.

“O-M-G, have I got a great idea for a new novel!” he said, sweeping off his headphones, staying true to character. “Picture this, set on a lunar mining outpost, a shift supervisor named Randolph becomes romantically involved with a robot named Jason, who works in the mines, and they secretly get married.” He paused for a quick breath and to let the idea set. “The robots are super realistic of course, a mechanical chassis fleshed in Syn-Skin. When discovered, the relationship is outlawed. But by then, Randolph has fallen in love with Jason and ending the relationship would cause Randolph great pain and, as such, spark a direct conflict in Asimov’s First Law of Robotics.” Otis paused, stiffened his frame like an android, then recited the famous decree. “A robot must not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” A beat to boost the drama. “See the fun we could have with that?” He wiped his brow, another theatrical upsell. “Action and intrigue wrapped in a steamy sci-fi taboo romance. Science friction, ya might say!”

Andrea couldn’t help but crack another smile. The guy had chutzpa.

“I want to call it Dark Side of the Moon. And then—”

“I like it,” Andrea said, cutting him off. “I’d be interested in reading it.”

“Whaaa…” Otis stammered, seemingly at a loss for words, a glitch of uncertainty suddenly sweeping across his features. It seemed a little overplayed.

“It sounds like fun,” Andrea said, dismissing his reaction as shock. “Just send a quick query to let me know when it’s ready. Make sure the manuscript’s as clean as you can get it, then send it over to me.”

“Awesome.” Otis beamed, back to his old self.

Andrea doubted the manuscript would ever come across her desk, let alone even be written. Sure, she was anxious to move on to the topic of her mystery man but agreeing to read the MS was not manipulation—the idea actually held promise. Heck, last year she placed a novella titled Dead Wrong about a space traveler jailed on felony necrophilia for having sex with a hologram of his dead boyfriend…and it was selling. It was a bit of a niche genre, but there was a loyal enough fandom for a solid market. Futuristic AI/human gay erotica, robotica, or Splatterhunk as someone had dubbed it.

Her agenda aside, she’d keep to her word and give it a look. Given his substantial and ever growing social media platform, if the MS made it to her inbox and was halfway decent, maybe she’d consider it. “Hey,” she then said before he could hop to another topic. “Whatta ya think of that guy over there?” She turned and nodded conspiratorially toward the back. “Guy in the white shirt, brown hair.”

Otis stabbed a finger at the control panel to slow the tread, then turned and followed her gaze. “You mean Gabe?” He flashed her a mischievous grin. “He’s savaggggge,” he said, voice trailing off for effect.

“No, you goof,” Andrea razzed. Gabe was one of the trainers that worked there. Gay, straight, or of inclination vague, Gabe was a sight to behold, handsome and pretty and oozing of sin. At the moment, he was in the back, flexing and glistening in all of his glory as he demoed leg lunges for a female client. Andrea nodded again. “Over there,” pointing, “by the free weights, the guy working his arms.”

“Aha, now I got him.” Otis bid her a lighthearted grin. “The shirt color threw me off a bit, that’s taupe not white,” he teased.

Andrea rolled her eyes and shot him a look. Will you be serious!

Otis winked, his smile going slack as he turned and adjusted his orientation on the machine for a better view. “Hmmm,” he intoned as he studied Andrea’s mystery man, head tilting like a radar dish searching for better signal.

Andrea waited, toggling up the speed on her tread as she did. She glanced at the monitor to check her heartrate. 126 BPM and slowly rising.

“Well,” turning back to Andrea, eyes alive with mirth, “he’s no romance cover model.”

Andrea winced, felt her mood instantly sour.

Otis must’ve picked up on her vibe. “But he’s not awful,” he quickly amended. “I mean, you gotta consider the whole package, right?” Leaning closer and lowering his voice. “A nice dinner and a few Chardonnay’s and I’d take him home.”

Andrea smiled. She appreciated his effort to soften his assessment but was disappointed. Not because Otis tagged her mystery man as ordinary. She’d dated plenty of average looking guys; was more the rule than the exception, in fact. But what was unusual here, and the basis of her concern, was that there was no point A in what was typically at least a two-step process. She liked him, lusted for his buns to be clumsily honest. And that simply wasn’t typical for her, was another anomaly. Aside from maybe a guy like Gabe, arriving at point B—AKA the point where she was ready to sleep with someone—usually took a little time. A few dates or similar point A foreplay for her to reach her emotional quota.

“You really like him,” Otis yodeled, startling her back to the moment.

“Nooo…” Eyebrows pinching as she shook her head.

“O-M-G, you do like him!”

Andrea flashed him a scrunch-face of denial, hoping he’d buy it.

“Girl I’m gonna do you the biggest favor.” Otis jumped off the back of the treadmill in one quick move.

“Wait,” Andrea said, reaching back in heedless reflex. “What are you gonna do?”

“Oh, you’ll see soon enough,” Otis said with a smile, taking off before she was able to protest. “It’s the least I can do for you agreeing to read my book!” she heard before he moved out of audible.

“Fuck,” Andrea muttered, thinking no-good-deed… Her stomach began to hum like a poked bee hive as his bearing confirmed he was heading toward her mystery man. Feeling both excited and uneasy, she took a deep breath and turned around, concentrating on her stride, her eyes going to the commotion out on the street. She didn’t want to get caught gawking back their way after Otis did whatever it was he was going to do.

Legs scissoring quickly, heart beating in time, she’d just gotten into rhythm when it was disrupted by a voice. Otis.

“This is my friend, Andrea,” she heard over her shoulder, the words striking her like a Taser, searing watts of anticipation tingling down her spine. Without slowing down, she turned.

“Andrea, this is Brandon,” Otis extended a palm, inviting Andrea’s mystery man to take the treadmill right next to her.

“Hi,” Brandon said as he stepped up on the machine beside her. “Nice to meet you, Andrea.” His smile went right through her. ”I’d shake your hand, but wouldn’t want you to lose your balance. A fall at this speed ya might get launched halfway across the gym.”

Andrea smiled and fingered the speed icon, slowing the unit some. “Nice to meet you, too,” she replied through sped breaths. Given the chaos of her day, she knew she didn’t look her best. Nothing she could do about it now.

In the background, Otis hopped on the treadmill beyond Brandon, sandwiching him between them. Leaning over, he said, “Brandon says he knows all about heartrate and how it relates to fitness, so I’m sure he can help you.” He raised his eyebrows, then flashed a wink of encouragement.

Andrea nodded. “Thanks.” Although not entirely appreciative of the gesture, she picked up on the cue, and went along. “Yea, um…” panting, “I wasn’t exactly sure how to find my target heartrate?” she lied, glancing at Brandon, then eyeing the control panel. She noticed her heartrate had ticked up to 142.

“Well I’m no expert,” Brandon said, as he started up his tread and began walking beside her, “but I remember the basics from my intro training session with Gabe.” Andrea shot Otis a pleading stare. Zip it. Otis grinned but complied. “I know just enough to be dangerous,” he continued.

You are indeed dangerous, mister, Andrea thought warily as Brandon reached in front of her and ran a hand over the console on her machine. She could feel his presence as he leaned closer, his body emitting virility like a pheromonal furnace. Damn, she flinched. For a guy just dubbed ordinary, he was hot AF.

“Depends on what your training goals are.” He went on, toggling up the menu key to bring up an options chart. “Fat burn, aerobic or, I do this level-one cardio program,” he read off the screen. “Pick one then key in your age and the computer will do the calculations.”

“Hope this thing has a super computer,” she quipped.

He laughed and flashed a smile. “You look great whatever your age is.”

Good answer. Andrea beamed.

“Hey, Brandon,” Otis leaned over, interrupting. “Do you have any plans for tonight?”

Brandon shook his head.

“Awesome. I have a great idea, why don’t you and Andrea join Irving and I for dinner?”

Andrea’s eyes went wide, felt an electroshock of conflict run through her body, hope and dread kindling up her spine like alternating current. Reflexively her eyes went to the console. Her heartrate had jumped to 162.

“We have reservations at Estancia Gardens down in SOHO,” Otis continued, his gleeful smile outshined only by the mischief in his eyes. “I know the owner, it’ll be no problem upgrading to a four-top.”

Andrea and Brandon exchanged glances.

“Then it’s settled,” Otis said, interrupting again, not giving either a chance to decline. “Our reservations are for eight. I’ll see you both there.”

Brandon looked to Andrea and shrugged, his hazel eyes alive with delight. She mirrored the gesture. Why not?

Turning to Otis, Brandon finally said, “Sounds good, looking forward to it.” He then swung back to Andrea. “It’s a date.”

Andrea felt her face go warm with excitement as she met his eyes and nodded. “It’s a date.”





Breathless with pleasure, Andrea moaned and came again. They’d started out in missionary, her on her back, Brandon sliding in exquisitely from above to set the pace. But now she was on top, arching like a yoga pose, hands on his chest for support, riding cowgirl, her favorite position—insert beating heart emoji here—and she loved it. Being on top allowed for better handling, control of angles, tempo, and pelvic glide, putting her in charge—the CEO of the big O—giving her the physical freedom to shiver to finish virtually on-demand.

All of which was made easier by the insane primal attraction she had for him. His face, his body, his smell…his steady, quiet confidence. Somehow, it all fit like a lock to the key of her sexuality. He was not only inside of her but he was in her. A notion that only fueled her frenzy, had her riding him in waves of fitful passion for nearly twenty minutes now. Not to mention he had the perfect penis to help get her there; not too small, not too big—not too soft, not too hard. But just right…a Goldilocks’ cock.

How many times had she climaxed, she had no idea, her brain overcome with the warm rush of oxytocin overdose. Orgasm math or any cares beyond her next breath held no concern, nor were they even achievable in her current state. Her brain had shut down, the flow of blood to her frontal lobe insufficient to fund cognition. It was natural, really, an evolutionary insurance policy drafted in the human design. Embed the biological process with a physiochemical treat so blissful and wholly gratifying that, even in times less than optimal, it guaranteed enactment, ensured that fucking was always a top priority.

Andrea sighed as another orgasm sped through her. As focused and physically engaged as she was in the act, a small part of her mind continually blinked back to the circumstances that brought her here. From the events of the day on up to and including her most recent climax—AKA the current moment—it was anything but typical. At least not for her. She was not the type to meet a man, have one date—more like half a date—and then wind up back at her place with her ankles behind her ears. It had nothing to do with compliance to piety or outdated societal mores, not at all. She was a free spirit when it came to sex, at least in theory.

When it came down to it, however, for her, and for reasons she never quite fully understood, she generally needed to get to know someone before her interest heightened to the point where she was ready to jump in the sack. It was less a choice than a process, and she recognized it as such, a series of steps her body had to go through to reach a comfort level of intimacy. Nature, nurture, who knew, it was just her personal preference, no disrespect to the hoes out there.

Yet contrary to it all, from early in the day, even before meeting him, she’d been lubed and ready to go, 100% full-on slut mode. And earlier tonight at dinner with Otis and his boyfriend, Irving, it had been her idea to leave the restaurant early and skip dessert, ignoring decorum for the sake of her own needs. Definitely not part of her standard playbook. It was highly unusual, and it had her worried. Not the getting laid part, no, the sex was great, exactly what she needed, wholly satisfying and scratching an itch she could reach by no other means. But it was the change in behavior that had her concerned, and the encompassing suddenness in which it had hit her. A change this drastic had to have basis in pathology, at least in part. An infection, a toxin, a tumor, the expression of a genetic condition her mind submitted, running down the list for the hundredth time today. Despite Dr. Reinhardt’s assurances maybe it was in fact the first creeping fingers of menopause. She was approaching that age after all. And there was still the looming specter she was dealing with some kind of psychiatric issue.

Stop it, Andrea, you’re fine, she chided herself, rolling her eyes in her mind. Settle down and enjoy the moment!

A sudden clunk came from the left, startling her…

She slowed and sat back on his length, putting the fun on hold. Sigmund had knocked over the bag of leftovers she’d put down on the nightstand, a container of rice pilaf splayed across the sheets.

Andrea sighed. “Sigmuuuuund, you bad boy,” she said, her voice humanely reprimanding. “That’s not for you.”

Brandon turned his head on the pillow. “Yeah, Sigmund, that’s a doggie bag.”

Andrea smiled. “He sometimes acts more like a dog then a cat, but I’m certain he’d consider it an insult. He thinks he’s human.”

“Ah, maybe he’s acting out `cause he’s jealous.”

“Oh no, he’s not that deep. He’s in it for the food,” Andrea declared good-naturedly. Leaning to the side, she then said. “Hey, can you roll with me?” Gently tugging his arm. “Just want to grab the box.”

“No problem,” he said, rolling with her, his whispered voice thick with passion.

“I don’t mind if he gets what spilled,” she breathed mid-rotation, “but if I don’t pick up the container, in an hour, he’ll look like a float in the Macy’s Day Parade.”

A snicker. “You kill me.” He smiled.

The move gave her the reach she needed, allowing her to grab the container, close the lid, and place it up on the headboard all in one motion. A gasp of exertion escaped as she landed on her back, her hand quickly finding his ass to make sure he didn’t slip out.

“Now that’s talent,” he teased as he arched and settled into position. “Totally stuck the landing, too. If it ever becomes an Olympic event, the US has an easy gold.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, mister. Sex gymnastics is a pairs competition. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

He laughed again. She could see the lift of his smile even in the low lighting.

Without you, the words echoed in her mind as his hips rose and fell, easing back into rhythm. He seemed to be quite contented, she noted as she stared up at his shadowed torso, but what if this was all just a one-time thing for him. What if he didn’t want to see her again? She felt a sudden shudder, her mind quickly filling with self-doubt. Based on the evidence it was highly unlikely, but there was no way to know for sure, no way to know what was going on inside a man’s head, especially during sex.

Damn. She winced at the thought, apprehensive as an addict entering rehab. She hated that she even had such needful feelings. This is not me! It was ridiculous, dumb, and way too soon for such sentiments. Yet the sentiments were there, a fact she couldn’t deny, a reality she couldn’t alter, and she needed to deal with it. Figure out a solution…fast. So she could get out of her head, relax, and plug back into the carnal livestream.

She let out a low moan as he went deep, her pelvis rising receptively to meet his. It was all at once wonderful and wildly invigorating, filling her with a rush of pleasure in spite of her parenthetic distress. The move had a dual effect, stimulating not only body but mind, an idea shining clear on the backstroke. The idea arising from the conversation he and Otis had at dinner. He was a writer. Though summarily steamrolled by Otis’s ensuing prattle, it came back to her now. Yes, she cheered inwardly, her anxiety easing some. She had an in…possibly. It was a simple idea, really, obvious as it was logical. A way to keep him close—if she could sell it—for now and the foreseeable future. She’d have probably thought of it sooner had her brain not been floating off in some distant galaxy.

There’s always plan B, she reminded herself as reassurance. A way to maybe force him to stick around. The idea had come to her earlier in the fitness center, after he’d left. And she’d been considering it ever since. But it was not the most honorable tactic, and she wasn’t sure it could actually even happen. And, ultimately, very expensive. No, this new strategy was better. But if it didn’t work…

He reacted, too, breathing a hard sigh across the soft music playing in the bedroom. He was clearly excited, his rate of writhing and rising respirations both clues to his enthusiasm. She could tell he was coming down the stretch, eager to ejaculate. She’d been doing her best to subtly manage the action, make sure she got hers, which she did. And he’d been with her the whole way, hanging in like a champ. She was uber-impressed, his staying power a thing of beauty. It was no understatement to say that, to a thrust, this was an epic fuck.

But she needed a little more time. Not to come again, though she wouldn’t complain if she did. No, she needed the time to make her presentation, which meant slowing things down a bit. “Hey, do you mind if we switch positions again?” she whispered in his ear, pulling him close. Being on top would put her in a much better position to negotiate, giving her a chance to simultaneously submit her proposal and carefully control the flow of arousal.

“Sure,” he replied in a daze as he leaned and rolled. At that moment, he’d probably agree to base jump off Niagara Falls if she asked him to.

With a terse meow, Sigmund reeled to evade the resultant landslide of bedding. Settling back on top, Andrea glanced over at the little gremlin. With a wide-eyed stare that could only be interpreted as—you humans really act like dogs sometime—the cat licked its maw, issued a snooty glare, and returned to the spilled leftovers.

Once back on top, Andrea wasted no time and blinked on her Eye-Fi lens-top computer. She leaned forward and, in a move worthy of induction into the multitasking hall of fame, grabbed the headboard and resumed the festivities with a long warm pelvic stroke as the Holo-screen blinked twice and spread across the wall before her. His level of excitement had edged back a notch she noticed as she slowly picked up the tempo. No doubt he was still close. They’d been at it for a solid half-hour already, and she knew the urge to finish had to be mounting, the rising PSI of passion obvious in his stiffening muscles and growing lack of focus. Even on top and in control, she had to work fast. The man was only human. She wanted to get this deal done before he climaxed, while her bargaining position was most favorable, and he was still rapt in a mindset of compliance.

Though the computer screen would be visible to only her, she took no chances and, keeping her eyes on the screen, she dipped forward, allowing her breasts to sweep across his face. Best to keep him distracted. She had a quick bit of research to do, and it might be a little strange should he happen to look up and see her blinking like a lunatic as she surfed the net.

“So, Mister Brandon Dean Rice,” she said playfully, using her eye to move the cursor over the virtual keyboard, winking in the letters of his name. “You’re a writer, huh?”

“Wha…” he muttered, reluctantly releasing the nipple that had found its way between his teeth.

“I heard you mention it to Oti…I mean Randy at dinner.” She moved her hips a little quicker, then stopped and leaned back, allowing him to explore her depths. A little reward to coax him to talk. She was going to turn this into a game, tease him into submission. Cue up the seamy background music. This was going to be fun.

“I sell data plans for OmniCon Technologies,” he said woozily, emerging from the fuck coma. “But yeah, I do some writing too. Small time. Indie stuff.”

“Indie’s no longer a derogatory word, you know,” she said as she leaned forward again to let his mouth find her breasts. “I mean, Thomas Pryce was once an independent author, and now look at him. He’s one of the most prolific writers out there. He has multiple bestsellers, a slew made into movies, and a long-running hit series on Netflix.”

“Oh yeah, I know,” he said, his lips grazing her nipple like an erogenous zone microphone as he spoke. “I’ve read most all of his stuff. He’s the man.”

“And…” she said, sighing to ride out a fresh wave of excitement, “I recently had a meeting with him. He’s as wonderful as he is talented, and he’s thinking of joining our team.”


She sensed a shift in his bearing. She had his attention.

“We already have one of the hottest client lists in the industry.” She was in full pitch mode now. This was her strength, she was in the zone. It was going better than she could’ve hoped. “Adding him will take us to the next level and greatly enhance our overall ability to place clients.” Again, she twerked her pelvis passionately to emphasize her words, using her pussy like a PowerPoint glow font. “You do know that I’m a literary agent, right?” She knew he knew. Otis had mentioned it like twenty times at dinner.

He didn’t immediately reply, was probably incapable. That last bout of love strokes had him teetering on edge, ready to explode. She could feel his body throbbing with primal ambition. “Don’t come yet,” she warned playfully, going a little dominatrix on him. “I’m still having fun with you,” she then added, breathing her words slow and seductive as she glided atop him while skimming over his bio on Amazon.

“Okay,” he managed, squirming uneasily, his whispered voice hoarse with urgency and worship.

Like him, she was almost there, just needed a little more time. Home stretch, she could do it. “You know I’m familiar with your work?” she lied, throttling back on the sexual tempo while continuing to page through digital links about his writing.

“Really?” His surprise seemed genuine, his body movements suddenly speaking to another kind of ambition. This was good, exactly what she was hoping.

“Sure,” she continued, maintaining the beat, keeping him on the brink. “I try and keep tabs on as many new writer’s as I can. You definitely have some talent.” It was a bit of an exaggeration, tactical praise to lubricate his ego. She probably didn’t need it to lock this one down but it couldn’t hurt. Negotiation 101. From what she’d read so far, he had some potential. Far too raw to be considered on merit alone, but as the boss, she was in a position to play king-maker. A little creative makeover by the team and he’d be ready to go. In the meantime, she’d be sure to schedule plenty of one-on-one time with him so they could go over strategy without distraction.

“Thank yo—” His words cut short as she pressed her nipple to his lips to stifle his reply. Teasing him, keeping the excitement high. She felt him quiver like a downed power line, his body jerking with anticipation. It gave her a surprising feeling of authority, and she grinned. She was probably having a little too much fun with this. But it was working.

“I’ve also seen some of your social media posts.” She lifted a little to let him breathe. “I even remember seeing a couple of your reviews, and the spotlight Indie interview Kirkus Reviews did on you last year was very impressive.” She was only reading it now, but he didn’t need to know that. “How old are you again?”


“Perfect, you’re right in your writing prime.” And it was perfect in another way, she mused. Old enough to have gained savvy in the bedroom while still young enough to possess the stamina to put it to use. “Have you ever considered getting an agent?”

“Yes,” he started, fighting for control, his words choked with testosterone. “Several agents reached out to me after the Kirkus article came out but no one I felt comfortable with.” His body now trembled without pause, his muscles taut with plea. He was super close. So was she. Time to close the deal.

“So, I was thinking,” she said, weighing her phrasing, “if you’re interested, I’d like you to consider signing on with us. We’d have to develop your platform a bit, maybe a little light editing to your current material, but I’m totally confident we’d eventually be able to get your work placed with one of the bigger houses.” She turned off the Eye-Fi and leaned close, bringing her lips to his ear. “That is, if you feel comfortable enough with me?”

“Huh…wha…whoa.” She found his spluttering insecurity both charming and exciting, a clear signal of his coming reply. She upped the pace again in punctuation. She could sense the churn of conflict within him, his body convulsing with lust, his brain straining to process against the escalating inner screams of biology. He wanted to answer, but he also wanted to come. It was entertaining to watch. She enjoyed the rush of power, and she was more than a little surprised how much physical pleasure she derived in feeling his body struggle with it all.

“We can make it happen as soon as we’re finished,” she said, her voice lovingly encouraging. “I’ll print up a contract as soon as we’re done,” her whispered voice hot in his ear, “and we can start tomorrow on making you a star.” She continued to bob on top of him, taking him deep and raking her nails across his chest. And that was it, the final push that put him over the top.

His eyes rolled back, and he shivered with release. “Oh, my God, yes!” Coming hard, jackknifing wildly. “Yes, I’m totally in!” he cried, his voice slurred with excitement and the vestigial guilt of original sin.

Andrea was pleased, her body filling with the thrill of his release. She pressed close, hugging him fiercely as he seized to completion. Allowing a moment for post-coital cool-down, she kissed him on the forehead then gently dismounted. “Wow.” She gasped as she flopped on her back next to him to catch her breath and give him space to do the same.

“Thank you,” he said. “For everything…” Breathing hard, his voice trailed off. And she could tell his gratitude was earnest.

“You’re welcome,” a beat, “and thank you, too. This is a partnership. It’s going to be great for both of us.”

Following a moment where they both panted into a brief recess, he said, “Extend this kind of treatment to Thomas Pryce and I’m sure you’ll have no problem getting him to sign on.”

“Shut up.” She punched him in the thigh.

“Just saying,” he offered sheepishly.

“Save that wit for your next novel.” Skootching close. “Want me to get that?” she then said, pointing to the condom dangling on his rapidly retracting member.

A smile. “I got it.”

She watched as he reached down and peeled it free, holding it up with two fingers to prevent spillage. Human reproduction. She was always amazed by the outcome, the entirety of a man’s design released in one furious thirty-second spew. “Just give it to me,” she shook her head, tenderly chastising. “I gotta run to the bathroom anyway, and I have a feeling if I don’t take care of it it’ll wind up stuck to the floor somewhere or in Sigmund’s litter box tomorrow.”

He laughed.

Andrea knew that most men turned to lobotomized lumps of flesh after sex, no reason to think he’d be any different. “Props to Trojan, no leakage.” she commended as she took the used rubber and deftly rolled out of bed like she was holding a vial of Uranium 238.

Padding her way across the bedroom, she suddenly stopped. “Hey…” she started, not looking back, her brain filling with curiosity as she realized something odd. When she’d typed in his name a few minutes ago she’d entered Brandon Dean Rice and done so without a beat of hesitancy. But as she thought of it now, when Otis had mentioned his name at dinner she remembered he had called him Brandon Shawn Rice. Her curiosity began to shift to concern. Then how did I know it?

“What?” she heard him ask from another galaxy. She didn’t reply.

She knew the name because it had come from memory. Yes, she’d definitely seen it before…somewhere. But where? She felt a sudden judder of alarm, uncertain exactly why. Settle down, Andrea, she said to herself to hold her composure. And just as alarm was about to set to panic, the answer popped lucid. Aha, mentally face-palming herself for not seeing it sooner. It was so obvious. She must’ve seen it on social media somewhere—no doubt, had to be—probably caught a glimpse of it on a late-night insomnia fueled scroll-fest. Her Twitter feed in particular was an endless, ever spooling riot of writerly hashtags, prompts, and gratuitous look-at-me postings. There were probably a thousand other random writing-related names stuck somewhere in her brain at this very moment, ready to be dislodged into consciousness by some arbitrary trigger.

That was it, she was certain. Whew.

“You okay?” he said, starting to climb out of bed to check on her.

“I’m fine,” she finally replied, turning to face him, rolling her eyes. “Sorry, senior moment,” she threw out as cover, smiling, her anxiety receding. “Hey, I’m gonna grab a glass of wine on the way back. Would you like one?” Looking back at him now in the twilight, standing by the bed with only a sheet held over his privates, she began to feel the stirrings again. Damn, he was hot, her body starting to vibrate with excitement as she envisioned round two.

“Sure,” he replied. “That’d be nice.”

“Good.” She winked, meeting his eyes. “I’ll get the wine, and then print out a contract. In the meantime, get back in bed and save your strength,” flashing a mischievous grin, “when I get back you’re gonna need it.”





Easing back to bed, Brandon blew a sigh, his throat suddenly dry as ash. He could definitely use a glass of wine, not only to hydrate but to help settle his nerves. He thought for sure she was on to him when she’d stopped so abruptly, still with contemplation. All day he’d been dreading getting busted, that she’d somehow see through the ruse. Or pick up on that one flaw in the plan…mistake, Brandon mentally edited and thinking wryly, that’s what you get when you buy stuff off the dark web.

The plan had been simple enough, at least in theory. Send a query to infect her MindTouch app with a virus capable of influencing her thoughts. It was nifty new virus known as The Winning,” a smart bug that could cross the tech-bio interface and modify her brain on a physiological level, essentially reprogramming her mindset to favor his needs. Available in several strains, from what he’d been told, with means to effect different parts of the brain depending on objective, this one customized to manipulate sex drive.

Though utterly immoral and certainly illegal—even though the crime was so novel it was unlikely a specific statute had been drawn against it—Brandon had no problem with the idea. He’d been assured the virus was 100% safe, untraceable, and only temporary. Though, in truth, even without those assurances, it was unlikely he’d have abandoned the plan.

Because he was beyond frustrated with it all and he deserved a break. The query process sucked and his writing career had stalled. And he was willing to do almost anything to turn things around. With sales languishing and his cyber-voice drowned amid a ceaseless sea of wannabe writers clamoring for notice, he had officially hit the Indie Wall. The only way to breakout was to break in, make a run at traditional publishing. Find a way to get his foot in the door with one of the big houses, then simply tuck in and ride the legacy updraft to meteoric success. In order to make that happen, of course, he needed a literary agent. A quest that had been maddeningly ineffective…until today.

Though the plan had worked, the script playing to finale with a happy ending of legend—not only getting an agent but getting an agent—the story had been anything but storybook, the pages of the day filled with angst, drama, and uncertainty. And frankly, as he lay in bed and replayed the day in his mind, waiting for her to return with the wine and his contract, he was shocked he hadn’t gotten kicked in the nuts or thrown in jail

…Or had a heart attack, he added tersely, a trembling hand going to his carotid to check his heartrate. Still jacked. He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, leaned and grabbed his pants from the rumpled pile at the bottom of the bed. Rifling through the pocket, he found his meds and realized he was out. He’d taken the last pill before dinner and had left the new prescription back at the apartment. Ugh. He sighed, and she’s gonna want to do it again. Probably not the best idea if he wanted to live to see the fruits of his new contract.

Overall, he was in okay shape but it was the arrhythmia that concerned him. A congenital condition, it was fairly easy to control with meds and common sense. A little exertion was fine, but too much and his only chance at fame would be posthumous. No problem, I’ll just make up an excuse to vamoose, he mused as he leaned back in bed, continued his recovery breathing, and returned his thoughts to the regularly scheduled program already in progress.

It was a week ago today that he had first learned about The Winning, a tip from a friend who knew a guy named Irv who had a friend with a particular set of skills. Following a few texts, he’d met that guy named Irv at the Starbucks on Seventh, where he’d been handed a plain white business card with the web addy 4tune8Won.onion embossed across the face in basic block MIB font.

At first, the meeting had seemed pointless. It could’ve all been done remotely, and the website didn’t even work without a password. He soon realized the meeting was actually a test, a preliminary security check where Irv had scanned him for surveillance tech and took a photo of his driver’s license. He’d later learned they had even taken his empty coffee cup to pull fingerprints. The following day, he’d been texted the password to the website. The measures seemed excessive at the time, but with what he knew now, entirely warranted.

The website was a single page of text with no graphics, visually drab and lean on detail, but in a few poorly written paragraphs, still managed to promise the world. He had not taken it as a bad sign, after all, this was a criminal element operating on the dark web, not the homepage for Glimmer Train. After the business at Starbucks, he suspected the website was another security measure, a means to backdoor over a bot to swab his digital DNA. Not a problem, he had nothing to hide. Playing it cagey, he’d signed on using an old clunker laptop just to be sure he didn’t lose any gear.

The website had also served as another rung in the process. A half-scroll below the abstract brought him to a quick closing statement and a digital opt-box:

Click here if you’re interested in hearing more and have immediate access to at least 12K cash. We will then consider your application.

12K was about all Brandon had to his name, but it didn’t stop him from clicking. He wanted to know more. Despite the unfavorable risk/reward ratio, he felt optimistic. His gut telling him that, as crazy clandestine schemes went, this was legit. And of course, he’d only commit if he was confident in the plot. Despite the legion of conceivable crash-and-burns, he was stoked. If he managed to get an agent and see his six self-pubbed novels placed, the ROI would be more than worth it.

His confidence soared higher when he finally met the actual author of the scheme, the word yes blinking like a GIF across the timeline of his mind. His name was Randy, and Brandon recognized him immediately. The son of tech mogul, Anton Ballantine, he was somewhat famous in these parts. And he knew everyone, even Andrea. He was a selfie celebrity, uneducated with no real talent, accomplished only in his ability to keep himself in the news—an outrageous Tweet, a run-in with New York’s Finest, a drunken rant on TMZ. Anything to milk his fifteen-minutes. Basically, a Kardashian without the implants.

All of which was good news as far as Brandon was concerned. It was one of his father’s companies that had developed the MindTouch app. And Randy had recently been viralized on YouTube calling his father a Nazi for cutting his living-expense allowance down from 25K to 15K a month. With his obvious disregard for authority and occasion to color outside the legal lines, his story rang true, credibility born in means, motive, and opportunity.

Though Brandon had questions about Randy, he trusted the tech. Hard not to after Randy had showed him a video of The Winning in action on test chimps. The animals infected via MindTouch apps vectored thru button-drives. The results were harrowing, difficult to watch. In one cage, a chimp raged out and beat its mate to death, in another, two test monkeys fucked to collapse, and in a third, Brandon watched as a single chimp paced in its cage and slowly stooped to a knuckle-dragging trance till it fell down and twitched fetal. A living pictograph of evolution in reverse.

The video had clearly demonstrated the virus’s efficacy, and Brandon was as impressed as he was filled with dread. Randy had apparently picked up on his apprehension, watching as Brandon absently reached up and felt his MindTouch port. The deal is 12K, Randy’d said. Five now, the balance when you sign a contract. And, he’d continued, sweetening the pot. I’ll throw in a free MindLock cyber-shield. He leaned and showed Brandon the red button-drive in the shape of a badge plugged into the MindTouch port behind his ear. He then removed it and handed it to him. Take mine, he offered. It’s gonna retail for six-hundred bucks. Full protection. Hasn’t even hit the market yet.

“I’m in,” Brandon had nodded, taking the gift. Then went on to answer a series of questions so Randy could have his associates tailor the virus to his specs. The real genius in the tech behind The Winning may have been in the formatting process. The two rogue technicians Randy had conspired with from his father’s company had found a way to target the effects of the virus. A personally engraved plague. In this case, an image of Brandon had been linked and uploaded in tandem with the digital payload into Andrea’s visual cortex. Training her heightened sexual arousal toward him and only him.

Two days later, Brandon had the program in his hand. Two days after that, during a monthly call query blast, he emailed his winning query to Andrea.

All had seemed fine until Randy called him the next morning asking Brandon to bring the drive back in to be tweaked. One of the techs had discovered there’d been a slight formatting error, a frag of info had been left behind in the tagging process. The image of his name—Brandon Dean Rice—had been left behind like a surgical sponge, and upon upload, it would flash across her screen for a split second. Great, might as well pick out a jail cell now!

When Brandon told him he’d already sent it off and expressed how he was more than a little pissed, Randy was quick to respond. Attempting to ease his concerns by assuring him that there was little chance she’d notice, and even if she did, it was unlikely she’d remember. The initial infection hit with sudden disorienting symptoms, a glitch they were still trying to fix in the lab. So really, no worries. Any memory would likely be buried in preoccupation with that.

Following a further exchange where Randy continued to ramble reassuringly, and Brandon shared his strategy of a planned accidental meeting with Andrea at the fitness center, his worry had retreated, and he decided to ride it out.

By midday, all appeared to be back on course. He had Andrea in his crosshairs at the fitness center, ready to make his move…up until Randy showed up unannounced to help out. Seeing him tramping exaggeratedly over on the treadmill Brandon suddenly wished he’d kept his mouth shut about his plan, and he decided to abort, try again when things weren’t so weird. But then she’d gotten up from the leg-press machine and went over to talk to Randy, and the equation changed again. Moments later, Randy appeared behind him as he worked biceps in the mirror. His eyes were wide and full of enthusiasm. I’m gonna fix this, he’d said. And then told him to just play along, he had a plan. Seeing no other choice, Brandon followed.

It actually wasn’t a bad idea, Brandon realized, as the plan began to play out. Randy was a writer himself. He already knew Andrea and, given his natural charisma, served as an excellent intermediary. And dinner with him and Irving was a smart idea, too, staging out organically and in context. Plus, it would allow Brandon to keep Randy and Irving in his sight, just in case things went belly-up. They’d both be right there and easy to snitch to the cops if it came down to it. Spread the blame, trade evidence for leniency. No way was he was taking the rap alone.

Arriving at the restaurant with Andrea, the revised plan seemed to be holding true. Randy and Irving were great hosts, optimally intoxicated and easing the proceedings with amusing banter, any potential awkwardness thawed in the warmth of their social spontaneity. It had freed him up to play it cool and let things develop in natural course. The vibe apparently had a similar sway on Andrea, as she was quite relaxed and receptive to his subtle overtures, the virus clearly affecting her. This he knew because, in all of his life, he’d never had a woman he hadn’t paid be that into him so quickly. He was nothing special in the looks department, even he knew that, and his starchy personality did little to raise his game.

But again, just as the plan seemed to be trending positive, come-on-down, Randy, you’re the next contestant on Let’s Wreck Brandon’s Life! The main goal—and it’d been Randy’s idea—was to strike up a convo about writing at dinner. It’d be the perfect prologue to bring up the fact that Brandon was an author, as well as a chance to disguise the formatting mistake. Just in case the name had managed to seep through the initial tumult and imprint on her memory. During the chat, the plan was to say Brandon’s full name—Brandon Dean Rice—to help blur the lines and stage doubt. Another great idea, couldn’t hurt.

But by the time it had come to drop Brandon’s name, the booze had apparently reached Randy’s frontal lobe, and he screwed it up. Calling him Brandon Shawn Rice, instead of Brandon Dean Rice. Brandon had wanted to correct him but before he could, Randy had said the name wrong three more times and went on to explain how he’d read every book he’d ever written. Smh. Correcting him after that would only raise suspicion.

Brandon probably would’ve been more upset, but Andrea didn’t seem to notice. And as Randy had been absorbed in his speech, she had slipped off a shoe and, in classic under table foreplay, rubbed her foot on his cock, a throbbing erection stiffening beneath his jeans. Hard to be upset with that going on.

The sound of footfalls in the hall brought Brandon back to the now, and he quickly pulled from his trance. He needed to focus. He had a role to play, and still had to figure a way out of there. Preferably before she fucked him to death…yet after he signed a contract.

“Here you go, Mr. Rice,” she said as she sat on the bed and handed him a glass of white wine.

“Thank you.” He clinked his glass to hers as she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Time to celebrate,” she said with a wink and a smile as she drew away.

“Absolutely.” He took a sip of his wine. She did as well. Uh oh. For an instant, he thought she was going to put down the glass, slip off her nightshirt, and jump his bones. But then she sat up and stared ahead, winking. Aha, she was using her lens-top computer. He felt a rush of hope. This could be a good thing. If nothing else, it would give him a little more time to come up with an escape plan.

An instant later, a printer came to life in the corner of the room and chattered out a few pages. “Standard two-year deal,” she said, nodding at the printer. Another sip of wine, eyebrows rising expectantly. “All it needs is your signature.” She smiled, nodding again, eyes sparkling with glee. “Go ahead, there’s a pen over there. Hurry up and sign it and get your cute rear-end back over here so I can properly congratulate you.”

Brandon didn’t need to be told twice. “Sweet.” He beamed, leaning over and quickly kissing her on the cheek before springing out of bed and over to the printer. Flipping through the pages in the low light, he hardly read them. It looked very much like the standard contracts he’d seen on the Internet, and there was no reason to believe it wasn’t authentic. It could’ve had a rider for his soul hidden in the legal-speak and it wouldn’t have mattered. Finding the signature line, he wasted not a second. Placing the contract down on the desk, he grabbed the pen and signed.

“Congratulations, you are now officially a member of team Andrea Lu Davis.”

“Awesome.” He raised his arms in mock celebration, a prize fighter hearing the announcer declare him the winner. He then folded the contract and placed it on top of the printer for safe keeping.

Turning back to face her, he stiffened as he realized he still had to figure a way out of there, his upbeat mood taking a sudden nosedive like he’d just been reminded he had a back-cover blurb to write by tomorrow. And like a synopsis, his excuse had to be authentic and seasoned with a degree of urgency. Something to not only get her to buy it but effectively edit out the quickie she’d more than likely try to bargain for before he left.

“Um…” He was about to excuse himself to the bathroom when his phone vibrated. And suddenly he had an idea. “One sec,” he said as he fumbled with his pants to find the phone, his puckering frown the fake news of gestures. “Let me turn this thing off.”

“What is it?” she asked as he stared at the screen, unmoving.

“A text from Randy.” The truth. “Looks like he needs a ride.” A lie. Not looking up from the phone he could sense her disappointment. “Guess they’re drunk and have no way home from the restaurant,” he quickly embellished. “Damn,” he shook his head.

“Can’t they get a taxi or call Uber…or take the subway?” Oh yeah, he could hear it in her voice—she was not happy. He forced himself to look up, eye contact would be key in selling this.

“I couldn’t see those two using the subway and Randy’s been banned from Uber. And I doubt any cabs would be too eager to give him a ride either after that YouTube tirade.” It was true. A few months back, Randy had verbally undressed an Uber driver in a drunken rant because the guy had refused to sing along to “Little Red Corvette” with him during the ride. He then stiffed the fare and took the driver’s keys and threw them across the street before storming off. It had been phone-filmed by an onlooker. Andrea had to have seen it, it had been all over social media. And Randy had even talked about it earlier at dinner. This was perfect.

He heard her sigh, watched her shake her head. She was really upset. “Sorry,” he apologized. “He bought us dinner and it’s raining out. I really should do this.” Gathering his clothes from the end of the bed. “I’m sure I’ll be able to see you again soon.”

She didn’t immediately respond but the offer to return seemed to temper her some, her shoulders and frown not so harshly rounded. She grabbed her phone off the nightstand and started texting. Normalcy, a good sign.

“I gotta hit the bathroom,” he then said, flashing her a supportive smile. Turning, he quick-stepped into the bathroom before she decided to take the debate any further or, God forbid, ask to see the text message.

Closing the door, he quietly locked it behind him and turned on the faucet for cover. He’d almost offered to come back later, after he’d gotten his meds, but was glad he didn’t. He was dog tired. Though she was attractive for an older woman, he was already kind of bored with her. Her body wasn’t all that tight and she was a little overbearing. He knew he’d have to see her again, it was important to keep up the ruse for another few weeks. Or however long it took for her to place his work. Once his star was on the rise, and he was sure he didn’t need her anymore, he could dump her and upgrade, start fucking models and absurdly hot Instagram chicks.

Making his way to the back wall, he sat on the bowl, swiped on his phone, and called Randy. He needed a favor and that’s what his text had read anyway. Call me with an update!

Randy answered on the second ring. “Hey, how’s it going, handsome?” he crooned.

“Going good…real good.” Brandon cupped a hand as a noise break.

“Why ya talking so low?”

“I’m in the bathroom, don’t want Andrea to overhear.”

“Oh, okay. Well, details, details…did you get what you wanted?”

“Yes, I did.” Brandon felt his pride swell as he replied. The thrill of accomplishment stroking his ego. It felt great. He was well on his way.

“Uh, hold on a sec. Gotta check this message quick. Might be the governor. You know I’m an important man.”

“No problem.” Brandon rolled his eyes.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Randy said absently. “So, you signed a contract?” he then asked.

“Sure did.” Confidence surged again, the concerns of the moment suddenly not so worrying. “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

“I’m here at the fitness center…” Ignoring Brandon’s question, Randy’s voice turned serious.

Brandon knew what he wanted.

“You said you’d leave the balance here in one of the lockers?”

“Yes, it’s there,” Brandon said. Much as he hated to part with the seven grand, a deal was a deal. And despite the chaos and all the fuck-ups, the nincompoop had come through. “Locker number sixty-nine. Combo is two-one-seven-eight.”

“Very good.” He could hear some background noise and Randy breathing into the phone. “Ah, there you are, sixty-nine. My favorite number.”

Brandon waited, listening to more shuffling then a clang. “Everything okay?”

“Everything looks good, Mr. Brandon Dean Rice.” Sure, now he gets it right. “All here and accounted for. Thank you, sir. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Thanks, you too.”

“So, what was the favor you needed from me?” Randy asked, his voice back to its bubbly default setting.

“I was hoping you could send me a quick text asking me to come pick you and Irving up at the restaurant.”

“Not a problem. Will do it as soon as we hang up.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“Hey, how do you like the MindLock app I gave you?”

“Haven’t really noticed any difference.”

“You did plug it in, though? It should be in all the time to get updates. Whenever you’re not using the MindTouch, of course.”

“Yea, it’s in. Definitely gives a sense of security.”

“Do you have your phone on speaker?”

“Huh, no. I told you I’m in the bathroom and I didn’t want her to hear me talking to you.” What’s with the weird questions, he thought.

“So, the phone’s up to your ear?”

“Of course, wh—” And Brandon realized his mistake just as the shock hit. It started as a loud buzz between his ears, then an electrical sizzle, his mid-brain in a microwave. Good thing he was sitting down. “Whaaat dith y-you do?” he managed as the phone fell from his hand. Worried he was going to pass out, he followed it down, using unsteady hands to ease himself to the floor. Writhing on the cold tile, his vision fragmenting, he reached up and ripped out the MindLock button. Fuck!

“Wireless, baby,” the voice snickered from the cellphone speaker.

“You alright in there?” he heard Andrea call from the bedroom.

“Fine,” he managed. “Just accidentally dropped my phone.”

Lying on his side in front of the commode, ears ringing in pain, he retrieved the phone and put it on speaker. “What did you do?” he asked again, his mind charged with panic and rage. He wanted to choke this mother-effer. This was definitely not good for his arrhythmia. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

“Made a deal. I’m a business man, after all.”

“With who?” Brandon had no idea what anyone would want with him. He had nothing of worth. He was nobody, had nothing to offer.

“Well, Andrea of course…”

Brandon didn’t answer, his brain still too frazzled to process.

“Made the deal with her earlier today at the fitness center, after you left. I told her I had dirt on you and could use it to blackmail you into being her super loyal little bae. Of course, she was hesitant, thought it unscrupulous and didn’t even believe it. But I’m sure she will soon, maybe a half hour or so.” Brandon tensed, the image of Randy glancing at his watch mockingly rising unbidden. “I told her not to worry, I’d only do it if she told me to and only charge her if it worked.” A sigh. “And I just got a text a few minutes ago with the go-ahead.”

“Fuck,” Brandon muttered.

“Aww, relax, it’s no big deal. Just some harmless fun, it’ll wear off. So, you’re stuck having great sex for a few weeks. A small price to pay for getting an agent and, on top of that, I get paid and Andrea gets her sex-toy. Everybody wins. That’s what I call a win-winning.”

I have a heart condition, you fool, he wanted to say. “The virus…what’s gonna happen?” he said instead.

“You’ll see. Should start feeling it aaaaany minute,” he taunted. “Hope you took your vitamins and got plenty of rest.” A grating laugh.

And just as Randy finished explaining, Brandon could feel the virus start to take hold. First in his head, then in his crotch. An image of Andrea rising in his mind, linking the two. Even though he knew exactly what was happening, it didn’t matter, The Winning overwhelming logic like a tsunami. By the time he struggled to his feet, his cock was so hard he could hardly walk. And all he could think of was her. In the back of his mind, he knew he needed his meds, his heart a derby race of hooves behind his sternum.

But it didn’t matter. He had to relieve this feeling at any cost. He could go nowhere until he had sex…and it had to be with her.

“Well, let me know how it goes,” Randy said into the growing silence. “I’ll try not to interrupt, but I will have to call her in a bit. She owes me 15K. No discount if you don’t leave a down-payment. You must be some super-duper stud for someone to pay that much.”

“Fuck off,” Brandon said and hung up, heading for the bedroom. It was more reflex than anything. The influence of the virus so strong he was hardly mad at him anymore, even though he knew he should be.

“Hey there.” She sat up as he stepped back into the bedroom. “Well now, doesn’t that look tasty?” Gazing at his bobbing hard-on, her eyes two begging orbs. “Change your mind about leaving?”

“Randy called.” He tried to muster a smile. “Looks like they found a ride.”

“Well, whatta ya know.” She perked up even more as she placed her phone on the nightstand and crawled to the edge of the bed to meet him. “Seems like I found one, too,” she said, her lust unhidden.

With an outstretched hand, she escorted him down into bed. He realized he probably should be pissed at her, too, but he wasn’t. Just as she didn’t seem at all concerned about the dirt Randy had on him to make him suddenly so cooperative. The Winning was just that powerful.

Despite the potential risks—blood clot, heart attack, stroke—he joined her in bed without hesitancy. Gliding atop her as she leaned back, his mouth and tongue exploring enthusiastically as he moved up her warm and wanton body. He could feel his heart pounding to the beat of his arousal. The thud felt in his temples and loud in his ears, flashing an error code of warning in his mind. But it went unheeded, he wasn’t stopping. As irrelevant as the blink of a don’t walk signal on an empty street in the dead of the night.

Once astride her, he found her mouth and kissed her passionately. She responded in kind and, as she’d done earlier, rolled him so she could be on top. Without thought of foreplay and neglecting safe-sex, she reached down and used a hand to guide him inside, and he slipped in easily. She was astonishingly hot and splendidly wet, like she’d just douched at Jiffy Lube. It felt amazing, simultaneously satisfying and glorious. At that moment, there was no place on earth he’d rather be.

As she began to grind on top of him, he settled in and hoped for the best. In his condition, he figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Distractedly, he turned his head on the pillow and glanced at the printer across the room. He could see his newly signed contract, folded over and waving gently in the ceiling fan updraft, mocking him with possibility. Sure, it was uncertain if he’d live to see how the story played out, this one likely ending in a cliffhanger…

but at least he finally got an agent.



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