"Hey, Jimmy boy! Over here!" Dr. Rebekkah Barnes put down the iced Starbucks double mocha frappacino she was holding and waved a hand to Sir James Masters, motioning him over to the table where she and her companions sat.

"You know he hates to be called Jimmy, Bekkah," Hiram K. Hackenbacker leaned over to remind his colleague, sipping at his own hot coffee, cream, no sugar.

"I remember, Hiram," Bekkah shot back, grinning mischeviously. "I only do it to annoy."

The young, fair-haired baronet made his way over to their table.

"Ah, Hiram! Who is this rowdy you've brought with you?" Sir James Masters pulled up a chair, ignoring Bekkah, who was making faces at him. Hiram laughed.

"She deserves to be ignored," Sir James continued. "But this lady over here is an entirely different matter." He smiled at the Asian girl sitting to the right of Hackenbacker.

"Sir James Masters, Baronet, please let me introduce Miss Tin-Tin Kyrano. Tin-Tin, Sir James Masters of British Space and Technology, Limited."

Tin-Tin offered her hand to Sir James, who took it and raised it to his lips. Tin-Tin blushed prettily.

"Well, Hiram. I heard from Evan Longfeld that you nearly left this plane of existence. Quite an accident you had there, what?"

"Yes, James. Fractured my skull, pelvis, and two vertebrae. I am, however, on the mend." Hiram looked down at the sleek black cane propped up on the side of his chair. Bekkah looked at him and rolled her eyes.

"Don't let him fool you, Masters. He just uses the cane to get sympathy from pretty girls."

"Oh! I didn't notice you were there, Dr. Barnes." Sir James faked a start and acted as if he was seeing her for the first time. Bekkah chuckled. This was the kind of verbal sparring she enjoyed when she was with her good friends and colleagues.

Tin-Tin looked a little bewildered by the three who sat by her. She had heard the word play passing between Hiram, who she knew as Brains, and Bekkah for the past three months, ever since Brains had come home from the hospital and rehabilitation centers. Puns, insult humor, and quick-witted ripostes had bounced back and forth between the two each day. It was all Tin-Tin, an intelligent and sensitive soul, could do to keep up. Now she knew she was probably in over her head with the addition of the handsome baronet.

This was the first engineering conference she was able to attend with Brains. It was being held in Abidjan, capital of the tiny West African country of Cote d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast. The city was very modern for the region and boasted not only a Starbucks coffee establishment, but three MacDonalds, two Pizza Hut restaurants and a Hard Rock Cafe. The conference center was attached to a luxurious hotel, and the conference participants had nothing but rave reviews of their accommodations.

"Has anyone seen old Viri?" Sir James asked, as a tall African waiter came over to take his order for coffee.

"No. I don't think Ivan's going to be here." Bekkah sipped her drink, the long-delayed settling of a bet between Hiram and herself. "He's not listed on any panel and he's not down for a paper this time."

"That is odd. He hasn't missed a conference since I've known him." Sir James took the coffee from the returning waiter and paid the man, adding a generous tip. "I see you're down for a paper, Bekkah. Did you finally work all the bugs out of that micro computer you were building?"

Bekkah pulled something out of her briefcase and put it on the table in front of her. It was somewhat smaller than a regular laptop computer.

"Here it is. My microcomp."

Sir James pulled the device over to him and gave it a good looking over.

"This keyboard is too small for you," he judged.

"Just about. But I don't usually use it much anyway. I'd rather use my wireless interface." She pulled out an ear speaker with a long wire attached to it and handed it to Sir James. He examined it carefully, then handed back both the microcomp and its interface to Bekkah.

"I heard from Johannes Abt that you've left the ISO to work for a private company. Tracy Industries, he said."

"When did you see Johannes, James?" Bekkah was curious. "I haven't seen him since, oh, June, I think."

"Ran into him back in September. He was at an industrial show, representing Rinocot. I just happened by and we had dinner together. He was full of lots of news."

Bekkah considered her answer carefully. But before she could respond to Sir James's question, Hiram spoke up.

"Yes, James. She was hired to take my place while I was in the hospital. Mr. Tracy, the CEO, was so impressed by her that he asked her to stay on after I returned to work. As a matter of fact, Miss Kyrano here also works for Tracy Industries in our technical department."

"Why, Hiram! I never knew you worked for Tracy Industries! I always thought you were just a free-lancer." Sir James was genuinely surprised. Hiram shrugged.

"It's not something I tell everyone. I prefer to remain in the background, you know. So please keep it under your hat, so to speak."

"Of course, Hiram, of course." Sir James turned to Tin-Tin. "How do you like working with these two? I'll bet it's a three-ring circus every day."

Tin-Tin blushed again. "Well, I am used to working with Hiram; we've been colleagues for years. Bekkah has certainly livened things up around the lab, though."

"I'm sure she has." Sir James smirked. "She has that affect on people." He turned to Bekkah.

"How are your children? Is Terry keeping up his interest in science?"

"Oh, boy. Yes. He's added astronomy to the list. We had to get him his own telescope. The other two are doing well, too. Joey is developing into quite the computer whiz. I've got him learning elementary code as part of his homeschooling."

"Homeschooling? What happened to that nice private school your children went to?"

Bekkah looked at Hiram and Tin-Tin. She didn't want to reveal too much about just what went on in her life as an engineer for Tracy Industries.

"Well, I had to move in order to be closer to Tracy Industries HQ and there weren't any comparable schools in the area. So I thought homeschooling was my best option." Especially considering that we now live on a private island in the South Pacific, she thought. "It's actually rather freeing. We can do our schooling whenever we want and can take a break whenever necessary. For example, my kids are staying with their Barnes grandparents in New Mexico right now, and we'll meet up at my parents' home for Thanksgiving after the conference is over." She finished her frappacino, and looked at her watch.

"The first presentation starts in about 15 minutes. Dimitri Trevinski on deep sea colonies. Anyone interested?"

"I think I am." Tin-Tin stood, smoothing down her smart-looking dress.

"Well, would you be so kind as to accompany me, Miss Kyrano?" Sir James also stood, smiling at her and offering her his arm. Tin-Tin looked at her colleagues with questioning eyes.

"Go ahead, Tin-Tin. I've got to get my presentation ready. I'm first after lunch and have to be exciting enough to keep everyone awake despite their full stomachs." Bekkah waved her friend away. Hiram stood up and stretched.

"Yes, Tin-Tin. Go with James. I'm going to get a bit of a nap while the getting is good."

Tin-Tin placed her hand in the baronet's proferred elbow and they left together.

Bekkah sighed. "That lady killer. Good thing Alan is already in orbit. Or he'd really go into orbit over seeing those two together."

"Yes. I hope James doesn't get Tin-Tin all moony over him. He's a good friend, but too much of a Don Juan with the ladies." Hiram took up his cane.

"Are you coming, Bekkah?"

"No. I'm going to stay here, drink coffee until my bladder bursts, and get totally wired for my presentation." She smiled up at Brains. "Really, I'll do my thinking and rehearsing better if I have white noise to block out. No music today. I'd get into the music and forget the presentation."

"All right. I will see you after your presentation. Don't forget to use the restroom before you go on. Good luck." Hiram walked out, limping just slightly, using the cane more for effect than for support.

Bekkah smiled and shook her head. Good old Hiram. she thought, Things would not have been the same around here without him. She ordered a hot coffee, extra cream and extra sweet, then she turned her attention to her notes and to her microcomp's interface.

She was unaware of a slight black woman watching her from a seat several tables over. The woman's companions, two non-descript black men, had risen from the table as each member of the party left. One followed Tin-Tin and Sir James, and the other latched on to Brains as he left the coffee house. When Bekkah finally rose from the table, she rose, too, and followed her, speaking into a cell phone as she did.

"All targets acquired. Will report back on activity later."