The days up to this had been hectic, with a series of major snowstorms sweeping across the United States and Canada, snarling roads, cutting off power, and creating emergency after dangerous emergency. Too many for the local rescue organizations to help; in one case, the rescuers themselves needed IR’s assistance. Just when they thought they’d had enough time to breathe, another situation – evacuation of a badly damaged gas rig in the tempestuous North Sea – brought Thunderbird Two and Four back into service. Even Brains had to carry his part of the load, taking over in the Mole during one of the blizzard-related rescues, while getting his hands dirty with Thunderbirds maintenance between trips. At one point, it even looked as if Brains would have to postpone his follow-up visits.
But, miraculously, the wild weather elsewhere took a slight breather near the eleventh. It would prove just long enough for Kyrano to fly Brains to his doctors’ appointments, as well as enabling the retainer to restock the more perishable food items – including supplies for Gordon’s upcoming birthday.
“So, Kyrano,” Brains said from the co-pilot seat. “Is M-Mrs. Tracy going to bake a regular, uh, cake? Or does she have another n-new recipe?”
“For a special occasion such as this, she intends to continue her tradition of baking the celebrant’s favorite cake, using the usual ingredients.” Kyrano smiled serenely. “She sees no reason to stint on a birthday.”
“Ah, I see.” Brains gave Kyrano a hesitant smile. “I’ve been, uh, intrigued by the recipes she has f-found. They are, on the whole, comparable to the r-real thing.”
“Yes, this is so. However, we have had trouble cryofreezing some of the new desserts. There is something about the process that changes the flavor in undesirable ways. Mrs. Tracy and I ended up making some traditionally prepared desserts, slicing them into smaller pieces for Mr. Alan to take to Thunderbird Five.” Kyrano sighed. “There are not as many desserts either; Mrs. Tracy feels he will eat all of them at the beginning of his rotation.”
“That sounds like something he would, uh, do.” Brains paused. Sounding thoughtful, he added. “Hm. Trouble with the c-cryofreezing. I’ll have to, uh, look into this. Perhaps you could purchase some commercially produced frozen desserts with, uh, similar i-ingredients for me so I can w-work on the problem.”
“I shall endeavor to do so.” The conversation lagged until Kyrano — his tone one of polite curiosity — asked, “Did the others give you their lists for purchasing sweets?”
“Uh, yes.” Brains had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Though S-Scott said he didn’t n-need anything this trip. Neither did John.”
“Ah!” Kyrano sounded surprised. “Mr. John has always preferred a healthy diet. However, I would not have thought Mr. Scott would be the first to see the wisdom in his grandmother’s resolution.”
“Either that, or he plans on m-mooching off the, uh, rest of his brothers … and his father.”
“Mr. Tracy requested you buy desserts for him?”
Brains squirmed a little. “Uh, yes. So I feel, uh, obligated to fill his order – and those of Gordon and V-Virgil.”
The retainer shook his head slowly. “Mrs. Tracy will be most displeased.”
“Uh, yes. I know.” Brains paused, swallowing heavily. “Uh, could you n-not tell her? I m-mean, I feel like I, uh, should help the guys out, especially M-Mr. Tracy, my employer … uh, our employer?”
Kyrano chuckled a little. “I will look the other way when you purchase the items on your shopping list. However, I believe that Mrs. Tracy will know about their requests – without anyone telling her at all.”
Brains shook his head, a gloomy expression on his face. “I was a-afraid you’d say that.”
Tin-Tin padded down the steps to the pool, her pink sandals making a flip-flop sound as they slapped against her heels. She carried a straw bag over one arm, which she dropped beside a lounger. Her fingers moved surely as she plaited her hair, wrapping the braids up before sliding her pink swim cap over them. Doffing her sandals and her light cover up, she headed for the high board.
Gordon was barely aware of her movement as he powered up and down the length of the pool. His peripheral vision caught a motion; not enough to know who was there, or where they were going, but enough to know that someone was nearby. It was only after turning at the pool’s far end that he caught the mass of bubbles accompanying Tin-Tin’s trim form after her dive. He made mental note of her arrival and kept to his rhythm.
Tin-Tin surfaced, shaking her face free of water. She thought about joining Gordon in doing lengths up and down the pool, but she knew she had nowhere near his stamina. Besides, she was feeling playful and swimming laps was just so much work. Using a leisurely crawl, she swam over to the steps, climbing out. Gordon made his turn at the other end of the pool so he was headed in her direction. His strokes were sure and smooth; it was a pleasure just to watch him. She tried to think of something that would catch his attention since it was obvious her dive had failed to do so. Spying a bright beach ball which had rolled into a corner, she hurried to fetch it and returned to the pool.
Gordon made his turn again. When he surfaced to begin his stroke, he was startled from his rhythm by something smacking him lightly on the head. The beach ball bounced off, landing in front of him. He paused briefly, wondering if he should just bat it aside and continue, or whether he should stop and pick up with his laps later. With a slight mental sigh at time lost, he grabbed the beach ball, turning back to the shallow end of the pool. That’s when the second beach ball, which Tin-Tin had discovered bobbing in the deactivated hot tub, hit him in the face, dislodging his goggles.
She stood at the edge of the pool, giggling at his dumbfounded expression. A slow smile crossed his face as he realized that he was the one with the ammunition, while she was such a tempting target.
“Very funny,” he said, sliding his goggles up to his wet, swept-back hairline, and changing his smile to a more congenial, less calculating one.
“I had to get your attention somehow,” she offered as explanation. She watched him as he eased himself forward, the first beach ball held firmly in his hands.
“You wanted it? You got it!” He rose from the water, simultaneously launching the ball at her. However, she was ready for him. Stepping back slightly, she caught it deftly, dropping it quickly to one foot before booting the ball back, right into his face again.
The giggles turned to out and out laughter as he shook his head briefly. He stood there stolidly, arms folded, a ginger eyebrow climbing, giving his face a speculative expression.
“You realize,” he said, squelching the urge to grin. “You realize, this means war.”
She mimicked his pose, folding her arms, one hip jutting out. “Bring it on.”
With that, he turned to grab the beach ball that had bounced off his face and floated to his right, close by. She ran along the edge of the pool, heading for the ball she’d used in her second attack. It was also to Gordon’s right, but had floated to a point where she could get it easily — or so she thought. As she leaned over the water, reaching with an outstretched arm, Gordon moved in, passing his weapon back and forth from hand to hand.
Tin-Tin managed to get her fingertips on the ball which only served to move it tantalizingly out of her reach. She looked up to see Gordon approaching and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Withdrawing, she scurried down the rest of the pool’s length, moving out of range—or what she thought was his range. He took up the second beach ball, drawing it with him as he used his powerful legs to propel him along, following her, maintaining a light grip on both balls. She kept retreating, feeling safe in her distance from the water.
Suddenly, when he neared the lip of the pool, Gordon let go of both balls and ducked under water. He seemed to stay under longer than humanly possible. The beach balls floated closer to the pool’s edge. Tin-Tin grew concerned; since she couldn’t see the water from where she stood, she approached warily.
There was a watery explosion! First one and then the other beach ball were propelled up and out. She squealed and thrust her hands out in a defensive maneuver, but she couldn’t deflect the first ball. It hit her squarely in the face, flying back into the pool, but on a slightly different return trajectory. The second, batted by her flailing hands, hit the deck, bouncing once before rolling away. Gordon, who had been halfway out of the pool when he’d launched his attack, went after it. Tin-Tin recovered from her start and dove into the water, ending up in the more shallow part of the pool.
Their positions now reversed, Tin-Tin expected Gordon to do the same thing to her she’d done to him. She kept her profile low, even though she could easily have stood up. But Gordon wasn’t the master prankster of Tracy Island for nothing. Instead of throwing the beach ball, he backed up, got a running start, and with a war cry that would do justice to any onrushing horde, did a cannonball into the pool. Tin-Tin shrieked as he landed right beside her. The ball, which he had carried with him into the pool, loosed from his grasp and floated away.
When he surfaced, shaking water from his grinning face, she stood and tried to slam her ammunition down on his head. He was quicker; he grabbed her wrists, holding them up over her head. The beach ball, thrust downward by fettered and enfeebled fingers, bounced gently off his wet hair and floated mildly away.
“Now, I have you where I want you,” Gordon murmured, moving closer, his half-closed eyes fixed on hers.
“Oh, you do, do you?” she challenged, a sly smile on her face.
“Oh, yes.” He stood, letting go of her wrists and sliding his hands down her arms to gently grasp her shoulders. She looked up at him, her smile fading at his suddenly serious expression. Slowly, every movement calculated as if to give her time to draw back, he leaned in and planted a soft kiss on her upturned, slightly parted lips. Her eyes widened; she froze, still and stiff as a statue.
He pulled back, watching her reaction, his heart clenching within him as he saw how shocked she looked. Then her stiffness melted away. She reached up with a hand to run her fingers along one side of his jaw.
“Oh, Gordon,” she breathed, using the same tone she had so often employed with Alan. Sliding her hand up behind his head, she guided his face down for another, fully reciprocated, kiss. His hands found their way from her shoulders to her back and waist, pulling them together with a firm determination as a third, deeper kiss followed.
Gordon’s head whipped around at the call. He half-turned to see who had uttered it. John came down the steps from the lower level of the house, wearing a bathing suit, open Hawaiian print shirt, and a towel around his neck. “How’s the water?” he asked.
“Uh, just great, John,” Gordon replied. He let go of Tin-Tin, who stepped back from him, lowering herself into the water with a smooth, backwards glide.
“Oh, hi, Tin-Tin!” John called cheerfully as he stopped by a poolside lounger.
“Hello, John,” she replied as he divested himself of towel and shirt, then headed for the low diving board. By this time, Gordon had shaken loose of his momentary paralysis. He headed for the pool’s deep end. Tin-Tin, who had backstroked her way to the far shallow end, watched as John dove smoothly in and Gordon began another set of laps. She climbed out of the water, sighing. As she retrieved her own beach towel, she ran her fingertips over her lips, squeezing her eyes tightly against the sudden burning sensation welling up in them. Why did it have to feel so … right?
“Everything looks good,” Dr. Briscoe said, nodding. “Your sight is at 20/20, Hiram. You’re cleared to go back to work.” She turned the lights back on in the examining room. “Now, do you have a pair of good sunglasses?”
The word “yes” was on the tip of Brains’s tongue, but he paused to consider his answer further. “I have a pair of p-prescription sunglasses.” His face lit up with delight. “But I don’t suppose I’ll, uh, be needing them anymore.”
Dr. Briscoe laughed. “Quite right. You won’t be needing them again.” She put up a finger. “However, you should have a good pair of non-prescription ones.” She wrote something down on a pad of paper. “Here. These are the specifications you should be looking for.”
Brains took the paper. “I’ll probably need new, uh, swim goggles, too,” he mused aloud.
“Good idea.” Dr. Briscoe escorted him from the examining room. “Get those as soon as possible, Hiram. The more protection your eyes have, the better.”
“R-Right.” Brains held out his hand to his ophthalmologist. “Thank you, Dr. B-Briscoe. You’ve made a new man of, uh, me.”
“I doubt that very much, Hiram.” Dr. Briscoe took her patient’s hand, and shook it. “I’ll see you back in six months.”
Brains stopped by the check out window to make his next appointment and make sure that the day’s charges would be sent to his insurance company. Then he stepped next door to the optical shop affiliated with Dr. Briscoe’s practice.
The shop didn’t look too busy, though there seemed to be a knot of customers clustered around one particular showcase. A salesperson, a redhead with the name “Dena” embroidered on her sharp dress shirt, approached him.
“Hello? Can I help you?” She frowned slightly. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
Brains smiled, feeling his lips pull over the clear retainers he still wore. “H-Hello, Dena. It’s me, Hiram H-Hackenbacker.”
Her green eyes, their color augmented with colored contacts, widened in surprise and recognition. “Why, Professor! I didn’t recognize you! What happened to your glasses?”
“I, uh, had surgery.” He stood a little straighter. “No more, uh, thick lenses for me.”
“It’s brilliant!” she told him, smiling. “Still, if you don’t need any glasses, why are you here?”
“Dr. Br-Briscoe did tell me I should get some, uh, sunglasses. Can I buy them h-here?”
“Of course. Did she tell you what you should have?” Dena moved toward the racks of spectacle frames.
Brains presented her with the piece of paper. “Yes.” She nodded. “We can do this. Did you want light sensitive lenses? Ones that turn darker in the sun?”
“That sounds like a, uh, good idea,” Brains replied. “Could I have them be r-reflective, too?”
“Trying to hide those big blue eyes?” Dena said with a chuckle. “Whatever you like, Professor.” She indicated the dozens of frames displayed across the store’s main room. “Why don’t you find a frame that you like? Then we can work on the lenses.”
“All right.” Brains started toward the free-standing racks, then stopped and turned. “Where might I find the, uh, designer frames?”
Dena’s smile widened. “We have several showcases full of designer frames right there,” she said, indicating a semi-circular arrangement in the middle of the room. Stifling a sigh, she added, “You may have to wait until our celebrity customer is gone before you can view them all.”
With her head, she indicated the knot of people crowded around one of the cases. Brains squinted a bit, trying to make out the features of the blonde at the crowd’s center. “Th-That’s Dawn Pearson, the, uh, American actress. What is she doing here?”
“Trying on every pair of frames in the place, it seems,” Dena replied, her tone dry. “She lost her prescription sunnies on the set, and needs new ones … or two … or three.”
“That man with her. He’s Arthur M-Mansfield.” Brains was surprised that the names came so easily. “I had, uh, heard they were what you might call an, uh, item.”
“Well, blow me down, Professor,” Dena said, raising an eyebrow as she smiled at him. “I wouldn’t have sussed you to be into celebrity gossip.”
Brains colored a little. “Well,” he stammered, trying to save face, “M-Mr. Mansfield is in the field of aviation technology, and is a, uh, business rival of my own employers. I would be, uh, expected to know him.” So saying, he began to scan the frames within the showcase before him.
“If you say so.” She took her place behind the counter, ready to help him choose new frames.
As he tried on the frames, Brains grinned. Not only did he have a much wider variety to choose from, but he could see himself clearly in the mirror. Every so often he would glance up at Dena, as if asking her opinion. The expression on her face told him whether or not she felt it was a good choice or not. He eventually whittled his options down to three different styles.
In the meantime, the small knot of people had moved in Brains’s direction. The salesperson assigned to the actress and her paramour looked harried and frazzled, and gave Dena a “What can you do?” look as they descended on the showcase Brains had been perusing.
“Oh!” Dawn Pearson swept up one of the frames that Brains had singled out as a finalist. She put them on her face and looked at them critically in the mirror, which one of her coterie had moved from in front of Brains—just as he was again trying on another of the three.
At first, he was inclined to let this rudeness go, then he thought, Why should I? I’m as good as she is, and perhaps even better.
“Ahem.” He cleared his throat noisily. Two of the actress’s assistants—the ones nearest him–turned briefly toward him, then quickly dismissed him as of no importance. He cleared his throat again, louder this time. One more assistant—or perhaps he was a bodyguard–and Mr. Mansfield, large, grim and grizzled, glanced his way this time. Dena and her counterpart exchanged troubled glances.
“Excuse me!” he said, finally getting the attention of the actress herself. As she glared at him, he squared his shoulders and said, his voice as calm and polite as a butler’s, “I b-believe I was using that, uh, mirror and those frames.”
“So?” Her response was contemptuous. “I’m using them now.” The actress turned back to preen before the mirror, checking the fit of the frames from every angle.
Her assistants tried to nudge him out of the way. One of the men with the group—definitely a bodyguard—stepped up with a threatening scowl. Brains’s slow-to-kindle anger was ignited.
“Ms. Pearson–or should I say Ms. Martha Trundle—I’m sure your mother taught you good manners at some point in your life.” The words came out so fast and forcefully that Brains didn’t have time to stutter, nor even think about where his information came from. “Just because you’ve starred in a few relatively successful movies—not to mention eight flops and a two-week role on Broadway before being fired—doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wait your turn.”
Every person in the place, sales force and customers alike, now had their eyes on the little group by the designer showcases. Pearson’s eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped as she turned back to Brains. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish, and when he was finished, she began to sputter, “You… you…”
Mansfield put his ham-like hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll take care of this.” Moving out from the crowd, he made his way over to where Brains was standing, pushing the bodyguard aside. He towered over the slighter man, but Brains, accustomed to dealing with similarly impressive men in Jeff Tracy and his sons, merely straightened up.
“Who the blazing hell do you think you are?” Mansfield asked, his voice like a loud growl in his throat. “Who do you think you are, treating a lady like that?”
“I am Hiram K. Hackenbacker,” Brains replied, meeting Mansfield’s angry expression with a cool one of his own, not even noticing that his stutter was absent. He added, as an afterthought, “At your service.” Turning his gaze to the actress, he opined, “If Ms. Trundle would like to be considered a lady, perhaps she should act like one. After all, she does claim to know how to act.”
Dawn Pearson looked further scandalized, but the mention of Brains’s name brought Mansfield up short. “Hackenbacker. Hackenbacker? Hm.” He fingered his cleft chin. “Where have I heard that–” His dark eyes lit up with sudden recognition. “Hackenbacker! Skythrust! You’re the man who designed Skythrust!”
Brains looked surprised, but nodded. “I am.”
Mansfield held out his big hand. “Mr. Hackenbacker, I wanna shake your hand. I was on the maiden flight of that plane; had an invitation from your backers to see it in action.” He shook his head. “What a wild ride that was! A fashion show, terrorists, and International Rescue, all in one trip! If you hadn’t come up with the idea of jettisoning the fuel tanks … well, sir, you and I wouldn’t be standing toe-to-toe today! Put ‘er there!”
Stunned, Brains took Mansfield’s hand and had his own thoroughly pumped. Dawn Pearson’s eyes were wider than ever, seeing her avenging angel so chummy with the little mouse that dared roar at her.
“Dawn, honey,” Mansfield drew her out of her circle of sycophants and to his side. “Dawn, this is Hiram Hackenbacker, creator of Skythrust, a jet with such a great safety concept I wish I’d thought of it!”
The actress tried to smile. “How … fascinating,” she said, offering Brains a limp, lukewarm handshake. She removed the frames she had been modeling, and put them—or rather, tossed them—onto the showcase. “These definitely aren’t my type.” Turning to Mansfield, she murmured, “Arty, darling, can’t we go somewhere else? I really don’t see anything I like here.”
“Sure, honey, sure. Chloe, call the car.”
“Yes, Mr. Mansfield.”
While Chloe put a phone to her ear and did the tycoon’s bidding, Mansfield pulled a small silver case from one of his jacket’s inside pockets. “Here, Hackenbacker. If you ever decide to go freelance, or are looking for another job, just call me. I like your style, and could use a good man like you in my firm. It was good to meet you.”
With that, he turned and, drawing his girlfriend with him, left the shop, their combined entourage in pursuit. Brains looked down at the business card he’d been handed, then glanced up at a dumbstruck Dena, and the salesperson who had been assisting the actress.
“I a-apologize if I cost you a, uh, sale,” he said mildly, pulling out his wallet and tucking the card inside.
Dena’s counterpart, whose name tag read “Mel” shrugged and sighed. “I sussed that the more frames she tried on, the less chance she’d buy any.”
“Well, now that she’s pushed off, let’s find you the perfect pair of sunnies, eh,” Dena said, her tone firm.
In the end, Brains purchased two pairs of sunglasses. “So I have a backup, in case I, uh, mislay one.” He checked his watch, promising to pick up the finished product up after his appointment with the orthodontist. Then, calling a cab, he directed his driver to Dr. Rangihau’s office.
“Is there any, uh, change?” he asked.
“A tiny bit.” The orthodontist shook her head. “This takes time, Mr. Hackenbacker. Now, if you’ll wait here, your new aligners will be ready soon. My assistant will bring them to you and fit them.” She stopped on her way out the door. “Two weeks, Mr. Hackenbacker. Your correction will go faster if you’re back here every fortnight. So make your next appointment accordingly.”
While waiting, Brains pulled out his phone to dial Tracy Island.
Tin-Tin, who had decided some sunbathing was in order, was startled by the appearance of Jeff at the balcony rail.
Gordon stood in the shallow end and wiped his hair back from his eyes, lifting his goggles as he did so. “Yes, sir?”
“What’s the name of the shop where you buy your swim gear?”
Gordon gave his father a puzzled look. “Well, there’s more than one–”
Irritably, Jeff motioned with one arm. “You come up here and talk to Brains, then. He’s the one who wants to know.”
Obediently, Gordon left the pool, snagging his towel and favoring Tin-Tin with a bright smile as he passed her on the way to the balcony. She returned the smile, settling herself back down onto her lounger.
“So, what was that all about?”
The sudden question startled Tin-Tin again. “I suppose Brains needed to find some–”
“That’s not what I was talking about.” John sat on the lounger next to her, but he wasn’t reclining. He sat on one edge, facing her, still dripping from the pool. “What I saw as I came out to the pool today. What was that all about?”
Tin-Tin’s face flushed though she kept her voice cool and nonchalant. “So Gordon kissed me.” She shrugged slightly. “Nothing to make a fuss over.”
“From where I stood, it didn’t look as if Gordon was the only one doing the kissing.” As hard as he tried to moderate it, John’s tone still sounded accusatory.
“And how is that any of your business, John Tracy?” Her eyes narrowed in an uncharacteristic scowl. “Gordon and I are both adults. Please remember that the next time you want to meddle in our affairs.”
She slipped her cover up on as she spoke, and slid her feet into her sandals. But John had another question.
“What about Brains?”
Tin-Tin rose, giving her hair a saucy toss. “What about him? He’s spending so much time changing himself for some … some other woman that he has no time for anything else. Including me.”
With that, she stalked off, swinging her bag with such a forceful arc it looked as if she wanted to hit someone with it.
“That’s not fair!” John called after her. She picked up her pace, disappearing into the house before he could continue his protest.
“What’s not fair?” Gordon came down the steps from the balcony just in time to see Tin-Tin enter the house. He approached his older brother. “What was that all about?”
John considered telling Gordon what he’d seen and said, but realized that his brother was more likely to side with Tin-Tin than with him. “Never mind,” he muttered. “Or better yet, ask her. I’m through.”
Picking up his shirt and towel, he loped back to the house, shaking his head and leaving a perplexed Gordon behind him.