Saturday, June 2, 2018

Experienced: A Teaser

     [As I’ve received a fair number of inquiries about what fiction project I’m at work on, I’ve decided to post a “teaser.” The novel under construction, Experienced, is a sequel of sorts to Innocents. It also back-references an important plot element in The Sledgehammer Concerto. So if you’re unfamiliar with those books, what follows might confuse you. -- FWP]


Late afternoon Friday, April 20, 2029

     Rachel MacLachlan had powered down all her apparatus, had dismissed her staff, and was preparing to go home for the weekend. The appearance of a camera crew at the front door of her Grand Street clinic took her completely by surprise.
     “Yes, gentlemen?”
     The man carrying the microphone moved to one side and edged into the lobby of the MacLachlan Clinic for Desire Dysfunction. She turned automatically to remain facing him. He smiled and thrust the mike directly at her as his cameraman angled his camera to get an optimal shot of their exchange.
     “Dr. Rachel MacLachlan?”
     “I am.”
     “I’m Dennis Addison of the Onteora Register. This is Phil Wolsey, my cameraman. If you have a few minutes, we’d love to talk to you about your clinic, the work it does, and how you foresee your therapy being used in the immediate future.”
     Rachel was momentarily confused.
     “Why is my clinic suddenly a subject of interest, Mr. Addison? It’s been operating for several months already. We haven’t even had a visit from the county building code inspectors.”
     Addison smiled in that practiced way the professional interviewer uses to deflect a question he’d prefer not to answer. “I’m subject to the whims and vagaries of my editorial staff, Doctor. I seldom get to choose the topics I’m assigned to cover. But if you could indulge us for a few minutes, we might be able to get you some valuable publicity. You do charge for your therapies, don’t you?”
     “Yes...”
     “Then a story that would announce them to a mass audience and praise them for their efficacy would be to your advantage, wouldn’t it?” The fixed smile never wavered. “For example, it’s been suggested that your technique could affect impulses such as homosexuality and gender dysphoria. Imagine how many new clients that announcement could bring you, to say nothing of how many young people struggling with such desires might benefit.”
     Rachel forced herself to remain calm.
     This is a setup. He’s the reporter that tried to torpedo Sumner by attacking his bodyguard. But he’s already got me on camera. If I give him the bum’s rush, he’ll use it to excite public suspicion that I’m doing something nefarious. That would make an even juicier story than whatever he might get by interviewing me.
     She strove to rationalize admitting the reporter and his cameraman to the clinic. She tried her best to see it as publicity for a highly positive development that no one, regardless of his agenda, could possibly criticize. She assured herself that she could control the direction of the interview, could skirt any loaded questions, could deflect any hostile imputations. She told herself that the gains, both to her and to potential clients, would heavily outweigh any negative consequences.
     The mind of Rachel MacLachlan operated at an extraordinary speed. She spent less than half a second addressing and analyzing all the For arguments before she smiled and said “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Addison, but I have no interest in becoming a subject of the media’s scrutiny.”
     She herded Addison and his cameraman out the door and closed it in their faces.

#

     “This is a dream come true!”
     Holly Martinowski had been about to autograph the copy of Unashamed the speaker handed her when the petite young woman’s effulgent praise burst forth. She looked up with a pleased smile.
     “Thank you, dear. It’s frightfully pleasant to meet fans like you, here in the States.” She winked. “Until I arrived and met a few of you, I had no idea I was being read here.”
     The young woman grimaced comically. “Are you kidding? You have a million readers here. And for what it’s worth, I think Unashamed is going to get you a million more.”
     The line behind the speaker extended to the front doors of the bookstore, and Holly had only until six P.M. for her signing. Yet she was piqued by the comment. “Why is that, dear?”
     “Heidi,” the young woman said. “The first transgender protagonist ever to appear in a best seller.” She giggled. “A lot of us have been waiting for a major novelist to feature one of us.”
     That brought Holly’s eyebrows up. “You’re transgender?”
     The girl nodded. “You couldn’t tell, could you?”
     Holly regarded her with full attention.
     The young woman was short and delicately built. Neither her face nor her hands betrayed her genetic masculinity. She was dressed in a figure-flattering skirt suit and high-heeled pumps. Her makeup was perfect for the daylight hours. Whether the makeup concealed the remnants of a man’s facial hair, Holly could not say.
     “I had no idea.” On impulse, Holly rose and extended her hand. The young woman took it. “What’s your name, dear?”
     “Irene O'Carroll.”
     Holly turned to the flyleaf of the young woman’s copy of Unashamed, wrote For Irene, with love, Holly Martins in her best hand, and closed the cover. “Well, Irene,” she murmured, “if you can wait until I’ve cleared what remains of this line, we can have dinner together. Would you like that?”
     “You bet!” The girl’s expression became nova bright. She stepped out of the line. Holly handed her book back to her.
     “Mustn’t forget this, dear.”
     “Not ever!”

#

     Amanda Hallstrom had never before faced an unsolicited applicant for admission to Athene Academy. For nineteen years, every one of Athene’s enrollees had been scouted by its field agents and encouraged to apply. Yet she’d known it would happen some day. Still, she’d expected that that day would not come until the college had publicly proclaimed the special, entirely non-academic qualification Athene demanded of its students...and of course, that the applicant would be aware of it.
     She certainly hadn’t expected that the first applicant to arrive unheralded would be a young man.
     Daniel Loring was as bright, as articulate, and as self-possessed as any teenager of Amanda’s acquaintance. His trim good looks were well set off by the white broadcloth dress shirt, brown slacks, and navy blue blazer he wore. His brown oxfords gleamed with fresh polish. His pleasant smile suggested neither anxiety nor arrogance.
     “Mr. Loring,” she said in a carefully neutral tone, “from what you’ve told me of your grades and other involvements, there must be dozens of fine schools eager to have you. Surely you’ve received the usual flurry of promotional packets from colleges better known than Athene?”
     Loring nodded. “Yes, I have. Nearly a hundred of them this past year.”
     That’s no surprise. “Well, what, pray tell, brought you to our doorstep?”
     “I only recently learned of Athene, from three of your students. I was surprised to find a baccalaureate-granting school situated in Onteora County that I’d never heard of. A school with no website and not one mention Google could find, at that.” Loring’s smile grew fractionally brighter. “I’d been looking for a good one that would allow me to stay close to home.”
     “And SUC Onteora didn’t meet your requirements?”
     He shook his head. “They don’t have the best faculty for what I intend to study.”
     “Which is...?”
     “Mathematics.”
     Oh dear.
     “Would you mind telling me which of our students you met, and where?”
     Loring’s brow wrinkled briefly. He shrugged. “Wednesday evening at the Foxwood Library. Ching-nien Chen, Sue Perrine, and Sofia Kozlovski.”
     The chess club. “Did you become well acquainted with them?”
     “Moderately so.” He crossed his legs. “We played some chess and chatted for a bit about math and colleges. When the talk turned to Athene I became intrigued.”
     “What was it that particularly caught your interest?”
     “The small size. The standards. The strong emphasis on the sciences.” He grinned. “It certainly didn’t hurt to encounter three lovely young ladies who are all so intelligent, charming, and skilled at the chessboard.” He uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “May I have a look at the rest of the facilities?”
     “Mr. Loring...”
     Amanda’s distress must have shown in her body language. Loring’s expression darkened.
     “Is there some qualification I lack, Dean Hallstrom?”
     He doesn’t expect to be turned away. Probably he’s never failed to qualify for anything before this.
     There’s no evading it.
     “Mr. Loring, all our students are young women.”
     Loring’s expression went from suspicion to shock.
     “Athene is a one-sex school?” he said. “I thought they were against the law.”
     “Not quite, Mr. Loring. For a college to accept only one sex is still legal, as long as it doesn’t accept state or federal funds. To keep Athene within the letter of the law, our students must be able to pay for their educations without any such funding. Any student who comes here must agree to that beforehand. That way we can remain single-sex, which is a requirement of our endowment.”
     Loring sat silent and motionless for a long moment.
     He’s probably never been turned down for anything before. It must come as a blow, especially as he’s apparently serious about staying in Onteora.
     “That’s...disappointing,” he said at last.
     Amanda nodded. “I can imagine. And believe me when I say that from your academic record, your extra-curricular activities, and your exemplary manners, if you met our other requirements we’d love to have you here. But I’m sure you can see—”
     “Yes, of course.” He rose and held out a hand. She rose and took it. “Thank you for your time, Dean Hallstrom.”
     He closed the door of her office gently behind him.

#

     Daniel Loring ambled semiconsciously out of Amanda Hallstrom’s office toward the double doors of Athene Academy’s main building. The guard on duty had to remind him to return his visitor’s badge as he departed. He unlocked his Lexus and seated himself behind the wheel, but instead of starting the engine he pulled his cell phone from a jacket pocket and composed a text message to his father.
     They won’t take me, Dad.
     Arthur Loring’s reply was immediate.
     —What’s the problem? Not enough recommendations?
     It’s an all-girls school.
     —Thought they were illegal.
     Seems not, as long as it doesn’t take govt $$.
     —Damn. I know you wanted to stay home. There’s still the SUC.
     Pitiful math dept.
     —That bad?
     Trust me. It’s Athene or I leave home. Maybe Cornell wouldn’t be so bad.
     —Let me think about this.
     Love you.
     —Same.

     He disconnected, pocketed his phone, reached for the ignition, and paused.
     Should I call Ching-nien?
     The Chinese girl was the most appealing young woman he’d met in years. Her prodigious intellect was matched by her amiability and grace. She’d confirmed a reciprocal interest in him by offering him her cell phone number. The warmth in her eyes and her lingering grip on his hand when he conceded their game underscored the message.
     She did encourage me to stay in touch. It couldn’t have been all about chess. Her schoolmates are plenty good enough to keep her busy.
     I didn’t tell her that I was thinking of applying to Athene, though. What would she think of that?
     Doesn’t matter. I want to see her again. Not necessarily over the board.

     He started the engine and headed for home.

#

     Arthur Loring returned his cell phone to his pocket, planted his elbows on his desk, and hunched forward in thought.
     One of Loring’s most frequently expressed sentiments was that a man can have anything he wants if he’s willing to work for it. It had served him well in business. It had also cost him a wife, but he tried not to dwell on that. He preferred to live in the present, enjoying the prosperity he’d earned with his gift for salesmanship. It had allowed him to retire a millionaire at age fifty, still healthy and vigorous enough to enjoy most of the pleasures of youth. He included in them the pleasures of young women.
     Now and then it chafed him that at age eighteen his only child was so reluctant to enjoy such pleasures along with him. It wasn’t that Daniel was shy or introverted...or, God help us all, homosexual. Rather, he didn’t seem to give women much priority. Mathematics, chess, American and English literature, and other entirely intellectual pursuits got nearly all of his time.
     Daniel was about to graduate at the top of his class without ever having gone on a date. It had drawn the notice of several of Arthur’s tomcatting companions. He’d managed to conceal his displeasure over it by shifting the subject to Daniel’s academic achievements. His drinking and wenching buddies, conscious of the mediocrity of their sons’ school records, usually fell silent.
     It made the matter of Athene Academy a sore point for him. An all-girls college so late in the Twenty-First Century should stand out as the aberration it was. The sexes had been schooling together from kindergarten through graduate school for nearly a century. Governments had made it ever more difficult for a school of any level to exclude either sex. Yet Daniel had stumbled upon one quite by accident. His discovery of Athene’s single-sex requirement had stunned them both.
     Daniel had been lavish in his praise of the three Athene students he’d met at the library. He’d complimented not just their skill over the chessboard, but their beauty and sociability as well. It had given Arthur hope that his son might at last be ready to break out of his shell, perhaps bring a “friend” or two home. Join the ranks of actual men.
     Becoming the first male enrollee of a previously all-girls school certainly wouldn’t hurt his chances.
     Arthur had not yet admitted to himself that part of his hope was that if Daniel were to acquire such a “friend,” it might result in a “friend” or two for Arthur, as well. It cost an older man a lot of effort and a fair amount of money to attract the interest of a nubile young club-goer. It had begun to seem to Arthur that he was overpaying for the attentions he received.
     He resolved to look into what it would take to crack Athene open. The goal immediately coalesced into an absolute. He, noted the time, pulled his phone from his pocket once more, and dialed his attorney.
     It would be best if he could do it legally, but if not, Arthur didn’t intend to accept defeat. It was what he wanted. He’d always had to work for what he wanted, and he’d always succeeded sooner or later. This would be no different.
     For Daniel’s sake, of course.

==<O>==

     [Copyright (C) 2018 Francis W. Porretto]

2 comments:

Amy Bowersox said...

Now this is interesting. I probably would have bought the book sight unseen when it came out, just on the strength of Innocents, but these excerpts definitely pique my curiosity. I'll be waiting eagerly to see it!

Linda Fox said...

Curse you, Francis! I have NO time, and yet you keep bringing out new books that I can't resist.