§ § § – April 26, 2013

By the time they heard the regular, distant grumbling of thunder, Leslie's father was long gone back to Germany, the children were in bed asleep, and Christian and Leslie had finally gotten around to removing the two chairs and the small table from their bedroom deck, storing the items in their library for the duration. It was past ten, and despite the closed blinds and drawn curtains over the window and French doors to the deck, Leslie could still see flickers of lightning. She shuddered and tried to tell herself she was too old for this kind of silly fear, but knew even as she thought it that it was futile to chastise herself. It never changed anything.

"What are you thinking, my Rose?" asked Christian softly from beside her, where he had been sitting up going over some printed website-design requests.

"Trying to talk myself out of my storm phobia, and failing as usual," said Leslie with a heavy sigh. "I'm actually glad Carl Johan hasn't called yet, or else you'd be asleep—or trying to get there, and being annoyed by me and my storm anxiety."

Christian laughed. "Well, we'll see about that. If this is as bad as it looked on the weather radar, I'm not sure I'll sleep much tonight. What was it your father said about the weather controls he was supposed to have put on the island?"

"He said all he had been able to do was control the humidity levels so this place would be less of a tropical sauna for the resort guests," said Leslie wistfully. "This storm system just overpowered it. He said all we can do is let it go through and protect ourselves as much as we can." Lightning flared outside, brightening the room for a second, and she flinched; Christian hitched closer to her and wrapped his arm around her. "If it really is a hurricane, I wonder why it doesn't have a name. You'd think they'd have named this thing; I mean, it's as big as a hurricane, and it has the rain and the wind for it, and—"

"All right, now you're babbling, my Leslie Rose," Christian cut her off, grinning. "It'll be all right, I promise. Whatever mess there is to clean up in the aftermath, it'll be cleaned up. No, I don't know why it hasn't been classified as a hurricane either, but perhaps that's because it doesn't have the same rotation as a hurricane. It's simply an overgrown thunderstorm, at least according to what I overheard on the last forecast we listened to before we sent the children to bed. It may take some time to move through, but something tells me we won't have any truly serious damage from it. Nothing, at least, on the scale of what you'd expect from a hurricane." He planted a kiss on the side of her head, just as they heard his cell phone start playing the jordisk national anthem from his nightstand. "Ah, that's Carl Johan. Let's see what he has to say." Giving her a last squeeze, he twisted around to retrieve his phone, accepted the call and greeted his brother.

They spoke in jordiska, and Leslie listened, watching Christian's expressions. "So," he said, "what's the news, äldrebror?"

"I had my meeting with the former atrium keeper and we spoke for longer than I had expected to," Carl Johan said. "His name is Thomas Sjöland, and I asked him a few questions about himself and his family, and his livelihood—he's long retired now—before I admitted to him that we hadn't asked him here in regard to a knighthood. Fortunately that made him laugh, and I felt a bit better about confessing to him that we are related to the Kullenäs family and then asking him if his ancestor was Anton Sjórland, originally Antonio LiSciola. It took him a moment to absorb my little revelation about being connected with a clan, but when he did, he said it was true that LiSciola was his ancestor and that the family has grown into several branches around the country. They are aware of what happened to the last two generations of LiSciolas, it turns out. And here's something that may shock you, Christian: the jordisk part of the family doesn't have the extraordinary life expectancy of the Italian branch. You'll want to pass that to your father-in-law, I have no doubt. It makes me wonder if one of them didn't come up with some elixir or something that artificially prolonged their lives, before Antonio came here from Italy."

"Is that so?" was all Christian could say, blinking in astonishment.

"It's what I was told," said Carl Johan. "I asked if the family had ever tried to find out what it was, and Thomas said not that he knew of. You may have another mystery to solve soon, once your father-in-law gets word of this."

"Perhaps so," mused Christian. "Well, at least we know that the Spice-Growers clan isn't on the verge of extinction after all." About to add something, he was stopped by a brilliant flare of lightning that made Leslie grab him and bury her face in his shoulder; a mere second later, a crack of thunder shook the house.

"What was that?" asked Carl Johan.

"Oh, you heard it? We have a massive thunderstorm in progress, just arriving," said Christian. "Find a weather broadcast somewhere and see if they mention it—we have it on good authority that it's only a step or two down from a hurricane. And in light of that, it might be wiser to cut this conversation short. If you have any more to tell us, you can call back probably on Sunday—we expect this thing to last at least through tomorrow."

"Ach. Well, stay safe then, and my condolences to poor Leslie," said Carl Johan with a chuckle. Christian grinned, thanked him, and a moment later hung up.

The kids stampeded into the bedroom at that point and clambered onto their parents' bed, precluding Christian's telling Leslie what Carl Johan had related. Leslie was still holding onto Christian, who now set aside his phone and wrapped both arms around her; despite that, Anastasia tried to crawl into her mother's lap. "It's scary out dere," she proclaimed.

"I won't argue with that," murmured Leslie, then winced as Anastasia landed a little too hard on her knee. "Ow...careful, sweetie."

"It's getting a bit crowded in here," Christian remarked, surveying the children, who all shrugged. "How long do you four plan to stay in here?"

"I dunno," said Tobias with another shrug.

"Maybe all night," hinted Karina darkly. "I mean, if there's lots of big, loud ones like that...well, we'll never get any sleep."

"Neither will I," Leslie mumbled, aiming a small, sheepish glance up at Christian through her bangs.

"And I won't either, undoubtedly," he said through a sigh, but she saw the twinkle in his hazel eyes, and grinned at him. He grinned back, then turned to the triplets and inquired, "What do you expect to do while you're in here thinking we have some sort of magical protection from all this lightning and thunder?"

"Magical!" blurted Susanna, lighting up and turning to her sister. "Karina, you could take us back to someplace fun in the past, so we can get away from this storm and Mom and us don't have to be scared!"

"Hey yeah, that's a great idea," Tobias exclaimed. "Let's pick someplace cool."

Karina looked dubious. "But what if Mom and Dad say no?"

"I don't think it'd be a good idea, not this late at night, when we all need to at least try to get some sleep," Leslie demurred. "And in any case, I really don't want you kids inheriting my stupid storm phobia."

"We won't if we get away from this and go back in time," said Susanna, as if the idea were a perfectly logical solution and it was nonsense not to employ it immediately.

Christian peered at her and asked, "And what, then, do you think we should go back to see? Did you have any ideas?"

For a moment there was silence while the triplets looked at one another; then Anastasia announced, "I wanna go back and see what it looked like when I got born."

"What what looked like when you got born?" Leslie teased, involuntarily flinching at a sudden crack of thunder. The kids snickered, but she kept her gaze on Anastasia.

"Me," said Anastasia, as if this should have been obvious.

"Are you gonna do that?" Tobias asked Karina. "I mean, geez..."

Karina thought it over. "Well, it's still Stasia's birthday," she pointed out, and peered at Leslie. "Mom, maybe I can take Stasia and Susanna and Tobias back to when you had her in the hospital."

"And not us?" Christian inquired archly.

"You don't have to go back," Susanna put in. "You were already there."

Leslie snorted and Christian laughed. "I can't argue with that. We certainly were, my Rose, and I know you have some vivid memories of that day."

"I ought to; it was only four years ago," Leslie remarked. Under Christian's chuckle, she surveyed the kids, then focused on Karina. "Are you sure you want to, honey? Just because your brother and sisters want to go, that doesn't mean you have to take them."

"Mom," Tobias and Susanna protested.

"No, she's right," Christian said firmly. "It's Karina's power, and no matter what, you should always ask her permission if you find you ever want to make use of it."

A deep boom reverberated outside and rattled the house again, and this time everyone except Christian cringed. Karina shot a spooked glance toward the window and said, "I want to go, just to get away from this storm. It's okay if we go see Stasia being born."

"No, it's not," Leslie contradicted, catching everyone's attention. "Trust me, you three, you don't want to watch the actual process of giving birth. It's gross and messy and it can be smelly, too. You don't need to see that. You can go back to an hour or two after Stasia was born and start from there. Not that you'll see much. If I remember right, I was sound asleep, and your father left the hospital for a while."

"Yes, I returned to the castle to tell you three that you had a new sister," Christian said, "and then dropped off a bag at the hospital before I went downtown to get something to read and then something to eat. Remember, I stayed there with your mother."

"Yeah, we went to stay over with Matti and Toria," Karina remembered. "That was when their mom and dad were still alive." She frowned slightly, as if thinking, while Christian and Leslie glanced at each other. Then she blurted, "I know—I can take us back to when Stasia was a day old. Then we can see you guys too."

"You really sure you don't want to come back too?" Tobias asked.

"They were already there, dummy," Susanna retorted, "I told you."

"Susanna, stop," Leslie admonished over another cannonade of thunder. She winced and shook her head. "Really, I hope this doesn't go on like this all night. Well, Karina, if you want to go back, then I see no reason you can't." She caught Christian's doubtful look. "It's not like they can get into trouble; they can't touch anything, they can't change history, and nobody'll know they're there. And when it's over, if Karina doesn't bring them back, then they'll just pop right back into existence, probably here in this room."

"True," murmured Christian, pondering it, then nodding. "Well enough, then. Enjoy your little trip, you four. We'll be waiting for you."

"Yay," squealed Anastasia, tumbling off the bed ahead of her siblings. "Hurry up, Karina, I wanna see little baby me."

Christian and Leslie watched their children form a circle and join hands, then vanish in a split second, leaving them alone in their room. Then Leslie turned to Christian and asked, "What'd Carl Johan tell you?"

Christian summarized what his brother had relayed to him, then told her about the lack of lengthened life expectancy in the jordiska descendants of Lorenzo LiSciola. "As Carl Johan said, perhaps the count and his father had some sort of elixir or other substance that somehow prolonged their lives for unnatural spans. He didn't say whether Antonio, or Anton, had the secret, but my guess is that he didn't. Otherwise he might have told subsequent generations about it, and the jordiska Spice-Growers would quite likely have tried to get the secret from the LiSciolas."

"Father knew Lorenzo," Leslie mused. "As I understood it, they were pretty good friends at some point. I don't know if Father knew about Anton's breaking away from the family and decamping to Lilla Jordsö—I'm thinking probably not, partly because somehow the friendship sort of drifted apart long before that ever happened. That was my understanding, anyway. I guess that's another set of questions we'll have to ask him next time we see him." She seized him again when another blast of thunder shook the house, and groaned aloud. "If we survive this, that is."

Christian laughed and squeezed her. "It may be an ordeal, but I'm sure we'll pull through in the end. Here, give me your phone and let me try that weather app of yours again. Even if it still isn't working, perhaps I can find some sort of update that includes a radar picture, so that we can see how bad it will be and how long we can expect it to be that way. I wouldn't mind sleeping tonight."

"Believe me, neither would I," Leslie said dryly and handed him her phone, keeping a wary eye on the lightning flashes and trying not to wince every time thunder exploded.

§ § § - April 28, 2013

By the time they woke late Sunday morning, most of the storm had worked its way through, leaving only the last bands of heavy rain still drumming the roof. Even after the children had returned from their time-travel trip to Anastasia's birth, none of them had slept much, and had spent the better part of Saturday lying around catnapping in between periods of pouring rain and energetic lightning and thunder. The worst of it had finally passed a bit after midnight Saturday night, and the family had fallen gratefully into bed and slept right through the last of the fireworks, even Leslie.

They had endured much of the storm without electricity; after the children had returned from spending more than ninety minutes in the past (for which their parents questioned them, only to get the response that they had explored the entire hospital, to Leslie's horror and Christian's amusement), they had fallen into bed, and shortly after that, the power had gone out. It had remained out till they woke Sunday morning and noticed nightstand clocks blinking to be reset.

It was after breakfast before the rain finally stopped, by which time it was approaching eleven o'clock, and Christian and Leslie slipped on sandals and ventured outside to assess whatever damage the winds might have done. As it turned out, the contents of their flower beds were mashed flat, with sodden petals half buried in the mud; many trees in the surrounding woods had been partially stripped of leaves that were now plastered all over the western and southern sides of the house. The sun, peeking through breaks in the last storm clouds, illuminated more of the lawn than it had before the trees had lost so many leaves; and Leslie paused long enough to listen carefully, hearing the tentative chirps of birds only at some distance. The storm wasn't quite finished with them, for there were still retreating grumbles of thunder now and then; in fact, while they were examining their property for damage, a last rogue rain shower slid through, catching them by surprise and sending them ducking under the deck off their bedroom. Somewhere well off to their east, they both heard the faint buzz of a chainsaw starting up. "Someone lost a tree or two, it seems," commented Christian.

"Looks like we got lucky," Leslie agreed, then squinted across the down-sloping land behind their house that eventually rolled down to the Ring Road, and past that, to the southern edge of the island. "Although I think I see some tree trunks leaning against other ones. Let's get a better look at the forest."

When Carl Johan called again that evening, Christian and Leslie were knee-deep in reports from people all over the island, outlining damage in various degrees. Christian kept his brother busy telling him about their power-outage adventures and what they'd heard about via phone and e-mail, but concluded, "I think we got off lightly, all in all. Mostly it's downed trees, and a few houses have been damaged by trees falling on them, but we had no deaths or even any injuries. The cleanup will be mostly of the nuisance sort."

"That's good, then," said Carl Johan. "Not to change the subject, ungstebror, but I wanted to say that I managed to tell you everything I learned about the Spice-Growers in my phone call before the storm. So there's nothing new there—but I did want to ask when you and Leslie and everyone else plan to come here for your summer visit, and how long you intend to stay. Amalia's excited about Rudolf, Louisa and Katta returning home for good, and she's already talking about sending servants into their rooms to do a thorough cleaning from ceiling to floor."

Christian laughed. "I expect we'll do what we've done the last couple of years, that is, leave on the Monday following the triplets' birthday and stay two or three weeks. This year that date will be...let me see..." He consulted a wall calendar, a couple of which Leslie still insisted on hanging in the house every year. "June 3. If you're going to have Amalia issue orders to the serving staff about cleaning rooms, then she might as well send out teams so that Leslie and I and our youngsters will arrive to clean suites."

"Not to mention Roald and his group," agreed Carl Johan, chuckling. "Well enough, we'll expect you that week, then. Oh, and I might add that there are a few events scheduled for your visit here—you know how it is, you have to concede to your being royalty while you're here and do the sort of things people expect royals to do."

"Tell me there aren't any useless parties on the schedule," said Christian. "Please."

"I don't know about useless, but I do know there are parties. I can have Miss Grönnedahl e-mail you with the details. I also need to warn you that there's a new glossy celebrity magazine here—just started up this spring—that has contacted us asking if they can have an exclusive and thorough interview with you and Leslie. Before you leap out of your chair shouting in outrage, it's more of a focus on your life on the island, and Leslie will be featured as much as you will, if not more. There's an ongoing fascination with your being one of the, uh, 'minor' princes in the family, if you'll excuse the expression, and having married a woman who inherited her father's island and is now what one might call the equivalent of a president or even a queen. Your being a prince adds more glamor to the idea. They've asked, I believe, if they can have a good sit-down interview with you and Leslie so as to get a better idea of what's involved in running a small island like Leslie's and keeping up the reputation of the resort and the general paradise her father built."

Christian pondered that for a moment, making a thoughtful noise to let his brother know he was considering it. After a minute or so he mused, "Well, perhaps it's not such a revolting idea, since it sounds as if there's an actual point to this piece."

"You might say that," said Carl Johan through a laugh. "I don't see the harm in it, and I imagine it might even serve to educate people, after a fashion. There are those who think you spend every day lounging on the nearest beach and getting drunk on tropical libations; this could be your opportunity to debunk that myth."

"Not that I give half a damn what people think," remarked Christian in amusement, "but in any case, I'll let Leslie know about it and get back to you on scheduling it. I wouldn't mind seeing a copy of this magazine before we give the final approval on the interview, though. If it's brand-new, I want a chance to examine it."

"They have a website," said Carl Johan, "but I'll put copies of the last two issues in the mail to you anyhow. They use heavy, glossy paper, with cardstock-weight paper for the covers, and their reporting is as truthful as possible. The cover price reflects the higher-end market they're aiming for. They did an interview with Magga and her wife on their lifestyle and how they spend their days, and Magga said it was quite possibly the most pleasant and respectful encounter with the press that she could ever remember having."

Impressed, Christian noted, "If Magga said that, then this whole thing might be worth it. Is her interview in one of the copies you'll be sending?"

"I'll include that one if you like. While I have you on the phone...what ideas do you have for gifts for the triplets' birthday? No, you don't get to protest; as aunts and uncles, Anna-Laura, Esbjörn, Amalia and I have as much right to spoil your children as you did to spoil ours when they were that age."

Christian broke into laughter. "All right, all right, I'll concede to that. As always, they can use new clothes. Leslie and I order most of the school clothing online, but I think it would be nice to get them a few things from Ellströms. I'll get back to you on sizes. And I should add that Susanna and Karina have outgrown baby dolls—they gave all theirs to Stasia for her birthday, and you can just imagine how thrilled Stasia was—and now they're more into fashion dolls. Tobias still loves Lego."

"Good to know. Well enough, I'll pass on the word." The two brothers talked a bit more before ending the call, and Christian set aside his cell phone, relaxing as much as he could in the kitchen chair.

"What's this I overheard about an interview?" asked Leslie, who had long since paused in sorting through printed damage-report e-mails to listen to his end of the phone conversation. "And how come you're not sitting over there muttering and griping about it?"

Chuckling, Christian filled her in on what Carl Johan had told him. "I've been thinking about it, and it seems to revolve around the type of governmental system we've evolved here, and how we manage to keep up the reputation your father's resort has. It would give the jordiska people a chance to see just what we're doing over here, and to understand as well that even though I still own and operate Enstads Datoservice, I don't spend as much time on computer issues, other than website design." He paused, thought over what he'd just said, then grinned wryly. "It appears that in spite of myself, I ended up working in a governmental capacity after all."

"Huh, and just when you thought you'd shaped your life into something as close to an ordinary citizen's as possible," Leslie teased. "Yeah, I guess we can do it; I don't see any harm in it. You said it's a high-end magazine—I guess that means we need to dress up."

"We'd have to in any event. Royalty still has a certain image to maintain," said Christian, with only a touch of irony. "Meantime, I suppose we have to go back to acting in the capacity of local government and put in a tour around the island tomorrow to see some of these damage scenes for ourselves."

Leslie nodded. "I'll see if I can contact Father tomorrow too, and tell him about it. We'll have to remember to Skype with Anna-Laura and find out how her birthday went today, and how our present went over." She swept her gaze across the printouts. "You know, it just occurred to me—we haven't seen any news reports since the power went out. Maybe we ought to get caught up."

"I'm glad that occurred to you. I must have lost too much sleep; my brain doesn't seem to be functioning to its usual capacity. Tell me, who's doing laundry today?" asked Christian idly as he arose and headed for the living room to turn on the TV.

"I'm up this weekend," said Leslie. "Might as well get started on it now while the kids are outside playing." All four children had exhibited cabin fever, and as soon as the rain had finally stopped for good, they had badgered their parents till Christian told them they could ride bikes as long as they stayed within sight of the house.

She put a load of clothes in the washer and got it going while Christian tuned in an all-news channel, and they sat down to watch for a while. The storm they had just gone through made the news, and while their island was mentioned among those locales that had been affected, most of the story's focus and all the video was from Hawaii. A few more news stories came and went; then a familiar-looking photo of a hunk of shiny metal sticking up out of the dirt made Christian and Leslie exchange surprised glances and sit up to pay closer attention. Christian put the volume up a few notches.

"The mystery deepens," said the news announcer. "While the original discoverers of a strange slab of metal in northern Germany were pulling together further resources to uncover more of the substance and try to determine its origins and composition, the metal vanished somehow. In fact, not only has the piece that was uncovered disappeared, any other metal that was detected underground is also missing, and the topsoil in the area was even replaced to a point that the ground looks almost undisturbed. Speculation and rumors are running wild, covering everything from the impossible to the ridiculous. There are no tracks to indicate the entry and exit of anyone who may have taken the metal; and no one was in the vicinity to see anything, so that the timing of the disappearing act is also in question. Authorities in Dannenburg are asking everyone within a fifty-mile radius to provide any information they may have, but so far nothing has turned up except, according to the local police chief, a rash of calls offering wacky explanations for the disappearance of the metal. The hikers who originally found it were asked if they had kept any samples, but they admitted they hadn't thought to do that. The authorities say they can't charge anyone with theft, as the metal was not on private land; but they are interested in having their questions answered, just to satisfy their curiosity." The man took a breath and then began another story.

Christian muted the set and shook his head. "After that detailed description, it's obvious enough to me that your father and some friends of his managed to get away with those metal fragments. If he's right about its origins, then I can only hope they were able to retrieve all of it."

"Me too," mumbled Leslie, frowning. "Maybe they tried too hard to leave the land as it was originally found. I mean, if they'd just made it look like someone dug up the rest of it and left everything in disarray, that'd throw a red herring at the authorities, and they'd spend all their time trying to find the alleged thieves. But judging from the footage they showed of the land after the so-called theft...well, there'll be more wacky ideas about how it got back into almost pristine condition."

"Perhaps they should have replanted the area with whatever grasses or other vegetation were originally there," said Christian, brow aloft. "That might have prompted the police and others to start questioning the hikers as to whether they really found anything at all, news story or not. So perhaps your father and his accomplices did less than they should have, rather than too much."

Leslie snorted. "Ha...maybe they just didn't have a handy Spice-Grower or two around to replant. At any rate, I guess all we can do is let the story die off on its own, however long it takes to do that. I have a feeling Father and whoever helped him probably brought all the metal up to the realms, so they could examine it at whatever length they want to."

Christian nodded and agreed, "That seems to me like the likeliest explanation of what happened as well. I suppose in that case, we'll just wait to hear from your father regarding the metal, and in the meantime focus our attention on more local affairs. Oh, incidentally, do we still have any of yesterday's stew left over?" After the power had gone out, Leslie had been forced to get creative with the contents of the freezer, and had cooked up a Dutch oven full of stew using regular stew meat, Italian sausage, every package of frozen vegetables they had, and no fewer than three jars of pasta sauce. It had made an enormous quantity, so that there was plenty left over even after the children had eaten their fill.

"Do you really have to ask?" Leslie kidded, grinning. "I could go for some of that myself. I have to say, I've never been so grateful for a gas stove in my life."

"That was precisely the reason I insisted on gas rather than electric when we had this house built," said Christian. "Odd, though, how it took almost twelve years for it to prove its worth in that regard. I could get used to such rare power outages."

The kids came in as Leslie was reheating the stew; Karina elected to have some along with her parents, but the other children decided they wanted sandwiches, so Christian set out the makings and helped Anastasia assemble hers. Following the meal, Leslie got calls from the principals of the island schools, advising in all cases that the buildings were intact and school would be in session as normal the next day. The triplets were disappointed at this news, but eventually it slipped their minds and they went back out to play. Karina, on her way out, paused for a moment and asked, "Mom, Daddy, are we going to Lilla Jordsö again this summer?"

"We plan to, yes," said Christian. "Why do you ask?"

"Can we still have our birthday party here? I mean, 'cause I'd like to tell Jordan that I want to invite her to the party," Karina explained.

Leslie smiled from the sink, and Christian nodded, winking his approval. "Of course you can—I know all three of you like to have a party with your island friends in attendance. We won't leave till the day after your birthday, so you can let Jordan know whenever you like." He smiled as well, watching Karina light up.

"That's great—thanks, Daddy. See you later." Karina ducked out the door after her siblings, and Christian grinned, turning to his wife.

"It's so good to see a story of bullying have a happy ending," he remarked. "It's quite a shame so few of them do. Perhaps you can do a little something on behalf of that anti-bullying group you were with for a while when we lived in the castle."

"I could send a message to Kelsey," Leslie agreed. "I think Karina and Jordan's story would be worth sharing." She finished loading the dishwasher and closed its door, resuming her seat at the table. "That should help make the rest of this school year a lot more tolerable. So let's see..." Shuffling through some papers, she and Christian began to hash out some topics for the upcoming island-council meeting for Tuesday, both relieved to be able to set aside clan concerns for at least a while.

‡ ‡ ‡

She had just been hired on in the mailroom of the titanic New York City investment company; and after only a week on the job, she had come to find it an unparalleled bore, for she neither processed nor delivered mail of any kind. Instead, she was tasked with searching the internet, day in and day out, for mention of any one of a list of names that was tacked to a small corkboard in her cramped little cubicle. She had no real idea who the owners of most of those names were, though two or three of them were famous enough that she had blinked at sight of their names. The famous ones, of course, were almost always to be found in some online story or another; the rest, however, were nobodies as far as she could tell, and she had no idea why the Big Boss—as the owner and CEO of the corporation was known to all his employees—wanted information on them. Usually, she'd spend about two hours each morning surfing the net for all the names on the list, and keeping track of the latest updates on the famous ones. She was supposed to copy and paste the links to anything she found on the other names and send them to her supervisor via e-mail, but so far nothing had come up; after exhausting every search engine and news service she could think of, she usually ended up goofing off on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, then playing her favorite online computer games after lunch. It was by far the easiest (and laziest) money she had ever made; but she kept wondering what the ultimate purpose of her assigned tasks was supposed to be. She'd asked, but nobody seemed to know.

She had just ascertained, on this Monday morning, that one of the famous people on her list was celebrating a birthday today, when her supervisor poked her head around one of the walls of her cubicle. "Just get in?"

"About ten minutes ago," she replied, nodding.

"Good. I've got an extra assignment for you." The supervisor handed her a sticky note with a message scrawled on it. "This might help pad out your day—I know you're going nuts back here. Could make things a little more interesting."

"Thanks," she said, and waited till the supervisor was gone before reading the message. It instructed her to search for "strange stories"—tales so unusual and odd as to sound like April Fool's jokes. No matter how outlandish or how impossible, she was to make note of the most peculiar things she dug up in her normal online searching, and send the links in an e-mail at the end of each day, to be forwarded on to the Big Boss.

She squinted at the note in perplexity. "This is weird as hell," she muttered to herself, now more than half convinced she was working for a crackpot. She supposed he might be just a collector of esoterica; after all, he was filthy rich and could probably afford to indulge any whim he pleased, no matter how out there it might be. She shrugged after a moment. Far be it from her, as a mere lowly member of the masses, to question the Big Boss—and anyway, looking for stories like that might make things a little less boring around here. Let's see what's out there, she decided, and began to go through the usual news sites.

For quite a while she didn't find anything; then one of the other famous names on her list popped up, for the first time in the case of this one. She read the story, found herself envying its subject, and duly noted it for forwarding to the Big Boss. But there wasn't a whole lot else, and eventually she found herself dealing with her boredom in the same old way, keeping one news site minimized on her screen to check periodically for updates.

Unbeknownst to her, some forty stories over her head, her employer had already discovered the story in question, and was agitated enough to find himself distracted from his usual business. He kept trying, making phone call after phone call, conducting meeting after meeting, Skype session after Skype session, going through countless reports and files and letters. But always, in the back of his mind, that little news snippet lurked, and in the end he could no longer ignore it. When his secretary brought in a tray containing his lunch, he stopped her on her way out of the lush, sumptuous office. "Hang on a sec, Sally."

The woman, in her mid-fifties or so, turned quizzically. "Anything else I can do for you, sir?"

"Yes...do me a favor." He wrote down a name on a scratch pad and ripped the sheet off the top, offering it to her. "This man's going on an international trip—the first one he's taken in years. I want you to get me every last scrap of his travel information. Flight times, what airline he's flying, the airport he's leaving from, any plane changes, and how long he plans to stay at his destination. Do that for me and you can have the rest of the afternoon off."

Sally accepted the slip of paper, eyed the name, then nodded. "I'll do my best, sir. It may take a while, though."

"That's okay, as long as you get it all," he said. Once more she nodded and left the office, and for a moment he forgot his lunch, sitting back in his padded desk chair, trying to figure out exactly what reason lay behind the mysterious trip. And to that place? It was utterly out of character for him. The man was a dedicated workaholic and as far as he knew, had never taken a vacation. There had to be more to this than met the eye. Whatever it was, he reminded himself as he took the first bite of his meal, he'd find out before too long. This game was for higher stakes than most people could ever imagine—and he intended to win, no matter what he had to do to make it happen.

To be continued...

Book 5 will start appearing sometime in the next few months (not sure exactly when, but definitely by June). Many thanks as ever to my loyal reviewers! Your feedback is a great help in keeping the muse going. As I post this I'm still developing some details in the next storyline, and hope to have them ready soon. Keep watching this space!