With apologies to James Thurber, of course...
“HOUSTON, we have a problem.” Commander Milly Walters’ voice now had a cut-glass edge. Her blue astronaut’s overalls did nothing to conceal her truly spectacular figure, but her crew knew her as one tough cookie. And knew they were in deep trouble. The shuttle vibrated in the thickening atmosphere of re-entry.
“Tell them we’ve lost half our tiles!” yelled Lieutenant Briggs, her Number Two, his face white. She smiled across at him, her slim fingers a blur at the controls.
“You can tell them … soon as I get this thing on the ground.”
The chipped windscreen cleared for an instant, revealing Earth.
“My God! We’re coming in upside down!” shouted a crew member, yanking his belt harness tighter.
“Quiet,” Briggs snapped. “If anyone can handle this thing it’s our Commander. Hell wouldn’t scare The Maestro.” Commander Walter’s voice was now its usual calm drawl: “Houston, we have very limited control here. I’m going to have to land her inverted.”
There was a pause, crackling with tension. “Copy that, Commander. Land the shuttle, ah, inverted. No problem. We’re not breathing down here, but bring her in. Spraying foam on the runway now—”
“Watch it!” said her husband. “You’re getting foam all over the counter-top.”
“Oops, sorry,” said Milly Walters. She focussed on the man, glowering at her over his horn-rims, over his newspaper.
“There’s a problem with this new machine,’ she said, “the steam comes out before the coffee does.”
“You were spraying foam all over the place. You know I can’t stand it when it’s all coffee, if I wanted it black I’d ask for it black.”
Milly Walters deftly filled his cup with her right hand while mopping the counter with her left, the roar of the space shuttle fading into the blue outer space of her mind. Mr Walters accepted his coffee, glanced up and spoke.
“You’re getting scatty again. Does your famous Doctor Whatsit really know what she’s doing? Shouldn’t she have you on medication? –And I keep seeing you fiddling with those weird potions of yours. If you spent as much time on me as you do on those, those weeds…It can’t be good for you, this Mad Scientist business.”
Mrs Walters sat in the car waiting for her husband.
“You couldn’t even open the garage door?” he asked, incredulous, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry dear, I thought you always liked to use the remote.” He gave her a look.
“You’re getting weirder and weirder. Strap yourself in, we’re way late.” He pulled on his driving gloves and backed up the Audi with arrogant ease—he fancied himself at the wheel, and would never let her drive—and gunned it down the road. He talked as he drove, complaining non-stop about other drivers, and had a maddening habit of never turning on his lights till it was dark, or his wipers till the windscreen was opaque with rain. A few drops were falling now….
Turn Two at Mosport is known as the toughest turn in all motor sport, deadly in the wet, but Milly Walters, the first woman ever hired for a Le Mans Series drive—and not just for her looks—flung the LMP 675 Audi down into it, closing on her team-mate, the spiteful Sicilian Alassi, whose opinion that women should not be allowed in race cars was well known.
“MILLY!” her earpiece crackled. “MILLY! HOLD POSITION!” It was her team manager, the plump little bureaucrat von Hundt. “DO NOT TRY TO PASS ALASSI! IT’S LAST LAP, VE VANT A VUN-TWO FINISH!”
I’ll give them a one-two finish, said Milly Walters, the twin turbo engine shrieking with 900 horsepower, closing on her team-mate in his identical white Audi prototype. In the dry, he was faster, true, but on a wet track she had the delicate touch that had earned her the nickname “The Rainmistress.”
The crowd was on its feet, screaming her name. WAL-TERS, WAL-TERS!” Plunging down into Moss Corner, inches behind, they touched, then nose to tail up the long straight, 200, 300 kph, airborne over the first hump, the second, down towards the sweeping right-hander, her final chance.
Would she settle for second? Alassi moved right to keep her from outbraking him up the inside, but she drew level ON THE OTHER SIDE. The crowd gasped. Was she really going to Ironman it round the outside, to snatch the lead on the following left-hander?
“Nobody’s ever pulled that move off and lived!” screamed the announcer.
“To catch up is one thing …” she snarled, hands moving like lightning, “to pass is another.”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘Pass that Mother’?” said a strange voice beside her. “Are you crazy? What if someone’s coming? I don’t need advice from you, thanks all the same–and your hands are twitching.”
Still shaking his head—he did that a lot these days—her husband parked outside the pharmacy and told her to wait while he ran in for some razor blades. But he was quite a while. What’s taking him so long?
He had collapsed on the pharmacy floor. “He’s choking on something,” the young pharmacist told her as she rushed in. “Tried to give him a Heimlich, he just fights me off.” Her husband lay writhing on the polished wood floor, clutching at his throat, making feeble “Geep!” sounds.
“The man’s going blue!” someone shouted, and he was, and now he had stopped struggling and was still. Millie Walters, the internationally-known thoracic surgeon, knelt swiftly.
‘Scalpel!” The young, brutally handsome pharmacist slapped a straight razor onto her palm.
With two deft strokes she cut her husband’s throat.
Expertly stanching the blood with Jumbo Sanitary Pads, she held out her left hand.
Extracting the cartridge and inserting the pen barrel into her husband’s windpipe, she heard the whistling intake of air. His blue colour began to fade.
“He’s breathing again, you’ve done it!” said the dark-eyed pharmacist, and suddenly she was in his arms, sobbing ….
“What’s got into you? You getting all weepy again? Aren’t you still a bit young for the menopause thing?” It was Mr Walters beside her, chewing on a huge gum ball as they drove off. “I’m really strapped for time,” he said, his mouth full, “So if you could pick up my order at the place I’d be eternally grateful.”
He dropped her at her workplace, Waterbury Insurance, gave her a peck on the cheek and drove away.
As she rode up in the elevator she knew that their kiss had been caught on a telephoto lens from across the street. Evidence. They were onto her. She was the key player in the five billion dollar sting operation, and if she failed, they would all fail. Her heart thudded and now the others in the elevator were sneaking looks at her. The man in the overcoat to her right was security, clearly security.
She thought fast. She would go one floor past her floor, duck out, feint left, sprint right and dash down the stairs so fast that she would be at her desk, logged in, before he could come panting down behind her. She would be an invisible cog in the maze of cubicles so fast, so fast….
“’Scuse me, lady, you planning to get off, or just stand there all day?” Milly Walters walked rapidly to her desk and began the morning’s work. Today was precisely the same as every other day, all the clients identical, differing only in their names and addresses, which she had to check and double-check. A central program counted her key-strokes per minute and reported any slackness to her supervisor, Mr. Remington.
She hit a series of wrong keys and a warning sign popped up on her screen….
“Oh my God! It’s a virus attack!”
Mr. Remington was instantly behind her, staring at her screen as a monstrous digital serpent began eating into her files. His breath was on her neck. “It’s got past the firewall and it’s into our hard drive! We’re losing millions, millions of dollars worth of data!”
“Not if I can stop it,” said Milly Walters calmly, typing at supersonic speed.
“It’s the North Koreans again,” she muttered. “They never learn.” Her keyboard rattled like a machine gun, and the gobbling virus began to fade, to recede, the vital numbers to return….
“It’s coming back!” someone shouted, and indeed the thing had mutated and returned full force, with two heads. Milly Walters leaned in, removed her right hand and began shifting and clicking her mouse in wild diagonal moves across the pad.
A crowd gathered. Her supervisor leaned in. “How can you type so fast?”
“With any known keyboard,” she told him through clenched teeth, “I can type two thousand words a minute WITH MY LEFT HAND!” But he only closed in, she could feel his breath, and as her screen returned to normal, she delivered, a lightning solar plexus strike that sent him reeling backwards into the wall….
“—Watch it, Milly!” came a voice from her left. “You spilled my coffee! Who are you fighting in there?”
“Here, have the rest of mine,” said the greatest touch-typist of the century. “Go on! It’s not like I’ve got a virus.”
In her forty-five-minute lunch break Milly Walters walked rapidly past the shops, struggling to remember what it was her husband had told her to pick up. It was something hard, not food or clothes, something for his den or his garage or his sound system. The place had ordered it in from somewhere, and he absolutely had to have it today or else. She passed a model aeroplane shop that featured radio-controlled helicopters, but, no it wasn’t a toy, it was something serious….
“I’m afraid it’s serious,” the sergeant told her. “The scorpion bite’s turned septic. No way Raleigh can fly the rescue mission tonight. And there’s no-one within a hundred miles rated to fly the big chopper, the Weinrach 780.”
“I’ll fly it,” said Captain Walters softly. “I’ve flown all the choppers except the big one. How hard can it be?”
“But Captain, with respect, Ma’am, that thing’s a monster in the wind, and there’s a sandstorm coming up. We’ll have to call and abort.”
He snatched up the phone but her elegant hand stopped him. “We abort,” she said very, very softly, “over my dead body. Spot of Scotch?” She poured a drink for her sergeant and one for herself.
Outside, over the gathering howl of the desert storm, they could hear the menacing scream of the enemy’s anti-aircraft rockets. An explosion shook the walls of their makeshift hangar, then another one, closer.
“Mustn’t overdo it,” she said, then she poured herself another drink and tossed it off, ignoring the sergeant’s raised eyebrows. The din intensified.
“If not me, who?” She shrugged on her flight suit, hiding her truly spectacular figure. “If not now, when?” And she was gone, striding towards the Weinrach—
“Wine rack! Wine rack!” she said. “He wants his bloody teak-wood wine rack for his bloody Beaujolais Nouveau! Whine, whine, whine…” A passing youth guffawed to his mate. “That woman said ‘Wine.’ Must need a drink, eh?”
There was no time to eat.
Captain Milly Walters entered the elevator, the doors slid shut, and her helicopter climbed into the desert darkness, where she would meet her death or worse. Proudly smiling a private smile, clutching the priceless decoder box she had rescued single-handed, mission accomplished, Milly “Maestro” Walters rose to meet her fate….
On the fourth floor the doors opened to frame the most handsome man she had ever seen, a Pierce Brosnan with muscles. His camelhair overcoat, worn draped over his broad shoulders like a cape, revealed a perfect Italian suit. His blue silk tie was the exact colour of his eyes. He smiled at her.
Stepping into the elevator, he turned to her and raised one eyebrow.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t find you funny at all. You’re gorgeous. You’ve got to be gay, right?”
His smile broadened. “I get that a lot. You’re rather nice-looking yourself. And…” He sniffed elegantly and his blue eyes closed for a moment, “…You smell delicious. I’m in the perfume business but I don’t know that brand at all. So clear…an exotic orchid with just a hint of something else, almost…chocolate?”
“Oh, thanks. I like it myself. I call it ‘Death By Chocolate.’ You’ve got a good nose.” She gazed at his nose.
“You call it . . . ? You’re joking, right? Tell me you didn’t blend it yourself; I’ll have to kill myself.”
“This is my floor. I’ll be late.”
“No! Please! Be late! We’ve got to talk about that fragrance. My company—top floor—we’ve been hunting for a new line for Spring, something clear, fresh—with just a forbidden hint of…edibility.”
They stepped out into deep pale-blue pile, the very colour of his eyes, and he took her heavy parcel. His corner office was huge, with a vista view. He introduced himself: John. Of course, John. His elegant assistant leaned in close as she served Millie fresh coffee in a bone china cup.
“God!” she said. “What’s that lovely perfume you’re wearing? Where can I get some of that? It makes my nose prickle…” She blushed. “…And not just my nose.”
“I mix it up at home,” said Milly, seating herself and crossing her legs. “I found a way to distil the essence of the orchids I’ve got growing all over the kitchen. That one’s from an oncidium with sprays of cute little reddish-brown-and-white flowers, called ‘Sharry Baby Sweet Fragrance.’ It’s a mild aphrodisiac, sorry about that. My husband’s convinced I’m mad, he calls them weeds. This parcel’s his wine-rack,” she added, irrelevantly. “He claims he’s got this great nose for wine but I watched him once at a blind tasting—hopeless.”
They talked on into the afternoon. John kept discreetly sniffing her and smiling, and she found she didn’t mind. She called her hopeless husband to say not to pick her up: she would make her own way home.
“Did you get it?”
“Oh yes, I got it.”
John’s dark green Jaguar convertible was brought round to the front.
“I’ll drive you. Where do you live?”
“It’s a bit tricky to find,” said Milly Walters. “Perhaps I should drive.”
John blinked but opened the driver’s door for her, with a tiny bow.
And that is how Milly Walters arrived home to meet her scowling, dinner-less husband at the door. She presented him with his wine rack, and a card announcing her new position as Senior Research Chemist, Fragrante Delicto, (Coming Soon, our New Spring Fragrance, ‘Death by Chocolate’). And wishing him well for his future life.
Divorce papers to arrive shortly.
© 2009 Simon Leigh. All rights reserved.