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Short story: Alpha

 

Asia stabbed her yogurt with the white plastic spoon she kept in the top drawer of her desk. This was why she’d said 2 o’clock, of course—so that maybe, just maybe, he’d make it before five. But it still pissed her off.

“Hey.” He tapped her door, even though it was standing open.

“You’re late.”

He sat down and shrugged out of his denim jacket. “I had unexpected company.”

She pressed the cap back down on the yogurt container.

“It was a detective.”

“Paternity suit?”

“Very funny, Asia.” The trouble was, she got all the campus gossip. And then used it to plague him. He scowled to hide his blush, and wondered briefly if she knew, already, that he’d had another grad student at his place the night before.

Best to go back on the offensive. “As a matter of fact, he was asking about the monkeys. Says there’s been some buzz online, lately, about Coil Research.”

He watched her face but it was unreadable. No surprise there—Asia was nothing if not crafty.

“Now, Dean,” she said in the same sweet voice she’d used for the paternity suit crack, “you know I’m not into that sort of thing any more.”

He wasn’t buying it. “Asia.”

She smiled.

“Right. So do you know anybody who is?”

She shrugged and pointed at the padded envelope he was holding. “That for me?”

He handed it over.

“So let’s see . . . due October 15. That’s what, almost two weeks ago?”

Dean had a rule against beating himself up, but damn, it was not a good thing to risk losing the grant money for his monkeys.

Asia had pulled out the sheaf of papers. She flipped through them. “Well, I’ll make it happen—again. But you owe me big time.”

He smiled. Time for full-charm mode. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“Uh huh.” She looked up at him intently. “Only this time, I’m serious.”

He’d been ready to ask about his next check, but her look stopped him. Christ, she was a peculiar one. What did she mean by that . . . he opened his mouth to ask but before he could get the words out she zigzagged again, picking something up off her desk, thrusting it at him and saying, slyly, “Sylvia sends her love.”

He looked down. Color print of a photo. Sylvia with Ed, standing in front of a sprawling lodge, skis akimbo. He stared at Ed’s face. Christ how he hated that guy’s teeth. But there it was: a perfect man package, like the perfect ski package. Irresistible. You certainly couldn’t blame Sylvia.

“Okay, let’s go.”

“Huh?”

She stood up. “To your place. There’s supposed to be an on-site.”

“Aw, c’mon, Asia, you know I take care of them.”

“Rules are rules, Dean.”

So much for recovering from his hangover in peace. “Can’t we do it some other time?”

“Nope. You’re already waaaaay late with the paperwork, remember?”

He sighed.

She locked her office door. “By the way, Sylvia asked again if you and I were dating. Yet.”

She had looked directly at him when she said the word “dating” and the force of it knocked him off balance all over again. Why those two women got off on that so much, he had no idea. “Quit it, Asia. I’m not in the mood for Sylvia’s sense of humor, okay?”

“Mmmmm. You’re planning to fix me dinner, right?”

He rolled his eyes and they walked down the hall toward the parking lot.  

 

* * * * *

 

Asia watched the tiny golden Tamarins run along the ropes suspended from the barn’s loft.

“So this is the north family group?”

“Yes.” Dean gestured toward the partition that split the barn down the middle. “That’s all new. I’ve painted the screens to allow limited visual contact between the two groups. Like they’d have in the rain forest. I can configure the barn to hold a third group if needed. Maybe a fourth.”

“They watch each other?”

“All the time.”

Dean glanced over and noticed Asia’s get-up again. Black fishnet stockings, black pleated skirt, huge gold hoop earrings, and her hair—cut really close in the back and on the sides, but long locks, bleached blond, draping from the top. It was a look you wouldn’t think a 40-something woman could pull off, but she did.

Gypsy moderne.

She walked back over to him and grinned like she was up to something. “Well, Dean, I guess I’d have to say it passes.”

What the hell had he been doing, checking out Asia that way?

“Dean? You look like you have a turd in your mouth.”

“Uh. Nothing. Hey, Asia, did you know, did—”

She looked at him suspiciously, but he couldn’t stop himself. “—that, um, Leontopithecus rosalia, the females, they don’t, it’s not always the alpha males they, you know, pick to ma—”

“Oh, Christ, Dean,” Asia snapped. “Save your bullshit for the grad students, okay?”

And then, as she walked to her car, over her shoulder: “You know the problem with you? You believe your theories.”

What do you know? he thought. How many degrees do you have?

He knew the answer. Asia had been raising three siblings during her twenties. While Sylvia and Dean were collecting their degrees.

He watched the Civic turn out of the driveway and whir musically away.

Well, what the hell else is a short, average-looking divorcé with more published papers than money supposed to do to impress a woman?

He waited.

But there was no answer to that one.

 

* * * * *

 

That Sunday, a cold front blew in.

Asia shivered in the bitter wind and glanced again over her shoulder. She was parked on a maintenance road flanking the river. Directly across the river was a county park, and although the flowing water was sprinkled with the autumn’s first toss of leaves, the undergrowth along the river was still thick and green.

No way to know if anyone was watching.

She dropped the wire cutters into the trunk and picked up the burlap sack from the ground. She was still wearing her Kevlar-lined gloves, but the monkeys had quit their screeching and, thankfully, were no longer trying to bite at her, either. Maybe lab monkeys were used to being handled that way.

Move, Asia.

She peeled off her gloves and turned the key in the ignition.

Then she flipped open her cell phone.

“Dean? It’s me.”

She pressed her foot down hard against the accelerator and heard the snicker of gravel fly from her tires.

Seventy-five miles away, Dean heard it too.

The quiet snicker of destiny shape-shifting.

“Time to go alpha, Dean, love.”

“Asia. What did you do—”

“I’m bringing some guests over. Refugees.”

He didn’t answer.

He realized what she meant.

“You’ve got plenty of room for them. You said so yourself.”

He groaned.

“I’m on my way.” She smiled into the phone. “And, Dean—”

“Asia,” he said. “Asia.”

“Just so you know: it’s gonna be me who, you know—”

She smiled again, gently, as he finished her sentence.

“You’ll be fixing dinner. I know, Asia. Asia.”