Penni continued to stare at the computer screen. She’d taken two breaks and gotten herself a soda from the vending machine in the lounge, hoping they would clear her head, but she still couldn’t crack this blasted code.
A glance at the clock in the corner showed it was nearly nine p.m., and she groaned. “Give it up for tonight, girl. Go home, let the old brain cells rest, and tackle it again tomorrow.”
She closed out the program and shut down the computer. She didn’t have to look around the office or peek over cubical walls to know she was the only occupant left on this floor. It was okay with her. She didn’t mind working past normal quitting time. She didn’t get paid overtime. She was straight salaried. She did so because it was in her nature. She enjoyed her job, and she enjoyed working.
After all, with no one to go home to, what would be the point? she thought to herself as she got into the elevator and took it down to the main lobby.
Stan, the night guard on duty, glanced up from his paperback book when the elevator dinged and the doors opened. He tossed her a smile when he recognized her. “Another late night, eh, Penni?”
“Unfortunately, a fruitless one,” she admitted with a sigh. “I’m hoping a good night’s sleep will re-energize my brain cells so I can tackle that damn algorithm with a fresh perspective in the morning.”
“Good idea. Need an escort to your car?”
“I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
The man gave her a wave. “Have a good rest of the night! Sleep tight!”
She walked out to the parking lot, knowing the man would be watching her until she safely got into her vehicle. Sliding under the wheel, she locked her door before starting the engine. What followed was like a little ritual for her: lock, start, seatbelt, kiss.
She smiled at the small wheat amulet hanging from her rearview mirror. Pressing a kiss to her forefinger, she touched the amulet then put the car into gear.
It was a twenty-five-minute drive to her apartment if the traffic wasn’t heavy. This time of night, it wasn’t. Combined with the fact that she was beginning to feel exhaustion creeping up on her, she took the chance and pressed down on the accelerator, hoping to trim a few minutes off that time.
A yawn caught her by surprise. Giving her head a shake, she completely missed seeing the vehicle parked on the side of the road with its lights off until after she whizzed past it. Less than a second later, red and blue lights went off on its hood, and the police car pulled onto the road behind her.
Penni uttered a choice word and slowed. Pulling her car into the parking lot of a Save U Rite, she stopped and shut off the engine. From her side mirror, she watched as the patrol car eased up behind her, lights still flashing. A single figure got out and slowly approached.
“Good evening. I’m Officer Oratami with the Weyr Police Department. May I please have your driver’s license and proof of insurance?”
Wordlessly, she handed him the two items she’d placed in her lap, knowing he’d be asking for them. In the glare from the nearby light pole, she could see the man’s face. He was young, but he had that air about him that told her he wasn’t a rookie.
“Ms. Stollings, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Yes, sir. I was speeding.”
He nodded. “You were doing sixty-five in a fifty. Is there an emergency or some valid reason why you were going that fast?” He sounded professional. Calm. Maybe a little bit bored. It made her wonder how long he’d been on his shift.
Penni shook her head. “No, sir. I’m on my way home. It’s been a very long day, and I’m tired. I have no excuse, really.”
“How long a day has it been?” he inquired, curious.
She checked the clock on the dash display. “I reported to work around seven-thirty this morning, so it’s been over fourteen hours.”
“A fourteen-hour shift, eh? Where do you work?”
He appeared surprised. “I didn’t know people who worked there worked such long hours.”
She managed a weak smile. “Actually, I enjoy my job. I often work extra hours, even though I’m on straight salary.”
“You’re a go-getter?” he gently teased. “Trying to climb that corporate ladder?”
“Nope,” she honestly admitted. “I just like my job.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how does your family take to all these late nights?”
Taking a deep breath, she let it out with a loud sigh. “I’m on my own. No family. Well, except for Pickles.”
“Ah.” He held up the driver’s license and insurance card. “Give me a minute or two to check to make sure you’re legit. I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for her to respond, he strode back to his vehicle. She was able to watch him consult with the computer in his car. As he promised, he was soon back.
“You have a remarkably clean record, Ms. Stollings. Not even a speeding or parking ticket.” He slowly shook his head. “Either you’re very lucky you haven’t been caught before now, or this is truly your first infraction.”
He held out her credentials to give back to her. She reached up to accept them when she saw the name tag above the breast pocket: V ORATAMI.
Plucking the cards from his fingers, she was about to place them in the side pocket of her purse when she caught him staring inside her car. More specifically, at or out the front windshield. She turned her head to see if she could detect what had caught his attention, but there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary happening.
“Miss?” the officer asked and pointed. “What is that?”
That’s when she realized he was talking about her amulet. “Oh, this?” Lifting it from where it hung, she held it out to him. He took it almost reverently and laid it in his palm. “It’s my amulet.”
“My mother had one exactly like it,” he commented, running a thumb over the surface. “Is this one made of wheat, too?”
“Yes. I got mine from my mother. I guess if I ever get married and have children, I’ll pass it along to one of them.”
“If you don’t mind me asking you this, and you don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to, but was anyone in your family a Virgon?”
She wasn’t aware of her gasp of surprise until she saw his eyes widen. “Y-yes. I’m a Virgon. So was my mother. How do you know about—”
“My mother is a Virgon.” He tapped his chest and smiled. “That makes two of us.” He chuckled. “Now it makes sense why you work all those extra hours and such. I’m guilty of the same thing. I’ll work a double shift anytime we’re shorthanded. I guess you could say we Virgons are gluttons for punishment.”
The comment made her smile. “Mom used to say the same thing. She said it was a personality trait we’re born with.”
He gave a one-shoulder shrug. “That, and a few other traits.” The officer returned the amulet to her, adding, “I have one almost exactly like it in my squad car. I never go on shift without it.”
She couldn’t help herself but to ask, “When is your shift over, Officer Oratami?”
“Shift change is at ten o’clock. I get off then, but I still have to write a few reports before I can call it a day.” He stared at her, and she got the impression he wanted to ask her why she wanted to know. She chose to answer his unspoken question.
“I usually order a pizza after I get home when I work late. How do you like yours?”
Oratami didn’t seem surprised by her invitation. A few seconds of silence passed before he replied. “Do you get it on a whole wheat crust?”
“I’ll eat it with any kind of topping as long as it’s not anchovies or pineapple.”
She turned her head, looking away from him when she smiled. “I’ll leave the entry light on.”
He straightened. “If I let you go with just a warning, I won’t have to fill out a report, and it won’t go on your spotless record.”
“Sooo, when do you think you’ll be by to help me eat it?”
She nodded. “Sounds good to me. I’ll be waiting.” Finally looking back up at him, she added, “Thank you, Officer Oratami.”
“Vince. My first name’s Vince.”
“Nice to meet you, Vince. Until later?”
He stepped back to let her depart. From her rearview mirror she noticed he remained standing there in the parking lot, watching her as she drove away.
Oddly enough, she discovered she was no longer tired or sleepy. She was excited, a bit apprehensive, but happy to have found one of her own kind.
“Or would that be he’d found one of his own kind?” she wondered aloud.
It didn’t matter. Their meeting, although accidental, had to have been preordained.After all, it was just another one of their traits.