Footsteps – one set distinctly high-heeled – echoed in the marble entryway as the group entered the hallway that led to Graham’s office. He stood up and looked around. It was a sad place – once opulent, now shabby and functional. Despite its massive size, his office contained only four folding chairs, a line of beige file cabinets, Graham’s large, metal desk, and his cracked leather chair – all sitting on a worn oriental rug. He had no decorations, no pictures, no knick-knacks. One could see blank spaces on the walls where once a Hopper or an O’Keeffe hung. A large safe sat against the far wall, half-open and empty.
With his desk cleaned off, the office looked abandoned – like no one had worked there for years. Graham instantly regretted cleaning up. Too late now, he concluded, as he heard the footfalls about to enter the room.
“Well, finally we meet in person, Colonel Graham Snow,” Peggy Lee announced as she clicked her way past the escort soldier and across the large empty space. She had just enough of a Southern accent to make every sentence seem flirtatious.
She wore a blue, men’s button-down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to her mid-forearm. The top two buttons were undone, exposing her bra strap and a freckled collarbone as she leaned across Graham’s desk to shake his hand. Her shirt was tucked neatly into a slim pair of formal women’s trousers. She looked Graham straight in the eye.
Graham usually identified such self-assurance with a well-to-do childhood. People who have been rich all their lives walk into rooms like Peggy Lee just had. They act like they own the room, including all the fixtures, the furniture, and even the people. Graham felt like he was imposing when he entered a room – like he should state his business and then exit, so that the occupants could get back to whatever important or amusing activity he had interrupted. Peggy Lee did not think that she was interrupting. She knew she was the main event.
But she also had a no-nonsense, down to earth quality. She had rolled her sleeves up – not in neat, creased folds, but actually rolled and wrinkled like working people do in mid-shift. Her hair was pulled back and tied with a thin red ribbon. She wore no makeup or jewelry. There was nothing outwardly pretentious about her, despite her relative fame. Who knows, Graham thought to himself, she may have worked hard to get where she is. He figured she was in her early thirties, really, in her prime.
As they shook hands, Peggy Lee touched the inside of Graham’s wrist with her index finger, almost like she was trying to take his pulse. Was that intentional? he wondered. How very odd – aggressive, yet intimate. How very wonderful indeed.
He hoped that she had not felt his heart racing.
“Welcome. On behalf of the United States military, we are pleased to have you here. I am at your service,” Graham said, officiously. That sounded good, he thought to himself. He had practiced multiple times in his head and a couple of times in the mirror. Good start, Chief.
“Thank you.” Peggy Lee smiled and stepped back from Graham’s desk. “May I present the best hologramographer in the solar system, Ian Patten, Jr. – that is of course if you don’t count that gorgeous hunk of an astronaut on Mars who seems to have a knack for capturing the most amazing solar showers. That said, my man here can make a dung beetle shine like a diamond.”
“Okay, Peggy Lee, that’s enough,” Ian said dryly, extending a thick paw towards Graham. “Hello, Colonel Snow.”
“Please, please, call me, Graham. We’re going to be at close quarters during the next few days, so we might as well dispose of the formalities.”
“Close quarters, eh? Am I included in that equation?” Peggy Lee interjected.
Graham blushed. He’d been thinking of the decontamination rooms and communal showers. “Ma’am, you will, of course, be provided with your own facilities,” he responded stiffly.
Peggy smiled. “Of course. I was just teasing you. Ice breaker, you know.”
“Yes, right – I knew that,” Graham mumbled. Recovering slightly, he asked, “May I offer either of you a drink?”
He certainly needed one.
“To be honest, Graham, I’m starving,” Peggy Lee responded. “And I believe that goes for Ian here as well. Do you think that we could skip the drinks and head straight to dinner? Something smelled delicious down on the lower levels.”
“Yes, of course. Good idea,” said Graham. “Transport from Fresno always takes longer than one expects. You must be hungry. Let’s head down to the mess hall, get you two some food and perhaps a few beers. Please, follow me.”