The Tetragon Nine

Chapter Nine
Supermarket Tabloid Mania

 

The pictures were perfect.

 

Later that afternoon, Dorothy swung around in the leather chair in her office at Catalonia Industries, the cat-like smile on her face again. She placed on her desk the prints of a raven-haired woman having an interlude with a tall, dark, and handsome young man. At first glance—and with the proper angles—it looked like the woman was Gretchen Thomas, and she was having an overly affectionate lunch break with her so-called best friend, Orlando Bloom.

 

Some would call it romantic. Dorothy called it damning.

 

The fact that it was actually Claudia-Michelle, and not Gretchen, was nonessential at this point. The media would eat it up. They would cast Gretchen out as the slut she really was. It was too bad this Orlando character would be caught up in the crossfire. But according to Johanna, he deserved the hit as much as the insolent Gretchen did. So she smothered her sympathy and dialed the number to a well-known local tabloid. Because soon, she would be the one taking Gretchen Thomas’s place.

 

*              *              *

 

That weekend, Samantha, Gretchen, Chris, and Orlando went grocery shopping. Megami and Melanie accompanied them, for no other reason that just to hang out. It was late morning, and the supermarket was moderately busy.

 

“I still say you should have kicked her ass,” Megami was saying. “She slapped you.”

 

“Forget kicking her ass,” Melanie said. “I would have called up my boyfriend that’s more powerful than Zeus and Bill Gates combined and had her taken care of.”

 

Gretchen chewed on a red Twizzler licorice stick, her black hair styled in pigtails that emerged from the lime-green scarf she wore on her head. The bruise was slowly fading away. “I think we should drop it.”

 

“I agree,” Chris said as he picked up a bag of pork rinds. “She’s just another one of those types who thinks she can intimidate people to get what she wants. She’ll slink away once she figures out we won’t take her shit.” He slapped Orlando on his shoulder. “Right, mate?”

 

As he was deep in thought, it took a minute for it register in Orlando’s head that Chris had spoken to him.

 

“Earth to Bloom,” Melanie sang out. “On planet Pluto again, aren’t we?”

 

“No, I think he shot back into orbit after almost running into that display of Cocoa Puffs,” Megami pointed out. “He’s hovering now. Not quite here.”

 

“Thanks for the observation,” Orlando muttered, and grabbed for a bag of pretzels idly.

 

Even though he’d put it in the buggy for him and Chris, Samantha grabbed them and put them back. He glanced at her, and had her frowning.

 

“He’s fucking starry-eyed!” Samantha exclaimed. “That’s wrong with him.”

 

“And that would explain why he looks so moony.” Megami walked up and peered into his face. “So what’s got you so blithe, young man?”

 

“I’d say the word, but we’re in public,” Samantha said.

 

“Sex will do, Sam,” Chris informed her, then turned to his roommate. “So who are we having sex with this week?”

 

Finding the scrutiny uncomfortable, Orlando rolled his eyes. “I am not sleeping with anyone, mates. Honestly.”

 

They just stared at him. Even Gretchen seemed a bit dubious.

 

“You’ll never believe me.” Orlando sighed. “I’m marked as a player for life.”

 

“You had better not be.” This came from Melanie, who was examining prices for bottled water. “I do not want to see one my best friends live the transient life of a player. I’d have to hurt him.”

 

They rolled by with their shopping carts for some time in silence. Orlando started thinking again, but this time, he was toying with the thought of telling his friends about Claudia-Michelle. And emphasizing the fact that he was not sleeping with her. Yet.

 

Of course, that little three-letter word would be kept to himself. He didn’t want to make himself out to be a horny toad did he?

 

Orlando was so deep in his thoughts that he didn’t notice that people were looking at him curiously. They peered at him to make sure that was him, then they switched their gazes to the despondent Gretchen, and whispered. The others had moved on to a conversation about ice cream.

 

The group didn’t really notice until they were in line, and a lady with a crying baby and a loaf of bread eyed the supermarket tabs—then looked at Orlando.

 

Orlando noted this, and blinked at her. “Um, excuse me, miss. Is there something wrong?”

 

The woman’s eyes swept up and down him disapprovingly. “I’m sorry. I don’t talk to cheaters.”

 

Orlando’s mouth dropped open. The others watched, too shocked to speak. The baby wailed away, crying for a stick of Bubbilicious. “Bloody hell! How in the world—?”

 

The woman glared at him and threw her loaf on the conveyor belt, then shoved one of the tabloids at his chest. “As if you didn’t know.” With a huff, she turned back to her Wonder bread.

 

Melanie snatched the tabloid before Orlando could get a good look at it. Megami and Samantha crowded in beside her, and Chris had to crane his neck to see it. For a long humming moment, there was nothing but silence. Not even breathing.

 

“Fucking holy shit,” Chris muttered, borrowing a phrase from Danie.

 

The biggest headline on the cover advertised a juicy story about Quatre Winner’s girlfriend—and the affair she was having with her best friend Orlando Bloom. –

 

Megami’s hand came up to her mouth. Melanie’s and Samantha’s mouths were partially open in astonishment.

 

“I guess this explains why Orlando is so happy,” Chris said, an absent tone to his voice.

 

Hearing his name, Orlando snatched the magazine from Melanie’s hands. Gretchen, who, too, had been stuck in her own world, pushed though her wall of friends to get a gander of the article. Fearing the worst, Samantha grabbed her arm.

 

“What’s the big deal?” Gretchen demanded. She shook herself from Samantha’s grasp. “And what’s your problem? Why won’t someone let me see what’s got you guys so shocked?”

 

No one spoke. Grim-faced and barely able to hide his fury, Orlando flipped the mag so she could see the cover.

 

Her green eyes searched the page frantically, but they weren’t searching long. Her face drooped when it did sink in, her eyes filled with tears.

 

A woman who the headline tagged as Gretchen Thomas was lifting her face to kiss a smiling Orlando Bloom.

 

“Or he could be dating Gretchen under our noses,” Megami remarked through the thick shock.

 

A sob escaped from Gretchen, and she pushed past the indignant mother, who yelled after her angrily. Even though it didn’t help his current reputation any, Orlando did the same to run after her.

 

“Hey,” said a male patron from behind them. “Can we get moving please? You guys are holding up the line and I’m missing Barb Wire on basic cable.”

 

After curling her fingers into claws, Melanie whirled around and prepared to attack him. Chris held her back from committing several acts of assault while Samantha sighed and started to load the conveyor.

 

*              *              *

 

After Gretchen had fled the scene at the supermarket, she went straight to the Winner mansion. By the time Orlando had come out to comfort her, Gretchen was gone. She had taken her car and raced to Quatre’s mansion, crying the whole way. She knew that Samantha would get a ride from Chris or Melanie and didn’t worry about it. She had bigger things to worry about.

 

She pulled up to the gates of his mansion and stopped at the intercom. She wiped her face and pushed a button to announce her presence. The cameras had already picked up her face, but this was routine.

 

Rashid, the head of security at the Winner mansion, spoke to her through the speakers. “Miss Gretchen, I think it’s best if you stay away right now.”

 

“I don’t give a damn what those fucking dimwits are telling Quatre,” Gretchen snapped. “I need to tell him the truth. I need to tell him that woman is not me. He needs to hear it from me!”

 

“Go home, Miss Gretchen,” Rashid ordered. “He doesn’t want to see you right now.”

 

He doesn’t want to see you right now. It stung, but Gretchen pushed it aside. She had to keep trying.

 

“I don’t care if he doesn’t want to see me,” Gretchen said angrily. “If you don’t let me in, I’m running down these gates. And I don’t care if I die trying.”

 

A long moment passed. The locks clicked free, and the gate creaked open.

 

Gretchen parked her car in front of the door, and she barely remembered to put the car in park as she rushed out of her car and up the porch to the door. She didn’t even get to knock when the door opened.

 

Quatre stood there, beside the door, blond hair mussed, tie loosened. His expression was bland, but there was barely veiled anger in his blue-green eyes. Gretchen’s ire all but poured out of her when she was faced with Quatre’s quiet anger. A lump formed in her throat. The tears threatened to come back again.

 

“Quatre,” Gretchen began.

 

Quatre raised a hand to silence her. Her mouth closed, her lips trembled. “Just come in. You and I need to talk.”

 

*              *              *

 

At the apartment she shared with her twin brother, Crys idly flipped channels and wished for a more exciting life.

 

Heero had confined her to the apartment after their visit to Soul Love Live a week ago. He cited the reason as a distrust of the crowd she had hung out with. Crys personally didn’t see anything wrong with Gretchen and her friends, but Heero saw them as a bad influence. But then again, he probably thought the Easter Bunny was a bad influence.

 

Sighing, Crys paused on a news channel and rose to make herself lunch. Her brother was at work at the moment, so she was making a meal for one.

 

As she pulled out the bread to make herself a sandwich, a familiar name caught her ears.

 

“I feel sorry for Quatre Winner,” said a bantering news anchor. “According to an article in Crave magazine, his lady love, unsigned rocker Gretchen Thomas, is having a heated affair with her so-called best friend.”

 

The knife in Crys’s hand clattered to the countertop.

 

“Oh come on,” said her streaky-haired counterpart. “You know those tabloids are all speculation and lies.”

 

“It seems not.” Pictures appeared on the screen, of Gretchen’s friend Orlando with…

 

A dark-haired woman that looked remarkably like Gretchen herself.

 

As the first anchor gave a summary of the article and her commentary, Crys forced her mouth closed and picked up the butter knife with trembling fingers. She slathered salad dressing on a piece of bread, mind whirling. What did this mean?

 

A dim little voice inside of her hoped that they’d broken up over it, but she pushed it down and pulled out the smoked ham. She didn’t need to be thinking about sweet, handsome Quatre Winner. She had her own boyfriend to think about.

 

*              *              *

 

A call to see Jessica Kathleen Thomas was like getting a royal summons from Queen Elizabeth. It was special—and downright scary.

 

Orlando felt like he should have donned a suit or something instead of the jeans he wore as he walked the top floor of the Merrell Enterprises building to the office of the CEO. He received speculatory glances from the people milling around in various states of labor. It seemed that tabloid had more readers than he cared to think.

 

On Sunday, the day before, Orlando went to see Claudia-Michelle and they talked about the situation. Claudia-Michelle was prepared to set the record straight publicly, but Orlando contended that they’d better tell their friends first. After they’d left the supermarket, Melanie was so pissed off at the chauvinist pig behind them that they’d spent most of their time calming her down than talking about who the woman Orlando was with really was. Gretchen fled to her mother’s house to stay for a couple of days. She only called to inform her friends she was still alive and that she was staying at her mother’s house. There was no word if she and Quatre had patched things up or not.

 

That morning, Orlando had been sitting at his cubicle when he was informed by Brenda Johannsen, Jessica’s administrative assistant, that Jessica wanted to see him. Wondering how long he was going to be alive, Orlando acknowledged the request and came promptly to see her. Jessica hated tardiness.

 

Jessica’s secretary Brenda brightened instantly upon laying eyes on him. She put a call on-hold and smiled at him. He suddenly felt very itchy.

 

“I’ll tell Ms. Thomas you’re here to see her,” Brenda told him. She pushed a button on the complicated-looking phone, then picked up the receiver. “Ms. Thomas, Mr. Bloom is here.” She paused a moment. “Okay, I’ll send him right in.” She replaced the receiver and turned to Orlando. “Just go right through there, and Ms. Thomas will see you.”

 

“Thank you,” Orlando said, and walked in the direction that Brenda gestured.

 

He stepped up to a door that said, J. Kathleen Thomas, Chief Executive Officer. From his grunt work down in Research and Development, he knew that Jessica, since she had given up her doctor’s scrubs, wielded as much power as her partner, Josh Merrell, who was the chief financial officer, vice president, and her good friend.

 

Obediently, Orlando knocked. A moment later he was told to come in.

 

Orlando twisted the knob and swung the door open.

 

He was greeted with the sight of Jessica Thomas sitting at her desk with the skyline of Gracia at her back. Her lush auburn hair was straightened and pulled back from her face, giving her a more severe look. She wore a skirt in dark teal and a collared shirt with the top button undone. The matching jacket was draped neatly on the seat behind her. When she rose, Orlando was sad to find that she towered over him. Well, nearly.

 

“Have a seat,” Jessica said without preamble, and gestured to the pair of leather seats in front of her desk. He did so. Jessica came around the desk and leaned on the front edge. She opened her mouth to speak, but Orlando’s anxiety (and fear for his life) overpowered his vow of silence.

 

“Look, I know you’re probably ready to kill me,” Orlando began hurriedly, “but you’ve got to believe me. I didn’t have anything to do with this. Well, actually I did. What I mean is, I didn’t have anything to do with this tabloid thing. I didn’t know I was being snapped that day in the park, and I definitely didn’t think they’d think it was Gretchen I was with—”

 

Jessica shook her head. “Stop. I believe you, Orlando.” A little stunned (and relieved), Orlando let his mouth close. Jessica looked away from him a moment, her aqua eyes drifted down to a copy of the mag on her desk. “I’ve known my little sisters for a nearly a quarter of a century, and I know the woman you’re…ahem…talking with in those pictures is Claudia-Michelle.”

 

Orlando exhaled. If Jessica thought he was trying to pull a fast one on her, she’d emasculate him in as many creative ways as humanly possible. And she knew how to do that. He had no doubt, as she ran him down a flight of stairs with a baseball bat after a twenty-hour shift at Gracia Memorial once.

 

Jessica’s authoritative voice brought him back to the present. “I brought you here because I wanted to reassure you that I plan to get to the bottom of this little fiasco. And whoever you pissed off is about to be shitting their pants.” She grinned at him, a feral grin that nearly had him doing that very thing. “Because they’re going to have to deal with Jessica Thomas now.”

 

Exhaling again, Orlando rose and hugged Jessica. Jessica’s eyes widened at the sudden show of affection, then her face relaxed, and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Obviously, the situation had caused enough stress for the people involved. She was glad to take care of it. No one messed with her family and came away unscathed.

 

When Orlando pulled away, Jessica pulled her face into more stern lines. She stared into his hopeful brown eyes, careful to keep her own serious. “Now listen to me, Bloom,” Jessica began. “When I find out who was behind this, I’m going to come down on them hard.”

 

“Good,” Orlando said. “They deserve it, after what they’ve done to Gretchen. I mean, I’m included in all this, but it’s hurt her more. She won’t even talk to us now, and we haven’t seen her since Saturday.”

 

A cloud passed over Jessica’s eyes. Her little sister didn’t deserve this. “I know. But listen to what I’m saying. I want her to be spared of this once it blows over. I know it won’t be easy. But you have to promise me, when I tell you who’s behind this, you won’t tell Gretchen.”

 

Orlando frowned. “Why not?”

 

“Because she’ll do something stupid. I love her to death, but I don’t want her to end up in jail for kicking someone’s ass.” Jessica’s eyes hardened. “I’ll do it myself.”

 

Clearing his throat of the dryness that surfaced because of the dangerous look in Jessica’s eyes, Orlando took Jessica’s hands and squeezed them. “I’ll be rooting for you, Jess.” He cautiously kissed her on the cheek. Jessica’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Thank you.”

 

Still astonished as Orlando sauntered out of her office, she murmured, “Don’t mention it.”

 

As Orlando was boarding the elevator going downward, Jessica rounded her desk and sat down behind it. She picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

 

When a female voice answered, Jessica sat up straighter. “Mama, it’s Jessica.” She paused, listening to her mother ask what the hell was going on and what the hell was up with this tabloid thing? “It’s a setup. No, listen to me. Look at those pictures again. It’s Claud in those photos, not Gretchen. I’ve got a feeling that it’s not just a simple mistake, either. So how long do you think it’ll take you to get a name for me?”

 

 

 

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