Dr. Drummond was sure that when the moment arrived, Amanda would perform as beautifully as she had in practice sessions, making all the right responses, saying the right things, and in the end filling her mentor with pride. Still, so much was riding on this first meeting with the countess that Drummond could not help but feel a tightness in her throat, even though she had successfully been through the same exercise several times before. But with other girls, she reminded herself.Amanda stood in the center of the vast room, almost motionless, her eyes downcast, her head lowered with the proper show of humility. She was dressed in white, with a red rose pinned to her hair. She was a little older than seven, a difficult age to remain still for such a long period of time, yet she was handling it beautifully. Drummond was sure that they had both been observed for some time from behind the two-way mirrors that lined the walls. The carrot and the stick, the doctor thought. Even at this early age, they respond. It had been drilled into Amanda that if she played this out perfectly, she would receive some special reward when it was over. Prohibitively expensive real ice cream, perhaps, made the old-fashioned way, with actual milk instead of soy. When the Harrier party entered from the front, in an explosion of sound and movement, the toadies and hangers-on and advisors sweeping around the countess like whirling particles circling an atom’s nucleus, Drummond stiffened slightly, although she tried not to let it show. Amanda had her back to the party, and although she could surely hear their entrance, she remained as motionless as before. Elizabeth De Rochmont DiBellagio Harrier (each name represented a marriage of considerable prestige and aggrandizement), bore down on Amanda with her retinue which tonight consisted mostly of hand-picked psychologists, geneticists, a few educators, and even a phrenologist, a discarded science that Countess Harrier in one or her many eccentricities still adhered to. She was a woman of an indeterminate age. It was hard to tell if she were in her thirties or forties, although actually Drummond knew she was far, far older than that. The texture of her skin, and its lack of blemishes, the svelteness of her body, all conspired to hide even a rough reckoning of her years. The beauty of youth had waned with age, but many men, and not a few women, still considered her beautiful. Only her eyes were a true revelation of how old she was: They were world-weary, cunning and slightly cruel. Like a shark nosing at its prey, Countess Harrier circled around Amanda, who was careful still to keep her eyes on the ground. “Good bone structure,” she said at last, “although she’s a little on the scrawny side. Proper diet and exercise should correct that.” Her eyes, imperious, questioning, impatient, met Drummond’s. “You’ve checked and double-checked everything, I suppose, doctor? Genetic blueprinting, intelligence testing, family history.” “Test upon test, and everything checks out perfectly. I have no doubt that in time she will make the perfect receptacle for you. If you still have any reservations, now is the time to voice them, countess. You are surrounded by men and women who are expert in their fields.” “Why do these girls always have to come from the lower classes?” Harrier asked petulantly. “Just once, couldn’t you find me a middle-class surrogate?” “It is very difficult,” Dr. Drummond said. “The poor are motivated to give up their children. They see it as a chance for a better life for them, even if it’s of short duration, and the ultimate sacrifice is considerable. The middle class, what little remains of it, think they can hold on to their children and provide a better life, although often they are disappointed. Sometimes, though, I think they would be better off coming to people like you.” Without warning Countess Harrier reached down and took Amanda’s face in her pale, blue-veined hand and tilted her chin up. “Look at me, girl,” she said. Slowly, unwillingly, the little girl raised her eyes. “Do you know who I am?” “You’re Countess Harrier,” Amanda answered in a small voice. “One of the richest, most powerful women on earth.” The countess smiled, pleased. “And do you know how lucky a little girl you are, to have been chosen, among all the people in this miserable, overcrowded world, to be my receptacle in the future? That probably doesn’t mean very much to you now, but as you grow older, under the tutelage of Dr. Drummond here, you will come to realize its significance, and even grow to appreciate it.” She stood up and looked around at her entourage. “Does anyone have any questions or comments?” she asked. “Her features are not completely regular,” a blonde-haired woman who had perfect facial symmetry herself, said. “That chin will only grow more pronounced with age.” “Plastic surgery,” Countess Harrier answered. “When she’s old enough.” “She tests in the 87 percentile on the Kimodo-Glasser,” a gray-haired man with glasses spoke up. “That is acceptable, but not brilliant.” “Intensive tutoring,” Harrier said. “Nocturnal oral repetition. She doesn’t have to be a genius. I never was.” Then she turned back to Amanda. “You will not see me again for some time,” she said, her voice softening. “I will leave you in the entirely capable hands of Dr. Drummond, who will act as both a mother and father to you. She will train you, educate you, teach you the ways of the world and make you the person I need you to be. I know I will be pleased with the end results.” She seemed suddenly to lose interest in the interview, turned and left out of the room, her hangers-on following like autumn leaves behind a gust of wind, and was gone as suddenly as she had come. “Do you think she liked me, Dr. Drummond?” Amanda asked. Kay Drummond tried to smile. “I believe that Countess Harrier was truly pleased with you, dear. That’s enough for right now. That’s all you can ask for.” “She looks young, but she acts old,” Amanda said, taking her mentor’s hand. “She is very old. But that won’t concern you for some time. You will see her again, of course, but it may be years from now. The countess is a very busy woman.” Hopefully, Drummond thought, leading Amanda toward the small door in the back through which they had entered the room, unless she finds a way to extend my life again, there will be a point where it won’t concern me either. Amanda had celebrated her twenty-first birthday before she laid eyes in person on Countess Harrier again. Of course, she had studied her in holovisions which Dr. Drummond had provided, so she could learn Harrier’s mannerisms, facial expressions and body language, and these she had mastered through countless practice sessions. In the meantime, she had matured into a lovely young woman, but that in itself would not have impressed Countess Harrier. Beauty, she said dismissively, could be purchased through the talents of a good plastic surgeon. The countess expected much more; after all, her investment was significantly greater than a few strokes of a knife. Tonight was the G-10 Ball. They had flown into Beijing 48 hours ago and spent all today preparing for it. Cosmetic solutions had removed the dark circles from jet leg from under Amanda’s eyes. Hours had been spent on her hair. Her Chinese attendants were impressed with her poise, the fluidity of her movements, but this came second nature to her. Over the years she had had some great teachers, thanks to Dr. Drummond. Countess Harrier, from whatever remote citadels of power she was occupying at the time, had followed her progress from a distance and approved. Amanda had been groomed to act effortlessly with people of power, and could converse intelligently about world affairs, or the global economy, as well as about the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Old New York. At this point hardly anyone could intimidate her, which was remarkable, given her young age. Yet Amanda herself was treated with a certain diffidence that was the direct result of her present and future relationship with the countess. It was normal and understandable for powerful people to react to her like that, even though the Amanda with whom they tried to ingratiate themselves now was not the Amanda who would be able to reciprocate later. “You look lovely,” Dr. Drummond said, watching the hairdresser make final touches on the girl’s golden strands. Drummond caught a glimpse of herself in the full length mirror in the dressing room and quickly looked away. And I look positively ancient, she thought; then she had to remind herself that fourteen years had passed since she had last seen Countess Harrier in person. There were many things available to mere mortals to postpone the aging process, and Kay Drummond, under the auspices of the countess, had been allowed to take full advantage of all of them. Still, her hair was showing gray, and she had crow’s nests around her eyes. Her age even was more noticeable when contrasted with the radiance of Amanda’s youth. At one time she had held out hope that Harrier would find a receptacle for her, allowing their relationship to continue into the distant future, but the countess, after bringing it up once in a rather off-handed fashion, had said nothing more about it. Drummond had given up on it ever happening. The hairdresser finished her work and stepped away. “I wish my real parents could see me now,” Amanda said softly, examining herself in the mirror. “They probably wouldn’t recognize you, dear. Not anymore.” “I can’t help but wonder where they are and what they are doing.” “One of the provisions of the contract that they signed was that they would have no further contact with you, Amanda, nor you with them. You know that. As to why they gave you up, they wanted you to have an opportunity that few others can even dream of.” “It’s a death sentence,” the girl said, a faint flush of anger coming into her cheeks. “By the time you go in for the transfer, you will have a lived a life that would be the envy of most people in the world. Think of the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the things you’ve done! You will have done more in your 21 years than most people experience in a life time.” “You always take her side, Kay.” That’s what I’m paid to do, Drummond thought. Instead she said: “Let’s go. I want to make sure that you get there before Countess Harrier arrives.” Kay need not have worried; Countess Harrier, who liked to be fashionably late, did not show up until half way through the ball. By that time, Amanda had almost forgotten the woman was coming, she was enjoying herself so thoroughly. She was the center of attention everywhere she went. Men lined up to ask her to dance. Kay Drummond watched her success from the sidelines with mixed feelings. She was pleased because here were the concrete results of years of labor on her part, and they were good. The girl had learned quickly and had taken to heart everything she has tried to teach her. Pleased, but saddened because it would soon be over for both of them. When the countess arrived, Amanda was deep in conversation in with a young man who could not tear his eyes away from her. They had settled in two chairs in the corner and were lost in an exchange that seemed to exclude everyone else in the room. Seeing the Harrier party arrive from the other side of the ballroom, Kay reluctantly felt she had to do her duty and forewarn Amanda that the countess had made her entrance. It would not do for Amanda to give her benefactress anything but the full attention and respect that she demanded. Drumond planted herself in front of the couple and said simply: “She’s here.” The boy glanced up at her with a bewildered smile. It was obvious that he had no idea what all this was about. Amanda sighed, then tried to smile. “This is Alfred, Kay,” she said. “Alfred, this is Dr. Drummond.” Then she tilted her head ever so slightly and asked: “What if I stayed right here? What if I didn’t get up to greet her?” “I would be the one to suffer,” Kay said quietly. “You know that.” “I have to go now,” Amanda said to the young man. “I have to meet my benefactress. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Countess Harrier.” His eyes widened slightly. “You’re the one she’s chosen?” “It won’t happen for awhile. I have a few more weeks left. And I would like to see you again.” “I’ll arrange it, Alfred,” Kay said, “but right now you have to go.” He had barely left when Countess Harrier swept toward them and Amanda rose to meet her. The woman was smiling broadly; it was the first time the girl had ever seen her smile. “You have made quite a favorable impression,” she said, taking Amanda’s hand in hers, which were smooth and cool and encrusted with jewelry. “I have heard nothing but good things about you, and not only tonight.” “All the credit should go to Dr. Drummond The countess glanced briefly at Kay but did not smile. “She is very professional at what she does. The final touches for the body I occupy now, Amanda, were done by the doctor here. Among her other skills, she is a marvelous plastic surgeon.” “Don’t give me too much credit,” Kay said stiffly. “Amanda has been wonderful to work with. She will be a perfect receptacle.” “Sometimes, the candidates become a little ambivalent when the actual date of transfer approaches. A perfectly normal reaction, but I’m glad we’re seeing none of that here.” “Countess Harrier, if it would be all right with you, I’d like to return to the dance,” Amanda said diffidently. “Since it may be my last.” “Of course,” the countess said. “You enjoy yourself, dear. It should be your night.” Yes, enjoy yourself while you can, Kay thought, because you don’t have many days left now.
x x x
Not all stories have a happy ending; sometimes the bad guys win. The trick is to make the story interesting even when that happens. Mr. Jarvis turns that trick nicely in this November yarn. Your comments are welcome at the BBS. - GM