For her part, she had been ecstatic about her new job and substantial paycheck. Even after learning how many hours she would be working, she did not let it dampen her enthusiasm. The third day of her employment, she got invited along to lunch with Alden and Mara. She settled into that reality a little slower, taking some time to divorce Mara the writer from Mara the pregnant wife of her boss. To Alden's surprise, Mara asked Karen if she would like to help her on occasion. Mara even offered a second paycheck.
If Karen was overworked, she showed no signs of it. She was perky and energetic. Alden envied her for that. Even with the nanites supercharging his metabolism, he sometimes felt older than his birth certificate claimed he was. The stress of living a double life was wearing on him. Being the leader of the Protectors was often a job that eclipsed everything else in his life.
It had been a little over a week when he noticed how much of a positive addition Karen was. Sitting at his desk, relaxing his eyes, it occurred to him that he now had the time to actually rest. He stuck his head out of the door to see Karen moving at warp speed. She was entering his hand scribbled notes into the computer while dealing with someone on the phone. Everything was well in hand.
With a sigh, he decided he had time to take a trip out to the recently neglected Fortress for some Defender time. He grabbed his 'special occasion' briefcase and logged off his computer.
"Karen, I'll be out for the afternoon. Unless something comes up, take off early yourself."
"You're leaving me alone?" She asked. "Buh... but what if I screw something up?"
"You're not going to screw something up. If you do, call me and we'll deal with it. No sweat."
She pointed to the stack of notes. "What about your cost-analysis report?"
"Eh, put it on my desk when you get it done. I'll see you tomorrow." Alden left the office. He found his car and headed for the warehouse. He knew the office was in good hands.
Karen, initially panic-stricken, talked herself through some relaxation exercise she had stolen from a science fiction show. Calm, she finished her project. After two readings, she decided there were no errors. Normally, she would have printed a copy for Alden to proof. This time, she printed three copies, one for his desk and two in case anything happened to the first. Going into his office, she placed the report with care on the surface of his desk. At that moment, Martin from R&D burst into the office.
"Where's Alden?" He demanded.
"Mr. Bryce has stepped out for the afternoon. Can I help you?"
"Damn it," Martin muttered as he approached the desk. "I need the proposal for the new Stability Chair. Where did he leave it?"
Shocked at the familiarity he was showing for the boss's things, Karen snatched the report up into her hands. Alden had told her to treat it as confidential. She would be damned if she let this guy just blunder all over it.
"He sent the proposals to your office. Check with Jamie or Wilma. Now, shoo."
Martin scoffed, but he turned to go. "Wilma's got it, I'll bet."
Karen watched him leave in a huff. She sighed and replaced the report on Alden's desk. The thought occurred that this sort of thing might happen again. Unwilling to leave the report where it could be seen, she decided to put it into Alden's briefcase. She had seen him walk out with it, yet there it sat by his desk. Confused, she decided that he had to have two cases.
She hefted the case to his desk. It was locked, but she dialed in Mara's birthday and it popped open on the first try. She liked working for predictable...
"Oh my god," she said, looking at the costume in the briefcase. She knew the colors by heart. The mask. The wrist computer. The cape. She knew Defender's costume when she saw it. She immediately pictured Alden in the outfit. It was him. HE was Defender!
She closed the briefcase and put it back where she found it. What was she going to do? She dropped the report on the desk and wandered back out to her seat. She was in a daze as Alden walked back into the office.
"I grabbed the wrong case," he said. She merely motioned for him to go get it. Alden gave her an inquisitive look, but she missed it. He made the switch and came back out. "Are you okay? Karen?"
"Huh? Oh, Def... Mr. Bryce... Alden... Yeah, I'm... fine."
"You don't look fine."
She came back to her senses. "Uh, I've not had lunch yet. I'm a little out of it because my blood sugar's low."
"You'd better go take care of that. Don't worry. The office will still be here when you get back. Go have lunch."
"Sure. Sure. I'll go eat."
Alden smiled and patted her on the shoulder. She smiled weakly and watched him leave. She had discovered his secret and been inches from being caught. She wondered what would have happened had he walked in on her with the case open. She had much to think about. Over a blue-plate special from the diner next door, she contemplated what to do.
Of course, she had to keep his secret. She wondered if Mara even knew. How wonderfully wicked it would have been for Alden to show up as Defender at SuperCon and escort his unknowing wife. She played out a dozen scenarios in her mind as she picked at the chicken breast on the plate before her.
Over the afternoon, she played out more and more possible outcomes. She had quickly decided that Alden would not hurt her. Neither he nor Defender was that sort of person. Regardless, this was the best job she had ever had even before becoming privy to one of Port Alexander's most sought after secrets. She giggled loudly to herself as she realized she was one of only a few who knew.
The phone rang. She was jarred from her fantasies. "Hope-Bryce. Karen Townsend speaking. How may I help you?"
"Karen, Alden. Look, I'm going to be out of the office for a few days. I need you to keep an eye on things. You know, ride herd on the engineers and admin guys."
"Wha? Me? I can't..."
"Sure you can. You'll do fine. They are all used to dealing with my assistant. So, don't let them run over you. Just try to think what Defender would do in the situation and you'll be fine. Call me if you need me."
He hung up. She snorted. Apparently, Defender would go off and leave an untalented assistant in charge. She suddenly realized that she had been dressed as Defender when she had met the real Defender. She was ashamed of herself and dropped her head to her desk.
"He's mocking me now," she spoke under her breath. She fought off a brief attack of nerves, realizing that she still had a job to do. And now her hero was counting on her. "I can do this. I can do this. He's Defender and he knew he was Defender when he hired me. He trusts me. He TRUSTS me. I can't let him down."
Martin chose that moment to storm back into the office. "Wilma didn't have the specs. I'm going to go look for them."
"You will do no such thing," Karen said, standing. "You will march your happy little ass back to your office and look for them there. And you will not come stomping in here again today. Do you understand?"
The engineer stopped dead in his tracks. He had a fleeting thought of talking back, but something in the girl's eyes made him change his mind. "Yes, ma'am. I understand. Sorry. I'm sorry."
"Good. Go. Now!" He spun on his heels and quickstepped out the door. Karen smiled. What would Defender do, indeed?