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Loving Faith and Hope

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Faith and Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By

 

 

 

Angelin Sydney

 

 

 

Also by the Same Author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COPYRIGHT

 

Copyright © 2015 Angelin Sydney

(ANGELINA SY TAN)

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding other than that in which it is published.

Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and the publisher’s rights, and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massachusetts Books

Edition 2

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, personalities, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to Marionette O. Martinez

 

She edited this short story.

 

As my former English teacher, she imparted to me a love for the English language.

 

And, she taught me a life lesson:

Don’t write in anger.

 

I’m better for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to you, whoever you maybe.

 

May you find love and

May you give love whatever the cost.

 

 

 

Chapters

1: Big Brother

2: The Coffee Drinking Customer

3: Scar Face

4: Face to Face with Scar Face

5: Letting Go

6: Giosippi ‘Joe’ Di Nozzi

7: A Surprising Turn of Events

8: Covert Operation

9: The Money Trail

10: Little Sister

11: Connecting the Dots

12: In the Firing Range and in the Line of Fire

13: Peanut Butter and Jam Morning

14: Unmitigated Suffering

15: More Hands on Deck

16: Kid Meets Dinosaur

17: Eraser

18: Bingo!

19: Feeding Disinformation

20: Cataclysm

21: Walking in the Valley of Death

22: Then, there was Darkness

23: Goodbye

24: Days of Reckoning

25: The Proposal

26: Flight of the Butterfly

27: Among the Clouds

28: Walking through the Mist

29: Metamorphosis

30: All’s Well that Ends Well

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

Big Brother

 

 

HIS PHONE RANG. Luke looked at the caller I.D. and knew it’s time to gear up for war. Hope McKenzie was calling no doubt to complain that he had ruined her love life AGAIN! He answered after the fourth ring, ‘Good morning,’ he greeted, trying to sound cheerful.

‘There’s nothing good this morning, thanks to you,’ by the sound of it, the young woman was extremely annoyed with him.

Luke tried to placate her by feigning ignorance, ‘What did I do?’

‘Don’t act dumb with me!’

He heard banging. He cringed as his surrogate sister tossed things around as a means of releasing pent up frustration. She said accusingly, ‘You scared him off. I really like him, Luke. I really, really like him. YOUYOU… scared him off!’

He gave out a soft laugh, not concealing his delight, ‘What made you think I did anything?’

‘Because I know how you operate, OK!’ Hope was not backing down; the outbursts came thick and fast. ‘You were the last person he talked to at the party last night. After talking to you, he left in a hurry, and now he won’t return any of my calls.’

‘I understand you’re upset with me, but later you’ll thank me.’ He pressed a button on the espresso machine; it went to work to make him a cappuccino, the aromatic scent made his stomach growl. ‘Hope, please, believe me, I didn’t do anything to frighten him off. All I did was ask him five questions; that’s all. Five questions.’

Hope also was making her cup of coffee, the instant variety. She played with the bottle of instant coffee, at least, it’s Moccona. She asked, ‘What did you ask him?’

Luke smiled to himself as he inhaled the coffee before sipping it, ‘I asked him if he knew anyone called Andrew Wilkins. And, I asked him if he was a known associate of a certain John Cavanaugh.’

‘So, what did he say?’

‘Well, he denied it.’

‘I’m still not getting it. He denied knowing those people, what’s wrong with that?’

‘I asked him if he was aware that it’s a sin to lie.’ Hope groaned and stomped her foot, ‘Luke! Grrrr! OK, what else? You said five questions.’

‘I asked him if he had ever stayed on Bauchet St.’

Hope plonked herself down on a stool in her kitchen; exhausted from pulling in two straight days of overtime. ‘What did he say?’ she asked as she waited for her instant black coffee to cool down a little.

‘Well, he said, he had never set foot on Bauchet St.’

‘Is that the wrong answer? I mean would it be wrong for him not to know where that is?’

Luke sensed Hope had calmed down a bit, not as angry with him. ‘No, it’s not wrong not to know, but he lied because he was an inmate there for eight months.’

‘An inmate?’ Hope asked confused.

‘He was an inmate. OK, Hope, the men’s central jail in Los Angeles is on 441 Bauchet St. He was a jailbird, sentenced for the attempted rape of a young woman. Andrew Wilkins and John Cavanaugh were his cellmates.’

Hope couldn’t believe her ears. She sat in silence as she tried to absorb the severity of the news. It dawned on her that she wasn’t a good judge of character.

Victor Carabella had swept her off her feet. Two months ago, he came into the bistro where she’d been a Manager for three years. He was well dressed, always acted in a gentlemanly way towards her and the other staff, and paid her a lot of attention. Well, truthfully, she met him online first, and then they met in person when he came in for coffee at the bistro.

She knew Luke’s information would be accurate; after all, he was an ex-L.A. cop before changing careers and becoming a hot firefighter. She wanted to know more, ‘How do you know this?’

Luke tried to lighten her sombre mood and failed miserably when he said, ‘A fortune-teller told me.’

Hope had had enough, ‘That’s it! I’m furious with you now. I hate you. I really, really hate you. I’ll never find a boyfriend! I’ll never, ever be able to find a husband. And it’s all because of you, Mr. Meddling Self-appointed Big Brother!’ She abruptly ended the call.

Luke was still looking at his phone when Faith stepped out of the shower, ‘Who was that?’

‘Who?’ he looked at his girlfriend rather vaguely.

In reply, she playfully tugged a few strands of his hair, ‘Who was that on the phone?’

‘Hope,’ he said and gave her an abridged version of the conversation.

Faith listened while she prepared breakfast. She was on first shift at the local hospital and had to be out of the house soonish if she wanted to make it on time. ‘I’m sorry she’s upset with you. But that’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last,’ she said sympathetically.

‘I know you’re only trying to protect her, but you won’t be there all the time. You need to trust her to make her own value judgment.’ She looked at the time and decided to eat on the run. She grabbed her toast, leaned to give her boyfriend a kiss, ‘Don’t worry; she’ll come around. She never hates you for more than ten minutes.’

As soon as she finished the sentence, Luke’s phone rang, caller I.D. said, H McKenzie. Faith winked, ‘What did I tell you? Bye now. See you soon.’

Hope still sounded upset but was conciliatory, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean what I said. I still hate you. But I don’t really, really hate you.’

Luke laughed. She did, too, but her laughter sounded forced. She’s understandably upset. And, hurt.

They made an arrangement to meet at the bistro just before the start of his shift.

When Luke Walker promised her Dad, the late Sergeant Lewis McKenzie that he would look after his little girl, he meant it.

Four years ago, the young woman in his charge lost both her mother and her father within a year of each other. Now, still only in her early twenties, she had an overwhelming need for her parents. I’m all she’s got now. 

Indeed, Miss McKenzie’s one significant person in her life was Luke. But in him, she’s got a mother and father, a big brother, a friend and a protector. If anyone wanted to hurt her, they would have to pass through him first.

They ended the call, and he looked forward to having lunch at the bistro. But someone wasn’t keen on having him there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

The Coffee Drinking Customer

 

 

‘HE’S HERE,’ whispered a blonde teenage waitress to another equally barely out-of-teen brunette. Luke was a regular at Juliana’s Bistro managed by Hope.

The girls giggled and played the kids’ favourite conflict resolution game: Paper, Scissors, and Rock. The winner got to serve Luke. Miss Brunette won.

She squealed from behind a wall that concealed them from the main dining area. The delighted sound surprised some of the customers; one was heard to say, ‘Who won lotto?’ Miss Brunette peeped out from behind the wall slightly embarrassed and motioned to the customers with her hands indicating she was sorry for the commotion.

She composed herself, came out with her pen and pad, approached the sexy firefighter with an undeniable girlish crush, ‘Hi Luke. I’m your waitress today.’

Luke smiled; he knew what the girls got up to every time he dropped by. He was once a teenager – a decade ago. As best he could, he refrained from playing with the girls’ vulnerabilities and always tried his best to be nonchalant about the crush thing. Without sounding dismissive, he said, ‘It’s the usual, Gina. Is Hope in?’

Gina hid her face behind the writing pad as she grimaced with jealousy. ‘Yeah, she’s in. She’s just finishing the ordering. Umm… would you like to try our new menu?’ she handed the newly printed list to Luke, anything to keep the conversation going.

Mr. June of L.A. Fire Station 71’s Annual Calendar fundraiser couldn’t refuse, so even though it was too early for lunch, he ordered a salad sandwich to-go. ‘I’ll have it at work,’ he said. But when Gina didn’t appear to be heading back to the kitchen, he engaged her in a conversation, ‘How’s school going?’

‘Boring mostly. How’s work for you?’

He twisted around in his seat, extended his long legs out, and crossed them at the ankle before answering. ‘Pretty good… it’s summer now, so we’re gearing up for wild brush fires again.’ Reclined like that on the chair, looking relaxed, Mr. June appeared even more delicious, and Gina was oh, so, not wanting to leave in any hurry.

Hope, finally, came to his rescue. ‘Hey, you’re here,’ she called out from the cash register.

Gina got the hint and turned quickly towards the kitchen with a backward glance, ‘Coming right up,’ she said.

Hope joined him at the table with her cup of coffee, ‘My first decent one for the day.’

Not long after, Gina brought Luke’s over. ‘Thanks, Gina,” said Luke, ‘and say “Hello” to Lisa for me.’

Gina skipped all the way to the kitchen to tell Miss Blonde, ‘Luke said hello.’ Lisa peeped out of the back room and gave the regular coffee drinking customer a wave. He acknowledged it with a smile. Courtesy done, Luke turned his attention back to Hope, ‘How’s business?’ he inquired.

‘Slow, this economy has forced a lot of people to change their drinking habit. And then there’s too much competition going on. There’s a bistro on every street corner. And there’s going to be a change of management soon; I hope I don’t lose my job as a result.’

Luke looked around; there used to be at least ten or more customers just before lunch time, but now there’s just three, including himself. ‘Didn’t you just have a new owner?’

Hope deftly swiped her hair from her face and tied it with a band in a pigtail, ‘Yeah, this new one will be the fourth in two years. I’ve been working overtime to cover staff shortage; the owner can’t afford the salary for another waitress.’

He felt for his little sister. In his opinion, she’s stuck in a low paying job mainly because she didn’t finish her degree. He wondered if now was the time to press her again to continue with college. He tested the water, ‘Do you like what you’re doing?’

‘Yes and no,’ was the answer he got. ‘I like customer service, and I like food. But no, I don’t want to manage a bistro forever. Wouldn’t it be nice to do something else?’ She looked pensive, and somewhat downcast feeling imprisoned by her situation.

She looked him in the eye and smirked, ‘Sometimes I daydream that a prince would walk in here and ask me to marry him.’

Luke laughed, ‘Do you want me to calculate the probability of that happening?’

Hope glared at him, ‘No. You always rain on my parade.’

He didn’t let the comment affect him, ‘You know I care about you, right? Have you thought much of finishing your college degree? Tuition won’t be a problem. You only have to worry about your motivation.’

The young woman rested the side of her face on the headrest, allowing what was said to sink in, ‘I know. You’ve offered to pay for my tuition enough times. You’re like a broken record,’ she finally broke into a tight smile. ‘It’s not for me. Community College might suit me better. Maybe I should study for a Certificate in Business and Management. I’ve been running this bistro for some time, so I’ll have practical application for it.’

They were deep in serious conversation when a man walked in. The newly arrived sat at the far corner of the bistro, directly in Hope’s line of sight. He had a view of Luke’s head and was burning a hole in it. The firefighter sensed it.

Luke dropped a used napkin; he bent down to pick it up and quickly glanced in the direction of the man.

The guy was tall, about 6 feet, give or take a few and wiry. Anglo-Saxon appearance, salt and pepper hair. He was wearing a short-sleeved checked shirt tucked inside a pair of faded denim jeans, and a pair of scuffed Timberland boots. Luke noted a distinctive scar on his left cheek. 

He looked familiar. Where have I seen him before?

Luke photographic memory scanned his mental archive. But he came up blank which bothered him. There was only one thing left to do; take a picture. Back at the fire station, he would call in favours from his buddies at the Bel Air Police Department.

He checked the time. Fifteen minutes before he had to go to work. What he wanted to do now was to have a direct sight of Scar Face without giving the game away. ‘Be right back,’ he said, ‘men’s.’

Hope nodded, still oblivious to what was happening. But now that Luke had vacated his seat, she was face to face with Scar Face. As a courtesy, she smiled at him, but it wasn’t reciprocated. It gave her a sense of foreboding.

At the same time, she wondered why neither Gina nor Lisa had come out to serve the new customer. She went to the kitchen and found the girls uploading tweets, ‘Hey, there’s a customer waiting. Give me your phones, NOW.’

Gina and Lisa whined, ‘Come on Hope; we won’t do it again.’

Being not much older than them, she could relate to the girls’ juvenile need for their phones, ‘Make sure it doesn’t happen again,’ she said by way of reprimand.

 

*

 

Lisa came out to get Scar Face’s order. He stated in a straightforward way, ‘Turkey sandwich, on rye bread, toasted. Large cappuccino served with a smile.’

The dig offended Lisa, so she gave him a Cheshire cat smile. Scar Face gave her a blank stare that scared her, so she quickly turned away, ‘Coming,’ she said in haste.

 

*

 

Hope returned to the table and took the seat Luke previously occupied to avoid eye contact with Scar Face. She thought I hope he doesn’t become a regular; he makes me feel uneasy.

When Luke rejoined her, he used up his last fifteen minutes taking more mental notes of the man. He noticed something else; he’s packing. Luke was sure he saw an outline of something lumpy strapped to the inside of his right leg.

Finally, it was time. Together, they went to the counter so Luke could settle his bill and pick up his salad sandwich. ‘See you same time next week.’

She kissed him on the cheek much to the envy of Lisa and Gina, who were watching from behind the counter.

As he headed out, he sensed Scar Face eyeing him with his peripheral vision. It raised his hackles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

Scar Face

 

 

THE VISION OF SCAR FACE, apparently armed and dangerous, troubled Luke. He assessed the tough-looking guy as someone who could defend himself without so much as lifting a bicep.

When he passed Scar Face on the way to the men’s, the stern-faced man had raised the cup of coffee to his mouth. He noticed then the hand’s calloused underside, which he took as evidence of martial arts training.

It bothered him that Scar Face was on an apparent stake-out. Who’s he scoping? I hope not the girls, especially not Hope.

Scar Face pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers, suggesting it seemed: I’ve got eyes on you. Luke thought he was just paranoid, giving the man’s actions too much meaning, but his suspicion was confirmed when he noticed Scar Face’s eyes following him through the reflection in the glass window.

The eyes moved, although the face stayed dead straight on the cup of coffee poised against his lips. Luke was slightly unnerved but not cowed. He kept his eyes on the reflection on the glass window. I’m watching you, too.

Luke got into his car, and he was reversing out of the parking lot when Scar Face came out and jumped on a black and chrome Harley. He regretted not being more alert. He could easily have noticed the motorcycle as it was the only other vehicle in the near-empty parking area. Now it was too far to see the registration number.

It’s too much of a coincidence; something’s up. But he’s still not sure if Scar Face was friend or foe.

 

*

 

Scar Face parked his Harley in an underground car park then walked three hundred metres to a seedy part of the City. The area where many newly-arrived illegal migrants lived, in the shadows of boarded-up shops, in the midst of high crime rate. If one wanted to live in the shadows, this was where one found refuge. Here, lodging houses didn’t ask for identification or credit cards. Here cash was king. And as long as you kept your head down, no one bothered you.

He went up to the second storey and entered a dingy room that hadn’t seen a lick of paint in ages. But at least, it was clean, and so it suited him fine, he had lived in worse places.

Scar Face felt his tight neck muscle. He massaged his nape with one hand, trying to ease the tightness with his thumb. He had been on the move since his return from Bangkok with hardly a rest.

His trip from Thailand to Los Angeles via Beijing was a nightmarish 28-hour flight on Air China’s economy class. Sitting next to the exit door for “more leg room” didn’t do much good. His knees felt like they were on fire ever since. Age had caught up with him.

Bangkok was supposed to be his holiday of a lifetime. A stress-free thirty-day vacation, but it had lasted a mere two weeks before the Bureau hauled his ass back States-side; just my luck.

He had been an FBI agent for twenty-five years.

Scar Face wasn’t cancelling his long-desired holiday for all the threat in the world, and his Superiors knew it. So, a carrot was dangled in front of him instead, ‘You’re retiring soon; here’s your swan song, a chance to net yourself the big fish that’s eluded you for years.’ And he couldn’t resist the carrot.

Only a handful of operational staff knew he was back from his holiday and why.

The Bureau had been following the money trail of drug money as they got sucked out of circulation and laundered out of Los Angeles to Italy.

Lately, they had noticed a trend. Several bistros and other eateries changed owners faster than infants changed diapers. The registered new owners were clean skins, meaning they didn’t have criminal records and had no known connection to mob families.

The authorities suspected that the establishments were being used as “Laundromats” of a different sort.

But for now, his most urgent requirement was sleep. Scar Face undressed, showered, then crawled into bed. I can’t wait to be sent out to pasture was the last thought he had before he was out like a light, just like that.

 

*

 

Luke arrived at Fire Station 71 and greeted his buddies with a wave. They roused on him for being late. ‘For that, you’re doing all the heavy lifting today,’ they said. He smiled and waved them off.

His phone rang; it was Faith calling. He shrugged, ‘Gotta get this,’ he told the boys, who all groaned with mock distaste.

He momentarily forgot what was bothering him until Faith asked, ‘Hi, how was Hope?’ Damn, he thought.

‘Tell you later,’ he said as he headed to the locker room to change into his exercise gear. ‘What about you, Miss Universe? How’s your day been?’

‘Oh, we’ve already had six casualties and three DOAs, and it’s only one in the afternoon.”

‘Sorry to hear that. I’ll catch you tonight. Don’t take any overtime, OK.’

The beautiful nurse said she won’t, if he didn’t. They both laughed knowing this was beyond their control. They said ‘I love you’ simultaneously before hanging up.

 

*

 

Two hours into their shift, Fire Truck 71 was called to an accident scene involving a school bus and a semi-trailer.

In a matter of minutes, they arrived at a gruesome sight. It looked like a scene from a war zone. Mangled metal, shattered glass and debris covered a vast stretch of the road.

Police blocked one lane and directed traffic around the accident while paramedics got to work on the injured. Firemen busied themselves with the jaw of life freeing trapped school kids out of the bus.

Ambulances were lined up on the side of the road ready to ferry victims to different hospitals.

It was many hours later before they could get it all done. Between the different emergency services, they got it under control and eventually returned the road to commuters.

 

*

 

Luke was about to climb on the fire truck, when he heard, ‘Walker.’

The voice was unfamiliar, gravelly and hoarse like that of a heavy smoker. He turned around and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Scar Face standing no more than a foot from him. ‘What the…?’

Scar Face smiled crookedly. It softened his face, a little. ‘Sorry, we have to meet this way.’

He pressed a button on his phone, a split second later Luke’s phone beeped, ‘No need to reply. Just be there, alone.’ Hairs on Luke’s arms stood.

He checked the SMS from his mysterious visitor, ‘Presbyterian Church, 10 sharp.’

There was only one in Bel Air; it was on Mulholland Drive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

 

Face to Face with Scar Face

 

 

FIRE TRUCK 71 returned to the station house after the rescue operation that required cutting parts of a crumpled semi-trailer from underneath the school bus and cutting sections of the bus, as well.

Luke excused himself as the others were giving each other pats on the back and high-fives for a job well done. He said he needed to put his toys away. He made sure he was alone before he called his best friend.

Ricardo Rodrigo was a fellow police cadet. They went to the Police Academy together straight out of High School. He enrolled with the intention of joining the Homicide Squad while Ricardo always wanted to be with the Cybercrime Unit. ‘Ola, Rico, I’m sending you a photo. Can you match it to all existing database, ASAP.’

Ricardo swallowed before answering, eating at his desk had become a real bad habit. “I love you, too, amigo,” he replied.

Luke laughed and was immediately apologetic. ‘Sorry, hombre, I’m kinda in a rush you know.’

Chewing another mouthful, Ricardo said, ‘Amigo, we don’t use government property for a personal reason, you know why? It’s a sackable offence.’

Luke kept a watchful eye on the door, ‘Come on, Rico, just this once. I don’t finish till late. I need an answer NOW. Can’t wait.’ Luke paused, ‘I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t a matter of national security.’

‘National Security, my ass. What’s a firefighter got to do with National Security?’

‘Rico, don’t make me beg. You know I wouldn’t ask if —’ Luke said, sounding troubled.

The computer geek almost always found it hard to say “No” to Luke. So, ‘OK,’ he said, ‘send it to me.’

Luke hit the Send button.

Within a fraction of a second, the geek had a photo of Scar Face. Ricardo whistled.

Luke frowned. Is that good or bad. He asked, ‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why’d you whistle? You don’t whistle unless you’ve got something.’

‘I don’t have to search him. It’s FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Mark Roberts of the Los Angeles field office.’

Luke immediately thought no wonder he looked familiar. But it took a while for him to absorb the news. He’s a SAC? That’s unexpected.

Ricardo continued, ‘I don’t suppose you’re at liberty to tell me what you’re up to? On second thought, don’t answer that. I don’t wanna know.’

Before they ended the call, he asked about Ricardo’s new instant family, ‘How’s Suzie and the kids?’

Since getting married a month ago, Ricardo had adopted his two step-kids, and they bought a house in the suburb to be closer to the kids’ school. ‘They’re good. I’m lovin’ family life. You guys should visit sometime. It’s Timothy’s birthday soon; we’ll send you an invitation.’

‘Faith and I will be attending, count on that.’

Then, they both said, ‘Hasta la vista, amigo.’

Luke rejoined his buddies in the kitchen where they hang out while waiting for call-outs. He glanced at his G-shock. The digital timepiece announced 08:30.

Edward Lane, El Jefe, meaning the Chief, saw him. ‘Why are you looking at the time? You only go home to two cats.’

‘Hey, I got a sexy nurse,’ he said, referring to Faith.

‘Yeah, yeah, so where’s the picture of this sexy nurse?’

‘Not happening,’ he said, smiling. There was no way he’d bandy about Faith’s pictures to this sex-starved mob.

With endless banter that often bordered on the offensive, time flew swiftly. The first they knew their shift had ended was when they heard the next lot of sex-starved firefighters come through loud and unclear.

They changed into their civvies in the cramped locker room, playfully elbowing each other out of the way.

Luke put on the same tight-fitting grey T-shirt and denim jeans he arrived in. But he opted to wear a pair of running shoes instead of his loafers. You just never know when you might need to do some running.

 

*

 

It was a cold night, so he wore his black bomber jacket. It would be a short drive to the Presbyterian Church; he had plenty of time to spare. Remembering his cop days, he bought take-out coffee and a couple of glazed donuts and staked out the Church.

He was well-concealed, he knew this for a fact. He munched away at his donut and then remembered to call Faith. There was no reply, so he left her a message, ‘Will be home late.’ Then, corrected himself, ‘I mean late-er.’

Staking out the place before a meet was hardly original. He found out quickly he wasn’t alone in thinking along this line. He nearly spilt coffee on himself when Scar Face suddenly knocked on the front passenger window and mouthed, ‘Open the door.’

He unlocked it, and Scar Face slid in, ‘I like a man who doesn’t keep his appointment waiting.’

‘You have a nasty habit of springing up on people or just on me?’

Scar Face extended his right hand, ‘Mark Roberts.’

He accepted the proffered hand, ‘Luke Walker.’

‘You need no introduction. Come on, let’s go for a drive.’

‘Where we goin’?’

‘To dinner,’ was the short answer. ‘Corona on Sunset.’

Luke looked at the veteran FBI Special Agent-in-Charge. He wasn’t sure he heard it correctly. Dinner, what the hell is going on? 

He shook his head but bit his tongue and drove off as directed. They arrived at their destination in fifteen minutes, which couldn’t happen quickly enough for Luke.

As they walked towards the restaurant, the Feebie deliberately walked two paces behind him. He was then forced to open the door for them. Luke felt his blood boil. Roberts felt the hostility and smiled. The older man was beating the younger guy at the psych game.

They took their seat in the far corner; Roberts liked back corners. The waiter approached, smiled and greeted Roberts by his first name. ‘Hey Mark, it’s been a while. So, what will it be this time?’ he asked.

Luke was surprised to see how charming Mark ‘Scar Face’ Roberts could be. Suave and smooth when he wanted to be.

Roberts smiled at the waiter he called ‘Jorge’ and said, ‘Same old, same old and make it two. Beer for me.’

Just to up the psych game, he added, ‘Water for him. He’s the designated driver.’

Moments later, two of Roberts’ favourite dinner arrived at the table, along with a bottle of beer and a jug of iced water. ‘Dessert’, advised Jorge, ‘to be served at the end.’

As soon as Jorge left them to it, they tucked into the food. The chicken enchilada was delicious. And the side dish of tangerine, avocado salad with pumpkin seeds was refreshing. The seeds, also called pepitas, added just the right amount of crunch.

Their initial conversation was limited to appreciating the Mexican fare they were enjoying until dessert was served. Vanilla-orange flan.

‘How much do you think this establishment makes in a night?’

Luke looked around. It’s Friday night; the place should be full, but it’s not. It was undoubtedly struggling. He shrugged, ‘I don’t know, but I know, it’s haemorrhaging money.’

The FBI SAC nodded, ‘But why does it keep operating? I can guess, without looking at the books, it’s losing, at least, five thousand a week on salaries, rent, maintenance, insurance, stocks and miscellaneous other expenses. But they’re running it. Why?’

Luke didn’t reply, but he had put two and two together. Roberts was implying that the restaurant was a conduit for something other than serving Mexican food and feeding people. Money laundering, perhaps? 

‘The central question is how. How are they doing it? You know, the company that owns this owns nine other money-losing eateries. And, very soon it will include Juliana’s Bistro.’

Luke froze.

Mark Roberts gave him time to swallow the news. ‘I, and when I say I, I mean the FBI’s White Collar Division, I want you to stay away from Juliana’s Bistro. Babysitting little sister has to stop. Your presence there will compromise our sting operation.’

Looking at Luke’s stern facial expression, Roberts realised he didn’t say it quite right, but there was no right way to say it.

Luke put his knife and fork down, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re ordering me to stop going to the bistro. I don’t think so. If you believe for one minute that you’re going to use Hope as an informant, you have another thing coming.’

Roberts thought for a moment. He might have underestimated Luke’s firm motivation for watching over the McKenzie lass. ‘Don’t make me pull rank, Walker. I’m asking you nicely, and I’m giving you a head’s up.’

Luke didn’t say another word. At this point, Roberts called someone on his phone. Minutes later a young man, a Martin Sheen look-alike, joined them at the table, ‘I believe you’ve met.’

‘Carabella!’ 

What the heck’s going on around here?

He looked at the two men with a facial expression that said, please explain NOW.

‘This is Special Agent Joe Di Nozzi. Victor Carabella’s a cover identity.’

Luke lost his appetite and told them in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t interested in what they were doing or in their operation, but he warned them, ‘Get your hands off Hope. I won’t have her play any part in it.’

Roberts exhaled disinterestedly, ‘She’s an adult. She doesn’t need your permission.’

‘The hell she doesn’t.’ But even as he said it he knew he had no ground to stop Hope’s involvement. After all, she was an adult, of legal age and a sound mind. His protestations were futile.

‘Don’t worry, Walker, I won’t let any harm come to her,’ Di Nozzi assured him. He made it sound like he cared for Hope.

‘If you care about her, leave her out of it,’ Luke challenged.

‘Too late,’ said a female voice. He turned around. Hope was standing behind him, looking younger and more vulnerable than her 22 years.

Luke stood up quickly, ‘I can’t let you do this, Hope. Who talked you into this?’

She placed a hand on his chest, ‘No one, I offered. I promise, I won’t do anything stupid. I just need to gather information —,’

‘Yeah, right, you just need to collect information.’ He hissed, ‘Do you even know what that entails?’

Roberts interjected, ‘This conversation is over. Consider yourself warned, Walker. Don’t turn up at the bistro. We’ll keep her safe by staying close. You do that by staying away. Understood!’ Then, he called for the bill.

Carabella or Di Nozzi, whoever the hell he was put an arm around Hope, ‘Let’s go, Dahl.’

Luke scowled. ‘If anything happens to her, you’ll answer to me, and you’ll wish that the Mob got to you first.’

Di Nozzi didn’t doubt the sincerity of the threat.

‘I’m done here.’ But before he left, Luke gave Roberts something to think about, ‘I made a promise to her Dad to look after her. Trust me when I say I plan to keep it.’

Sergeant McKenzie was his Training Officer and his first beat partner. He got shot in the line of duty and died in Luke’s arms.

His last words to Luke had been, “Look after my baby, promise me. Promise me,’ as he gripped Luke’s uniform for dear life.

Luke had said, with tears streaming down his face, ‘Yes, I promise. Please don’t die.’

Sergeant McKenzie smiled, and then he died peacefully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

Letting Go

 

 

LUKE WAS FUMING MAD at Roberts and Di Nozzi but largely at Hope McKenzie for allowing herself to get into this fine mess.

As he drove home, he thought back to the day’s event. Hang on a sec!

He was about to enter his garage when it dawned on him that just this morning Hope didn’t know Victor Carabella was a cover identity. And, just this morning she was rousing on him for interrogating the guy at the party last night.

The sudden realisation angered him for it meant only one thing: Hope had just been turned into a confidential informant. Di Nozzi was working on her while Roberts worked on me; he thought angrily.

Luke turned the car around and drove to Hope’s place instead. He spotted Di Nozzi alias Carabella’s car in the visitor’s parking area.

He looked at his watch. Midnight! He fumed. If this gigolo thinks he can stay the night he has another thing coming.

Luke rang the doorbell insistently as if his life depended on it. He heard Hope’s sleepy voice, ‘Coming.’

She looked out through the peephole and was alarmed to see her big brother’s frowny face outside the door, but she had to admit she wasn’t surprised. Bloody hell, what now! Take a deep breath.

She tried to compose herself, wrapped her robe tightly around her waist and exhaled before she unlocked the door.

Luke stepped inside, ‘Where’s he?’

Tried as she might, she didn’t have the capacity to lie well, ‘Where’s who?’

The uninvited midnight visitor glared, ‘Don’t do this, Hope!’ He turned his face to the direction of the bedroom, his booming voice carried through the walls, ‘Oi, come out here before I haul your ass out!’

They both heard shuffling noises. Someone was getting dressed in a hurry.

Di Nozzi came out looking a little dishevelled but to his credit, he didn’t look frazzled by the big brother. He held his ground. ‘What’s up, buddy?’

His attempt to be cool annoyed Luke even more. This guy is obnoxious. ‘I need to speak to Hope, and you need to go home,’ he said pointing a finger to the door while the other hand stayed inside his jeans’ pocket.

The young Martin Sheen look-alike didn’t budge, ‘I was invited to stay. If I’m going, it’s because she asked me to, not by her big sex-starved brother.’ That didn’t endear him to Luke Walker.

Hope knew what was coming next, so she quickly stood between them with her arms outstretched to keep the two hot-blooded males apart. ‘OK, all right, Victor…’

Di Nozzi corrected her ‘Joe. It’s Joe.’

‘OK, Joe, please leave.’ She pleaded with him with her eyes.

Joe looked at her, then to Luke, then back at her, ‘Just because you asked.’ On the way out, he picked up his jacket from the couch, his eyes still on Hope, ‘If he gives you a hard time, call me.’

This guy is really asking for it! 

Luke turned to face Di Nozzi; Hope intervened quickly, ‘Luke, he’s leaving, it’s OK.’

Now, it was just the two of them. What now? He never had to play a parent’s role before. He was always the affable, amiable, indulging big brother, but now he had to wield the stick.

Hope broke the impasse with an offer, ‘Coffee?’

He nodded.

She showed him the Moccona jar.

Luke smiled tightly, ‘No, thanks. Water will do.’ 

As expected! Hope rolled her eyes. Such a coffee snob!

‘I saw that.’

She smiled and gave him a glass of water to drink. She made herself instant coffee.

They sat down in the kitchen. Luke opened up the session, ‘Tell me, from the beginning.’

She fidgeted and fiddled with her teaspoon, ‘We met online.’

‘I know, you can fast forward a little.’

‘How’d you know?’ she asked surprised.

Luke gesticulated with his arms, ‘cause we’re friends on Facebook. I can see who “talks” to you. I follow you on Twitter and Tumblr.’

‘Oh, yeah, of course.’ She continued, ‘Three months after meeting online we decided to meet. He came to the bistro a month ago, and we started dating. Last night after the party, after you interrogated him, I thought he didn’t want to return my calls anymore. As it turned out, he was tied up in an operation. He came to the bistro just before closing, and he told me everything.’

‘Exactly what did he tell you?’

She realised Luke could appear intimidating when he wanted to. Big Brother crossed his muscled arms on his chest, stood leaning on the fridge, and stared at her unblinking. ‘He said he was sorry he couldn’t return my calls. He was tied up in an operation.’

‘I asked if he was a surgeon.’

They both smiled at the narrative.

‘He said no, not that kind of operation. Then he showed me his badge. He explained that he’s an undercover agent for the White Collar Division of the FBI, and they’re investigating a money laundering syndicate. He told me that Juliana’s Bistro’s soon-to-be new owners are suspected to be involved.’

‘Go on,’ he encouraged.

‘He said he didn’t want to tell me because he didn’t want me to think that he was only using me. But since his cover was blown, by you might I add, he decided to tell me the truth. You know, his identity and what he does for a living.’

Luke’s blood pressure went up, ‘Let me get this straight. He’s saying had I not dug up the supposed criminal record of one Victor Carabella he would have been happy to string you along. Is that it?’

Hope thought about it for a minute, ‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe he’ll just be Victor Carabella to me forever. But since you’ve, quote unquote, uncovered his criminal cover, he had no choice but to trust me with his true identity.’

‘Trust you with his true identity,’ he repeated.

‘Don’t you get it,’ she said exasperatedly. ‘It’s because he loves me!’

Luke’s heart stopped momentarily and was only kick-started by what she said next, ‘And I love him! So I want to help him.’

Blessed Mary, Mother of God. Help me!

He gathered his wits again shortly, ‘Hope, I think he’s playing you. I’m not convinced he loves you, because if he does, he won’t drag you into this. Period. Full stop. I wouldn’t drag Faith into a crazy situation like this. No way. Besides, you’re not trained for this. You’re being played, and I don’t like it.’

At this point, great, Hope cried. ‘What is it with you? Do you think I’m so unlovable that you find it hard to believe someone can love me?’

Luke helplessly covered his face. ‘Hope, you know very well that’s not what I mean. You’re lovable. And I think when you find the right person he’d be absolutely beside himself and would think he’s the luckiest guy in the world. But the way you and Di Nozzi met is just too convenient, too rehearsed. Hope, I don’t want to see you get hurt.’

She looked down, ‘Maybe you’re right, but you don’t know him. You don’t see how happy we are when we’re together. You don’t see him around me. You’re making a value judgment based on limited information. And, besides, even if you’re right … it’s my heart to break.’

Unbelievable.

Luke scratched his head. This conversation was over. If they took it any further, they’re likely not to speak to each other ever again, so he did the decent thing. ‘OK, let’s end this here. Give me a hug.’

‘Thanks for caring. I promise to be careful. But you have to admit, I chose well. I picked a law enforcement guy like you and Dad were.’

Heavens! Oh, St Francis of Assisi.

He moved her away at arms’ length. ‘Oh, that’s supposed to make me feel better? Don’t forget, I know what lawmen get up to!’

She removed his hands from her shoulders, ‘Don’t start on me again! Butt off now,’ she said with a pout.

‘OK,’ he kissed the top of her head, ‘Good night. Oh, and do me a favour? Lock the door and don’t open it for anyone.’

She laughed.

 

*

 

He arrived home at two in the morning; Faith was up, reading on the sofa. ‘Why aren’t you sleeping yet?’ he asked as he bent down to kiss her on this lips.

‘I just woke up. I was worried when I saw you haven’t come home. What’s going on?’ she asked with no hint of sleepiness; naturally sleep had abandoned her.

He gave her the abridged version of the day’s event. When he finished, she asked him to sit next to her. ‘If you have a teenager who keeps running away with your car what would you do? Say you’ve done everything; parked the car in a garage, locked it, hid the car keys; you’ve done all that, but he still manages to run off with the car, what would you do?’

Luke looked at her, shrugged his shoulder, and said, ‘Put him in jail?’

Faith was serious. She said, ‘Wise parents would teach their teenager to drive. They will give him the tools, the skills to manage the situation. You can’t stop Hope, but you can arm her with skills. You’re an ex-cop; you can train her, help her out. Equip her. Then you won’t be too worried. Time to let go, Mr. Luke Skywalker.’ Then, she got up to head for the bedroom.

Luke followed her with admiring eyes. Faith wasn’t a genius by some I.Q. testing standard, but she was wise. She won’t be able to tell the chemical composition of air, but that’s all right he could already recite the periodic table of elements. What she was though was a breath of fresh air, and that was what he needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

 

Giosippi ‘Joe’ Di Nozzi

 

 

JOE LEFT HOPE’S APARTMENT huffing and puffing until he lost steam. He had been working undercover for six months. It had been slow and boring until three months ago when he connected with Hope. Everything changed when he met the lovely Manager of Juliana’s Bistro. Undercover work suddenly became interesting. He just didn’t count on the big brother happening on the scene.

Sorry, wrong!

He was aware big brother visited the bistro at least once a week, before or after his shift. Sometimes by himself, sometimes with his buddies from Fire Station 71. What he didn’t count on was Luke Walker being more involved in her life than just the weekly visits.

Things became a little bit, make that a lot, more complicated for him when he committed a cardinal sin; he fell head over heels in love with his would-be CI. The idea to groom Hope was his, this much was true, but falling for her was not part of the plan. That just happened organically. He found her cute, affectionate, warm, easy to talk to and kind. What’s not to like?

Now that he had succeeded in turning her into a CI, there was a war raging between his heart and his mind. Plus, there was Luke Walker to contend with, too.

Suddenly, he felt the onslaught of a debilitating migraine.

When he arrived home, the porch light was on. He could always trust his mother to leave it on for him.

He was the only son and youngest in a family of three siblings. His eldest sister, Maria, a school teacher, was married with one pre-school-aged son. Her family lived across the street from the family house.

His second sister Guiliana was a chemist. She and her husband owned a pharmacy situated five houses down at the street corner.

His buddies at work often asked if he ever felt besieged at home. ‘More than you know,’ he’d say, adding, if he wanted to escape he often booked a room in a three-star hotel. ‘Clean, nice and affordable.’

Young Joe had it tough with bullies growing up, what with an unfortunate last name as his. He was called ‘Joe, The Nosy’ all through primary and high school. It wasn’t too bad at College where he studied Political Science to the displeasure of his family.

‘Political Science, what’s that?’ they’d say.

‘What would you do at the end of it? Become a politician? Who’d vote for you with a last name like that?’

Joe applied with the FBI in his second year at College. The circumstances that led to that decision could only be attributed to serendipity, which the dictionary said meant “the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it.”

He was lying on the grass on campus; his eyes cast to the overcast sky, mulling his boring, uneventful life. When he turned his face to the right, following a bird in flight overhead, a gorgeous female was walking past. She was wearing a smart tailored suit.

He must have audibly said ‘Wow’ because she turned to look at him and flashed a toothpaste ad smile, ‘You coming?’ she asked.

He didn’t know what possessed him, but he said, ‘Hell yeah’ followed by the thought, wherever you might want to take me.

It turned out she was a guest lecturer on the subject of ‘Modern Techniques in Apprehending Criminals’. He sat in the back row, listened mesmerised to a lecture he didn’t belong to and decided right there and then to ditch College for the life of an FBI agent. Months later, he was at Quantico.

With good high school transcript, great attitude and aptitude and excellent health, he got recruited at age twenty-one, one of the youngest in the Bureau.

At twenty-four, he was transferred from the obscurity of backroom operations to the dangerous and fast-paced world of the undercover unit. It was here he met the legendary Mark Roberts aka Steel Wool.

The SAC had been variously described as abrasive, pig-headed, allegedly disrespectful of authority, and one who only played by his rulebook.

Everyone said it was a wonder Roberts hadn’t been dismissed from the Bureau since charges brought against him filled one filing cabinet.

But then in his Boss’ defence, Roberts had been with the FBI for twenty-five years, eighteen of them spent in undercover work in a variety of Units. In Joe’s thinking, anyone who had worked for one entity that long was bound to get a complaint or two. Or, a filing cabinet or two.

Despite the age and experience gap, they hit it right off the bat. So much so, other teammates called them “Batman and Robin” behind their backs.

This operation would be his mentor’s swan song, Roberts’ last case. He would like to see him go out with a bang. As for himself, he would love this to be the start of a decorated career.

But the success of the operation also hinged on Hope’s heroic participation. Could he risk her life and limb? He sat in his car thinking about this.

Soon, his Italian Momma was shuffling down the driveway to check on him. He closed his eyes then shut off the engine of his Ford sedan. ‘Are you ok?’ he heard her say.

Si, Momma. Sono OK,’ he replied. Better go in before she calls for family intervention

Joe dragged his wearied body out of the car, turned his mother around and gently guided her back inside the house. He kissed the top of her head, ‘Sorry, go back to sleep.’

He made sure she was safely inside before he headed to his studio in the back of the main house. His concession to a single life lived in the shadow of a protective, and suffocatingly close-knit Italian migrant family.

He let himself in to find food laid out for him. All he had to do was reheat it in the microwave.

He wondered if Luke had left Hope’s apartment or if he had managed to talk her out of acting as their CI. He decided that if Hope wanted out, she’d be out. He wouldn’t pressure her in any way, but he hoped against hope that she still thought well of him.

Young Di Nozzi had lots of girlfriends in the past who were beautiful, lovely girls. Educated, pretty, witty, and from good families; but it seemed no one was good enough for Momma.

‘Too thin.’ ‘Too needy.’ ‘Too tall.’ ‘Too blonde.’ He did wonder how anyone could be too blonde. ‘Too talkative.’

After the sixth girlfriend he stopped bringing them home; then the nagging started. ‘What are you doing; you’re twenty-four now. I married your Babbo at your age and pregnant with Maria.’

This would be followed by, ‘Remember Virginia, you know Salvatore’s daughter, the fruiterer?’

He’d do a quick about face, ‘No, I don’t. I’ve got to go. I’m late for a meeting.’

I wonder what she’d think of Hope.

He put the food back in the fridge and ate breakfast cereal instead. He ate slowly and pondered his dilemma.

Minutes later, his handsome face cracked into a tight smile.

It might work; he thought hopefully. It was the only sensible solution he could think of, one that he hoped for Hope’s sake would be more than enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

A Surprising Turn of Events

 

 

LOS ANGELES HAD just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day — a day when young people converged in the City’s drinking precincts to get inebriated. They would later become rowdy, in a celebratory way that had nothing to do with St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland.

Local enforcement agencies and emergency services were on heightened alert as traditionally there was mayhem on the streets during and in the days leading to it. It was all so predictable. By weekend’s end, there were scores of people in the hospitals, some of whom were police officers and firefighters.

It was Luke’s day off, a welcome respite after a gruelling five days of hot calls. Luke promised himself a sleep-in. Nothing and no-one was going to get him out of bed before eight in the morning. The only problem was his body didn’t cooperate; he was wide awake by five am.

There were a million things on his mind, all competing for his attention. Everything and everyone seemed to need fixing; he was the one, in his opinion, to fix them. He started to feel anxious, the onset of which was threatening. He felt as though he was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.

Tried as he might, he couldn’t slow his heartbeat. It kept going boom, boom, boom against his chest cavity.

He turned to Faith’s sleeping form next to him. He listened to her relaxed breathing pattern to bring his heartbeat to a more settled rhythm. She saves me even as she sleeps; he thought wistfully.

A bit more relaxed now, his discipline of yoga took over. He emptied his mind and visually let go of his anxieties.

Thirty minutes later, he got up and padded to the kitchen. Bradley came over and rubbed itself against his leg. He reached down to the cute and placid, mostly horizontal, black and white Exotic Shorthair cat. ‘Hey handsome, did you miss me?’

Cooper, their three-legged Ninja, white and gold coloured Exotic Shorthair cat, was trying to jump him; he picked it up. He looked at Cooper critically and said, ‘You’re getting too heavy. You have to go on a diet.’

The cat seemed to have understood what he said and gave him a cheeky meow that sounded more like a growl. Cooper had this long-held idea that he was a tiger trapped in a cat’s body. ‘You’re awful,’ he said playfully.

Luke made himself a cup of strong espresso. He carried the cup to the centre of the living room floor and sat cross-legged preparing himself for meditation. He looked at the cup of caffeine in his hands and shook his head at the stupidity of it. Caffeine and yoga. What a laugh!

He drank the espresso, then placed the empty cup down on the floor. He smiled as he observed the cats take to their usual places. Bradley stayed on his left side and was almost asleep the minute he curled up. On the other hand, Cooper had climbed to the window sill scheming how to get his paws around a bird’s neck. He shook his head. Two same breed cats parented the same way. But one was always horizontal and the other always stalking.

He sat quietly for a good ten minutes, breathing in and out. The cats were also purring, happy just to chillax.

Minutes later, he heard his phone beep. He quickly ran to the bedroom before it disturbed Faith’s sleep, but too late, she was now awake too.

‘Who’s that?’ She asked sleepily. He mouthed ‘Boss.’

She assumed for a second that Luke was being called in for duty then her brain registered if that had been the case it would have been the pager going off, not the phone. She covered her face with a pillow but soon realised she had lost the sleep. She grabbed her robe and followed Luke out to the kitchen. He had just ended the call, ‘That was quick.’

‘Yeah, the Boss wants me to meet him at his place for breakfast,’ he hugged and rubbed her back. ‘Sorry Miss Universe, it’ll be quick.’

She embraced him around the waist. ‘D’you know what it’s about?’

He kissed the top of her head with affection, ‘No idea.’ He headed for the shower and came out minutes later wrapped in a towel that barely covered his manhood.

‘Um, sexy,’ Faith called out, then licked her lips suggestively.

He wagged a finger at her feigning censure as he walked to the bedroom to get ready.

He came out dressed in a form-fitting plain white T-shirt that showed the outline of his physique, layered by an unbuttoned light blue shirt. He wore a pair of ripped, faded denim jeans that really should be in the rubbish bin, not on him. ‘You’ve got to throw that away,’ she said.

It was his favourite, and he wasn’t going to part with it for a million bucks. ‘I can’t, I’ll be buried in it.’ Cheekily adding, ‘If you throw it away, you’ll have to bury me naked from the waist down.’

She rolled her eyes.

He slipped on a pair of canvas shoes. The result was casual chic. Some people are lucky that way; they can look good in the most ordinary get-up.

He kissed her and said ‘See you soon’ as he turned to leave. She heard him say just before he closed the door, ‘Check out what’s showing; let’s see a movie when I get back.’

She said ‘OK,’ but doubted if he heard.

 

*

 

Luke ducked into a patisserie and bought some goodies that could pass for breakfast. From there, it didn’t take long to reach Keith Spark’s apartment block. He knocked on the door bearing goodies.

He had told Faith a white lie. The Boss he was referring to was his former boss at the LAPD, not his current boss at the Fire Station as he implied.

The door was opened by none other than Mark Roberts. His brain did a sudden somersault. He took a step back to check the number on the side of the door. It did indeed say “16” in gold-plate. What the…?

Roberts noted Luke’s confusion, ‘Come in, Keith’s in the kitchen.’

Keith called out, ‘Hey, Luke.’

He walked in and gave him the bag of pastries, ‘What’s up, Boss?’

The balding, cherubic-faced boss of the LAPD broke into a broad smile as he took the bag from Luke. Setting the pastries on a plate, he said, ‘I believe you’ve met Mark Roberts. And I understand you two started on the wrong foot. Let’s start over, shall we?’

Keith continued to set the table; Luke assisted since he knew his way around the Boss’ kitchen. After fixing the table for three, they sat down. The Police Sergeant acted as though the two visitors hadn’t met, ‘Special Agent-in-Charge Mark Roberts, this is Luke Walker. Luke, Mark.’

For the sake of appearances, the two shook hands.

The suspense and the intrigue were killing Luke so he couldn’t wait to get started. ‘How d’you two know each other?’

Keith answered after he washed down his first bite of pastry with coffee. ‘We used to work together in the same precinct millennia ago. Roberts was two years ahead of me in the Force. Later we went in different directions. I went Tactical; he went FBI.’

He looked at Roberts briefly, ‘And then we drifted apart.’

Luke observed the two men. For the life of him, he couldn’t work out how two very dissimilar personalities managed to work together albeit in the past, let alone become life-long friends. It was obvious they were the sort of friends who don’t see much of each other, but could at the drop of a hat, pick up where they left off.

His breakfast polished off; Roberts finally spoke, ‘I apologise for the way I went about my business. I’d be the first to admit I have the personality of a steel wool. Everything you’ve heard about me is true. Abrasive, acidic, rude and crude. And some other adjectives not invented yet.’

It was a surprising turn of events.

Even Roberts’ self-deprecating valuation of himself was disarming. He sensed he’d walked into an ambush. Nevertheless, he was willing to keep an open mind in as much as his former boss knew the man and he trusted Keith Spark’s ability to judge people.

‘Apology accepted,’ he replied, waiting impatiently for Roberts to tip his hand.

Sensing he had the floor, Roberts continued. ‘Keith and I go way back. I’ve told him things about this operation I haven’t told anyone. He recommended I get you onboard.’ Luke didn’t know what to say and wondered whether his Boss had sold him down the river. He frowned. So to get him on his side, Roberts disclosed some aspects of the current operation.

‘This money laundering scheme’s very sophisticated. They’re using loopholes in the banking system to get under the radar. There’s only so much a gumshoe agent like me can do. We need someone on the inside; that’s why we need Hope. If you want to protect her, then don’t go near the bistro. You may NOT agree with me, but trust me when I say your regular visits to the joint could place her in greater danger.’

Roberts left him to ponder this and went to the spare bedroom. He soon came out carrying a duffle bag. The live light FBI agent was on the move again. He backslapped Spark, ‘Thanks for the bed, buddy. I’ll be in touch.’

He nodded at Luke, who returned the gesture.

With the visitor gone, Keith joined Luke at the table for a second helping. The two of them had a lot to discuss.

Luke’s first question was, ‘Was he always like that?’

Keith smiled, ‘Believe it or not, he’s mellowed with age.’ Then, the Boss told him some stories of bygone years.

Finally, his old Boss said, ‘The decision is yours. I wouldn’t want to influence you one way or the other. I know what Hope means to you.’

He looked at the time. Luke noticed. ‘You’ve got somewhere you need to be?’

‘I just need to go to work, so I’m not in any real hurry,’ replied Keith, who, in spite of his senior position and years of service, hadn’t forgotten how to be laid back.

On the drive home, Luke thought about what they’d discussed. Should I? Shouldn’t I?

Good question!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

 

Covert Operation

 

 

JOE aka VICTOR called Hope at Juliana’s. After exchanging sweet nothings, he asked, ‘Can you arrange for me to meet Luke?’

She held her breath, ‘I’m not entirely sure that’s a good idea.’

He couldn’t argue with her on that point. She knew Luke better than anyone, but he persisted.

‘Yeah, I know, but I’ve got to. Would you, please? Or, if you like I’ll just accost him on the street.’ The mere suggestion horrified her.

Their phone conversation was interrupted when Gina signalled to her that a delivery had arrived. She acknowledged the waitress before returning to her call, ‘OK, I’ll speak to him. By the way, where and when?’

‘My time is my own so let him dictate where and when. I’ll be there.’ He finished the call with, ‘Ti amo.’

Her heart skipped with his declaration of love. She decided that this time Luke was wrong.

Joe loves me. Definitely. Not maybe. Definitely, absolutely.

She rushed to meet the truck driver who was unloading boxes and boxes of wine. Bewildered, she asked, ‘Are you sure these are for me?’

The irritated driver replied, ‘Miss, can’t you read. It says Juliana’s Bistro,’ pointing at the invoice. ‘I’m just the driver. If you’re in doubt, call your owner. I’m late for my next delivery. Where’d you like these?’ referring to the unexpected consignment, a trolley full of Italian wine.

She pointed him to the small storeroom behind the kitchen. He came back in a huff to retrieve his copy of the invoice and away he went to his next delivery.

Hope called the new owner to verify the order. She confirmed that the wine delivery was indeed for the bistro. 

[_OK, whatever. _]

 

*

 

She sent a text message to Luke: ‘Call me.’

He was getting ready for work when the phone beeped. He called back immediately.

‘That was quick,’ she answered cheerily.

Big brother grunted an answer; although audible to her ears, it wasn’t exactly clear what he said. ‘What did you say?’ she asked to clarify.

‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘What’s up?’

Here goes.

She took a deep breath and felt anxiety quicken her heart beats. She unconsciously twisted her hair around as a form of stress relief. ‘Joe wants to meet with you. He said you can name the time and place, he’ll be there.’ 

Luke decided the meeting might be his chance to pry Hope out of this damn CI business. ‘Tell him tonight, nine, at my house.’

They chit-chatted some more, mostly humdrum stuff. And then Hope dropped the issue that been bugging her. ‘Oh, guess what, I just took delivery of one hundred eighty bottles of wine. How weird is that?’

Luke’s antenna went up, detecting something hinky. ‘Do you have a new owner now?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, how’d you know?’

‘Something you said,’ he replied.

‘Something I said?’ her eyebrow went up, ‘Never mind, your brain is always a puzzle to me. I don’t know how it connects dots and how it jumps from one thing to another. Love you. Bye, I gotta go.’

Hope called Joe to pass on the message.

The rest of her day was uneventful. The bistro wasn’t exactly rocking with customers.

Joe/Victor also couldn’t have had a more tedious day if he tried. He had been following a courier go from one business establishment to the next, as part of a four-man tag team. All they had managed to do was confirm what they already knew: that the businesses the courier visited were all part of the same company.

 

*

 

Luke had completed his paperwork for the day, then pottered about at the Fire Station checking the various firefighting equipment, something he did as one of the most senior members of his Unit. Once he was satisfied every piece was in working order, he showered and changed into his civilian clothes. He checked the wall clock. Time to go.

He only got so far as hanging his coat on the rack and feeding the cats when the doorbell buzzed.

Bradley and Cooper both stopped chowing on dry, crunchy pellets, hoping it was Faith. She would give them wet cat food. Yum.  But they resumed eating as soon as they realised it was another useless guy.

Joe stepped inside the house where he was received coldly. No surprises there. It would have been dodgy if Luke suddenly welcomed him warmly; that would be suspicious; whereas the icy reception was copacetic.

His first salvo was, ‘Hey, thanks for meeting me. I’d have preferred a neutral location … like a restaurant.’

Luke smirked and thought, that’s precisely the point, I’m on my home turf.

From the minute he entered the house, Joe was at a disadvantage. On the back foot, so to speak. Everything had to be dictated by Luke. He couldn’t even sit down until invited. So there they were in a living room full of couches but awkwardly standing around, eyeing each other like bulls in an arena.

Finally, after the longest minute ever, Luke invited him to sit and asked if he cared for coffee.

‘I’ll have what you’re having,’ Joe said.

Luke took his time in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the cats got inquisitive. Bradley padded softly on the wooden floor, sat on the armchair, squinting at Joe. Cooper, on the other hand, jumped onto the back of the three-seat couch and eyed the visitor with unconcealed malice, like he was Public Enemy Number One.

He sensed that the black and white cat was friendly. He knew one thing about cats; scent communication is important to them. He bided his time then offered his hand for Bradley to sniff. Soon, it was sitting on his lap.

But Cooper? He decided to leave the ninja cat alone.

Luke returned to the living room with two cups of coffee and was mildly surprised that Joe had managed to befriend Bradley. But then Bradley was always easy-going; this cat was not choosy in the first place. Now, had Joe managed to get close to Cooper, that would be another thing altogether.

‘OK, what’s up?’ Luke asked as he seriously studied Joe, which made the visitor feel weird. The last time he was dealt this kind of scrutiny was when the father of his first girlfriend subjected him to a grilling. He was sixteen at that time. He’s twenty-five now, and not much had changed.

‘Well, I want to clear the air between us. To be honest, it was my idea to pursue Hope. She was just going to be my CI, but believe it or not; I fell in love with her. You’ll probably doubt that, and I don’t blame you.’

Luke was tight-lipped, his position on Hope acting as CI was clear to one and all. He didn’t need to reiterate it, least of all, to Joe.

The younger man felt the silence unbearable. He coughed to loosen the muscles surrounding his voice box, ‘I know the danger, and if Hope wants out, it’s OK. I don’t want her thinking she outta help us crack this case. I know she’s not cut out for it. But she’s determined to do it, so all I can do is keep her safe.’

‘Easier said than done.’ Luke counted the reasons on his fingers, ‘One, you can’t be with her all the time. Two, you’re not bullet-proof. Three, there are far too many unknown factors and unforeseen variables. Not to mention, she’s in the lion’s den. Need I go on?’

Then Luke added, ‘I think the only decent thing to do is to talk her out of it.’

Joe turned defensive. ‘Don’t you think I’ve tried? After you booted me out of her place, I had a serious think about it. I weighed things up, and I’m sure as hell don’t want her to risk life and limb for me or our operation. But she’s determined.’

Luke repositioned himself. He rested his back against the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. ‘So what do you want me to do? I tried talking her out of it too; you know that.’

Joe shifted too, then said, ‘I’m here to ask you to get involve.’

Luke’s eyebrow went up, ‘I’m listening,’ he said. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘The bistro has to be rigged with bugs and listening devices. You can help me with that. Then our IT guys will send a Trojan into the computer so we can sniff their sales and banking transactions. We need eyes on their dealings.’

Luke couldn’t agree more and added, ‘We need eyes on the wine deliveries.’

Joe was surprised, ‘How’d you know about the wine delivery?’

‘Hope mentioned it this morning. She made a comment about how weird it was that she took delivery of wine, just under two hundred bottles. Did the other establishments get deliveries, too? If they did, you need to find out where they ordered it, how much they’re selling it per bottle. I’m willing to bet that’s the key.’

Joe looked at Luke, unsure how the guy’s brain processed information. It seemed to him as an unlikely a connection as there ever could be. He’s off tangent on this one.

But to his credit, Joe made a mental note to follow up on the lead. I’ve seen stranger things happen.

It was getting late. They arranged a date to access the bistro one night to fit the spying devices, then said their goodbyes, but there was no handshake or backslap.

They simply nodded to each other in a friendly way at the door’s threshold, but at least, Joe felt that the relationship metre between them had gone up a notch.

Cooper followed them to the door and meowed. Joe looked back and waved goodbye to the terror cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

The Money Trail

 

 

ONE NIGHT, Luke and Joe committed ‘B and E’, breaking and entering, to install the listening and seeing devices in Juliana’s Bistro.

Luke roped in Carlos, one of his best buddies, to act as a watchman. If Carlos thought someone was suspiciously hanging around the bistro, he would send a coded text message to Luke. He was qualified to do the job, considering he was an American Marine on furlough.

Inside the bistro, the two men divided up the job. Luke concentrated on the counter and the dining areas while Joe worked in the kitchen and the storeroom. In all, they were planting six bugging devices and two cameras.

They worked wordlessly, limiting communications to hand signals and eye contacts. The less noise and the fewer movements there were between them, the better.

Luke installed one of the cameras above the check-out counter where virtually everything interesting that could happen occurs.

An hour later, only the camera for the backroom remained uninstalled. Joe looked around. There was nothing to climb on, no ladder anywhere and the shelves weren’t sturdy enough to hold him up. Unlike the kitchen where he had a fixed table to stand on, here there were just the boxes of wine. That’ll do

He expertly climbed to reach the smoke alarm where he fitted a tiny bug and a camera.

Climbing to the top of the boxes of wine wasn’t a problem. Balancing on top wasn’t a problem. But climbing down became a problem because as he jumped off, he took one of the boxes with him. An almighty crash reverberated within the bistro as eight bottles broke into hundreds of shards within the box, flooding the backroom in the process.

Luke rushed in and found Joe standing in the middle of the storeroom, his feet soaked in a puddle of rose coloured liquid, looking sheepish. He laughed at the sight of Joe, who shrugged in defeat.

It broke the ice between them. Seconds later, they were both smiling stupidly.

Joe licked the liquid on his face, ‘It’s coloured water,’ he informed Luke. He smelled his shirt just to be sure. There was no way this Italian wouldn’t know what vino should smell. ‘No kidding, it’s water.’

‘You don’t have to convince me,’ Luke said. ‘If that were wine, this place should be reeking, but it’s not.’

They looked at each other. Joe had an “aha” moment. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’

Luke smiled knowingly, but instead of answering, he asked, ‘Are you done?’

Joe nodded.

‘Good. Clean up while I search for the invoice.’

Joe went to get the broom, mop and bucket. He ripped the wet box and carefully placed the broken bottles in doubled up, sturdy garbage bags to be disposed of far, far away.

Luke searched Hope’s desk for the invoice. He found it clipped to the Accounts Payable ledger. He made a copy, replaced the original where he found it and showed it to Joe. ‘Here’s the start of the money trail,’ he said beaming.

Joe read the invoice. His eyes bugged out and whispered, ‘Fuck me!’

Luke folded the copy and pocketed it. It was time to leave.

Before heading out, they checked everything to make sure no wires were poking out and that every item was as they found it. Joe wiped down the kitchen table to scrub out his boot prints; Luke did likewise in the counter and dining areas; that was them, done, and dusted.

 

*

 

They headed out into the cold night. Luke spotted Carlos reclined on the hood of the car, looking up at the stars. On approach, he teased his friend for sky watching when he should be watching out for their welfare.

Carlos smiled guiltily for being caught napping on the job. ‘Where to now?’ he asked.

Joe handed him the garbage bags.

Carlos took them and said, ‘I hope this doesn’t lead to a holiday in the slammer. I don’t get enough time off as it is.’

‘It won’t,’ said Luke. ‘Thanks, buddy.’

‘Anytime.’

 

*

 

‘My studio?’ invited Joe tentatively.

‘Sure, why not?’

They climbed into Joe’s government-issued car for a quick drive. It took less than fifteen minutes in the absence of traffic. Joe parked four houses away to be on the discreet side. He didn’t want anyone in his neighbourhood to know he was a Fed. And because the headlights shining against the window were sure to wake up his mother dearest.

They avoided the cobbled walkway because of the light sensor. Triggering it would blanket the porch area with light. Instead, they crossed the lawn and skirted around like two thieves.

Once inside, they made strong coffee. It was going to be a very long night. The accidental discovery of the coloured water labelled as wine cracked the case wide open. Joe turned on his FBI issued high-speed, encrypted, super computer.

‘Nice,’ he heard Luke say as he admired the high-spec toy.

Joe smiled, ‘Benefit of working for Uncle Sam.’

He fiddled with the keyboard, then announced, ‘The camera’s working fine, pity we can’t test the listening devices, but I’m sure they’re all good. Now for the invoice.’

He scanned it and sent a copy to a secure FBI White Collar Crimes Unit email account.

‘Thanks’ he handed the copy back to Luke. ‘So, what’s your take on this?’

Luke said, ‘I thought you’d never ask. See, the wines are coloured water labelled as “premium red.” They look special but at a guess, it probably costs the Italian dummy corporation just five dollars to produce each one.’

Reading from the invoice, Luke then added, ‘The U.S. dummy company, most likely owned by the same people, then bought them at two hundred fifty dollars each. Juliana’s Bistro alone received one hundred eighty bottles; that’s forty-five thousand worth of invoice. Assuming they have ten establishments, that’s a whopping four hundred fifty thousand that just got washed legally out of the country to Italy.

‘The Italian and American dummy companies will have separate legitimate and legal entities. The Italian company acts as the supplier. The American company, the wholesale distributor. Now, proving the same people own these two dummy companies would be a nightmare because they would be at arms’ length and likely covered in layers of legal protection. It’s a very sophisticated operation if you ask me.

‘I’m willing to bet that they have “retail purchasers” lined up who would buy these wines at inflated prices. Money then gets banked into an account, which goes under the radar because it’s legally obtained through buying and selling goods in legitimately established businesses. Money goes out to Italy to buy more coloured water. And on and on it goes.’

Joe was gobsmacked. ‘With a brain like yours, you should be in law enforcement, not a firefighter.’

‘I was,’ he said. ‘It’s a long story, but I was working towards becoming a detective when I quit.’

‘Hope told me her Dad was a cop—.’ Suddenly, the penny dropped. Joe left the rest unsaid. Nothing more needed to be said.

‘Do you want another cup of coffee?’

Luke nodded, ‘That would be nice.’

Joe went to his kitchenette that was tiny and yet so efficient. Instead of cupboards which would have taken a lot of space, it had cubes of varying sizes for shelves on the wall, designed in such a way as to have a place for everything.

A box contained a toaster. Another a sandwich maker. And, another, a kettle. There was a longish shelf for cups, saucers, plates and mugs. Luke admiringly thought that whoever designed it had a methodical and analytical mind.

‘Early on, before any of this had occurred, you said the wine had something to do with money laundering. How did you arrive at that notion?’

Luke sat on a stool before answering. ‘Sesame Street. One of these things is not like the other.’

Joe looked confused, so Luke explained, ‘It didn’t fit; it’s a bistro. Even Hope felt weird about it. Why sell wine? Think about it, who buys premium wine from a bistro? Elementary, my dear Poirot.’

Joe was impressed. He’d have eventually arrived at the same conclusion except his methodology would have required him to analyse the whole thing in a different way; whereas Luke operated more on gut instinct. Clearly he’s a lateral thinker, someone who thinks outside the square. Such a waste he quit the Force.

‘We better get some sleep.’ Luke eventually said.

‘Let me give you a lift,’ said Joe, reaching for his car keys.

 

*

 

Luke showered, put on his favourite pyjamas and climbed into bed. He adjusted himself, so he was comfortable. He felt space next to him. There was a familiar furry ball next to him. Where’s Faith?

He bolted up on the bed and switched on the lamp. No Faith. He called her; Faith answered sleepily. ‘Miss Universe, are you OK?’ he sounded worried, his heart beating loudly in his chest cavity.

Faith said, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘You’re not home.’

‘And you only discovered it now? At three in the morning? I told you I’m staying with Mom; she needs me. Did you forget?’

He thought for a minute, ‘I did. Sorry. Miss you.’

‘Miss you, too.’

Luke said, ‘OK, your Mom needs you, but can you come home?’

He can be a big kid sometimes

Faith laughed, ‘No, I love you, night night.’

‘OK, night night.’

He went to sleep fitfully, sandwiched between Bradley and Cooper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10

 

Little Sister

 

 

IT’S BEEN OVER A MONTH since Hope became fully engaged as a CI for the FBI’s White Collar Crimes Unit.

All she had to do, so far, was to make copies of invoices and financial records. After work, she followed her usual routine and did her personal errands. She’d then discreetly pass on copies to Victor, who was Joe, her handler, who was also her boyfriend/lover. As days progressed, it was getting more and more complicated separating Victor from Joe, and working out her relationships with “them.”

Joe solved this for her by being “Victor” all the time; so as far as she was concerned, he was always “Victor.”

Joe’s persona disappeared entirely. He also moved away from home and lived with a group of undercover agents in a housing site. They were now unofficially a “gang.”

Hope arrived home to an empty apartment with an armful of groceries. She didn’t know what triggered it, but today she felt a heaviness in her heart, an undefined sadness over the loss of both her parents. It had been five years since she lost her Mom, and four since her Dad passed away.

Luke had been looking after her since she was seventeen, close to eighteen. Sometimes she wondered if Luke put up with her only because he’d made a promise to her Dad. But big brother always told her not to be silly, ‘I’d still be hanging around till you’re a grandmother yourself’.

When her Dad was killed, Luke had insisted she attend grief counselling; in fact, they went together for a couple of sessions. It helped to know she wasn’t alone in her grief, but she was certain she was alone in her guilt.

He made sure she continued attending even after he stopped going, ‘You’ve got to let professionals help you with post-traumatic stress.’

She opened a box of photographs. She took out one of her mother, so young, sweet and lovely. ‘The love of my life,’ Sergeant McKenzie used to say. She could still see them in her mind’s eye, hugging, teasing and playfully holding on to each other’s love handles.

It used to disgust her. ‘Oh, Mom! That’s just disgusting!’

Oliver McKenzie also used to tell her how much she looked like her Mom.

‘Thank God.’ He used to tell everyone, ‘God must love me because my only offspring doesn’t look anything like me. That would have been a punishment. A living hell.’

They were happy, the three of them. She grew up loved, well cared for and indulged. She was doted on by her Dad; she was the centre of his universe. Her world changed when her Mom became very ill, and she was sick for a very long time.

Suddenly, her father was absent from her life. He was working long hours earning the money to pay for medical bills, and when he was home, he attended only to her Mom. She resented the upheaval this disease had wrought on her family life.

Maybe it was her youthfulness and her immaturity; she was just twelve when this illness robbed her of her parents. But no, she decided, being an adolescent wasn’t an excuse, merely an explanation. She had no excuses. Except she was alone, afraid, confused and morose. What was she to do?

Her mother wasn’t in any condition to mother her. And her father was everywhere but home. Always in his police cruiser and on the streets of Los Angeles.

But her friends had been there for her. They were there to give her comfort, advice and a high. Before too long, she was hooked on drugs and her Dad’s problems just compounded big time.

She put her mother’s picture down. She dug deep into the box and pulled out a photo of her Dad and Luke, taken on the younger man’s first day on the beat. Both looked happy and young. It was a picture that reflected high hopes and dreams.

Sergeant McKenzie looked proud. On the day this photo was taken, he was probably thinking he would someday retire with honours having earned his ribbons and decorations for a job well done. But instead, he was very nearly disgraced.

In the months leading up to his death, Sergeant McKenzie was under investigation for “being in the pocket of a drug lord and known crime boss.” Twenty years of hard work and hard-earned reputation could have gone down the drain. But all wasn’t lost. He retained his good cop reputation in exchange for his life. It wasn’t a fair trade by any means, and it’s all because of me.

Hope had blamed herself and still occasionally do. Like now: Had I stayed on the straight and narrow, had I not been an addict, he couldn’t have had to sell information to pay for my rehab on top of Mom’s medical expenses.

Self-condemnation played on her mind. I should have been their rock. I should have been there for both of them. Instead, I was selfish and immature and stupid.

She didn’t know how long she had been crying.

She heard ringing, the doorbell. She quickly wiped her tears, ‘Coming’ she said. ‘Who’s there?’

‘Luke.’ She put a smile on her face before opening the door.

‘Hey,’ she said welcoming her big brother. She had wiped the tears, but her eyes were red, so he knew she wasn’t right.

‘Come here,’ he took her into his arms. The very offer of comfort prompted her tear ducts to explode, before she knew it, she was sobbing.

Luke rubbed her back and said, ‘I can’t be this ugly. There’s no need to cry every time you see me.’

She laughed at his remark. He always had a way of making her feel less sad.

He noticed the photographs on the couch, ‘What’s this? Going down memory lane without me? Shame on you.’ Then, showing her a brown paper bag, he said, Guess what?’

She knew what was in it, a slice of her most favourite cake in all the world, chocolate mud cake. She took it from him, ‘Thanks.’

‘Care to tell me about it?’ Luke asked as they went to the kitchen. She offered Luke water. ‘Actually, do you have tea?’ he said.

‘As a matter of fact, I do.’

So over afternoon tea, she told Luke of her many, many regrets. ‘Do you often feel like this?’

She looked at him with soulful eyes. ‘No, it comes and goes. I think I’m still in the process of forgiving myself for what happened to Dad. And still in the process of forgiving myself for not being there for Mom. She must have died worrying about me. She must have died wondering what she did wrong for me to turn out the way I did.’

‘Hey, don’t go there. You know they thought the world of you.’ Luke walked over to hug her.

She let go of a whole lot of pent up emotions. She needed it. She needed to let it go, to release it, to start feeling the pain and to deal with it.

‘This CI business has made me appreciate what you and Dad did. It makes me appreciate what Joe does. I just wished I had been a better human being, if not a good daughter.’

Luke wiped her tears and said something so profound even he couldn’t believe he said it, ‘It’s all in the past, Hope. What matters most is NOW. You’re in the right place, right now, and you’re heading in the right direction. Tomorrow will take care of itself. You’re going to be fine.’

Hope contemplated that and said, ‘What would I do without you?’

Luke smiled and said, ‘You can always get a tub of ice cream.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

 

Connecting the Dots

 

 

HOPE, AS IT TURNED OUT, was a natural. She knew just how to play her part, innocuously. To everyone, she was just a lovely young lady who was doing an excellent job managing the business. She wasn’t nosey, didn’t challenge instructions from the owners and didn’t pay close attention to anyone. She didn’t need to; the listening, recording and seeing devices were doing the paying attention for the authorities.

 

*

 

Out on the field, agents had observed well-dressed, regular, customers coming in for their usual meal orders and then buying a bottle or two of the premium red wine unimaginatively called ‘Supreme Vino’ at four hundred fifty a bottle.

Four freaking hundred fifty dollars a bottle! They couldn’t believe it.

A tandem of agents took turns following the mysterious buyers in the hope they would dump their worthless purchases. But after three months of trailing various people, none ever did!

If the buyers weren’t dumping them, they should buy one. Simple!

But it wasn’t simple at all. It was, in fact, out of the question. They quickly learned from Hope that only strictly “select clients” were allowed to buy the bogus goods.

The scheme was well-planned down to its minutest detail. The last thing the owners wanted was to call attention to themselves for selling tampered goods; or, reported to authorities for selling substandard products. So for damage control, only chosen individuals were permitted to buy the fake wine.

Stealing a bottle wasn’t an option open to them either. One of the young Assistant Attorneys named Angelica Delaney explained that ‘it would still be inadmissible in court.’

 

*

 

A task force was put together headed by Special Agent-in-Charge Mark Roberts. Part of the team were members of the FBI Cybercrime Unit, representatives from the U.S. Department of Treasury and legal eagles from the U.S. Department of Justice. It was an all hands on deck situation.

During one of the joint task force meetings, it was suggested that to get their hands on a bottle, they would have to ask their “insider” to smuggle it out and to require the CI to testify in a court of law. But if Hope were to do so, it goes without saying that she would have to go into witness protection for the rest of her natural life.

Victor, or Joe, didn’t like this one little bit, and he let them know it. ‘No way in hell. When she agreed to this, she committed only to gathering information. There was no discussion of her giving testimony in court and becoming a State witness.’

‘There you go. First, Luke. Now, you,’ SAC Mark Roberts interjected, ‘She’s an adult. She can make up her mind. This babysitting business needs to stop.’

But the instant he said it, SAC Roberts regretted the outburst. If word leaks out that Joe, or anyone of them for that matter, has a chink in his armour, this operation will be screwed.

Joe had had enough of the cantankerous, abrasive, steel wool personality of his Boss. Most of all, he was angered at his assumption that Hope was willing to lay her life down for the cause. Joe’s face hardened, ‘She’s not on your payroll to do your bidding. If you intend to put her life in jeopardy, then you can’t expect me to stand here and not say a word.’

‘It’s MY case, and it’s MY task force. It’s not going to run without me, and it sure as hell could go on without you! If you can’t play by my rules, you can go!’ Roberts bellowed.

Joe found himself in an impossible situation. If he’s out, then, Hope was on her own. That wasn’t an option! He would have to dance to his Boss’ music to stay. He bit his tongue. He didn’t want to say anything he might later regret, so he left in a huff after the meeting.

Hope was in peril; that much he knew. She was in too deep now to be able to get away. Joe determined she would get out of this fiasco alive and well. He felt a pang of regret for dragging her into this fine mess of an operation. But one thing he couldn’t regret was falling madly in love with her.

 

*

 

Joe found himself in the cemetery talking with Sergeant McKenzie. ‘Hope’s in trouble; I don’t know how to help her.’

He sat down cross-legged in front of the tombstone and absentmindedly pulled the grass growing at the foot of the grave. He didn’t know how long he sat there; his mind was in a fog. ‘You’ve got to get off your butt Sarge; Hope needs you.’

 

*

 

At the bistro, Hope was down to two boxes. She called her big brother.

‘Luke, I’m eight bottles short remember. What do I do?’ she asked nervously, surreptitiously glancing around to see if anyone was paying too much attention to what she was doing.

He recalled the incident at the storeroom when Joe accidentally smashed a box of wine. Hope’s neck was on the line; he had to think of a solution quickly. ‘Leave it to me. Oh, ah, upload me a photo of the wine bottle.’ They chatted some more before ending the call to give it an appearance of just one of those innocent family catch-ups.

That done, he called Joe, who was still at the cemetery.

Joe unconsciously braced himself before answering, apprehensive that he was about to be lambasted by big brother. So he was relieved to hear that it was just a call for help.

Joe saluted Sergeant McKenzie, ‘Gotta go. Get off your sweet ass, OK?’

 

*

 

The men met up and together went to the FBI lab where they replicated the bottle and the label using the latest, state of the art, 3-D printer.

Two days later, they were at Juliana’s Bistro to hand over the falsified, faked goods. They couldn’t help but laugh at how silly that was.

‘Whew,’ she said.

Luke hung around a little longer.

Hope, he sensed was a little distant from him. But he was unsure what caused the chasm between them. Could it just be the fact she was growing up right before his eyes? Or maybe this case has created a wedge between them?

He hoped it was the former and not the latter.

 

*

 

The bistro had made a total gross sale of eighty-seven thousand from the first batch of wine over fifteen weeks. Hope couldn’t recall a time when she had banked that many thousands of dollars in daily takings in the three years she had worked there.

Now that the business was “booming,” even the Branch Bank Manager noted the increased deposits. She was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that she asked Hope to switch to another banking product that offered a better interest rate.

Hope declined. ‘The owner wouldn’t want me to mess with the accounts. I’m just a go-fer.’

The crime syndicate, ably assisted and advised by accountants and lawyers, made sure they stayed under the radar. Daily deposits never came close to ten thousand. By legislation, all financial institutions were required to report transactions exceeding this amount. The maximum deposit Hope was instructed to make was eight thousand; more frequently, the deposits were between five and six thousand.

But even assuming they deposited more than ten thousand a day, the owners knew they had nothing to fear. Legally speaking, they did not break any laws. The money was legally obtained selling goods through legally established businesses.

In practice, money laundering is about washing dirty money, in this case, proceeds from selling drugs, and cleaning it through legitimate channels. Although it had all the appearances of legitimacy, the owners still preferred to stay under the radar, just in case; hence the slow trickle of deposits.

Four months later, Hope received another delivery from the same entity called ‘Los Angeles Import and Export (LAIE) Pty. Ltd.’

This time, the delivery was double: three hundred sixty bottles of purported premium red wine. It turned out that the first consignment was a trial run. Clearly it had proved successful.

The new invoice came to ninety thousand dollars, which Hope was told to pay in full through wire transfer. Managers of the other nine establishments were asked to do the same.

The “importer” now had a whopping nine hundred thousand in its bank account. All of it legally earned. They imported wines, sold them to legitimate retailers, and got paid for their trouble.

All that the importer had to do now was to pay their corporate taxes and bills when they fall due. But with allowable deductions and some creative accounting, the corporate tax bill would likely amount to just a few hundred dollars.

 

*

 

To complicate it further, different dummy companies had bought each of the ten establishments under investigation. Each had their bank accounts, their sets of accountants and attorneys advising them.

The burden of proof was entirely on the FBI’s shoulders. Without a reliable insider, all they could monitor were the small fries.

The FBI also had the added burden of establishing the identity of the regular buyers, who numbered more than a hundred, find out what they did for a living and how they could afford to buy wine at four hundred fifty dollars, week in, week out.

Further connecting the dots, LAIE Pty. Ltd. had ordered the premium red wines from an Italian company called W.I.N.O.

Strangely, although it was making a roaring trade, it didn’t think it necessary to pay for a creative team to think of a more original name. W.I.N.O. was just as good as any.

For the delivery of three thousand six hundred bottles of fake wine at one hundred fifty dollars each, LAIE transferred five hundred forty thousand dollars to W.I.N.O.’s overseas business account. All done legally.

Once the money transferred out of the United States, FBI’s Cybercrime Unit took over. They electronically tracked the money to determine whether it was being used to finance terrorist activities.

An agent commented that money laundering should be classified as an act of terrorism on its own, regardless. ‘It’s harming the economy and hurting us.’

But the people with the hardest task were the Attorney General’s Office (AGO). One of them commented in exasperation that even if they could prove that the bottles contained coloured water instead of wine, all it would prove was that the importer was “cheated of its money.”

And since the importer wasn’t complaining, then it was up to the AGO to prove that the importer and the exporter were in it together.

More importantly, they had to get their hands on a bottle using whatever legal means was available. They needed “probable cause.”

BUT, as far as the law was concerned, none of the establishments was doing anything illegal for which they could be prosecuted. They had been careful to comply with even the smallest sanitation rule.

A young lawyer banged his head on the table. A.D.A. Angelica Delaney commiserated. 

God help America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12

 

In the Firing Range and in the Range of Fire

 

 

LUKE TOOK FAITH’S advice to heart.

One of the first things he did was take Hope to a firing range where he taught her the science and art of shooting. Arming her, without giving her knowledge and skills, were most definitely out of the question. Owning a weapon comes with a responsibility to be able to handle it well.

Five months later, Hope completed the gun safety course and obtained a permit to carry a gun. The message she left on Luke’s phone was unmistakably full of excitement; she was jumping out of her skin, ‘Luke, I got it. I got my license.’

He called back to congratulate her and arranged for them to go shopping for a handgun on his day off in two days’ time. They arranged to meet up at a local pizzeria for lunch.

On the day of the meet, Luke arrived first and placed their order while waiting for her. Hope came bouncing in through the glass doors with springs on her feet.

Luke smiled at the vision of her; she looked adorable with her blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Her deep blue eyes sparkled with happiness as the sunlight hit her face. She was a sight to behold, much younger looking than her twenty-two years, and it made his big brother heart worry even more.

Her checked shirt was a size or two too big, it made Luke suspect it wasn’t hers. She wore an overall on top of it. A pair of Timberland boots with loosely tied laces and a backpack completed her outfit.

Luke was delighted to see her happy and care-free. She kissed him on his cheek, ‘How’s life?’ she asked happily.

‘Good, Faith and I going away for a few days at the end of the month.’

Hope eyed him questioningly, her gaze steady and penetrating, ‘Whose idea was it?’

Luke merely looked at her.

‘Come on,’ she urged, ‘was it your idea or hers?’

‘Mine,’ he said. Just then, the waiter arrived with the food and drinks.

‘Pepperoni?’ he inquired, as he balanced their orders in both hands.

‘Her’s,’ Luke replied. For himself, he ordered a vegetarian pizza topped with lots of olives. White wine for himself and Coke for her.

As soon as the waiter left, Hope restarted the inquisition. ‘Ok, it’s your idea to go away, where are you taking her?’

‘I’m just paying.’ Luke replied, adding, ‘She’s arranging everything. If I do it, she might not like my choices, this way I know she likes everything.’ And with mock humility, he said, ‘That’s because I’m very considerate and romantic, eh?’

Hope made a face, ‘What’s romantic in that?’

Not one to elaborate, Luke just gave her a playful smirk. He took her into his confidence without so much as uttering a word. Her eyes grew wide, ‘Oh, you’re going to propose, aren’t you? You are!’

‘I didn’t say anything,’ he said with a wag of a finger. ‘You’re reading too much into it.’

Before too long, and since they were in an inquisition phase, he asked, ‘Have you been seeing Joe?’

Hope tried to gauge Luke’s mood before answering, but she wasn’t subtle in the least. ‘You’re trying to read me,’ he said, ‘No use, I’m inscrutable.’

She smiled sheepishly and stuck her tongue out. Defensively, she said, ‘I swear to you he’s been nothing but a perfect gentleman. He’s amazing. He’s sweet. He’s adorable. He’s kind. He’s kinda like you in a way. But he’s less of a cranky pot.’

Luke threw his head back slightly, ‘No one’s ever called me a cranky pot before. Besides, if you were me looking after you, you’d be cranky too.’

After two hours of bantering, they decided to get going. They travelled together in Luke’s car and left her little Honda on the pizzeria’s car park.

Shopping for a gun wasn’t what big brothers were supposed to do with their little sisters, but as far as Luke was concerned, it was this or worry constantly. They could have browsed online for a handgun. But he wanted to see how she handled it and for her to be able to ask questions about the make and the model of the weapon before buying it, not something she could do online.

They picked a Springfield XD Subcompact 9mm handgun, one of the smallest weapons in the world. It was perfect for her small hands and easy to conceal in her tiny frame. The other reason he liked this particular gun was its design. It was made in such a way that the user could, by feel, in the dark, know whether it was ready to fire and whether it was loaded.

If it were entirely up to him, Hope wouldn’t have any need for a weapon. But his opinion didn’t count for much these days, and he was starting to resent it.

He drove her back to the pizzeria where they left her car. She gave him a tight hug, thanked him a million times and told him ‘not to worry’ about half a dozen times, not that it worked. He told her it was his prerogative to worry.

He watched her drive off. Not contented with that, he followed four cars back. After five city blocks, he didn’t observe anyone tailing her, so he peeled off before he became a full-on stalker.

Inside his car, while stuck in traffic, he said out of the blue, ‘God, please don’t give me a daughter.’ He laughed when he realised what he just said.

Here he was very much in love with Faith and yet unmarried still. That reminded him, the ring. He was indeed very close to proposing marriage to the woman of his dreams.

 

*

 

His phone beeped, he ignored it until he reached the Fire Station.

At the carpark, he turned on his phone, there was a message from SAC Roberts. He braced himself and expelled a breath before reading it; he has a way of rubbing me the wrong way.

But the brief text was more alarming than annoying, ‘Need help to catch a mole.’

‘Why me?’ He sent back in reply.

Minutes later, Luke still had not received a response. Typical, he thought to himself. He soon forgot about it until he got home at the end of his twelve-hour shift.

 

*

 

Standing on the curb of his street was none other than SAC Roberts, dressed in a cleaner’s uniform complete with a cleaning van.

They didn’t acknowledge each other. House key in hand, Luke walked straight to his door without so much as a glance at the “cleaner,” however, he held the door open for him.

Roberts casually walked in, and mouthed, ‘Thanks,’ It all appeared innocent to anyone who might be watching.

They headed to the kitchen, ‘Wha’d you like?’ Luke asked, playing the part of a reluctant host.

‘Same as you.’

Luke made two small pots of coffee using the brew drip system. He liked watching the dark liquid drip, for him, it was part of the relaxation process. He handed Roberts the first brew, for which the FBI SAC was grateful.

They sat on bar stool fronting each other. Luke scrutinised his guest. Roberts looked haggard, ‘When was the last time you had a decent sleep?’

Roberts gave him a crooked smile, ‘More or less twenty years ago.’

They sipped their freshly brewed coffee, invigorated by the caffeine hit and the aroma of the Arabica beans. After the first cup full, Roberts pulled something out of his back pocket, he smoothed the pages on the kitchen bench. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘It’s the list of everyone in the task force, everyone who’s been to our briefings. One of them is a mole.’

Luke read the list, none of the names meant anything to him, except Roberts and Joe.

Roberts continued, ‘Three times, we organised to pick up the wine buyers. Three times they all went to ground. That’s not a coincidence.’

‘So, what do you want me to do with this?’ he asked confused. ‘I’m a fireman, not a detective.’

‘That’s why you’re the best person to help us find out who the mole is. I knew you were being fast-tracked to detective before things went south and you quit. I heard from the grapevine that you “know” people. People who are useful. I can’t ask for help from the Cybercrime Unit; they’re part of the task force.’

He paused briefly, then added, ‘The owners of Juliana’s Bistro is shifting Hope to another establishment.’

Luke’s expression changed from intrigued to plain bewildered. He had just spent half a day with Hope, and she didn’t mention a word of it.

Roberts’ brows met at the centre of his forehead, ‘She hadn’t told you?’ In his experience, this wasn’t unusual, and he said so as much. ‘If she didn’t, then she has her reasons.’

Worried to his core, Luke read through the names with his eyes, wondering if any of these people were indeed the sort who could betray their own. He looked at Roberts, who had years of experience, a strong gut feel and survival instinct. If he was saying there’s a mole, there has to be one. So he said, ‘I’ll do it.’

The sides of Roberts’ lips rose a fraction, his economical version of a smile. ‘Keep me informed.’

Then, to mollify Luke’s anxiety, he said, ‘in the meantime, Joe’s looking after Hope.’ Then, added as an aside, ‘a little too well for my liking.’

Soon, Roberts bade his goodbye.

 

*

 

As soon as the unexpected visitor left, Luke went to his office, turned on his computer, logged on to Facebook and messaged Hope, ‘Did you forget to tell me something?’

Hope, who happened to be online, stared at the monitor for a minute before responding and only because another line appeared, ‘I’m waiting,’ it said.

‘I didn’t tell you cause you’ll worry & will be upset with me.’

Luke replied, ‘From now on tell me, I’ll try not to be upset. Where are they sending you next?’

‘Paulo’s Restaurant.’

Oddly, the name sounded familiar. Then his memory of the place kicked in big time.

He blurted out angrily, ‘You can’t go there, that’s near Paul Bullard’s hang-out.’

Luke had every reason to be hugely upset. It was Paul Bullard who shot Sergeant McKenzie.

Hope argued, ‘That’s why I didn’t tell you, I know you’d object. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.’

‘Hope, you’re trying to get yourself killed. Bullard and his men, they’d recognise you. So, no, you’re not going.’

‘I AM! End of story. I still love you, though.’ Hope logged out.

Luke was left staring at the screen fuming. He turned off his computer and went to join Faith, who was still up and waiting for him. She was watching late night television.

‘Hi,’ she said.

He ignored her. Bradley and Cooper rushed him; he shooed them away.

Faith sensed the hostility, so she ushered the two cats to the guest bedroom. Luke was in the bathroom when she came back. There was nothing more to do then than wait and see what mood he would be in when he gets out of the shower. He came out dressed in his pyjamas but completely ignored her.

[_Right, if that’s how you want to play it. _]

She went to sleep in the guest bedroom with Bradley and Cooper.

Luke was left to stew – alone and miserable. But two hours later, he decided to join Faith and the two cats.

When he snuggled with Faith on the single bed, the two tomcats disapproved. Nevertheless, Bradley gave way. Cooper, however, let him know what he thought. On the way down to jump off the bed, he smacked Luke’s face with his tail.

Luke, who was an absolute pain in the ass, grumbled, ‘Just you remember who buys your food,’ he said.

Faith was more forgiving of his dour mood and allowed him to snuggle in. He was still miserable, but at least, he was not alone.

She was awake but pretended to be asleep. He was grateful for this for he was in no mood for pillow talk. All he wanted to soothe his anger was a soft, warm body to hug. Moments later, Bradley and Cooper snuggled in as well, cocooning him in family love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

Peanut Butter and Jam Morning

 

 

MORNING CAME. He awoke to the aroma of coffee and music playing in the background. He stayed still with his fingers locked under his head, listening to Faith move about in the kitchen preparing what he was pretty sure to be a mean Sunday roast. It was a rare occasion for them to have the same day off and on a weekend at that.

A glance at his wrist watch told him it was nine in the morning, too early to be preparing food until he remembered that they had invited her parents to visit. He naughtily prayed that they would call to cancel. He wanted to have Faith to himself.

It was time to get up, so he dragged his wearied body out of the cramped single bed. Out of habit, he checked his cell phone to make sure he didn’t miss a call. He hadn’t, that was another reason to rejoice. It meant, in his profession, there had been no wild brush fires, no arson incidence, and no major traffic accident while he was sleeping. So he felt better already.

But, it was short-lived.

In the bathroom, he tripped over Cooper. The cat had elected to lounge on the floor mat. He braced himself against the wall to stop himself falling into the toilet bowl itself. He muttered a strongly worded reprimand to the Exotic Shorthair Cat. But Cooper just looked at him like he had lost all his marbles and opened its mouth to yawn, not even bothering to move out of the way so his human could use the loo.

Luke shook his head and wondered aloud, ‘Why me?’

He changed into a tight-fitting, grey T-shirt and a pair of sports shorts before joining Faith in the kitchen. She had made toasted peanut butter and jam sandwich for herself.

‘Nice,’ he said, ‘Thanks.’

Faith watched him bite into her sandwich, ‘That wasn’t for you,’ she informed him. He shrugged, smiled and continued munching away, so she made another one for herself. He ate that, too. She made one more he ate that again, too.

She stopped making peanut butter and jam sandwich. ‘OK, what’s wrong,’ she said with arms crossed.

‘What made you think there’s something wrong,’ he said between mouthfuls.

She tilted her head slightly and eyed the sandwich.

He looked at it, ‘Just hungry,’ he said. He saw the coffee and gulped it down, too.

‘Luke, I’ve put up with it long enough. It’s you against the world; I get it. But you’re taking it out on me. It’s not fair.’

He wasn’t in the mood to talk, but Faith was right. She was caught up in his vortex whether she liked it or not, and had to live with the consequences of stuff he brought home. So in fairness, he told her the short version of the most recent drama involving Hope, and by extension Joe Di Nozzi alias Victor Carabella.

Faith, on the other hand, had become an expert at reading between the lines.

‘She’s an adult, and she’s making up her mind. Do what you do best. Rig the place with your toys. Can you install panic buttons, too?’

She removed a black rubber bracelet equipped with a GPS tracker from her wrist. A thoughtful gift from Luke when a mental patient at the hospital took a liking to her and stalked her for some weeks. ‘Give this to her, and then you’ll know where she is every minute of the day.’

He took it from her but put it back on her wrist. ‘It’s yours… you’re not to remove it ever. I can get one for her.’ Then he said, I’m still hungry.’

‘You’re not hungry, you’re stressed,’ she observed.

He pouted. ‘I hate you when you do that.’ He took the jar of peanut butter and used his finger to scoop out some.

She was aghast, ‘Ah, at least, use a spoon.’

Did it end there? No, he scooped out some more and fed Bradley and Cooper with his finger. ‘It’s nearly gone,’ he said as an excuse.

She waved her hand to say she didn’t care, but it was, in fact, an act of surrender. ‘I’m going to the supermarket,’ she said, ‘is there anything I can get for you?’

He turned on the television, ‘As a matter of fact; there’s something you can do for me.’ The time stamp on the TV screen said 9:15 am. The sun was bright, and the sky was blue as blue can be, looked like it was an ideal day to go running.

But first things first. He showed Bradley and Cooper the empty jar of peanut butter. Satisfied that no more good thing was going to come out of it, they left him to do their own thing. Luke tossed the plastic bottle into the recycle bin, went to his office and came back with a box, ‘Give this to Hope. She’ll be at the bistro today. Tell her – ‘

She finished the sentence for him. ‘Don’t remove it. Don’t take it off even when you shower. It’s waterproofed.’

He kissed the top of her head, then out of nowhere he said, ‘Remind me not to have daughters, OK.’

She cracked up laughing, ‘What brought that on?’

‘Stress,’ he said.

‘Remind me not to have daughters with YOU,’ was her cheeky reply. Shaking her head, she added, ‘You’d be an awful father to girls.’

Luke objected, ‘No, I’d be a darn good father of girls. I’d lock them up.’

He put on his running shoes, walked Faith to her car, and kissed her on the lips before he pounded the pavement.

Faith beeped the car horn as she passed him. He yelled out ‘I love you’ at the top of his lungs prompting the old man who was gardening on his front lawn to pop his head up. He smiled at Luke, showing his approval.

 

*

 

It being a Sunday, Juliana’s Bistro had a later opening time, but Hope had been in since seven. It’s her last week at Juliana’s.

Gina was going to take over managing it from her. It had been a very busy week handing everything over.

To make the transition smoother, she typed up “Things to do” list for opening and closing; banking and re-ordering; where to send accounts payables and receivables, payroll and time sheet; and the procedure to follow in an emergency. She printed these and tacked them on the wall. She didn’t realise how many responsibilities she carried until she saw them listed.

Joe, Victor to everyone else, came in at seven like clockwork just to check up on her. He often hung around until either Lisa or Gina got there.

‘Always the first customer of the day,’ they would say. Since Luke hadn’t come in for four months, Victor was now the girls’ new crush though they knew he’s already taken.

‘Your boyfriend’s here,’ Lisa would often teasingly call out to Hope.

The morning business was slow, so Hope joined Victor for breakfast. They sat at the corner table far from sight and out of hearing range. They shared a big morning breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, bacon strips, mushrooms and a pot of tea.

They ate leisurely, as they had no need to rush. Undercover work doesn’t crank up a lever until crooks wake up, usually at two in the afternoon. ‘Are you ready to move?’ he asked.

‘As ready as I can be,’ she said with confidence. ‘By the way, I got my license.’

Her boyfriend was pleased. ‘Good on ya. D’ya want to practice together?’

‘I’d like that,’ she said eagerly, so they arranged to meet at a shooting range in the City. She added bemusedly, ‘We’re probably the only two people in the world who date at a shooting range.’

He nodded in agreement with her statement, but not with the sentiment. He would rather they dated in a more romantic, less hostile environment.

‘Ah, just so you know, we’ll be working together. I’m a kitchen hand at Paulo’s Restaurant. Since you’re in charge, you’ve gotta make sure we work the same shift every day. I work when you work. Deal?’

‘Sure,’ she said gratefully.

Vic’s constant presence had been reassuring and had given her confidence. ‘What are you doing tonight?’

‘We’re fitting it with the usual,’ he said without mentioning the restaurant by name, ‘Lisa and Gina know about the toys here?’

Hope shook her head, ‘Best they don’t know.’

 

*

 

Faith arrived casually dressed in a white blouse tapered at the waist, 3/4th black pants and black ballet flats. The sun was out, but she still carried a red cardigan.

It was a gorgeous day to meet a friend. Joining her was Stephanie, her BFF. They have been best buddies since forever.

Once they found a seat, the service was prompt. ‘I’m Lisa, your waitress, what can I get you?’

Faith ordered a flat white and a caramel slice. Steph asked for a croissant with ham and cheese and black tea. The girlish laughter from their table attracted a lot of attention. Heads turned to look at the stunning blonde and the exotic brunette, even Victor couldn’t help but admire the view. The brunette looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her. Where have I seen her before?

Just then Victor’s phone vibrated, he answered it and bade adieu to Hope.

It was time. Faith offered to pay for breakfast. Steph obliged with, ‘Sure, I’ll get the next one.’

She walked up to the counter to catch up with Hope, who was happy to see her. ‘I’ve got something for you.’ She checked they were alone before taking the rubber bracelet out of the box and put it on Hope’s wrist. ‘Don’t remove it, OK? Not even in the shower. It’s waterproof.’

She didn’t let go of Hope’s arm until she made her promise. Hope smiled and looked slightly embarrassed at all the fuzz. ‘Promise,’ she said.

‘Look I have one, too,’ Faith said showing off the black rubber bracelet on her right wrist.

Just as Lisa came out of the backroom, Faith said, ‘I’m paying for table 9,’ handing her credit card over.

Hope completed the transaction and upon giving back Faith’s card with the receipt, she said, ‘Thanks for coming.’ Her eyes conveyed the double meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14

 

Unmitigated Suffering

 

 

THERE WAS NO DOUBT who Paulo’s Restaurant was named after. Paul Bullard, that’s who. The well-connected crime kingpin controlled the drug market in the inner-city of Los Angeles.

The man killed Hope’s father. Shot him dead in cold blood. He should have been in jail for life for killing a cop, but luckily for him, one of his men took the fall in exchange for a monthly stipend for his mother, wife and children.

Instead, Paul went to jail for possession. That was, pathetically, all that the District Attorney could make stick on the Teflon criminal. After just two years, he was out and back at the business end of the illegal drugs trade.

The audacity of the man was galling. Fittingly, the sociopathic narcissist had deliberately named the restaurant after himself so he could see his name in lights from his office window.

And why the hell not?

He had assumed that the authorities would have a near impossible task of linking him to the business. Referring to himself in the third person, he often thought that connecting Paul Bullard to the enterprise would be a herculean task.

His name didn’t appear anywhere. On paper, the owners were Americans of Chinese ethnicity. Except for naming the restaurant Paulo, there was nothing to indicate it could be his.

 

*

 

Hope slowly drove past the restaurant and saw Bullard holding court, surrounded by his lackeys.

Armed with a pair of binoculars, she parked at a safe distance to observe, watching what he did and with whom. It had been four years since her father’s murder but the fervour of her heartache had not diminished. It was still smouldering; and, the pain was at times excruciating. She sensed that the slightest wisp of wind could blow it into a raging inferno.

Watching Paul, she saw not a human being but a mistake. A festering sore. A blight on humanity.

That’s what he is and all he’ll ever be. A waste of space.

This undercover thing was all new to her. Everything in this game was unquantifiable and unpredictable. Every misstep could cost a life, hers in the main. But it didn’t matter. He would pay, and he would pay dearly. But for that to happen, she had to be good. She just had to prepare well.

It was getting late in the afternoon. She had to make a move to attend her self-defence classes. Her tutor would be worried if she didn’t turn up on time. All fired up in her gut; she navigated her way to the Wing Chun Martial Arts Academy.

 

*

 

Master Yip was already at the gym, pacing the floor calmly in meditation. She smiled at him apologetically for being fractionally late; he nodded graciously in return.

From the start, they instantly liked each other. A genuine camaraderie had grown between them. The Chinese teacher was easy to get along with. A stern and fair instructor who expected nothing from her but serious dedication to the discipline of Wing Chun.

Developed by a woman, Wing Chun’s philosophy is to use of the body like a piece of bamboo, firm but flexible, rooted yet yielding.

The aim of this graceful martial art is to either deflect external forces or redirect them. Among practitioners of self-defence, it’s the common consensus that Wing Chun is the most suited to the feminine form.

Hope changed out of her street clothes into her martial arts outfit. She loved training because Wing Chun had taught her awareness of her body and its movements. Since taking it up, she noticed how supple her body had become. And she had been able to take the pain, sparring with Master Yip wasn’t for the wimpy or the weak hearted. She went home every time from training heavily bruised.

Hot bath had become her cure-all.

 

*

 

Nightfall came.

Long-suffering Faith had been waiting for her Luke for hours. They had agreed to spend the evening together, even instructed her to record the latest episode of ‘Blindspot’ so they could watch it while curled up on the couch.

She tried calling him three times, but they all went to voicemail. Upset and frustrated, she went to bed alone, thinking how long before she runs out of patience.

The cause of her upset wasn’t even the fact that she had been relegated to fourth fiddle after work, Hope and Roberts. It was the fact she was altogether taken for granted.

 

*

 

Just at the moment, Joe and Luke were at Paulo’s Restaurant committing B and E. Technically, they were breaking and entering.

On hand to be fitted in the premises, were six listening and recording devices, four cameras, and four panic buttons.

Luke was especially careful to make sure the panic buttons were installed correctly and in a manner that wouldn’t look out of place. He placed one near the cash register, one in the kitchen, one in the backroom and one in the toilet.

It was risky business for them due to the restaurant’s proximity to Bullard HQ. Any minute, any one of the gang could come by, so they worked with just pinpoint light from their Maglites.

It was three in the morning by the time they finished. They were bone tired, but it was worth it.

 

*

 

In the car, on their way home, Luke asked, ‘Tell me, how does Bullard connect with the money laundering operation?’

Joe replied. ‘We believe it’s his drug money that’s being laundered.’

But believing it didn’t mean squat. They had to prove it. It went without saying; it would be next to impossible without an insider. Hope McKenzie’s UC role would be crucial to the FBI’s mission.

He continued. ‘Base on photographic evidence, the wine buyers are Bullard’s people. We’d be able to confirm this when we pick up a few of them for questioning, soon we hope. We were meant to do that last week, but they went to ground.’

They locked eyes. Luke sighed, remembering Roberts’ request for help to unearth a mole in his team.

Luke forced himself to focus. ‘OK, let’s see if I follow. They’re using proceeds from drug sale to buy crap wine. The retail outlets sell the wine and then get to keep a commission. What’s the current market rate? Twenty percent, right? And we’re talking millions of dollars. No wonder he has no difficulty convincing clean skins to risk it.’

Clean skins are people with no criminal records. People who police wouldn’t ordinarily suspect of engaging in crooked enterprise. Often, clean skins have been forced to join as a way of repaying debt owed or enticed by financial gains.

‘Yup, just like the new owners of ‘Juliana’s Café. They borrowed capital from Bullard to start the business but sadly couldn’t pay it back. Business was slow.’ confirmed Luke.

Joe carried on. ‘Not all are owned by others, though. Bullard owns, at least, half of the restaurants and retail outlets. Maybe even the import and export company. The guy’s making a killing and ruining us all in the process.’

Their conversation ended when they arrived at Luke’s house.

 

*

 

On his way home, Joe drove by Juliana’s Bistro. There, he spotted Hope’s car in the parking lot. He impulsively decided this was as good as any to talk sense into her.

He called her cell phone. ‘Let me in.’

Hope was surprised. He didn’t come in this early. Nevertheless, he was out there, so she let him in. ‘Go to the back,’ she said.

The back door was left ajar. He walked in and had a shock. He nearly didn’t recognise her. Hope had cut her long hair. She now sported a crew cut, shaved close to the scalp and coloured it red. She sported a tiny nose ring, and there was a colourful tattoo of a small dragon on the inside of her right arm.

Stunned, he grabbed her wrist and blurted, ‘What have you done?’

‘It’s temporary, silly. It will wash off over time. What brought you here?’

Joe cupped her gamine face in his hands. Brown eyes looked deep into a pair of sapphire blues, ‘Why are you doing this?’

She couldn’t stop herself, her eyes welled up. ‘I want justice for my Dad.’

Joe felt her anguish. It was deep-rooted and implacable. ‘But this is not what we’re about,’ he whispered. ‘Revenge is not what this is about.’

Hope gripped his arm, ‘You can trust me. I won’t kill him, no, I just want justice. And I will find justice if it kills me.’

‘You don’t understand… that’s what I’m afraid of. I can’t lose you. I can’t. I can’t let you do this.’

Hope removed his hands from her shoulders, ‘Then, we’re done.’

It stung! He stood transfixed in her presence, shocked and flustered.

She turned her back on him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15

 

More Hands on Deck

 

 

JOE LEFT downcast and despondent. He accepted defeat – for now – rationalising to himself that backing off from the argument was be the best strategy to employ at present.

He sent a text message to Luke before driving home, briefly narrating what had transpired between him and Hope. Within seconds, he got a reply: Leave it with me, I’ll take care of it.

Joe felt a tad relieved after reading the message from Luke, but guilt lingered at the pit of his stomach. He sat in the car park wishing he hadn’t got her involved in the first place.

Finally, he switched on the ignition. He needed to get some sleep; his brain was screaming bloody murder. He shifted the car into gear and headed home.

 

*

 

Miles away, as quietly as possible, Luke got out of bed to make coffee. There wasn’t any chance he’d any sleep after reading that message from Joe.

Faith was also very much awake, pretending to be asleep, listening to the sound emanating from the kitchen. She absentmindedly stroked Bradley’s coat as the affectionate cat lay resting on her belly.

It had been a tough couple of months for them, the most challenging it had ever been. She admitted to herself that she felt abandoned. She understood Hope needed Luke to be closer than ever. But understanding it didn’t mean she didn’t hurt.

She counted the cost.

Out the window had been their regular once-a-week date nights they committed to when they first move in together. And more recently, their conversations were always centred on Hope. Morning, noon and night.

She sighed, telling herself, ‘This, too, shall pass’.

It was a work day for both of them. So she forced herself to get out of bed. ‘Hey, baby, good morning.’

Luke turned around.

In his eyes, she looked deliciously dishevelled. She was still wearing her teddy nightie on, strands of shoulder-length curly black hair tumbled down her face. She swiped them away, revealing her hazel eyes. He smiled, reached for her and gave her a tight morning hug, nuzzling her neck in the process. A hand squeezed one of her ass cheeks.

She removed his hand from her bottom. ‘No morning delight for you,’ she said. ‘I have to get ready for work. You missed your chance last night.’

‘My bad,’ he said as Faith escaped to the bedroom. He ran a hand over his head in frustration. He couldn’t remember the last time they had sex. Self-service under the shower would be more like it, he thought.

When Faith came out again, she was dressed for work but only had time to sip coffee from his mug, and kiss him goodbye before hastening to go to the hospital. Seconds later, she returned and said, ‘Love you and miss you.’

He smiled and said likewise. Guilt surfaced when she said, ‘Miss you.’ He was aware that hadn’t been present in their relationship lately. ‘That has to change,’ he murmured, promising to rectify the situation, soon.

He put food in the cats’ bowls and refilled their water before crawling back to bed. Lucky for him, he was on the afternoon shift. He could use some sleep. But first a cold shower!

 

*

 

SAC Roberts had been busy, operating on very little sleep, juggling the balls in the air, mightily struggling not to drop any. He needed additional help.

Who else can I rope in?

The more he thought about the operation, the more convinced he was that the way forward was to snip it at the source: Dry out the drug money. He had an epiphany: the Los Angeles Vice Squad.

He called his equivalent at the Vice Squad, known to all as Cruise, and requested for a senior detective to be seconded to his Team. ‘I need someone with a lot of experience. Someone with savoir-faire; preferably one who had done both tactical and undercover investigations. Someone tested and tried.’

The name of David Colby, better known in his department as DC, was mentioned. ‘He’s your man. He’s yours for the duration. This isn’t a permanent transfer. Clear?’

SAC Roberts laughed, ‘Yup, you can have him back when I retire.’

Cruise guffawed. ‘Well, that’s a problem, I can’t imagine you retiring. What’d you do for the next twenty years?’

‘Don’t think I’d last that long. I’m lucky to make it to sixty. Anyway, can you arrange for him to meet me in an hour at Gringo? I’d recognise him.’

As soon as the call was disconnected, the SAC logged into a secure personnel database to read up on Colby, D. He read through it in minutes and was sufficiently impressed.

Before heading out, he went through his tick sheet of things to do. Going down the list, he saw the words Find Mole, written in his dreadful chicken scratch script.

He wondered if Luke had gotten off his ass or if he was too busy child-minding. He wrote a reminder to follow Luke up on the matter of the mole in his little black book. He just couldn’t get the hang of using the Blackberry.

This operation was his swan song, and by golly, he’d do it right. He would put away that slithering snake, Paul Bullard, for life or die trying.

 

*

 

The Boss summoned David to his Office.

‘Whoa, DC, what have you done?’ one of his teammates ribbed him.

He shrugged.

Wracking his brains for any offences he might have committed, he nevertheless navigated his way to the Boss’ office. The corridors were crowded as usual. They seemed to have to squeeze between people and boxes all the time. He tripped over one stack three feet high, just managing to break his fall by grabbing on a door handle.

He tapped on his Boss’ door before entering, ‘Sarge.’

Cruise invited him in and instructed him to shut the door. ‘You’ve got a meeting with SAC Mark Roberts, FBI’s White Collar Crimes Unit in half an hour at Gringo. You’re being seconded to his unit temporarily. DC heads up, we call the man “Steel Wool”. You’d know why when you meet him.’

The Vice Squad Detective smiled crookedly, ‘I’m not being punished, right?’ He asked, just to be sure.

The Sergeant chuckled. ‘No. But good luck. You’ll need it.’

 

*

 

DC walked briskly to the popular diner. It was always at full capacity during breakfast, lunch and dinner. But at two in the afternoon, only a handful of customers were around. He walked in and immediately saw a man sitting in the farthest corner facing the door. Intuitively, he knew it had to be Roberts.

He made a beeline for the man dressed in cheap, crumpled suit. The tie was twisted to the side. Why Roberts bothered to follow the FBI dress code DC could only wonder. He slid his bum opposite without the usual introduction. They skipped the handshake ritual and went straight to business, speaking quietly over coffee for over an hour.

When the meeting ended, DC felt very scratched indeed. Steel Wool had scraped his skin real good. But since he’d been volunteered to Roberts’ team, he’d drink cement to harden up if he had to.

 

*

 

Practice makes perfect!

She had been religiously going to shooting practice at the range every Sunday. Her marksmanship had improved a lot. But drawing the gun fast enough to stay alive was another matter altogether.

At home, she practiced this every day using any kitchen implement she could find.

She was soaking her aching body in an ice bath after a rigorous sparring session of Wing Chun when she heard her front door click. She stealthily moved out of the tub, trying her hardest not to disturb the water too much. She wrapped herself in a robe, tied it around her tightly in case she had to do hand-to-hand combat.

She positioned herself behind the wall opposite the door. The second it opened, whoever entered, would acquire a souvenir he’d rather not have.

Seconds later, she heard a faint knock on the door. ‘Hope.’

The voice was Luke’s. What the hell?

She felt her blood boil, but she tried to contain the irritation in her voice, ‘I’m in the bath, coming.’ She came out and presented a smiling face, but she wasn’t fooling big brother.

‘Don’t get angry. I didn’t knock in case you were sleeping. Yes, I did check your bedroom, and no, not because I thought Joe might be hiding in there. Peace?’ Luke held up two fingers.

Standing there holding up a V-sign with a contrite face, Luke made her smile. ‘Peace,’ she said right back at him and held up two fingers. ‘Let me change.’

Luke sat down, thankful that Joe had warned him of the brand new Hope. He wouldn’t have recognised the girl who came out of the bathroom.

Hope came out in a checked shirt tied at the waist, a pair of denim pants and Timberland boots. Luke thought, she looked like a boy in that get-up, especially with her red-dyed crew cut and black rubber bracelet.

Feeling the part, and relishing it, she sat across from him, right leg stretched out, slightly reclined against the back of the seat. She had rolled up her sleeve up to her elbow, showing the small, colourful tattoo of a dragon on the inside of her right arm. He was foretold it was temporary; so he didn’t go ballistic.

Luke continued to stare at the new Hope.

She broke his trance, ‘What? Are you just going to stare at me all night?’

‘Let’s go to the kitchen. I could use some tea. Do you have herbal? I need one with calming effect,’ he joked.

She chuckled. Hearing her sweet sounding laughter, he thought, thank God I haven’t completely lost her.

He observed she was behaving in a more masculine way. It wasn’t brusque, but it wasn’t her usual feminine movements either.

What are you up to, girl?

‘Hope, do you remember what you told me four months ago? You said you wanted to help Joe because you love him. You became his CI because you’re both in love, and you wanna work with him. When did that change?’

There was no point lying. If she wanted justice, then she’d have to get everyone on side, not offside.

‘About a month ago, I recognised one of the wine buyers. He was one of my dealers. I put two and two together. I kinda knew Bullard had something to do with it.’

Luke was appalled. The pitch of his voice went up a notch, ‘Hope, if you recognised him, he very likely recognised you, too.’

‘He didn’t see me. Not one of them has seen me. I’ve been very careful since I became a CI. I’ve not served anyone I didn’t know. I stayed in the backroom and monitored everything from there. Only Gina and Lisa sold the bottles. They’re nineteen; they can legally sell alcohol.’

They were silent for a minute; then Hope broke the impasse.

‘Look, you’ve done everything humanly possible to protect me.’ She held up her arm to show the bracelet tracker.

‘You’ve installed panic buttons and bugging devices. And, Joe will be there, he’ll be with me all the time. And, I’m always careful.’ She paused to let that sink in. ‘I’m not suicidal or homicidal. I just want to see justice done.’

At the mention of Joe, Luke straightened up. ‘He loves you, you know.’

She smiled and whispered, ‘I know but now is not the time for loving.’

‘Come here,’ he said.

She came over, and he pulled her in for a hug, she tried her best not to cry this time. She’s was not going to show any weakness; it would undermine all the work she had done. ‘Thank you,’ was all she said.

‘I better go,’ he said. ‘My girlfriend doesn’t recognise me anymore.’

‘Give my love to her, she’s a sweet girl. You’re very lucky.’

His eyebrow went up, ‘Excuse me; she’s very lucky, too; she’s got me.’ And then he remembered again for the nth time, the ring. I better get that squared away.

He left Hope’s building and raised his collar, not to defeat the chill, but to send a message to a distraught lover. It meant: I failed. She’s going ahead with it.

 

*

 

Joe turned away, downcast, distraught, and defeated. He walked several blocks and decided he’d better find another D word that was positive. Determined. That’s it! He’d just had to be as determined as she was.

In three days, they’d both be starting at Paulo’s. Everything’s set. The bugging device and the panic buttons had been installed and checked that they were operating correctly. He’d been hired as a kitchen hand. As her backup, he’d be a constant presence to protect her.

He was aware she preferred it if he weren’t, but that wasn’t her call. She would just have to deal with the awkwardness.

 

*

 

Luke went home, reintroduced himself to his girlfriend of two and half years, got her drunk on love and wine, and ended the evening making love. When she fell asleep, he escaped to his office and started the hunt for the mole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16

 

Kid Meets Dinosaur

 

 

THE PEOPLE INVOLVED in the task force numbered seventy in all.

Luke quickly scanned the list and shook his head in dismay. Of all of them, Luke was only sure of three people’s undying loyalty to the cause; himself, SAC Roberts and Joe Di Nozzi on account of Hope. Everyone else needed vetting.

Scrolling through the list more carefully, he noted the names of twenty undercover FBI agents. He couldn’t begin to fathom how he could vet these people. But then the FBI had probably done a number on them already. To be fair, if the Bureau hadn’t found any dirt on them, what hope had he? So he eliminated them.

Then, there were the five members of the FBI Cybercrime Unit. He eliminated them for the same reason.

The Department of the Treasury had assigned ten forensic accountants and agents of varying ranks. The District Attorney’s office, ten, split between lawyers and clerks. Then, there was A.D.A. Angelica Delaney and her assistant.

The rest of the task force were people handpicked from various departments, and dedicated staff like the electronic surveillance team, and clerks who were trusted to archive evidence.

With numerous such subjects, there was no way he’d be able to find the mole in time to secure Hope’s safety and the success of the operation. It would be way too slow going.

Then he had an idea. There’s someone, an outsider, he trusted. But first he must secure SAC Roberts’ permission. He contacted Mr Scar Face via a prearranged method and asked for a meet in an out-of-the-way café.

 

*

 

This time around, Roberts arrived in a proper business suit, looking dapper and sharp. He’s a chameleon, appraised Luke, able to change and blend into his environment effortlessly.

Roberts smiled, asked if he would like coffee. ‘Affogato for me,’ Luke replied.

‘Find us a seat, I’ll get this.’

Luke chose a table that was obscured by potted plants. Moments later, Roberts was walking towards him. His antagonism towards the FBI Special Agent-in-Charge had waned over several months so could now see him in a different light.

‘So, what’s so urgent?’ Roberts asked before he could sit down.

‘I have a name, but not the mole’s, someone who can help us catch a mole. He’s a nineteen-year-old computer protégé.’

He slid a sealed folder towards SAC Roberts. ‘That’s his criminal record. I have to add he’s reformed. And I trust him.’

Mr Scar Face perused the file quickly, his facial expression inscrutable. Luke wasn’t too worried about Roberts’ opinion, if he wanted this case wrapped up nicely, he would have to get the best people for the job.

‘You trust him?’

‘Unqualified,’ said Luke.

‘Well then, let’s get him on board.’

That was what Luke expected to hear. He raised a finger to indicate one moment.

He pressed a button on his phone, seconds later Nathaniel Levy alias Eraser joined them at the table. He introduced them to each other, as he did so, he thought of Jurassic Park. Kid meets dinosaur.

Luke took the time to tell Scar Face that the moniker ‘Eraser’ was bestowed upon young Nathaniel during his wayward youth ‘because he used to delete people’s digital files.’

The three of them had a brief chat, and then Roberts left them to their own devices.

‘OK, you ready?’ Luke asked Eraser.

‘Let’s go,’ he said, eager to get started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17

 

Eraser

 

 

INITIALLY, ERASER’S ACTIVITIES had been just for fun or just to allay his youthful boredom. As a young fifteen-year-old entrepreneur he sold his skills to the “needy”. Then later, he did it for revenge.

Luke Walker was his arresting officer. He had developed a grudging respect for the lad who was wreaking digital havoc in the City.

It was hard yards tracking down the young computer menace. After months of following Eraser’s electronic footprint without success, Luke posed as a needy client. The sting operation worked.

At his trial, it came to light why Eraser was the way he was. It was a long, convoluted story. But it explained why a shy seventeen-year-old had turned from a lost and lonely boy into a vengeful kid.

In a gist, he got played by Rosemary, the most beautiful girl in his high school.

The geeky only-child ached for love and companionship and sought it from an online chat room. He connected with a beautiful young girl who called herself Sage.

She claimed she was in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend and wanted out. The constant stream of their conversations usually focused on her desire to be free of him. Eraser offered to help.

They had agreed to meet in a park late one night to elope so he could rescue her.

 

*

 

In the park that night, he discovered who “Sage” really was. Also there that night, to witness and to film his complete humiliation, were the entire junior and senior class. It wasn’t a prank as much as an emotional flogging. The fragile kid had a breakdown.

Eraser didn’t leave his house for two weeks. His weight dropped from a healthy one hundred and forty-five pounds to a sickening sixty-five.

He left school and went into free fall.

When he eventually came out of his house, traces of that cruel video had also disappeared. And those involved didn’t go unscathed either, their identities evaporated along with their school records and social media profiles.

The seniors that year had to wait two years to rebuild their lives. College enrolments were held back. Many struggled to get their lives back on track. They couldn’t get a job, couldn’t get a loan, couldn’t sign up for a rental of any kind, couldn’t renew their driver’s license, and couldn’t get a passport. How could they when they didn’t exist?

Rosemary suffered the brunt of the geek’s revenge. Each time she managed to rebuild her life using a different name, she “disappeared”. More than anyone, Eraser understood that you’re not a real person in the modern world unless you existed in Cyberspace. He didn’t have to kill her; he just had to “scrub” her.

After the trial, during the sentencing phase, Luke batted for Eraser. He had liked the kid from their first encounter. It wasn’t hard to see that Eraser was one of a kind. Everyone, from the defence attorney to the prosecutor, agreed that the kid’s talent would go to waste if he were locked up in a juvenile detention centre.

Luke offered to keep an eye on the lad. As a result, the Judge didn’t hesitate to sentence Eraser to community service but also required him to attend counselling as a condition of granting him a reprieve.

Now, the nineteen-year-old worked for the Government as a White Knight, at, of all places, the Federal Reserve Bank of America.

When he first heard of it, Luke openly wondered if he should hide his money under the bed, where he reckoned it would be safer. He recalled shaking his head and saying, ‘It’s either very brave of the authorities or very stupid.’

 

*

 

Eraser’s bed-sitter was in a permanent state of disarray, so they agreed to work at Luke’s place.

On the first day, Luke gave Eraser a house key and told him in no uncertain terms was he to check into his personal life and Faith’s.

‘Who’s Faith?’

‘My wife,’ he said. ‘At least close to.’

‘Close to? You couldn’t get her to say “Yes”?’ Luke slapped his head before introducing him to Bradley and Cooper.

‘Beware of Cooper, he’s a guard cat.’ The youngster crouched low to get close to the gold and white cat; it immediately bared its teeth. Eraser quickly jumped back from the mean house pet.

‘Told you.’

Bradley, however, overcompensated for its sibling. It happily rubbed itself against Eraser’s leg and was delighted to be picked up.

Eraser plugged in his Fed-issued laptop, which had to be signed out by Luke, who was a little apprehensive about it. He wondered whether it was possible to hack into the country’s gold reserve with that toy. He swatted the thought quickly before it could germinate.

Luke gave Eraser the unpalatable task of snooping into the Task Force members’ personal emails and bank accounts.

Lacking investigative experience, Eraser asked, ‘What am I looking for? And how do I know when it’s suspicious?’

‘You’ll know it when you see it. If something doesn’t fit, or repetitive… Oh, and don’t forget to look into the draft boxes. Crooks are known to leave each other messages that way.’

Eraser countered with, ‘Oh, and don’t forget to look in the bin boxes. Crooks are also known to leave each other messages that way.’

Luke smiled apologetically, ‘Sorry, of course, you know that.’

‘Err, you’re not leaving me to do this alone, are ya? There’s like forty-five people in this list.’

Luke sighed, ‘OK, let’s split it fifty-fifty.’

Ever the curious bunny, Eraser asked, ‘Why’s the Cybercrime Unit not doing this?’

‘Because they’re part of the Task Force, they can’t investigate themselves.’

The cheeky teenager then said, ‘You’re part of the Task Force, why are you investigating yourself?’

‘No, I’m not part of the Task Force. I was roped in to do this, OK? Any more question, Mr Levy?’

‘No, but is there food?’

Luke shook his head. He does remind me of my younger self except I was better looking.

That thought made him laugh out loud. Eraser looked at him in surprise, ‘What?’

‘Nothing,’ he said and left to get all the food he could find from the cupboard, the fridge and the oven.

 

*

 

Three days later, they had a terrific result!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18

 

Bingo!

 

 

THEY HAD USED a sophisticated software Eraser had especially written for an earlier project. So they didn’t, thank goodness, have to trawl through every emails and banking records manually.

The software, a sniffer kind, searched for anything out of the ordinary. From day one, it unobtrusively mined for information such as regular deposits of salaries and wages, withdrawals, and unexplained transfers between accounts. It looked for anomalies in emails, tagging words like transaction, transfer, contact, Uncle Sam; and words not used in everyday life such as acronyms; and looked for oft-repeated words, which might be codes.

Over three days, it operated 24/7. During those three days, they only had to check the results, taking it in turns to oversee the progress of the exhaustive search. They left no stones unturned. They even checked phone call logs.

It was now the end of day three. The result? Nada. Zilch. Kaput. Zero.

There weren’t anything compromising in work and personal emails. There weren’t any large or small regular deposits that when summed up together could be a tidy sum. No calls were made outside of the family, friends and colleagues; and to banks, schools and medical centres. And, no suspicious text messages either.

On the other hand, there was no doubt about it, there was a leak!

When crooks go to ground, once, just when raids are supposed to happen, that might be a coincidence. But it had now been three times! No way! No one ever got that lucky!

They formed a premise that maybe no-one was selling information per se. But there had to be a weak link in the chain of information which was causing a leakage

Eraser asked as he cradled Bradley in his arms, ‘Maybe there’s a lapsed in security?’

Staring at the monitor in deep thought, Luke replied, ‘Maybe. Or maybe Bullard has found a way to pay his mole creatively so it couldn’t be discovered.’

The teenager nodded, smiled and said, as his criminal mind operated, ‘Yeah if I were Bullard I’d pay for their hospital bills or school fees. Untraceable.’

Luke looked at Eraser with concealed admiration. Thank God, he’s now one of us. He sure thinks outside the square. ‘Is there a way to find out?’

‘That’s where you come in’ said the teenager, ‘Anything to do with pounding the pavement is yours. I only let my fingers do the walking.’

Just then, they heard the front door open. ‘Honey, I’m home.’ It was Faith back from an exhausting twelve-hour shift at the Hospital.

Luke jumped out of the chair to greet her, ‘Hey, welcome home Miss Universe. It’s been days since I saw you, come here.’ He scooped her into his arms and said, ‘Sorry, it’s been hectic.’

Eraser came out of his room, curious.

Faith saw him over Luke’s shoulder, smiled and said, ‘Hi.’

Luke released Faith to introduce the boyish looking teenager. A nineteen-year-old in a sixteen-year old’s body, wearing an obligatory back-to-front baseball cap, loose T-shirt and a low hanging pair of pants.

So finally, Eraser met Faith, and he was smitten. She was better looking in person than in her photographs. She had him at ‘Hi’.

When she flashed him a smile, he had a definite cougar moment. ‘Wow, hi, too,’ he said.

Luke noticed.

Eraser couldn’t stop staring at Faith, so Luke playfully slapped his head. ‘She’s mine. Find yours! Preferably someone your age.’

‘Someone my age? No way, they’re boring.’

Luke knew the reason Eraser would never go for someone his age. Rosemary, or Sage, who to this day officially doesn’t exist.

Faith laughed at their antics. ‘Are you guys working?’ She went in to make sure they weren’t just playing video games, X-box or PlayStation or Wii in the office.

‘Looks like you’re really working on stuff.’ She hooked an arm around Luke’s waist and said, ‘I brought home some brownies.’

‘Yum’. The men turned as one; Eraser salivated while Luke scowled.

Faith giggled and said, ‘Help yourself, it’s in the kitchen.’

Eraser didn’t linger. There was something in the kitchen more delicious than a beautiful woman.

She turned to Luke, rested her head on his chest and sighed tiredly. He kissed the top of her head. ‘Go to sleep, have a rest, I’ll take care of dinner.’

She complied. She dragged her feet, first to the shower then to bed. Cooper joined her. She went under a quilted blanket while Cooper, the guard cat, napped at her feet.

When finally Luke joined Eraser in the kitchen, the teenager asked, ‘How’d ya get someone like her? Where’d ya find her? Seriously, dude, let me know if it doesn’t work out between ya two? I think I might have a chance.’

Eraser couldn’t stop talking so Luke kicked his heel.

‘I met her at the hospital, the day a friend of mine got shot. And it’s working out for us, thank you very much.’

Luke saved three pieces of brownies for Faith before Eraser could devour the lot.

 

*

 

‘We gotta go back to work.’

The young lad’s face crumpled with disappointment. Luke threw a piece of the good stuff at him.

‘Hey, that’s a waste of goody.’ Eraser picked it up off the floor and ate it, ‘Ten-second rule applies.’

They cracked up laughing. Luke had to admit, he hadn’t had this much fun for a long time.

‘Right, let’s assume there’s no mole yet there’s a leak. What’s the likely source?’ Luke asked between bites of the treat.

By a process of elimination, they discounted USB copy. All computers used by the Task Force were USB disabled meaning their CPUs didn’t have USB ports. It also didn’t have disc trays.

Bluetooth was disabled. And, they had a twenty-digit encryption code on their Wi-Fi.

It couldn’t have been via facsimile because everyone who sent a fax had to key in their department and personnel codes. Surely, no one could be that stupid.

Luke paced around his small office talking to himself. He asked aloud, ‘If the leak isn’t by phone or fax or computer or email, how else can you leak information?’

Eraser who was stroking Bradley had an “Aha” moment. ‘What do they do with the hard copies?’ he asked.

‘They shred them.’

Eyes bulging, they said at once, ‘That’s it.’

‘Wanna go out for a ride?’ Luke inquired.

‘Sure thing, man. I’m feeling cooped up in here.’

They grabbed their jackets and headed out to HQ. At the reception desk, Luke gave his credentials and vouched for Eraser, ‘He’s with me.’

The police officer on duty motioned them in. ‘Working late, huh? Hope you get paid double time.’

They went straight to the office, ‘OK, where’s the shredder?’

Luke looked around. ‘There.’

Eraser eagerly went for it, lifted the lid and there it was! A scanner fitted onto the lid.

The paper shredder in the corner looked innocent but unbeknown to all; it was also a high-tech spy tool. As confidential documents were fed through, they were being scanned, and the information sent to an e-mail address. The nefarious scanner was first developed by an Eastern European intelligence outfit.

Luke called Roberts with the news.

 

*

 

Within five minutes, the Feebie was in their midst.

‘Are you a magician? How’d you do that?’ Eraser asked, ‘Luke just hang up.’

Luke replied, ‘He sleeps here; he doesn’t have a life.’

Roberts smiled and waved a hand. ‘What have you found?’

Luke lifted the shredder’s lid. Roberts, the dinosaur, didn’t get it. ‘So, it’s a lid.’

‘Not just any lid.’ Eraser excitedly explained how it had a scanner fitted to it that transmitted info as the paper went in for shredding.

Roberts looked askance, ‘Do we know who ordered this?’

Luke sat in front of a computer, logged into the store and requisition department. Eraser and Roberts pulled a chair each, and together they viewed the screen as Luke explained. ‘A shredder was ordered for one hundred eighty dollars, so obviously, it was a low to mid-range model. Nothing fancy, but could do the job. It was delivered four months ago. Divina Garcia received it. She’s one of the clerks; you can see her signature here.

‘There was a switch of products. We were meant to get this,’ Luke said as he Googled the model and type that was on the invoice, ‘instead, we got this,’ pointing to the high-end model on the floor.

Roberts straightened up, ‘So are you telling me there is no human mole all along?’ He asked.

The two guys nodded.

They were mighty impressed with the simplicity of the sophistication. Paul Bullard had become more cunning. He had employed a high-tech spy that didn’t require any vetting. No need to vet its loyalty to him, no need to pay grease money; most of all, no cleaning up afterward.

But the three of them were ingenious, too.

Roberts expressed in words what they were all thinking, ‘We could use this to our advantage.’

They looked at the spy tool. Roberts gave voice to what they were all thinking. ‘You want information; we’re gonna give it to you in reams.’

However, on their way out, Eraser gave them something to think about. ‘Why would Divina Garcia sign for a delivery that clearly didn’t match the invoice?’

Why, indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19

 

Feeding Disinformation

 

 

ROBERTS WALKED to his cubicle and made himself as comfortable as possible. He removed his shoes and socks. Comically, he screwed his face at the stench he made of his working area. Not one to fuss about comfort or lack of, he reclined in his executive chair and propped his feet up on the table. Before he closed his eyes, he made a mental note of Divina Garcia’s work pattern: If her employee swipe card were any indication, she was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. A model employee by the looks of it.

He was out like a light; and, it might have been due to a clean conscience because Roberts always had dreamless nights. He woke up after a four-hour slumber, fully alert by the time the clock struck 06:00. He got up and did some stretching to ease the pain of sleeping rough. Opening the top drawer of his desk, he removed a bag of toiletries and headed to the staff shower room.

The hot water was therapeutic; he stayed under its soothing jet spray until he heard the antiquated elevator ping loudly as it stopped on his floor level.

He turned off the water and stepped out stark naked. He grabbed a towel off a rack, wrapped it around his waist and nodded at a young man who couldn’t help but admire the physique of the lean man of the dinosaur era. A T-Rex among triceratops.

In his locker, Roberts took out a crumpled, clean shirt. He put this on and a clean pair of underwear, recycled his pants, tuck the shirt in and put on his suit jacket. In a few minutes, his body heat would iron out the shirt.

07:00, on the dot, the elevator door opened. Divina, known to all and sundry as Divvy, came out holding a sandwich in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

Roberts spied on her from his cubicle at the same time perusing her personnel record. He noted that she had been with the FBI for over ten years. He didn’t waste any time, he closed the file and approached her stealthily while she was busy doing data-entry. He stood behind her and coughed silently. She stiffened before turning around abruptly. ‘Oh my God, you scared me!’ she said.

Roberts smiled at the middle-aged Hispanic woman with soft brown eyes and pale skin. Pretty in her own way except for the frumpy way she dressed. Although not fashion-aware himself, he was bemused to see Divvy wearing a blouse with horizontal black and white stripes with pants to match. Even he knew it was all wrong.

Divvy looked at him briefly. When she turned off the computer monitor, her hand was shaking. She sensed there was trouble, but she didn’t know what or why. She scolded herself for behaving guiltily as she followed him to his little corner. Guilty of what, exactly?

She sat across from Roberts wondering where this was going. ‘Is there something you want me to do?’

He didn’t say a word, merely put a sheet of paper in front of her. A receipt for a delivery. She took it in her hand, read it and saw her signature. She recalled receiving it, she looked up and said, ‘So?’

Roberts eyed her, assessing whether she was playing dumb.

Her eyebrows creased, glanced down at the paper one more time. She noted the make and model, and then her facial expression changed. It triggered something. ‘It’s not the same make and model,’ she said.

Roberts stared at her poker-faced, not giving anything away.

‘I didn’t see any harm in it,’ she said sounding defensive. ‘We were getting something far better for less.’

Roberts remained poker-faced, staring at her, making her feel uneasy.

‘I don’t see why —’

The few intervening seconds felt like minutes. Divvy squirmed in her seat, wondering where this was all going. Was she about to lose her job for something inane and frankly harmless?

From years of interrogation experience, Roberts sensed she was telling the truth, she genuinely didn’t see any harm. Finally, he ordered her to go to the shredder and to bring him the lid. She did as she was told.

‘Notice something in the lid?’

Her expression was one of confusion. ‘No, should I be?’

She was a humble clerk with no interest in technical aspects other than to press the machines’ buttons: Print, scan, fax, copy, call, redial and shred. He could hardly chew her up for it.

‘This,’ he said, pointing to it, ‘is a scanner. Everything you shred is being scanned and emailed to Paul Bullard.’

‘I didn’t know,’ she said, horrified at what she had done. She felt clammy. Her heart raced, mortified at she was the cause of the leak, although inadvertently.

Roberts smiled and gave her the all clear, and said, ‘Let’s keep this between the two of us.’

She couldn’t shake her head fast enough and offered to remove the offending article out of the office. Roberts ordered her not to, ‘Keep it close to you. Only you and I will use it. The rest of the task force will use another shredder.’

She smiled gratefully. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

He nodded and told her she was free to go. But before she could go to her desk, Roberts in a rare display of humour, asked if she had just come out of jail.

She looked at him questioningly. He waved a hand, just as she suddenly realised what she was wearing. She slapped her forehead, flustered.

 

*

 

Later in the day, Luke also suggested to Roberts that they should serve it right back at Paul. ‘Let’s send one of that baby to Paulo’s? Get Hope to thrash the old one so she can buy a new one. Eraser can fit it with a scanner and transmitter.’

Roberts OK’d the suggestion, in fact; he loved it. There were documents they needed to copy, legal or not; he didn’t care.

He didn’t bother consulting with Angelica Delaney, the Assistant D.A.

All she seemed to say was, ‘No can’t do.’ She was beginning to annoy the hell out of him. If she hadn’t been vetted, he’d have thought she was working for the other side. He did know better than to suspect her. But sometimes he wondered who the law was protecting.

Roberts reasoned if they couldn’t use said evidence in a Court of Law because they were, quote unquote, illegally obtained, who cares? The task force could still use these documents to intimidate, cajole, convince, harass if need be, or just used to connect more dots.

 

*

 

As part of his cover, Joe Di Nozzi alias Victor Carabella had already been working as a kitchen hand at Paulo’s for just under a month.

That morning, Dicky, Paul Bullard’s second in command, arrived with Hope. He introduced her to the kitchen and service crew as the new Manager.

Joe wasn’t looking forward to this day. Two weeks ago, his last meeting with Hope at Juliana’s ended in tears and their last shooting date was spent in awkward silence.

Hope took to the job like a duck to water.

The first she did was to make sure Joe worked the same hours she did, more because that was the only way to keep Luke happy. The second was to purposely drop the shredder to the ground. And, the third was to order a replacement.

Her first week was a tremendous success.

More importantly, Hope had inserted herself at Paulo’s with as little contact with Joe as possible.

 

*

 

Two weeks later, SAC Roberts made the first move on feeding Bullard disinformation.

This operation called for Vice Squad’s David Colby’s expertise. The brief was simple: Get Dicky alone. ‘I don’t care how you do it, just get him alone with you.’

Another undercover agent was instructed to follow DC and to photograph him at every opportunity.

 

*

 

David immediately went to work. He accidentally on purpose bumped into Dicky at a restaurant. He grabbed Dicky’s hand in full view of Bullard’s entourage and shook it firmly, ‘Remember me, man. It’s Big Kev.’

Though taken aback, Dicky went along, pretending to remember Big Kev.

SNAP! The undercover agent captured the enthusiastic handshake.

The next day, David leaned casually on Dicky’s brand new BMW in a parking lot not far from Bullard’s HQ.

SNAP! On the photograph, David appeared to be waiting for a friend.

When Dicky saw David leaning on his car, he was irate and approached aggressively. David opened his arms wide, as though he was going to give Dicky a man-hug.

SNAP!

Then, Dicky was snapped rushing to David. Anyone looking at the photos would assume two friendly guys were meeting up at the parking lot.

On the third day, David Colby of Vice Squad had another photo opportunity.

Dicky left Bullard HQ to snort cocaine in an alley. Interestingly, Bullard didn’t like his men doing it in his presence.

SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!

Now they had pictures of Dicky getting up, walking down the alley and meeting up with David.

Finally, Dicky got suspicious. ‘Who the fuck are you?’ he challenged David.

‘Chill man. I’ve got some of that, too. Wanna try mine? It’s pure heaven, man.’ David gave it to him in an envelope.

SNAP!

Now they had all they want, Roberts prepared the disinformation in a memo and asked Divvy to shred it.

TOP SECRET

CONFIDENTIAL

Task Force Eyes Only

Operation Snitch: Tom Dick aka Dicky, Bullard’s 2IC had agreed to become our eyes and ears in exchange for immunity and undisclosed payment.

 

*

 

The memo, accompanied by several incriminating photographs, landed on Bullard’s digital inbox. There were pictures of David and Dicky shaking hands and meeting up in a car park.

Then, there was a set of sequential photos: Dicky leaving Paulo’s, walking down the alley, clandestinely meeting up with David, and then accepting an envelope.

The pictures were very damning indeed.

For David’s sake, only his profile or backside was captured on film, but it was enough to cast doubt on Dicky’s loyalty to his boss.

Paul Bullard couldn’t believe his eyes, ‘Bastard!’

The crime kingpin hated snitches above all; he didn’t care if it was a long-time friend or a relative. He once ordered the execution of his flesh and blood, his nephew, for turning State witness.

 

*

 

SAC Roberts made an attempt to save Tom Dick via an intermediary. He warned Dicky his boss suspected him of being a snitch, ‘He’s gonna kill you, man. You’re better off crossing over to our side. We’ll put you in protective custody.’

Dicky laughed off the warning off, ‘Fool, the police can’t protect me. He’s got men inside. I’ve been his number two for ten years; he can’t hurt me. He can’t wipe his bottom without me.’

He should have listened because the next day, he was found floating in a canal.

 

*

 

Tom Dick’s death disrupted Bullard’s drugs operation a little.

He lost a trusted lieutenant who was also in charge of distribution, and now he was paranoid of his crew. If his longest and most trusted man was turned, who else?

Bullard spent days angry as hell.

 

*

 

Members of the task force watched with amusement as Bullard’s drug empire hit a snag.

Tom Dick was just one tile of the domino upon which his empire was built on. They’d plan to pull off other disinformation campaigns that would cause a few more tiles to come crashing down.

So two weeks after Dicky’s demise, the Task Force sent out another disinformation.

A memo was shredded to say buyers would be picked up on Monday and that it would be a month long operation.

Paul Bullard was infuriated. It meant one thing and one thing only: He couldn’t launder money for a ‘whole fucking month.’ He had a warehouse full of crap wine and unable to use them to clean his money.

‘Fuckers!’

He couldn’t risk his buyers getting picked up for questioning. At any rate, he decided he had enough money to retire for life so what if he had to wait a month to wash his cash, so be it.

 

*

 

The task force also saw tremendous success from Hope and Joe’s side of the operation.

As it turned out, the idea to send a shredder fitted with a scanner was truly inspired because Paulo’s Restaurant was the real deal.

The restaurant was where things happened. No wonder they couldn’t find any evidence of wrong doings at Bullard HQ. That was merely a place to hang out, where they played billiard, drank themselves to death and brought whores over.

Luckily, Hope had been made in charge of banking. It was her job to tally the takings at the end of the day. She was also in charge of money transfers. At the end of each day, she prepared a written report for Paul.

After Bullard had perused the information, he shredded it himself.

The first time Roberts saw the email, he yelled, ‘Shred away!’

Within weeks, the Cybercrime Unit had built their first substantial lead. It filled in some blanks: where the funds were coming from and where it was going, and who the recipients were.

Richard Rodrigo’s Cybercrime Unit contacted their Italian counterpart and the Interpol, the web had widened and gone international.

 

The money was going to shell company, registered in the Bahamas. It could take several months to unearth the parent company through exhaustive investigative work.

 

*

 

On the home-front, Luke and Faith were a week away from going away to their vacation, their first in three years. Just as he was daydreaming how awesome it would be, a thought crossed his mind that got him worried. What if something happens to Hope while I’m away?

It would disappoint Faith, but he must cancel their trip, even if he couldn’t get his money back. Everything, from flights to hotel reservation to tours, had been paid. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he left Hope and something untoward happens.

He dreaded telling Faith although he was sure she would understand. Faith was reclined on a three-seater couch watching television, dressed in her favourite house dress. ‘Hi, Miss Universe,’ he gave her a kiss and lifted her slight frame off the couch. He sat down and placed her on his lap. ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’

He paused. Uncertain how to break the news. She tilted her face and saved his blushes, ‘The vacation is cancelled, right?’

Luke was momentarily taken aback, ‘How’d you know?’ he said slowly.

‘I saw it coming. I was going to let you sweat. But you looked so pathetic,’ she chuckled at his expense.

‘OK,’ he said in shock.

‘So does that mean you didn’t pay—.’

Faith shook her head. He couldn’t believe it. What a clever girl I’ve got. 

Then he remembered the ring. Ah, the ring!

He was sure that if he let Faith get away, he’d be the most stupid guy ever. I better get that thing squared away. He grinned and kissed Faith deeply and thought, how lucky am I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20

 

Cataclysm

 

 

PAUL BULLARD OR PB was the sort of businessman who didn’t care for anyone, and that was putting it mildly. His only priority was money. The accumulation of it by any means necessary. So, every working day Hope had to do the banking without fail.

Hope was out doing just that when the most unfortunate event occurred!

And, it was a terrible shame!

One more month, they would have wrapped up the case, with PB and his minions jailed for a long, long time. But as bad luck would have it, they didn’t have the additional thirty days.

On this particular day in question, she went to the bank. She had closed the office door but didn’t lock it, per PB’s instruction. He liked it this way, so he could enter whenever he pleased.

Earlier that day she had been shredding, an activity she did with the mini shredder up on a side table. Unfortunately, with the hustle and bustle of running a busy eatery, she forgot to put the gadget back on the floor after she had finished.

In the late afternoon, running late for banking duties, she rushed out not realising that the innocent-looking machine was still on top of the side table.

PB went into the office and sat on the swivel chair. He put his feet up on the desk while he perused the day’s reports, which Hope found pretentious in the extreme. To the casual observer, he appeared to understand what he was reading, but Hope had known better.

 

*

 

Unbeknown to PB, she had been fudging the tallies, and he hadn’t clued in. She had been doctoring the account receivables and payables over a five-month period. Her initial subterfuge was a small entry, an account payable for a non-existent delivery of fruit and vegetable. She got away with it. As a result had gotten braver and more cunning each passing day. In the intervening period, she had been able to siphon close to seventy thousand from his various accounts, and the drug lord was still none the wiser.

PB was also clueless to the fact that he had unknowingly become the most generous donor to the Los Angeles Police Welfare Fund. Hope had been transferring the money there under a fake donor’s name.

 

*

 

PB reclined on the swivel chair reading, casually scanning the entries on the pages covering his ten restaurants in downtown L.A.

His cell phone rang. To get it out of his pocket he had to get his feet off the table which meant moving his chair backward a fraction, it bumped into the side table causing the shredder to wobble. He made an attempt to catch it but hit it a little too hard instead. It crashed to the floor; the lid came off, and the game was up!

He stood nailed to the floor looking at the familiar little scanning device attached to the cover. His face turned crimson as blood rushed to his brain. His rage was unrestrained, and a sudden roar of anger erupted from inside the office, ‘Bitch!’

Joe was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher, from that distance he heard the outburst. They all heard it. Their blood ran cold. He and everyone in the kitchen looked at each other in alarm. The Head Chef covered his mouth. The waitresses were frozen solid in fear, unable to make the slightest move. The diners left the restaurant in haste, fearing the worst.

PB was screaming bloody murder, and experience told Joe that cold-blooded murderers didn’t scream bloody murder unless they plan to commit it. Joe put two and two together; he muttered Hope’s name before rushing to the office.

Joe appeared at the door, ‘Boss, what’s wrong?’ in a voice that he hoped sounded sincere.

The minions had already gathered around the drug lord. Vic eyes’ fell on the item in PB’s hands, and his brain couldn’t say ‘fuck’ fast enough. He quickly averted his eyes and looked at the other goons briefly; he counted five. ‘I was just checking if the Boss was OK; I’ll leave you guys to it.’

He moved as quickly as his feet could take him without sprinting. He was dialling Hope’s phone before he reached the kitchen. It went to voice mail. Pick up, come on! 

He felt a rising panic within himself but never considered leaving his post in the kitchen. He couldn’t, not without a valid reason. Or he would risk uncovering himself, too. What good would he be to Hope if he were exposed, and worst still, on the floor exsanguinating?

I need a cigarette break.

He looked at the time; it was the excuse he was looking for, ‘Chef, gonna be outside for a smoke, it’s my break-time. The dishwasher’s loaded.’

The scared head chef nodded his permission. Sweat beads dripped down the side of his face in the process.

Joe waited outside the back door knowing this was where Hope always came in and out. ‘Habit,’ he remembered her saying, ‘Going in and out the front door is not my style,’ she told him once, ‘everyone’s eyes are on you.’

But as bad luck would have it, that day Hope came in via the front door for the reason she needed to use the toilet desperately. Parking all the way at the back and fumbling for the back door key wasn’t an option, so the front door it had to be.

The next thing Joe heard as he waited for Hope was a loud, disturbing commotion. Things were breaking, voices on top of each other followed by a long moan of agony.

Joe rushed back in. The chef stopped him leaving the kitchen area. ‘I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,’ said the frightened man, looking white as a ghost.

Then they heard another blood-curling sound of pain coming from a male. Thank God was Joe’s first thought. He didn’t waste time; he pressed the panic button under the kitchen bench.

 

*

 

The alarm at the FBI HQ blared, and the red light spun like crazy. ‘Where’s that?’ Roberts asked the desk jockey.

The recruit manning the desk replied calmly, ‘Paulo’s Restaurant.’

Roberts acted quickly. He holstered his sidearm and ordered his team to get mobile. On the way out, he asked for L.A. SWAT Team to be mobilized, ‘on the double.’

Running to the SUVs along with his cohorts, Roberts sent a group message to the task force, with a single distress word, “Frosty”.

 

*

 

Luke received the message on his cell phone while at work. His heart rate rocketed like as if he was injected with steroids. Frosty was a distress signal that could only relate to Hope. He agonised over absconding from his duty and going to the Restaurant and rescuing his baby sister. But sense and sensibility won the debate in his head. He called Roberts to get an update instead.

Roberts gave him the lowdown, ‘Someone pressed the panic button. We don’t know if it was Joe or Hope.’

‘Could it be that someone accidentally pressed it by mistake?’ Luke asked even though he knew it wasn’t possible. The button was well concealed, and only Hope and Joe knew where they were situated.

Roberts dashed his wishful thinking, ‘I’ve heard from the Electronic Surveillance Team, they confirmed hearing a commotion inside the restaurant. SWAT has been dispatched. I’ll let you know more as news comes to hand’ and then they hung up.

Luke looked at the cell phone with dread filling up his gut. He felt sick. The last time he felt this way was when Sergeant McKenzie died in his arms.

He felt helpless. Tied up at work, bound by his sworn duty as an emergency personnel made him all the more fearful.

He called Faith, the only human alive who could calm him down. The woman with a soothing voice and a steady disposition; and, who loved him deeply.

 

*

 

Hooning as they were towards Paulo’s Restaurant, Roberts braced himself for the worse even as he hoped for the best.

The last thing he wanted was to lose an officer and a CI. Not going to happen on my watch, he told himself determinedly.

His SUV arrived at the scene in less than five minutes, aided by its monstrous size and high-decibel siren. The SWAT vehicles got there a minute later.

Uniformed police had been instructed to secure the perimeter.

 

*

 

Fighting for her life, her martial arts training kicked in. Hope had managed to kick a goon in the crotch which caused him to emit blood-curling streams of profanity. By the time Joe reached the office, she had a pair of legs scissored around the neck of another who was squirming in pain as she increased the pressure on his Adam’s apple, but she was in a headlock herself.

Joe got there just in time. Using Cambodian Bukator fighting style, he elbowed the nape of the man who had Hope in a headlock. The goon released her the instant he felt an incapacitating flare of pain, Joe followed this up with successive kicks to the gut and then to the crotch as the thug was curled up clutching his stomach.

He grabbed Hope’s hand, ‘Now.’

They turned to run out of the confined space. A third thug fired, hitting Joe in the back as he shielded Hope with his body. ‘Arrgh.’

She heard the shot, turned around to see blood pouring out of Joe’s back. ‘Go,’ he pushed her, ‘Run.’

‘No,’ she whispered, momentarily stunned. She couldn’t let Joe die on her account.

 

*

 

The kitchen and serving staff heard the echoing shot. They didn’t wait around find out who shot who. It was now or never. They hastened to escape out the back door, stumbling over each other.

The Head Chef was first out of the doorway only to be snatched by the cuff of his uniform. Roberts was outside the back door and heard the gunfire. ‘Who was shot?’ he asked the shaken cook.

The traumatised man stared at Roberts, who looked terrifying at the best times. But with adrenaline coursing through his body in high dosage, Roberts seemed downright intimidating.

He dragged the chef away by the cuff of his uniform. It that didn’t help the poor man’s disposition.

‘Who?’ Roberts asked again in a faint whisper that sounded loud.

The chef said he didn’t know who got shot. ‘I didn’t hang around to find out.’ But he confirmed Joe, the kitchen hand, had charged in to aid Hope.

‘Fuck,’ Roberts slammed the SUV’s window and stomped his foot. He was frustrated beyond measure. He was an ugly and scarred bastard of a Chief, but he loved Joe like a son. Joe was the son he never had. ‘Fuck,’ he said again.

He handed the chef to a police officer. ‘Take him to the station, 24-hour police guard. He’s a witness. If something happens to him, I’ll have your head.’ Somehow it didn’t comfort the chef.

 

*

 

Hope refused to give up and gave Joe no choice. She bent down to help him up, ‘Come on.’ They hobbled in the direction of the storeroom, locked the door, toppled the shelf to block it and crouched down behind a cupboard. It would not deflect a bullet, but at least, it would keep them covered.

She remembered the small firearm tucked in the small of her back, a Springfield XD Subcompact 9mm handgun. She made sure it was cocked then attended to Joe, wiping his brow and kissing his forehead. ‘I love you. I’m sorry.’

Joe was semi-conscious, ‘I love you, too.’

A pool of blood was forming underneath him, she stripped her blouse and made a massive effort to stem the bleeding with it.

Would rescue come before he exsanguinates? She asked herself, worrying to the core.

I’ll give myself up in exchange for his life.

 

*

 

Roberts presented himself to Sergeant Keith Spark, the SWAT Team Leader. ‘I have an agent inside and a CI.’

Spark understood this to mean they couldn’t shot on sight in case they terminate the wrong people.

‘The CI is the daughter of a former police officer who died in the line of duty, Sergeant McKenzie.’

‘Shit,’ mumbled the SWAT TL, who was usually cool as a cucumber. She’s practically one of our own.

Roberts briefed Spark thoroughly since he would be negotiating for Hope and Joe’s release.

The SWAT unloaded their gears and were discussing their negotiation and assault tactics when there was an almighty explosion!

They looked up at once, a section of the restaurant was on fire.

What the hell happened?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

Walking in the Valley of Death

 

 

THE GROUND SHOOK. Explosions shattered the restaurant’s windows and other establishments nearby. Panicked people poured out of buildings into the streets, officers barely able to contain the hysterical masses. From the billowing flames, it appeared that Bullard and his men caused a gas leak in the kitchen and ignited it.

Media helicopters hovered overhead, adding to the noise pollution.

Spark barked into his communication link though he didn’t need to. The blast was so loud that the HQ’s desk jockey heard it on her headset and immediately called Fire Station 71, the closest fire house to the restaurant.

She needn’t have bothered either. The first responders had, in fact, already left. They had felt the percussive effect of the conflagration and didn’t wait around for a call.

On the way over, Luke turned on the tracking device to pick up the signal from Hope’s bracelet, the beeping showed that she was her inside the burning structure.

‘She’s inside,’ he whispered to himself.

The fire truck driver glanced at him with concern. ‘Who’s inside?’ He asked.

No response.

Luke was so focused on the tracker to the exclusion of everything else. His brain wasn’t registering all that were happening around him.

The 9-11 personnel called the paramedics and directed them to Paulo’s Restaurant. Within minutes, fire trucks and ambulances converged on the scene.

As soon as the Fire Truck 71 halted to a stop, Luke ran into the burning restaurant infused with adrenalin. The other firefighters looked at each other, alarmed at Luke’s irresponsible behaviour. They hadn’t had time to get the water cannon ready, and they hadn’t even been sure if the gas had been turned off.

It wasn’t like Luke to disregard emergency protocol. He knew all the attendant risks. Even with a gas mask, oxygen, helmet, fireman’s axe and fire retardant protective clothing, the risks are still stacked against a firefighter. And yet, Luke had charged in without all of his protective gear. With just his fireman’s suit, he charged in!

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Walker had compromised the rescue operation by charging in before everyone was ready and before they had time to assess the situation.

Unbeknown to them, Luke dashed inside the burning building on account of a promise. An oath to look after a young woman, a girl he regarded as flesh and blood sister.

One of the senior firemen took immediate control and started barking orders. Well, someone had to since the man-in-charge had just lost it.

The firemen did all they could. They followed protocol, having been drilled to within an inch of their lives how to conduct themselves in an emergency and what to do.

After a quick assessment, two others followed Luke into the burning building while the FBI, SWAT and the uniformed police watched helplessly.

 

*

 

Taking full advantage of the confusion, Paul Bullard and his men escaped via a hidden passage from the kitchen into the back alley, but the keen-eyed female SWAT spotted them. Corporal Nancy Dance was perched on the roof ready for a sniper shot.

‘Boss, Bullard and his men are escaping, back alley, south side of the building. Five men in total, I don’t see hostages.’ The voice was firm, stable and assured. ‘I have eyes on the vehicle; I can hit the tire from this distance, permission to fire.’

Spark gave the go-ahead.

‘Copy that!’ Dance zeroed the crosshairs of her rifle, a Remington 700PSS .308. She held her breath, aimed, and the shot was spot on. One of the tires burst to shred on impact, the escape vehicle wobbled and nearly turned turtle.

She saw six men get off the vehicle. The get-away driver being the sixth man. They ran off on foot. She couldn’t fire on unarmed, fleeing suspects although she was very tempted. She did the next best thing by following them with her scope. She checked the map on her PDA for street names. ‘Heading west on Palmer St,’ she said.

A team of undercover agents and cops, led by SAC Roberts, pursued the suspects all the way to a busy commercial street. At which point, the situation became dire.

The safety of the public could no longer be assured, so the chase was called off.

 

*

 

Checking for a signal from Hope’s bracelet, Luke located her somewhere near the kitchen, he reckoned she was probably inside the storeroom cowering in fear. Visibility was zero with choking, thick, acrid smoke filling the place fast. He couldn’t see, but from his memory of the restaurant’s outlay, he knew that the storeroom was between the office and the kitchen. He crouched low to the ground until he reached the door and started hitting it with his axe, there was no other way. He was having difficulty breaking it down; something was blocking the door.

Two members of his unit were soon by his side, between the three of them, they managed to splinter the wooden door to pieces.

Other firefighters concentrated their water cannon in the general area of the kitchen. Luke was frantic, if not the fire, smoke, and toxic fumes could eventually kill Hope.

Luke entered the room first. Hope was semi-conscious, slumped on something until they realised it was someone. Luke carried Hope in a fireman’s lift while the other guy hefted Joe on his shoulder. Time was of the essence. They raced out of the burning building, aware that the lungs’ of the two fire victims were filling up with toxic substances.

Their lungs would have struggled to take in oxygen. In closed space fire, people suffer severe hypoxia as well as lung damage from inhaling toxic fumes.

As they neared the exit, Luke felt his throat throbbed, the burning sensation all the way down his oesophagus was excruciating. But he carried on, propelled by love and adrenalin. Paramedics rushed in bravely to meet them halfway, taking Hope and Joe from them.

The firemen followed to the ambulance bay, and then Luke’s knees wobbled. He was about to drop to the ground when he felt arms around his armpit before he lost consciousness suffering from pulmonary insufficiency.

 

*

 

An ambulance rushed Joe to the hospital for immediate surgery. Roberts waited in the lobby.

He rang Joe’s parents and siblings to tell them of the “accident” in person, hoping they hadn’t been watching the live coverage on television. He had lost men and women under his Command both in the Force and in the Bureau, but this was the first time he felt emotionally stripped naked. It felt like his gut was fed through a ground meat machine and was now minced.

He tried not to become emotionally involved with officers under his command, precisely because of the toll it wrought on him, but he didn’t always succeed. Some just became too close for comfort. He promised himself:  When this operation wraps up, I’m done.

Hope and Luke were also taken, separately, to the same hospital with burns and pulmonary problems. Adrenaline had prevented Luke from noticing how badly burnt his right hand was.

The skin of his face and neck suffered second and third-degree burns, being cooked alive in extreme heat could do that to a human being.

Faith was at the hospital, pacing nervously, in the Burns Unit; patiently waiting to see Luke and Hope. She wasn’t prepared for the horror of seeing both wrapped in bandages, like mummies. Burn treatment is one of the most painful medical procedure anyone would possibly undergo. Even with her medical training as a Registered Nurse, or perhaps because she knew too much about burns, she felt her body go into shock, it was just too much for anyone to handle.

Dr. Jason Kent, the Burns’ Specialist, came over to console her, ‘He’s gonna be ok, they’re both gonna be ok. It’s not as bad as it looks.’

 

*

 

Back at Fire Station 71, the Unit had debriefed the incident. His Unit was in disbelief. They were angry at Luke and at the same time proud of what he did. They couldn’t entirely fault him for what he had done; any one of them could have done the same for someone special, given half the chance.

But, it was still unprofessional!

Nevertheless, they decided that if it were up to them, no one was going to hear about it. They would handle it themselves. But, unfortunately, the media reported Luke Walker’s action, it rapidly went up the chain of command.

It was obvious that no matter how they played it, Luke Walker was in trouble. He went against the whole bloody rule book on firefighting, did his own thing, and could have gotten himself killed.

A week later they heard a disciplinary committee was being formed to determine if Walker was still fit to serve with Fire Station 71, or with any fire department in the U.S.A. for that matter.

Unfit to serve?

They looked at each other dreading the worse. Luke career was on the line, and the job he loved may no longer be his when he walk out of the hospital.

 

*

 

Faith wept when she heard the news, there was nothing, nothing Luke liked best than serving. He couldn’t bear being a police officer after Sergeant McKenzie’s death. What would it do to him if he couldn’t serve as a fireman? She feared what it would do to him. The price of love was too heavy even for his broad shoulders to carry.

Can it go any more wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22

 

Then, there was Darkness

 

 

LUKE’S RIGHT HAND was the most severe of his injuries. The leather glove he was wearing melted and fused onto his palm when he, unthinkingly, touched the door knob. The desire to save Hope overwhelmed all other consideration, including his safety. Admittedly, downright stupid for a fireman of his calibre. He looked at his hand, and he was filled with self-loathing.

All of them had sustained severe respiratory injuries from inhaling toxic fume and had to be intubated to aid their breathing. Their faces and bodies, although untouched by flames were seriously blistered, so they had to be bandaged like mummies to avoid infection.

They spent the first two days in the burns victim unit under heavy sedation, so the hours went by like a blur.

But not so for those who loved them and who were forced to watch from afar. The risk of infection was just unacceptably high for burns victims that most visitors were only permitted to see them through a glass window. For them, they were hellish, long agonising days.

Thankfully, all of them were in top physical condition so were healing quicker than expected.

On the third day, Luke opened his eyes. Painfully at the start, then he became more conscious of his situation. The attending nurse sensed he wanted to say something with some urgency but with his face bandaged and a tube attached to his nasal passages, he was unable to communicate.

She introduced herself, ‘I’m Caro,’ pointing to her name tag, ‘I’m the nurse in charge. You want to say something?’ Luke blinked.

Caro smiled with understanding, ‘Wait here, I’ll get something for you.’ Minutes later, she returned with a laptop, ‘It’s mine. You can borrow it while I organised one for you.’

As soon as the laptop powered up, Luke typed with a finger of his left hand, ‘Hope?’

The nurse looked at the screen with interest, ‘She’s well, recuperating in the other room.’

That lifted a huge worry; his countenance lightened. Next he typed ‘Joe?’

‘The police officer?’ Luke blinked, ‘Doing very well. He’s two floors down.’

He typed again, ‘Faith?’

‘Ah, she’s here every day, I think she’s gone home … she’ll be back soon.’

Caro turned as a familiar voice inquired, ‘So how’s our patient doing?’

‘Hey Doc, he’s awake,’ the nurse turned back to Luke, ‘Officer Walker, this is your attending Burns specialist, Dr. Jason Kent.’

The handsome young doctor came over to look at the patient’s daily chart, Caro quickly added, ‘Doc, I haven’t taken his vitals. Haven’t had the chance, he had a lot of questions.’

Dr. Kent replaced Luke’s chart, ‘Well, I’ll finish my round, and I’ll come back later.’ He smiled at Luke and then he was gone.

Caro had just finished taking his vitals when Faith arrived with a bag of clothes and his laptop. ‘Hi,’ she greeted him happily, seeing Luke awake gave her a tremendous boost. She saw the laptop on the bedside table, ‘I see you beat me to it.’

She wanted to hug him, but the most she could do was touch the fingers of his left hand. ‘I love you,’ she said. He blinked. It was enough, for now.

She turned his laptop on and asked if he wanted music, he shook his head and motioned with his hand. ‘You want the laptop?’ He nodded, she put it in front of him and smiled broadly.

Luke typed, “Whats 2day?”

‘It’s Friday,’ she said.

It dawned on him that this was the day he had planned to propose. He would have gotten down on one knee at sundown today, wherever in the world they may be. It didn’t matter if they were by the sea, or the mountaintop, or by the wayside; he would have proposed.

Then, he sadly realised he had not even collected the ring.

He was going to collect it on that fateful Wednesday after work, but Wednesday was when it all came to shits. He felt an overwhelming, spirit-crushing sadness.

Faith saw tears well in his eyes, ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked concerned.

She was hunched over him and was at the point of getting him to say what the trouble was when Dr. Kent returned. Faith straightened up.

She was friendly and on a first name basis with him, ‘Hey Jason,’ she said.

The doctor gave her a peck on the cheek. Whatever possessed him at that moment, Luke felt jealous as hell. He couldn’t help the sense of unease and self-pity that bubbled up to the surface. It was followed by a very dark thought: Here I am, my face all bandaged up when it comes off I’d probably look like a walking map of the world.

He could see, as clear as day, that the doctor was enamoured with his girlfriend. Luke watched in uncharacteristic self-pity as Faith and Dr Kent chatted comfortably. They look good together. She talks with him easily.

Faith saw him looking and came over, ‘Luke, this is Jason.’

He thought that the doctor had a striking resemblance to Keanu Reeves. Just then, Faith playfully swatted his attending physician’s arm and he, Luke Walker, felt stupid and pityingly unhinged.

When Dr. Kent left, Faith kept him abreast of news on Hope and Joe. ‘Hope’s injuries aren’t as bad as yours. Apparently the storeroom door was a fire-rated door, so she had some protection. And Joe’s bullet wound was a through and through. It seems he’s getting stronger by the day.’

Luke heard, but he wasn’t listening to a lot of it. Faith wondered why Luke was suddenly unresponsive. She put it down to tiredness. ‘Would you like to go back to sleep?’ she asked.

He nodded, thinking morosely: She’s better off without me.

He turned away. Tried as he might, he couldn’t stop the depression that assaulted his typically tenacious self.

 

*

 

On the fourth stay, his Boss at Fire Station 71 came. Allan Eigenmann stood by his bedside. ‘We’re all here, but they’re not allowed to come in yet. Risk of potential infection, ya know?’

Luke registered anxiety in his Boss’ eyes and felt a need to apologise. He typed, ‘Sorry, Boss.’

The veteran fireman broke into a sad smile, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just get better.’

He didn’t have the heart to tell Luke of the impending disciplinary hearing. Eigenmann feared the more he talked, the more he’d slipped. He terminated the visit with a lame excuse. ‘I’ve got to go, my wife is waiting at Reception.’

Luke felt there was something Eigenmann was not telling him. He thought the worse of all possible scenario. I’m fired.

 

*

 

Several days later, Fire Chief Eigenmann received the official summons from the disciplinary committee. He couldn’t recall a time when he agonised over the fate of one member. Four years of outstanding service. Four years and now it all hangs in the balance. He had no influence over the Committee and even if he had it would be unwise to exercise it.

He called Luke’s unit for a closed-door meeting.

‘You’re all being summoned to face the disciplinary committee in two weeks, so mark your calendar. If you don’t front up at the hearing, you’ll get an automatic suspension. Luke is still in the hospital; so his testimony will be heard last. Just tell the truth, even if you think the truth could hurt him. The last thing I want is for any of you to be cited for contempt or perjure yourself. Clear?’ They nodded in unison.

‘Questions?’

One of the men asked, ‘What’s the worst case scenario for Luke?’

The fire chief answered truthfully; he wasn’t here to cuddle them but to guide them through the process. ‘Termination.’ A collective groan followed this.

Eigenmann continued, ‘But at the hearing, you’ll get a chance to say something on his behalf. The Committee is not after Luke per se; it’s not personal. I’m confident they’ll take what you say in his defence into consideration.’

None of that made them feel better. They wished the incident never happened and wished word didn’t get around. But all the wishing in the world could not reverse it now; they could only hope that common sense would prevail.

 

*

 

Teammates and friends continued to check in with Joe, Hope and Luke.

During one of those visits, they noticed how Luke was short or rude with Faith. One of the men came within an inch of knocking his head for being insensitive.

‘He’s behaving like an ass,’ he told Eigenmann.

‘Yeah, he’s in a bad way, but that’s no excuse to be mean to Faith.’

They didn’t know what got into Luke.

Of all people, it was young Eraser didn’t hold back. ‘Hey asshole,’ he said to him when they were alone, ‘I don’t know what your problem is but Faith sure doesn’t deserve your treatment of her.’

 

*

 

Faith didn’t know what to make of it either or what she did wrong. Often, after a tearful conversation with Luke, she would confide to Dr. Kent, who had been a friend since college days.

Unfortunately, he had a vested interest in listening to her sorrows. He’d been attracted to her for a long time. Their paths diverged when she opted to discontinue medical studies and be a nurse instead.

So while Luke despaired of losing Faith to the good doctor, he was also pushing her towards him.

‘Well, if you’re asking for my medical assessment, I’d say he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress, but I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, so don’t take my word for it. But for you, I’ll arrange for a referral, OK?’

Faith was anxious about what might happen to them. Together, she and Luke have been through a lot of dramas, but this one took the cake. ‘Thanks,’ she said sounding hurt and dejected. She bit her lower lip.

The good doctor thought how vulnerable she looked.

 

*

 

A week later, Luke learned of the disciplinary hearing from the most unlikely source: Roberts.

‘What’d you mean,’ he asked the inspector.

Roberts was astounded when he realised Luke hadn’t been told, but it was too late to backtrack now. The only decent thing to do was to come clean and then tell Eigenmann what took place.

So on top of feeling sore and sorry about Faith, Luke felt betrayed by everyone for not telling him.

Deep down, he knew his Team wasn’t being deceitful. But logic wasn’t playing a part in it, only fear and loathing.

After the unexpected revelation, Faith got the brunt of his passive aggressive disposition. He did feel terribly sorry when, with tears in her eyes, she turned to leave. ‘I’ve got to go; Bradley and Cooper are waiting. Can I bring you anything from home?’

His facial bandage had been removed, and the tube as well so he could talk if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He stared at the ceiling stubbornly refusing to look at her.

‘Fine,’ she said. She paused at the door, ‘I love you’ then, she was gone. He mentally kicked himself for being an ass.

He knew he had hurt her beyond endurance.

 

*

 

With three members of the task force critical in hospital, Bullard and his minions would have the chance to regroup.

This Roberts could not allow.

He called for an emergency meeting, everyone attended. Angelica Delaney was first to arrive, ‘I’m so sorry about Joe.’

Roberts’ face remained stoic, but he acknowledged the expression of sympathy with a nod. ‘It’s time to stop feeling sorry, time to throw the books at them.’

The lawyer agreed wholeheartedly. If only she could change the law of the land by her lonesome, she thought.

Even with the attempted murder charge of a police officer, these low lives would be jailed for no more than three years. Delaney felt a little defeated.

But there was one good outcome, the Prosecutor’s Office was willing and able to issue search and arrest warrants against Bullard and his crew; subpoena bank records; order asset forfeiture and throw anything and everything at them.

Miss Delaney was heard telling her assistant Lincoln Folkes, ‘Add the following charges to the list: attempted murder of a police officer and a civilian, disorderly conduct, public disturbance, and malicious damage to property.’

 

*

 

Richard’s Cybercrime unit had made significant headway establishing connections between different shell companies, both locals and overseas.

But they still had a lot of groundwork to cover to determine the identity of ownership.

Still, he reckoned it’s only a matter of time.

Meantime, Vice Squad struck while the iron was hot. Armed with a subpoena, they raided all known Bullard hideouts and warehouses and scored big time.

David Colby led one raiding party.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23

 

Goodbye

 

 

HOPE WAS DISCHARGED ahead of Luke and Joe.

On the day of her discharge, she visited Joe to see how he was doing. ‘Hey …’ she said as she stood next to his bed. It was immediately apparent to him that she was self-conscious of her skin. Her face, hands, arms, shoulders were scarred. There were large blotches as old skin peeled off, and new skin came to the fore. To hide them, she wore a long-sleeve shirt and a scarf.

Joe reached up to move away the scarf that half-hid her face. ‘Don’t hide,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t change the way I feel about you. The scars will fade. We just have to make sure that the scar here,’ he pointed to his chest, ‘fades as well.’

He was always the voice of reason, she thought. So unlike me.

She touched his shoulder lightly, checking the dressed wound where the bullet exited, tears pooling in her eyes as she did so. The lead missed vital organs, the only reason he was alive. ‘It shattered part of my shoulder bone, so I’d be on medical leave for some time, and then limited to desk duties until I can move my shooting arm without impediment.’

‘I’m so glad you’re alive… you and Luke. I don’t think I can face living if either one of you perished in there. I couldn’t keep going.’

Joe wiped away her tears, gingerly, afraid he might scratch away the protective scabs. ‘Don’t cry. We’re all here. We’re ok.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, her voice quivering with emotion.

‘Not your fault,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t you who set that place on fire, and you didn’t shoot me.’

There wasn’t much to say after that, so they just held hands until Joe’s mother popped in. ‘Momma, this is Hope,’ he said. ‘She saved my life.’ Hope looked at Joe and was tempted to say that wasn’t entirely accurate.

‘You’re such a courageous girl,’ Mrs Di Nozzi said as she hugged the young woman in gratitude.

‘I’m not,’ Hope said, ‘your son was. He saved my life.’

Mrs Di Nozzi wouldn’t hear of her protestation. ‘You both saved each other. You were there for each other. Come to our house for dinner when you’re feeling better.’

Her heart skipped a bit. She smiled and said, ‘Thanks. I will.’

Joe grinned. His Italian mother had invited Hope for dinner; he took this as a good sign.

There was another special person she wanted to visit, so Hope bade them goodbye. Before she left, Joe kissed her fingertip, ‘See you soon and say “Hi” to Luke for me.’

 

*

 

She went to see Luke next. He wasn’t in his room, but one of the nurses was setting up, ‘Where’s?’ Hope asked pointing at the empty bed.

The nurse motioned “gone walking” with two fingers, ‘If you bump into him, could you tell him it’s time to change his dressing?’ Hope nodded.

She walked in the direction of the nearest exit and there she saw Luke near the Nurses’ station walking like a zombie.

‘Luke.’

He turned slowly around. His eyes smiled upon seeing her. She strolled towards him. There was no need for words. Words would be superfluous. Unnecessary. They just hugged in the corridor, weeping tears of joy. Between them was an unbreakable bond, borne out of common life-changing experiences.

When they were all cried out, they walked hand-in-hand in quiet contemplation. They all came this close to death.

Then, they walked with their arms around each other, till they found themselves in the chapel. Hope went in first, followed by Luke. They sat in silence at the back, grateful for the solitude. Apart from a Cross on the altar that has come to symbolise the redemption of humankind, there was nothing else to distract the eyes. A stained glass window above the altar featured a dove with a leaf in its beak. It cast light upon the Cross. In the simplicity of the prayer room, they felt the touch of God. In the stillness and the quiet, in their respective ways, they heard His voice.

Moments later, they rose to walk back to Luke’s room. Along the way, their conversation turned to his forthcoming disciplinary hearing.

Luke shrugged his shoulders. ‘Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be,’ he said philosophically. ‘It’s too late for regrets. We’re all alive, the three of us, so I can’t regret it. And I heard that Bullard and his gang are all in custody. What else can I hope for?’

Hope pursed her lips. It seemed the price was just far too heavy. She sighed and then reassured him. ‘I’ll be there for you … all of us,’ she said. Then, added, ‘It’s time to change your dressing.’

 

*

 

Roberts and the members of the task force had been very busy indeed. Five people were charged with attempted murder of a police officer and a CI; a sixth man, the driver of the getaway vehicle was charged with aiding and abetting.

The bold and beautiful Assistant District Attorney, Angelica Delaney said, ‘If it fits, throw it at them.’

So the Clerks of law got busy with the law book and piled everything can that be substantiated on their rap sheet.

Paul Bullard and company had escaped custody but surrendered to authorities after two weeks of sustained and relentless coordinated manhunt. In a press conference, SAC Roberts’ announced that the crime lord had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn.

Bullard rightly thought that if it were a choice between jail and the casket, he’d picked jail anytime. He had counted on being able to get bail, so giving himself up to authorities was akin to dropping into a remand centre during visiting hours. But he had underestimated his opponent. His legal representative’s application for bail was rejected. Now, he’d have to languish in prison while the Prosecutor’s Office built their case and tightened the screw.

Not long after his bail application was declined, a certain ‘go-between’ made an approached to Miss Delaney. The long and short of it was ‘How much?’

Miss Delaney’s laconic reply was ‘five years.’

The ‘go-between’ was dumbfounded, so Angelica Delaney spelled it out, ‘The mandatory jail sentence for attempting to bribe an officer of the Court is five years.’

It was the first and last approach.

 

*

 

Two weeks went by, Luke and Joe would be out of hospital soon.

Hope and Joe counted the hours. They could think of nothing but being together.

In contrast, Luke dreaded it. Faith had only been to visit him once since that day he was a total jackass. And that visit was strained because he wanted it that way. He knew he should apologise for his behaviour, but didn’t.

What was he so jealous about? It didn’t matter, he thought, perhaps they weren’t meant to be.

But a day before his discharge, Adora, one of Faith’s childhood friends came to visit. ‘Hey, how are you?’

‘I’m good,’ he said. ‘What brought you here?’

‘Whoa, easy, that hurts,’ she said with a grin, ‘you made it sound like I didn’t care whether you live or die. I care very much, if only for my friend.’

Then she was quiet, and he suddenly felt cold. She eyed him carefully. ‘So, what’s this I’ve been hearing that you’re being mean to my girlfriend?’

He didn’t answer.

‘Hello,’ she persisted.

‘Guilty as charged’, he said.

‘Why?’ she asked candidly.

That was just Adora to ask point-blank, especially when it came to defending her friend. Luke looked at the ceiling. She made a big show of opening her shoulder bag and taking out her smartphone. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, ‘I’ve got things to do. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.’

Half an hour later, they were still deadlocked. But Adora wasn’t going anywhere.

Finally, he said, ‘She’s better off with him, you know.’

Her eyebrows went up, ‘With whom?’

Luke exhaled exaggeratedly, ‘Keanu Reeves.’

‘You mean, Dr. Jason Kent?’ Adora had a sudden understanding. ‘I get it; you’re jealous. Why on earth are you jealous of Jason? She chose you over him. He pursued her you know, but she chose you.’

‘That was before, Dory. Look at me. I look like a walking map of the world. And besides, he’s young, good-looking, and a doctor. What more could a girl want?’

‘OK, let’s see if I understand you correctly. Dr. Kent is young, good looking, and a doctor. Oh, and you have to add rich. He drives a Porsche, you know?’ There, she stuck the knife in and twisted it.

Adora watched him press his head a little deeper into the pillow. But she wasn’t finished, ‘Yeah, and he’s a Mensa member. Beauty and brains combination.’

She looked intently at Luke as his eyes glazed over, ‘Luke, look at me.’ When he didn’t make a move to do, she tugged at his arm, ‘Look at me.’ He turned.

‘Luke, Jason is young, good looking, intelligent, rich and a doctor. But she’s with you. Not with him. Do you get me?’

‘She just feels sorry for me,’ he said almost in a whisper.

Adora sighed. ‘Let me tell you something about women. A woman who pities you will come to visit, but she won’t change your bedpan. Get me? Do I have to spell it out for you?’ She waited patiently, ‘You’re feeling sorry for yourself, and you’re projecting it on her.’

A nurse poked her head in, ‘Visiting time’s over.’

Adora acknowledged the nurse, ‘This won’t be long.’

Turning back to Luke, she reached over to get his undivided attention. ‘I like you, but you’re hurting my friend. Luke, listen, love isn’t deserved. It’s given. Take it. Accept it.’

Adora left soon after that, but her words lingered. 

Love isn’t deserved. It’s given. Take it.

 

*

 

The day to leave the hospital came. Hope and Mrs. Di Nozzi came to take Joe home. Eraser came for Luke.

They were quiet on the ride home, the atmosphere inside the car was suffocatingly so. When they arrived at the apartment building, Eraser carried his bag for him. At the door, his young protégé acted all grown up, ‘Don’t let her go,’ he said.

It felt as if a hammer dropped on his chest, ‘I won’t,’ Luke said, half-heartedly.

They let themselves in. Faith was waiting, a packed suitcase was by the door. She said, ‘Hi honey, welcome home.’

He said, ‘Hey’ back. Eraser nodded at her then quickly retreated.

Faith waited for him to say something, anything. She waited to see whether there was still an “us”. A minute passed, and nothing.

She finally made a move, ‘Well, ah, Bradley and Cooper are with Mom and Dad, when you’re fit and ready, you can get them back.’

She hoped and prayed that he’d stop her, but he made no such move, so she picked up her suitcase and said ‘Goodbye.’

Eraser waited at the car park just to be sure everything would be alright. He couldn’t quite believe his eyes when he saw Faith struggling with a suitcase in tears. Idiot, what have you done?

What, indeed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

24

 

Days of Reckoning

 

 

LUKE WALKED AROUND the house like a zombie, disengaged from the world as he knew it. And, worse of all, largely disconnected from those he knew. His only constant companion was the television, which seemed to be on a permanent Justice League fixture.

A couple of days later, Eraser came to visit, ‘You look like shit. Have you eaten anything since I brought you home?’

Luke pointed at the kitchen bench. There was an empty pizza box and a half-empty bottle of red. That alone wasn’t alarming, except there was another empty pizza box in the bin. The young guy shook his head, ‘So you decided to die by calories instead, I should do you a favour and just shoot you.’

‘Good idea, been waiting for someone to make the offer,’ Luke replied sullenly.

‘Have you slept yet?’

‘Can’t sleep.’

Eraser recognised the warning signs of depression; he had been there himself, and it wasn’t pretty. One of the reasons he was still around and functioning was because Luke was there for him. Now the shoe was on the other foot.

Luke sat on a stool; his shoulders slumped, a picture of utter despair. He was unkempt and smelled rancid, his breath especially. He looked pathetic.

‘I miss Faith,’ he mumbled; at which point, Eraser was tempted to say: ‘Hello? Who sent her packing?’ So, it was with laudable self-control that he managed to shut his trap, he knew from his experience blaming wasn’t going to help

The bottle of red looked inviting. Luke twisted the cap and swigged its content down his throat. He grimaced at the taste of half-stale wine at room temperature. He resumed his litany of rumbling self-pity. ‘Come Monday, I’d be unemployed. And likely to be so for a long time. I can’t see any other outcome. I did what I felt I had to do. I only have myself to blame.’

Eraser prised the bottle out of Luke’s hand, who was in no mood to fight him over it. Then, he demonstrated the wisdom that far exceeded his age; he said, ‘I think in this instance, you’re wrong. How’d you know what the outcome would be? You’ve pre-empted the Committee. Maybe they’ll just suspend you or something. I don’t think termination is a possibility. Besides, you should’ve left it up to Faith if she wants to stay or go. It’s her life. You’ve been unfair to her. And, what’s this about being unemployable? Where did that come from?’

‘That’s what happens when you lose your job for a disciplinary reason. No one wants a problem employee.’ Luke rubbed his face; the itching had been torturous. He stopped when he felt stinging pain. His skin was still raw.

Eraser shrugged. ‘I was a problem child, but look at me now. I have control of the Treasury,’ he said grinning goofily at the irony of it. Continuing, he said, ‘You know what buddy, you need an intervention. Where’s this “I’m defeated” mentality coming from? It’s not you, Luke.’

Luke smirked, ‘Since when did you become all grown up?

Then he changed the topic, ‘Have you spoken to her since?’ he asked as he inspected the bandage on his right hand.

‘Yeah, I have,’ but Eraser didn’t elaborate.

Luke sensed there was more to be said, ‘Is she alright?’

‘If you’re asking whether she’s coping, the answer is yes. But is she happy? No. She’d be happier miserable with you than happy alone if you get my drift.’

Eraser mulled whether to disclose what little he knew and decided he should, ‘You’ll probably find out on Monday, so I might as well tell you now. She has resigned from the Hospital effective immediately.’

Luke looked at Eraser in shock. The news was so unexpected that it walloped him hard. She loved working in health care. He was overcome with sadness.

He bawled his eyes out. He had made such a mess of things. Eraser put an arm on his shoulder and said, ‘Sorry, buddy.’

Eraser stayed until someone else arrived to take his place. Hope came bearing containers full of good food.

Luke would be in good hands, he thought, as he said, ‘I’ll see you later.’

 

*

 

The day of reckoning came. The Committee decided to hear everyone in one day. It was to be a closed-door hearing, the proceedings kept away from the prying eyes of the public and the media.

Hope, Joe, and Eraser came to offer support. Roberts also dropped by to offer his moral support and to inform them of the task force’s progress.

The members of Luke’s unit from Fire Station 71 walked-in in a single file. Sergeant Keith Spark, who was the Chief Negotiator, entered first; followed by members of the SWAT and the paramedics, who were also invited to give their versions of events.

They sat in a row facing a Committee of seven headed by a psychologist, Dr Terry Heard. Also, in the Committee were three serving and three retired firemen.

After the appropriate introduction, Dr Heard explained the purpose of the hearing. ‘This is not a witch hunt,’ she said emphatically. ‘Think of this as a fact-finding panel. Did Luke Walker, a four-year veteran of Fire Station 71 acted in a manner that endangered not only his life but that of his colleagues?’

They sat listening, grim-faced.

‘Before we proceed, do you any questions?’

Luke knew he acted impulsively; he didn’t need a Committee to tell him this, so he asked to be able to speak. All he could hope for was compassion and understanding; if there was room for these sentiments at all. Besides, the least he could do was spare his buddies the dilemma of defending his indefensible action.

‘I was wrong, and I’m sorry. But I’m also not sorry I did it. It’s not necessary for these people, who aren’t just my co-workers, but good friends as well, to have to —’ His voice trailed; he couldn’t finish what he was saying.

But he didn’t need to, the members of the Committee plainly understood what he was trying to say. They looked at each other and nodded. Dr Heard said, ‘In which case, all of you are free to go.’

All his friends were gobsmacked. They had all come prepared to appeal on his behalf. Instead, he threw himself under the bureaucratic bus!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25

 

The Proposal

 

 

THE COMMITTEE ADVISED HIM of the time-frame – five business days. That’s when he could expect to hear of their official verdict; in the meantime, he was suspended with pay.

He gave everyone the slip and went shopping for junk food and five twelve-pack beer, then went home to mope. He turned off his phone, locked the door and stayed out of sight. Hope and Joe, along with a string of friends left him messages when he failed to face them again that day.

Opting to keep his miserable company, he posted an announcement on his Facebook account, a one-size-fits-all message. It said: Gone fishing, accompanied by a caricature of a man with a beer can in one hand and a fishing pole in the other. He hoped it would be sufficient to get everyone off his back for the time being, just until he could bring himself to speak to anyone.

Barricading himself in his house, he turned on the massive 40-inch television to a sports channel. In the space of four hours his football team lost, his baseball team got massacred, and his favourite Formula 1 racer got smashed. Loser, he thought morosely.

He changed the channel and stumbled on one that sold a multi-purpose juicer and food blender. He watched disinterestedly as the fat celebrity host made a variety of pizzas and pasta while he poured packet after packet of nuts into his mouth. The next infomercial sold make-up, anti-acne soap and some weird lotions and potions. Then, Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley came on to tell him he needed an exercise machine.

Insomnia finally wore off. He fell asleep, half in, half out on the couch and woke up mid-morning with a massive hangover. It set off a pattern: Eat, drink, sleep, repeat; interrupted only by pill-popping to nurse his headache.

On the fifth day, there was a break in his routine which somehow disrupted the vicious circle. It was an act neither profound nor earthshaking, just the very simple act of showering.

Under the jet spray, he felt the rawness of his pain for the first time in weeks.

He was done feeling numb and miserable.

He turned off the shower when the hot water ran out. Facing the mirror, he inspected his face and ran his tongue around his mouth, he was repulsed when he felt the thick, slimy film that covered his teeth.

He opened the medicine cabinet that held his toiletries and found a rolled-up blue paper, tied with pink ribbon. He backed away slightly. He knew it could only be one of Faith’s demonstration of thoughtfulness and affection. She liked to do this to surprise him.

A little toy car here, usually a Matchbox to add to his collection. A little hand-made card there.

Nothing was out of bounds for her. A gift box in his gym bag. A chocolate bar in his glove box. A bunch of flowers delivered to his workplace.

He braced himself against the vanity and cried like a baby. The catharsis was a godsend.

Finally, his tears dried up. He took his dental stuff out and shut the cabinet door. Out of sight, out of mind. He would simply pretend it wasn’t there for no other reason than he wasn’t done being pathetic! He was tired of feeling sick, disgusting, sad and fat, but not done being pathetic.

A ray of inner strength peeped out of his melancholy. It eventually nudged him to clean up a little after himself. Armed with a plastic bag, he picked up empty beer cans, pizza boxes and packets of junk food. He just finished vacuuming when there was a knock on the door. The best thing to do, he decided, was to pretend he wasn’t home. ‘I know you’re there,’ Joe called out from the side window.

The knocking moved to the back door. Luke thought Joe would eventually leave. Big mistake. Instead, Joe picked his lock.

‘What the hell?’

‘Sorry, but this can’t wait.’ Joe looked him in the eyes and said with conviction, ‘I’ve come to ask for Hope’s hand in marriage.’

Luke wasn’t sure he heard right, ‘What did you say?’

‘I want to ask Hope to marry me but thought I should ask you first, you know, in case you go Ninja on my ass.’

Luke didn’t answer. He went to get two cans of beer from the fridge and tossed one to Joe. ‘Are you sure about this?’ he asked as he popped it open.

‘I’m very sure. No doubt about it.’

‘In which case, you have my permission. Now go before I change my mind,’ he said. He removed the can of beer from Joe and gave him a gentle push out the door.

He smiled to himself for the first time in weeks. Imagine that, he thought to himself. Hope could do worse. Joe was an amazing guy, not that he would admit this to Joe.

He made a bowl of salad composed of wilted greens. It was still better than another bowl of empty calories. He sat in front of the television to watch a game of baseball. His team won for a change.

On the sixth day, he awoke slightly better. But something huge was missing. The house felt desolate without Faith and the cats. There was this pervasive sense of loss.

He went to the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet and reached for the rolled up blue paper. He removed the pink ribbon and unfurled the thickly embossed paper, which no doubt, she scoured the flea markets for until she found just the right one.

He was wrong. It wasn’t just an act of thoughtfulness. It was an act of pure love, in it, she wrote in her beautiful script, “Would you marry me?”

She had gotten tired of waiting for him to ask. He could only hope she hadn’t gotten tired of waiting for him to get his act together.

Without further ado, he called his future in-laws home. Where else could Faith be? Olivia, Faith’s mother, answered.

‘Hi, it’s Luke.’

‘Oh, hi,’ she said. ‘Are you OK?”

They had talked for half an hour before he found the courage to ask if he could speak to Faith. Olivia’s answer stunned him. ‘She left yesterday.’

‘Left?’

Not too far I hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26

 

Flight of the Butterfly

 

 

‘WHERE TO?’ he asked.

‘Nepal.’

‘Nepal? Nepal!’ was his incredulous response. The truth was he wasn’t entirely surprised she went to Nepal, it’s been on her bucket list for years. An oft-postponed dream. Postponed for him. Postponed for work. Postponed for anyone and everyone in need. Finally, she had found the time, the courage and the excuse to go, and she didn’t dilly-dally.

‘That’s what I said,’ she replied with slight bemusement, then she turned serious. ‘Visit us, Luke, we want to see you. Have dinner with us tonight.’

‘OK,’ he said without hesitation. ‘I’ll be there this evening. I’m sorry I’ve made a mess of things.’

‘I’m just glad you called today. I was giving you a week to hide in your man-cave and then I was going to call for intervention.’ He thanked her for her concern, and then they hung up.

He gazed into the middle distance and tearfully admitted to himself that he felt lost. His world was empty and devoid of colour and sound. It was even devoid of cat companionship. Without Faith, life as he knew it wasn’t the same. He moped for a bit following that reflection until he came to a conscious decision to get his act together. With an emotional resolve, he didn’t think he still possessed, he fought back at the melancholy threatening to devour him.

The notification light was blinking crazily. If he hadn’t left it plugged in the charger this whole time, the battery would have long expired. There were a lot of concerned texts and voice mails with veiled threats along the lines of “If I don’t hear from you soon I’ll organise a land and sea search and rescue.” He felt an odd mixture of relief that people do love him and annoyed that they couldn’t leave him alone.

He logged online to add a post on his FB account, another one-size-fits-all message. It said: Wish you were here to see me catch the big one. It was accompanied by a caricature of a man with a Great White shark at the end of his line.

In the late afternoon, as it got closer to his dinner appointment, anxiety got the better of him again. He was ambivalent about going out. But as he oscillated between going to Faith’s parents’ house and not, he received an SMS from Bellisimo Jeweler, a small boutique shop not far from Fire Station 71. Come collect, it’s been here for awhile.

He took it as a sign.

 

*

 

Alessio, the long-time owner, stayed well after closing time to wait for Luke. Something he was happy to do for someone who worked for the community.

He beamed widely when his client arrived. On approach, he checked surreptitiously there weren’t anyone lurking behind Luke before unlocking the security door. ‘Finally,’ he said, ‘I thought you got cold feet.’

Then, seeing Luke up-close he gasped, and checked him out not too subtly, ‘What happened to you?’

Luke’s right hand was still bandaged though not as heavily, and his facial and neck skin were blotchy. Uneven shades of dark and white patches competed for territory on his once handsome face.

‘Long story,’ he said as he removed the dark shades covering his eyes.

Alessio respected that Luke didn’t care to elaborate. He locked the door and then hurried to the back room where he kept a safe. He came out with a small red box, opened it to present the ring to its owner.

The ring had two Sapphire stones: one blue, one green. Blue was his colour, the colour of the sea and sky. Green was hers, the colour of nature. The stones were pear-shaped sat on a platinum ring. The tapered end was kissing so they looked like the open wings of a butterfly.

Luke had designed it himself. For him, it symbolised metamorphosis, the becoming. A representation of their journey together. It mesmerised him. It was beautifully made.

The jeweller himself was caught up in the excitement. Alessio studied his client’s face and felt sure Luke liked it.

‘It’s beautiful, thank you.’

The jeweller rubbed his hands with joy, happy to have pleased a client. ‘She’ll like it. ‘It’s one of a kind.’

Luke exhaled. Now he just had to find her.

 

*

 

Dinner at the Scott’s was amiable and warm. Bradley, who appeared to have missed him, curled up in his lap covering his denim jeans with furs. Cooper, on the other hand, stayed at the window sill eyeing him, perhaps contemplating whether he should attack him for getting them unceremoniously exiled to another house.

The reunion started awkwardly. He fumbled all over the place until Faith’s Dad, Oscar Scott, put him at ease by smiling widely and blatantly saying his face looked like it had been trampled on by a herd of stampeding buffalos. ‘Hoof prints are visible.’

The teasing could easily be misconstrued as bullying coming from someone else but not from Oscar. Luke laughed it off. He didn’t take offense but, nevertheless, Olivia was mortified and elbowed her husband.

In a sense, it was what he needed to hear. An in-your-face comment said in jest that didn’t tip-toe around his feelings like he was a fragile, taped-up, sun-dried specimen. Maybe, it was because it came from Oscar who could say the darndest thing and get away with it. Or, perhaps, he was indeed getting better inside. Whatever the reason, it gave him a chance to laugh at himself, which was really good.

Over dinner, they talked about life in general and about the rest of the clan who were scattered around the world. There’s their son in the U.K. working as an architect and another younger son in Hawaii training as a chef.

They asked about his family and he said they were OK. He didn’t tell them his divorced parents were never made aware their only offspring came so close to meet his Maker.

After dinner, as they gathered in the living room, Olivia handed him a black rubber bracelet. He knew what it signified; Faith didn’t want to be found. He accepted it with a heavy heart and wondered if this was the end.

Oscar put an arm on his shoulder, ‘If you love her, get her back. It won’t be easy. She’s very hurt not because you rejected her. But because you didn’t believe she loved you warts and all. She’s working in an eye hospital as a volunteer. She didn’t say which one but surely there can’t be that many eye hospitals in Nepal.’

Olivia, with tears in her eyes, urged him, ‘Bring her home. Here is where she belongs.

 

*

 

The next day, Luke flew to Nepal.

A Sapphire ring was burning a hole in his pocket.

He gazed out the window, as he begun a journey what could change the course of his life.

He reminded himself why he chose sapphire for their engagement ring. He couldn’t afford diamonds, not the sort she deserved. But that wasn’t the reason.

He chose sapphire because he wanted it to be different. After months of searching and researching, he picked it because he had learned it was associated with the virtue of integrity. Something he felt he lacked, not after the way he treated her.

He leaned his head on the headrest and covered his face with a cap. Not because he was embarrassed by his facial skin, but because he was crying. He felt desperate.

He hoped she would be pleased to see him, but deep down, he had his doubts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27

 

Among the Clouds

 

 

SINGAPORE AIRLINES’ SQ 5312, a Boeing 737 appeared too big to be landing in such a small airport with such a short runway. She held her breath as the Himalayan Mountains loomed large at a short distance. Too close, it seemed, for comfort. But the pilot, by some miracle or expertise, probably both, landed the flying behemoth and taxied efficiently to the appropriate arrival gate.

She followed the stream of passengers disembarking. She didn’t know what to expect although she’d been provided with some basic information by the people whose volunteer organisation she had joined. It was an enormous relief for her when she found herself in and out of Customs and Border Control before she could take one huge breath.

The throng of travellers wasn’t as thick as those in other countries but considering how small the Airport structure was, the lunchtime crowd at the Tribhuvan International Airport was substantial. For such a tiny airport, it was bursting at the seams.

At the arrival area, a middle-aged Caucasian man with thinning hair was holding up a sign with her name. Their eyes connected, and she smiled wearily. He hastened to take the load off her back. ‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m Josiah, and you must be Faith.’

‘Thanks for meeting me,’ she said as she offered a hand in greetings.

‘No worries, my pleasure. Look there are five-star hotels just near here, if you’d rather spend a day or two in Kathmandu. I can arrange for someone to take you to the Dhading district where we’re holding eye clinics.’

‘I appreciate the suggestion, but I prefer to go to the clinic straight away.’

Josiah pursed his lips before giving her the hard facts, ‘It won’t be a comfortable trip, largely because of the 04/15 earthquake. It’s around seventy kilometres from here.’ Remembering that she was American, he added, ‘That’s roughly forty-five miles. Are you sure you can handle it?’

‘I might regret saying this,’ she said, ‘but I think I can handle it. I didn’t come here to be a tourist.’

‘Well, in that case, let’s go.’

Parked not far from the main entrance was an ancient looking truck. ‘It’s full of donated supplies,’ he informed her.

As they got closer to the vehicle, she observed that it looked like it could fall off its chassis any minute. Ordinarily, she would hesitate to consider even climbing in one. But this time, she smiled as she pulled herself up to the cabin, already she could sense an adventure of a lifetime.

Inside, the dashboard was being held together with duct tape. She glanced at the steering wheel, wondering whether it was still attached to the shaft. It was! But she guessed not by much.

The seats were hard. The original soft padding had long been replaced with a plank of wood and wrapped in woolly rugs. She tried to get comfortable and then gave Josiah the nod to indicate she was ready.

She thought she might fall asleep due to exhaustion. En route to Kathmandu, she had embarked on an epic journey without telling anyone of her itinerary beforehand.

From San Francisco, she had stopovers in Hong Kong and Singapore and decided to spend a week in each place doing regular touristy stuff. She thought she might as well since she might never return to Asia.

Unknown to her, Luke Walker, the man she had left in Los Angeles had been scouring the length and breadth of Kathmandu looking for her.

So she was here now, in the cab of a rusty bucket, prepared to tough it out to get to a remote village. As she settled in, she felt every aching bone and muscle and so she asked Josiah for his understanding in case she inadvertently dozed off. He smiled crookedly and said he would be impressed if she could, considering the state of the roads.

Josiah started the engine, and it engaged quickly. At least, she thought, the machine seemed to be well maintained. They drove northward where sections of the road were cracked and pot-holed. Josiah had to be constantly alert, performing evasive actions worthy of a race car driver.

‘How long before we get to Dhading district?’ she asked out of curiosity.

‘It would take us close to eight hours. One thing you’ll learn soon enough is that moving around Nepal is painfully slow. Bumpy and dusty for the most part. We’d be doing a large chunk of our journey on secondary roads, some of them paved, the majority of them not.’

She looked out the window to admire the majesty of the Himalayan Mountain range. Josiah caught her eyes and said, ‘You’d never get tired of it. I can look at these mountains for hours.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.

Her mind drifted back to a faraway land, to the man she loved. It’d be amazing to share this place with him, she thought. Part of her had been saying she had made a big mistake by leaving. This tug-of-war had been tearing her internally, but she knew she also needed to save herself. She wished he had let her love him. If only.

She tried her best not to be melancholic by pretending to admire the views. But in many cases, there weren’t many views to admire. On the slow drive, along the length of the road, she saw many houses that had been damaged by the earthquake. She hadn’t prepared for the emotional impact it was having on her.

Her train of thought was interrupted when Josiah asked if she cared for something to eat.

‘Actually, I’m not hungry. What about you?’

‘I’m fine; I’ve had something while waiting for you.’ He glanced at her very briefly, before returning his concentration on the road. ‘So, what brought you here all the way from the U.S. of A?’

She shrugged. ‘It was time,’ she said. ‘I’ve wanted to do volunteer work for the longest time.’ She wasn’t sure if Josiah believed her fully. She changed the focus of their conversation to him, ‘What about you? What brought you here?’

‘I always wanted to climb Mt Everest. I did my first climb five years ago, fell in love with the country and stayed.’

‘Where were you from?’

‘Melbourne,’ he said, cheekily adding, ‘I’m not missing much.’ He laughed out loud.

Eight hours was going to be a long time to be bouncing on a hard seat. And, especially harder trying to keep a conversation going because she sensed Josiah could discern there was another underlying reason she was in Nepal. Somehow, she managed by pretending to sleep part of the way; on and off.

 

*

 

In Tripureshwor Village, Luke had joined a group of volunteers from the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology setting up a mobile eye clinic. It was totally out of the blue.

He arrived in Kathmandu days ahead of Faith and had been tirelessly looking for her. He went from one hospital to the next asking about a young, beautiful American woman and showing her photo around.

After five days of searching, he hadn’t seen a trace of her. He had started to worry then. He didn’t think he could handle it if something had happened to her.

Oscar and Olivia Scott assuaged his fear when they informed him that she had posted a selfie on her Instagram account. Faith, they said, posed with the Hong Kong Harbour as the backdrop and wrote that she was only giving them an update to prevent them from worrying unnecessarily.

She had unfriended and unfollowed him in the days since her departure, so he kept track of her movements via the Scott family. He couldn’t blame her. He supposed he might have done the same if the situation was reversed.

The majority of the first week he spent looking for Faith. The second, he spent in self-containment and pity parties until he was confronted with an emergency. He bumped into a young man in severe distress walking to the hospital aided by his wife and an elderly woman, presumably his mother. One look at the man’s leg, and he knew the tibia was broken.

Luke took immediate action by telling the Nepali man, who understood his sign language that he needed him to lay down. Using pieces of wood he had managed to scavenge, and his belt, he splinted the man’s leg and then offered to transport them to the hospital by hiring a private car.

Hanging around the hospital, monitoring the progress of the man’s treatment, he came across a Nepali doctor with kind eyes, who introduced himself as ‘Ganesh’.

In typical Nepali hospitality, he invited Luke to his house which the latter accepted with grace. It was a humble abode with one crumbled wall. The fireman in Luke wanted to inspect the structure to determine whether it was safe and sound. Ganesh smiled at him assuringly, ‘It will hold,’ he said. ‘Besides, there aren’t anywhere else to go that didn’t look the same.’

Amira, his wife, who was Indian by birth, greeted them and served rice and curry for dinner; spicy chutney on the side; and hot green tea. Twelve people joined them, all members of the same family, although he wasn’t sure that was an accurate count. There was constant coming and going, as relatives give up their seats for others at the table. It was an interesting dynamic; they hadn’t got much, but they were happy. Somehow, they had a healthy effect on him.

After dinner, he and Ganesh went out for a walk at his request. The darkness had not masked the devastation and the poverty, ‘Do you ever get frustrated?’ Luke asked.

Ganesh knew what Luke was referring to; he’d been asked enough times. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve come to accept that the war on hardship and poverty and all these natural disasters was lost.’

Luke stopped to stare at the doctor who only stood up to his shoulder. Ganesh continued, ‘The war is lost but what I try to do is to win some of the battles. We can’t save everybody, but we can save somebody. One person at a time, that’s how you fight your battle. One at a time.’

They sat on a rock, swaddled in their thick coats, for even in September the weather in Kathmandu was colder than most places. Ganesh asked, ‘What’s your story?’

He looked up, feeling embarrassed. He was ashamed to his core. Ganesh asked again, ‘What’s your story?’

Luke unloaded. He unburdened himself; he wanted to. But at the end of his narrative, he apologised for his weakness.

Ganesh laid a hand on his shoulder and said, ‘No wonder you’re a mess. You’ve been living in constant tension. Luke, it wasn’t just the near death experience. It was so much more. Your friend died in your arms. Then, looking after his little girl, trying to fulfil your promise. Juggling your responsibilities. Doing a job where you always have to protect people, save lives, save their things. You’ve been living your life wound up. Coiled tight. Every day you don’t know what’s in store for you. It could be good; it could be bad. You need to unwind. Your body and your mind are telling you; you’ve had enough. Don’t be too hard on yourself.’

That conversation was what it took for him to snap out of his self-indulgence. He felt chastised. Here he was wallowing in self-pity in the midst of people tenaciously trying to live life in the one of the poorest countries in the world, at the time of one of their greatest natural calamities.

The following day, he joined a group of volunteers heading for a remote village in Dhading district. Here, almost every house had been destroyed. Not only because of its proximity to the epicentre of the quake but also because it was situated on a river terrace. River terraces are composed of sands and gravels that served to amplify the waves of the earthquake.

He had been here five days, living among the people and walking among the clouds.

 

*

 

Unknown to him, the woman he was seeking was on her way to him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28

 

Walking Through the Mist

 

 

JOSIAH AND FAITH stopped at a local family’s house at five in the afternoon. With the onset of autumnal September, daylight was shorter. It had darkened considerably and the roads being treacherous, Josiah decided in favour of safety.

The local family welcomed them. No one could explain it, but their humble house was the only one left standing intact in the whole village. The owners enthusiastically invited to join them for dinner and shared the warmth of their home. She learned that the patriarch used to be blind and now he could see, thanks to the assistance of volunteer doctors.

The house was tiny, but they obviously took great pride in keeping it clean and orderly. From inside, one would not be able to tell that outside the place was still strewn with debris from the last quake. There was little evidence of the modern world except for a transistor radio she hadn’t seen the likes of since she was a child.

They shared a meal of goat meat served with some curd. Faith ate little, explaining she was drained and was feeling a little unwell. They fussed over her which made her feel emotional. Her feelings were so close to the surface that it took little to make her teary.

Not used to the local customs and traditions, she was unsure what to do. Would it be alright to excuse herself? She hesitated to ask fearing she might offend, so she stayed at the table until she nodded off. Josiah explained to everyone that she had just arrived from a long way away and needed her rest.

The woman of the house prepared a bed for her to sleep, displacing one of the children. Half dazed and half asleep, Josiah assisted her as she slept-walk to the bed space.

It was still dark by the time she awoke and only because Josiah roused her from a deep sleep. She was surprised it was now five in the morning, and everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, was awake.

She looked pale and drawn, Josiah asked, ‘How are you feeling?’ concern evident in his voice.

‘I’m good, thank you,’ she said as she gathered her hair to tie them with a band.

Josiah gave her a hand, pulling her up gently. She felt her body groan with the effort. ‘In hindsight, maybe I should have acclimatised first,’ she said feeling rather foolish.

He smiled, ‘We all said the same.’

It seemed everyone was anxious to see if she had recovered; she smiled widely to assure them she was fine and grateful. They shared breakfast. She was in a better place to appreciate her surroundings and especially delighted to befriend a tiny girl of about six years. She was cherubic looking with a smiley face, puffy red cheeks and short hair. She spoke to Faith in Nepali unconcerned that the American visitor didn’t understand a word of it. Faith smiled and nodded, her full attention on her brand new, young friend.

Sometime during this conversation, the little girl cupped her face and gazed into her eyes intently. She said something in her language while Josiah translated for Faith, ‘She said you’re very beautiful, and you have a beautiful soul.’

It brought her to tears. The little girl’s eyes widened with worry; she turned to Josiah curious what he had said to make Faith cry.

Josiah explained in Nepali that Faith was grateful, and those were happy tears.

Faith smiled to assure the girl she was OK. The little six-year-old wiped her tears with her sleeve and said something in Nepali that sounded to her like maybe the equivalent of ‘There, there.’

 

*

 

An hour later, they set out to leave. The Himalayan Range, comprised of several mountains, greeted her as she stepped out of the house. Its presence could be felt in the entire country and could be seen throughout the landscape. Its awesomeness prevailed and even this early when low, thick clouds kept it hidden, its peaks could still be glimpsed, defiant of anything that tried to subdue its magnificence. Nothing could obscure them.

Josiah informed her that travel time could be between two hours and four, depending on road condition and traffic.

‘Traffic?’

‘Yup, traffic. Goats, buffalo, sheep, cattle, even pigs. They do have right of way, too.’ Faith smiled. She’d wait out a herd of goats anytime.

The vista was stunning all around. Slow going would be just fine as far as she was concerned. They drove on slowly, avoiding deep pot holes.

Refreshed, Faith was more readily agreeable to conversations. But it was mostly Josiah who did the talking, and mainly about Nepal and its people.

A couple of hours later, they arrived. The place was veiled in thick mist. She followed Josiah closely. As they stepped out of the haze, the first person she saw was Luke, or who might have been his doppelganger. She stood still unable to move, unable to believe her eyes.

Luke saw her, too, and reacted in the same way. But he wasn’t confused. He knew it was her, but he hadn’t expected her to show up here, of all places. He appraised her. She looked more beautiful than he remembered. She was the angel who left him in the City of Angels.

Josiah turned and gave her a gentle nudge, ‘It’s him,’ he said with a smile.

Faith looked at him in disbelief, ‘How did you know?’

‘He’d been in Kathmandu asking about you and showing your picture around. I knew the minute I saw you, you were the one he was looking for.’

Josiah joined the rest of the team, leaving her standing where she was. The mist around her had lifted. Suddenly, almost suddenly, she felt exposed.

Luke walked towards her with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Hi, I’ve been looking for you.’

‘I heard,’ she stated in a whisper. Part of her wanted to play it safe. She wanted to be cool about it. Ignore him. Make him grovel. But a huge part of her just wanted to hug him and say that everything was forgiven. Instead, she just stood there crying silently.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. Finally, he hardened up and exposed himself to possible rejection; he asked, ‘Would you forgive me?’

There was no point, in her mind, denying he was the man she loved and with whom she had hoped to spend the rest of her life with. She smiled through a curtain of tears and said, ‘I forgive you.’

His asking for forgiveness was a validation, but more importantly, she realised she wasn’t angry with him although she had been hurt.

He took three steps until he was directly in front of her. They hugged. It was sheer relief to be enveloped in each other’s arms again.

They heard clapping. They turned to look. People they hardly knew were happily sharing the joy of their reunion, basking in reflected glory.

A whole queue of blind patients and their minders had also joined the mob of witnesses. They didn’t have a clue what was going on but sensed it was a moment to behold.

With all the witnesses present, Luke felt it was the moment to asked, he turned to Faith and said, ‘I meant to do this ages ago until I got stupid.’

He went down on bended knees, pulled the box out of his pocket and asked, ‘Would you marry me?’

Everyone held their collective breath until Faith spoke and said, ‘Yes.’

The volunteers clapped and hooted. The locals clapped, too, still none the wiser why, but who cared? One didn’t need any excuse to be happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29

 

Metamorphosis

 

 

They spent their days in the weeks that followed serving the community along with an international team of volunteers; doctors, nurses, interns, engineers, and students from around the world.

The nights they spent together walking the hills, rugged up against the cold, watching the night skies and talking. Reminiscing, reflecting and trying to clear the air between them.

There were many issues still unresolved.

Luke’s lack of self-confidence for one. He now sported a full beard to hide his facial disfigurement. But to Faith, it was just a blemish. For her, it was purely a matter of dermis scarring that showed nothing but the hero in the man.

One drizzly night, as they huddled under a protruding rock to shelter from a light shower, she brought up the subject of the facial hair.

‘What’s with the beard?’ she asked as she ran her hand along his chin.

‘Why? You don’t like it?’

‘It’s not that. You weren’t inclined to grow one before. So, why now?’

‘Keeps my face warm,’ he said. ‘It’s too cold here.’

She wasn’t convinced. It hadn’t been any colder than Los Angeles in winter, and he hadn’t grown a beard then.

‘So, how are you?’ She asked her fingers crossed. She hoped that she wouldn’t get the stock answer of “I’m fine.”

Not surprisingly, to her disappointment, he said, ‘I’m all right. Are you?’

‘I’m better than fine but …’

‘But?’

‘I feel we haven’t resolved anything.’

He was quiet as a mouse. In the confined space, all she could hear was his shallow breathing.

‘We need to talk about it,’ she urged. ‘Knowing we can’t live without each other will not keep us together when the next onslaught of trouble comes rushing.’

‘Umm,’ was all he said in reply.

She closed her eyes. We have a long way to go, she thought.

 

*

 

Among the Nepali people, there were many defining, magical moments, chief among them, was witnessing a group of kids belly laughing about nothing. The children were in stitches, emitting the kind of laughter that could heal the soul. Priceless booming cackles. Their unbridled joy was infectious and delightful that even days after the event they would still hear them laughing their hearts out.

Then, there was a group of women who came bearing gifts. Home cooked meals and freshly baked sel roti bread. Their way of saying ‘Thank you’ expressed the only way they could.

Then there was the happiness of watching people see again. Some people jump with delirious joy. Others weep, stunned by the sights of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Others sat immobilised by the shock of the unexpected gift of sight. However, they reacted, their benefactors reacted with far greater joy.

 

*

 

Days turned into weeks.

One night, as they were walking hand-in-hand up to their favourite spot, Faith asked how long he had to stay. He shook his head and said, ‘I don’t know. I had left L.A. before the Committee made a decision.’

Faith was mortified on his behalf. ‘I think you better find out.’

Luke shrugged. Somehow, he wasn’t anxious about it. Ordinarily, he would have stressed out not knowing immediately. But something deep inside him had changed, and he liked it. From this distance, there wasn’t anything he could do about it, so why worry?

It was timely that the next day, Josiah was driving to Kathmandu to get more supplies for the mobile eye clinic. Luke asked to accompany him. Josiah could use an extra pair of hands, and the only reliable internet connection was in the City. After the earthquake that claimed the lives of thousands, Nepal’s internet connectivity was severely impaired. With downed mobile towers, severed overhead fibre optic cables and spotty electricity, connecting to the outside world was challenging even months after the devastation. Thankfully, it wasn’t a total outage. The average person could still connect to internet service depending on the state of the infrastructure in their immediate area. For many, this meant travelling to the Capital.

It was nearly dark when they reached the City. Luke asked for five minutes; Josiah stayed at the wheels of the trucks while he hurriedly jogged into an internet cafe.

The connection was patchy and painstakingly slow. He logged into his Gmail account, jigging his right leg as he waited for the data to load. There were many messages, but he was only interested in one. He found it quickly. He read it carefully and noted the Committee’s decision.

It was far beyond his expectation. “Suspended without pay for sixty days.”

He had mixed feelings about it. He had a mere three weeks before he had to go back to L.A.

‘How was it?’ Josiah asked when he jumped on board the truck.

‘I’ve got three weeks left.’

‘You want to go home?’

‘I have to, or I might really lose my job this time.’

‘One word of advice,’ Josiah said. ‘Don’t go home if you have to or need to. Go home if you want to. It’s your life.’

It was certainly something to think about, and he did dwell on it on the way back to Dhading district. It was dark once more when they reached their station. After they had unloaded the supplies that night, he and Faith went for their usual walk.

‘I’ve got three weeks,’ he said, ‘before I have to resume my duties. Are you coming home with me?’

Faith thought for a moment. She felt confident Luke was the man, but she was also certain it wasn’t her time to go. ‘I would like to stay here longer. My time here isn’t done.’

He hugged her from behind, rested his chin on her shoulder. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘How long?’

‘I had wanted to stay for three months, so that’s close to eight more weeks for me.’

‘Eight weeks,’ he murmured. It felt to him like such a long time. He wasn’t certain he could wait that long for her return. But then, time flies.

She turned around to hug him around the waist. ‘I will miss you,’ she said.

‘I’ll miss you, too. Would you climb to the Mt Everest base with me?’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yes. Let’s climb it on my last week. I heard September is a good time to do it.’

 

*

 

The day of their climb to the Mt Everest Base came. Volunteers who had done an earlier climb recommended a Sherpa guide. They packed lightly, a maximum of twenty pounds each, giving priority to fleece jacket, down jacket and thermal underwear.

Fortunately, they were both physically fit. They lived fairly active lives in L.A., especially Luke. And here at Dhading, they had acclimatised, so they weren’t worried about making it to the Base.

They flew to over the mountains to Lukla. Perched high on a slope in the Khumbu region of the Himalaya, it is listed as one of the most frightening airports to land in in the world.

Here, they met their fellow trekkers, Sherpa guides and packed animals. They started by descending one thousand five hundred feet to the Dudh Kosi (River of Milk).

They followed the trail to the village of Phakding, passing mani walls; and boulders carved with Tibetan Buddhist prayer inscriptions.

The sceneries on the way up were breathtaking. Their guide took them to visit monasteries and museums along the way. The days were filled with walking for the sheer pleasure of it, past colourful prayer wheels, and across swing bridges. In the evenings, they were rewarded with hot food and conversation around the dining-room fire.

Often, at the end of each day, they found themselves introspecting on life and what laid ahead.

It is said that nature spoke of God’s power, on the mountaintop, it spoke volumes.

The seven-day trek and camping were filled with a heady mix of natural beauty, fascinating culture and a sense of personal achievement.

At the end of it, they both felt truly refreshed.

 

*

 

On the day of his departure, Faith took him to the airport.

He had shaved. He no longer felt the need to cover up the blemish. If anyone asked what happened to him, he decided not to give a full account. He would simply say, ‘I was born with it.’

He kissed her like he did the first time. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘Please don’t make me wait too long.’

‘I won’t,’ she said to reassure him. ‘I’ll be home before you know it.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

30

 

All’s Well that Ends Well

 

 

LUKE REACHED L.A after nearly two days of travel, immediately called Hope to say he’s back, hit the sack for a few hours then reported back to work. And, he hit the ground running.

There wasn’t time to reacquaint himself to anything, for the first call Fire Station 71 responded to was a brush fire. It only took minutes for it to turn into a terrifying inferno that quickly turned parts of the State to ashes, fanned by the fierce Santa Ana winds, the “Devil Winds”.

Welcome to October.

His system had a shock; it went from calm to adrenaline-charged in less than 36 hours. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Firefighting was what he did, and Los Angeles was his City. But he was glad he took the time to decompress or it would have been an ordeal battling the fires at the emotional and mental state he was in previously.

It was all hands on deck. Flames spread throughout the State with over one hundred spot fires reported in different locations. The resources and manpower were stretched so thinly on the ground even with the able assistance of volunteers.

It took close to two weeks to get the fire under control, thanks in no small part to some help from the weather. The winds had died down.

When the fires had been vanquished, and all that remained were ashes from the wildfires, the headlines shifted again to the horrors of crimes.

He didn’t realise it, but it had now been close to four weeks since his return. Indeed, time flies.

 

*

 

The following month, November, Joe and Hope arranged to meet with him in a neutral location. ‘Just for dinner,’ Hope said.

He had an inkling something was up. He smiled when he thought of a good joke; little did he know that the joke was on him.

They met in a restaurant that specialised in Hispanic cuisine. They ordered food and drink. He listened as the loving couple talked about things he didn’t miss; which football team won what game, what movie made the most money, etc., etc., etc.

It was the off-shot of seeing the other side of the world, where life was simple and things were rudimentary, yet the people were happy.

They asked about Nepal. The best he could do to do justice to the whole experience was to show them digital pictures of people and places; and things he did.

Joe and Hope were in awe at his narratives as they read the captions; some were brief, some were lengthy. ‘I didn’t know you have a gift,’ Hope said, a genuine look of surprise etched on her beautiful face.

‘I didn’t know myself,’ he replied with a grin. The experience had brought up the poetic in him, providing him with an unexpected outlet for his emotions and his brain’s tangled web.

So, finally, they had to address the reason for this dinner. Joe bravely opened up, ‘We want to get married,’ he said a tad nervous.

‘I’m happy for you both,’ he said. Then, he added, ‘As long as you let me get married first.’

Hope and Joe’s face were a sight to behold. Their jaws dropped and froze. They turned to each other, their eyebrows rose and furrowed.

Joe turned to him and said, ‘Well, yes, but it depends on when you’re planning to get married.’

Hope visibly held her breath. This could get tricky.

Luke replied, ‘When I turn thirty, in eighteen months.’

Joe gulped. Hope paled. He smiled with amusement.

‘There’s a problem with that,’ Joe said.

It wiped the smile off his face. He didn’t like where this was going.

‘We’re pregnant,’ Hope announced, just like that!

Luke’s eyebrows met in the middle.

‘Are you two getting married just because you’re pregnant?’

The love couple shook their heads and said ‘No’ at once. ‘We’re sure about being together,’ Joe affirmed.

Hope nodded, wide-eyed. At that instance, Luke was reminded of a yet-to-be eighteen-year-old who clung to his arm at her father’s funeral. She was back then wide-eyed lost. Now, she was wide-eyed with expectation. How had it come to this? His little girl getting married. And getting hitched ahead of him!

‘OK, if you’re sure,’ he said.

They ended the dinner date with hugs all around and firm instruction to Joe to treat Hope well, ‘It’s not a request,’ he said just to be sure there was no misunderstanding.

 

*

 

While Faith was still in Nepal, Bradley and Cooper were his only companion.

Their holiday at the Scott’s must have been a hoot. Cooper was slightly friendlier and his disposition altogether milder. Or maybe it was the tree house he made for them out of salvaged forest branches. Whatever the reason, he seemed to glare less and smile more. Or, maybe it was the smile of an assassin.

Faith had sent words to him, posted from Germany via snail mail through a German volunteer returnee. He read it with excitement.

At twenty-eight, he thought he had become blasé and cynical, but it turned out he was still a romantic at heart.

Tears blurred his vision as he read her letter, reporting on her activities in her lovely script. He couldn’t write in script form to save his life.

But it was what she had written on the flip-side that flipped him over. It just said: My world is much better with you in it. I love you.

Four more weeks.

In the meantime, all he could do between shifts at work was to prepare their nest. He was nesting.

He started with the overgrown front lawn, trimming, mowing and planting. He bought a tree, an Oleander, for two reasons. It was drought resistant. And, for aesthetic reason, he loved its lush foliage. It blooms a variety of colours including red, white and pink. He chose white for purity.

It stood proudly on the front lawn. He would tie a yellow ribbon around it upon her return.

Then, there was the back garden to attend to. With help from Fire Station 71 in exchange for a barbeque and free beer, he built a covered pergola complete with table and chair set and draped with a sheer mosquito net. And a backyard won’t be complete without a swing.

Faith had one growing up. It was a place she went to while away the hours or lick her sorrows or feel her joys or nurse her wounds. She called it her “mood swing.” Now, she would have one at home.

He was tempted to re-do the interior of the house but wisely left it. She wouldn’t be impressed if he made a mistake with the colour palette, not that she’d let him know she was disappointed.

One week to go.

He received another letter; this one was posted from England. It was six pages of stories and news about the people they’ve come to know. In the last paragraph, she wrote: I can’t wait to be with you. I may be in paradise but without you, it isn’t.

One day to go.

He couldn’t sleep because the damn phone kept ringing. First, it was Fire Station 71 advising him to be on stand-by in case a factory fire became an inferno. Next, Faith’s parents called. Next, Hope called to discuss details of her forthcoming wedding. By the time he decided to switch off his phone, it was too late. He might as well stay awake.

He met her at the Airport. The minute he saw her silhouette, he didn’t wait for her to reach him. He ran towards her with a smile a mile wide. She dumped her backpack and jumped into his arms. It was heaven to kiss him, hold his hand, and to be wrapped in his arms.

The airport disappeared from her sight. She only had eyes for him.

 

*

 

Fifteen December, Luke walked Hope down the aisle to wed her lover and father of her child-to-be.

Joe looked dashing in his Tuxedo. Standing beside him, looking awkward in his suit, was the oldest best man ever. His FBI mentor Mark Roberts.

The bride looked amazing in her off the shoulder wedding gown, borrowed veil, blue and flower bouquet, and silver stilettos.

They march down the aisle deliberately slowly. He smiled at Hope and said, ‘It’s not too late.’

She giggled girlishly. ‘Thanks for everything,’ she said.

‘Oh, you may be his problem soon,’ he replied, ‘but you aren’t getting rid of me.’

Upon reaching the altar, Luke refused to hand Hope over to Joe until Roberts jokingly asked, ‘Do I have to shoot you?’

Hope laughed.

Luke sat next to Faith, who looked lovely in her bridesmaid’s silver one shoulder dress with satin belt by Vera Wang. Her long hair was braided to the side. She was subdued in her choice of accessories.

 

 

*

 

The wedding ceremony went off without a hitch even when the ring bearer fell asleep, and the flower girl had to leave the church to pee.

At the reception, they danced.

First Joe and Hope performed the Bridal Waltz. Then, Luke and Faith joined them on the dance floor. Before the multitude could join them, Luke whispered in Faith’s ear, ‘Thank you for getting us here.’

Faith smiled. They made it. They made it through navigating a young girl to independence. They made it through the dangers and the pain. They made it through the challenges.

They’ll make it through the rest of the way onwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Finito –

 

Q and A with Angelin Sydney

 

 

What had been the biggest challenge writing this story?

 

The biggest challenge was writing in the absence of feedback from fictionpress readers where it was first published. Ordinarily, I don’t let the lack of reviews affect me. I understand the dynamics of readers. They want to be entertained, they want to be moved, but sometimes these emotions aren’t enough to compel them to respond.

But I believe in the heart of the story, so I persevered.

This novella will only hold traction if people share it on social media. Word of mouth is the best advertising and best marketing strategy, ever.

 

What have you learned in the process?

 

I learned to trust myself and to pursue a story to completion without external motivating factors. I had no such difficulties with the other I’ve written because readers pushed me forward with their comments. As I said earlier, it wasn’t the case with this one.

 

What’s your one distinctive style in writing?

 

I like to include the everyday moments because it adds flavour to the story. It gives it authenticity. An example of this was the part when Luke was home sulking, licking his wounds. He was watching television. And people do watch TV when they’re depressed, and not surprisingly, often, they watch infomercials. They are many more instances of the everyday moments in this narrative.

 

What’s your next story about?

 

Currently, I am completing the third book of the Cameron Series entitled ‘Cameron of the Seas’. And the second book of the Colour Series. It’s called ‘Last Man Standing’. Both are romance/thriller genre.


Loving Faith and Hope

Luke Walker, a handsome Los Angeles firefighter, was in a loving relationship with Faith Scott. Everything was going well in his work and love life, until his surrogate sister, Hope McKenzie, rushed headlong into trouble. To complicate matters, Hope fell in love with Joe Di Nozzi, who was also Victor Carabella. Could he trust Joe/Victor not to hurt Hope? In the drama of lives, tangled in a web of a money laundering operation, Luke and Faith found themselves being slowly ripped apart. Then, after saving Hope from a fiery conflagration, Luke found himself in the burns unit, gripped in the claws of self-pity. He thought of himself as disfigured, yet she thought of him as merely scarred. Would he be able to see himself as the hero she always believed he was? 'Love isn't deserved. It is given.' Would Luke accept it? Would he take it?

  • ISBN: 9781310563904
  • Author: Angelin Sydney
  • Published: 2016-02-21 09:20:19
  • Words: 47629
Loving Faith and Hope Loving Faith and Hope