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Not Quite Home

 

 

Not Quite Home

Kathryn Judson

 

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2016 Kathryn Judson

All rights reserved.

 

This book is also available in print at most online retailers.

 

This is a work of fiction. Characters and agencies do not represent real people or real agencies.

 

Central characters in this book have been featured in the MI5 1/2 series: Not Exactly Dead, Not Exactly Innocent, and Not Exactly Allies, as well as in Decidedly Not Official, which follows some of the characters into retirement.

 

Chapter One

The change in fortune

Richard Hugh stared at the computer screen in something like shock. Afraid of losing the page if he tried anything like minimizing the page or opening multiple windows, he grabbed a pen and paper and quickly made notes and calculations. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his wife eyeing him with mild concern, but it didn’t seem the sort of occasion that allowed for delay or divided attention, so he redoubled his focus. His calculations done, he braced himself, moved the cursor, and clicked. Then he stared at the screen some more.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Emma bite back a smile and return to her reading. He decided to ignore her until he saw what the results were going to be.

A few seconds later the transaction was confirmed and tallied. He whistled low and turned to his wife. “I’m still waiting for final confirmations, and I’ll have to double-check the taxes and fees, but my preliminary estimation is that we’ve just become roughly another quarter million dollars richer. American money. After taxes,” he said.

“Any idea how you want to spend it?” Emma asked, suitably calm about it.

“No. You?”

“Not other than what we usually do, I guess,” she said. She turned back to her reading.

Richard decided she was probably teasing him, but wasn’t sure whether to respond playfully or leave her alone. It didn’t help that she had an e-reader, so he couldn’t see what she was reading. Not that e-readers weren’t handy and wonderful devices, but it did make a husband’s life more difficult if he didn’t know what he’d be interrupting if he playfully wanted to ambush his wife whilst her nose was in a book.

The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Emma said, having apparently read his mind.

“At an ambush-able part?” Richard asked.

She set the e-reader aside and smiled at him.

“Not fair,” he said.

“What?”

“Using that smile on me. It melts me, and you know full well it does,” Richard said.

“I have full faith in your ability to rise above the difficulties,” Emma said.

Richard joined her on the couch and gave her a big hug and kiss.

He moved her to arm’s length. “Seriously, though. It’s far more than I expected from that investment, and I hadn’t thought how to spend that much. Help me out, here.”

“Not fair,” Emma said.

“In what way?”

“Melting my mind with a kiss, and then asking me to think about anything but you,” Emma said.

“Ah, well, we don’t have to decide right this very moment,” Richard conceded. He kissed his wife again. And again.

-

The next morning, he once more set his mind to the problem. After a few minutes, he laughed, right out loud.

“Do I want to know what that laugh is about?” Emma asked. “If it’s any of my business, I mean.”

“Oh, luv, it’s just that it struck me that before I met you if I’d had this sort of windfall I’d have been plotting new travels, or a bigger home, or a newer car, or all of the above, just for starters, and quite by default. But here I am, trying to divvy up funds between this charity here, and that friend there, and so on, all the while wondering how to keep my relatives from committing me to a loony bin if they ever find out that I’m hoping to spend nearly all of it on good works, and as much of that as anonymously as possible. Do me a favor, and don’t volunteer any of this to any of my relatives, will you?”

“Considering that I rarely talk to anyone but Maggie, and already consider her a breathing, walking field of landmines, that should be easy enough,” Emma said.

Richard started to apologize for the in-laws he’d poisoned her life with, but caught himself. At least he had relatives. Emma’s immediate family had all been murdered, except for her father, who had done the murdering. Her father had been an only child, as had her mother; and the older generations had all died off. Presumably there were third cousins or whatnot around, but Emma wasn’t keen on pathetically tracking down third cousins to put tinsel on a family tree with a hacked trunk.

“I have a curious inclination to drive to Boise and see how everyone’s doing. Do you suppose it’s too soon?” he said, changing the subject.

Emma smiled. “I think our friends there are friends enough that they won’t mind seeing us again. They’d probably even allow us to live around there, you know,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

Well, yes, there was that, Richard thought. Surprisingly, they were making good friends in and near Boise, and otherwise developing strangely strong ties to the region. The very idea of it would have shocked his younger self, but there it was. London born and bred, internationally experienced, suave man that he was, he was growing fond of a semi-arid valley in a part of the world that he’d previously considered too far away from anything to matter much. Or, at least, he was growing fond of an increasing circle of people there. The landscape, to be honest, still sometimes dismayed him, as did much of the architecture and culture.

Another thought struck him. “Or, would you rather go to France?” he asked.

“Paris or the Vosges?” Emma said, not letting him off the hook. The translation of that, he well knew, was asking whether he wanted to go see his dear old best friend Leandre Durand and Durand’s familiar family, or did he want to venture up into the mountains to try better connecting with his long lost son, with whom he was still barely acquainted.

“Both,” he said, not wanting to admit how scared he was to go see his son, son’s wife, and grandchildren; nor how much he wanted to see them.

“A happy thought has just struck me,” Emma said. “That being that there is an international airport at Boise. Why don’t we meander our way to Boise while we arrange visas and such, and fly out from there? To Paris, to see the Durands? I suspect we could even talk a few of them into driving through the pretty countryside up to see relatives, theirs and ours.”

“I’m still not all that good at meandering, you know,” Richard said, meaning to say that too much dawdling felt too much like wasting time and thus wasting one’s life, and it was hard enough to be retired without being pointlessly retiring into the bargain.

Emma, he was relieved to see, understood and didn’t mind. But then, she wasn’t much good at just meandering, either.

Oh, how he sometimes missed being an undercover agent. He didn’t mind so much that Emma was no longer in the business. It did a husband’s heart good, to have his wife no longer being sent into harm’s way at every turn. But, for himself, he missed the danger, and also quite frankly he hated no longer having a chief calling him in on cases that required the top talent in the agency. Which had been himself, all modesty aside.

But the agency had been downsized, and to make cuts easier they had started with the people closest to retirement age. Which had included himself. And there was nothing to be done about it, except try to move along, figuring out this civilian, unemployed, way of life, one awkward moment at a time.

“Well, we might as well head that way, while we fiddle with paperwork and wrestle with bureaucracies,” he said, with a proper British chirpiness suitable to the occasion.

He pulled up a map on his tablet. “Was it in Omaha that we wanted to go talk to somebody about something?” he asked, hating that he had to be so vague, but honestly not remembering what they had wanted to do in Omaha if ever they got within striking distance of it.

“Yes, but that’s quite a detour, isn’t it?” Emma asked.

Richard compared alternate driving routes. “Only adds about two or three hours, and it’s not bad logistics for an overnight location. Or several overnights, if we need it,” he said.

Emma laughed. “You’re on, Lord willing nothing comes up that requires us to be somewhere else in a hurry.”

Richard braced himself. He wasn’t nearly as superstitious as he’d been back when he met Emma, but he’d noticed that whenever Emma spoke about the possibility of something coming up to force a change in plans, far, far more often than not something dreadful had happened. Especially lately. Rationally, this wasn’t even bucking the odds, given the people they had as friends, most of whom were in dangerous occupations, or of an age that inclined itself to health failures, or who were otherwise riper than the average person for falling into emergencies. Still, now that she’d spoken of a chance of having to run off to help with an emergency – correction, getting to go help respond to an emergency – he was going to be surprised if they made it to France in anything like a timely fashion.

He had mixed feelings about that. Having a long lost son who wanted to get to know his previously-negligent father just wasn’t something he knew how to deal with. And yet. And yet. How he wanted to see Loren and his family.

Emma zipped shut a travel bag and winked at him. He looked around. While he’d been dithering, she’d gotten them both all packed.

“To horse,” he said, picking up the nearest bag.

Chapter Two

The roses

Rosa Delarosa answered the doorbell to find a smirking delivery person standing there with a large bouquet of roses. Her heart sank.

Rather than argue with the person, or trying to refuse the order, she tried to be as gracious as possible in accepting them. She thanked the delivery man, and smiled at him, which seemed to confuse him; as well it might, she thought, considering their previous encounters.

The delivery person took himself off, and Rosa set the roses on a table near the front door, out on the big wraparound porch. Checking her hunches, she read the card. “Roses for my Double Rose,” it said. It was signed Carl.

It was just what she had expected, and just what she had feared.

By now, several children had spilled out onto the porch and were eyeing her and the roses.

“I’ll bet Mrs. Olson would like some,” one of the children said.

“Or, I bet Amber and Jake could use some. Especially now,” another child said.

“Oh, yes, Amber and Jake!” several of the other children exclaimed.

Rosa smiled, as tears filled her eyes. Amber had recently miscarried, and the children were so eager to do whatever they could to shower her with well wishes.

The child who’d suggested Mrs. Olson was fighting with herself, wanting undoubtedly to be kind to Amber but finding it hard under the circumstances, so Rosa sent her to get another vase so they could divide the unwanted bounty, so they could send parts of it off in two directions. It’s not like there wasn’t enough to divide. Carl had outdone himself this time.

Rosa sneezed, and sneezed again.

“Here, Mom, let me divide them for you,” Rebecca said, shooing her mother away from the flowers.

“Thank you, Bec. I’ll go check on the baby, and be right back,” Rosa said, heading to the nursery to check on Josiah and to get away from the flowers, which were giving her a horrid headache as well as stuffing her up.

She checked the baby and tried to decide what to do about the roses. Or, rather, when to do what. Usually, Patrick was home in his study when she wanted to run an errand, but at last report he was at the hospital, with a person who’d been doing worse instead of better. He’d call if he had a good time to call. She checked her phone for messages. There weren’t any, at least not from Patrick. It was best to assume he was up to his neck with people staring death in the face. At any rate, it likely wasn’t a good time to send him a message to the effect of ‘guess who sent me roses again?’

As for getting roses to Mrs. Olson, that wasn’t any problem. She could send a handful of children over on foot for that, headed by the child who had first thought of her. Mrs. Olson’s house was close enough, and getting there didn’t require braving any busy intersections or areas haunted by strangers.

On the other hand, Jake and Amber lived just under a mile away, rather a far trek for children hauling a vase with flowers in it, plus lately there had been some odd people hanging around bus stops along the way. For now, it made sense to drive over. It wouldn’t take long, but she didn’t feel like packing all the children in the van or trying to contain them all when they got to Amber’s. Nor did she much favor leaving the children home en masse, unattended, never having done it before.

On second thought, she’d been thinking that the older children were getting old enough to babysit, particularly Matthew. Perhaps taking just a short jaunt – a few minutes down, a couple minutes to visit, and a few minutes back – would be a good first occasion for that. The more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea. She almost laughed out loud. If she were honest, she was pretty sure the children were more ready for such a momentous step than she was. For that matter, probably most of them wouldn’t see it as a momentous step. They were used to being in charge of this little thing or that little thing. They were used to being handed challenges. If she dealt with it as if it were no big deal, they’d just carry on, and good for them.

She sent up a quick prayer for courage and calm, grabbed her purse, her keys, and the call-for-backup phone, and headed out to the porch to deputize some of the children.

She thought she’d better take Shannon with her, since he’d been specializing in sabotaging the peace of the place, if she might put it that way. She didn’t think he meant to be troublesome, but he was just on everyone’s nerves right now, and they were on his. In a large family, there were times like that.

Matthew was mature for his age, but it was no good handing him a first babysitting job that required advanced diplomatic skills, she decided. Therefore, definitely, Shannon was going with Mom on this errand.

“All right. Carla, since you thought of Mrs. Olson, I’m sending you with Bec to deliver some to her. Shannon’s coming with me to drive the rest to Amber. Matthew, you’re in charge here until I get back or Dad gets home. Here’s the phone with contact numbers in it. Do you know how to run it?”

Matthew mustered as much patience as he could and assured her that he could manage.

“All right. I shouldn’t be long, but I want to grab some stuff at the grocery store, so if we don’t get roped into visiting too long with Amber, I’ll swing by there before I come home. It shouldn’t be long, though.”

“We’re fine, Mom,” Matthew said. “Take as long as you like.”

His voice and manner didn’t suggest that he was hoping to have her out of the way for some reason, but for good measure she looked him in the eye. The look he returned told her that he knew all too well that this was his first shot at being in charge, and he was scared as well as excited. That struck Rosa as a healthy attitude but not one to put in the spotlight, and so she quietly herded Shannon out to the van.

Laura, age three, trotted along in their wake. Rosa told her to go back in the house, and to remember that Matthew was in charge.

Matthew obligingly came out, picked her up, and carried her screaming back into the house.

Rosa hesitated, but reminded herself that if Matthew couldn’t get his sister to stop crying, Denny almost always could. Still, she watched until Matthew was back on the porch, and Denny and Kendra were flanking him, making sure there wouldn’t be any chance of Laura escaping.

How small they all looked. How young. Matthew was only twelve, and skinny.

“And scared,” she reminded herself, “Which will only be worse if his mother acts like she thinks he’s not up to the task.”

Resolutely, sneezing, her head aching, she pulled out and drove toward Amber’s.

“Hey, Mom?” Shannon asked from the back seat.

“What?”

“They have a new person at Jake and Amber’s, right?”

“That’s what I heard.”

“Do we know if they’re allergic to flowers like you are? For that matter, we know Amber likes flowers, and that Jake’s OK with them, but do we know for sure about Raven and Jewell and Harper?”

“I guess I don’t. I should have thought of that. Remind me when we get there to ask first, and not just have you carry the flowers in.”

“I’m on it,” Shannon said. It was his favorite phrase these days. It was his favorite attitude, too, which is one reason his siblings were finding him sometimes too helpful.

Rosa smiled. And sneezed again. Her eyes blurred from tears. She wiped them dry, and concentrated on driving.

A few minutes later, she parked in front of a large house with a big porch, on a street full of houses with porches. This house had been a boarding house in days gone by. These days, it housed a residential ministry for people who were aging out of foster care, or otherwise needed to be informally adopted while they got their lives together. Jake and Amber were the permanent residents and ran the show, with funding from various sources, including Jake’s job at a television studio as a technician, and backing by a British couple who’d done uncommonly well in investments and who had friends in Boise.

She’d forgotten that there was a new resident, one she hadn’t met yet. She was glad Shannon had reminded her. It was always a bit touchy for a while when someone new moved in, especially if they’d come out of foster care or homelessness with ‘trust issues’ as some people delicately put it. Still, there was nothing for it but to shower Christ’s love on them, as well as you could manage. Usually it worked wonders. Sometimes it bounced off and kept bouncing off, and sometimes they even left you wounded. But, there it was. So far, at this project, everyone had gotten along, and people had flourished. There wasn’t any reason not to hope for that in the case of the new person, whoever that person might be.

The door was answered by Amber. A stranger hung about in the hallway, watching warily.

“Hello, Amber. I got roses again. They’re in the car. We thought we’d better check to see if the new member of the family is allergic before we brought them in,” Rosa said.

“I guess I don’t know,” Amber said. “Hey, Shasta, would you come here, please?” she said, addressing the wary person.

Shasta came, without enthusiasm.

“This is my friend Rosa. She’s horribly allergic to flowers but her dad is getting senile and keeps sending her roses, which are the worst for her. She sometimes brings them to us, but if you’re allergic to roses of course we’ll find someone else to enjoy them,” Amber said.

“I’m not allergic,” Shasta said.

“Whoo-hoo, I’m on it,” Shannon said. He ran to the van to get them. He was back in a flash. “I probably should apologize for running off like that before we were even introduced, but I didn’t think about anything like that before I was already inside the van getting them, so I goofed. Sorry,” he said, as he handed Shasta the flowers. “By the way, I’m Shannon. And I have a cousin named Shasta, but he’s a boy.”

“We’re even,” Shasta said. “All the Shannons I’ve ever met before now were girls.”

“I’m not surprised. My uncle, who is the only other Shannon I know who is a boy, warned Dad and Mom not to name a boy Shannon, but according to Uncle Shannon Dad was convinced that the pendlemum, or whatever it is, was swinging the other way. Dad is usually right, but he missed that one.”

“If it gets too bad, switch to your middle name if you have one,” Shasta suggested.

“I already tried that. My middle name is Sheridan. Too many people called me Sherri. I think I’ll stick with Shannon, and just be brave. At least people don’t try to pin a nickname on me when they hear it.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Shasta said.

“Not to change the subject, or anything, but is this from the florist that’s been giving you so much trouble?” Amber asked Rosa.

Rosa nodded.

“The other florists, when they got told that Grandpa isn’t responsible all the time anymore and that Mom’s allergic to flowers, agreed to stop taking orders from him without clearing it with somebody in the family, but these guys, as soon as they heard he wasn’t prone to thinking straight, they latched onto him and sell him more than he ever bought before!” Shannon explained to his new friend Shasta.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” Shasta said. She found the card and noted which florist shop. “Doesn’t surprise me any. I used to work there. Not only is the boss a jerk, I think he might be a drug dealer. I don’t know that for sure, but it sure looked like it, and some of the neighbors think he’s a pimp. I wouldn’t know on that, either, but it would fit. He thought he could mess around with me, and threatened to not pay me for my work in the flower shop unless I gave him what he wanted. It came down to working for him or being homeless. So I was homeless for a while. No big deal. Lots of my friends are homeless.”

Rosa wanted to scoop the young woman into a hug. All too many of the girls who aged out of foster care wound up on the streets, and most of them didn’t make it a week without someone trying to proposition them or force them into prostitution. It was a big reason this ministry had been set up, to rescue women from that. But every time she ran into someone who had faced that and had had to fight free from that, it was heartbreaking all over again.

Rosa sneezed again.

Her phone rang. Afraid it might be Matthew, she grabbed it faster than usual, and managed to fling it through the air.

“I’m on it,” Shannon said, retrieving it and handing it to her.

“Thanks,” Rosa said, as she hurriedly checked the caller ID. “Oh, excuse me, I think I probably need to take this one,” she said, as she stepped aside.

It was Inez Taylor, who lived next door to Rosa’s dad. Inez never called to be friendly.

“Hello,” Rosa said.

“Our car has been stolen. Do you know anything about that?” Inez said.

“No. But I presume you think Dad might have it?”

“We’ve caught him sitting in it, pretending to drive it, twice this week already. And he doesn’t seem to be home. So it’s our first guess, yes,” Inez said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he was doing anything like that. Patrick and I have been thinking we either need to get someone responsible to live with him, or move him into our house. I guess we need to double down on that. I’m so sorry. Do you have any idea where he might have wanted to go?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Inez grumped. “And if I get a vote, I vote for you taking him to your house. Those new friends of his are scary. We sure don’t need them in the neighborhood.”

Rosa was about to say that she didn’t know that her dad had any new friends, much less any scary ones, but decided to ask later, after the emergency was over.

“All right, he likes to go to the grocery store and the drug store, and sometimes he wants to go the thrift store. I’m already out on errands. I’ll swing by those places on my way to your house, and see if I see him. I’m on it,” Rosa said, and rang off, before Inez could interrupt her again.

“Into the van, Shannon. The Taylors’ car has gone missing, and they think Grandpa borrowed it without asking first.”

“Stole it, you mean,” Shannon said.

“Yes, stole it. You’re right. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it. We need to go see if he’s at his favorite stores, and if so, stop him from driving any more than he already has, if he’s really the one who took the car. Move. Move!”

“I’m on it,” Shannon said, as he ran as fast as he could to the van and dove in, his mother on his heels, walking as fast as her eight-months-pregnant body would allow.

-

At the grocery store, it struck Rosa that she didn’t know which vehicle the Taylors were missing. The silver one or the red one? She thought about calling Inez to ask, but decided it probably wouldn’t help since she wasn’t sure she’d recognize either one, having not thought ahead of time that she’d ever need to recognize one of their cars while it was anywhere but in their driveway. Patrick probably could do it. Patrick had a gift for matching cars to people. There were hundreds of cars in the Treasure Valley he could look at and match to an owner. For that matter, when they went to visit friends or family in Montana or Tennessee or Texas, he had cars and trucks there already matched up to people. And he seemed to do it without any special care, or even any effort at all.

Rosa shook her head. There were days she couldn’t find her own van in the parking lot without looking in the windows to see if it had familiar odds and ends in it. And that was despite having tried very hard to learn to distinguish it from other vehicles.

“Shannon, I don’t know which of the Taylor vehicles is missing, so try to keep your eyes out for either of them,” Rosa said.

“I hope it’s not Mr. Taylor’s new truck. He loves that truck, maybe more than he loves anybody,” Shannon said.

“I didn’t know he had a new truck,” Rosa admitted. “But just watch for all three then.”

“I’m on it. And don’t worry, Mom. I know what they look like,” Shannon said.

Rosa smiled. Like father, like son.

She left Shannon outside in the van and hurried into the grocery store to take a quick peek down aisles.

“Missing somebody?” one of the shelf stockers asked.

It was one of the teen boys from church. A friend.

“Yes. Dad’s gone missing. He’s not supposed to be driving and might cause a crash, so if he shows up here, take him into custody and call me,” Rosa said. The boy stiffened his backbone in a reassuring way and nodded, wordlessly promising to take on the task. Probably he was pleased to be handed a job that sounded like one for a grown man. Likely he’d be glad to ‘take someone into custody,’ too. But he’d be kind about it, because that’s the sort of boy he was. She made sure he had her cell phone number, and hurried to the drug store to look down the aisles there.

There were no helpful friends there, and the clerks didn’t seem to care or even notice that she was looking for someone.

Carl’s favorite thrift store seemed the next good bet, so she drove there. Again she left Shannon out in the van to scan the parking lot while she darted inside.

The workers there knew her by sight, and knew her father by sight, and told her he’d been by earlier, but had left.

Rosa almost asked them if they’d noticed what he’d been driving, but decided it didn’t matter. On the other hand, it seemed time to enlist them for future manhunts, if there were any, so she told them that they were trying to wean him off driving, so if he showed up again and seemed to be alone maybe they would be so good as to call her? She left her name and number, feeling ridiculous and embarrassed, even after one of the ladies assured her that she’d had similar woes with a grandmother.

As she left, Rosa thought she heard the lady telling a co-worker that her grandma hadn’t stopped driving until she crashed and wound up in a nursing home, unable to walk, much less drive.

“It’s just your imagination getting away from you, Rosa. It’s just your imagination. Stop it!” she chided herself.

Not sure where else to look, she swallowed hard and headed to her dad’s place.

The house looked dark and empty. Under the circumstances, it looked more inviting than the Taylor place, but under the circumstances it seemed a good idea to check in with Inez as soon as possible, so Rosa went there first, Shannon eagerly on her heels.

Inez was out the door before they got to it. “Well?” she demanded.

“We didn’t find him at any of the three places he usually goes,” Rosa reported. “Have you heard anything?”

“No, but I haven’t called the cops yet. I’m trying to let you take care of this. This time,” Inez said.

“I’m so sorry. We’ll definitely fix it so he’s not living alone anymore.”

“Mom?”

“Just a minute, Shannon. Mrs. Taylor and I need to talk.”

“But, Mom –”

“Don’t interrupt, dear.”

“Do I usually? I just need to know if that looks like smoke to you? Is Grandpa’s house on fire or what?”

Rosa turned to look. Smoke was seeping out a window. There was a glow of flames behind the curtains.

“And there’s Grandpa!” Shannon exclaimed.

For a moment, Rosa feared that her son had seen her dad inside the house, but Shannon grabbed her arm and pointed to a silver car driving less than ten miles an hour down the street.

“We need to make sure he doesn’t park at his house. The fire trucks need to get in,” Rosa said.

“Not to mention anything else that might happen to my car,” Inez said before barking instructions to the fire department via her phone.

“I’m on it!” Shannon yelled as he ran down the block and steered his grandfather into a parking spot well away from the action. He helped the old man out of the car, and more or less pulled him by the hand to his mother.

Carl held out a plastic bag with a Chinese restaurant’s name on it to Inez. “I got your order for you,” he said. “You just call me anytime. You can count on me.”

Inez started to say something, but windows blew out at Carl Sheridan’s house, and flames punched a hole in the roof.

“Maybe we should move your other car out of the garage and get a hose out, just in case it wants to jump across to your garage before the fire department gets here,” Shannon said, sounding surprisingly like his father.

Inez ran to her garage to move her car.

Rosa steered her dad to her van and asked him to stay there. She wanted to stay with him, but she needed to see if there was anything she could do to help Inez move possessions to safety.

Suddenly she realized that she’d lost track of Shannon. He was only eight. He was only eight and had a heart that was sometimes bigger than his head. Where was he?! Had he run over to fight the fire? It seemed possible.

Inez sped by in her red car, odds and ends sticking out of a hastily overloaded trunk.

Shannon reappeared, coming from the back of the Taylor house, garden hose in hand, water streaming powerfully from a nozzle. Powerfully, that is, for water coming from a garden hose. How pitiful it looked now, considering what they were up against.

“Don’t get too close,” Rosa yelled.

“I won’t, Mom. Grandpa’s house is already toast. I’m just going to spray on the Taylors’ roof and garage until the fire trucks get here. Don’t worry. I’m on it.”

He set his heels and proceeded to methodically – for an eight-year-old – spray the garage, the roof, and the airspace between the burning building and the neighbor’s property. Rosa was proud of him but scared half to death to let him do it. As the fire got hotter, he eased back, sending the spray over the roof while using the garage as a shield. That seemed marginally better, but only just.

Fire trucks roared up the street.

Rosa’s phone rang. It was Patrick. She couldn’t answer the phone fast enough. “Oh, honey. Dad’s house is on fire and Shannon’s got a garden hose on it and the trucks are just getting here and Inez might have to have help getting stuff out and Dad’s not staying in the van and I have to go. I’ll call you right back, or, at least, as soon as I can. Love you,” she said, and rang off, so she could use both hands to grab her father and put him back in the van, out of the way.

The firefighters looked like they might break into the house, presumably to go looking for people, so once she had her dad stuffed back in the van she walked over to tell one of them that he was accounted for. She pointed him out. The firefighter nodded his thanks and shooed her back. She didn’t need any extra encouragement. The flames were hot and she was scared of more explosions, like the one that took out the windows.

She scooped Shannon away from the action and deputized him to watch his grandpa and help keep him out of the way. She crawled into a van seat, and sat sideways, the door open, so she could watch her childhood home burn.

The firefighters again looked like they thought they needed to break in, probably just to better fight the fire. She sent Shannon over with a key, so they didn’t have to bash the door down. The firefighters got a kick out of that, and Shannon ate up the thanks. Rosa wondered if the door might be too hot to touch and they might have to bash it in anyway. She wanted to watch them go in however they did it, but she had to turn her attention to her dad, since he’d finally figured out his house was burning and he wanted to go get stuff out of it.

“There’s nothing worth anybody risking his life over, Dad.”

“My pictures!”

“We have copies of all your pictures somewhere else. You won’t lose any.”

“My clothes!”

“We’ll get you more clothes, Dad,” Rosa said.

“My passport!”

“Passports can be replaced, Dad,” Rosa said, declining to mention that he was too old and frail, and the family too poor, for there to be any chance for him to do any more foreign travel.

“Why are they so excited over there?” Shannon asked.

Rosa turned to look. The firefighters were swarming around in new and more energetic ways, with much pointing, and the man who seemed in charge was calling someone. His face was intense in an odd way, and so was his body language.

“Should I go find out?” Shannon asked.

“I think we should stay out of the way right now,” Rosa said.

“Right. I should have thought of that,” Shannon said.

He again seemed so much like his father, both in what he said and how he said it. Rosa realized she hadn’t called Patrick back. She reached for her phone.

A familiar car pulled up on the other side of the street. An even more familiar person got out. She put her phone away.

Patrick had enough of an athletic air about him that he looked natural jogging across the street. He waved at the fire chief as he headed for his wife. The fire chief waved him over. He veered.

Rosa’s heart sank. Patrick was one of the fire department’s chaplains. One of the firefighters must be hurt. Or worse. As bad as that would have been under any circumstances, to have it happen while they were fighting a fire at her father’s house was almost unbearable. She didn’t want her family to be the cause of pain or loss or trouble. She wanted to run over and beg them to just keep the fire from spreading to other houses, but otherwise let it go. Let it go. It wasn’t worth anyone’s life. It was just stuff. It was preciously tied up with memories and it would cost money to deal with the rubble and the need to restock and rebuild, but it was just stuff. Since she stood to inherit it, it felt like her right – her duty – to tell them that. She kept from flying from her seat only by reminding herself that they already had protocols in place, and priorities lined up, and that the last thing they needed during an emergency was to have people insert themselves, especially untrained, upset people.

She cast her eyes over the fire crew, trying to figure out who was who. It’s not like she knew many of them, or that it was easy to identify people in their fire suits, but her heart ached to know which family would be getting bad news. There was Scott. He looked all right. Shaken, though. That looked like Dwight; he seemed all right, but angry. Was he one of the firefighters who was always angry when he was actively fighting a fire? She couldn’t remember. She looked at the others, and either couldn’t see enough to identify them, or didn’t think she knew them.

Patrick broke off talking to the chief and walked somberly to Rosa. She tried to figure out what it meant that he hadn’t gone to talk to anyone else. She tried to guess what the look on his face meant. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen it before.

A police car screamed into view, lights flashing. Policemen bailed out, crime scene tape in hand.

“Oh!” Rosa said as Patrick got up to her. “They think it’s arson?”

“I wish,” Patrick said. “But right now they have to assume it’s drug manufacturing.” He took her hand in his. “And murder.”

Chapter Three

To the Rescue

Richard was feeling less of a jack of all trades (at least of all spy trades) than his friend seemed to think he was, but he cheerfully promised to drop everything and arrive forthwith and posthaste and all that, tossed in an over-Britishfied ‘cheerio’ to seal the bargain, and rang off.

“We’re in over our heads again, I presume,” Emma said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“I’m too old for this,” Richard groused, while grabbing her. He gave her a spin, just for the fun of it.

Emma laughed and pretended to swoon. “Too old for the spinning business, or for whatever the phone call was about?” she asked.

Richard sat down dramatically and sighed deeply. “This is what I get, marrying someone in the business,” he said. “You give her a spin and visibly fight off an urge to maul her with kisses, and she asks about a phone call.”

“I take it it’s not precisely an emergency?” Emma said, a hint of doubt in her voice.

“As old as I am, and as much as I’m officially a pensioner, I assure you that if it were a ‘no time to waste’ matter, I’d not be wasting time.” He stood up. “However, dawdling would make the case harder, most likely. Might as well head out while the clues are freshest and the fiends haven’t had more time to flee.”

“Where are we headed?”

“Boise.”

“Still?”

“Yes. But this time not for the fun of it. And before you ask, not a single person we know, as far as I know, has been killed, kidnapped, mangled, or is hospitalized. However, we have connections to someone suspected of drug dealing and murder, and we need to help get him off the hook.”

“Assuming he’s innocent, of course,” Emma said.

“Absolutely,” Richard confirmed.

They fell silent. It was no fun at all to send an associate to prison, but sometimes it had to be done, and on occasion they’d each been the one to do it. Probably their worst memories were from those cases.

Emma wrapped him in a hug. “I’m sorry I said that. There was no need to bring that up, and I know it.”

Richard leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Ah, well, every good spy, active or decommissioned, needs a good ethics kick in the shin every once in a while. Helps head off temptation, you know. For what it’s worth, though, there are no hints of that sort of mess in the present situation. Come on, let’s pack. I’ll fill you in once we’re en route. We’re flying, by the way, but I’ll see if I can arrange charter.”

Emma nodded, but didn’t ask questions. She’d read between the lines properly, and knew to get out of the way whilst he figured out how to get them to Boise forthwith and posthaste, as he had so cheekily promised.

Although they hadn’t been retired very long, Richard by now had picked up a knack for arranging travel without the help of government offices. Adding that to their previous expertise in turning in rental cars and such, they were airborne in a private plane in remarkably good order.

Since he was trying to learn to fly – relearn, actually, since he’d done a bit of flying in his younger days – and since he doubted he ought to be tackling jets before props, especially at his age, Richard arranged for a regular sort of private plane. For the distance involved, it didn’t make all that much difference in flying time, after all. And it still beat what the airlines had been able to offer, especially on short notice. The pilot was a jolly good sport, certified for instruction, and all too happy to get paid not only for travel time but for flying lessons. Richard liked him right off. That’s not to say that he’d trust the fellow to turn down illicit jobs, because the chap had the air of someone who liked to snub his nose at convention, as well as the slightly frayed air of a man who had seen better days. But Richard did like him, and thought, wistfully, that in his spy days he might have suggested the fellow be investigated with an eye toward being put on retainer with the agency.

It felt a lifetime ago he’d been suggesting people be checked out for possible recruitment. These days? Not only was he out of the loop and not in a position to chat with recruiters, but MI5 1/2 wasn’t an agency he felt comfortable handing recruits to. Not anymore. Not that it had ever been without its shortcomings and frustrations, but at least in its glory days there had been sufficient integrity at enough layers of it, and in enough departments. Barring the internal review experts, of course.

Ah, but it was time to concentrate on flying lessons, and he happily switched his attention, at least as much of it as needed. Of course he’d still watch his surroundings, by ear and by eye. One never got over that, nor should one.

Emma, in a seat behind, quietly watched the landscape pass underneath, but he knew she also had his back. If the pilot unexpectedly turned out to be a homicidal maniac, even one with the traits of a dog that hadn’t the decency to growl before biting someone, the luckless fellow would rue any move he’d make against either of them. Richard bit back a grin. All his life, he’d had people expect much from him, simply because of his looks and bearing and manner. He’d learned how to come across as less capable, mostly by behaving like a flippant shallow fellow, but it was hard work to pull that off. Emma, on the other hand, was naturally underestimated, even by her friends, but could terrify even a hardened spy when she put her mind to it.

‘Chameleons, that’s us,’ he thought, not sure whether to be pleased with the thought, or chagrined.

Ah, but the pilot was ready to hand him the stick and let him fly for a while. Gleefully – nothing said a man in late middle age couldn’t be gleeful about flying a plane – Richard took control of the plane.

Behind him, Emma seemed to be serenely enjoying that he was enjoying himself.

He marveled at how satisfying it was to have found a wife who was happy to see him happy. Prior to Emma, the women in his life had been needier creatures, most of whom had demanded to be the ones having the most fun whatever the situation.

Not that he didn’t aim to make her happy, or that he didn’t put her ahead of himself as a rule, but how smashingly marvelous it was that she could enjoy that he was enjoying himself.

-

At Boise, he rented the sort of vehicle he thought a drug dealer might envy, which seemed a good idea at first, but less so as he approached the residential area that, as he well remembered now, was generally such a friendly neighborhood, with people sitting out on porches and watching all and sundry drive by, often waving at even total strangers. This cheerful engagement was done mostly in natural and generous friendliness but it also effectively let visitors know that the folks around here didn’t miss much, especially when it came to people passing through their neighborhood.

“I have possibly been an idiot,” he told Emma as he drove.

“How so?”

“I have the right car for the bait, but not for the safe house,” he said. “I don’t mind so much for myself. Let people think worse of me. See if I care. But I’d hate for people to wonder what sort of friends our friends have.”

“On the upside, it’s possibly not as outlandish a car as it probably feels like to you, and also it’s obviously a rental. Raise your hand if you’ve never had to settle for a totally unsuitable vehicle at a rental agency, all the sensible ones being taken already?”

“There is that. Unfortunately, I happen to be all too aware that I bypassed more sensible vehicles for this one. It gnaws.”

“Good,” Emma said.

“Is there a translation into British English for that remark?”

“I wasn’t aware I was speaking a confusing variety of American. In any case, I’m just glad that you haven’t lost the ability to dislike it when you do something that you later wish you hadn’t. However, I’m not keen on being married to someone who enjoys beating himself up endlessly, especially over minor matters, so I hope you’ll not obsess on it. That would be annoying. Also embarrassing.”

“I shall do my best to recover, then,” Richard said, happily playing along.

He swung by the house they owned, in part to reassure himself that he had his bearings, and in part to reassure himself that it was still standing. It was looking better than ever. The residents had been hard at work improving the lot and the house. Their industry bucked him up.

He steered for a house about a mile away, one with a big wraparound porch on the outside, and a large, trouble-struck family on the inside.

Vaguely wishing he had somewhere else to park what he was by now thinking of as his pimp-mobile, he pulled up in front of the house and parked along the curb. At least he could spare them having the vehicle in their driveway. It wasn’t much, but it at least felt like something. He consoled himself with the fact that this family was known for befriending an unfathomable variety of human souls, many of whom they had led into more respectable lives. Perhaps the neighbors would dismiss him and Emma as debauched rich souls in need of redemption, who had come to the right place? That seemed doubtful, but at least possible, and better than being thought a drug dealer. At least here. Later, elsewhere, he was all too ready to come across as any sort of humanoid rat the sewer he was in would most readily open up to. But here?

Here, he decided, he was going to be the dignified Brit; friendly, visiting old friends, and – as Emma had so kindly suggested – driving a rental that wasn’t at all his usual style.

Emma took his cues, and the two of them walked with perfect middle-class air and manners to the front door. The door opened just before they got to it. Several children spilled out onto the porch, hugging their visitors. A couple of the boys gawked briefly at the pimp-mobile, but quickly dismissed it.

“Dad’s at a funeral and Mom’s taking a nap, but they said to bring you inside and make you comfortable if you showed up,” an older boy said.

“I’ll go tell Mom!” a somewhat younger boy said.

“We’re not in any hurry,” Richard said. “If she needs the nap, let’s not disturb her if we don’t need to.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” a third boy, slightly younger yet, said. “Because the rules around here are that nobody comes in the house and has unsupervised time with us, even if we all trust them, unless they’re a babysitter, because this way nobody can accuse anybody of anything, because there are always witnesses. By the way, I’m Shannon, in case you forgot.”

“I wasn’t sure on the name,” Richard conceded, without mentioning that he’d thought it was Jody, that being a slightly more common name in the category of names that got hung on both boys and girls.

“It’s nothing personal,” the middle boy said. “I’m Denny, in case you forgot. It’s just that we’ve got people who would like to cause Dad trouble right now, and it’s just easier to have rules that apply all the time, and not to friends versus people who might not be friends.”

“I understand entirely,” Richard said.

“I’ll go tell Mom you’re here,” the oldest girl said, as she took her leave.

“That’s Bec, otherwise known as Rebecca. And that’s Matthew and that’s Carla and that’s Kendra and that’s Laura and that’s Josiah, and we don’t expect you to remember all our names right off. Nobody does. It’s impossible,” Shannon said.

“Ah, well, perhaps I shall surprise you, especially as we have met before and I merely need a refresher,” Richard said.

“I wish I was allowed to bet a real bet, because I’d bet against it,” Shannon said. “Nobody has ever done it before. It’s impossible.”

“Impossible is my middle name,” Richard said.

“Really?” Denny asked.

“Not really. It’s just an expression. A common one where I come from,” Richard said. “It means we don’t give up easily.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Rosa said as she walked wearily into the room. “Richard and Emma Hugh, is it? I’m sorry. We get so many visitors I can’t keep you all straight, or keep everybody remembered, but Patrick said you were coming. He said Jake called you. That you used to be in law enforcement?”

“That’s right. But let’s not keep you standing,” Richard said, visibly nervous to be around a pregnant woman who looked, to his eye, like she could pop at any moment.

Rosa smiled gently at him, and let him steer her to the chair she indicated would likely be most comfortable.

“I don’t know what you’ve been told, but here’s the short version. My dad’s house caught on fire while he was out, and the firefighters found a meth lab and a dead body inside. Dad says the dead person is probably his friend Kim, who was visiting. As for the meth lab, Dad swears he thought it was a science experiment. Dad loves scientists, and was quite pleased to give a promising young scientist space in which to experiment, and sometimes a bed in which to sleep at night,” Rosa said. “As for me, I haven’t been getting over to Dad’s hardly at all lately. I didn’t know he had any new friends, much less ones setting up drug labs. The neighbors say he’s had quite a few questionable characters coming and going in the past few months. At least now they say that. I wish someone had told me before this.”

The baby kicked, and she stroked her belly and smiled. “This one’s athletic, compared to some of the earlier ones.” She shrugged. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Dad’s living with Jake and Amber and the others over at the old boarding house, but he’s getting rather senile and also has some flights of fancy, which he doesn’t recognize as flights of fancy.”

Richard nodded. She hadn’t told them anything he and Emma didn’t know already, but it was useful to have seen her manner as she spoke, and also interesting to compare the details against what he’d already been told. To her credit, she didn’t seem to be pulling out the brass polish and tidying up the tale to make her family look better. She also looked just plain weary, in what appeared to be an ‘innocent person tossed into an unfathomable mess’ sort of way.

But then, she was about ready to pop a baby and had eight children already, and a husband who was often out on call, ministering to others. If that wasn’t enough to wear a woman out, he couldn’t think what would.

“I think I’d like to go see the burnt house and talk to the neighbors, if they’re home,” he said.

“I could show you how to get there, and show you around. I was there during the fire,” Shannon said. “That’s if Mom says it’s all right.”

Rosa’s phone rang. She glanced at it. “Oh, it’s Patrick. Let’s see what he says,” she said. She took the call and said the Hughs were there and wanted to go to the fire scene and Shannon had volunteered to direct them, etc. She turned to Richard. “Patrick says he can meet you there in a few minutes. He’s fine with Shannon coming. In fact, since Shannon was there, he might remember something that I’ve forgotten. If you don’t mind driving him over, Patrick can bring him home.” Richard nodded. Rosa wrapped up her conversation with Patrick, herded Shannon off to wash up and change his shirt, and then packed them out the door.

As they approached the rental car, Shannon asked, “Is this what people like you drive in England?”

Emma laughed. But charitably. “It’s a rental. We got it because we thought it might be useful later, if we go undercover and are trying to impress drug dealers. But in the meantime it is rather embarrassing to be riding around in it. I hope you don’t mind too much,” she said.

Shannon shrugged. “I’ll just put it down to one of life’s odd adventures. I’m starting to collect those, whether I want to or not.”

“Welcome to the club,” Richard said. He was going to add a cheeky remark, but realized he was starting to feel not fatherly precisely, but grandfatherly toward his young associate. It was a jolt. Afraid of what emotion might sneak out in his voice, he wordlessly handed Emma and the boy into the pimp-mobile, and headed off.

Having the street address already, and being familiar enough with that part of Boise, he didn’t need directions from the boy, but he dutifully let the boy chart the course. Men owed it to boys to let them be useful, after all.

Chapter Four

Scene of the Crime

Patrick Delarosa pulled up as they were getting out of their vehicle. He grinned as he came up to them.

“I hope there’s a juicy story behind this rig, and not just a case of a rental agency being out of everything else,” he said. His eyes twinkled.

“It’s for if they have to go undercover,” Shannon reported.

“In that case, probably we’d better not be saying that,” his dad said. “It’s hard to go undercover if too many people know about it ahead of time.”

“Good point, Dad,” Shannon said. “Count me in on not talking about it again. At least, I’ll try.”

Richard thought Patrick seemed a bit too chipper for having just conducted a funeral, but didn’t want to say so. Certain types of Christians, in his experience, sometimes came off of funerals oddly refreshed. Patrick hadn’t struck him as that sort of man, especially, but it wasn’t entirely at odds with what he knew of the man’s character.

“How’d the funeral go, Dad?” Shannon asked.

“Better than I was afraid it might. At least, I’ve done my ‘Ezekiel on the Wall’ thing, and can face myself in the mirror and God in my prayers.”

He turned his attention to Richard and Emma. “That likely sounds odd, I’m sure. But somebody not of our fellowship begged me to do his funeral, even though he was all whacked out with New Age ideas. I usually back out of those sorts of things – no sense pretending that New Age will get anybody to heaven, after all, or even that it’s safe to mix with Christianity. But somehow I didn’t dodge well enough and when he died the family thought I had promised to do it and were counting on it, and after prayer I decided I’d do it. So I consigned the dear departed to whatever fate he’s already met and then laid the gospel on the survivors. Some of them didn’t like it much, but I’m pretty sure I hit home with a few of them. I would appreciate your prayers for conversions.”

“You have mine,” Emma said. “Now, what can the two of you tell us about what happened here?” She swept her hand at the charred remains of Carl Sheridan’s house.

“I got here just after the firefighters had stumbled across a meth lab and the remains of a young man. Most of these guys have experience with meth labs. It’s horribly dangerous for them to fight, so they hate them. And some of them have come across dead people before. It’s never easy, but it happens. In this case, though, my wife had assured them that everyone was accounted for, since she had her dad in the van. We had no idea he was having people over. Or letting them cook drugs on the premises, either. So they really weren’t happy. It’s one thing to stumble across that sort of thing in pure ignorance, and another to run across it after you’ve been given assurances.”

“I heard it was an uncommonly small meth lab,” Richard said.

“That’s what they thought, too. Not hardly worth the trouble, really. But the ingredients were there, and it seemed to be operational, at least after a fashion, as best they could tell after the explosions and fire.”

“But they don’t think it was the usual matter of a meth cook mucking up and killing himself by accident?” Richard asked.

“Not much chance of that, given that he’d obviously been strangled first. That’s not for public consumption yet, by the way. Shannon, the cops know, but they don’t want people knowing because it’s a clue they might be able to catch the killer or killers with. I have permission to tell the Hughs, but likely I should have sent you out of earshot first. I’m counting on you not blabbing, all right?”

“I’m on it, Dad,” Shannon said. “And in case you forgot, I’m almost nine. It’s not like I’m a baby anymore.”

Patrick rustled his son’s hair with his fingers, and smiled encouragement at him, then sent his eyes away so the boy couldn’t see the concern, the fear, in his eyes that came from having a boy at the very dangerous and delusional age of eight.

Richard, feeling the threat of being swamped with grandfatherly sentiment again, decided it was time to enlist the boy in something, as much for his own sake as the boy’s or his father’s.

“Shannon, since you were here before your dad, would you mind trying to walk through everything that happened from the time you drove up to when you left? Start at the beginning. Who all was with you?”

“It was just Mom and me.”

“Where did you park?”

The boy led them to where they’d parked. Richard and Emma followed him around as he explained how they were talking with the neighbor when he saw smoke, and how he’d seen his grandfather coming back in the neighbor’s car, and how he’d gotten him to pull over, and then he’d gone to get the hose.

At that point, rather than having them all troop into someone’s back yard without permission, Richard called a pause, while he went to ring the doorbell on the neighbor’s house. Inez answered the door with her hair in a towel. She was not happy to see a stranger on her doorstep, nor was she happy to have her after-shampoo routine interrupted.

“Sorry to bother you,” Patrick said from behind Richard, “But these are investigators, come to help figure out what happened. And we were hoping you could help us?”

“We’re not in a horrid hurry, if this is a bad time. But young Mr. Shannon is walking us through the events, and we’re to where it would be helpful to restage the hose business, with your kind permission,” Richard said, with a suaveness that Inez had never met with in real life, and with his best British accent, lightly applied.

She didn’t swoon, but she did melt, and obviously so. Richard mentally patted himself on the back for not having lost ‘the touch’ when it came to cranky middle-aged women. It was such a delicate procedure, turning on the charm without having them jump to disbelief, accompanied by all the ire that disbelief-morphing-into-feeling-insulted could unleash. All modesty aside, few men could pull it off.

(All illusions aside, he’d had his face slapped a few times when he hadn’t quite pulled it off. But, no matter. No man was perfect, and women were inconceivable creatures at best.)

Inez authorized them to use the hose or whatever else they needed, promised to be right out as soon as she got her hair combed, and slammed the door in her eagerness to go pull herself together.

Richard avoided Patrick’s eye as he followed Shannon around the house to the faucet, not wanting to know, especially not yet, what the other man might think of the charm offensive.

Emma he glanced at out of the corner of his eye to make sure he wasn’t in trouble. Emma seemed slightly but genuinely amused, in a comfortingly British sort of way. That she wasn’t British only added to the charm of it. Americans who were willing to be less brash in their manners out of consideration for European sensibilities were a treasure, truly.

They let Shannon reenact his nozzle heroics, even to the point of spraying the garage and roof and boundary air. He was a conscientious witness, and remembered to ease behind the garage as the remembered heat got hotter. He seemed more intent on accuracy than on making himself out to be a hero, although once in a while a heroic flicker worked its way into the tale; which seemed fair enough considering how he’d acquitted himself during the emergency. For that matter it was likely triply fair, considering he was only eight.

Richard gave it up, and mentally named the boy an honorary grandson, forever after to get birthday greetings and to be sent penknives and binoculars and copies of books Richard had loved as a boy. Perhaps, with the boy’s father’s permission, he could arrange for him to be pen pals with certain young men in France and the UK.

Inez swayed out to meet them, her hair combed and styled, her face powdered, her lips coated, and her eyelashes enhanced. Richard wondered if he’d gone too far in his encouragement, or whether she was the sort of woman who generally never left the house without arranged hair, lipstick, and enhanced lashes. He glanced at Emma to see if she’d give him a reading.

Emma wasn’t ruffled, which didn’t mean anything in itself. But she seemed to consider Inez to be under control instead of in adulteress mode.

He glanced at Patrick, who wasn’t shocked at her appearance, and he had the advantage of knowing the woman.

This was all reassuring, but Richard edged up the professional-about-his-business aspect of his personality for good measure.

Inez didn’t seem to notice.

That was not a good sign.

Richard dove back into crime inquiries.

“Right then. We’ve got Shannon’s perspective on events up to about the time the fire department got here. Before we go any further, would you mind backing up and filling us in on what you can remember, starting with the disappearance of your car?” he said.

Whatever romantic illusions the woman might have been savoring evaporated in the face of the exasperations she’d had to endure from having Carl as a neighbor. She gave them an account that closely matched reports Richard already had, getting more animated as she went.

“And then he had the gall to hand me Chinese food and tell me I could send him out for some any time!” she huffed.

Richard held up a hand. He looked at Emma.

“News to me,” she said.

“Would you mind telling us that part again, slowly,” Richard said.

Shannon moaned and flopped on the grass, staring miserably at the sky. “I forgot that about the food, sorry,” he said. “I saw him hand it over and everything, and it seemed really weird to me, but then I forgot it.”

It was painful to see him feeling like a failed witness.

“Apology accepted. And for what it’s worth, that’s why we generally interview people more than once, and interview several witnesses. You’ve done quite well overall, and I’m glad you wish to do better, but it won’t help anything if you get sidetracked beating up on yourself,” Richard said. “Besides, it might not mean anything. We won’t know until we nose around a bit more.”

Shannon sat up. “Who are those guys, anyway?” he said, watching an SUV (sport utility vehicle) drive by. “That’s the second time they’ve driven by since we got here.”

Inez snorted. “Some of Carl’s ‘friends.’ You’d think having the house burn down would have been enough to make them stop driving by. The lousy vultures. I’ll be glad when they go away for good.”

“Got the plate,” Emma said. She ducked into the pimp-mobile to call the cops.

Richard, not daring to ignore his hunches, swept the others into the Taylor house and away from windows, to finish the interviews, this time with an emphasis on events well before and after the fire.

Emma joined them in a few minutes, but stationed herself where she could discreetly watch the street.

Chapter Five

Family Feelings

It wasn’t precisely panic, but it leaned that way, and Richard was embarrassed not only that he felt it, but that he was experiencing it for obviously undangerous reasons. For crying out loud, what sort of man had to fight off a ‘run like a scared rabbit’ response merely because he wasn’t used to sitting at the head of a dinner table with a cobbled together family of sorts? But, there it was. He tried to shuffle his hunches around in hopes that one of his well-honed instincts had picked up a reason to consider one of the assembled personages a covert threat, but it wasn’t any good. The fright, he had to admit, was because he had life-clobbered young adults, untethered from normal family ties, looking at him like he could dispense invaluable advice, and he didn’t feel up to the task.

“I hate to tell you this, but simply because I’m rich doesn’t mean that I’m wise. Lots of people who are rich are good at getting rich but are otherwise idiots. Likewise, that I’ve traveled a lot doesn’t necessarily mean much. I know plenty of well-traveled fools, and there are days I likely warrant the designation,” he said, laying his cards on the table.

There were various reactions, but Shasta’s was most interesting. Her eyes briefly went a bit wide, but Richard had the impression that it was less in shock at what he’d said than in some sort of acknowledgement of… of… well that was harder to say.

“You knew that already about rich people and supposed sophisticates,” he said to her.

“Yeah. But I’m not used to people with credentials like yours admitting it,” she said, as matter-of-factly laying her cards on the table as he had. Still, her eyes narrowed a wee bit before she got them reset at neutral. She was wary. And properly so.

He smiled at her. “Credentials are wildly overrated,” he said.

“No, duh,” Shasta said.

“You’ll do,” Richard said, approvingly, before realizing that “you’ll do” might be a Brit-ism, or perhaps something common to his class but not hers, and that if you weren’t used to British understatement you might take it as a put down. She seemed to catch it as a compliment, though, so he let it go.

He cast his eyes around the table, and realized with a start that he had more in common with nearly everyone here than he had at first realized, not to mention more than his dear mother would likely ever admit. (Nor should she, he thought, given that she’d done as well as she knew how, given the expectations of her social circle and of society at large.)

“Now what?” Shasta said.

“It has just occurred to me that with the possible exception of Carl, there isn’t a person here who grew up exclusively in a happy, healthy home being raised by the loving couple that conceived him. I likely come closest, since my parents were devoted to one another and to me, and I spent most of my friend-infested youth under their well-kept roof, but I often got handed to nannies, and sometimes got shipped off to what I understand you Yanks call boarding schools, which in my case had a well-deserved reputation for juvenile savagery. And then I spent most of my adult life as a resolute bachelor in jobs that kept me on the move. As much as I might like to help the rest of you learn how to settle down and live properly, I’m afraid I haven’t the experience to stand on. Well, except for marrying a proper sort of wife. I know about that.” He smiled at Emma, both to send her a compliment, and to beg of her to rescue him out of the conversation, which had got away from him somehow and had alarmingly veered into private matters a British gentleman generally left private.

Emma obliged him. “He’s right. I grew up with my parents, but Dad was abusive and unreliable, and eventually he got so tired of us that he murdered everyone in the family and took off. At least he thought he murdered everyone. I wasn’t as dead as I looked, and got found in time, and was the only survivor. I got put into a protection program, with a new name and all that. It’s not what I would have picked for my life, but it’s what I got handed. Dad disappeared and never got found. I don’t know if he’s still alive. I’m not sure I care anymore,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s better to forget,” Raven said, with the defensive air of someone with a lot she wished she could forget.

“In personal matters, yes, certainly,” Richard agreed. “But there are times it helps in criminal investigations when people are willing to remember, and talk about it.” He tossed it off lightly, almost as a joke, and then quickly changed the subject to an upcoming event in the park down the street before people had a chance to settle into fretting about Carl being there, too senile to have been much use so far in a murder investigation, but not habitually mindless enough that a murderer would necessarily write him off as no danger as a potential witness.

Richard cast his eyes around the table as he spoke, marveling at the mix, and marveling equally at how well they usually got along. At the other end of the table was Jake, a young man scarred from years in foster care, but now heading up this project to give others a safe place to launch their lives after they aged out of foster care. Next to him was his wife Amber, also scarred from being yanked from her home by social workers and bounced around from family to family. Raven, sitting next to Amber, had a similar story, as far as anyone knew. She didn’t talk much. She’d been homeless and desperate and looking for safe haven, though, which qualified her for entrance into the program. Next to her was Shasta, who everyone knew had a rough background, because she tossed it in your face from time to time. On the other side of the long table were Harper and Jewell, a young married couple that had been homeless and needed a place to stay while Harper searched for work. Then there was Carl Sheridan, the old man whose house had been torched with a dead man inside. He was still a suspect, but Richard considered him more a witness in need of protection, which is one big reason he was here instead of at his daughter’s home. Then, Emma. His mainstay and helpmeet. How he’d lived before they got married he was no longer quite sure.

There had been, for a while, a younger teen at the house, who had fled his mother’s abusive boyfriend, but he was living with his grandfather now.

Richard nearly laughed as he guessed what Emma’s assessment would be. “Don’t tell me, luv. If I am so silly as to note that we are all misfits here, you shall correct me. Am I right?” he said to her.

Emma grinned. “Find me one person on the face of the Earth who isn’t a misfit in one way or another, and then let’s talk,” she said.

Richard playfully pretended to think as hard as humanly possible. “I can’t think of one, now that you mention it.”

“And then there’s the not inconsequential fact that people who are converted to Christianity are required to leave their past self behind, and that they also learn that some things don’t matter as much as they previously thought, which can put you out of step with your fellows,” Emma said.

Richard wasn’t sure how far he wanted to go down that trail of thought.

Emma didn’t seem to notice his squirming. “It’s true, you know,” she said. “Once you’re a Christian, you never entirely fit into this world anymore. Not comfortably. You finally fit into God’s kingdom, so that does make up for it, but you do become at least something of a misfit as far as the world is concerned. At the same time, since we’re all still tainted with sin, we tend to get at odds with other Christians, too, at least some of the time. I guess this side of heaven, we’re all doomed to not quite fit perfectly anywhere, are we?”

“That’s what Pastor says, too,” Amber said. “No, wait. It’s like that. Give me a minute. Oh, I know. He says ‘this side of heaven and hell, we’re all settling into our final state, but we’re not there yet, and it can get awkward and even ugly.’ That’s right, isn’t it, Jake?”

“It sounds right,” Jake conceded.

There was a knock on the door.

“Drill time,” Richard said.

Emma herded Carl to a handy walk-in pantry. Harper got between his wife and the door. Jake got between Amber and the door, but cast his eyes toward the rear of the house, to make sure no threats materialized unseen from that direction. Raven bolted to go be with Emma. That wasn’t part of the plan, and Richard watched until he was sure that Emma had the girl in hand, then he walked to the front door.

A delivery van stood on the curb, advertising a floral shop.

“Flowers for Carl Sheridan,” the delivery man said, as he tried peering into the house.

Richard decked the man.

Chapter Six

Partners

Sitting around a police station filling in law enforcement officers on recent happenings wasn’t nearly as fun as a private citizen compared to being in a similar situation as a highly placed law enforcement official, credentials at hand and an agency standing by at the end of a phone or computer link. It was also pointless to try to hurry things along as a civilian, Richard decided after gently trying it and receiving hints that it would be counterproductive.

On the upside, compared to the ordinary law abiding person he was neither shocked by the reams of forms to be completed, nor much intimidated by them. He was dismayed (or at least something like dismayed), true enough, but only slightly, having long since given up hope of civilization ousting insane bureaucratic procedures in his lifetime, and therefore having resigned himself to submitting to forms and questions without foreseeable end whenever he got involved in a kerfuffle like this.

In this case, it helped that he’d collared a man with three outstanding warrants, who was on the local Most Wanted list, a list which had been helpfully published online and broadcast on the telly, with warnings that the man should be considered dangerous. This made it less questionable that he’d flattened the fellow without an obvious provocation. (Obvious, that is, to the general mind. To a trained spy, the man had asked to be flattened. But how did one explain that, without opening up oneself to unwanted inquiries and bother?) But then, law enforcement couldn’t afford to be amused about delivery people getting flattened while out delivering flowers. It simply wasn’t done. Nor, really, did Richard want it to become the sort of thing that law enforcement felt it could be amused about. So, there it was. It was messy. It wasn’t messy enough to apologize for, but it was messy enough to call for being twice as patient with the poor local chaps in charge of the investigation as otherwise he might have been. The poor local chaps had public relations to consider, as well as legal requirements.

He bit back a smile. Emma, dear Emma, had been useful between the time the delivery person – with the unfortunate real name of Taurus Zenly Jones and a slew of hardly better aliases – had been flattened and cuffed with cords, and when the cops arrived. She had maintained a habit of studying the Most Wanted lists of wherever they happened to be, and had thought the fellow reminded her of one of the local suspects. She had dived onto the internet to confirm it, thus giving Richard a side issue to exploit if it seemed useful. Truth to tell, he hadn’t had an inkling that there was any reason to flatten the fellow except that he seemed to be looking for a helpless old man who was in a position to make a murderer nervous. That, and just the suspect’s manner. He was up to no good, and trying to hide that he was up to no good, and doing a rather bad job of it.

Most people did do a rather bad job of it when it came to being up to no good, of course. Richard briefly felt nostalgic for his days at MI5 1/2, particularly after he’d moved up the ranks. In those days, he still had to deal with people who weren’t half so clever as they thought they were, but at least for the most part he was sent after ‘the best of the worst.’ They were good at being bad, and ambitious, too. A man could guess what they might do, because while their aims were awful, they at least tended to be men and women who thought things through. There was a logic, all too often brutal, but logic all the same, and a man could generally figure out ways to fight that.

Richard suddenly felt quite sorry for regular cops. Regular cops must spend most of their time, day after day, dealing with hardly anything but stupidity. It must be depressing, that.

The officer in charge finally presented him with a finished report to sign. Richard read it carefully. “I think I’d like to change this part just a bit, to make it a little clearer,” he said.

“Changing your story midstream isn’t generally a good idea,” the cop said, in a way that Richard put down as a man growing wary when he shouldn’t.

“I’m not asking to change my story. I’m asking to make it more clear in the paltry space given us to condense an incident down to a few lines, that I’m not as sure about this part of the story as someone might think, given how it’s presently worded,” Richard said.

“Gonna give yourself more wriggle room, are you? Why should I go along with that?” the cop asked.

A more senior officer walked over. “Stash it a minute, Ken. Let’s see what changes he’d like to make.” He handed Richard a piece of paper. “Write down how it should go.”

Richard, employing the fine handwriting taught him during an excellent schooling, wrote out a few sentences and handed it to the senior officer.

The officer grinned. “Thought so,” he said. He handed it to the officer in charge, who (too young to have a great deal of experience with cursive) read slowly through it.

He looked up with a question on his face. “If I were you, I’d leave it the way it is,” he said. “This might open you up to charges or lawsuits, more than what I put down.”

“I’m fully aware of that, but you’re not me, and I’d rather be accurate, thanks anyway,” Richard said.

“It’s your funeral,” the officer said, as he typed the changes into the reports.

Richard looked at the older officer. “Do I know you from somewhere, perhaps?”

“Probably not. We never got introduced. But I know you.” He grinned and lobbed his phone over his shoulder, gently, more like juggling, catching it behind his back. He winked. “Koriokin case. Glad you survived it, by the way. I’d hate being rat bait.”

“There are worse assignments,” Richard said, with a shrug.

“Either one of you going to fill me in on what you’re talking about?” the junior officer asked.

“Nope,” the senior officer said. “But try to get it through your head that some people really do want to be accurate, and that sometimes they aren’t adjusting their memory as much as just editing how they described something, because they aren’t happy with the description. It doesn’t happen often, but on blue moons, it can.” His phone rang, and he stepped off to answer it.

The younger officer looked at Richard with something like nervousness.

“Don’t tell me. You’ve been a cop something between two and four years now?” Richard said.

The cop looked back and forth between his colleague and his uncommon witness, clearly suspecting conspiracies.

Richard smiled encouragingly at him. “Not to worry. After the rookie stage comes the even more difficult transitioning-from-rookie stage. When you deal with law enforcement agents a great deal, you learn to recognize the signs of someone who’s had the idealism knocked out of him, but who doesn’t quite have the cynicism properly haltered yet. As long as it’s just a phase, there’s no real harm done, particularly if senior officers hover well enough. Is that ready to sign?” He held out his hand. The officer handed him a revised report, which Richard read through quickly. “All right, it’s still not perfect, but it’s livable.” He signed it. “Anything else?”

“No, I guess that’s it.”

“Do I let myself out or do I need an escort?”

“I’m heading that way anyway. I’ll see you out.”

As Richard headed down the sidewalk, he could feel the man standing outside the police station, watching him walk away. He almost wished he’d parked the pimp-mobile right there within eyeshot of the fellow. That, he thought, would add wonderfully to the confusion.

Ah, yes. Rightly or wrongly, he did miss playing with the heads of rookies and near rookies. It did them good, he thought. It was also good sport, but undoubtedly it did them good.

When he got to the pimp-mobile, he realized that he was unaccountably getting used to the wretched machine. He briefly considered taking a bus or taxi to a car dealership and buying a gloriously normal car for someone of his status, if for no other reason than as a means of fighting the obvious slide taking place in his sensibilities. He shook off the temptation. As a foreigner, there would likely be too many hoops to jump through in buying a car, and more hoops after that if he wished to leave it with someone to use when he was out of the area. Besides, a gloriously normal car might be boring, and just at present he didn’t wish to be bored, or boring.

His phone rang. It obligingly told him that his dear old French friend and colleague Leandre Durand was calling. Durand had a knack for needing help, and so Richard answered as quickly as he could without sacrificing suaveness.

“Hugh here. What’s up?”

“I am not sure. You tell me. Is there any reason whatsoever to eye a monstrosity of a vehicle as if it were not a blight upon civilization?” The voice came in stereo, through the phone in one ear, and through the air into the other.

Richard summoned up what dignity he could, and looked sideways. An all-too-jolly Durand was standing about five feet from him, within range of his peripheral vision, if only he’d been actually using his peripheral vision.

“Blast it, Durand. I never have liked how you can materialize out of thin air,” Richard said as he pocketed his phone.

“I know. I know. You like it even less when I disappear while I am sitting in the same car with you. I would apologize, but I am still of hopes that I can train you to notice me when I am around. I assure you, I do not actually fade out and in, as some sort of genie. Even if I could, it would be an offense against God to do so, I think,” Durand said, his eyes twinkling. Well, except for the last bit. He did seem to seriously think it would be a sin to materialize out of thin air, or become invisible at whim, should a man be given the power to do that in this life.

“So, welcome to Boise. What brings you here?” Richard asked.

“Besides the wedding of friends, to which I have been invited, I am also happily in the position of having to come here in connection with a consulting job,” Durand said, clearly boasting that he had landed a job in his old age.

“Congratulations,” Richard said, trying to not let on that he’d been invited to the same wedding but had forgotten about it, weddings being the sort of event a self-respecting British man naturally attended only when he was suffering time off and then, in addition, only if his wife wanted to go, or there were other auxiliary reasons. “And who are you working for these days?”

“I might ask the same of you.”

“Who says I’m working?”

Durand eyed the pimp-mobile with one eyebrow up. The translation of that, Richard well knew, was that Durand was not prepared to believe that Richard would drive such a car unless an agency assigned him to it, or an undercover investigation required it.

“All right, all right, I’m working, too. But as a volunteer. A relative of a friend got tangled up with drug dealers, and Emma and I are trying to help sort matters. Did you answer me on the matter of for whom you are working?”

“No.”

“Are you going to?”

“Not yet. I am sorry, but it is confidential.”

“Mine isn’t. The old man who got caught with a meth lab and a corpse in his arson-torched house is the father-in-law of the pastor of the church that meets in the funeral home. I’m not sure you’d remember him.”

“I do remember the pastor. Quite well. However, I had not heard that his family was suffering such difficulties. I guess the grapevine has sawed me off,” Durand said.

“I’m sorry. Should have let you know, of course. If you haven’t got objections, I think we could house you at Jake and Amber’s, along with Emma and myself, the usual residents, and the old man. I wouldn’t even ask your help, seeing that you’re on retainer. But we’d be glad to have you use us as a home base, all the same. Or I think so. Technically it’s not my house. I’d have to ask Jake, but he and Amber like you. Why they like you, I couldn’t say, but they do,” Richard said, giving his friend a compliment wrapped up in a bad time.

“You are assuming that my employment is not too dangerous for me to responsibly house myself with innocents,” Durand said.

“Not in the least. I am assuming, rather, that if that is the case, you will politely decline,” Richard said.

“I almost wish that it were, of course. But, alas, I am afraid that, to the best of my knowledge, my presence would pose no threat.”

“Well, perhaps an old enemy will come out of the woodwork or something,” Richard said, to cheer up his old friend.

Durand laughed. “I am getting ridiculous in my old age. Part of me yearns for a match of wits with an old enemy, but most of me wants merely to get my job done with excellence, to get the wedding out of the way, and to return to France and run up into the mountains to play with my uncommonly delightful grandchildren as soon as possible. They take after their grandmother, my wife, you know.”

In Richard’s opinion, Durand’s grandchildren took mostly after their father the former sniper, but he didn’t say so.

Chapter Seven

Getting Settled, and Unsettled

Durand was a surprisingly good fit for Misfits Central, as some of the residents were now calling Jake and Amber’s house. He, however, refused to call it such.

“It is no good, you know, to revel in perceiving yourself to be an outsider. It leads to bad ends, for one thing. And for another, it ignores that all Christians fit into God’s family, because He has planned it that way. If you are not Christian, I will ignore, for now, what you call yourself. But if you are Christian, I do not want to hear such talk from you,” he said, in fatherly admonition.

In response, people stopped talking about their home and their little group that way when he was around. But most of them weren’t as careful when he wasn’t around, having in fact come to enjoy the idea of being a misfit, it seeming to be a good excuse for whatever was not going well in relationships or at work. Besides, it was fun.

Richard thought about trying to tell Durand that it was only meant as a joke, but decided against it, both because he was pretty sure that Durand would not consent to see it as a joke, and also because, now that it had been pointed out to him, he wasn’t sure himself that it was a harmless joke. Experience said that it wasn’t, if nothing else. All too many of his enemies through the years had gotten nothing but worse the longer they held onto an idea that they were a misfit.

More gallingly, though, was the fact that he, himself, had come to enjoy the idea of being a misfit. Not that he’d tell Durand that. Likely the old goat knew it already, and that is why he’d been such a spoilsport about it, but there was no sense rewarding him by admitting to it. Besides, there were larger and more urgent matters on hand – like finding a murderer, if one was still on the loose. Local law enforcement had some as-yet-unpublicized hopes that Taurus Zenly Jones might be their man, and it seemed possible, but it seemed more likely that he wasn’t, or at least that he wasn’t the only one in on it.

Richard and Durand took themselves down to the florist shop for which Jones had worked before his arrest. The man behind the counter was of the oily sort, over-dressed, over-coifed, and sporting jewelry of a non-symbolic sort, that you suspected got replaced with occult symbols when he was away from the shop.

Durand bought a half dozen roses he didn’t need – he never liked to buy anything but roses – to take with him. Richard placed an order to be delivered to a community leader’s funeral. He signed the card with an old alias. The community leader’s family wouldn’t have known him by either name, nor he them, but there was usually no harm done in sending flowers to a celebrity’s funeral, even that of someone you’d never heard of until you’d scanned the obits. The family, in such cases, didn’t expect to know everyone who sent cards and gifts and flowers.

They both paid in cash, discreetly allowing the man to see the amount of cash they had in their wallets. If the man was a crook, it could be useful, they thought, if he thought of them as men with lots of cash in their wallets, as well as being perhaps adverse to leaving paper trails.

After they were out of sight of the florist shop, Durand got a wild idea to have fun with his roses. With his most charming Gallic air, he approached some young women who were scowling at the world from behind tattoos and barbaric dress, and asked them if, by chance, they were Christians in disguise.

This gave him a harvest of obscenities.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I had wished to bless my sisters in the faith, but perhaps you would accept these roses from me, in any case, in the name of Jesus, Who, you should know, would be glad to have you repent and come to Him.”

This got him a second round of abuse. With mixed looks – some pure hatred, and some with sorrowful yearning at the roses – the gaggle of scornful females moved off, except for one girl, who, trembling with fear, stood her ground, even after her companions yelled back at her that she’d better come now, or forget about ever being welcome to hang out with them again.

“It is a shame how easily such people deny membership to their group, but, alas, that is how such people are,” Durand sighed, sympathetically. “On the other hand, I will not desert you. I do not live here, and will need to introduce you to friends who do live here, but I will not leave you until I know you are safe, if you will allow me,” he said.

“I want to go to North Dakota,” the girl said.

“To a boyfriend, perhaps?” Durand asked.

“Away from a boyfriend. I have a grandmother there, who said I can live with her. Even if I keep my baby. Everyone here says I have to get rid of him. The baby. They all want him gone. But not her. But she’s broke and I’m broke and I don’t know how to get there.”

“Let me see your ID, please,” Durand said. The girl nervously handed over a driver’s license. “Oh, good. You are old enough I do not have to worry about being charged with kidnapping if I help you. But I am a father and would like to talk to your parents, if I can, all the same.”

“They hate me.”

“Perhaps. I have seen it happen. But I have also seen it happen that young women get into trouble and then are afraid to tell their parents, despite that the parents would be disappointed but still loving.”

“Dad’s long gone, and Mom’s the one who said I had to get an abortion or get out of the house. So I’ve been living on people’s couches, one place after another.”

“I will trust you on that. If you are lying to me, I hope you will come clean sooner or later, but I will trust you on that. Hold on while I contact some friends in North Dakota. Where, by the way, is it in North Dakota that you wish to go?”

“It’s a small town. You wouldn’t know it.”

“Is it near, one moment, let me check on my phone to refresh my memory, ah, here it is… Is it anywhere near Minto, up in the northeast corner?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I used to know. I can call her, but I’m out of airtime.”

Durand smiled. “It is all right. My friends run a maternity home in Minto, and I will see if they have room just now, and if they do we will see about getting you there, and then you and they can take it from there. They are used to such baffling situations. I am not. Hang on while I talk with them a little while. My friend will stay with you. It will be just a little moment. Here, hold the roses. They are yours now, anyway. One moment. Just a moment. And perhaps we can get you airtime, too, so you have a phone for emergencies. Just a little moment, please. Well, here, perhaps you should buy a sandwich over there and wait inside for me. I do not expect to be long, but, of course, they place their girls ahead of phone calls, so perhaps I will have to wait a little while.”

He handed over the roses plus cash for food, and stepped aside.

Richard, feeling like he’d been dropped into a hostile jungle behind enemy lines, put on a brave front and escorted the young woman into the deli Durand had indicated, and ordered food and beverage for the three of them. Feeling competitive, he paid for everything. With the girl, he waited at a table for four, Durand’s drink and food marking out that they were expecting someone.

“I suppose you think I’m stupid,” the girl said.

“No worse than me, but from the other side of the bench, and a few years back,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean I got a girl pregnant, and she wanted an abortion, and it was everything I could do to keep my son alive, and then the two of them took off and I didn’t find them until recently. By some miracle, we’ve all forgiven one another, and my son and his wife and children have even invited me into their lives.”

“Your old girlfriend? Are you friends now?”

“I’ve been warned off, both by her and her husband. The feeling is mutual. Life’s complicated like that. It’s not that there’s animosity. It’s just that no one concerned wants the past drug into the present. We’ve all moved on.”

“That would be nice.”

“It could be worse.”

Durand came back in, dancing. “Heh. Our guardian angels must have had a conference. Of course my friends cannot accept you without you arranging it with them, but if you want to go, it looks as if it can be arranged, and then they will either help you there, or help you to get to your grandmother’s. If, of course, your grandmother can take you in, that would free up space for a girl who has nobody, but they will understand if you have someone, but not someone who is able to help you just now. It happens all the time, sad to say. But, here, let us eat, and let us talk, and let us then call them back. I am to call them back in any case, but let us be in order in our minds before we do it, shall we?” He said a silent grace and dug into his food and his conversation as if he ate deli sandwiches with too much bread every day and liked them (which he didn’t), and as if he rescued disconnected pregnant women every day (which he most certainly didn’t).

Richard excused himself to go eat in a park by himself.

Durand tracked him down later.

“How did it go?” Richard asked, more from politeness than a wish to know.

“Excellently. She is on a bus to North Dakota, properly equipped with a phone that can be used again, dressed in more suitable clothes obtained from a thrift store, carrying a suitcase with the more shocking clothes in it as well as more suitable ones also just bought at the thrift store, and she is to call her new friends at the maternity home at set times so that they know that she is all right. My guess is that she will change back into the more shocking clothes to use as an imaginary suit of armor until she is nearly there, but no matter. Perhaps she will even wear the shocking clothes to the maternity home, to test the people there, but no matter. They are used to such theatrics, and know how to respond to it. All in all, a good day’s work. Ah, but it is not the job we were setting out to do. I am ready for that. What would you have me do?”

“Don’t you have work to do for whoever it is that you’re working for these days?”

“I will be honest with you. I am writing travel articles. It does not pay as well as my former job, but it is more flexible. Wherever I go, I can find a story. There are worse jobs. And if my current employer sacks me, I can freelance. I do some of that already. It is interesting. Also, it is a small way to introduce people to civilized writing and educated discourse. There is something to be said for that. But let us go and find a murderer, shall we? That would be better. I propose trying to ambush the people who drive by Carl’s house from time to time, unless you have a better idea?”

Richard felt awfully rusty at ambushes, and it also seemed unlikely that the gawkers would come by to gawk at an opportune moment, but he thought they might as well revisit the crime scene to see if looking at it jarred loose any better ideas.

When they got there, Durand parked in front of the remains of Carl’s house, but Richard parked a block away, not wishing for Inez to see the pimp-mobile. Durand grudgingly accepted this, although he would rather they had both vehicles handy, should a chase be in order.

Before they could decide on the best course of action – after all, two men couldn’t stand around in front of a nearly cleared vacant lot for no good reason – Patrick Delarosa showed up in a pickup truck, his son Shannon riding shotgun.

“Whoo-hoo!” Shannon exclaimed as he barreled out of the truck. “I didn’t know you’d be here. This is great. My name’s Shannon, in case you forgot, and yes I know it’s also a girl’s name, thanks, but I’ve heard every joke there is on it, so don’t try any new ones, all right?”

“Shannon,” his dad said, trying to stop him.

“It’s all right, Dad. I’m not telling strangers. They’ve both been to our church, and to our house, although I think this second guy only once, and he’s from France, right?”

“That is right, my little friend. I am Leandre Durand, at your service.”

“Wanna help put junk into the truck? We’ve almost got the lot cleared, and Dad and I can do it by ourselves, but you can help if you want to, right Dad?”

“We were hoping to watch for some of your grandfather’s associates, who I am told sometimes drive by here,” Durand said. “If you see them, be so kind as to tell me. In the meantime, of course I would be glad to help. I do not have gloves, so will be somewhat limited, but I will do what I can.”

“I’m on it!” Shannon said. He dove back into the truck, dug around, and came out flourishing several pairs of gloves.

Durand tried on the ones that seemed most likely, declared them an excellent fit, and asked to be put to work. Shannon led him off to the nearest stack of debris.

“The drive-bys haven’t been driving by much lately,” Patrick said to Richard, as he retrieved a shovel from the back of the pick-up.

“We didn’t expect they would be, not this long after the crime and this long after the cops hauled off evidence, but we’re between other leads, and it seemed at least something to do,” Richard admitted.

Shannon shouted and pointed. Richard spun to see the suspect SUV coming up the road at half the usual speed for local traffic. He dashed into the street waving his arms and asking them to stop.

Durand was alongside the vehicle immediately after. He grabbed a door handle. The SUV, which had already slowed to a crawl for Richard, stopped.

“Are you guys crazy?” the driver asked, blinking dull eyes at them.

“Perhaps,” Durand said, cheerfully. “But the alternative would have been to report you to the police for harassment, and we did not want to do that. All we wish to know is why you keep driving by here, looking at the burned house. You are making us nervous. We do not like to be nervous. But you have an excellent reason, of course?”

The driver, and all three of his passengers, began to cry.

Chapter Eight

Visit to a Coffee Shop

Richard and Durand decided to look up the coffee shop that they had frequented in Boise while on a previous case. It had, after all, proved to be not only a good place to relax, but had been a good place to shake loose some helpful thoughts. Besides, it was a man’s hangout, and they wished, for a change, to spend a little time at a man’s hangout, perhaps just to be contrary. The case was not going well, and it was therefore a good time to do something contrary for the fun of it.

From the outside, the place looked the same, and it had the same name as before, but after they walked through the door they stopped in their tracks. It’s not just that the place had been renovated and rearranged and redecorated, it was that none of the regulars were there, nor anyone remotely like the regulars of the café of fond memory. For that matter, there were precious few people in view, and they all looked related not only to each other but to the anxious young man who swooped out to seat them.

Richard mentally kicked himself. He was losing his touch, obviously, or he would have insisted on walking past the place at least once before coming in, rather than sauntering in from the far side and just sailing in the door. How careless was that?

The young man too pointedly ushered them to a seat by a front window, no doubt to make the place look inhabited from the street.

Richard glanced at Durand. Like himself, Durand had a lifetime of law enforcement experience and would no more sit by a restaurant window without a reason than he would. Durand was sending off ‘I am French and will not be scared away from sitting by a window, but will follow you away if as a Brit you cannot handle it’ vibes. Not about to let it be thought that the Brits were cowards, Richard sat where pointed. Durand likewise sat, looking pleased with himself for having put a friend’s courage to the test, albeit a silly one. There was no point being upset about it. Durand had his quirks, that was all. Besides, in a childish way, it felt good to have been found not cowardly.

Richard looked at the menu, and dug into his reserves for more courage. The menu was as hipster (or whatever the current slang for such nonsense was) as the young man and the décor. He reminded himself that the place looked not just reasonably clean, but notably clean, and that therefore the food would likely be safe, if he could manage to choke it down. That, at least, was a step up from many places he’d eaten during the course of his life.

A man stuck his head in the front door, and waved at them. He looked familiar.

“You won’t like it,” he said. “They have taboos about fat and salt and they smother stuff in herbs. If you’re looking for the old gang, we’re just down the street these days. It’s not as good as this place used to be, but it’s close, and there’s no parched or flowery food on the menu. None.”

Richard, as a man, appreciated the information, but as a British gentleman he couldn’t say so in front of the young man who had handed him the menu.

Durand broke out laughing. “Oh, our thanks, but my friend is a British man of a certain class and he cannot retreat now that he is seated. For that matter, we were stuck as soon as we walked into the door, I am afraid. As I am French, I am less constrained, but as his friend, I will also stay. It is Jonathan, is it not? The history teacher?”

“That’s me. And, um…, sorry about your uncle, and I’m glad you’re all right, and we’d love to see you again, at the new place.” He said this awkwardly, but sincerely.

Durand was much affected that his old acquaintance would be glad that he, Leandre Durand, had survived a shot to the head (even though, of course, in Durand’s over-optimistic estimation it had only been a graze), and also that the acquaintance would overcome manly reticence long enough to say so. But he also seemed desirous of proving that there was no need for worry.

“For the proprieties, I will come to you so that you do not have to shout the name of the establishment across the room to the embarrassment of the present management,” Durand said. Suiting action to word, he bounced to the door, took directions, and came right back. He sat, unflustered, and smugly placed his order. The earnest young man wasn’t ready to take the order, and fumbled for his order pad, but Durand acted as if everything was going just as it should, and Richard tried to match him as he scanned the menu. The orders were quickly placed, and the young man scurried off to the kitchen area. He didn’t immediately reappear, so Richard guessed the young man was cook as well as waiter.

Durand smiled. “I have a fondness for men who wish to do well, even when they are in a stage of life where they have not learned how to do it. They are amusing, if nothing else,” he said.

Richard decided to let it pass. Everything about the place, now that it thought about it, screamed ‘I have been to business school,’ and not much about it suggested that the owners had any sense about how to make people comfortable. But it wouldn’t do to say so.

“Since we have been placed here as an advertisement to passersby, why do we not look cheerful, for the sake of a successful experiment?” Durand said under his breath, before launching into amusing tales from various adventures, many of which Richard already knew. However, Durand was in fine form, and they had come to relax and joke, so Richard went along with it, and shortly caught the spirit of the undertaking.

Sure enough, soon enough, people who were going by noticed them and some slowed down, and of the ones that slowed down a percentage came through the door, most of them with the air of people in a place for the first time. The waiter still being unavailable, a young man who looked like his cousin got up from a table and started seating people and handing out menus. When the waiter reappeared with the food for Richard and Durand, he looked shocked and perhaps scared to see so many new people in the place at once, but he rallied. Richard, while not anywhere near as fond of the waiter as Durand was, at least softened toward him.

By the time they were halfway done with their meal – which was, as their friend had said, both dry and flowery, but on the other hand not bad for the genre – the place was nearly full, and the waiter had gone to fulltime food prep while his presumptive cousins did the best they could at taking orders and filling water glasses and such.

One customer, scowling, and with the air of a man who considers himself important in the cause of saving society from itself, asked his waiter if he was trained and certified for food handling.

The lad frankly answered that he was only pitching in during an emergency.

“You can’t do that,” the customer growled.

“Oh, but yes he can. As you and I and everyone else can see, he is quite capable of it. And he is not handling food, unless perhaps he carries plates out, and I have observed that he knows to wash his hands between the taking of orders and the handling of plates. That is all that the license would require of him, no?” Durand said, in the cheerful but deadly-serious tone that Richard had seen stop seasoned murderers in their tracks.

The customer, apparently less astute than most seasoned murderers, started to object, but looked around to get a feel for the mood of the now-hushed room, which was almost entirely against him.

“And,” Durand added, “do not even imagine to cause any trouble for him or this establishment later, unless you wish to be brought up on charges of harassment and to see your cruelty and mindlessness presented for all the world to see. I, myself, will see to it. I am sick to death of busybodies and over-regulation, and I am well connected, and I am of an age and station where I have nothing better to do than to fight busybodies, inside the government and out.”

The room erupted in applause, and the harried but reassured volunteer waiters resumed their flurry of order taking and glass filling and table bussing, trying to help their friend make a go of his business venture.

The rules-minded customer got up to leave.

“Oh, but no,” Durand said. “Allow me to buy you lunch. I would be glad to.”

“Are you crazy?” the customer asked.

“I am Christian. I am required to do good for even my enemies. I doubt you qualify as an enemy, but now that I have embarrassed you more than I meant, I would like to buy you lunch. Please, allow me.”

The man bailed for the door and took off.

“A pity. But, then, bullies are almost always cowards, are they not?” Durand said, with a shrug.

One of their old friends from the café of fond memory came in and invited himself to join Richard and Durand at their table. It was a bit jarring to not even be asked for permission, but that had been the character of the regulars, and so Richard recited ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans’ to himself, and smiled on the fellow.

Durand nearly exploded with delight. “Oh, my friend. It is good to see you again. Oh, but we are in need of good cheer, too, so your timing, it is excellent. We are assisting on a criminal case, and it is not going at all well. Worse yet, we thought we had a big break, and it has been a big bust, which is worse than having no breaks at all. Let me tell you. You heard, perhaps, about the house fire in which a stray young man was found dead inside? Along with a drug lab, which the owner of the house, a senile old man, did not know was there? And that the dead man was thought to be dead before the fire, which is thought to be arson?”

The friend nodded.

Richard put himself on high alert. Durand, without a doubt, had hopes of an eavesdropper or two. Richard, at present, couldn’t guess who, but he mentally dusted off his training and experience, and then he physically dusted off his agency-issued glasses, both to make them better for watching people behind him in their scientifically-enhanced reflection, and to cue Durand in on the fact that he was on lookout now.

Durand quirked his lip to acknowledge his friend’s course of action, but nudged his head sideways. Richard was relieved. For all the years he’d watched people behind him in his glasses, it was still far easier to watch people out of the corner of his eye.

Without missing a beat, Duran told their friend about going to the location of the burned house, in the wild hope of crossing paths with the people who had been seen driving by it too many times.

“But of course it would be a miracle if they came by during the short time we could be there. But! They did. A miracle. By a further miracle, they stopped when my friend here flagged them down, and so there was no need for a car chase or firefights, or anything unseemly. Not that I am adverse to car chases if no one gets hurt – indeed, I have been in some that were grand sport – but, alas, too often there is collateral damage, and so one must be glad when there is not the car chase, no?”

The friend bit his lip, and agreed, at least in principal.

“And, then, a further miracle! They said they were friends with the dead man, about whom the police, as far as I know, know essentially nothing. Certainly, about the dead man, I know essentially nothing. So! I thought to myself that at last we would learn about the man’s past, and his connections, and perhaps something would lead us to whoever killed him. But, no. They considered the dead man their friend, enough of a friend that his death made them cry genuine tears, but they did not so much as know his last name, or if he had family, or where he came from. They are, you see, the sort to consider anyone a friend if he has consented to sleep on their couch, or has lent to them his couch, or if they have eaten pizza together, and if, especially, they have abused drugs together, or otherwise run away together from what is too difficult to be faced. There are many such people about, and they are to be pitied, but they are no use at all in an arson and murder investigation. Even if they should come up with a memory, which so far they haven’t, their brains are so pickled that it could not be used as evidence. For that matter, it is my understanding that if they come up with anything now, it would not even be considered a clue. They are that far gone, and too prone to hallucinations, sad to say.” Durand sighed deeply.

Richard by now knew who the suspects were. They were the only men in the vicinity trying to look like they weren’t hanging on Durand’s spirited tale, which he had punctuated with occasional enthusiastic gestures that would have drawn attention from half a block away, much less from merely across a dining room, and which was being presented in a voice meant to avoid any hint of shouting, but which was pitched to carry well. Durand, it may be said, could be good at that, when he chose to be good at it. He was best at the trick in his native French, but no slouch at it in English.

Not knowing whether the ruddy thing was working, or if it was aimed well enough, Richard was trying to film the suspects with his high end phone, which helpfully had a side camera and an option of not having the target showing on the screen.

At a guess, Durand was also filming proceedings somehow or another, possibly out of his carry bag. But it was impossible to know, since the man was giving no hint of it. But, he wouldn’t. He was good at that, too. Really, it was a shame the man had been cut from the intelligence services.

To be on the safe side, Richard signaled the waiter for his check and Durand’s, and paid for their meals while Durand wrapped up his story of the poor lambs who knew too little to be of use regarding the death of their mere acquaintance.

Durand looked at the time, and sadly bid farewell to their old friend and current tablemate. He thanked the volunteer waiters for their service, and stuck his head into the kitchen to thank the cook, and then joined Richard at the front door. By unspoken consent, after they went out they walked past the coffee shop’s windows even though it was the wrong direction to get to their car, to ‘prove’ to anyone watching from inside the restaurant that they were going away.

Durand stayed near the corner of the block after they rounded it, while Richard jogged around the block to where he could watch the suspects if they came that way. He bet himself they’d go Durand’s direction, but he didn’t set his wager very high. As he waited, he previewed his video, which was rather good, if he did say so himself, and then he emailed it to the police officer in charge of the investigation. Then he called the fellow to explain what the video was and why he’d taken it.

He was carefully explaining that it was filmed on the flimsiest of hunches, but the officer cut him off, informing him that the pair appeared to be men who were wanted already, on serious charges, that there were already warrants out for their arrest, and that they should be considered armed and dangerous, and therefore Richard should not, repeat, should not, involve himself any further as a civilian. They’d try to get a police car there as soon as possible. If it could be done without hazard, perhaps Richard might note the make and model of their vehicle, but that was the extent to which he ought to act.

“Right-O. We’re wasting time. You roll the cops, and I’ll report back if need be,” Richard said, before ringing off, a bit annoyed with the fellow for wasting time in warning him off.

He called Durand and relayed the happy news that the suspects matched the looks of armed desperadoes for whom the police were already looking, warrants and all, for as-yet-unspecified crimes against humanity, but that they were to only watch for what they drove. Durand professed himself just as pleased about the news as Richard was, and rang off so that Richard’s phone would be clear for incoming calls from duly sworn officers, should the officer-in-charge find it advisable.

Richard was a bit rusty at standing about at a street corner looking like he was waiting for someone to meet him ‘at the corner of Such and So’ but he settled into the old mindset well enough, he thought, and since no one seemed distressed that he was hanging about instead of moving he racked it up as a success in the Loitering With Purpose division of sport.

The suspects came out and turned Richard’s direction. Durand sent a quick text to say he was rounding about unless called off. The suspects showed no signs of suspicion. They were walking normally, or at least what Richard assumed was normal for them, with a cold cockiness that went well with their unattractive beards. They saw him well before the corner, and tried to pretend that they either didn’t recognize him or that they didn’t care (they seemed split on that). Durand popped out a door just behind them, apparently having used an antique store as a thoroughfare.

Richard stepped in front of them as they got close. “I am informed by police that they wish to arrest you. They are nearly here. Shall we wait quietly?” he said, loudly enough for the nearest passersby to hear.

The suspects did not want to wait quietly. Richard took one down with a karate kick, and Durand tackled the other, while bystanders scurried away or watched in confused fascination.

“If you’ll be good enough to inform the police where we are, that’s a good chap,” Richard said to the most offended gawker.

Durand, with a discreet wink, let his suspect slip loose and ran after him.

Chapter Nine

Taking Leave

Loren Lamonde watched his family and friends splashing in the large pool and playing volleyball on the immaculate lawn and eating food gathered from overburdened buffet tables, and thought that the farewell party was going rather well. Still, he felt melancholy. Or, if not that, wistful. Yes, perhaps wistful was a better word for it. It wasn’t as demoralizing or embarrassing as thinking of it as melancholy, at least.

The only one in view who didn’t seem to be happy at the moment, besides himself, was Martin, who had recently outdone himself in reckless amusements and so was sporting not only a broken arm but a broken ankle, and so could not get into the pool and swim, or dash over to the volleyball game and join in. For a little boy who did not like to sit still, it was a trial.

Loren smiled, and went to scoop up his son and put him on his shoulders and take him on a tour of the grounds. Probably it would be their last tour. Martin’s grandfather and grandmother, who had raised Loren here, had moved to Paris and were selling this grand, glorious, over-the-top estate in the mountains, not only to save money and to make money, but also to cut ties to their past, Loren suspected. Well, also there was the matter of taxes and all that. Loren didn’t understand so much about that. He lived simply, as an electrician, in a modest way in a modest house that did not annoy the state as much as this place did. His taxes were pretty straightforward, if annoying and sometimes difficult, but as his mother endlessly told him, an extensive property such as this, with domestic servants and multiple types of land use and grand buildings upon it, well, that was a target for people who hated the rich and had enough authority to make life miserable.

Loren didn’t doubt that that was true, but he also didn’t doubt that his mother would have continued to merely sniff at the annoyances if she had not got it into her head that she wished to spend her old age in Paris, which appealed to her worldly nature more than to live out in the provinces.

He switched to a smoothed-out imitation of a horse’s cantor and galloped his son into a garden area with several trees, most of them impressively large. Martin laughed, enjoying the bouncing.

Loren stopped at a tree and said, “Did I ever tell you that this was my favorite tree to climb when I was a boy?”

Martin, forgetting that his father did not have eyes on the top of his head, shook his head. Being an experienced tree climber, though, he decided to weigh in. “It does not look like a good tree for that. It is too straight up beneath branches that are too high up. Did you use a ladder to get started, or what?”

“Oh, well, when I was a boy, it was a smaller tree, and also they hadn’t trimmed the lower branches off. I wish they had left it alone, but my mother was thinking like a nervous variety of female grown-up and thought it would be safer if she took this tree away from my use. She meant well, and you must never blame her for wanting to keep me from possibly killing myself, but after they took this tree away from me, I switched mostly to this one,” he said as he galloped the boy to another tree. “Or, I did, until I found out that this type of tree has branches that break off too easily. Then I switched to this one…” And he galloped the boy to another tree, the both of them laughing.

“Now, for a fort, I used the gazebo, which is gone now, since it went out of style, back in the days when your grandparents were both sensitive to what was in style and what had gone out,” Loren said, trotting to another location. “It was over here somewhere. I am not sure I remember where, exactly, but the view is good from here, and we are away from the party, and I wish to catch my breath before I go back to the party, so let us sit here and enjoy the view, shall we?” he said. He swung Martin down in a playful arc and set him down.

“Will we ever go to Paris to visit Grandfather and Grandmother?” Martin asked.

Loren shrugged. “We might. But it costs money to travel, and takes time. Most likely, if it happens, they will arrange for you children and your mother to go while I stay here and work. Or, more likely, given how small their flat is, probably they will have you children there one or two at a time. Most likely, when we get together they will come to visit us here, and they will stay at Bertin’s hotel along the lake, if they do not want to be crammed into our house with all of us. We haven’t got all that worked out yet.”

Martin nodded, but Loren could see the boy’s mind turning things over, trying to make sense of his world being torn apart like this. He was young. He had never had friends or family move away. Probably he hadn’t imagined it could happen.

Well, no. Many of his friends and acquaintances were from families that were broken, if ever they had been enough together in the first place to have been considered truly families. Even at his age, he would know, at least, that people went their own way quite a lot, even if he hadn’t imagined his own grandparents would do such a thing.

As for himself, Loren had mixed feelings about his parents going away, and about them selling the villa. He had no real complaints about his childhood, or about his parents. They had both been headstrong, and worldly, and ambitious, and so life had sometimes been tumultuous, and often full of shouting, but on the whole it had been full of love, as well as any of them knew how to express it. And there had never been any actual violence, as far as he knew. That put them well ahead of many of their neighbors.

Still, his mother had never approved of Loren becoming a Christian, and now she was coming unglued about her husband having become one late in life. Loren had to smile. Of all the people in the world he would have least expected to become a Christian, it was his hard-driving, dishonest, status-mad father. But, God had His plans, and apparently those plans involved sometimes rescuing men who had trampled over anyone in their way before they had come to their senses. The last few years, as his father had grappled with his newly-tender conscience and his desire to make things right with those he had wronged, had certainly been interesting. Loren was proud of his father, for so gamely making restitution.

He suspected that his mother’s wish to move to Paris was tied in to all that somehow. It was mortifying to her, to have a husband who was prone to apologizing even to gardeners he had let go instead of forgiving, back in the dark days. Likely she liked the very idea of Paris anyway, but her growing obsession with it, Loren suspected, had something to do with the fact that there was no one in Paris who had been neighbors, and few who had been business partners. Paris, in addition to being a cultural magnet, would be a clean slate. Also, it would get her husband away from his circle of Christian friends, not to mention his pastor, all of whom had supported him in his newfound humility and selflessness.

Loren smiled. His friend Bertin, and Bertin’s wife Marie-Bertrade, had lived in Paris, and Bertin had been active in evangelism there, including to Muslims. Already, Bertin had connected Loren’s father to a Christian network that was even more devoted to outreach than the Christians that Loren knew up here in the Vosges. As a former businessman, and a very successful social climber, his father had a background that made him particularly well suited to reaching out to certain types of people who wouldn’t ordinarily deign to talk to lesser mortals. For that matter, living as he was now in a well-to-do area among lost souls who prided themselves on their prosperity, perhaps he was ideally suited for reaching people of that neighborhood. Who knew? God knew.

Perhaps, after all, the move would be good from that angle? Perhaps it would help his father to not have his old self better known than his new? Perhaps he was meant to spread the gospel in the parts of Paris where people liked to pretend that they could get along without God, and seemed to have evidence that they were succeeding at it?

Who knew? It was too much for Loren to ponder on very long. He knew he would miss his father very much, and he knew that he would miss having him around to do grandfather duties with the children, but he also knew that he was at least somewhat glad that his mother was out of the picture now, because when she did grandmother duties she all too often mocked God in front of the children.

It was messy, no question, but there was also nothing he could do about it that he could see – but here he was, host of a party to say farewell to his childhood home, which would soon be going into unknown hands, most likely to be turned into a resort instead of a home, and what sort of host abandoned his guests for a long period?

He stood and neighed and his little son gleefully reached up to be remounted on his shoulders, and they galloped back to the people gathered around the pool.

His wife cast him a glance which asked if he was all right, and he nodded reassurances at her. Tonight, when they were home, he might look into her eyes and weep a little bit, and she wouldn’t ask too many questions, because she knew how to hug a man instead of interrogate him, at least when he was showing signs of being so mixed up that he didn’t really know what he thought or what he felt.

Looking around, he could see that he was not the only one not sure what to do with himself, and no wonder. He had invited everyone from church and also most of his neighbors (all of whom, like himself, lived in modest conditions), and many of them had either not previously met one another, or had met but never mingled. To many of them, too, the idea of a potluck was a novelty, and it seemed to intimidate them, at least a little. Added to that, since some of them were harboring grudges against someone else, but hadn’t found this the sort of party at which one got encouragement for airing grudges, they were milling about, trying to get their heads around the idea of being friendly instead of clever, but perhaps only because that seemed to be the theme of the gathering.

Loren’s wife came over to give him a hug, and also to discreetly point out the admirable job some of the teenagers from church were doing in putting people at ease, and of smashing the stereotypes people had of teenagers.

Loren relaxed. A while back, during a time that he and Regina had been lamenting how their neighborhood had no neighborliness to it, they had met people who were teaching geographical neighbors in America how to be real neighbors, and it had struck them that they might do the same here in France, right where they were planted. For a start, they had invited an elderly neighbor to have lunch with them after church. It had felt odd all around at first, but they had pressed through the awkwardness, and now they had her to dinner every Tuesday. Most Sundays, they had her and someone else to lunch. Slowly, other neighbors, and friends at church, had tried some hospitality. The results had been uneven, but at least people were trying, and at least now there were some connections where before there had been none.

Loren gave Regina a squeeze and a kiss, and headed off to work alongside the teenagers from church, both in hopes of giving them some encouragement, and in hopes that some of their graciousness and cheerfulness would be contagious, because, really, he still felt inexcusably melancholy, saying goodbye to the villa.

Chapter Ten

Changes in Duty

Durand had been somewhat insufferable for a while, feigning remorse that his suspect had somehow outrun him after somehow slipping from his grasp. The feigned remorse seemed to come across as real remorse to the local police, but they forgave him, considering his age and the fact that he didn’t look like an athlete. That they forgave him because of his age and apparent unfitness likely annoyed him no end, but he stuck with his tale of remorse, so Richard kept his mouth clamped and his opinions to himself.

At least, he did so until he could get Durand off by himself and threaten to take him by the shirt collar and give him a good hard shake if he didn’t explain himself.

Durand, of course, found this funny, and for a while, true to form, he chose to not explain himself. It was, and always had been, one of his favorite ways to prove that he was a man possessed of free will, and additionally that he was a grown man and a Frenchman into the bargain, and therefore doubly under no obligation to explain himself to any human being.

But, they had been friends a long time, and so shortly he relented and told Richard that once he was up close grappling with the fellow he had recognized his suspect as an undercover agent with whom he had worked in the past.

“But you must tell no one except Emma. Even your closest friends inside law enforcement must not know, including Isaac, who is still with the FBI, nor Harold, who has had the good sense to quit the FBI,” he said, in a manner that suggested he was serious.

“In other words, your undercover friend has been known to investigate policemen as well as drug dealers and so we must not let whiffs of that fact get loose, lest the whiffs get within smelling distance of certain persons?” Richard guessed.

“Perish the thought that I should suggest that police agencies are ever in need of investigation,” Durand said.

“Not funny,” Richard said.

“Considering how often our troubles came from brigands inside your agency or mine, perhaps you are right. But, of course, I understood that you would understand that I was making my point by denying it. You are good at that. But do not let it go to your head,” Durand said.

Richard decided to withhold comment. “So,” he said, “just so that we are clear. Are you saying that we are now booted off the case?”

“I am saying that, as far as I can see it, I, myself, Leandre Durand, am out of the investigating arm of the case, but will, as long as permitted, help to keep a shepherd’s eye on Carl Sheridan and any other potential witnesses who might need protection from wolves. As for yourself, I cannot make your decisions for you, but with what I know of the man I let loose to continue his job, and those with whom he usually works, it would probably be best if you also switched to guard duty so that we do not complicate their lives, or perhaps shorten them.”

“I hate this.”

“We have always hated to be pulled from a chase, but on the other hand, we have always appreciated it when others got out of our way when we were in a delicate spot.”

“That’s true, but I still hate it.”

“You are not alone. But has that ever stopped us from doing what is right?”

“Not often,” Richard said, not adding that the times when he had let feelings get the best of discipline, the results weren’t generally admirable.

Durand let it drop, so Richard let it drop, and they settled in to live at the former boarding house with Carl Sheridan and all the rest of the people in that cobbled-together approximation of a family. Richard would have rather still been working for the agency, as wretched as the agency had become, and would have especially liked to have been assigned another case to keep his mind and muscles in gear, but considering that as a pensioner he had no such option he gave up daydreaming about it. Besides, Emma was there, also not working on a case, and that opened up just all sorts of opportunities for enjoying her company.

-

The day for their friends’ wedding came, and off they trooped to the ceremonies, Richard, Emma, Durand and the other guests. The bride ran a dude ranch and the groom had originally been one of the ranch employees but was now transitioning to being co-manager, and so they might have held the ceremonies there, up in the mountains, but they had liked the idea of a church wedding, and also most of their friends were very poor and couldn’t afford to drive up into the mountains and back, and so they had opted to have it at Patrick Delarosa’s little church in Boise, since that is where most of their friends went to church, and since that is where they usually went to church on the very rare occasions they made it off the mountain.

This, of course, would have been all quite normal and unremarkable, except that the church met in the chapel of a funeral home. It was a nice chapel, and large enough for the purpose, but it was still hard for Richard to contend with the idea of attending a wedding inside a mortuary. As much as anything, he dreaded the inevitable jokes some people would be making about the supposed appropriateness of it, but there was also just a natural horror of the thing.

On the other hand, he had the advantage of having attended services there, and the advantage of knowing the pastor and many members of the congregation, and they had all been sensible about the pros and cons of meeting in a funeral home, and on top of that he was not going to let Britain down by being either a coward or a ninny about it, so he set his jaw, held his comments, and adopted the proper look and manner for attending a wedding of two circumstances-battered young people of whom he was rather fond.

As he looked around at the other guests, he had to bite back a grin. So many of them came from simply wretched backgrounds, or had survived unspeakable experiences, and yet, here they all were, happily moving forward, separately and together. It seemed like a monument to the human spirit, somehow – especially the bride and groom. Her father was in prison for various things, chief among them being tangled up with organized crime. The groom’s face, meanwhile, still had a faint scar from the day one of his fellow employees had attempted to murder him for being an honest fellow on a ranch run by a man tangled up in organized crime. In its way, it was such a sweet story, all the more so since Richard had been able to help rescue them, in a case that had allowed him to play cowboy, a-horseback and all. Not that he was a great horseman, but it lent a bit of romance to the memories, all the same.

Ahead of him, Rosa Delarosa and her father sat with the Delarosa brood. Shannon turned around and saw Richard and waved and, seemingly encouraged or inspired, asked his mother something. Right after that, he came back and asked if he could sit with Richard and Emma. Two of his siblings, he explained, were intent on tormenting him, obsessed with it really, and it just seemed sensible to sit somewhere else if he could, considering it was a wedding and he didn’t want to cause any distractions, but being only nearly nine he couldn’t just sit anywhere but had to be with somebody.

Richard, feeling grandly grandfatherly, and having gotten a pleading look from an exhausted-looking Rosa, cheerfully accepted the challenge.

Toward the end of the service, Carl Sheridan toppled forward out of his chair. Richard knew death when he saw it, and hopped up to remove the body to the hallway. Durand got there the same time he did, with the same intent, so they gently but efficiently carried the old man out and placed him carefully on the floor. Richard started CPR while Durand comforted Carl’s grandchildren who had followed in their wake. Another man who was a first responder by trade got Richard moved off and took over on the first aid. Richard got Shannon in a hug and watched, not sure what to say to a little boy seeing his beloved grandfather die.

The ambulance got there and after checking Carl went into a huddle with the people who had put themselves in charge, including the first responder, a couple of policemen from the congregation, a surgeon from the congregation, and Patrick Delarosa. Carl was then pronounced dead at the scene, and so wasn’t transported.

Richard, seeing one of the ambulance people having severe difficulties dealing with seeing a woman in a wedding dress at a funeral home, eased the man aside.

“There’s a church that meets regularly at the chapel here. This is a wedding of some of the people in the congregation. Not a funeral, if you were wondering,” he said.

The man wiped his brow. “Sorry,” he said. “I see all sorts of things in my job, but I was having a hard enough time answering a call at a funeral home and when I saw someone in a wedding dress for a funeral, I was afraid I’d lost my mind.”

“Can’t blame you there,” Richard said. “I’ve had to fight off the idea of going insane, just attending the thing, and that’s with the advantage of knowing ahead of time what was going on.”

“I feel sorry for the bride. I hope it doesn’t scar her for life.”

Richard patted the man on the back. “I wouldn’t worry about this particular couple. They’ll be grieved about their friends losing a father and grandfather, but merely having things turn nightmarish during their wedding won’t matter in the long run. Not to those two.”

“I hope you’re right,” the man said, before taking himself back to his duties.

Richard looked around. People were grieved, but they were pulling together, and comforting one another, and taking care of what needed to be taken care of. Most of them knew one another, but even the ones who were strangers to one another were acting as if they were longtime friends. For a calamity, it was going remarkably well.

Rosa gasped and grabbed at her belly.

Patrick, who had been monitoring her out of the corner of his eye, flew to her. The ambulance people offered the ambulance, but it was deemed a usual sort of labor pain and likely early in the process, so Patrick loaded her and his kids into their van and headed to the hospital, leaving it to one of the elders to pronounce the happy couple man and wife.

Durand, having decided that as Carl Sheridan’s watchdog or shepherd he was duty bound to stand guard over the body, was dutifully standing guard over the body while authorities decided what to do next. Richard went to join him.

Chapter Eleven

The Briefing

Durand, having gotten into the spirit of the neighborhood, was sedately rocking in a chair on the porch, while waving and smiling at passersby. A person could have been excused for thinking he was an American of the local variety.

Richard, feeling like a homesick European, was being more reserved, but was still enjoying the weather, the view, and the neighbors.

The two of them were alone, Durand having indicated that he wanted time alone with his old friend. At the moment, though, he was chuckling over the news story he was reading about the arson and murder at Carl Sheridan’s house, or, rather the upcoming trial of numerous gang members accused of one degree of involvement or another.

“It is sweet, is it not, to see what happens when one gang member gets exasperated and starts tossing the others, how do you say?, under the streetcar?”

“I believe the more usual turn of phrase is ‘under the bus.’”

“Ah! You are right. Now I remember. Perhaps somewhere they say ‘under the streetcar,’ but not around here.”

“Possibly. But I get the feeling that you know something the news reporters don’t know.”

“I think it is safe to say that you and I and most people who do not run in the circles of the professional journalists know more than most news reporters, in general. They stunt their ability to know, wandering around in their self-serving little circles and mutually shoving everything they hear into the templates which are in fashion,” Durand said.

“Some of them, yes, undoubtedly, but you know what I mean. You know something about the case that you’ve been holding back.”

Moi?”

“Yes, you. Are you going to tell me or not?”

“I am not going to tell you from where I get my information, any more than I would have used your name back in the old days when someone asked me how I knew something I knew from you, but, yes, all right, I have their permission to tell you and for you to tell Emma if it pleases you to do so, but at this stage of things, before the trial and the convictions, it must not go any further, if you please.”

“Mum’s the word.”

“It is very simple, really. When the gang decided that they needed to kill Kim, it seemed to them genius to make it look like an accidental fire in a senile old man’s house. The ones carrying out the plans did not quite understand how it was supposed to be done, and so they did what seemed natural to them, which was to set it up to look like Kim’s meth lab had exploded. That was not at all what was in the original plan, but there seemed no harm in it. Again, that they set it up inside an innocent old man’s house and that it would look like an accident was all that they wanted. Indeed, if the fire had better consumed the body they might have got away with it, but they did not count on it being so apparent that the unfortunate young man had been strangled first. But, I detour. To get back to the main track, since they wanted it to be clear that all this happened in an innocent and harmless old man’s house – they thought his innocence would rub off, I think – they arranged for him to be out collecting Chinese food for his neighbor when the deed was being done. Again, they thought it was genius. Perhaps it was. I do not always understand these things.”

“I’d argue against it being genius,” Richard said. “At any rate, it was rotten of them, both to murder one of their own and to involve a senile old man.”

“Oh, and I agree, but let us give them some credit. As rotten as it was, they did go to great lengths to spare our poor old friend Carl Sheridan from being burned up. That they did it for their hopes of greater success instead of because they saw his life worth preserving is against them, but at least they were willing to only murder the gang member they no longer trusted instead of whoever happened to be about.”

“All right, I’ll give them that. But why have you been chuckling?”

“Ah, because, as it turns out, there was at the front end a great deal of discussion on whether it was smarter to have our Mr. Sheridan out where he could be safe, or to kill him to get rid of the miniscule chance that he could provide any information to be used against them, that he might have picked up from Kim. The ones who liked the Chinese food take-out scheme won, of course, but only barely. So then, when things began to go bad, and people were getting arrested – Taurus after trying to deliver flowers here, and the other imbecile after he eavesdropped on me at the café of fond memory – and when other things seemed worrisome, like the men who kept driving past the house so that they could look at where Kim died and have a good cry; well, then they were of course trying to cast about for something on which to blame all their setbacks and worries. And, voila. Carl drops dead of natural causes, and the next thing anyone knows, the people who had argued for his murder are coming unglued, thinking – and sometimes screaming – that they have taken grave risks to spare a man who was going to die only a few weeks later of old age. They think it was a bad bargain. They are afraid. And so they begin to throw the men of the Chinese food scheme under the bus, and the Chinese food people return the favor, and in the end, the police have people confessing for other people left and right, and before long they are piecing together what happened, and sorting their files to have them in proper order for a trial. So, in the end, justice will almost certainly be done, and mostly because the brigands are being disloyal and noisy. Is it not worth a good laugh, in a sad way?”

Richard couldn’t quite bring himself to laugh, but it was satisfying, in its way. It was also familiar, since so many of the cases he’d cracked over the years had involved one criminal losing his nerve or turning on his fellows. It happened all the time. It was useful, but not a great advertisement for an innate nobility of man. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Richard still hoped for there to be an innate nobility to man, however deeply hidden or corrupted. He almost said so, but remembered in time that Durand had theories on this, something to do with actually believing what the Bible said about men being made in the image of God.

The two men rocked side by side, saying nothing for a while, both of them lost in thought.

“The good God, he has been good to both of us, beyond what we deserve. Do you not think so?” Durand said.

Richard, feeling one of Durand’s philosophical traps coming on, merely shrugged and waited.

Nothing daunted (he rarely was, when he was in a philosophical mood), Durand plowed forward as if he had gotten a nod. “For me, I could go on and on. I did not deserve as wonderful a wife as Perrine. I did not deserve to have so many children, and all of them Christians. It is a blessing, too, that my daughter married a man of whom I approved, who has proved better than I expected. I am blessed with grandchildren. Behind me, I have a career in which I saved lives and fortified civilization. Ahead of me, I have time, Lord willing, to instruct the young, and also to contribute to civilization through my writing. Did you see, by the way, that the local paper has published my little travel piece?”

He flipped to where his article was displayed, with a byline in his own name, and handed it over for inspection. He had struggled, Richard knew, with whether to use his real name, but in the end had decided that it would not do for a Frenchman to hide behind a pseudonym in a foreign country, at least not for such a matter as this, which had nothing to do with national or international security.

“They did not pay me enough to cover my expenses in research, but since I was being also paid by an online magazine, and since I can write it up on a blog and gain a little money from advertising, it is all the same to me. It was fun, to be published by a foreign paper. It is harmless fun, no?”

Richard nodded, but cautiously, still sensing a trap, all the more so since Durand was trying so hard to be diverting.

Durand shrugged. “Ah, but back to what I was saying. I have the sort of blessings and satisfactions that a man might expect after a lifetime devoted to his family as well as to his country and to the world at large, if the Lord is willing that he should be blessed for his devotion. It is not a sure thing, that, you know. The good God, sometimes He lets us be tested, and sometimes He approves that we are knocked down, for our own good, or for the good of someone else. His ways are not our ways. Which brings me to you, you know…”

Durand rocked a little longer, no doubt enjoying the idea of making Richard guess what he was going to say next.

“Ah, you are not willing to guess out loud, eh, what I am about to say? Have it your way,” Durand said, at last. “But it is true. God has given you more than you deserve. Like me, you have behind you a noble career in which your sacrifices have resulted in earthly justice, in safety for others, in the fortification of civilization. You have been blessed, there. But! Just look at it. For most of your life you were resolutely a bachelor, and yet God sends you not only a wife, but a remarkable one, and one well suited to you. And you were not even looking for a wife! But more than that, despite that you tried to avoid being a father, He has given you honorary children here – just tell me that you do not think of Jake and Amber and the others as your unofficially adopted children, and of Shannon and some of the others as grandchildren. Or, do not, if it is too much for you to say, even to an old friend. Do not get angry with me, though, because I am speaking the truth.”

Richard weighed his options, and decided that walking off would look cowardly, so he stayed put. He tried sending off an outwardly calm British chill that should have stopped Durand in his tracks, since he knew the signals well enough.

Durand rocked some more, looking contented, but also determined. Richard almost sighed. The man was a good friend, his best friend in fact, but sometimes he didn’t know when to shut up.

“Shall we take a little walk? Would that be better?” Durand asked.

Richard, contrary to what he felt, shook his head.

Durand laughed. “My apologies, but we have been friends a long time. I know that shake of the head. It means you would rather be walking than sitting on a porch rocking in a chair, all the more so because I am being annoying, but that you do not want to give me the satisfaction of hearing you say so. It is all right. I am fine with that. And if you do not want for me to dwell on Loren and his family, I will hold off on some of what I want to say, but I must, for my purposes, mention that you do have a son, and further that he has expressed an interest in getting to know you, and that his wife is agreeable, and that his children seem to like you, and that your wife adores them.”

“Where are we going with this?”

“To France, I hope. If you have not heard, Perrine and I and the children are moving from Paris to the Vosges, to be near Marie-Bertrade and her family. Not too near. We will live around the lake from them, nearer to Loren and his family. Paris has been too much overrun with barbarians, and I am tired of cars being torched, and also, well, I want to have the family closer together, at least for now. The new house, it is too small for having three boys at home, but that will not last long. They are growing up so fast. I think we will have another wedding soon. The most likely girl to become my first daughter-in-law, by the way, is a fine young woman, from the same church that Bertin and Marie-Bertrade attend. So I have one son, at least, who is delighted to be moving up there, closer to his girlfriend!”

“You are going to have Father Jules lock you up soon, if you keep marrying off your children to Protestants, aren’t you?” Richard said, in part just to nudge the conversation onto a detour.

“He does not like it, but he is no longer my priest,” Durand said, with a funny twinge in his voice. “And besides, I think he understands what I’m up against.”

“Here, now, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get off into religious matters. It’s none of my business, really,” Richard said.

“I have no priest any more, in case you are wondering but are too polite to ask. We will be going to the same church as our daughter and Bertin and their children. If there had been a good Catholic church in the vicinity, perhaps it would have been different, but, well, there is only one Catholic church and we went once and the priest rolled into the sanctuary on a skateboard. Besides – oh, my friend, so many people in the Catholic church even at the highest levels are talking like universalists, and the Berean in me cannot stand it. I am a Christian ahead of being a Catholic. If there is no way for anyone to be saved from sin except to repent and surrender to Jesus and then stay aligned with Him, it is cruelty and madness not to say so. The new minister, the one at Bertin and Loren’s church, he is solid. Not perfect, of course; but solid. And we will be able to go to church with all three generations together. I do not like that I am no longer Catholic, but I do not see any way around it, given my circumstances.”

Richard mused on how many times since he’d shown up in Boise that Durand had called himself Christian instead of the more usual habit of calling himself Catholic, and kicked himself for having missed such an obvious clue. But he said nothing, and kept rocking. A splendid athlete jogged along the sidewalk, coming toward them, and Richard waved and called out a cheerful, “Hello, Mark!”

Mark, with the air of a famous person who all too often gets hailed by people he doesn’t know, politely but non-committedly waved back. But then he stopped and walked over.

“Sorry. I know you from somewhere?” he asked.

“We have a mutual friend in Steven Jarvis, but you push his wheelchair far better than I do,” Richard said.

Mark laughed. “Love that man,” he said. “I’m on an official run or I’d stop and chat. Have a good afternoon, now, the both of you,” he said, as he bounded off.

“Who is that who I almost met?” Durand said. “Except for being a mutual friend of our mutual friend Steven Jarvis, I mean.”

“An Olympic athlete whose last name escapes me, if I ever knew it. He’s a friend of Isaac and Steven and that whole family, and it really is remarkable, and a bit frightening, to watch him dash Jarvis about, over curbs and in circles in the middle of the street and at breakneck speed on sidewalks, but Jarvis loves it. Sticks his hands in the air and yells his delight when it’s happening. It’s amazing, really.”

“I am glad to hear that our friend Jarvis has such a friend,” Durand said. “He is not a man to be coddled, even in his present state.”

For a while they were both silent again. It was characteristic of their friendship that there were often long spells of silence. Even when they had first met, it had been so. As they got older, it was more and more that they just sat and thought, or sat and thought of nothing at all, when they were together. In this case, neither really wanted to think too closely about Jarvis, who was a living reminder of a case in which they had been up against madmen who had left much destruction and damage in their wake, most noticeably Jarvis, who had suffered permanent brain damage and physical crippling.

“Ah, but, I had better go pack,” Durand said. “I am headed home, to help Perrine with the last of the details of moving. Already we are mostly moved, and she has been happily up in the mountains, with children and grandchildren and clean air and new friends. I had not realized how much of a relief it would be to get my family out of Paris. These few years that we were there, it was enough. I miss the village life. And I like my new village, or I should say, my new region. There are several charming villages there, sometimes too overrun with tourists, but you cannot expect any place to be perfect.”

He stood, but instead of going inside, he went to a porch column and gazed down the street, most likely at nothing, most likely so he wasn’t facing Richard.

“Do you know what I like best about our new home?” he asked, quietly. “It is watching Perrine get to be a grandmother as well as a mother. Truly, there is something deep in her that did not come out until she could play with grandchildren. It has always been a marvel to see her with children, any children at all but especially her own, but to see her now, to be able to hold babies at her age, especially ones about which she can happily exclaim that they look like me in this way or that way, it is a gift, not only to her but to me. It is something like watching Emma here, playing with children, but it is more than that. I do not know how to describe it, only how to watch and marvel at it.”

Without another word, he went inside to pack.

Richard headed out for a long walk by himself.

Chapter Twelve

Surprise Upon Surprise

Richard wondered now at the insanity of his plan, but it was too late to turn back now. Now, he was well and truly committed to traveling through France on a quirky church bus with saints painted on its sides, Father Jules at the wheel, and the Delarosa clan filling the seats. And Emma, of course. Emma was being a champ, and taking everything in stride. For that matter, she seemed to be enjoying herself. Behind them, a far better bus held a retired Premier League player and his wife and their four teenaged sons and two toddler daughters. The sons had been street urchins in Paris once upon a time, and Richard and Durand and Father Jules and Bertin and Emma had helped to rescue them, before handing them over to Antonio and Louisa Barrajas to adopt.

Every once in a while, the party would find a good place to pull over and the children from both groups would play and the adults would visit, and sometimes there would be a picnic, and then they would load everyone up, and head again toward the mountains, where Richard and the cheerful football player were treating everyone to a holiday at the charming hotel run by Durand’s remarkable son-in-law.

Richard and Antonio had offered to provide two splendid travel buses for the journey, but Father Jules was of a mind that the bus for The Little Cathedral of All the Lesser-Known Saints was in need of some highway driving to clear it out of whatever got built up during city driving, and so there it was. It being a quirky bus, it was thought that no one but Father Jules could drive it safely, and so the journey was laid out for him to be able to take proper breaks.

Patrick and the priest had hit it off, which had been a relief to Richard, who had had nightmares over the possibility of there being an unending dispute over points of doctrine. It was clear that the men did not agree on doctrine, but they were being charitable about it, and emphasizing common ground as much as they could. Jules not knowing much English, and Patrick knowing essentially no French, Richard was serving as interpreter for their ongoing chats, as best he could, considering that he didn’t know the French words for Biblical stuff, which kept creeping into their discussions, regardless of what the general subject might be.

Father Jules had arranged to stop overnight at the farm of a cousin of his, and it had at first seemed like an excellent idea, all the more so since Antonio the football player had once been very, very famous, and now was still sometimes stopped by complete strangers. But as they pulled in, Richard cringed. The farm all too closely resembled the one at which the street urchins and their adoptive parents had been caught in an ambush. He wondered if the ex-urchins would notice, or care. Although, he reminded himself, as young as they looked to him, they were more or less young men now. And well-adjusted young men, too, for a marvel. Hooray for the couple who had adopted them.

As they got out of their parked buses, Richard shot Antonio a glance, to see how he was taking it. He shrugged, which Richard took to mean that he’d also had a near flashback or two, but wasn’t going to be scared off or make any mention of it.

“Whoo-hooo, cows!” Conan Barrajas called out. “Remember, Mauger, when we first met cows?”

“Yes, and if it hadn’t have been for me, they would have eaten our hot dogs,” his brother retorted, but all in good fun.

“Oh, do you like to cook things over a campfire, perhaps?” the cousin who owned the place asked, in heavily accented English, as he came up to be introduced.

“And how!” the former urchins exclaimed, suddenly looking five to ten years younger than their real age.

“And us, too!” Shannon Delarosa cried.

“I think I can arrange that,” the cousin said, kindly. He gave his cousin the priest a welcoming hug, allowed himself to be introduced to everyone (all the while assuring everyone that he would have to be reminded of everyone’s name later), and led them to a field which was already set up for a wiener roast or its equivalent. He winked. “Jules said that he missed cooking things over a fire. We used to do it all the time as children, and it is fun, isn’t it? I have an assortment of food that can be cooked this way, from sausages, to bread on a stick, to popcorn, to I guess I don’t know what. My wife set some of this up, and she’s better at cooking strange things over fire than I am.”

His wife, walking up as this was said, wiped her hands on an apron and laughed. “I have not much English, but I think I understood that,” she said. She winked, and the former urchins bowed to her, and told her in French that they were at her service.

She threatened, in French, to swoon if they did not scale back their charm, and then everyone set about helping to get set up for a wonderful evening of sitting around a fire, cooking and eating and visiting in a merry mix of French and English, with translators kept busy so no one felt left out.

As the sun was setting, someone started a hymn, and after that, the European and American groups traded off, singing first a hymn in French, and then one in English, and sometimes there was one sung in both languages at once.

The children were given the option of sleeping in tents instead of in the house, which offer they all took up. Richard and Antonio opted to join them, to keep an eye on things. Their wives decided to go inside with Rosa and the baby. Patrick seesawed, before he got playfully shooed out by the women. Father Jules, recognizing that the women had matters in hand, asked to sleep out under the stars like he had as a boy. After a while, the cousin who owned the farm came out with a sleeping bag, and joined them.

“The women didn’t send me away, but they are having such fun talking about women things, and holding the baby, and I can’t remember the last time I got to go camping with other men, so, if you will have me, here I am!”

He was happily swooped into their group, and people settled in for the night, some in tents and some out in the open. Richard opted to be under the stars, but near enough to a tent that he could hear if there were any cries for help from any of the children inside. Not that he expected any, but there was no reason not to be close enough to help, should help be wanted.

He changed his mind about three in the morning, when both he and the farmer quietly moved away from the group so they wouldn’t be constantly awakened by chatter and laughter.

It didn’t help all that much, at least as far as Richard was concerned. The farmer snored, for one thing. But mostly, for a long time Richard stared at the stars and thought about how the orphaned street urchins had been placed in a good family, and how well they all seemed to turning out; and how he was beginning to dream that he might yet wind up with a family, too, despite every wrong turn and attempt at avoidance he’d pulled in his life.

-

Partly out of a wish to be annoying, and partly out of a wish to give his old friend a nice surprise, and partly out of a fear that after all he was being childish by visiting in a large group, Richard had only told Durand when he and Emma were expecting to show up at his son-in-law’s hotel for a holiday.

Durand, perhaps out of a wish to impress his old friend with how many old friends he already had living in the splendid area around the lovely lake, was waiting for them with his wife and sons and the girlfriend of the oldest son. Or, perhaps, he too was nervous about having his emotions show too much, now that he had expressed hopes that his old friend would want to move close by during his retirement. Richard rather liked the latter explanation, the notion of Durand being no braver than himself being a cheering one under the circumstances.

When the two mismatched buses showed up at the hotel, and the Delarosas and Father Jules and the Barrajas family tumbled enthusiastically out, Durand was overcome.

“Oh! Oh! Jules, how good to see you. And Barrajas? Is that you? Are these our boys from Paris, nearly grown up!? And not skin and bones anymore! And is this your wife? Oh, madame, I must thank you for your bravery to take on all the boys at once. I have held you all in my prayers all these years. How wonderful to see how well you all look! And you have daughters now, too, for me to see for the first time! How much they look like their sainted mother! And Patrick, you are here, too! And all the other Delarosas! Oh! Perrine, children, I must introduce you, but I hardly know where to start!”

During all of this he was going around and hugging people and kissing men on the cheek and tears were streaming down his face. Richard, afraid he was about to catch the tears (though not the hugging, there really wasn’t any chance of that), stepped forward and introduced everyone in something like a proper order, in a mix of French and English, depending upon the particular people being introduced.

Durand took advantage of the diversion to whisper in Perrine’s ear, and she nodded. He quickly placed a phone call, before resuming his hearty hugs and launching into inquiries after everyone’s health.

As soon as everyone was properly introduced, he invited everyone to go with him partway around the lake. Just for a little while, he said; he would not keep them long. And only if it were no trouble. And if it was permitted, would they allow him to not elaborate just yet? Oh, but first, surely the luggage should be taken inside, and people should get their keys to their rooms, and such, so that everything was done in order?

The luggage was transferred, the keys were acquired, and then, in a fit of nostalgia for several of those present, everyone was loaded onto the quirky church bus, and Durand planted himself on the seat just behind the driver so that he could give Jules directions. A few minutes later – to both Richard and Durand it would have been considered a reasonable walking distance if they hadn’t had an infant and the infant’s mother and toddlers in the group – they pulled into the parking lot of a building that had probably served as something else at first, but was now a church. There were several cars there. Richard braced himself, afraid of who might have been invited to welcome him to the area, and wondering how much they had been coached to sell him upon the desirability of moving there.

Durand stood and addressed his captive audience. “And now, allow our little church to welcome you to our little lake community by providing to you a little Welcome Lunch. I did not know that so many of you were coming, so perhaps we will have to be careful about our portions, but we are delighted to have you all, and please, please, come inside. I would apologize for springing this on you before you have had a chance to recover from the travails of travel, but as it happens, looking into the foreseeable future this was the only time that certain families could make it, and so, well, you must excuse us. And, please, now, let us go in.”

As they were still disembarking the bus, Bertin Nason and his family showed up in a van, out of which came the entire immediate family, and packed food, likely hastily gathered from the hotel kitchen.

“I suppose you held them up with a speech,” Bertin teased, speaking to Durand, his father-in-law. “If I had taken that into account, I could have waited just a tiny bit longer and then snuck this into the kitchen by the back door without them knowing. But, no matter. I will try again another time to do my good deeds without anyone seeing me at it!” He laughed, and accepted help carrying the food in.

Other cars drove in, and people came out of them with more food. Also, there were a few people on foot who snuck into the building by a back door, carrying heavy-looking dishes or bags stuffed with long loaves of bread. It seemed a good guess that Durand’s earlier discreet phone call had been to warn his local friends that the guest list had grown. Likely there had been madness in several kitchens as people had tossed together what they could on short notice.

Once inside, it was apparent that none of the new provisions were needed, because the local cooks had already outdone themselves.

“We are new to the idea of potlucks here, so we have yet to learn how to provide the proper amount,” Durand told Richard and Emma with an embarrassed shrug.

Emma laughed. “I’ve been to churches that have done potlucks for generations, that have yet to be able to control how much food comes. But better too much than too little, I think is the general rule of thumb.”

Durand smiled. “I think we are safe there, no?”

The visitors and the church group were soon happily jumbled up in cheerful gaggles of people getting acquainted, some while in a line for the buffet tables, others while seated at tables whether they had their food yet or not, while others got stuck standing around in no place in particular, doing nothing in particular except exchanging pleasantries and names.

People who knew both French and English were busy translating in this group and that one, while other people navigated to chats done all in one language or the other. But, then off people would go, to be drawn to another circle. It was interesting to watch, and even more interesting to get caught up in it.

Richard, however, was discreetly but nervously scanning the crowd, looking for people who might, one way or another, place him in an embarrassing situation. So far, all he saw, besides the Durands and Nasons and his own extended party, were complete strangers or mere acquaintances. Over there was a baker whose shop he had frequented on an earlier visit. There was a florist he also knew only by sight. That person over there worked as a maid at the hotel, he thought, although she might only be a relative of the maid. There was an old man he’d often seen sitting outside playing chess with another old man; Richard felt his guard going up a little, since he’d known of agents to sit outside playing chess as a cover. There wasn’t any hint of this man ever having been an agent, but it was hard to let go of the old wariness, especially since he was uncomfortable anyway.

Another group came rolling in the door – Loren and his wife and their children, carrying in more food. How much Loren looked like a Hugh, even to the way he walked and how he smiled. His children also had a family resemblance. It was unnerving. For a moment Richard wondered, insanely, how anyone in the room couldn’t be stunned by the resemblance, just like he was.

Loren, true to form, smiled and walked over, hand outstretched, as relaxed and welcoming as a man could be, as if there had never been distance and mystery between them.

“I am glad to see that you made it safely. I have an emergency to tend to – an electrician’s life can be shockingly full of emergencies at inconvenient times, if you’ll excuse the trade humor. Anyway, Regina and the children will stay, and I hope to make it back before everyone leaves, but in any case I hope we will be seeing much of you when you are here. Welcome to our little church. It is full of messy people, as you may find out, but on the whole we are a friendly and forgiving sort of messy. Ah, but I must go. It is no joke for a nursing home to be without power. You will excuse me?” With that, Loren was off, leaving his wife and the Hugh-ish youngsters standing there, smiling uneasily at Richard, not as sure of this Lost and Found Grandfather as their husband and father was.

“Tell us again about the horse that hops over logs instead of walking over them,” one of the children said, in French.

“Yes! Yes! Tally-Ho! Tally-Ho!” another said, tossing in some jerking jumps to illustrate the conversation.

Their mother shrugged. “It is what they remember from the day we met you. To them, you are mostly the friend of the Bercots who rode a wild horse in America while you were saving kidnapped children. They love that story, although I think you will find that they have embellished it almost out of recognition. They have had much fun, playing at riding to the rescue, but on a bucking horse.”

“Did I hear my name?” a man said, walking into the conversation. “My good friend, how good to see you again,” Charles Bercot said, shaking Richard’s hand. “My wife is off visiting relatives, but she will be back in a few days. In the meantime, how could I pass up both a chance to meet you again, and also a chance to eat someone else’s cooking? Eh? Speaking of which, why don’t we all go join in the line. It is reduced enough now to be reasonable to join it, I think.”

Richard helped his acquaintance herd everyone over.

-

An hour or so later, after a group sitting across from Richard got up to go visit elsewhere, Antonio gleefully snaked his way past other people and plunked himself happily down across from him. He grinned. “I am seriously thinking of buying a chalet somewhere nearby, and using this for a place to go into retirement when my fame gets too bothersome,” he said. “Really. It is wonderful. I do not know which I find more wonderful, that many people here have no apparent interest in football and so aren’t fans, or that the fans are able to deal with me being in the room without acting like fans. Truly, if you do not need to become famous, I would advise against it, because usually it is impossible to go out in public without hazards. And it is generally impossible to hold a private conversation except behind closed doors, too.”

“I hadn’t any intention of trying to become famous, but I appreciate the first-hand advice,” Richard said.

People on either side of Richard and Antonio took their cues and wandered off to visit elsewhere, so the poor, beleaguered sports star could hold a private conversation without having to go find some doors to close.

“Ah, you see! I love these people!” Antonio said. He cast his eyes partway across the room, where his wife and Emma and Rosa Delarosa and Loren’s wife Regina were rocking fussy babies and toddlers to sleep while quietly laughing with one another. “And my wife is happy, too. It is sometimes harder to be the wife of a famous man than to be a famous man, I think. It is hard to find real friends, and harder yet to be able to gather with them in a normal setting and just be friends and mothers and grandmothers. That is another reason I think I might move here, or buy a holiday home, at least. Look at her, my Louisa! She looks like she has landed among long lost friends. Oh, well. I will have to see. I do not know enough about this place yet, and we have no ties here. Probably we will move back to Spain and burrow in for the long haul. The boys, they are not as good at Spanish as at French or English, but they manage, and in Spain I have untold numbers of aunts and uncles and cousins to give them. We will see. Oh, oh. Vincent looks in need of rescue, or at least a little help, or perhaps a scolding. I must go see. Excuse me, please.”

Richard nodded his farewells, but kept his focus on Emma, who was stroking the face of his youngest grandchild, soaking in its appearance.

He slipped out of the crowded hall to take a short walk.

From habit as much as anything, he adopted the manner of a bland man who isn’t much worth noticing, and sauntered up the hill, away from the hotel. Although at first he’d thought merely to get a little fresh air and some walking in, after a while he realized he was within striking distance of the villa. To go there would mean he’d be gone longer than he’d intended, but if it turned out that he’d be taking too long he could call Emma or she could call him. Or, he could text her, and hold off giving her clues to his indecision. For the moment, though, it seemed to best serve to just stroll, one tourist among many, along what was rather a nice road after all, with pleasant views of hills and a lake; although with a vague idea that he might try to clear up a few things by going to the villa.

A van coming down the road slowed to a stop and the driver rolled down his window. It was Loren. “Hello, is the party over, or are you like me and sneak out to get a breath of air now and then when you can?” he asked.

“A few people have left, but most everyone’s still there. I was just getting a walk in. Been on the bus too much. Need to stretch the legs a bit,” Richard said.

Loren bit back a smile, but the corner of his mouth got away from him anyway. It reminded Richard of his grandfather, the one who didn’t miss much.

“Did they tell you yet that Dad and Mum have moved to Paris, and that the villa is for sale? I hope you are not thinking of buying it. I have fond memories from there, but it has serious faults in the foundation and the plumbing needs redone and the taxes are insane, and besides, it would probably make Dad feel funny, having you take over the place. I am not saying that you can’t buy it, because of course that isn’t my business, but I hope that you won’t. Oops. The traffic behind me is impatient. Do you want a ride back to the party?”

Richard shook his head, and Loren drove off, the head of a little backed-up train of vehicles.

Chapter Thirteen

Rocking Boats

Richard hadn’t quite decided which he liked better, rowboats or canoes. On the whole, rowboats, he thought. They seemed to fit better with stories out of his childhood, somehow, although he had a vague idea that in his favorite books the rowboats had been used for smuggling, and that the proper way to row them involved some sort of silencing agent on the oars. What that might be, he couldn’t remember, and was having trouble even guessing. There wasn’t much reason to remember, though, since he hadn’t any intention of trying anything odd here, even by way of experimenting. Here, there were eyes everywhere, and cameras in every direction.

On the other hand, from here he could see his modest house, with what looked like Emma sitting on the deck, probably with a child in her lap. The house was too far away to tell without binoculars, and he didn’t want to get caught aiming binoculars at residences.

Durand laughed.

Richard managed to not jump, but it was a near go. He’d nearly forgotten that his old friend was in the boat with him.

“I am sorry to have startled you, mon vieux, but I could not help it. Over there, on the board with the sail on it – I forget what they call such things – is your neighbor the banker, who is twenty years too old for such sports, or at least has spent a decade too long with no exercise, and he is so obviously trying to impress the women on the yacht, and is instead convincing them that he is an idiot. Do me a favor, will you, and if you ever see me acting like that, rescue me from myself, by rowing into me if necessary.”

“I’m not sure I could row fast enough for that.”

“Ah, but there are the matters of calculating, of rowing toward where the board would go, and you are good at calculating, if you are good at nothing else. But, of course, since I know you well enough, to see you rowing as if to collide with me, it would give me a hint before we even got close, which would be enough.”

“If you say so, old sport.”

“At least it would make me stop and think, which should be enough.”

The banker fell over in a messy crash. The women lost interest and went to the far side of the yacht. The man seemed to be having trouble getting recovered. After giving him a fair chance to get going again by himself, Richard and Durand rowed over to give him a hand.

“It’s not just that I can’t get the rotten thing back upright, I’ve pulled muscles,” he admitted.

“Oh, well, it can happen to anyone. Trade places with me. Our friend Richard can row you to shore, and I can take the board in for you,” Durand said, as he happily plopped into the water to seal the deal.

The transfer was made, and Durand whipped the sail upright, and shot away, looking like he’d lived on water all his life.

“Bit of a show-off, isn’t he?” the banker said.

“I think he’s just issuing me a challenge, which I’m planning to ignore, finding rowboats more to my liking. Great exercise machines, rowboats. They work both sides of the body nearly equally, too. But, here, let’s get to shore. I’m ready for dinner,” Richard said.

He got the banker delivered to shore, and the rowboat properly delivered to the man who rented them out for a living, and headed home. Durand, having beat him to shore, had headed up the hill already, walking slowly to let him catch up. Richard noticed that Durand was hiding a limp, but whether it was from fresh injuries or old ones, he wouldn’t have wanted to guess, and he decided to not ask. If the man didn’t want anyone to think of him as limping, there was no reason to bring up the subject.

Before long, they came to the house that Antonio had bought, quite near the lake, in which he had planted an aunt and uncle as caretakers. Antonio and his family were just finishing a holiday stay and were getting ready to head back to Spain, and so the children were out front, running around to get the wiggles out before being stashed into a van. The boys, while appearing to be playing roughly, were in fact being quite careful with their sisters, and Richard wouldn’t have given much in the way of odds to an outsider should anyone try to mess with any of them, but especially if there was any chance of danger to the little girls. Having good parents had been good for the boys, but having little sisters had, in its way, been better, since they were the sort of boys who needed someone to watch out for.

They all traded pleasantries, and Antonio and Louisa stepped out to say goodbye, and the aunt and uncle wished them a good day, and, smiling more broadly than when they’d shown up, the two old friends went on.

Richard hadn’t wanted to go for a house very near the lake, both because the prices were out of proportion and because it meant tourists at your doorstep day and night. But he hadn’t wanted to go any farther from the lake than seemed prudent, and so he and Emma had settled on a small place in what the realtor had dubbed ‘the second ring’ from the lake. In fact, it wasn’t more than a quarter mile or so from Antonio’s, but it was older, and in a neighborhood that wasn’t considered as fashionable.

Loren and Durand both lived farther out on roads that went off at angles from this one, out in areas where tourists had to be lost or overly curious to locate. Still, they lived close enough to walk to and from, if a man wanted; and Durand, at least for now, was pleased to prove that he could walk down to the lake, boat around, and walk back all the way to his house without stopping to rest, and without his tongue hanging out. In the earliest days, he had tried to learn to jog so that he could shorten the commute time, but had at last decided that that was unreasonable for a man of his age and standing and experience and dignity to jog up and down hills. Besides, the general pace of the place was to walk, not jog.

When they got to Richard’s, Durand shook his head and waved off any idea of stopping to visit, claiming that Perrine would be expecting him for dinner.

“Oh, speaking of that, Emma’s got something she wanted delivered to Perrine. Let me grab it while I’m thinking about it, and give you a lift,” Richard said.

“Obviously I have not been hiding my limp as well as I would like, and I thank you for your concern, but the walk will not hurt me. Thank you anyway,” Durand said.

“There might have been some of that, but I think I do remember Emma wanting something delivered, although I can’t remember what,” Richard said.

“I am tempted to believe you. But if it is something which I can carry, I will carry it,” Durand said.

“Actually, we just need someone to return your son’s motor scooter,” Emma said from the front door, a cooing baby on her hip. “He parked it here the other day, when he was on his way to the lake and didn’t want to park it down where it’s crazy and congested. And then he forgot to get it on his way home.”

Durand rolled his eyes. “He is in love. What can I say? His mind, it is the other side of the moon half of the time.”

“Here’s the key,” Emma said.

Durand dutifully took the key and retrieved the scooter, and putted off toward home.

“Good timing,” Richard said.

“How’s that,” Emma said.

“He tried showing off on one of those boards with sails, and has been trying to hide injuries ever since.”

“Speaking of which, is your arm all right?”

“Which one?”

“The one you were holding funny, until I asked,” Emma said. “Oh, never mind. I’m sorry I asked. If I can get you muscle cream or something, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll drop it.”

“Inside, woman. I need to smother you in a kiss,” Richard said.

Emma, laughing, danced inside, and Richard followed her in. He eyed the cooing baby, decided it was too young to be distressed or scarred by people kissing in its presence, and planted a long, tender kiss on his wife’s lips.

There was a knock on the door.

“Rotten timing,” Richard groused.

“It’s probably Regina, coming for the baby,” Emma said.

Richard popped to the door and looked through the peephole. It was Regina, come for her baby. He opened the door and waved her in.

“I’ve got the others out there, so if I could just grab the baby and go, that would be great. I’d love to visit, but just now it’s not such a good time,” she said.

“Come anytime,” Richard said, handing over the child and waving goodbye at the two of them, and returning the waves of the children who had been ordered to stay in the van.

He closed the door, and turned back to Emma. “Now, where were we?” he said, purring as he moved in on her.

“We were kissing, but dinner’s almost ready and I need to make sure I’m not about to burn anything, and Marie-Bertrade will be here any moment to pick up a dinner to take to Mme Boulard for me, so hold that thought,” Emma said.

Richard, no more wanting to start kissing again and have to break off than Emma was, wandered over to his computer to check mail and news and surf around, following whatever rabbit trails looked most interesting.

There were a couple of business matters to attend to right off, including a covert one to help an old friend who was still in the spy business. It wasn’t as exciting as chasing bad guys in person, and it mostly involved explaining an arcane bit of financial regulatory madness, but he could see that helping the poor non-expert understand how the system was set up might help catch some crooks, so it was satisfying in its way.

He was still working on that when Marie-Bertrade came to pick up the meal to take to the woman from church who was homebound for now. She had planned to make the meal herself but had run into difficulties – her older children had decided to paint nearly everything within their reach with flour and water as he understood it – and so Emma had stepped in to help. Emma had offered to deliver the meal herself, but Marie-Bertrade had explained that she needed the errand rather badly, as a break in dealing with the flour and water and other unauthorized actions by her usually-well-behaved brood. And so they had teamed up, which seemed to please the both of them, since they so much enjoyed working on projects together.

Emma handed the food over and saw her young friend on her way, then announced that dinner would be ready in about fifteen minutes. Richard, nodding absently, went back to his work. When that was wrapped up, he checked an investment portfolio, and was shocked.

Afraid of losing the page if he tried anything like minimizing the page or opening multiple windows, he grabbed a pen and paper and quickly made notes and calculations. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his wife eyeing him, but it didn’t seem the sort of occasion that allowed for delay or divided attention, so he redoubled his focus. His calculations done, he braced himself, moved the cursor, and clicked. Then he stared at the screen some more.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Emma bite back a smile and return to setting food on the table. He decided to ignore her until he saw what the results were going to be.

A few seconds later the transaction was confirmed and tallied. He whistled low and turned to his wife. “I’m still waiting for final confirmations and tallies, but my preliminary estimation is that we’ve just become roughly a half million dollars richer. American money. After taxes,” he said.

“Any idea how you want to spend it?” Emma asked, suitably calm about it.

“No. You?”

“Not other than what we usually do, I guess,” she said. She turned back to her work and he joined her at the table.

“There was no hint that it would spike like this,” he said. “None. I’m not ready for this.”

“We’ll manage somehow, I’m sure,” Emma said.

He seated her, and sat across from her, where they could gaze happily into each other’s eyes. A wonderful thing about Emma was that she gazed happily into his eyes even without windfalls, and even on bad days.

“Yes, of course we’ll manage. But pardon me if I’m temporarily flummoxed. I don’t mind being rich, but filthy rich annoys me. I need to figure out how to spend some of it,” Richard said.

“Something will come up. It always does,” Emma said.

Richard smiled. That was true. Life was crazy, and someone always needed help. Always. You just had to keep your eyes and ears open.

“This smells wonderful,” he said, dishing food onto his plate, while sending Emma a look that assured her that he was hoping to have her kisses for dessert.

She sent him a look that assured him that she would be happy to oblige.

Retirement still grated on Richard’s nerves, but he decided it had its upsides, at least as long as he had Emma alongside him.

His phone rang. It was Loren. “I hate to bother you,” he said. “And we think Martin will be all right, so I don’t want to scare you unduly, but he has fallen off the roof and we need to take him to be checked out, and we were wondering if we might drop the others off with you for the time being? Just while we sort things out?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Richard said, assuming (correctly) that Emma would approve.

“We will be right there. Goodbye,” Loren said, with the practiced efficiency of a father of a child who loves to climb but is rather bad at it.

Richard rang off. “Martin’s fallen off the roof again. They think he’ll be all right, but of course it will be easier for them not to have a pack of children at hospital, so I’ve agreed to have them drop the others off en route,” he reported.

“We might as well have them eat with us, or at least sit at the table with us,” Emma said, rising to get plates and silverware and cups and additional food.

Richard went to find booster seats and to haul the high chair to the table. He shook his head. In his wildest dreams as a young man, he had never envisioned being the sort of man who hauled a high chair to a table, while looking forward to seeing the child who would sit in it.

Preparations made, he walked out to the street to stand ready to herd children in, so that Loren wouldn’t have to waste time doing that. Besides, he badly wanted to see Martin for himself, if it fell out that he could do so without being overly intrusive. Not that he didn’t trust Loren and Regina to handle the situation well, but Martin had wormed his way into Richard’s heart even more than the others (although, of course, he would never say so, his considered opinion being that grandparents who even hinted at having favorites ought to be banned from the service).

Martin having prompted many trips to emergency care, his siblings, at least the ones old enough to be rational, were practiced in following emergency orders to move, sit, or go with someone else, while their parents focused their care on an injured Martin. When they arrived, they piled out of the vehicle and watched with calm assurance while their mother handed over the baby and the big bag of baby supplies to Richard and then dove back into the car.

“I’m all right,” Martin claimed, in a pain-thinned but brave voice, from where he was sitting.

“I’m glad,” Richard said. “But sometimes we have to let people patch us up, or at least check us out. I’ll see you later. Love you.”

“I love you too, Grand-père,” Martin said, waving goodbye as his father drove him off.

Richard hadn’t quite meant to say ‘I love you’ right out loud, and he wasn’t yet used to being called Grandpa, in whatever language, but he rallied and guided his present share of the family flock inside, where they were swooped into hugs by their grandmother. Emma a grandmother – who would have guessed it possible? She had fallen so naturally into the role it was almost jarring, but there was no time to dwell on that. Not now. Not with several sets of eyes riveted on him, asking what they should do next.

“Let’s sit down and eat,” he declared.

“Good!” children exclaimed, explaining that Martin had not had the good courtesy to wait until after dinner to fall off the roof.

Everyone was duly seated, in boosters and a high chair, and the older children bowed their heads to pray, and Richard, marveling at the man he was becoming, led them in a prayer of thanks for the food, for the people gathered, and for those who were en route to the hospital. And then they all dug in, the children chattering about this and that and nothing at all, as children sometimes do when they are happy and excited.

Chapter Fourteen

The Surrender

Richard stared at the phone in his hand, trying to will himself to call someone for help. He had been doing this off and on for several minutes.

It wasn’t precisely that he hated calling anyone for help. Unlike some men he knew, he had learnt, grudgingly, that there were times back-up was valuable, and times that counsel was invaluable. Still, in the present instance, past lessons on the advisability of asking for help were failing him. However, so was his courage, and he knew that at the other end of a phone signal he always had Durand on standby, a real friend who generally had courage to spare and who would be good at this, and Emma, who would be good at this, and, for that matter, Loren or Bertin Nason or Antonio Barrajas or the surprisingly steadfast pastor who lived a few doors down, all of whom would likely drop whatever they were doing, and try to help, each in his own particular way.

He stuck the phone back in his pocket, and paced the locked and darkened building, restless and somewhat miserable, if that was the right word for it, inspecting curtains to make sure all of them were drawn shut.

He called himself twenty types of coward and fool and idiot for being scared. He, of all people, shouldn’t be scared of something like this. He’d spent a lifetime as an undercover agent, for pity’s sake. He had faced down bullets and bombs and been in collapsing buildings and been run off the road and had had to have his face reconstructed after it had gotten well and truly bashed, courtesy of a madman with a grudge. He had operated under various names, utilizing various personas, in countries too numerous to mention, many of which were so foreign that it made a man’s head spin. When the situation had called for it, he had severed personal relationships, choosing duty over convenience or feelings. Of all the men on the planet, by now he was uncommonly well practiced on giving up his sense of self and just going where he was called to go, even in the face of death. How many near-suicide missions had he gone on, anyway? And most of those were ones for which he’d volunteered. So why was his courage failing him now?

He sat down to read for a while, but that only focused his mind, which deepened the agitation.

He wasn’t sure whether to be more unhappy that Emma was off on a trip with some of her women friends, or more relieved that she was gone and couldn’t see him kicking against the harness like this, hesitating to do his duty, and all in large part because he wasn’t sure he was willing to die.

His mind nudged him, telling him that there was a difference between being willing to die, and being ready to die. His mind, sensitive these days to the teachings of the gospel, suggested to him that he had spent most of his life willing to die for a good cause or to protect the life of another human being, but that he had never truly been ready to die. Or, if you wanted to put it another way, he had never been properly positioned to die well, in the sense of what would happen afterward. As far as eternity went, he’d tried to dodge all that. Like most of his family and many of his friends, he’d tried to think of that as little as possible, while at the same time assuming it would all work out all right somehow, especially if he was relatively civilized compared to other people. By that standard, he was well set. He’d even sacrificed a great deal for other people. Surely that counted for something?

His mind nudged him again, telling him that it did and it didn’t. It mattered, yes, that he’d saved this innocent person here and that innocent and defenseless person there. It mattered, immensely, that he’d saved Loren’s life when Loren had been in the womb and his mother had wanted an abortion but was willing to be bought off to not get one. Richard’s stomach lurched. He’d faced many messy situations in his ladies’ man days, but that had been the most agonizing. As far as he knew, the precautions had worked in other cases. Well, except one other, when the woman in the equation had flung the fact of an abortion in his face later, when it was too late to do anything but detest her, and himself into the bargain. But with Loren, he’d been able to talk the woman out of killing their son and had been able to provide financial support after that. Financial support, however, was all she would accept from him, and after a while she had slipped away to chase other men more to her present fancy, and he had lost track of them, a bit to his relief.

Emma, when she’d found out, had dealt with it calmly, but had more or less insisted they track the pair of them down to make sure they were all right. And since he felt he ought to, off they’d headed to see if there were any trails to follow. Durand, when enlisted, had dug even more effectively, and had found them, the woman well married now, and the boy now grown, now a husband and a father, and, as it had turned out (to Durand’s insufferable glee), he was a neighbor and friend of Durand’s remarkable son-in-law Bertin Nason.

Durand, being of a philosophical bent, had mused long and hard on the apparent hand of God in getting everyone all together at last. He had liked to think that there had been some light-handed but effective shepherding going on, but he was equally pleased to think of everyone’s free will and the natural smallness of the world inhabited by Europeans and Brits having been enough – while God watched, standing ready to intervene if the silly, puny, half-blind, well-meaning but stumbling humans didn’t pull it off using the talents and time He had granted to them. Richard wasn’t prepared to wrestle too much with all that. It was hard enough adjusting to the outcome; the wonderful but frightening and humbling status of being a father – shocking enough, that – and a grandfather, as well. Durand had assured him that it helped to have spent one’s lifetime being taught that theories about children were not as useful in real life as a man might reasonably hope. But he had also reassured him that much of it was simply a matter of bungling along, and for that a man could start at any age.

And, strangely enough, that seemed to be true.

Richard suddenly remembered that Durand, and Emma, and the surprisingly steadfast pastor, and Loren, had all of them at least hinted at one time or another that life as a converted Christian was at least something like that, but with extra help available.

Richard pulled out his phone and stared at it again. He put it back into his pocket, and went to dig out a phone he’d bought specifically as a disposable phone with a disposable number. He stared at that for a while. Finally, hating that he was calling strangers anonymously, he called a number he’d gotten off a billboard. For a while, he spoke incoherently about his fears, but after a while he started making sense, and so did the counselor. Thank God, he’d landed a stranger who didn’t laugh at him for counting the cost of what he was pretty sure he was about to do, or for finding it doubtful he could bear up. The counselor, in fact, assured him that it was healthy to count the costs first instead of later, but that the costs shouldn’t get in the way of doing what was right and necessary. Richard rather liked the fellow after that, and they talked, and talked. By the time he rang off, Richard was relieved to know that he suffered from a very common problem which could be destroyed by tried and true methods. It might not be easy, and it definitely required swallowing his pride and taking a leap of faith, and after that it could be hard work, but at least it was do-able. With help. With God’s help.

Richard, after a lifetime of pretending he didn’t need to do it, finally got on his knees, and with God’s help handed over his whole old self, telling God to kill whatever needed to be killed, while begging to be made into something new and better, and acceptable to God.

Chapter Fifteen

Going Forward

Durand had developed a fondness for kayaks. It was more of an obsession really. Richard didn’t mind too much, because now that he was getting accustomed to the things, and now that all the proper muscles were tuned up and strong, he was finding kayaks to be rather on the fun side, especially as compared to rowboats. He still liked rowboats, but a top-flight kayak allowed a man to maneuver in an agile manner, and also to skim over the water at a remarkable rate of speed, at least once a man mastered the use of the oars.

This is not to mention that slicing paddles into the water on both sides of the boat in a rotary-beater fashion, throwing a goodly amount of sheer, manly muscle into the endeavor, was every bit of fun as any game he’d ever played as a boy. As a boy, he likely would have been yelling “Charge!” as he did it, but as a grown man he kept his cheers on the inside. Still, it was fun, the more so since by now he was learning to distinguish between adequate kayaking and excellent kayaking, and had graduated from the former without yet having achieved the latter.

“I’m cold,” one of the many children in the vicinity complained. “Me, too,” another said.

This was followed by a chorus of people of all ages deciding it was time to call it quits as far as boating went; but as the grown-ups from the church gathering began to organize a retreat to the docks, Durand challenged Richard to stay out with him, just for a while, perhaps for a race.

“We’ve got the kids. You guys go ahead,” Emma said.

Loren agreed, and so did his wife Regina, and the others, so Richard sat in the swishy low waves in his very fine personal kayak, next to Durand in his battered rented one, and the two old friends watched the motley flotilla of rowboats, canoes, paddle boats, and a raft, make its way to shore.

“If you decide to get philosophical on me, I reserve the right to soundly beat you to the shore and walk up the hill with my fingers in my ears,” Richard said.

Durand laughed. “I almost think you would do it, mon vieux. But what makes you think I am about to be philosophical?”

“Your face. Your body language. The fact that you sent the others off, and also that as she headed off Emma glanced a warning glance at me, begging me to not be too hard on you. Shall I go on?”

“I thought she was sending you signals. It is hard to tell sometimes. That is the downside of having old spies as friends, I guess. When you want to be unreadable, you are unreadable.”

“I’m getting rusty on it, and so are you, and so is Emma, if you haven’t noticed,” Richard said.

“Oh, but when we thought it would matter, I am sure we could knock off the rust, at least to some extent, if we could do so without violating our consciences.”

“Are we going somewhere with this conversation?”

“I hope so. Well, to be clear, I am going somewhere soon, Lord willing, and I am looking for enlistments, and I think that you might do, if you are interested. But first, if you please, will you do me a favor? Oh, do not look so wary. It is just this. I am not yet good at rotating the kayak – going under the water and coming up again. I would like to practice, but I am afraid of drowning myself needlessly. So, if you will just be ready to haul me up to the air if I fail, here I go.” Without waiting for a reply, he leaned the boat over, disappeared under the water, and fought his way up again on the other side, sputtering and awkward, but successful. “I am beginning to think I am too old to do this well,” he complained.

“Or else all the old injuries have added up some. It certainly isn’t from lack of training, which I’ve noticed you’ve been diligent about as of late,” Richard said. “You haven’t been reinstated to your old agency and haven’t told me yet?”

Durand shook his head, sending sprays of water out to the sides as he did so. He laughed and ran a hand over his head to wipe off what was left of the wet. “One of the advantages of being nearly bald is that I can dry off faster on the head than someone such as yourself. I am not sure what practical difference it would make, but it has just occurred to me, and it makes me almost glad to be bald, at least on such a day as today.”

“Durand, old sport, are you stalling for any particular reason?”

“It is so obvious, mon vieux?”

“It is to me. What’s up?”

“You might as well know that you are right. I have a friend, perhaps two or three friends, who need help and were hoping to come out to visit with us. In the meantime, I suppose we could race if it is too much for you to rest, but, for a few minutes more, unless I get called off, I intend to wait for them.”

“You do not want to name these friends?”

“Except for one of them, I do not know their names. It would be more accurate to call them friends of friends, I suppose, if we wish to get technical. Or brothers. We could call them that. Oh, there is a boat bearing toward us. Let us hope it is our friends.”

Richard, recently enough a man who collected enemies almost as a hobby, hoped that it was friends instead of enemies, all the more so since he was still tangled up in the nuances of what it might mean when Jesus said to love your enemies. Surely He wasn’t meaning that literally? Or did He? It was too much to tackle, just yet, when there was so much else topsy-turvy in his life right now, and so much else to learn.

The approaching boat was a small motorboat. It made good time coming across the lake, but politely slowed down as it got closer, and crept to a crawl as it got up to them, probably as much to keep from sending waves at the men in the kayaks as to be assured of not overshooting them. There were two men in the boat. The passenger was a farmer from down the road, a Plain-ish fellow Richard had assumed was nothing more or less than a farmer. The skipper looked ethnic Soviet of some variety, leaning Mongolian, but probably not that specifically. He also looked familiar, which wasn’t a pleasant feeling. It didn’t help that the man was returning the favor by looking at Richard like he couldn’t decide if Richard was someone he’d unhappily met before. The situation got more tense after introductions were made. The skipper, it appeared, had heard the name Richard Hugh before, and placed worrisome significance to it.

Richard didn’t recognize the name used for the skipper, and instinctively wondered if it was an alias. The man had the air of a man who had used aliases. In Richard’s world – or, at least, in his old world – that could mean anything, since in that world the good guys as well as the bad paraded around under false names and under fabricated back stories nearly as a matter of course.

“The two of you have perhaps crossed paths, and perhaps have also crossed purposes before?” Durand asked, in French.

The skipper looked to the farmer, who repeated it in a variety of ethnic Russian. The skipper replied in the same tongue that he wasn’t sure, but he thought so.

“How long ago?” the farmer asked.

“Something like ten years ago, probably,” the man said, in the manner of a man who wasn’t being evasive so much as just being a man who couldn’t keep dates sorted properly and so was taking the best guess that he could.

The farmer was about to bring Richard and Durand up to speed, but Durand waved a hand to forestall him. “I know the language,” he said, speaking in it. “What I do not know is your friend’s history. Most of it, perhaps, I do not need to know, if you know what I mean?”

The farmer nodded. He started to bring Richard up to speed, but Richard decided there was no sense playing that game. He admitted to also knowing the language, although poorly, and what he used to know was filed on dusty shelves, since he hadn’t used it in years.

“Your teachers taught you our idioms well,” the skipper said, without sounding like he was fond of the presumed teachers, or inclined to trust any of their pupils.

Richard suddenly knew where he knew the man from. He was a damnable cruel fellow whose soul was sold to the socialist cause, and who rather enjoyed his job, especially when it involved flogging foreign agents or supposed traitors. Richard had escaped his lash, but he’d seen a colleague reduced to a coma by it.

Except… it couldn’t be the same man. The eyes were wrong; at least in the sense of what was behind them. The posture was wrong, but in the wrong way for a spy, if that made sense.

“After the Soviet Union fell,” the farmer said in French, “some of us who had been quietly sending aid to the underground church there went over to check on how things were going. I’d been learning from refugees who got out by the skin of their teeth, and I spent some time over there, helping root out corruption and fraud and such, and improving the supply lines to our persecuted brothers and sisters. At the time, ‘Jan’ here was one of our worst enemies, but he’s since become a Christian, and yes, we might be mistaken, it wouldn’t be the first time, but if he’s putting on an act, it’s been a convincing one, since he’s showing fruit of the Spirit, and since he’s paid a steep price for it, yet continues to preach and gain converts. At any rate, to get supplies to people who are in serious trouble we need the help of people like him, and he’s in charge of an area we need to check out, so I’m stuck with him. If you’re not willing to trust him, I understand, but in my experience, he really is a new man. Speaking of which, I heard you finally converted?”

When Richard hesitated, Durand assured one and all that Richard had finally taken the necessary steps, at least to all appearances, and was now in the rocky fields of being a baby Christian, so needed to be handled gently and with the utmost of patience.

“Thanks a lot,” Richard said, out of the side of his mouth.

“Any time,” Durand said.

-

The plan was fairly straightforward. Richard and Durand, under their own names, in Richard’s real-life capacity as a financial expert, were to take a business trip to a certain area that was generally off limits to outsiders except to those who were deemed successful enough to be of service to the floundering economy, both directly and indirectly. While there, there were certain things they might do that might smooth out some kinks in the secret supply chain to Christians who had been forced underground.

Richard and Durand duly took the trip, tried to do the things that seemed likely to be useful, and came home again, no one except Emma any the wiser on where they had gone or why.

Richard settled in to watch for signs that Jan was going to double cross them.

There were no signs. Weeks later, there were still no signs, and Richard began to wonder if the man had become patient (men who enjoyed lashing others into bloody pulps were not known for their patience, but in the name of a good cause sometimes they could fake it), or if, in fact, he had become a new man and was now, in reality, a Christian after all and had perhaps become trustworthy after a fashion. By this point, Durand had become convinced of it. Durand’s opinion wasn’t one to be sneezed at. Still, Richard reserved judgment, and put the others on notice that he wasn’t available to go back to that country for the foreseeable future. No one seemed to object to him pulling out of that project. He wasn’t sure what he thought about that.

-

Hong Kong proved a better set-up; at least it was more to his liking. In Hong Kong, he was able to help some missionaries who were sending Bibles into mainland China. Mostly they needed money, but they also needed some help finding healthier warehouse space, which was, of course, at a premium in Hong Kong. Richard had good contacts in Hong Kong for that sort of thing, and soon had them moved to a better location.

-

He and Emma took a holiday to Belize, and managed, somewhat on purpose, to wind up at a medical mission out beyond where tourists were advised to go. The people there also needed a little money (they didn’t want much, nor would they accept much), but there had been difficulties with people ‘disappearing’ and Richard was able to convince old colleagues who had retired near there to try to care a little about the situation. The old colleagues being bored in retirement, they were glad to go do some patrols once or twice a week, at least for now. Likely they couldn’t do much good, but at least it was something. Besides, one of them had been looking for a church, and was delighted to meet the man heading up the medical mission. Parker was about the last man Richard would have expected to find looking for a good church to join, but, then, Parker said the same thing about Richard.

Emma, who had moved in serious Christian circles more than Richard, wasn’t horribly surprised, though. She’d seen less likely conversions, she said.

Richard asked if she was thinking about Jan.

Emma said she wasn’t sure one way or another about Jan, but would leave him to the men who were risking their necks working with him. It seemed a good plan to Richard.

She also said she was praying for everyone involved. That also seemed a good plan, in its way, but Richard couldn’t quite bring himself to get wholeheartedly on board, so he filed Jan away as a closed case in his mind, and moved on to addressing other things. A man had his limits on what he could handle, after all.

-

Durand, worried that Richard might be somewhat confused about matters of doing good works God’s way versus doing good works while assuming God would be favorably impressed regardless of the method or the attitude of the heart, gave Richard a brotherly lecture. Richard pleaded his innocence, but promised to be less of a lone wolf if it pleased his old friend.

-

Richard had long years ago picked up a friend in the Armée du Salut (Salvation Army), but hadn’t seen or talked to him in a while. He decided to look him up to see how he was doing. He wasn’t doing well, having come down with poor health in his old age, but he was delighted to see Richard again, and even more delighted when it dawned on him that Richard had joined God’s army, so to speak. He had some excellent suggestions on what needed doing in France, which settled Richard into thinking that he might concentrate his efforts there, both because it was his primary home these days, and because it would be awfully nice to not always be jetting off away from the younger generations, especially those people two generations down who were calling him Grand-père.

Durand was insufferable when he heard of Richard’s change of focus. It turned out that he had bet himself that after Richard had had an initial run of international enthusiasms, he would settle down to addressing the more difficult job of addressing matters closer to home. He was pleased to not only be right, but to have been right within two months of the actual occurrence. To prove it, he produced a letter he had mailed to himself, which was still sealed, and handed it to Richard to open.

“Do people still do this?” Richard said, “Mail letters to themselves to prove they had an idea before a certain date?”

“Probably most people have forgotten the trick, if ever they knew it. But I thought it would be fun in this case. And, indeed, it is all in fun. If it offends you, I will take it back?”

Richard shook his head, and opened the letter with a knife. Sure enough, Durand had predicted that he would need a run of foreign mission work of various types before settling down closer to home. And he’d gone farther out on a limb and taken a guess as to how long it would take for that to happen. And he was awfully close on his guess, too. Richard was a bit rattled, but recovered as he realized that Durand would have as happily handed him the letter to open if he’d been wildly wrong in any way. He was that sort of friend.

“I suppose you have some ideas for me, now that I’m focused on your beloved France?” Richard said.

Durand grinned. “But of course. But I did not want to rush you.”

“Awfully decent of you, old chap,” Richard said, trying to sound put out, but failing.

Both of them having had more than their fill of dealing with bureaucracies, and neither of them trusting the present French or European Union governments, they began to regularly put their heads together to find under-the-radar projects to help the beleaguered Christians of the fiercely secular country in which they both now lived. However, as time went on they were increasingly careful to balance that work with time devoted to family and neighbors, especially the grandchildren who were close enough to visit frequently. After all, grandchildren came with duties, as Durand said.

They also made a man’s life worthwhile in previously unimaginable ways, Richard realized.

All his life, he’d never really had a home. Growing up, he nearly had one, but kept getting shipped off to live at elite schools. Lacking continuity, neither being with his parents nor at the school was quite ‘home.’ Then he’d lived as a bachelor special agent, often with a nice flat, but it wasn’t quite ‘home’ either. It was more like a home base. Marrying Emma had settled him down and given him something like a home – but they’d both been spies, more or less nomadic, with no ties besides to one another, really. At some level, they’d been avoiding ties, he admitted, in hindsight, to himself. So, again, it didn’t reach his definition of a home, not entirely. Not that he thought a husband and wife couldn’t have a home with just the two of them, but without roots it was hard to move the definition far enough to fit.

But now?

Richard, during this last bit of musing, was helping set up the church fellowship hall for a funeral dinner. In his younger days, if you’d told him he’d be doing just that without being on undercover assignment, he’d have thought you were cracked. If you’d told him it would be making him feel how much at home he was with this community of believers, he’d have known you were cracked. But there it was. He had a home now with Emma, a real house in a real neighborhood filled with real neighbors whom he knew not only by name, but by more than name. He and Emma had extended family just minutes away. On top of that, they’d acquired the most amazingly diverse and unlikely ‘church family’ Richard could have imagined, some of whom were working alongside him now, and others of whom were consoling one another on their mutual loss.

Martin trotted over to give him a hug, and to say how sad he felt. Richard stopped his work and picked up his beloved grandson (who, for a wonder, was between broken bones and was therefore blessedly cast-less for a change), and whispered encouragement in his ear, and felt, for all the world, quite at home doing it. That’s not to say that he wasn’t still awkward about his new condition. But that was all right. No one here cared that he was a rookie at staying put, or at being a father and grandfather, or at any of the rest of his new life.

Yes, in fact he was quite home, finally.

His phone rang, with a special ring that meant trouble. It was Jack from the special labs again. Jack had made a habit of unofficially pulling Richard and Emma into play. Richard didn’t mind in the least helping, although he found himself increasingly having scruples about which jobs he would take, or what methods he’d agree to go along with.

He stepped aside and took the call, but wound up wishing Jack every bit of success and safety, while declining to get involved in just that project. It wasn’t even such a bad project. From an ethics standpoint he could have justified it, probably. But he couldn’t have justified taking the time away from Martin, or from the family of the dead man, or from something he’d promised Emma he’d try to check out, or from what Durand had unearthed in Paris that could use a bit of their expertise, as soon as they could reasonably shuttle themselves off to Paris again.

Emma wandered over to give him a hug and a kiss, and draw his attention back to the fellowship hall, which was beginning to fill up, mostly with familiar faces.

“I don’t deserve this nice of a retirement,” he whispered.

“No one does. But let’s be thankful for it, and try to make the best of it, shall we?” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“But if the people knew what sort of life I lived, back in the day…”

Emma put a finger to his lips. “Likely they wouldn’t care, except as a curiosity. What matters to them is what sort of neighbors we are now. Hand me that tablecloth from that counter behind you, will you?”

He handed across the tablecloth, and got back to work, while watching his beloved, scarred, indomitable Emma being happily domestic setting up a table for a funeral. And doing it as herself, for the sake of friends, and not as part of an undercover plot. Incredible, that.

Martin came back, leading a younger sister by the hand. “She needs a hug, too,” he reported.

Richard lifted them both off the ground, and danced quietly with them, until they were both smiling.

“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” Durand quipped.

“What’s he mean by that?” Martin asked.

“He’s just teasing. Ignore him,” Richard ordered, not quite sure whether to be more worried or more proud that Martin was proving to be a child who didn’t miss much, and was obviously getting better at not missing much as he got older.

Loren came to retrieve his children and restore them to his little flock, from which they had escaped without permission. Richard reluctantly handed them over, glad to know he could play with them later, and for however long he lived, most likely.

After the funeral gathering began to thin out, Richard walked Emma home. It was a long-ish walk for Emma, but they were in no hurry. Not that being in a hurry would have helped, since some tourists had managed to get both the roadway and the walkway a bit jammed up; but since they weren’t in a hurry they bore up with the jumbling and unjumbling, and jokingly congratulated themselves on having left the car at home.

As they got within a house or two of their home, Richard gave in to an impulse and lifted his wife off the ground and carried her, both of them laughing, the rest of the way, to the amusement of most onlookers and the scandal of others.

“Did I ever carry you across the threshold after we got married?” he asked.

“Multiple times, then and since,” she said.

“Are you agreeable to doing it again?”

“Absolutely. Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig, and all that,” Emma said, sounding authentically British.

He laughed, and lovingly carried her across the threshold.

A young woman tourist stood looking at their door so longingly that her husband promised to do the same for her when they got back to the hotel. They took off, holding hands, laughing, eager to get ‘home.’

 

The End

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer or on your personal website?

Thanks! – Kathryn Judson

 

About the author : Kathryn Judson is a former news reporter who quit the news business to help her husband run an office supply business, which somehow morphed into a large, independent bookstore. (It started out as only a few shelves of new and used books in the back of the office supply store, but somehow the books kept taking up more room, until they were the main business.) She has spent most of her life in the intermountain west of the United States, but has also lived and worked in the Midwest, including a stint in the Black Hills of South Dakota, working for a summer stock theater company. She is an adult convert to Christianity. On Twitter, she's @KDJudson.

 

 

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The MI5 1/2 Omnibus

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Dear Invader (Notes From Hiding, Part 1)

Dear Citizen (Notes From Hiding, Part 2)

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Not Quite Home

You would think that a lifetime of taking on the bad guys would prepare a man to handle whatever came his way in retirement, now wouldn't you? Think again. When MI5 1/2 pushed Richard Hugh (aka Triple-O Five) into early retirement, he was expected to go from saving the world to merely living in it. Fat chance of that happening. First off, Richard's not the retiring sort. Not really. Secondly, the bad guys are still committing crimes like arson and murder, and framing innocent people along the way. However, when you don't have an agency at your back, or proper authority any more, what's a man to do? And how in the world is a man supposed to cope with all the messy personal problems that can't be shoved aside anymore, now that a man's not working fulltime at saving the world? And how does he cobble together a team, now that he's on his own? Ah, well, this is Richard Hugh, after all. He's a never-say-die sort of British gentleman. So he'll plow ahead, with whatever he can manage to put together, with the fine and philosophical help of friends old and new. Count on it.

  • Author: Kathryn Judson
  • Published: 2016-06-16 19:35:10
  • Words: 41316
Not Quite Home Not Quite Home