Rob sipped the coffee, curling his lip at the sweet aftertaste. “Ugh.”
“Buck up, Dad, it’s better for you than sugar.” Madeleine slid past him and reached into the fridge.
“A couple of teaspoons of sugar can’t hurt,” he answered. “And what’s with this inky black color? Are we out of creamer already? I thought I got some last Friday.”
She shuffled containers around. “I threw it out.”
“Why would you do that, Squirt?”
She emerged, a small stack of containers balanced in her hands as she toed the door closed. “Do you realize we never eat leftovers? And then they fill up the fridge and block the yogurt and produce bins.”
“It’s still good.”
“Yeah? This one has green fur growing on top.”
She deposited the containers into the sink and he could a green creeping mass on top of the white rice in one, and another one was mystery he wasn’t interested in solving.
“And that ‘couple of teaspoons per cup’ adds up to a lot when you drink twelve cups in a day. Ms. Watts says you need to watch your triglycerides as well, so I tossed the creamer and we are both going to get used to drinking it black.”
“Oh for crying out loud, that health teacher is out of her mind.” Rob glared at his daughter, “I’ll eat what I want.”
She stared at him, her eyes big, looking just like Claire would when she was determined to win an argument through whatever means possible. Rob had to wonder if it was something Maddy remembered or just ingrained in her feminine psyche.
“Dad, all I have is you. If you drop dead of a heart attack, what happens to me, Dad?” She looked vulnerable and scared, and even though he knew she was manipulating him as only one possessing such formidable feminine wiles could, his resistance melted.
“Fine,” Rob mumbled, and sipped his stevia-laced coffee, his shoulders sagging in defeat. He never could muster a defense to that kind of argument. It was pointless to try. Maddy smiled and kissed him on the cheek.
“I have to leave early, I’m meeting Julia at her house, she needs help with her spelling practice. We’re entering the spelling bee and I promised her we would practice before school.”
“I should drive you.”
Maddy rolled her eyes, “Dad, she’s at the corner. You can watch me walk there, okay?”
“You have the pepper spray, right? And your phone?”
“Yes, Dad, of course I do.” She rolled her eyes, reached up and hugged him. The past year had seen a growth spurt and his daughter had shot up two, maybe three inches.
The top of her head reached his shoulder. She had nearly passed her mother’s height and she still had a few years of growing left to go. Her strawberry blond hair had darkened to a fiery red and it was shoulder length and a mass of ringlets.
He hugged her back.
Maddy was a beauty. Rob sighed.
Just like her mother.
“Did you sign up yet, Dad?”
“Sign up for what?”
“The link I sent you, Meet Your Match.”
“Dad, you promised.”
“I promised I’d think about it. And I did.”
“And I have time before you go off to college. Plenty of time. Five years worth of time, girl. Stop playing matchmaker.”
“Look Dad, you need to find someone before you get any older.”
He choked on his coffee, liquid spraying from his lips, “Christ.”
“See what I mean, Dad? Hand-eye coordination is one of the first things to go.” She grinned, “Besides, I’m seeing some white hairs in that goatee.”
“Believe me, girl, they are all thanks to you.” He growled, dabbing at the coffee that had dribbled onto his shirt.
Her lips tickled his cheek, “Gotta go. Love you!” She was out the door, the storm door banging closed behind her.
He really needed to fix that doorspring so that it didn’t make such a racket. He took another gulp of coffee, his lip curling in disgust. Its saccharine-sweet taste was disgusting. He stood up and poured the rest down the sink.
His spine popped and his left side spasmed. He’d pulled his back out last year while clearing some brush in the yard and it hadn’t felt right since. Christ, I am getting old. He shook his head and headed to the bathroom. As he brushed his teeth and ran a comb through his hair he remembered Claire plucking at a white hair that had sprung out of his chest.
“Can’t have you turning into a silverback quite yet, now can I?” She had pulled it out, root and all. It had hurt like hell. In the decade since, that one silver hair had been joined by a sprinkling, and recently, a cascade of others.
“Time and tide waits for no man.” He leaned in closer, peering at the streak of white among the still mostly dark hairs. He kept it trimmed neatly, Claire had liked it this way.
Rob sighed, staring at his reflection. If he could ask her he knew what she would say. But meeting someone else, all of the delicate dance that comes from learning how to live with someone else, to anticipate their moods, their needs, and finding a way to balance Maddie while sharing time with her and someone new?
He had gone to the site and been run through its paces. Answering the questions on the personality quiz had been challenging and frustrating. Was this really how people did it these days? Answer some quasi-scientific questions and get connected with your future mate? It had to be bullshit. A computer algorithm couldn’t tell him who he was supposed to love. Yet he had kept returning to it.
I’ll try it out and do a test run. Hell, it could be fun.
He left the bathroom and headed down to the basement where he had built a small office and kept everything under lock and key. He was a homicide investigator, after all, and Maddie didn’t need to see how base and cruel humans could be with each other.
Rob sat down at his desk and opened an email from work and stared at the tattooed image of the Indalo on each of the dead man’s wrists. There was no mistaking it, the symbol was simple, rudimentary, and exactly like the tattoo he had seen ten years ago.
He reached into a box, rifled through its contents until he found Maddie’s crude drawing, now a decade old. A memory flashed through his mind of the day before their trip to the playground, when he had called Milo and Steve at the CIA. The case they had been working on, spearheaded by Rob, had languished in the weeks after Claire’s death. He had conferenced them in, told him he would be returning to work in two days. It was time to take the bull by the horns and get back to work he had told them.
The next day had been their trip to the playground and the run-in with that woman, the not-so-veiled threat of the two women with the photograph and the note. Was it the phone call to his co-workers that had triggered the message to be sent? Had they bugged his house there in Virginia? Had he gotten too close to figuring out who they were? Rob searched decade-old memories, trying to remember details of the case he had investigated.
He hadn’t called Steve or Milo again, just left them to be targeted in his stead. He took a deep breath in and released it slowly.
I’m no fucking hero, am I? I just took care of me and mine and said fuck off to the rest.
But now, here in Kansas City, in flyover country, where politics, shady financial deals and hired hits were unheard of – here is where the Indalo had popped back up.
Just saying the word gave them substance. This wasn’t something he could run from. If they were here, then they were everywhere, or damn near. He shook his head, stifled a rueful smile at the thought of running away with Maddie to some lone mountaintop with sheep and mountain goats. She would not be down for that. The girl was connected at the hip to her iPhone. So much so that he had banned devices at the dinner table and at the movies. How could she watch a movie while texting on the phone, anyway?
His hand reached for his phone and then stopped.
Could they still be listening?
The question sent his mind spinning. He wouldn’t have been hard to track, after all. He stood up from his desk, for the first time in nearly ten years he felt afraid, unsafe even, in his own house.
His cell phone buzzed.
“Everything okay, Sweetheart?”
“Everything’s great, Dad. I forgot to tell you it was a half day and it turns out that Julia’s mom is taking her to Coco Key after school today and they invited me. Can I go?”
“Sure. Do you want to come back here and get your swimsuit?”
“Nah, mine’s here from the last time we went swimming. We were planning on dinner and a movie after, is that okay too?” He smiled, even if she couldn’t see it.
“Sure. Be home by ten?”
“Will do. Thanks, Dad. I love you!”
“Love you too, Maddie.”
His shift didn’t start until 6 p.m. tonight, so he would have the house to himself for a few hours. And that was convenient, he didn’t need an excuse to get Maddie out of the house while he swept for bugs. But first, he needed some supplies and visit someone he knew could help. He grabbed his keys and headed out the door.
Milo didn’t recognize the phone number as he picked up his desk phone. He did, however, recognize the voice on the other end. “Milo, Rob Stone here.”
“Rob Stone? Damn man, it’s been years!”
“I’m doing well. And you? How’s Diana?”
“We split three years ago,” Milo sighed, “She traded up for silver hair, a Porsche and a house in the Hamptons. I get a visit with Gus when they go out of town and a month in the summer. She told me her mother always said she had married beneath her. So much for happily ever after, right?”
Rob whistled, “Damn. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Hell, that’s all right. I’m dating a twenty-something intern now. She’s a knockout.” He dropped his voice, “Now what’s going on with you, man? If you are calling me, something has gotta be up. All I get is some goddamn Christmas card every year. You never call and I’m thinking there’s a real good reason for that. You got my spider senses a’tingling.”
Rob smiled. Milo had always been good at reading people and he still was.
“I tried Steve first, but couldn’t find him in the directory. Has he moved on to greener pastures?”
“Shit. No.” Milo paused and the background noise faded with a soft click of a door shutting, “You hadn’t heard? He died maybe six months after you left. Lung cancer, extremely aggressive. It was a few weeks between diagnosis and then hospice. A few weeks after that and he was gone.”
“Lung cancer? Steve never smoked a day in his life.”
“Eh, it’s like breast cancer in men. No one ever thinks a man can get breast cancer, but goddamn, they sure as hell can.”
“He wasn’t exposed to anything?” Rob asked, rocked at the thought of a world without Steve in it. How had he not heard? And then he remembered that his cards never had a return address. A small idiosyncrasy, one that made no sense since he was easily tracked here to Kansas City if anyone had been so inclined.
Milo practically guffawed, “Seriously? We’re analysts, Rob.”
“Milo, I’ve got to ask about the investigation we were working on, the one right before I left.”
The other man’s voice changed, his tone was guarded, “Stone, you know the rules. You aren’t with the agency and we cannot discuss this.”
“The file I had been compiling, the files and papers I had accumulated over nearly a year of digging, were returned to the agency. They threatened me, Milo. They probably killed Claire and then they threatened to do the same to Maddie. They sent me a photo of our house from the day before with a note to stop digging.”
He sighed, leaned back against the park bench. The air had a nip to it and his knees were aching. He had heard that an early snow was in the forecast. And home wasn’t an option right now, not until he was sure he had found all of the bugs.
“I did what I had to do to protect her, and myself. I thought it would be over if I walked away, cut all ties. But I just did a sweep of my home and found monitoring devices – in my office, the kitchen, my bedroom, even my kid’s bedroom, for fuck sake. If you closed the case, re-open it, because after a decade, these bastards are not only watching me but they are here.”
“Jesus, Rob.” Milo fell silent but Rob could hear a drawer opening and papers rustling.
“Fuck this smoke-free workplace bullshit.” The click of a lighter and the steady drag of a cigarette came over the line faintly.
“You aren’t missing a thing not being here, we are pussy-whipped and being handed bullshit assignments while the real issues get locked down. That’s what Steve would have told you before he died. The higher-ups shut the investigation down. No reason was given. Steve was all set to fight it and then his health took a swan dive. And we all know you two were the smart ones. I wasn’t gonna rock the fucking boat, not with Gus going into that nice private school in Avalon. I had bills to pay and a marriage on the rocks.”
“I hear you, man. But Milo, do you have anything, anything at all that could help? Any of your files, or even Steve’s, that I could…”
“Jesus, Stone! No! I got nothing. And even if I did, I would not give it to you. Not for love, or money, or a night with the woman of my dreams. Gus is lined up with an early acceptance to Georgetown and I just passed the twenty-year mark here. Don’t try and take back channels or this shit will blow up in your face harder than Tailhook did for the Navy back in ninety-one.”
A cold drizzle was beginning to fall. Rob felt a hot anger swell up inside him. Milo wouldn’t, hell, he couldn’t help him.
How long had those bastards been listening?
He had become complacent, let his guard down, and allowed himself to be frightened off in the first place. More than ever, he was convinced. The Indalo, for lack of a better name and description, were the bogeyman under the bed. Claire’s death, telling him to abandon his investigation, and now even Milo and Steve had been pulled into this. Rob didn’t buy lung cancer, not for a minute. Inhalation of enough polonium 210 would certainly manifest as a particularly aggressive lung cancer. Steve had led too healthy a life to explain this away so easily.
“Stone? You still there?” Milo’s voice crackled in his ear.
“Yeah, yeah. Look, I’m sorry, man. You are absolutely right and I shouldn’t have pushed you. I gotta go, so.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Milo’s voice had returned to its natural friendly tone, “I’ll just pretend this never happened. Try not to let ten years go by before you call again. Y’hear me?”
“Will do. Thanks Milo, you take care.”
“You too, buddy.”
Milo set the phone receiver down and stared at it. “Shit.” He lit another cigarette, fairly certain he wouldn’t have anyone poking their head in through the door. He needed to get one of those ionizers and stick it under his desk. His hands shook until the nicotine mellow hit. He chain-smoked three cigarettes in a row before getting up the nerve to pick up the phone again. This time it was a small flip phone hidden in an inner suit pocket. He pressed a button and waited until he heard a voice on the other line.
“I just heard from Rob Stone. He was asking me to re-open the investigation.”
He ground out the last of the cigarette butt into an old takeout box and then stuffed the box into the trash. “Yeah, I know. I told him I couldn’t help him. But Stone does what he thinks is right and to hell with the consequences.”
He listened and nodded, “Yeah, he knows about those too.”
“Look, I want out. I don’t know anything, and I’m not interested in pointing any fingers, I just want out, got it?”
He waited, listening to the voice on the other end, “Yeah, you do that.”
Milo ended the call and stared at the phone in his hand.
He’d damn near sold his soul – all so that his life would go on as usual. In return his marriage had failed and his son barely spoke to him. And the twenty-something tail he’d been chasing had been quickly losing interest after realizing he was in up to his eyeballs in debt.
A sick feeling of dread began to form in his stomach. They would never let him walk away. Folks like this, they never did.
He stood up and strode over to the bookshelf where Diana’s last gift to him resided. A soldered, heavy Steampunk masterpiece of gears and cast iron parts from long-demolished engines. It was heavy in his hand. He returned to the desk and brought it down hard on the burner phone, a grim smile on his lips as the plastic crunched.
No more. To hell with the consequences.