“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?”
“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.
“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.