“Hello is this Mr. Gary Mansfield?” I spoke into the phone in a nasally voice.
“Yes, may I ask who this is?” Gary answered back very much like every lawyer I’d ever known. And that wasn’t a small number, considering my mother had been a lawyer once upon a time.
“This is Mrs. Vallone, school counselor at the high school. I’m calling regarding Randy, you are his legal guardian, correct?” Randy was fairly certain Gary had never actually talked to Mrs. Vallone, which was good, because I didn’t sound anything like her.
“Yes I am. Is there a problem?” Gary asked, sounding a little more human, though I wasn’t sure which human emotion was trying to break free.
“No problem, well, yes—No,” I corrected, knowing I’d annoy Gary with this approach, but Mrs. Vallone would probably do the same thing.
“What’s going on?” Gary asked too bluntly.
“You may have received an automated call from the school this afternoon, Mr. Mansfield, telling you that Randy was absent.”
“Randy was absent? I have not received the call,” Gary said. I was pretty sure anger was one of the emotions beginning to surface now.
“Well, you probably will soon. He missed the second half of classes today and his teachers had not been informed so they should have marked him absent,” I explained. “This will trigger the automated message. That is why I’m calling, to explain to you why it appears Randy was absent,” I continued.
“And why does it appear he was absent?” Gary asked stiffly.
“Mr. Mansfield are you aware that Randy’s girlfriend is a foster child?” I asked. Across the darkening front room of the safe house, Randy was sitting nervously. I gave him a reassuring smile.
“His girlfriend. Is a foster child.” He stated this as if it was not one sentence but two.
“Yes, so you did know, oh good,” I blathered on. “It’s no wonder they have connected given the similarities in their pasts. They are both the sweetest kids. It just breaks my heart—“
“Ms. Vallone, I believe you were going to explain why Randy was not in class today,” Gary interrupted.
“Oh yes, well Jamie came to school today with some injuries she claimed were caused by a car accident,” I said. An agent walked through the room pulling Jones along with him. Jones stopped short when he saw me. I waved. The agent pushed him on.
“Randy mentioned a car accident,” Gary said cautiously.
“Yes, good. Well, Mr. Mansfield do I have your confidence?” I asked. “This is a very sensitive subject.”
“Of course,” Gary responded, taken aback.
“You see, the sweet girl’s injuries in no way resembled those that you would receive in a car accident. One of her teachers alerted us and we asked her to come in so we could find out more.”
“What did her injuries look like?” Gary asked.
“Quite frankly Mr. Mansfield, they were caused by physical abuse,” I said quite solemnly. “You can see why this is such a sensitive topic?”
“Of course, you have my full cooperation,” he said in a tone told me that was already preparing Randy’s defense.
“Well, you see, Jamie wouldn’t admit that anyone had been mistreating her,” I continued. “And we were concerned that she could be in danger. We asked Randy to come in as well.”
“I assure Randy would never—“ Gary burst out.
“Oh no, Mr. Mansfield, of course not. We briefly considered him, but her foster parents were our number one concern. We were hoping that Randy would help her to feel more comfortable so she would open up to us. They both spent the rest of the day in the office with me. I wanted to let you know, so that you weren’t concerned about Randy’s absence.”
The relief in Gary’s tone was unmistakable. “So did the girl ever come clean? Was it the foster parents?”
“No,” I said hesitantly. “It was two boys from school.”
“What two boys? And what exactly happened? Have they been punished?” Gary said, now preparing a prosecution against my assailants.
“I am so sorry, Mr. Mansfield, but the suspects are minors, and I really can’t share their names. Jamie has been through a lot, but she is no longer in danger and neither are any of the other young women at the school.”
“I…understand,” Gary said as if he wanted to push for more information.
“And just so you know, Randy was incredibly helpful for us and for Jamie. He really was a lifesaver,” I said. “Have a good evening.” I ended the call.
“He’d going to call you,” I warned Randy. “And he’s going to ask you all the questions he didn’t ask me. You think you can handle that?”
“Yeah,” Randy said.
“I don’t know if covering for your boyfriend is really what I would consider a top priority right now,” Ethan quipped walking into the room. We were still at the safe house and Ethan had just come from the back where he’d been spending some good, quality time with Gurley.
“Well it looks like you’ve taken care of everything else,” I answered smartly. “Did you get what you need?”
Ethan nodded. “I’m sure they’ll have a few more questions to ask when he’s locked up, but I’m satisfied with my interrogation.”
I nodded. “Then all we need is to make sure we have Sheagul’s complete manuscript.”
Randy’s phone began to buzz and he hurried to pull it out of his pocket. The fact that Ethan and I were watching probably didn’t help. “It’s Gary,” he informed us after almost dropping the device.
“If you want some privacy, you can use the office,” Ethan said. “Down the hall, second door on the right.”
Randy nodded and put the phone to his ear. “Hi Gary,” he said as he walked down the hall. I heard a door open and shut.
“Now that Gurley is in custody, we aren’t in such a rush to get Sheagul’s work,” Ethan said. “You didn’t sleep last night. We’ll stay here tonight, and tomorrow you can search for the last page.”
“Oh we already got the last page,” I said. “Right before the Boss caught up to us again. Randy has it in his bag.”
Ethan was surprised. “Well, then I guess we can get to work on that right away.”
“Gurley won’t be the last, Ethan. Sheagul put everyone in the high school in danger,” I said quietly “Even if we get rid of all the hidden pages others will come searching and more people are going to get hurt.”
“More kids are going to get hurt,” Ethan agreed.
“So we need to make sure everyone knows they aren’t going to find anything at the school,” I continued.
“Yes, I’ve been making some plans,” Ethan told me. He was about to elaborate but Randy walked back into the room. “How did it go?” He asked Randy instead.
Randy shrugged. “Fine I guess.”
“You told him everything we talked about? And he bought it?” I asked.
“Yyesss,” Randy responded hesitantly.
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” Ethan asked.
“It means yes, he believed me, but…” Randy said.
“But he made me promise I’d bring my girlfriend over for dinner on Sunday. I’m sorry Jamie, but he wasn’t going to let it go,” Randy explained.
I nodded thoughtfully and looked at Ethan. “By Sunday we will have wrapped everything up,” I mused.
He nodded too. “And Sunday should be quiet and deserted at the school. You’ll both be somewhere else,” Ethan agreed. Sunday evening we would get make sure everyone knew that Sheagul’s work was gone. “It should be perfect.”
“So you aren’t angry,” Randy asked just to clarify.
I smiled. “It’s fine, Randy. Now where did you put that Wizard of Oz book? I need to get to work on it.”
“It’s still in the car. I’ll go get it,” Randy said with relief. He disappeared outside.
“You’ll make sure no one gets hurt?” I asked Ethan.
“No one will get hurt, James. I’ve already been looking at the building plans and I know how to make it look like an accident,” Ethan assured me. “But the time you’re done with dinner, the library will be gone.” I nodded thoughtfully. “James? We’ll need to leave after that. Our mission is done. We shouldn’t…linger.”
Randy came back in. “Here it is…” he said pulling the book from his backpack, but he stopped when he saw me looking at him sadly. I would be disappearing out of his life in a matter of days. He was a nice kid. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s great Randy,” I assured him. I took the book. “Thanks.”
There was a knock on the door and Ethan answered it. He only cracked the door, and spoke quietly to whoever was out there before turning back to us. “Randy why don’t you wait in the kitchen.”
Randy looked at me, and I nodded. He disappeared into the other room. Ethan opened the door for a couple of large men in suits who walked inside. The two men eyed me suspiciously.
“I’ll get you the transcripts from the interrogation,” Ethan said. “The prisoner is in the back.”
“We have received the first suspect,” one man said. “Do you believe there are any others?”
“At least one more, but Gurley is the boss. I’m not worried about the other one,” Ethan said. He disappeared into the back. The men watched me carefully while we waited in silence. Ethan returned and handed them a manila envelope.
“What’s the girl doing here?” the talkative one said in Russian. I smiled. My Russian might not be perfect, but I understood that perfectly.
Ethan smiled too. “The girl’s the one who brought him in.” They looked at me in surprise.
Ethan led them to the back and the three of them returned a moment later with Gurley between them, hands cuffed behind him back. “I’m going to kill you Jamie. I am going to find you and kill you,” he growled, struggling uselessly against the men holding his arms.
I didn’t flinch. The Boss didn’t scare me. “Considering where you are going, I’m not going to be losing any sleep,” I replied. I looked at him steadily, which seemed to infuriate him further.
He growled and tried to lung at me, and the two large men had to strain to hold him. I stood calmly watching. One of the men threatened to knock him out cold as they dragged him out the door and into the night.
Ethan left to get some food and Randy joined me in the front room to work on homework while I studied the manuscript. After Ethan returned with fast food, (completely unappetizing for me, but the two males devoured it), he offered the bedroom to Randy, who like me, had been up all the last night. Randy didn’t need any more prompting. He disappeared down the hall, and from the sound of silence, fell asleep immediately.
“You should get some sleep too,” Ethan told me, but I wanted to get to the end of Sheagul’s discovery. After photographing the final page and copying it by hand, I began deciphering the equations and notes. I was ninety percent sure this was the last page but if I was wrong and we wiped out the rest of it, the agency would not be happy. I needed to make sure we had the complete picture.
Ethan let me work and for a while I made good progress, but the aches and fatigue began to catch up with me. I don’t remember exactly how I fell asleep, but when Ethan woke me the next morning I was in a bed, light streaming in the window between the flimsy slats of the blinds.
“James,” he whispered. “You need to get up if you’re going to get Randy to school on time.”
I rolled over stiffly and looked up at him. Ethan was handsome. He was large, but not so large as to stand out in a crowd. I wasn’t sure how old he was, at least five years older than me, but maybe more. It always seemed as if he’d been working for ages. I felt vulnerable and in-experienced in his presence, but also safe because I knew he’d protect me. Though he almost never smiled, his smile was disarming. He was almost smiling now, and the light from the window was shining on his face, illuminating it. I just watched him.
“James, are you okay?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you go to high school?” I asked. “Were you home-schooled or something?”
He just looked at me for a moment, our eyes locked together. Something in my chest was aching. “The summer I was fifteen, before I would have started high school, I ran away from home. I never went back and I’ve been on my own ever since,” Ethan finally said.
I sat up, leaning on my elbows and Ethan sat down on the edge of the bed. I saw something behind the stony exterior on his face. There was a pain inside that made me want to reach out and touch him. I didn’t touch him. Instead I asked, “Were your parents that bad?”
“I didn’t have parents.”
I was confused. “Everyone has parents. What do you mean? Where did you run from if you didn’t have parents?”
Ethan sighed and stared up at the ceiling. “I ran away from an orphanage, James. I was a foster kid.” I didn’t know what to say. “Randy’s lucky to have someone like Gary to look out for him. Foster care is hell.”
Out in the hall we both heard a door open and Ethan stood quickly. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. “There are some new clothes on the desk over there,” he said pointing to a bag. “I figured it wouldn’t look good if you showed up to high school in the same clothes you were wearing yesterday.”
“That’s why I’m here James.”
Randy drove us to school straight from the safe house. Ethan had acquired clothes for him as well, and they were much more stylish than Randy’s usual attire. I could tell it made him uncomfortable. “You look nice,” I told him.
We arrived at the school just before the warning bell and I walked him to class, my hand enclosed in his. I slipped into my seat just before the bell. The teacher gave me a concerned look, but he did not say anything. Mrs. Vallone called me into her office during second period, and I told her everything was fine, if she had questions she could call the social worker. Then I gave her Ethan’s number. She seemed satisfied with this answer, and on the way back to class I text Ethan to give him a head’s up. He’d take it from there.
During lunch Randy and I returned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the library. The librarians converged on us like a pack of starving hyenas as I bashfully handed it over. I explained that I had needed to turn in an assignment by the end of class, and had just realized the class period was ending, so we’d rushed away to get my assignment to the teacher. We hadn’t even realized we had the book, and hadn’t realized the alarms were because of us.
The librarians were skeptical and flipped through the book carefully, but eventually they accepted the story and banned me from checking out books for a month. It didn’t matter. Today was Friday and I’d be gone before the school bell rang Monday morning. As we left the library Randy squeezed my hand and smiled down at me contentedly. I smiled back. He had no idea I’d be gone in three days.
The weekend was spent finishing my report on the Sheagul manuscript. I didn’t completely understand it, but Gurley had been right. It appeared to be an outline for creating a cold fusion power source. The device could create as much as a typical coal power plant, but fit inside a compact car. Sheagul had never meant for his work to do anything but good in the world, but I knew that if this fell into the wrong hands, the technology would be exploited for all kinds of destructive purposes. Part of me wanted to destroy it and tell my superiors we hadn’t been able to find it, but they wouldn’t have believed me.
I didn’t see Randy again until Sunday when he came to pick me up for dinner. I had decided that a pale pink A-line sleeveless dress would best fit the occasion. I balanced the make-up, making sure the yellowing bruises were still visible, but not so prominent, and I curled my hair loosely, pulling it half up, which made me look young and vulnerable.
Ethan found me just as I was slipping my shoes on—white Keds. He was dressed all in black, his face smudged so that in the dark he’d be almost invisible. He had a black duffle bag over his shoulder. “Make sure you stay over there for a while. I can’t do anything until it’s completely dark.” I nodded as I grabbed my knife and strapped it on my leg. Ethan leaned against the molding in the doorway, watching. “James, do you have feelings for him?”
I stood up quickly in surprise. “For Randy? No Ethan, of course not.”
Was there relief in his voice as he said, “He has feelings for you.”
I looked at Ethan waiting in the doorway. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
Ethan looked away from me and didn’t speak for a moment. “Just be easy on him, okay?”
All this time I had thought Ethan didn’t like Randy, but I’d been wrong. Ethan was seeing himself in Randy. “My mother died when I was fourteen,” I blurted out suddenly. I wanted Ethan to know I understood what it was like to lose someone.
Ethan’s gaze drifted back to me, his expression unreadable. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I shook my head in frustration, tears close to the surface of my eyes. I hadn’t meant to cry and I turned away, though I knew Ethan wouldn’t have missed my emotional outbreak. Why couldn’t I always be stony like him? “I just wanted you to know I sort of understand what it means to not have a parent.”
Ethan came closer into the room. “I appreciate it, but I never knew my parents, so I’ve never lost anyone like that.”
“You never knew them?” I asked heartbroken for him. He shook his head, which I saw in the reflection in the mirror on the far wall. I turned back to him.
Ethan turned to leave. As he reached the door he paused. “You shouldn’t tell me things about your family, James. It’s not a good idea.”
I heaved a sigh of frustration. “Ethan, you’re my partner. I trust you with my life. You told me about your past.”
Ethan turned back toward me, his voice quietly intense. “You can trust me with your life and you job and your other secrets, James. But you don’t trust anyone with the people you love. Ever. I don’t have anyone in my life. I don’t have any family so if you know about my past it doesn’t matter, but you still have a life outside this world we work in, and you have to protect that with everything you have.”
I stood, open mouthed, speechless. He didn’t need to explain why my family was in danger, I could already imagine a thousand things that could happen to them because of my employment. Especially my family. I knew he was right. If anyone hurt my father or my brother, I couldn’t live with myself. It struck me that he had said I “still” had a family, as if that would not always be the case.
Almost as if he was reading my thoughts, he said, “Most agents eventually don’t even trust themselves with the people they love.” Outside, someone knocked on the door. Randy was here. I wanted to ask Ethan what he meant, but it was too late and anyway I already knew. Most agents left their love ones, distanced themselves, so their families would be protected. Would I do the same? “You look really nice tonight,” Ethan said.