Cold hard truths
“Ralph!” Jules shouted gleefully. Her footsteps echoed slapping sounds across the huge courtyard of the manor as she rushed to the cat.
Servario’s manor home was so large I’d lost my children in it three times in the weeks we’d stayed here.
“Uncle Fitz! You got him!” Jules grabbed the cat carrier from Fitz and placed it down roughly, something Ralph would not likely thank her for. She pulled the fluffy animal from the carrier and held him tight. It was the struggle snuggle of his life.
The cat obliged but gave me the warning look; undoubtedly we were counting down to the moment the fur flew and the child cried.
“Okay, let me see him.” I hurried over, taking my chubby cat in my arms and sniffing his fur. “I’ve missed you,” I whispered to him.
“Did you bring Penny too?” Jules asked Fitz about the horse he’d given her.
“No, honey. I couldn't fit her on the plane. But I did make sure she was doing well at the boarding stables. She sends her regards and wishes she were on this journey with us.” Fitz grinned at her but his eyes darted to me, telling me something wasn't right. Something that would need to be discussed privately.
“Why don't you take Ralph in and show him where the food is going to be and set up his litter box?” I handed him to Jules.
“Why do I hafta do it?”
“Because pets are a responsibility, missy. Move it!” I folded my arms and gave the mom look. The one where I arched one eyebrow more than the other and side-glanced silent threats.
“Fine. But this isn’t fair. Mitch never has to do anything.” She stomped off.
“Life’s hard.” I rolled my eyes and headed in the opposite direction, past Fitz, forcing him to turn and walk with me.
“Yes, I can’t imagine being a little kid living with three maids, a groundskeeper, and a butler.” He chuckled.
“I don't know how we will ever go back to normal,” I lamented.
“Evie, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there is no normal, kid.”
“I’m starting to see that.” I hugged myself tighter. “What was the other thing? The look?”
“Well, our house in Canada has been ransacked. They’re clearly searching for us.”
“God, even Canada isn’t safe?”
“Apparently not. Though the good thing is we’re still undetected in England. No one seems to know we’re here.” Fitz shrugged, satisfied with that.
“Do you think it’s Saransk, and he’s figured out it was me who took down his daughter?” The thought made me want to panic but until we had proof, there was no point.
“I don't know. It’s possible, there could’ve been cameras we didn't find or ways of figuring out it was you who took down the brothel. A mole perhaps.”
“But that’s why we do everything so under the radar. The brothel sting was serious need to know, so any moles wouldn't be able to alert Saransk.”
“Which means we need to get rid of him. ASAP. If it is him, he’s better connected than we were prepared for.” Fitz sounded tired. “I checked in with Coop. He’s busy making it appear as though he’s working a completely different case, trying to lead any moles watching us away. So we might be able to fly under the radar long enough to finish this and end the target on our backs.”
“That’s hopeful.” I didn't want to believe it, but there really was no other option. The choices were: stress out until I couldn't even function, or live with the hand we’d been dealt and hope hiding here at Servario’s mystery mansion was enough. Neither was amazing but it could’ve been worse.
It could always be worse.
If Saransk found out who I was or found my children, it would be much worse.
“I’m going to lie down. Tell your mother I’m back, please.” Fitz leaned in and kissed my cheek, leaving the lingering scent of his aftershave in the soft breeze.
“Will do.” I watched him amble away, wondering how hard it was, being a hidden asset all these years. Fitz, Mom, and Dad had been in the game a lifetime now. I wondered about the cost on the soul and happiness. They did seem rather tired.
Not having the time to ponder that, I turned and went back to the office where Jack currently lived.
Opening the door to the dark room made me cringe.
It was every mother’s worst nightmare.
Lack of air circulation.
Sort of like dust, stinky unwashed feet, and a combination of foods at different stages of decay blending to make the smell all teenagers seemed to thrive in. Particularly boys.
Jack’s bloodshot eyes didn't lift from the computer screens, but he nodded his head, acknowledging my arrival. “Evie.”
He was typing faster than I ever thought possible, his gaze flickering between three massive screens.
On the other side of the room, facing him, was a wall of small TVs all flashing images from facial recognition software linked to different CCTV networks he’d connected to. Next to them were three smaller TVs monitoring Coop, our other new job. We watched his back and the activity around him. Everywhere Coop went, facial recognition caught him on camera and patched the information to these TVs. It was like being there for him but not. If it was an emergency, we could get in contact with him. Otherwise, our orders were to wait here for Jack to crack the code on the bots while we came up with a plan for the destruction of the Burrow and the Organization.
Luce glanced up at me, her eyes bloodshot as well. “Oh thank God. My turn to go outside?” She struggled to get out of her chair.
She stood tall, stretching and moaning, her shirt lifting a little to reveal some of her abs. Jack’s eyes and typing paused as he focused on her for a moment, one she didn't notice. His eyes stayed on her stomach, his brow knit, and he gulped. It took a moment before he went back to the rapid typing, but his gaze didn't lock on the computers again. It flickered from them to her.
She was oblivious. Her stare met mine and she grinned. “I’m going for a swim.”
“Tell Mom Fitz is back, please. And take Mitch with you. He needs fresh air. Servario had every new gaming system delivered days ago, and I don't think he’s left the room since.”
“Reminds me of someone else.” Luce eyed Jack whose cheeks flushed in the bright light of the computer screens.
“This is actually my job. It’s not like I’m playing the early release of The Last of Us.” He sounded bitter.
“That’s what Mitch is playing. He can't believe Mom's mystery friend got it a month early for him.”
“Of course he can’t,” Jack seethed.
“Anyway. I’ll be back in a few hours to relieve you.” Luce left the room, closing the door softly.
“Still nothing?” I asked Jack quietly, not wanting Luce to hear.
“She hates me. I don't know how to fix this.”
“Yeah, me either. I’ll keep thinking on it.” I nestled into the warm chair Luce had left me. My eyes narrowed in on Coop sitting at a desk typing, much like Jack was. “Anything exciting happen?” I asked him about Coop.
“Nope. He’s got to be bored. Weeks of updating criminal and political profiles in the database would probably kill me.” His voice trailed off as if he was detached from his thought process. “But I think he needed a couple of weeks away.”
The comment stung just enough to end the conversation, though I wasn't certain that was what Jack intended. He wasn't cruel, he was indifferent, which could also be painful to anyone on the receiving end. I turned back to Coop and started to watch his six.
On the screen he scowled, maybe concentrating, but then his lips lifted into a grin.
Seeing him on a screen was akin to watching a TV show. He was beautiful enough to be an actor.
“He looks good. Happier,” I noted quietly, maybe to myself. It was a vast improvement compared to when his sister died. He was a wreck just weeks ago.
“Yeah, he seems almost back to normal. Been posting jokes to our safe profiles for days. Lighthearted ones too. It’s weird but I’m relieved. I was sure her death would be the end of his sanity.”
“How long is he staying there?” I’d assumed he would be back by now.
“Not sure. He keeps delaying. It was two weeks, then three. Now it’s been a month and he’s delayed again.”
We missed him but watching Coop’s eyes sparkle again as they lifted from the screen, focusing on something out of the camera’s viewpoint, was worth his not being here.
“If our house in Canada was ransacked, what are the odds that it’s Saransk who knows who I am and is hunting for me?” I asked offhandedly.
“Fair to good. There’s always a chance in everything.”
“I need to take out Saransk, sooner than later. We need to start preparing for that.”
“I’ll add it to the list of shit I’m trying to accomplish this week,” he said dryly.
“Smart ass.” I lifted a middle finger into the air and focused on Coop’s smile, noting it had shifted, softening as he stared into the distance. I was just about to change the angle when a female walked into view. She had on black tight-fitting dress pants, ugly square-shaped shoes, a pale blue blouse, and her shiny blonde hair was spun up in a struggle bun. She glimpsed back and smiled at someone behind her.
“Oh her,” Jack sounded disinterested, but he lifted his eyes and watched her as intently as I did. "She's new."
The girl—literally a girl—was stunning even if she tried to be plain.
She couldn't have been more than twenty-five. She was slender and shiny in a bright-eyed way that suggested teenaged innocence and naivety. Like how the Sweet Valley High twins always appeared on the covers of their books. Books I’d read before Coop was in school.
The girl smiled wider and waved at the someone behind her we couldn't see in the cameras, and then focused back to Coop, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. She was inviting him to do something. She was trying to be casual, but from the way her hand trembled just slightly and her stomach tightened enough to be caught by the camera, it was obvious what was happening here. She liked him. He made her uncomfortable in an exciting way.
He tilted his head, contemplating what she was offering, and there was no mistaking the look in his eyes or the way he smiled wide and free.
He liked her back.
This was why he had delayed coming to England.
I hated the expression I knew was on my face.
It was petty and gross and not my right to feel slighted by his flirting with an office girl where he was working. But I was. I hated to admit it, but I was slighted and petty and gross.
“How many times have you seen them talking?” I whispered, hoping my disgusting jealousy wasn't too obvious. I had never seen her before but that meant nothing. I’d clearly missed something, something no one else wanted to fill me in on. And we still had a job to do. We needed to know who she was.
“Uh, fourteen conversations thus far. I’ve already checked her out, in case she was trying to get to him. She’s one of ours. CI. She’s in tech, like me. Went to MIT, graduated last year. She’s twenty-five. Her name’s Simone Tucker. She’s Irish and Scottish descent. Her parents are both teachers in Boise. She has a younger brother who’s at Harvard, prelaw. She’s bad at sports. Doesn't exercise ever. Has a small apartment in Brooklyn. Has a weird-looking cat with a smushed-in face named Haggis. Eats takeaway for every single meal. Never cooks, I don't think she can. She updates her social media once every couple of days and gets a lot of likes from a group of girls who all seem to be upper middle-class white girls. No dudes except cousins. No dating apps. Did well in high school academically, but I don't believe she dated anyone. She glowed up around nineteen. It was braces and glasses and bad skin before that. Really oily hair.”
“Glowed up?” I was already lost.
“Yeah. Got hot. Apparently, I also glowed up, according to Luce,” he trailed off and shrugged.
“Right. Anyway,” he continued, “she was scouted into the CIA from MIT and was later scooped up by CI to fill the shortage I created by going deep cover. She and Coop met the first day he was back. Since then she’s asked him to eat a meal with her ten times. Usually it’s lunch. The first few times, it was as part of a group. Then it was her and two other people for lunch. Now they eat together with one other lady. I think she likes him, but doesn’t have the courage to ask—”
“Jesus.” I sighed. “She’s you.”
“Doesn't exercise but stays slender, twenty-five, smart, techy, nerdy, shy, and shit at sports and speaking to members of the opposite sex.” I lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Right, well, when you put it—shit.” He slumped. "A new me."
“He isn’t replacing you, Jack.” I offered a soft smile. “He loves you. You’re his best friend.”
“He’s replacing you, Evie,” he whispered it so softly I barely heard the words. The look on his face suggested he hadn’t meant to say it.
“I guess he is.” I forced a wide closed-lip smile and took several breaths through my nose before I spoke again, “I just wish he would stop trying to date people he works with,” I added, realizing how bitter it sounded.
“Yeah, me too. Makes it weird for all of us when things don't pan out.” He wrinkled his nose as he said it. And I wasn't sure if it was me and Coop or him and Luce that the shot applied to. Maybe both.
“Right,” I agreed, though I didn't want to. Coop got up from the chair and trailed behind the blonde. The camera angles changed, following them down the hall, tracking Coop by the belt buckle he wore and the facial recognition software. They strolled to lunch but both seemed tense, anxious, as if on the precipice of a relationship.
The back of his hand brushed hers.
Her back straightened.
My stomach ached.
“I’m gonna”—I pointed at the door as I shot up from the chair— “go.”
I couldn't get the handle open fast enough.
I didn't get into the hall quickly enough. My gasping breath had to have been audible from the gap in the door as I closed it.
My stomach burned and my heart felt constricted in my chest.
The wide hallway spun for a moment before I slid down the wall and held my knees, forcing my brain to accept what was.
I’d broken things off with Coop.
I made him walk away.
I chose Servario.
I needed to be happy with that choice and let him be.
He deserved to be happy.
The fact she was young and perfect and shiny stung, but what he and I were was gone. Over. Done.
I needed to get my own memo.
He was too young. He would want kids and marriage, and deep down he wanted a wife who would want those things too. Not some jaded divorcée who made a disgusted face every time someone asked if she would ever get married again.
“You all right?” Luce strode down the hall in her bikini, carrying a towel.
“Yeah,” I lied.
“Guessing you saw it?” She too slid down the wall, sitting across from me.
“Yeah,” I repeated. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“Maybe it’s nothing. They eat lunch together, it might end up being nothing.”
“It’s not nothing,” I argued.
“I know. But seriously, you okay?”
“No. I’m kinda heartbroken, but I don't have the right to be, so I will be okay. Just need a minute.” I didn't sound sure. I wasn't, as I exposed my burnt chest cavity to her. "He really likes her."
“He needs to move on, Evie. You need to deal with S before you consider dating anyone else. Can’t love with a heart you gave away. Even if you gave it to some psycho.”
“You would know.” I hit her back softly.
“That I would. At least my psycho is addicted to videogames and not tormenting his enemies.” She stared me down lovingly with concern emanating from her, until she finally whispered, “You know what Fitz and your mom always say about shitting where you eat?”
“Yup,” I agreed quietly, wishing we’d all listened better to that little chestnut of wisdom.
“Guess we both should have listened to them.” She blinked and for a second I swore I saw a bit of gloss in her eyes.
“Yup,” I agreed again. “But listening isn’t one of our skills.”
“It super isn’t,” she lamented and then we stopped talking. We sat in the hallway staring at the wall, contemplating how stupid each of us was.