Happy New Year! It’s been a whole year of Fiction Friday. We have a few weeks left of Curve Ball, then I’m not sure what will be next. Maybe another of my practice novels that will never be published…? I hope I don’t have any more of those, but I probably do. Sigh… Here’s to 2011!
Cami stared in horror, bile rising in her throat. She ran to the sink, barely making it. Mortified, she turned back to the others. Absolute silence resonated as everyone gaped at the brown and tan feathers scattered on the table around the sparrow. Grant leapt to his feet, grabbed the envelope and swept the bird into it. Petey tried to grab the package, then sank to the floor with a disgusted sigh as Grant threw it into the trash.
“Who-” Peg didn’t finish her question. They all knew the answer.
“I hate this!” Cami cried. “This is sick, just sick. What’s next?” She wanted to lay her head on the table and sob.
“That’s it.” Grant strode to the phone, and then stood holding the receiver. “I don’t know who to call. Not 911. And Detective Bermudez will have more useless platitudes.” He slammed the phone into its cradle and moved to gather Cami in an embrace. She longed to collapse and cry, to break down and wail. For a moment she relaxed into his arms. But only for a moment. Then she stuffed those emotions back into their box and spoke in a still shaky voice. “We have to get it out of the garbage. The police will want to see it.”
Grant stared into the trash container before pulling the envelope out and taking it back to the laundry room. He returned as Cap picked up the phone and stepped out the French doors onto the patio. Cami could see him talking, his face somber.
She looked up at Grant. “There’s no way this is one of my students, or anyone at the center. No one I know would do such a horrible, despicable thing.”
Grant stared at her. “You still don’t get it.”
“Get what?” Surely he wasn’t going to keep insisting a kid would do this?
“This is someone who knows you, and you know him. But when you see him face to face, he’s only showing you what he wants you to see. This evil is his true self.”
“If you’re right then I have to second guess my feelings about everyone I know. If I can’t trust my feelings, I have nothing left.” She looked away as she realized what she’d said. It was the first time she’d ever admitted that to herself, never mind out loud.
“Cami – you don’t mean that.” She’d forgotten Peg still sat at the table.
“If I’m so easily fooled and manipulated, then I can’t trust myself to know truth when I hear it.” Cami folded her arms across her chest.
Mr. Andrews came back into the kitchen and hung up the phone.
“I called Mongoose.”
“Do you think that’s necessary?” Peg’s tone was aghast.
“Great, Dad, thanks,” Grant said.
“Who’s Mongoose?” Cami asked.
“A buddy of Dad’s, from the Navy,” Grant answered. “He’s former PSYOP.”
Cami stared at Cap. “What do you do in the Navy?”
He smiled reassuringly. “I’m just a logistician. I make sure personnel get where they’re supposed to be when they’re needed. I’ve made a few friends along the way. Mongoose is retired, but he’s a consultant now, specializing in kidnap and hostage negotiations. I caught him between jobs, he’s on his way here.”
“I don’t think I need anyone like that,” Cami said. Did she? But it was nice of Cap to call a friend and ask a favor for her. “I appreciate the offer and I know you mean well, but-”
Grant interrupted. “Just meet with Mongoose. That won’t hurt anything, will it? At least tell him what’s going on and get his perspective on it.”
As Cami considered, her head waggled. It would be a waste of time, but if it would make Grant feel better, she could spend an evening talking with his friend. “I guess it’s okay.”
“Great.” Grant hugged her, while Cap looked at her with appraising eyes. She returned his gaze, not sure he was just a logistician.
Peg brewed more tea. The strong flavor and shots of caffeine helped them spend the next twenty minutes pretending everything was normal. The light knock at the front of the house was a relief. Cami felt the tension drop as Grant opened the door.
Cami had been wrong in her presumption about this old friend of Cap’s. Mongoose was slightly taller than she was, and had some overlap of his belt. She’d visualized someone tall and lean, the proverbial soldier of fortune. This man looked like her Uncle Manny: brown hair a little long on the collar, and a coffee stain on his sport shirt but he carried himself like a soldier. Straight back and firm hand shake.
He greeted Cap, Peg, and Grant who stepped to Cami’s side.
“This is Camille Henderson. Dad called you about her problem.”
“Yes.” Mongoose held her hand for a moment as his eyes bore into hers. She involuntarily looked to Grant for reassurance, he nodded and smiled back at her.
“Miss Henderson, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Vic Aldrich, but please call me Mongoose. Cap says you need help. Tell me about it.”
Cami sighed and looked at the others. “I’m not convinced you can do anything.”
“At least tell me what happened. To not talk after I’m here would be a waste of Cap’s phone call. If I don’t have any ideas, I’ll be honest with you.” Mongoose didn’t even look at Cap who didn’t seem insulted.
“I guess it won’t hurt.” Cami sat down again at the kitchen table. She forced herself to sip the tea, cold now, but it gave her hands something to do. “There have been some odd things happening that could be explained by a stalker if my life were a ‘Movie of the Week.’ But I don’t believe anyone I know is capable of all this.”
“Like what?” Mongoose sipped from the cup Peg placed in front of him. She seemed to know what he would want without asking. Peg and Cap leaned against the counter behind her interrogator. Grant looked from Cami to the three people across from her then pulled a chair out and sat next to her as she began to talk. His arm rested against the back of her chair. She drew a deep breath, feeling better with him beside her.
“Some phone calls at first. Anonymous cards and notes. Then my car was vandalized. Today I opened my mail and a dead bird fell out. A little sparrow.” Cami shuddered as she remembered the still form tumbling out of the envelope.
“When did the calls start?”
She knew this one. “February.”
“So three months? Give or take.” Mongoose had not changed position or moved his eyes from hers since he started asking questions.
“I guess so.”
“And the notes?”
“Definitely Valentine’s Day. I thought, and still think, they were anonymous students.” She had to look away, he was so intense.
“You’re a teacher?”
“I‘m actually a painter. But I do teach art enrichment at the Agua Vida rec center.”
“Has anyone ever boxed you in?”
“What do you mean?”
“Obstructed your way out of a room, so you felt trapped. Or blocked you inside a parking space.”
“Well….” A few weeks ago, she took Petey to the beach for a run and returned to her car to find it hemmed in by an old wreck. She’d waited an hour for its owner to return and move it. Just as she gave up and called the police, two kids from church had showed up and pushed it out of her way. She’d thought nothing more of the incident. She told the story now, her earlier fear returning. She folded her arms across her chest, to hide the shaking.
“Which kids?” Grant asked.
Mongoose’s eyes narrowed as she breathed in and debated whether to evade the question. Something in that dark gaze compelled her to answer with the truth.
“Kyle and Anthony.”
Grant’s left hand gripped her arm. “And you’re just now remembering that?”
“I never connected it with the phone calls. And I still don’t.” She shook her head and looked at Mongoose. “I will not accept that this is one of my students.”
“I understand.” He leaned back in his chair and took another sip from his mug. “Let’s talk about something else, get acquainted. How long have you known Grant?”
“Years.” She forced a smile. “We went to Woodrow Wilson High together. But we met again a few weeks ago. And you?”
“Since he could toss a ball up in the air. He’d stand in the backyard for hours, throwing and catching. He missed a lot more in those days than he does now.”
Cami unfolded her arms and leaned back in the chair. She glanced at Grant who was looking at Mongoose with a mystified expression. Cap and Peg still stood behind their friend. Cap’s arms were folded across his chest, while Peg’s hands were on her hips. They exchanged a glance before Cap raised his chin at Grant.
“What’s going on?” Foreboding crept up Cami’s spine.
Mongoose frowned before answering. “Grant doesn’t like to be reminded of those days before fielding grounders became second nature.”
“Cap said you retired from the Navy.” They weren’t simply getting acquainted, but she would play along.
“I do consulting work now, mostly in the area of negotiations.”
“Like ransom demands?”
“Sometimes. Usually it’s boring corporate contracts.”
“Was Cap?” Maybe the change of subject would distract him.
Mongoose smiled at her. “Cap’s a pencil pusher.”
“I resent that.” The pencil pusher spoke up.
“You can resent it, but you can’t deny it.” Mongoose’s eyes never left Cami’s as she shifted in her seat, exposed and raw. Could Mongoose see into her soul? Looking like he could read her thoughts, he leaned in his chair, tilting so far back he looked at Cap and Peg behind him.
“How much longer are you gonna sit behind that desk anyway?” Mongoose asked his friend.
“Two more years. You know that.”
“Tell me about Kyle and Anthony.” The legs of his chair hadn’t touched the floor when Mongoose’s question snapped Cami’s attention back to him. She jumped.
“Is this a negotiation?”
“You tell me about your students, I’ll tell you anything you want to know about the Andrews family.”
Cami considered. Kyle and Anthony weren’t stalkers, so this could be a way to persuade Grant she was right. And she’d learn a little more about him and his family in the meantime. “Deal. You go first.”
“I asked you a question. You answer and you get to ask one.”
“They’re both seniors at Woodrow Wilson High. Kyle is smart, he’s applying to PAC-Ten schools, and he plays baseball. So does Anthony, but he’s not in Kyle’s league. Where did you meet Grant?”
“Okinawa. He was three and partial to a droopy, dirty stuffed animal he called Mr. Bear.”
“Hey.” Grant stood up from beside Cami where he’d been watching their interplay. “I didn’t agree to this.”
“You’re collateral.” Mongoose’s eyes never left Cami’s. “Do you know Kyle’s and Anthony’s families?”
“Kyle goes to my church. I met Anthony’s mother at a Christmas party at the rec center.” She cast her mind around for a topic to distract him with. Then she saw her mail still on the table and the corner of the collectibles catalog gave her an idea. “Who was Grant’s favorite super-hero?”
“Peter Parker. Is Kyle’s family intact?”
“Are his parents still married to each other? No. Is there a sport Grant isn’t good at?” Cami relaxed a little.
“He can’t bowl and he stinks at croquet.” Mongoose stood, walked to the stove, and filled his mug with hot water. “Kyle is your stalker.”
“You got that from a few random questions?” Her ease disappeared and a gnawing disquiet took its place.
“I am a professional.”
His confidence mocked her and suddenly Cami wanted nothing more than to leave the room. She got to her feet.
“It’s not Kyle,” she said with certainty. “Or Anthony. Or any other student.”
Mongoose crossed the room with a quickness that belied his sloppy appearance and took her hands in his.
“Miss Henderson, I don’t mean to sound flip, but I am a professional. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. If I tell you some things about Kyle, and they’re true, will you consider the possibility?”
Cami stared into his eyes, then felt Grant’s gentle hand on her shoulder.
“I know you don’t want to believe it, but you need to know the truth,” he said. “I promise, whatever it is, I’ll be here.”
Grant’s certainty concerned her. Would he keep his promise, even when it turned out he was wrong and it was a psychotic stranger? She ignored the doubt about Kyle that had gone from tapping on her consciousness to running at it with a battering ram of reason and logic.
Grant stood behind her chair, waiting. He’d been so patient. Would he get tired of her stubbornness? And of her?
She sat with a resigned shrug. “Okay. Convince me.”