“Hey, Geek,” a young female voice that had now become very familiar to him called from behind him. “What are you doing down here?”
“Dad and Cici are fighting again. Something is up with Dad. I dunno, maybe you didn’t need to hear about my troubles.”
“Must be in the water. Mom and Dad are into it too,” Chey said.
“Almost like a full moon huh?” He waved his hand over the sand beside him and she dropped into it without a care for her brilliant white shorts.
“Ben, why are we here?”
“You mean us? Or the meaning of life?”
She giggled, “Us Goofy.”
“Not sure I follow.”
She settled into an almost painful expression before continuing, “You weren’t going to come and we were going to land in the Caribbean instead of here for supplies.”
“You mean what is the meaning of us meeting in this place?”
“I want to say it was like we were supposed to meet for some reason, but every time our parents get around each other all Hell breaks loose.”
She caught his reference, “Well, you have to admit I haven’t met your mom yet.”
He nodded, “Fair enough.”
She lifted her head to the vast ocean. “I can’t put my finger on it. Something is wrong.”
“Well the Sun is doing some weird stuff, but that shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re talking on a CB radio or listening to AM radio.”
“A CB? Who does that anymore?”
He laughed, “Some people.”
He grabbed for her hand. She resisted at first until he started standing up, then she let him help her to her feet. She didn’t let go of his hand afterward.
“You know this age thing should bug me?” Ben said, “But it doesn’t.”
She stared ahead but nodded, “A time will come when you introduce me to someone you know and the age difference will embarrass you and you’ll say I’m a cousin or something.”
“But we aren’t boyfriend / girlfriend or anything. We’re just friends, right?”
She seemed disappointed but nodded, “Just friends.”
“Ah, now I hope I didn’t make you mad. I don’t need us fighting for real. Even though I do like the fake fighting we do.”
She smiled, “You know it wasn’t fake at first, right?”
“Oh, I know.”
They walked along the beach for what seemed like hours, the sand squishing between their toes, hand in hand, best friends.
“You know, we are going to be leaving on Sunday morning,” she said.
“I was trying not to think about it.”
“Me either, the sun won’t even be up at four in the morning.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She giggled, “I thought you liked the fighting stuff.”
He smirked, “Not the best timing, you have to admit.”
“It was pretty funny to me.” She allowed a small time to pass in silence before she continued with a new subject. “What is it you do on that laptop all the time?”
“Lots of different stuff.”
“I watch the conspiracy theory stuff pretty close and all the other stuff that might cause a collapse of our current life styles. I run a blog and a pretty popular video blog on a vid sharing site.”
“You get paid for that?”
“Nah,” he laughed.
“So, what’s in it for you?”
“I just think it’s cool to be able to do things for yourself. You know, building stuff, making things, living off the land, but neither of my parents will let me do it for real, so I’m learning all I can while I have the chance. Because if there is some kind of disaster or something or the government decided to take over completely, I wouldn’t have access anymore.”
“What could go wrong?”
He shook his head. “You’d be better off not knowing how easy it would be to destroy that delicate life of yours.”
“Delicate? My dad is a millionaire, I’m not worried.”
“And if the banks collapsed?”
“That’s what mom and dad were fighting about.” Her mind caught a gear and jerked forward. Something was wrong.
“Yeah, something about a hold up with a bunch of money he needed for a deal and the Club was taking an offer off the table.”
“You know where his bank is?”
“Stocker Bone or something.” she scrunched her face trying to remember.
“Stockney/Boam. It’s a European bank that just got busted for skimming from the Stock Exchange. If he had money in there, it’s probably been seized until the investigation is over to make sure he didn’t have something to do with it.”
“So my dad’s broke?” she seemed irritated that Ben would even think such a thing.
“He shouldn’t be if he has as much property as you say he does.” He scratched his chin with his free hand, “Unless he mortgaged everything for a huge buy out here.”
That made her think. She wasn’t happy either.
He tried to change the subject. “You think we should head back. My dictators have a bad habit of eating without me if I don’t stay by their side every minute.”
“Mine don’t but I see what you mean. Besides I’m not supposed to wander to far from Thomas.”
“He’s right behind us.”
“I know, but I’m not supposed to leave the Club grounds. His headset thingy only reaches to the computer in his room, unless he has a relay cell phone with him. We don’t want to get him too far from backup.”
“Oh, crap. Then where are we?”
“We have a ways to go, but we were headed for the light house.”
“We’re already out of town?” He looked around but could see nothing but the berm of sand between them and the main body of the island.
“Not really, but there isn’t much except for camp grounds and stuff out here.”
Ben turned toward the dark shadow behind them in the dusk. “Hey Thomas, how much further to the light house.”
“About an hour the way you guys are walking, but I can have the car here and get you to it in about five minutes if you want.”
Ben started to say not to worry about it but Chey gave him the go ahead. Thomas tapped at his ear and commanded the car to the beach. They turned to meet the car.
“You are gonna tell her parents about tonight aren’t you?” Ben asked Thomas.
“What about tonight?”
“Holding hands and being all romantic-like, when she’s not supposed to have a boyfriend yet.”
He grinned and repeated like he didn’t hear, “What about tonight?”
Both kids smiled and he shut the car door behind them. A quick ride to the south and they were standing next to the black and white tower.
Thomas talked the ranger on duty into taking the kids on a tour of the tower. One hundred and nineteen metal steps later they stood watching the ships pass in the water before them..
Chey reached for Ben’s hand again.
“Getting a little comfy with that aren’t we?” he said as he wound his fingers into hers.
Another light in the water cause Chey to ask the ranger if it was another Key.
“Oh, no ma’am. That is the light that was built to replace this one when ships still weren’t seeing the reefs over there very well. The Fowey Rocks Light. It’s a steel structure right out in the water.”
“Even with the hurricanes and stuff?” Chey asked.
The ranger nodded. “This one has survived too. Even the hurricane in 1835 that flooded the entire island with three feet of water.”
Ben scoffed, “That’s comforting.”
Thomas interrupted the view after a few minutes. “Just got a call from both of your guy’s parents; they’re having dinner together.”
Ben deflated, “Seriously?”
Thomas nodded, “To the car kiddos.”
Both sighed but then raced down the stairs to see who would win reaching the car first. Once in the car they didn’t speak a word. They walked in to the restaurant on opposing sides of Thomas.
The faces of the adults burned with shame. Shorts and sandals were probably not the order of the restaurant, but the maitre’d wasn’t about to enforce it with Thomas standing guard.
The waiter seated the two of them across from each other as if they were a couple. The warm candlelight between them made her look so much older. She didn’t look like a kid across from him. He couldn’t stop staring.
Gary had asked him a question but he didn’t hear it until the entire table was laughing and Chey was blushing. He shook himself out of it and asked, “huh?”
“Well Loverboy, what are you going to eat?” Gary was in tears from his laughter.
“Salad,” Ben grunted.
Chey’s mom started laughing again, “It’s too late, she’s already started to change him!”
Ben looked at the blushing face of the girl across from him. She sat in silence staring at her hands in her lap. “Sorry Chey. I didn’t realize they would be so mean about it.”
Cicilia leaned forward to look at him from around the chuckling Gary. “We aren’t being mean. You two are just so dang cute together.”
Ben changed the subject again. “When were you going to tell me that Mom sold the house?”
Suddenly, the laughing stopped on Ben’s side of the table. “How did you find out?”
“Her name popped up on a California deed search for a house that she and a Mister William Pence just bought together.”
“You were spying on her?”
“It’s not much different than you guys not telling Chey that her family is broke.”
“How did you know that?”
“Stockney/Boam,” he said as he played with his napkin. “Do I need to say more? Or how about Cici’s bankruptcy and the fact that she’ll be homeless in two weeks? Or that Thomas over there is a CIA wet agent. CED Investigator? Really? Nah, he kills for money and he’s good at it.”
Thomas stomped to the table set his fist down in such a way that every dish on the table crashed loudly. “That is classified information. How do you know that?”
“I have friends too Agent Earlin. Colonel Calvin Bradley is the head of your operations but was tanked two years ago by JAG for a operations failure where he got six of his own men killed in Gereshk. Go ahead, make fun of me, I can tear you all apart.”
“You can’t even start to hurt me little boy.” Thomas growled.
“Really? How’s the investigation into Vladimirskya Oblast, um – a city named Murom, Russia going?”
Thomas was wide-eyed and mute.
“All of you. Not one of you would be left standing if I didn’t will it.”
“And what does that magic computer say is your future young man?” Gary was angry.
“We’re all going to die anyway. If JK15045 and JK15017 converge and draw JK14932 into it, there will be enough energy to possibly blow Venus into tiny little pieces. We will know by Sunday if something happens or if it’s just God laughing at us little peons again.”
Even the tables behind them were quiet. Finally, Chey asked, “What are those numbers?”
“Sun spots. Solar storms. JK15045 is twelve times the size of Earth. There are more sunspots at this moment than in any other time in recorded history. Cheyenne, you wanted to know what I do? I watch as time after time disasters are averted one after another and everyone just sits here and acts like nothing is wrong. And the one’s who are watching are laughed at. I know we can’t do anything to stop it, but we could at least have the time to make peace before we die if we were watching.”
“Ben.” It was obvious it was all she could muster. Chey was afraid now. He knew he messed up. He shouldn’t have said all of this. Sometimes silence is the best answer.
“I’ll be in my room.” He stopped behind Chey’s chair. “I had a good time tonight, you got my mind off of it. Thanks.”
She just nodded and he walked away.
Chey sat in the chair, frozen as she felt his spirit leave the space behind her. She wanted to follow him out, but then she knew that Thomas would have to follow her and that would be a problem. What did he do? Who was he really? This man that she trusted her life to, might be responsible for something the government was trying to cover up? And the rest of them. Did they really think they could hide something from Ben? Come to think of it, how did he know all that stuff?
“We have to keep him?” asked Cici.
“You’re bankrupt?” asked Gary.
“We’re broke?” asked her mom.
“What exactly did you do in Russia?” asked Everette.
Thomas sat in the chair just vacated by Ben. “Sounds like we all owe little buddy some explanations huh?” He was looking at her when he said it. His tone implied that she should be included. Or maybe he meant her as “little buddy.” She figured he really meant Ben.
“Waiter, sorry, but check please.” When the man nodded, Thomas turned to the rest of them, “We need to go after him.”
“I’m not going after that brat for nothing.” Cici folded her arms in protest.
Chey stood from her chair in an explosion of rage. “You aren’t even trying to understand him. Did you not just hear what he did here? He just blew you all out of the water and you’re the one’s acting like little brats. Grow up Cici!”
She ignored the full fledged “Cheyenne Marissa Pulace” that came from both parent’s mouths, but the quiet “Chey” unnerved her. Thomas’ stare put her back into her seat and zipped her mouth solid. It wasn’t an evil stare. It was a hurt stare. Pain. Thomas had something to explain that hurt him to his core. She saw the sparkle of the building tears in his eyes, the twitch of his lips, the white of his fingernails from clasping them together on the table cloth. She had never seen him like this. He was making her want to cry. She felt her chest constricting on her throat. She swallowed at the lump but it wasn’t going away.
“For your information, Missy. I don’t have to like him. He isn’t mine.” Cici glared.
“But he’s mine. I abandoned him once. It isn’t going to happen again.” Gary had beads of sweat on his forehead. “If you plan on marrying me, you are planning on having him around too.”
The waiter handed her dad the check.
“I’ll take that,” said Thomas, much to the waiter’s surprise.
“We are broke aren’t we?” her mom whispered.
“Technically no. Ben was right, they have my money locked up in the investigation into the bank in Amsterdam.”
“We have other money right?”
“No, Dove. All of my money was supposed to be in route here to buy the majority share in this place. We were to sign papers on it on Monday. Now since the papers are already off the table because they don’t trust me, we’ll be leaving for Hawaii on Sunday. Or at least as far as we can get on a weeks worth of food. Hopefully, the money will be free to move after that and I can go ahead with my secondary plans in case this one fell through.”
The table was silent for a while until Gary spoke up, “I always thought I wanted to be rich, but if you have to deal with that very often I’ll just keep on building houses for you guys.”
Eventually, the group of them made it out of the restaurant and headed in the direction of the condo that Gary, Cici and Ben were staying in. Chey had a cold chill. Thinking it was weird, she looked around and saw in the darkness of the evening what looked to be the shirt that she had spent a good part of the day with.
“Ben?” she asked the shadow.
“What – are you psychic now?” he said as he wiped at his face.
Cici spun and started to volley out a tirade, but what she saw seemed to stop her dead. He was huddled into a ball without a concern for them walking by him.
“Ben, I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you about your mom, but she finally just answered my phone call this morning, and… well, I didn’t know what to say.” Gary knelt beside him in the grass below the coconut palm.
Thomas stepped behind him looking into the tree, “You know if one of these fall on you, they do hurt.”
The group wheezed a small laugh, but not Ben. “That was kinda my point. What good is all this crap I do? I have no practical experience. If something would go wrong I would probably lock up and panic like everyone else. Besides that everybody just runs away anyway.”
Thomas knelt behind him with Chey standing at his side. “Okay, Bud, two things. Number One; I saw someone come alive today that has been cowering in her stateroom for six months. It wasn’t Florida. It was you. And I don’t see her wanting to leave you behind Sunday. Number Two; It takes a lot of book experience to do what you do. What’s the best pistol to have in case of an emergency?”
“Pistol? Apples and oranges, there is a .22 rimfire in my pack that beats everything I’ve tested.”
“You have a gun?” Cici turned a pallid white, nearly glowing in the darkness. “How did you get it past airport security?”
“It wasn’t in my carry on stuff and it was stored according to regulations.” Ben rolled his eyes. “It’s a Ruger Mark II with the ten and five-eighths barrel, and I had the barrel rifled for better velocity and reach.”
Thomas raised his eyebrow. “What is the best currency to have on hand?”
“Nickels. They are the only money left in our currency that is still worth at least the metal in it. I have about a thousand bucks worth at home, along with my Judge .44 caliber pistol that shoots .410 shotgun shells and my Remington 1100 twenty gauge. Stored with that stuff is about a years supply of MREs.”
“MR what?” Gary asked, still in a daze that his son owned more guns than he did.
Thomas answered, “MRE. Meals Ready To Eat. They were started in the military but they are being sold to civilians who are stocking up for exactly what Ben is talking about here. They are easy to pack, and can stay good in a package if stored right for like a decade.”
“What else do you have in your pack?” Everette was very interested in just how much preparation this little guy had made for his trip.
“I have a complete bug out bag. Fifty buck in nickels, a water purifier that works by hand, a solar cell phone charger that is convertible to charge my laptop battery, about a weeks worth of MREs and a bunch of other stuff that might come in handy for other problems. Like a first aid kit, waterproof matches, Swiss Army knife, and some basic survival stuff. Then the laptop, I have all of my files stored on a thumbdrive in a static bag, and it is double protected by my pack being lined like a Faraday box.”
Thomas crossed his arms and while everyone else was speechless again by this kid’s words, he spoke up again, “You have a way to re-prime your rounds at home don’t you?”
Ben finally looked up from the ground to eye Thomas. “When Dad left I took over his garage. If Mom hasn’t thrown everything away, I have a complete foundry there. That’s how I make my money. I pour little aluminum trinkets then sell them online. It’s not much money but it does what I need.”
“See,” Thomas grunted, “You say you’re useless and have nothing but book smarts. But here you are telling us that you make your own way in the world. I don’t see why there isn’t anyone on this planet that shouldn’t respect that.”
Everette and Gary nodded in affirmation. Chey knelt and wrapped her arm around his shoulder.
Everette then turned back to his angry side. “But! What happened in Russia. Who has been taking care of my little girl?”
Thomas looked around for a second then pulled the earpiece from his ear.
“We had a tip that Evan Valinsinkova, a head kingpin in a mafia funded drug ring that was supplying street kids with meth, was holed up in a hotel there. Let’s just say it turned out bad.”
“What he means to say is-” Ben took a deep breath. “It turned into a hostage situation with the local Police. Thirty-six civilians, twelve Police officers, and six of his own men dead later they were extracted. All while the target was in St. Petersburg, knowing full well he had sent them into a trap.”
“Ben… The civilians…” Thomas was nearly in tears.
“Was an orphanage. None of your collateral damage was over the age of Cheyenne.” Ben finished his sentence for him. “That’s why it’s so important for you to keep Chey safe, even though you are really here to investigate Mr. Pulace for embezzlement.”
Chey turned to her big hero and wrapped her hand into his, “I don’t fear anything when you are around Thomas. I don’t care what happened in Russia. You are my bodyguard.”
The big man was crestfallen. She felt him trembling as he pulled her to him in a hug and kissed the top of her head.
Silence again hovered over the crowd. In the distance, dance music rumbled but not so loud that they couldn’t hear the soft lapping of the tiny waves on the lake.