Something Feels Strange - 48

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Something Feels Strange…

By Tiffany B. Quinn

It also occurs to me that I’ll no longer be able to monitor Dr. Lang’s computer activities as he’ll be removing his computer from the house. I’m sure FBI geeks can hack the hotel’s system and keep the censor program active.  This investigation is truly out of my hands now.

I manage to resist the urge to read Mrs. Lang’s email—after all, I did promise to be a good girl——

Chapter 48: Waiting

Aunt Jen and Laurie arrive home from work just as I’m shutting down my computer.

“How’s work?” I ask.

“Everyone wanted to know how you’re doing,” Aunt Jen replies. She hands me a couple of envelopes that obviously contain cards. “Your supervisor dropped these by the Director’s office just before quitting time.”

They turn out to be from my co-workers.  I get a warm feeling reading the short ‘get well’ messages. Steve, my programmer friend, adds a little note to his get well wish that he’s been to lunch with Tiff again. Dr. Lang’s signature is noticeably absent. I put the cards with the flowers that I’ve placed in the middle of the breakfast table.

“Are those the flowers that Andy’s mom brought?” Aunt Jen asks. I had told her about the visit when we talked earlier this afternoon. “They’re lovely.”

Laurie hadn’t heard about the visit yet, so I gave her a condensed version of it as we started to work together on a salad.

“I called Andy’s mother after talking with you,” Aunt Jen informs me. “She’s agreed to let Andy come with us next weekend if he wants too. She’s found one of her other employees who’s looking for more hours so he can take the time off.”

Laurie pouts a little, “I wish Chris were coming.”

Laurie started to thaw a bit last night after the accident but I can tell that she’s still not very happy with me. We really need to have a chat

“Don’t worry, cousin,” I go to give her a little hug but she backs away, “He’ll be back in three short weeks.” While the thought is comforting to her, it is brings a little sadness to my heart—as does her continued distance.

We have everything ready long before our guests arrive, so I dutifully call Mom Quinn with an update of my less than exciting day. I let her know that Andy is probably coming camping with us next week. Apparently she’d also talked with Mrs. Lang and already knew that.

When I was done checking in, I find Laurie on her bed writing in her journal.

“Can we talk?” I hesitantly ask.

Looking into my eyes she seems undecided. After a few seconds, she sighs, “I suppose.”

“Why are you so mad at me?” I ask feeling very low.

“You don’t trust me,” she states flatly, keeping her defenses up. “You’d think after all the time we’ve spent together you’d be able to trust me. I’ve done everything I can to help you with this project. I’ve tried everything I know to help you deal with the change. I’ve been there for you whenever you needed me. I really thought we understood each other. Then I find out that you’ve been excluding me and—I suspect—you’ve even thought I was part of the problem. What’s with all this sneaking around with a secret phone and working behind my back when I could have helped? I thought we were a team.”

Tears fill her eyes as she crosses her arms defiantly and throws up a stout emotional wall between us.

“What was I to think?” I quietly ask her. “I unexpectedly find myself in a place I don’t belong in a body that doesn’t fit well and who’s the first person I see?  You. What was I to think then? Then I found out that the only reason you’re my girlfriend is because somebody paid you to do it. What was I supposed to think about that? That hurt a lot, but we had that discussion in Alaska and I was starting to feel better, but still betrayed. Then things weren’t adding up with the security committee. Who was I to trust? Everybody had to be checked out. I’m sorry, but part of me still wondered about your motivation.”

Her defenses get firmer as I plow on. “I took a risk on the Major being clean. The ‘secret’ phone was necessary so I could talk with him without alerting the security team. I also used it to bring my Dad into the picture to help me sort out the mess. He’s the one that helped me with the planted files. That phone helped me to prove who we could trust and who we couldn’t. In a way, it helped me prove what a true friend you really are to both me and Chris. That phone is what allows us to work together as a team now.”

Seeing her eyes beginning to shimmer, I sense a crack in her armor. “So why didn’t you tell me about it after you were convinced I wasn’t a problem?” she asks.

I shrug my shoulders, “Maybe I should have, but it’s been my safety valve. I still need it to be secret from Rana and his crew so I thought it best to keep it quiet. Remember the compartmentalization concept?  If you don’t know about it then you can tell about it. Hopefully your mother hasn’t told too many people about it either.”

We talk for a while longer as I try to convince her that I didn’t mean to hurt her.  As we talk, the wall starts to slowly crumble.

“So,” she concludes, “you really do trust me now?”

“I do,” I tell her with all the sincerity I can muster, “I’m sorry that I didn’t for a while. But, if you look at it from my perspective, maybe you see why I didn’t.”

“And I’m sorry I wasn’t understanding,” she apologizes as the last of her defenses collapse and she opens her arms for tender hug and a few tears of relief from both of us.

“Is this a private thing, or can I join in too?” Caitlin surprises us both from the bedroom doorway a few moments later. “Sorry to interrupt your tender moment but your mom said you two were back here somewhere and to go find you.

“Come here, girl,” Laurie says, “You’ve been good to my cousin. You deserve a hug too.”

As we go back to the final dinner preparations we all feel much better. Regardless, I sense that there’s still a hint of a crack in my relationship with Laurie. I don’t think that either of us feel quite a close as we did before. At least we’re still friends.

The evening turns out to be blessedly normal. We have a leisurely dinner on the back patio. Everyone makes sure I don’t move around too much so that my leg will heal. Andy and Caitlin, particularly, wait on me—much to the amusement of the others. It is kind of like being Queen—or is that Princess—for the evening.

After Laurie annihilates everyone in two consecutive games of Scrabble, Andy leaves for home. I get a pleasant good night kiss to keep my heart warm until we meet up again.

He was hardly out the door before Laurie and Caitlin drag me back to my room to change for the night. Even Aunt Jen and Helen get into the act. The five of us sit around the breakfast table telling stories and giggling over chocolate ice cream before propping my foot on a pillow to watch an old romantic classic movie. Aunt Jen excuses herself after the movie and the three of us teen girls and our not-much-out-of-teen-years friend camp out in the family room just talking.

Helen regales us with stories of life as a woman in the military. It hasn’t been very long since women have been allowed a more active role in the military and she’s encountered a fair amount of prejudice within the organization, but she’s a fighter and has shown her value many times. She also shows that she has a good sense of humor and fair play as well. She shares what are probably heavily edited stories from some of their missions. Her primary role is surveillance and intelligence gathering. She’s not often on ‘the pointy end of the stick’—as she puts it—although she’s prepared if needed. She shares more than one humorous anecdote about the Major which I store away for future use whenever I get the urge to rib him a little.

As I drift off to sleep lying between my cousin and my best girl friend, a feeling of sadness washes over me when I think that I have only three weeks of this kind of sisterhood left. I really like being one of the girls. Brain Central reminds me that I’ve missed a lot of great guy experiences this summer. As I think of it, I do look forward to some aspects of being a boy again. It doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t miss these good elements of being a girl. As I snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag, I conclude that I’m going to be one messed up kid for a while.

---<>---

“Can’t you go any faster with those things?” Dan ribs me as we work our way through the hospital towards Ben’s room. I think I’m hobbling along pretty well given that upper body strength was never one of my strong points as a guy, and much less as a girl.

“Maybe you’d rather push me in a wheelchair,” I grump at him good naturedly.

“Don’t give him any ideas,” Suzy warns me. “I think he’d get a kick out of running you into a wall or something. After all, he may feel the need to get back at you for those abusive runs you’ve been putting him through.”

“Maybe you should just carry her,” Caitlin suggests.

“Or maybe not.” Suzy puts the brakes on that idea instantly. I think she’s still a bit wary of Dan’s commitment to her. Actually I’m more worried about her commitment to him.

The four of us decided to spend some time at the hospital with Ben this afternoon. Reports are that they’ve backed off on the pain meds some and he’s fairly lucid. I was afraid that my keepers wouldn’t let me go. Let’s just say that I was given specific instructions on when and where to go. I’m under the impression that there are quite a few agents involved in getting me safely to the hospital and back. Feigning significant pain, I ask Caitlin to take the most direct route to the hospital and I’ll do the same on the way home. Dan and Suzy met us in the hospital parking lot.

As we approach the room, our banter suddenly drops off.  Memories of Thursday’s attack are still fresh in all of our minds. Somehow it seems irreverent to be having fun when our friend and team-mate is lying broken in a hospital bed.

We find the door to his room open when we arrive. Peeking cautiously inside we see Ben sleeping peaceably in a bed with a number of monitors attached and an IV drip stuck in his arm. His head is wrapped in a bandage and his leg is up in traction. He won’t be running anywhere anytime soon. His mother is there quietly reading a book. She looks up and smiles at seeing us standing at the door. She waves us in.

Tiptoeing quietly into the room, we add our flower offering to the dozen or so arrangements that are already there. Mrs. Harrison stands to greet us each with a hug. She seems to hold me just a little bit longer than the rest. I’m sure she senses my continued feelings of guilt. “It’ll be alright, Tina,” she softly whispers in my ear. Her encouragement only unleashes my tears which flow silently down my cheeks. God, I feel awful. It’s also a good thing that I’m not wearing any makeup today.

“How’s he doing?” Caitlin asks gently.

“Pretty good,” his mother replies, “he fades in and out but appears to be doing much better today. He’s had quite a few visitors which has helped, but he tires easily. Don’t be upset of he sleeps a lot.”

“Would it be alright if I just sit and hold his hand?” I ask. Somewhere someone told me that people in Ben’s condition simply need to know that someone is there. They don’t need to talk.

“Sure, Tina,” she smiles at me again, “I’m sure he’d like that.”

Caitlin and I take position on either side of the bed and each gently take hold of a hand. The room is short a chair so Suzy gets comfortable sitting on Dan’s lap. I give Ben’s hand a little squeeze and whisper, “I’m soooo sorry, Ben.”

He stirs and opens his eyes, “Tina?” he questions my presence.

“Yeah, Ben,” I respond trying to smile, “and Caitlin, Dan, and Suzy. You don’t need to talk. We just want to sit with you a while. We’re here for you, Ben.”

Looking groggily around the room he says, “Thanks for coming, guys. It’s good to see you.”

Returning his focus on me he says, “Tina, I hear that you got hurt too.”

“It’s nothing, Ben,” I reassure him. “Just a sprain. I’ll be right as rain in a week or two. I wish I could say the same for you. How are you feeling?”

He gets a silly grin on his face, “Pretty good when I wake up to see an angel like you. Also, with the drugs they’ve given me I’m feeling on cloud nine. If it wasn’t for the room, I’d think I’ve died and gone to heaven. I can see where someone could get addicted to these things. It does hurt a lot when they start to wear off, though.”

We all spend the next ten minutes or so in some lighthearted banter to which Ben mostly just listens.

At a break in the chatter, Ben squeezes my hand and looks into my eyes, “I’m a believer now, Tina.”

The puzzled expression on my face was a dead giveaway to the fact that I don’t know what he’s talking about.

“I actually don’t remember being hit and what happened afterward,” he explains, “but I do remember that we were debating women’s intuition just before the accident. If I remember right, you’d said that you’d had a bad feeling about the run and I was telling you how stupid that was. Well, you were right. I’ll listen next time.”

“And I really wish I’d acted on it,” I tell him. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t”

“It’s not your fault, Tina,” he reassures me. “Mom tells me that you’re feeling guilty. Don’t. There’s nothing you could’ve done. I’m glad that he missed you.” I’m sure he wouldn’t be saying that if he knew what his mother knows.

A fresh round of tears start trickling down my cheeks, but I try to smile at him. “Thanks, Ben. I’ll work on that.”

Caitlin and I end up spending a couple of hours sitting with Ben. Dan and Suzy excuse themselves after half an hour. A few of our teammates filter through as time passes. Ben slept most of the time but that was okay with us. We encourage Mrs. Harrison to take a break so she goes to do some errands.

Eventually, Ben’s father arrives and we need to be on our way. Caitlin is having to work a short evening shift at McHell tonight and has to get ready.

Working our way out to the parking lot, we run into Helen at the entrance to the hospital.

“Hey, Killer,” I smile at her, “what are you doing here?”

“Killer?,” Caitlin enquires.

“Yeah,” I laugh, “That’s what my father’s unit calls her.”

Helen laughs, “Yeah, I can kill a budding relationship faster than any girl around—or so I’m told.”

Turning her attention to my initial question, “Well, Your Highness, I was sent by your Aunt to collect you. You need to go home and get that leg back up.”

“Your Highness?” Caitlin looks even more confused.

“Her father calls her Princess,” Helen explains with a grin, “and the rest of us know that if we mess with her that there’ll be hell to pay. She kinda acts like royalty sometimes because she knows she can get away with it.”

“That’s not exactly true,” I try to set things right.

“It’s close enough,” Helen points out. “Anyway, Princess, I promised your Aunt that I’d fetch you home and let Caitlin here go get ready for work without being late on account of you.”

“You should have called,” Caitlin points out. “I’d have brought her home.”

“It was probably better for you to get in a longer visit with Ben,” she said, “anyway I’ve got her now so you won’t need to worry about being late.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Caitlin says. We hug and she heads to her car.

“So,” I ask, “What’s up?”

“Things are heating up,” she informs me. “We need to get you home ASAP where you’re not so exposed. I brought safer transportation and we needed to get innocents out of the way in case something happens. That’s why I had to send Caitlin away. It’s bad enough that you have to be exposed.”

She has me hop into the back seat of the black SUV with tinted windows where I can ‘prop my leg up’—or, in other words, be less visible. After checking in with someone on the car’s built-in phone system, we get going. We’re only on the road for a few minutes when she gets a call from Spud.

“You’ve got a tail,” his voice comes over the car’s sound system. “I suggest you take an alternate route to throw off their plans, if they have any.”

“I see it,” Helen responds while looking in the rearview mirror.

“I know another way,” I inform her. “Take a right just ahead.” Helen responds to my directions.

“Our electronic surveillance folks picked up a phone call from Rana to his thugs a few hours ago.” Helen explains. “He wants you kidnapped. It seems he figures the only way to find out where you came from is to force it out of you. He is really obsessed with you. It appears that he hasn’t picked up on the FBI presence yet either. After making the phone call he sent out an apparently coded message to his people at the Lab via email. We suspect that it’s to warn them to keep a low profile until further notice. He’s sending everyone underground until he neutralizes the threat that you represent. The bad news is that we’re not likely to get any more evidence until he’s satisfied his curiosity. The good news is that his email distribution went to a few people we didn’t know about. It’s a gold mine. The odd thing is that he didn’t send the message to your boyfriend’s father. We suspect his report is too high profile to hold up.”

‘Wow,’ I think to myself, ‘this is getting serious!’  A thrill runs through my body. I’m finding this exciting if not a little scary. “So, I take it that the threat against me is imminent. How are we going to be dealing with that?”

“We’ll be keeping you home for the weekend,” she says. “We hope they’ll make their move there. If they do, we’ll be waiting for them and take them down.”

“I think I’m beginning to feel like the worm on the hook,” I observe. It’s exciting but not exactly a safe feeling.

“Yeah,” she replies, “something like that,” and she grins a wicked grin. I think this girl is seriously twisted. “But you’re one worm that won’t get bitten when the hook is set.”

“If you bust these guys,” I ponder, “Won’t Rana go underground?”

“Yeah,” she agrees, “we have a team standing by to bust him as soon as they make their move. We now have enough to put him and most of his Lab moles away for a long time. There’s a couple that will be able to skate since we don’t have enough on them, but I think they’ll all be happy to free from his blackmail. The FBI will be watching them for a long time just to make sure they behave themselves. We just don’t have everything we’d like about who’s further down his pipeline. We were hoping to get further, but it looks as if we’ve run out of time. Too bad he’s so anxious about you.”

We end up taking an extra fifteen minutes to wind through a few subdivision neighborhoods before eventually arriving at the Mercer home. We lost the tail somewhere along the way after a couple of quick turns. Unfortunately the tailing car is parked down the street when we arrive home. This doesn’t look good.

Helen pulls into the driveway and has me exit the car from the side opposite of my followers.

“Make it look like it really hurts,” Helen directs. I try my best wounded girl routine as we make our way to the door with her assistance.

I’m only exposed for about twenty feet as I hobble to the doorway. We both sigh in relief when the door closes behind us.

There’s a note on the kitchen counter from Aunt Jen. Apparently Laurie is at Amy’s house for the afternoon. Jen is out shopping and running errands. It’s just me and Helen at home.

Even at home, I’m not feeling safe. I start to say something, but Helen quietly silences me. She dragged in a large bag with her from the car.  She extracts a number of electronic gadgets and starts sweeping the place for listening devices. Fortunately she doesn’t find any.

“It doesn’t hurt to be careful,” she explains when done. “Apparently these thugs of Rana’s have gotten pretty sophisticated in recent times.”

“So what happens now?” I ask.

 ”You’re confined to quarters until it’s time to go to work on Monday,” she explains. “You’re not to take off the boot for any reason short of a shower or bath. That means even in the house and when sleeping. You are also to have your Lab phone and the lipstick beacon on your person at ALL times, except in the afore mentioned shower and bath. I suggest you wear a skirt with pockets or hang your purse around your neck. If for some reason our protection fails, then those may be your only lifelines. The FBI geeks are trying to embed a beacon in a plastic boot for you as we speak. When they solve that problem, we’ll have you change out the boot.

“Your Aunt will be bringing some equipment back with her shortly,” she continues. “It’ll have a number of items we’ll use to increase security here at the house. Hidden cameras, infrared sensors, microphones and the like that we can place around the yard to detect any intruders. These’ll be monitored 24/7 both here and remotely.” Helen seems pretty excited by all this. “This is going to be fun.”

“It’s not your well-being on the line,” I point out.

“Actually,” she informs me, “it is. These guys won’t hesitate to take me out in order to get to you. They want you alive, not me. However, I have confidence that we’ve got the upper hand.”

I guess that I hadn’t thought of that. Somehow I feel reassured by her confidence.

It’s not very much longer before we hear the garage door opening as Aunt Jen arrives home. The next couple of hours are used to set up and test the security measures. The three of us work together to get it done. This is pretty cool stuff. The software on the accompanying computer sends out alarms whenever it thinks it detects an intruder.  It even warns you when someone approaches the front door, like now as Andy stops by after he gets off work.

Helen smiles at his arrival. It’s unlikely that anything will happen with Andy around—that is, until Dr. Lang gets his report out.

I’ve got my foot up as I lay on the couch and am reading a book when he’s ushered into the living room. He’s got more flowers with him.

“How’s the foot?” he asks cheerily as he hands me flowers. I’m pleasantly surprised by the feeling of warmth that spreads through me as I inhale to sweet smell of the blooms. I really like the way it makes me feel. I’m beginning to understand why girls like them so much.

“It hurts a bit today,” I say receiving the flowers and a quick kiss. “I’ve had to take some pain medication and use lots of ice. How was your day?” I ask.

“Fine, I guess,” he sobers up some. “Work was fairly busy. Probably it was good to be away from home for the day. Mom tells me that Dad came by to pick up more of his stuff. Apparently he was able to locate a furnished apartment that he can rent month-to-month so he was picking up the rest of his clothes, his computer, our extra television, and some spare kitchen stuff today. Mom was there to inventory what he took. I guess he got threatening again but it was all bluff. I’m proud of Mom for holding her ground. He may be back tomorrow for more of his things, we’ll see. I gather that a lot of his tools and things will stay in the garage until he can find a place to put them.”

“How’s your mother holding up?” I ask with concern.

“Pretty good, considering,” he replies. “She’s very determined to see this through. She’s tired of all the crap that she’s taken over the years. If I had to guess, she’s feeling empowered by all this. I haven’t seen her so focused since the time when she took over the art store.”

Changing direction, we spend the next hour just visiting. We talk about the upcoming camping trip, his website, my leg, and the like. He doesn’t stay long because I encourage him to go spend time with his mother. She’s likely to be lonely during this critical time.

It’s another quiet evening at home. Laurie blew through to pick up stuff for a sleep over at Amy’s. I’m invited but you know the answer to that one. I use my injury as an excuse.

Caitlin called when she got off work and we chatted for almost an hour. She offered to fetch me so that I could at least go watch tomorrow’s race. Again, I had to beg off.

---<>---

Sunday is another excruciatingly boring day. After answering email (both mine and Chris’s), fiddling with my website on Andy’s server, and peeking into the Lang’s computer systems I’ve run out of interesting things to do. I pitch in to finish doing everyone’s laundry—it occurs to me while doing so that washing and folding my girlfriend’s intimates is kinda strange even if I can’t really tell the difference between hers and mine half the time—and even vacuum the entire house.

In keeping with her cover, Helen goes to the race with my running team, leaving Jen and I home by ourselves for much of the day. She assures us that there are response teams within minutes if something develops. She doesn’t think they’ll try an abduction in broad daylight at the house.

I call Mom Polly to pass the time and we have a very pleasant conversation. We talk a lot about boys and dating. She shares some of her teen experiences with me and we thoroughly analyzed Andy. In the end she gives her blessing to my continued involvement with him. It’s just the sort of conversation a close mother and daughter would have if anyone was listening in.

I also checked in with my real mother via my infamous secret phone. She’s not happy at all with my continued involvement but trusts me enough to let me stay in the game. She reminds me of the conditions—including spending an evening with her—but that’s out until after I’m through with house arrest. I assure her that I’m doing the best I can to follow instructions.

Caitlin is pretty thrilled when she calls on her way home from the race. She finished second in the under twenty age group with another personal best time.  The only thing that really bugged her about the finish was that the first place went to an eleven year old girl who she couldn’t quite catch. There weren’t many teen girls in the race. It’s depressing to not to have been there—even as a spectator.

I call over to the hospital and reach Mrs. Harrison in Ben’s room for an update on his progress. Things are going as well as expected which means he’ll probably be there at least until midweek because of the need for traction. I speak to Ben briefly.  He sounds much more lucid than yesterday but he still tires easily.

I try watching the TV for a while but I just can’t get into it.

I try sunbathing on the back patio and reading but with the same results. It’s also in the high nineties in the shade so I soon retreat to the coolness of the air-conditioned house.

I want something to happen. I find myself watching the clock wishing this day would end.

Eventually, I boot up my work computer and spend time working on my library database program. I’ve just about got it finished but there’s more debugging to do. I actually loose myself in tracking down a few annoying bugs—revealed by entering test data. Even this activity fails to hold my attention for more than an hour before I find myself watching the clock again.

Aunt Jen spent a few hours out working on her front flower bed. I suspect that part of it was to get away from the very bored teen girl haunting her house. I know that some of the new rocks she’s place in the garden are actually sensors of various types.

There’s something about boredom that I’ll never understand. Once you’re there it’s really hard to break out of it. I’ve found that getting out and doing something—say, running for example—is the best way to deal with it. That’s not an option for me today.

Laurie eventually finds her way home in time for a late dinner. Helen has not come back so it’s just the three of us. After a light chicken salad dinner, Laurie models the few items she picked up shopping with her friends today. She bought a really pretty skirt that I’m dying to borrow for work.

Eventually, we all find our way to our respective beds. Laurie and her mother were told earlier to just duck under their beds if they hear anything strange in the night. Our watchdogs don’t expect anything to happen tonight since there’s been no hint of a kidnap attempt all day.  A late check with our keepers indicates that all is quiet on ‘the western front’ too. Everyone is getting antsy about the impending action by the thugs. I just wish they’d make their move and get it over and done with, however I’m told that the FBI hopes they’ll hold off longer so they can finish making their case against the various people in the network.

Sleep is elusive as I lie on my back staring up at the ceiling. Checking the pocket of my pajamas I feel the presence of the lipstick beacon. It’s somewhat uncomfortable as I roll over on it but there’s no way I’m parting with it right now.

Eventually my eyes get heavy and I start to slip into blissful sleep somewhere around midnight.

My last thought before drifting off is: I’m tired. I hope they don’t come tonight.

---<>---

The first indication something is wrong comes when I hear someone stumble over some shoes I left out just for that purpose.

“Laurie?” I enquire as, groggily, I try to sit up.

“Not quite,” a gruff male voice responds quietly, as I become aware of an aromatic cloth clapped over my mouth and nose. I begin to struggle and bite but I’m pinned to my bed and my world quickly turns black.

My last thought before passing out is: Where’s the FBI——?

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Thanks—again—for Gabi's editing prowess.