Lola Walker hurdled a log at a full sprint and didn’t break stride when she landed on the other side. She slowed her pace when a branch whipped her in the face and made her eyes water. She cursed and wiped away the sting before setting off at a sprint again in pursuit of the man she’d been chasing through the woods for the past twenty minutes. She’d take her city living any day over the bugs, rocks, branches, and arboreal hiding places out here.
The guy she was chasing was a high value bail jumper they’d been chasing from Rhode Island heading west, one of three out here in the woods in bumblefuck Michigan. She’d arrived with Holt, Dubs, and a plan, but as often happened, things went a little sideways. But one of these clowns was connected to the car theft ring they’d taken down a little over a year ago, and she needed to catch him. It wasn’t Lola’s fondest set of memories; between her spectacularly embarrassing public breakup and Dubs getting shot, things could have gone better. Don’t forget you didn’t notice the bad guy lurking a few feet away for months at a time.
She wasn’t interested in leaving loose ends from that period in her life, which was why she was careening through the woods now in a Bounty Hunter 5K.
She stumbled as the ground sloped downward steeply under her feet. Why do people come out here for fun?
Lola half jogged, half skidded down the hill. She couldn’t see the man she was pursuing until she reached the bottom. He hadn’t descended with as much grace.
“You in one piece?” Lola asked, looking down at him.
“My neck ain’t broke. So I guess that counts,” the man said. “Ankle’s bad.”
He was sprawled on the ground and didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon. Lola was worried she was going to have to carry him back to the rendezvous point. She handcuffed him, alerted Holt via her comms unit nestled in her ear that she had her man, and had begun explaining what his life was going to look like for the next few days, when two gunshots cracked loudly in the distance, disturbing her overly nature-filled morning in the woods.
“That better not have been a gunshot,” Max said through the comms. She sounded worried.
“Pretty Girl, please. I’m just out for an early morning jog. Doing a little bird watching. I think you heard species Pistolasis,” Dubs said. She sounded out of breath, like she was running hard.
“Angry fucking bird,” Max said.
Another shot rang out, and Lola scanned the trees to see if she could spot movement, but everything was still around her.
“You had better be hole free when I get to you,” Holt said through the comms.
“Oh, hi, boss. Good news, I caught up to my guy. Sort of wishing I’d let you or Lola handle the armed asshat. Having been shot before, I’m very motivated to never repeat the experience,” she said. “If I could communicate that to my avian friend here…”
“Where are you?” Lola asked. She slipped a GPS tracker on her capture and sprayed him with tagging nanocrystals, then re-cuffed him to a short branch on the log. Even if he slipped away while she was gone, they would find him again. She looked at the man on the ground. “I’m sending a friend of mine to collect you. It’ll be less pleasant for you if he has to chase you a second time. Understand?”
He nodded and settled against the log. Lola didn’t know if he would stay put, but she needed to get to Dubs. Moose and Jose were with them in Michigan and were now on cleanup duty. Moose had not appreciated being second team on this capture, but they never sent everyone into the field at once. Too many things could go wrong, especially so far from home. He and Jose were perimeter cover and their backup. They were also the cavalry if they needed them.
Lord help me if I ever need Jose to ride in to save my ass.
“You lost her? Holt, I thought you brought her with you for training?”
“Good morning, Isabelle,” Dubs said. “This seems to be live ammunition training. I’ve always liked pass-fail tests best.”
“Good morning, Dubs. Please be careful, honey. This isn’t my favorite part of what you all do,” Isabelle said.
“Concentrate on where you are and not getting shot,” Holt said forcefully. “Lola and I are on our way. Can you find cover? Get to higher ground?”
“I’m in the woods. Just like I have been since we got up here. I’m a reformed thief, not a cartographer. I don’t see any caves and I can’t run up a tree.”
Max came on. “Babe, she’s going to need more than that. You’re in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Woods and water aren’t very specific. Help them get to you.”
Lola thought Max sounded scared now. That wasn’t good. Max never sounded scared, except for the time Dubs actually had gotten shot a year ago. Everyone had been scared then.
“Look, I have no idea where I am. Don’t you have me tracked or something? I’m sort of too good to let get away. You should probably microchip me so I can be returned to owner when lost.”
Dubs’s breathing and tone had a new quality to it. Lola recognized it as the beginnings of panic. Things were going downhill quickly.
“GPS isn’t working all that well out there. I don’t have a good location on you. I didn’t expect you to wander off on me,” Max said.
“No fancy Dubs retrieval app that just sucks her right back to you when you miss her?” Lola asked. She needed them to start thinking about something other than Dubs getting shot. She kept moving in the direction she hoped the gunshots had come from, but she was running blind.
“I haven’t finished it yet,” Max said. “And Isabelle won’t let me redirect a satellite to look for her.”
“I think the U.S. military would notice.”
“They’d never know it was me,” Max said. “I’d come save your ass myself, but I’m stuck here in Rhode Island behind my computer. And now no one is even letting me use that to help.”
“Well, now I’m picturing you in all your Batman baddassery and I’ve almost run into a tree. And Isabelle’s right; they would totally know it was you. Who else would be scouring the woods looking for a barely reformed ex-con?” Dubs asked. “Besides, I don’t think they allow conjugal visits in whatever black site they would dump you in and it would take me a couple of weeks to spring you.”
“Fine. I could’ve used a Russian one.”
“Jesus, World War III over Dubs,” Holt said. “Any markers you can give me yet, Dubs?”
Lola could hear the evidence of Holt’s sprint to get to Dubs. It sounded through the comms like she was running through cellophane. Given that Lola was dodging rocks, flinging branches out of her way, and crashing through bushes, all at a full sprint, she could picture Holt doing the same. She just hoped she was running in the right direction. She’d judged the gunshots as coming from her left and set off in that direction, but Dubs and her skip were also running, so they could be anywhere.
“Excuse me,” Dubs said. “I’m totally worth it. The Russians would start it themselves if they’d had the pleasure. But I’m not sure even I could get you out of the gulag, Pretty Girl. And there’s just trees and more trees, boss.”
“Your ego does know some bounds. Amazing,” Max said softly. “No prisons for me. No bullets for you.”
“Deal,” Dubs said. “Some good news, though. No gunshots for these last few acres, and I don’t see my new friend right up my ass, which means I’m much harder to shoot. That and I wore waterproof mascara. I wasn’t expecting a marathon, but I came prepared. See, H, I’m paying attention to those things you’ve been teaching me.”
“When have you been giving Dubs makeup advice, boss?” Lola asked.
“I don’t remember that lesson,” Holt said. “If he’s not right behind you, this is the time to hide. Find a bush, or a big tree, a little dip in the ground you can curl up in, anywhere you can disappear from view. If you aren’t moving, you’re easier for us to find.”
“GPS is back online for two of you,” Max said. “I’ve got Lola and Dubs. Lola, you’re close. Can you pick up the pace? You’re heading right for her.”
Lola’s quads and lungs burned, but she pushed harder. No way was Dubs dying out here in the woods today.
“Maybe I should duck behind a tree and confront this guy. We could get what we came for. We do need this capture, right?”
“No!” Lola and everyone else on the comms said.
“Sorry, I’m not you, Pretty Girl. Or you other two superhumans, who can run, and jump, and punch to the end of time, and I gotta tell you, I don’t see a single thing I can hide behind without looking like a bad cartoon character. I gotta work with the formidable skills I got. Besides, you all remember what Dubs stands for, right? Wonder Woman? I’m bulletproof. Don’t take too long, Lola. I’ll be waiting.”
“Dubs, what the fuck are you doing? You are not bulletproof. Neither was Wonder Woman, you idiot, that’s Supergirl. Don’t use inaccurate comic book references as justification to get your ass shot again,” Holt said.
Lola wondered if Dubs screwed up the comic book reference just to get a rise out of Holt. Dubs did that sometimes when she was scared.
“How about you don’t get shot again?” Max suggested.
“I’m not going to die on you, Pretty Girl,” Dubs said, her breathing slowing. “Holt, Lola, I can see my guy about fifty feet behind me. He’s headed my way with his gun on me, but he’s not shooting.”
“Max, what’s my updated position now that Dubs is stationary?” Lola asked.
She’d been running at maximum velocity for a long time and she was tiring. Her words came out haltingly.
“It looks like you’re about quarter mile from her. Still headed directly for her,” Max said.
“I’ll be there in ninety seconds, Dubs. Don’t die on me before—”
Lola stopped as the ground in front of her disappeared. The drop-off was less than ten feet, but a stream gurgled along below. She couldn’t tell how deep it was and didn’t want to slow down to find safe passage across it. Several branches from a large tree hung out over the stream and were low enough for her to reach.
She said a little prayer, backed up a good distance, and charged at the drop-off. Without breaking stride, she leapt for the farthest branch she thought she could reach comfortably and get a grip on when she landed. Her momentum almost carried her too far, but she released from the branch and landed with an unpleasant thud on the other bank. Why wasn’t anyone around to see that?
She took off again toward Dubs. “H, where are you?” Lola asked. “I’m almost to her.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Holt said.
“How was your night, boys? Sleep well?” Dubs asked.
Dubs’s voice in her ear broke through Lola’s single-minded focus. She sounded for all the world like she was back at the office with her feet up, shooting the shit.
“Seem to recall you were the one wrapped in Holt’s arms this morning when I woke up,” Moose replied casually.
Lola had wondered about the scene they’d walked in on that morning, but wasn’t stupid enough to comment on it at the time.
“Excuse me now?” Max said.
Lola was glad Max didn’t sound scared anymore. If she wasn’t scared, she was focused. Lola thought she heard Isabelle chuckling. Isabelle didn’t usually listen in during their captures, which meant she was scared too.
Another voice joined the conversation, but not through her earpiece. He was asking Dubs if she was alone. She realized it must be the man who had been chasing her. If he was close enough for her to hear him talking to her, he was too close to miss if he decided to start shooting. She pushed her body harder.
“Just me. And you. Only me and you,” Dubs said.
“I was dreaming about Isabelle,” Holt finally chimed in. She was practically growling, though it was obvious she was breathing hard from running to get to Dubs.
“You Holt Lasher?” the man asked. “Was Holt with you when you chased me and my boys out of camp this morning?”
“Never heard of him,” Dubs said. “And I didn’t chase you out of anywhere, big guy. I was out for a walk and you started chasing me.”
“He’s a she. And I need to talk to her. Are you her?”
“Do I look like someone that would walk around with the moniker Holt? Do you think that suits? Whoever this chick is, she’d be damn lucky to look like me, but the name doesn’t fit.”
“How am I supposed to know what Holt Lasher looks like?” the man asked.
“You’re the one looking for her,” Dubs said.
“Based on the naked pictures you sent earlier, you look nothing like Holt,” Isabelle said.
Lola held back a laugh. Maybe she shouldn’t rush getting to Dubs. Holt was going to kill her when she got there anyway, if Dubs was sending sexts to Isabelle.
“You snuck off earlier so you could send Isabelle naked pictures?” Holt asked.
The man was speaking again. “I was hired to deliver my message and be on my way. If she was with you in the camp, I’d have delivered it right then. But now, you’re unfortunately in the way. Too bad, cause you’re kinda hot.”
“Dubs, stall this guy. If he’s got a message for me, I want to talk to him.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s slow this down, boss. Don’t want anyone getting hurt. I was out for a walk, stumbled into your camp, you got all skittery and started shooting at me. I’m not an idiot. I ran. But now that we’re chatting, who is Holt Lasher? What’s the message? And why did you think you’d just happen to run into her out here?”
“None of your damn business.”
“None of my business? That’s insulting. I was enjoying a beautiful morning in the woods. Then you pulled your tiny little pistol outta your pants and started waving it around. That’s really not my thing.”
Lola could picture Dubs’s face and her “not impressed” expression. She hoped this guy didn’t shoot her for insulting his dick.
“Hey, buddy, I’m talking about your gun. Little sensitive? Whatever you got going on, that’s not my thing either.”
“I’ve got no problems.”
“Of course not. Why don’t we keep everything all tucked in though, since there’s nothing for you to measure against anyway? Except your little pistol. I’d hate for you to shoot your dick off just to prove something to me. But there’s really no need to point it at me, either.”
“Dubs,” Max said, her voice holding a clear warning. “Stop baiting him into killing you.
“We’re becoming friends. I can tell. But I’m feeling a little exposed. Naked, even. How about partially naked, given that you’ve got your little pistol, but all I’m packin’ is my smile,” Dubs said.
“Jesus, Dubs, you sent them to me,” Max said. “I asked Isabelle to check my phone because I was busy with something.”
“You’ve got a weird way of making friends,” the man said.
“See, like I said, friends. So maybe we can keep all your equipment put away for now, since I’m clearly not the person you were looking for. Good boy. Isn’t it better without the gun waggling around in my face? You aren’t the first person to insult my social skills, but I’m not holding it against you. I’m also not going to hold it against you that you just threatened to kill me. I don’t think you meant it. We’re friends now, remember? You even told me about your pistol problems.”
“Do you ever stop talking?” the man asked.
“No,” Dubs said as Max, Isabelle, Holt, Jose, and Moose answered simultaneously over the comms.
“You’ve piqued my curiosity. Why do you want to talk to Holt Lasher?”
“That’s between me and her,” he said. “Sorry, but I’m done talking to you, and I think you were one of the ones who stormed my camp. Morning stroll, my ass. If I kill you, maybe Holt will get my message after all.”
“Oh, fuck it. I’m done playing nicely with you,” Dubs said.
Lola figured that was her cue to get her ass to Dubs because she was about to do something stupid. Good thing she was about thirty seconds away.
“Here’s the thing, Mason. I’m a bond enforcement agent and I work for Holt. You’re right. I targeted your camp. So if you want to talk to her, it’s my business. I also take it really fucking personal when someone shoots at me, and I happen to know that Holt’s on her way here. So is my good friend Lola, who is built like the expansion pack of Holt. But I’m reasonable, so I’ll give you a choice. I can tell her that you’re already disarmed and of no threat to me since you didn’t actually shoot me, or I can leave out that bit of information since you tried and you can get your ass kicked. It’s up to you. I really, really enjoy the shit-storm when someone threatens one of Holt’s pack, but you probably won’t.”
“Fuck you,” Mason said.
“I was really hoping you’d say that,” Dubs said.
Lola saw Dubs and Mason about twenty feet ahead of her in a small clearing. Mason had his gun six inches from Dubs’s chest. Lola’s vision tunneled in on the gun trained on someone she loved. She felt fury blossom from her chest and spark through every pore.
A branch cracked loudly when Lola stepped on it, and for a second, she thought Mason had fired. Dubs must have thought the same thing because she looked down at her chest and raised her hand, maybe looking for a wound or steadying a runaway heartbeat.
Lola crossed the distance to Mason in six strides. As she approached, he swung the gun toward her. She could see he was preparing to fire, but she didn’t care. She was just relieved to have the muzzle safely away from Dubs.
She lunged for his arm and flung it skyward, sending his shot blasting into the treetops behind them, showering the ground with leafy confetti. She hadn’t gotten a good grip on his arm when she deflected the shot, and he scampered away. She was sure he thought it was a safe distance to regroup and take aim. He clearly didn’t expect her to keep coming at him. As Holt always said, possessing a firearm gave a false sense of security and invincibility.
Mason backpedaled away from Lola at a good pace, but wasn’t looking where he was going. He smacked into a tree and dropped to one knee. When he stood again, he seemed to remember he had the gun and raised it. Lola saw his hands were shaking, though, making the gun wobble wildly. She kept moving forward, although more cautiously than she had been.
When it looked like Mason was about to fire again, she prepared her charge. She went for his gun hand again. As she slammed into his arm, again forcing his shot wild, Holt flew out of the shrubs nearby and executed a near perfect tackle. She drove her shoulders into his chest. They flew through the air and landed four feet away, Holt on top. The gun flew from his hand on impact and slid a few feet away and lay harmlessly in the dirt.
“Dude, I’ve been on the bottom of that pile. It’s not fun. I did try to warn you,” Dubs said.
She pulled a pair of handcuffs from Lola’s back pocket and handed them to Holt, who was explaining Mason’s rights and next steps. She had her knee planted firmly in his back.
Holt looked down at Mason. “I hear you want to talk to me? Who hired you? How did you know I’d be coming after you?”
“Get off me,” Mason said.
Holt let up the pressure on his back and pulled him into a sitting position.
“I never show up for court. When I teamed up with the other two, everyone knew I’d get you on my ass. We all got the same message. Whoever got to you first got to deliver. It’s from Kevin Garvey.”
Lola heard a gasp through the comms.
“Never heard of him,” Holt said.
Holt didn’t react. Lola didn’t know if she was being “work Holt” or if she had turned off her earpiece. Lola was pretty sure the gasp was Isabelle and Holt never ignored Isabelle. She glanced at Dubs, who was staring at Holt speculatively.
“Uh, boss,” Lola said.
Holt continued to stay focused on Mason. “Not now.”
“Turn on your comm, boss,” Dubs said.
Clearly, Dubs had heard it too. Lola hadn’t thought Holt would have her comms off. Maybe her earpiece had gotten turned off or fallen out when she tackled Mason.
Holt flicked at her ear and activated her earpiece.
“He knows you,” Mason said. “And he wants to talk. He’s offering a lot of money to anyone who gets a message to you. If you don’t talk to him, he said he’s going to pay a visit to his relatives, starting with his daughters. Then he’ll move on to his grandkids.” He shrugged. “That’s it. He said you’d find a way to get in touch.”
“And why would I care ab—”
“Holt, baby. Kevin Garvey. That’s my father,” Isabelle said. “My father’s threatening our family.”
Falling in love with Isabelle had mellowed Holt, cooled her temper, but Lola knew it was always lurking. The Hulk was angry now.
Holt nodded toward Dubs and pointed to Mason before she walked a short distance away. She looked like she was laser focused on a tree in front of her, but Lola knew her attention was back in Providence, with her family. She was radiating so much energy, Lola was surprised a few trees hadn’t come down around her. Dodging gunshots from Mason hadn’t provided the same adrenaline rush of watching Holt’s eruption of rage. It was like standing next to pure kinetic energy knowing you were about to get hit with the wave from the explosion. It would knock you on your ass, but it also meant something powerful had just happened. She wanted to be along for the ride.
“Isabelle, get George and go home. Call Ellen and have her and her family meet you at our house. Max, get Tuna and whoever else isn’t working a high priority case. Secure my house. There’s a nest of baby bunnies in the side yard. They don’t twitch a whisker without you knowing, understood?”
“Seems like overkill, love,” Isabelle said. “He wants to talk to you, right? I’m sure we’ll be fine until you get back. He’s a jerk, but I don’t think he’d really hurt us.” Isabelle didn’t sound all that confident.
“He raised his hand to you. He’s already hurt you, and he’s offered money to these assholes in order to get a message to us. That’s all I need to know. Humor me,” Holt said. She sounded a little desperate. “I’m twelve hundred miles away.”
“Okay,” Isabelle said. “Anything you need. But I’m not the scared teenager I was back then. He wouldn’t be able to knock me around anymore. And he would never lay a hand on George. All the same, get home soon.”
“Max, get us a route out of these woods. Jose, Moose, meet at the rally point. You’ll be taking possession of Mason, my guy back at their campsite, and Lola’s skip. Dubs, we’re going to need a way home. Think you can handle that?”
“Jesus, boss, I love it when you talk dirty to me.”
Lola moved closer to Holt. She’d learned everything she knew from Holt, they were as close as family, and right now it looked like she could use a friend. Holt looked less angry than frantic. Not being able to get to Isabelle was probably eating her up. Lola understood. They were both women of action who didn’t sit well in the quiet times, but when those busy times put loved ones in danger, the quiet started to look damn good. Whatever menace was coming at them now, she’d stand with Holt, and Heaven help anyone who threatened Holt’s pack.
“I swear, H, if you don’t get your ass back across the street, we’re not going anywhere.”
“Dubs, just get me a fucking ride and point it toward Providence,” Holt said. She was trying to keep her temper under wraps, but Isabelle was in trouble and she was too far away. Whatever bullshit Dubs was playing at, Holt wasn’t in the mood.
“I will. As soon as you move back across the street.”
So far, Lola hadn’t said a word; she’d just stood watching Holt and Dubs spar. Now she came over and spoke quietly to Holt. “Whatever you’re about to threaten her with, you might want to reconsider. I know you’re scared. But even you haven’t been hit in the head too many times to see she’s trying to protect you.”
Holt considered. Most of her crew had worked with her for so long they were like a second skin. Anyone new she trained in a very specific way. Dubs had been a wildcard from the moment she walked onto the scene, and she was nowhere near trained yet.
“Will you get me the damn car if I threaten to fire you?” Holt asked.
“Not where you’re currently standing,” Dubs said.
“Threaten to fire Max?”
“You’re protecting me?” Holt glanced at Lola and saw her grin.
“Finally, the truth trickled through that thick head of yours,” Dubs said. “Kindly move your ass out of sight of these cameras and we can be on our way.”
“Lola gets to stay for the fun?” Holt said, grumbling as she moved across the street. Dubs still surprised her, which was nice and a little unnerving.
“I’d only be in the way,” Lola said. “I’m coming with you.”
Stealing a car wasn’t Holt’s first choice, but they were in the middle of nowhere. It was after dark and long past closing time for anywhere that could’ve rented or sold them a car. This was the only dealership within a reasonable distance, and according to the handwritten sign taped to the window, the owner was out of town for a long weekend. Moose and Jose were driving to Detroit to process their prisoners, not quite trusting the size of the local police force here with such high value captures. So she was having Dubs commandeer them a ride.
They only had to wait a couple of minutes before Dubs pulled up next to them in a flashy sports car and pushed open the passenger door. Lola glared at Dubs before cramming herself into the backseat of the slick two-door coupe. Holt felt bad for Lola. She was over six feet tall, and it didn’t look like a comfortable ride in the back, but Holt wasn’t about to trade. She wasn’t much shorter. Being the boss had some perks. The only one who could comfortably fit was Dubs, and Holt knew prying her out of the driver’s seat right now would take an act of God.
“It is. There was a Jaguar F-type back there. Do you know how hard it was for me to leave that beauty behind? But this car will blend in. Besides, I thought you wanted to get home fast. This is fast. Now, a few rules. I drive, obviously. I control the radio. Lola has the worst taste in music so she doesn’t even get veto power. Isabelle’s gonna need you in tip-top shape, so take a nap or something. You two should also probably do something about those cuts on your arms and face. Did you even look where you were running out there? If the Queen asks, Moose and Jose were in charge of keeping you looking pretty. I had nothing to do with it.”
Holt stifled a laugh. The thought of Isabelle hearing Dubs refer to her as “the Queen” was too much. She was her queen, but she didn’t know if Isabelle would appreciate the rest of the crew giving her a royal title. “Does Isabelle know you call her that?”
“Does it matter? It’s what she is, right?”
Holt couldn’t argue. She’d had this conversation with Isabelle. If her crew was forced to choose sides, she wasn’t sure she would have anyone standing in her corner anymore. It was something she was thankful for. It meant everyone who worked for her, her extended family, watched over Isabelle and their son, George, as if they were flesh and blood.
“Does that make me the king?” Holt asked.
“Nah,” Dubs said.
“Why not? I’m the boss, right? Isn’t the king the boss?” Holt asked. She thought she understood patriarchy.
“You’re so adorable, H,” Dubs said.
Dubs hit the highway onramp and accelerated rapidly. They were flying toward home. Holt felt calmer than she had since she’d confronted Mason and learned there was a threat to Isabelle.
“Aren’t you going to do anything to defend me?” Holt asked Lola. She could use a little backup.
“That last pothole shoved my kneecap into my eardrum,” Lola said. “I’ve got bigger problems than explaining to you exactly how fast your crew would drop your ass at one word from your lady.”
Holt nodded. Just as she suspected.
“And turn her down a crank or two,” Lola said. “Pretzel’s not a shape I can pull off.”
Holt looked at Dubs. She was always vibrating with energy, but it was pouring off her now. She remembered Max telling her how keyed up Dubs got after stealing cars back when they were working on their first case together, busting a massive car theft ring.
“You drive for now,” Holt said. “Put whatever you want on the radio. I’m going to check in with Max.” She keyed her earpiece and waited for Max to pick up. Before she did, Dubs paired her phone with the car stereo, and bass heavy pop music came through the speakers at such a volume that Holt felt her heartbeat synchronize to the bass line.
“That you, boss?” Max said in her ear.
Holt switched off the radio. Dubs protested loudly. “Yeah. We’re headed back. Half of Michigan is charting our progress via sonic boom.”
“Look,” Max said. “She doesn’t get to steal cars anymore, but the high she gets from it hasn’t gone away. Unless you’re going to have sex with her—”
“Damn right,” Max said possessively, “you gotta let her burn it off with music or she’ll be breaking the sound barrier for real. It’s not louder than the gym. Everyone’s tucked in here. Isabelle and George are asleep. Everyone’s safe, H. I got you.”
“Thanks, Max. CB, thirty.”
Dubs looked at Holt when she hung up. “Can I turn my music back on? And is everyone all right?”
“I thought you drove extra carefully right after you stole a car,” Holt said, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. “Right now you’re twenty miles over the speed limit.”
“And your music is terrible and loud enough to be heard from space,” Lola said.
“Please, I know you love crappy pop music, so don’t start. And we need to get home. It’s worth the risk. This car won’t be reported for a couple of days, if it gets reported at all. And I’m riding with Holt Lasher, Captain America, Superman, Captain Marvel, you know, disgusting levels of upstanding goodness. I’m safe. If we get pulled over, just show your decoder ring, or flex, or something.”
“And yet you wouldn’t let me be seen on camera stealing a car.”
“Well, I served my time. I’m mostly reformed. I’m practically a good guy now,” Dubs said.
“It’s the ‘practically’ that makes me nervous,” Holt said. She didn’t seem particularly nervous at all.
“You going to yap through my adrenaline rush and kill this for me, or let me wind down, H? I barely get this kind of rush anymore since you forced me into retirement.”
Holt shook her head and laughed. She didn’t quite remember forcing Dubs to give up stealing cars, but she wasn’t going to argue right now. She leaned over and turned the music back on.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Holt woke from her doze when the music went silent.
“Max will be calling, boss,” Dubs said as way of explanation.
“Come down from your high?”
“Can think of some better ways,” Dubs said. “But yes.”
“Max gave me a heads-up about that,” Holt said. “And a pretty clear hands-off message.”
“Like she has any reason to worry,” Dubs said, looking incredulous.
“Don’t think you could handle me?” Holt nodded knowingly.
“Excuse me?” Dubs said, choking a little as she did.
Holt heard Lola groan in the backseat. She could almost feel the eye roll.
“How was this the best option for me to get home?” Lola asked.
“Oh, I could handle you, boss. You don’t scare me,” Dubs said.
She’d clearly found her footing again.
“You know who scares me? Isabelle. Pretty sure neither one of us could handle her if she went super-jealous-crazy.”
“Truth. Although I’m not sure I want to be on the receiving end of angry Max, either.”
The phone rang exactly thirty minutes after Holt had disconnected with Max. She answered and put the call on speaker.
“Boss, we’ve got a problem.”
“Is my family okay?” Panic knotted Holt’s stomach. She pictured Isabelle and George injured or worse and could barely resist the overwhelming urge to fling Dubs from the driver’s seat and take over herself.
“Yes. Shit, sorry, H. Not that kind of problem. Everyone is safe.”
“Jesus. Lead with that next time. Continue.” Holt knew her voice was a little shaky, but she was so relieved, she didn’t care.
“Right. So, the problem is in your email.”
“Do I even want to know what you’re doing in my email?” Holt asked. It felt like she was asking why Max had been pawing through her underwear drawer.
“Of course.” Holt wasn’t sure how Max scrolling through her email was at all part of her job description, but she let her continue.
“You know she could read the president’s email if she wanted to, right?” Dubs said. “It’s better to just give her the passwords to everything, then there’s no challenge and she gets bored and moves on.”
“Please, who says the president’s emails are challenging or not boring?”
“Max, my email?” Holt said. She tried to refocus the conversation. She really hoped Max was kidding and hadn’t been hacking government emails.
“Not boring at all. Well, not the one demanding one hundred thousand dollars in exchange for Isabelle’s father and containing a proof of life video.”
“Hold up,” Lola said. “This is the same guy who supposedly paid that clown in the woods to get in touch with Holt so they could go to hot yoga and grab a coffee? Now someone kidnapped him and wants us to pay them for the pleasure of his safe return?”
“If we take everything at face value, then yes, apparently,” Max said.
“And if I don’t pay?” Holt asked. She didn’t like being this popular, didn’t like the timing of the two events, and really didn’t like that Isabelle’s father had popped back into her life.
“Then your new pen pal starts corresponding with Isabelle and is less polite. If she doesn’t want to talk, then Ellen is next.”
“Is there a timeframe?” Holt asked.
“If there is, they declined to share,” Max said. “That’s weird, right?”
“Yes,” Lola said. “Very. Describe the video.”
“There’s a guy who says he’s Kevin Garvey tied to a chair. It looks like he’s in a warehouse or abandoned building of some sort. Commercial, not residential. He’s holding a newspaper with today’s date on it.”
“What’s his condition?” Lola asked.
“Unkempt and tired, but more or less unharmed. I can’t quite figure the timing of when he would have been snatched.”
“Can’t have been long since he hired Mason and the others to get a message to Holt,” Dubs said.
“Fuck.” Holt needed time to think, but right now her judgment was clouded by anger. She prided herself on remaining calm under almost any circumstance, but when it came to Isabelle, and now her son, emotions clouded her thinking in ways they never had. She and Isabelle had been together long enough that she knew to let the feelings crest. Her clear thinking would return enough for her to protect those that meant the most to her quickly if she just let herself feel the anger and fear so she could move beyond it.
“How much does this guy mean to Isabelle?” Dubs asked.
“I’m here,” Isabelle said, joining the call. “Max filled me in on this new wrinkle. To answer your question, Dubs, he doesn’t mean a damn thing to me. I haven’t had any contact with him in years. He doesn’t know anything about my life, or I didn’t think he did. Ellen never told him he had grandkids, and neither did I. He’s not a nice man and was never a father to me.”
“I wouldn’t have put it so nicely,” Holt said. “Whatever decision we make will be for Isabelle and our family’s safety, not her father’s.”
Holt thought about the man who had beaten Isabelle, breaking bones and terrorizing her as a child. She didn’t care where he was or what his kidnappers were doing to him. In fact, part of her hoped he was suffering. But whoever had sent the email had threatened her family. Just as Mason’s original message had. That had to be taken seriously, whatever quarter it was coming from. She could see multiple paths available to her, but this wasn’t the time or place to make a final decision. She had a team she trusted and relied on. She needed them now.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can. The minute we walk in the door, I want a full team meeting. Max, bring everyone to the office with you. You know Isabelle doesn’t allow business in the house. Babe, if you’re fine with George still going to daycare and then Amy’s, that’s fine with me, but someone stays with them all day. Before I get there, find who sent that email and find her father. We need to end this quickly.”
“On it, boss.” Max disconnected.
“All right, Dubs. Get us home. Sounds like our ladies need us and we have work to do. You said you grabbed us a fast car. Put it to good use.”
Holt looked to the backseat and held Lola’s gaze. Lola looked the way Holt felt, determined, angry, impatient, but calm. They had hours of driving ahead of them. There was no point burning out emotionally before they got back. She nodded to her and closed her eyes. She was tired after the chase earlier and the adrenaline spikes from rescuing Dubs. Isabelle was safe at the moment, and right now the best thing she could do to help her was show up at home ready to get to work. Sleep claimed her quickly.
Dr. Quinn Golden looked up from her computer for the first time in hours and wondered if she’d be able to get herself to the door when she needed to get to class. She’d completely surrounded herself with unsteady stacks, perilous piles, and one leaning tower of articles. She’d effectively hemmed herself in by her night’s work, and looking back at her computer, she wasn’t sure what she had to show for it. Somehow this grant wasn’t coming together and it was frustrating her no end. She’d been working on it for weeks. She’d helped on other grants before, but that was when she was in grad school, and they weren’t her grants.
Most postdocs didn’t write their own grants until their second year, but she wasn’t most postdocs. She’d always done things on her own schedule. So here she was, barely out of graduate school, trying to write a grant she had no enthusiasm for. She thought about the research she’d spent all night reading. It was the same kind of research she did, and that might be the problem. She reread the program announcement she was answering with this grant application.
Nothing about this feels exciting. Research accomplishments and advancements don’t mean anything if I’m starting out my career building my own scientific straightjacket.
She’d made significant breakthroughs using data from first her undergraduate, graduate, and now postdoc mentors in ways they hadn’t, but now she wasn’t sure she was all that interested in the field of study where she had the most name recognition. But science was concerned with the past, for all the talk of forward thinking and hopes for innovation and discovery. Money only went to those with a track record in a field. If she wanted to make a change, it was going to take a lot of convincing that she was worth the risk. And she would have to know what she wanted to do if it wasn’t her current research program. No wonder I haven’t gotten anything done. She rubbed her face and ran her hands through her hair. She needed to get a haircut; it had grown out and was becoming a little too “crazy scientist.” She didn’t need to give her colleagues one more reason to talk about her behind her back. Competition was fierce among the postdocs, and although some had made friends, she wasn’t part of the in crowd. She knew it was due to the successes she’d had, but the last few months had been exhausting, trying to prove that she was a good person, as well as a good scientist, and worthy of their friendship. It was tiresome and lonely.
“You okay, Dr. Golden?” Jessica, the department secretary, and a very good friend, poked her head into Quinn’s office.
“I’m fine, Jessica. Wait…what time is it? And I told you, call me Quinn, even at work.” It didn’t matter how many times she reminded her, when they were at work, Jessica referred to her formally.
“It’s seven fifteen. You aren’t late for class yet. There’s coffee in the lounge.”
Quinn could’ve kissed her. Jessica was always the first staff member in the building and had caught her sleeping in her office more than once. She seemed to go out of her way to keep Quinn caffeinated, which she appreciated.
“Write any papers last night? Finish that grant? Upload a new TED talk I won’t understand? If you’re going to sleep here every night working, tell me you’re being productive.”
“Don’t play that ‘simple-minded secretary’ thing with me. It might work with some of the others around here, but I’m not buying it for a minute. We’re friends, remember? And I don’t sleep here every night.” Quinn’s argument didn’t hold much fire. She barely remembered she had an apartment.
“Of course we’re friends. That’s why there’s always coffee going when you remember you don’t actually live here. And why when you realize you’re better than this place, you’ll also realize you need a good secretary and your best buddy to come with you. I’m the only one not trying to get something from you, or kill you in your sleep.”
Quinn laughed. “I thought you said you didn’t want anything from me? Besides, I could end up anywhere in the world. Why would you follow me?”
“I like you. There are worse people to work for, and I want out of here.”
Suddenly, Quinn entertained the idea that Jessica was flirting with her. They had a good friendship, but that didn’t mean Jessica couldn’t want more. Quinn was so bad at picking up on the cues that she had no idea if she was reading the situation correctly. She was good at her job and that was about it. There was a reason her longest relationship was with her student loan servicer.
Jessica didn’t seem to have nearly as much trouble at reading her.
“Whoa, Dr. Golden. Should I be insulted that the idea of my flirting with you is causing you that much panic, or flattered that I could cause that much turmoil? I’m not looking for anything from you but what I said. No ulterior motives. If you do spring me from this place, that means there’s a whole new dating pool of ladies just waiting for me. Besides, I’m a bit out of my league with you.”
“I’m sorry,” Quinn said. “It’s already been an eventful morning and I haven’t even been to class yet. But don’t sell yourself short. I might not be the woman for you, but I somehow doubt there’s a league you couldn’t play in.” Quinn envied her. She was always so sure of herself. “Still not looking for the love of your life?”
“Did you not just hear me?” Jessica asked. “Whole new city full of women to get to know? I plan on finding out how many of them can be the love of my night.”
“Romantic,” Quinn said. She wasn’t judging her, just amazed at her confidence and ability to understand what she wanted. She had that with her work, mostly, but was a little more hopeless in her personal life. She’d dated, but hadn’t found anyone that kept her attention long enough to distract her from whatever research she was doing at the time.
“I’ve never gotten any complaints,” Jessica said. “I’m not even going to ask you, since you and that couch in your office seem to have exclusive dating privileges. You should let me take you out sometime, help you meet someone.”
“Don’t look like I could manage on my own?” Quinn asked, amused.
“No offense,” Jessica said. She had the decency to look a little sheepish.
“None taken. If your fantasy escape plan ever comes true, I’ll take you up on it. Deal?” They’d had this conversation before.
“Sure thing,” Jessica said. “Your coffee will have to be to-go now. Don’t want to keep the hooligans waiting.”
“We were hooligans just a few years ago,” Quinn said. The undergraduates she taught were challenging, but she enjoyed her time with them.
“You have a year and a half on me and can round up to thirty. You’re ancient.”
“Oh, is that how it works? I seem to recall a rather important birthday coming up in a few weeks. Important rounding implications. I’ll be sure to let the chair know it needs to be widely celebrated.”
Jessica’s eyes got large. “You wouldn’t.”
“But your coffee.”
“Shit, you’re right. I would do just about anything for coffee.”
“Perfect, I have you right where I want you.” Jessica raised her arms triumphantly.
Quinn looked at Jessica skeptically.
“Still not flirting,” Jessica said, holding up her hands defensively. “Just perfecting my skills for our big move and all the ladies waiting for me.”
“The only place I’m moving at the moment,” Quinn said, “is to class.”
Jessica hustled to the coffee machine and came back with a to-go mug and followed her out the door. “Have a good class, Dr. Golden.”
“My name’s Quinn.” She hurried out the door. She knew half her class would roll in late, but she always arrived on time and prepared. Teaching didn’t come easily to her, but she took it seriously. Research was her true love, but she’d fallen in love in a classroom because of a teacher who had clearly loved science. Every day she reminded herself that all she had to do was stand up there and explain to the hooligans, as Jessica called them, the many virtues of science. It practically sold itself.
Yeah, right, simple as that. Must be why you’re so damn nervous for every class.
Lola had sat in hundreds of briefings, staff meetings, and planning sessions, but she never tired of them. The work they did was, at times, solo, relying on individual instincts, skill, and ability, but they were a team. She liked that and the comfort that came from Holt’s steady leadership. I wonder what kind of leader I’d be if I had a team under me?
“Anytime you’re ready, Max,” Holt said.
Holt sounded annoyed.
“Uh, right. Just a sec, boss. Dubs, move over.”
Lola knew Dubs and Max had missed each other, but Dubs was in Max’s lap, which wasn’t standard for these meetings. Only Isabelle was allowed to sit on any lap she chose.
“Lola,” Holt said. She inclined her head toward the couple.
Lola stood and scooped Dubs off Max’s lap, one arm under each of Dubs’s arms. She dumped her in the empty chair next to Max and returned to her own seat. She tried to hide her amusement at Dubs’s surprised flailing and outraged expression.
“What the hell?” Dubs asked. “Isabelle’s on your lap, H.”
“What’s your point?” Holt’s voice was much too calm.
“Long car ride, you two?” Isabelle asked sweetly, effectively and abruptly defusing the tension threatening to envelop the meeting.
“She has terrible taste in music,” Holt said, almost smiling.
“And she’s a damn control freak,” Dubs shot back.
“And I was held hostage by this crap the entire trip back from Michigan. In the backseat of a toy car. Everyone’s got a beef.”
“Anyone want to hear about missing persons and blackmail now that we’re done with the pity party?” Max asked.
“Yes, please, Max, let’s hear what you’ve got. You know how much I enjoy hearing about people threatening me,” Isabelle said.
“No one is going to get near you,” Holt said, wrapping her arms tighter around Isabelle’s waist.
Lola loved the way they loved each other. She’d known Holt most of her life and had never seen her happier. Isabelle had provided something for Holt that Lola desperately wanted—stability, support, unconditional love, acceptance, and peace. She was thankful every day that they’d agreed to adopt George and that they were both part of her life. She couldn’t have given him a quarter of the life he
Since her last girlfriend, Tiffany, had left her in a spectacularly humiliating way, she’d finally realized what lousy instincts she had with women. She was pretty sure Holt and most of the people in her life had been trying to tell her that subtly over the years, but she hadn’t been interested in their opinions. Falling so incredibly short in that department was enough for her to finally get it through her head. She had terrible taste and instincts. She was done with women.
If only her uncertainty in that aspect of her life hadn’t started to bleed over into her professional life as well. The entire episode with Tiffany had rocked her confidence, not just personally. With Holt’s family in danger it was a bad time to be getting a case of the yips. I just need something to get me back on track. Prove to everyone I can handle my business.
Lola turned her attention back to the task at hand. Moose and Jose were still making their way back from Michigan, and Holt’s cousin Danny was working his real job as a Providence cop. The rest of the crew was out and about hunting down leads and bringing in bad guys who had declined their invitations to court. Max started the briefing for the small group that was there.
“Everyone up to speed on the extortion money demand in Holt’s email?”
“At a later date, we need to have a talk about you and your access to my email account,” Holt said to Max.
Lola shuddered to think of the access Max had to any of their electronic lives if she was so inclined. She had nothing to hide, but she didn’t like the idea of someone being able to snoop around in her life anytime she wanted. If just felt weird.
“You have a very boring electronic life, H,” Max said as if that made it okay for her to have accessed her email. “The highlights were really that cookie recipe Amy sent. Tuna made them—they’re delicious—and Isabelle’s question about paint. I’ve got two follow-ups. Why did Amy think you were going to bake, and why were you two so quick to dismiss Subtle Touch and Phantom Mist for the dining room? They were a tad neutral sure, but I think the colors could really work in there. They weren’t as bold as Salty Tears or Lauren’s Surprise, but—”
“Extortion. Proof of life videos, please.”
Lola thought this was a perfect example of the new and improved Holt 2.0. The old Holt, pre-Isabelle would have torn Max into very tiny pieces with the precision of a human shredder. Holt 2.0 looked disgruntled, not deadly.
“Fine. I’ve contacted the police and they already have an open missing persons case. Apparently, your father.” Max looked at Isabelle.
“His name is Kevin Garvey. He threatened me and my sister, and now he’s been stupid enough to get himself kidnapped, although the result is the same for us. That’s his only relationship to me,” Isabelle said. Her tone left no room for misunderstanding or argument. Holt wasn’t the only one who commanded the troops around here.
“Yes, ma’am,” Max said. “Pertinent details then. Kevin Garvey is married and his wife filed a missing persons report. They don’t seem to have any leads. They were surprised by my call. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the video we got, but so far I’ve got nothing useful to report. I’ll keep working.”
“What have we heard from Moose? He’s had plenty of time to get information from Mason,” Holt said. “Anything more about why Garvey wanted to talk to me? Was he really the one who hired Mason? Anything he can provide to prove that?”
“Moose checked in a couple of hours ago. He and Jose collected all three of the boys you left in the woods for them. As you might expect, Mason’s not feeling incredibly cooperative. We don’t have much leverage on him. We’re taking him back to jail, and he knows it.”
“I’ll call the district attorney handling his case in Detroit,” Holt said. “I don’t know that there’s anything to be done, but it’s worth a shot. I won’t compromise a case to get information from Mason, but maybe he has other information that would be useful to them. I want to know how Garvey passed the message on, how he got in touch.”
“Do we know anything about the people who sent the video?” Lola asked.
“Not yet. I’ve got a program running trying to trace the origin of the email. Whoever sent it covered their tracks pretty well.”
As if on cue, Max’s computer beeped and her face lit up. Max was evidently chasing an email through the Internets, whatever that meant. Lola pictured a dog chasing a squirrel around the cemetery near the office, but she suspected it was a bit more complicated.
“Gotcha,” Max said triumphantly. “College of LA. The email originated from the CLA servers.”
“What would someone at CLA want with Kevin Garvey, or any of us?” Isabelle asked. “He never attended college or ever had any particular interest in it as far as I know. Last I heard he was living in Arizona.”
“He worked in the maintenance department,” Max said, looking intently at her computer screen. “Guess he relocated.”
“So what do we do about the extortion threat?” Dubs asked, for once looking serious. “Since I used to be a thief and you all found me in prison, I don’t believe these guys will just take the money and go away.”
“The extortion threat is a concern, but at the moment it’s just that, a threat. They don’t have anything of ours. Maybe they’re overplaying their hand thinking Kevin Garvey means more to Isabelle and Ellen than he does, or maybe they think we’re unprepared to protect our own. I’m not sure, and I don’t like being unsure. I think we report the threat and the attempted extortion and officially let the authorities handle this.”
“And unofficially?” Lola asked. She could tell Holt was formulating a plan and was fairly confident she knew what it was. If
she was right, she had to convince Holt she was the right one for the job.
“I’m not a fan of people thinking they hold leverage over me. And I really hate not having enough information to know what the fuck is going on. I want to know who these people are and how to get them out of our lives.”
“Sounds like you’re going to Los Angeles,” Isabelle said. She didn’t look or sound happy. She wrapped her arms around Holt’s neck in what looked like an unconscious gesture of comfort seeking.
Holt wrapped her arms around Isabelle’s waist and pulled her closer. “No, sweetheart, I’m not going anywhere. I want information, but I need to know you and George and Ellen’s brood are safe. My place is by your side. What good is paying a whole crew if I can’t send them across the country whenever I feel like it?”
“Maybe I sound like an imbecile,” Dubs said, “but how is trotting off to LA going to help us?”
“We can look for Kevin Garvey ourselves, for one,” Holt said.
“Can’t work a kidnapping from across the country,” Lola said. “Not easily. And it’s easier to be a pain in the ass with the local cops in person. Although I’m sure you would have no problems either way.”
“And LA is where Garvey lives. It’s where his life is. This guy wanted to talk to me, and now someone supposedly snatched him and they want to talk to me. The people who know why are out there. Max can do amazing things with a laptop, but sometimes you need boots and eyes on the ground,” Holt said.
This was what Lola had been waiting for. For months now, she’d been looking for an opportunity to get her life back on firm footing, and this job felt like the way to do it. She was tired of feeling unmoored. In LA, by herself, with only work to worry about, she’d finally have that chance. And without Holt to bail her out if she screwed up, she would have no choice but to come through.
“I’m volunteering,” Lola said. “I’ll find Garvey and your pen pals.”
“No,” Holt said. “Moose will be back in a day, two at the most. I’ll send him when he gets back.”
Lola’s stomach churned. Her heart sank. Holt doesn’t trust me on this. She doesn’t trust me when it’s Isabelle on the line. She had to prove her wrong.
“That’s forty-eight hours of wasted time, H. I can be there six hours from whatever flight Max can find for me. I’ll stand in the cargo hold if it means finding who’s threatening Isabelle and Ellen faster. Moose will be tired when he gets back, especially if he’s been fighting off Jose for a week. I’m fresh. I won’t fail you. Or Isabelle.”
Holt looked surprised. She started to speak, but Isabelle put her hand on her shoulder and stopped her. Isabelle whispered something in her ear that Lola couldn’t make out. Holt nodded, kissed Isabelle on the cheek, and finally made eye contact with Lola.
“My choice of Moose wasn’t a reflection of my thoughts about you. It wasn’t about you failing me. I don’t think you ever have. Get on a plane as soon as you can. Moose will join you in California, but only as backup in case you need it. There are some cold leads on other cases he can follow up on the West Coast while you’re searching. I’d prefer if you had someone relatively close in case you need him.”
“I don’t need a babysitter, H,” Lola said.
“Moose was going to get one too,” Holt said. “I was going to send Dubs.” Dubs’s eyes lit up, and Holt held up her hand to stop her. “You weren’t going to be allowed inside a car the entire time you were there.”
“You’re no fun, boss.”
“Lola,” Holt said, looking at her seriously, “this is ghost surveillance only. You find Garvey if you can. See what you can find out about our extortionists, but don’t compromise yourself. Moose will be close, but don’t put yourself at risk. The states aren’t spaced like they are on the East Coast. California is huge. I have no idea how many Rhode Islands will fit in it, but you will essentially be without a parachute for long stretches of time. I’m sending him with you because it makes me feel better to have him in the same state, but I don’t know how close he’ll actually be, and he’ll be working his own cases while you work yours. You know how nervous that makes me. Keep a low profile and be safe.”
“I always am,” Lola said. That wasn’t true, especially lately, but Holt didn’t need to know that. She turned to Max who hadn’t looked up from her computer since Holt gave the go-ahead for Lola to head west. “So, when do I leave, kid?”
“You’re booked on a flight tonight. You’ll land in LA around one a.m. I got you a long-term sublet apartment close to CLA. It’s furnished so you don’t need to worry about bringing anything with you. And you’re the newest hire in the CLA maintenance department, custodial staff. Hope you’re good with a mop. And graveyard shift.”
“That was…efficient,” Lola said. Max could make her computer do things Lola didn’t think possible. Email was still a little magical to her. “Did you get me transportation?”
“I’ve got a Ducati Scrambler Sixty2 with your name on it waiting at the airport.”
“They’re trying to market that bike to hipsters, Max,” Lola said. She was horrified.
“So put on your skinny jeans and ironic T-shirt and suck it up. That bike handles well in cities. It’s also reasonably affordable. You are a custodian, after all. Now get out of here and pack. You have a flight to catch. Didn’t you hear Holt?” Max tried to shoo her away.
“Anything else before I go, H?” Lola asked, not willing to be dismissed by Max.
“Be careful. Keep your comms with you and check in with the Wonder Twins daily. If you need me, call day or night. Moose is your immediate backup, but if you’re in trouble, I’m your first call, got it?”
Lola smiled. Holt had always been overly protective of those she loved, but especially of her. “Got it.”
She felt a thrill that had been absent lately. She was finally getting an opportunity to set things right, to get back on course. It didn’t hurt that the job was so far from everything she knew. Right now, a little distance was welcome. Maybe it would help her get her head on straight before she came back after this got sorted out and settled back onto the team under Holt. God, I hope so.
“Okay, buddy, you’re going to go easy on me, right? Mama’s in the other room, but I really don’t want to have to call in backup.” Holt looked down at her son before scooping him up and flying him over to the changing table in his room.
George squealed with delight as he soared over his toy-strewn floor and landed on his back on the changer. As soon as his back hit the soft fabric, however, he was a man in motion. Arms, legs, and torso shifted in equal and opposite directions, and it was all Holt could do to keep him on the table, much less get the diaper changed.
“I thought we agreed you were going to go easy on me,” she said. Although Isabelle made this look easy, and she could call for her help and they would be done in a third of the time, she wasn’t willing to give up and take the coward’s way out. Just because George seemed to reserve his strength, willfulness, and excess urine for her, didn’t mean she couldn’t handle it, most of the time. Isabelle hasn’t ever been peed on. Holt needed to change her clothes regularly. It had become their thing. She didn’t remember her godson, Superman, ever being this single-mindedly wiggly, although the peeing they shared. Boys.
She handed George his favorite book, and the distraction was enough to get the diaper off and a new one in place. She was sweating by the time his feet hit the floor, and he took off for the kitchen where he could hear Mama singing along to something on the radio. Despite it being completely meaningless to his chance of lifetime success, Holt was proud that he had been an early walker. He was just over a year old now and was close to running, where many of his age matched peers were still cruising along furniture, waiting to take their first wobbly steps.
Holt followed George, inordinately pleased he was leading her to Isabelle. She’d thought her life was complete before she’d splash-landed in Isabelle’s pool and circumstances had forced them to face down one of Isabelle’s deranged clients together. But Isabelle, and now George, had shown her what true fulfillment was. If only people would stop threatening those she loved.
“Holt, sweetie, I thought we agreed, only Carol Danvers lives here. Captain Marvel stays at the office.”
Holt realized she must have the look that Isabelle called her “work face.”
“I was just thinking about how much I love you and George.”
“That look wasn’t the one you have when you tell me you love me,” Isabelle said. “I trust you with my life. You’ll keep us safe. What were you really thinking about?”
Holt leaned against the counter, and Isabelle slipped into her arms and kissed her. Isabelle felt so good, and as Holt always did when Isabelle was close, she felt the tension she was carrying melt away.
“It should probably bother me that you can read my mind,” Holt said. “But I kind of like it.”
“Me too,” Isabelle said. She turned her attention to George, not leaving Holt’s arms. “Just a little quieter please, buddy.” He’d been punctuating each of their sweet sentiments with a loud, jarring whap of his wooden spoon against a metal mixing bowl. He was sitting on the floor in the kitchen surrounded by measuring spoons and cups, two mixing bowls, three wooden spoons, and a whisk.
“Looks like I’m off the hook for making dinner tonight,” Holt said. “What’s on the menu, bud?” Reluctantly, Holt let Isabelle go and knelt down to collect a runaway whisk and return it to him.
“Oh, that reminds me. Amy and Superman are joining us tonight. Tuna’s been escorting Ellen and the kids around all day, so I figured we should invite him to stay too.”
Holt laughed at the day Tuna was probably having. “Is Ellen pretending she’s a celebrity in town with her security detail and dragging him to every store in the state?”
“Probably,” Isabelle said. She was laughing now too. “She’s taking this well. It’s a good thing she married the most patient and understanding man alive. Having her fawn and drool over you is one thing, but Tuna is a walking Greek god and very much single.”
“She doesn’t fawn all over me,” Holt said.
Isabelle shot her a look that told her not to argue anymore.
“Amy’s also mad at you. Fair warning.”
“What could I have possibly done since I saw her last?” Holt couldn’t think of anything worthy of her ire. Not anything that was worth Amy going to Isabelle and not calling and yelling directly at her.
“I guess Superman won’t stop demanding a brother. She blames you.”
Holt couldn’t help the smile and full heart when she thought of her godson. She’d been there the day he had been placed with Amy as a foster child and stood next to her in court when he legally became Amy’s son. He was only a couple of years older than George, and the two boys loved each other. She wanted them to be close, and watching their relationship grow was one of the great joys in her life.
“He has George. He’s over there with them so much, he’s practically like a brother. I don’t know what we’d do without Amy helping us out so much.”
“That’s what I told her. She said he was very clear. He wants an ‘all the time, overnight brother,’ not a ‘sometimes brother like George.’ Amy said she’s adding this to your list of things to handle. Out of curiosity, what are the others?”
Holt counted them down on her fingers. “The sex talk, why he can’t play football, buying a jock strap, tattoos, and now, apparently, baby brothers.”
“That’s a good list,” Isabelle said. “You can cover both boys, although I don’t know if we should rule out baby brothers in the future.”
“Really?” Holt liked the sound of that. They’d never talked about it, but she could see having a whole army of kids with Isabelle. “Are Max and Dubs coming to family dinner tonight too?”
Holt started meal prep since George wasn’t likely to be any real help. She pulled what she needed from the fridge and juggled olive oil, spices, and the other ingredients on her way to the stove.
“Probably, but you know how easily they get distracted. With each other, with work, computers, cars. I’ll remind Max,” Isabelle said. She saved an onion from rolling off the counter and gave Holt’s ass an affectionate pat as she moved across the kitchen to get a cutting board from the drying rack.
“They’re good kids. It’s going to feel weird not having Moose, Jose, or Lola here though. I hope I made the right decision sending her across the country on her own.” George pulled on her pant leg and lifted his arms, grunting. She scooped him up and showed him what she was doing, pointing out the types of food and cooking utensils.
“She needed to go. I don’t know why, but something’s going on with her. She hasn’t been the same since Tiffany. I don’t know if the trip is a good thing, but I think forcing her to stay would have been worse.”
Holt agreed. She’d noticed Lola’s strange behavior too, including her overeagerness in the field and taking every case she could get her hands on. It was like she was just learning the ropes again, or trying to prove something. She’d also been less present with the group, disengaged. Holt hadn’t been able to get her to talk. They’d been friends for years, but for the first time since Lola’s brother died, Lola had clammed up. Holt thought about George, Lola’s late brother and her son’s namesake. He had been one of her best friends, and her own grief still felt like an unhealed wound that could reopen at any time. She could only imagine what it was like for Lola.
“After George the First died, it took Lola forever to talk to me, or anyone, about what she was feeling, thinking, anything. She’s kind of like that now. She’ll come around, I hope. Maybe Jose’s had more luck. They’re pretty close. I’ll talk to him when he gets back.”
“You think she’s going to listen to you and stick with surveillance only?” Isabelle looked concerned.
“Why wouldn’t she?” Holt was surprised by Isabelle’s question. Lola knew the rules of the crew, and they’d come up with the plan as a team. Surely Lola wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her safety.
“I don’t know. She just had a funny look on her face when you tried to send Moose in her place today. Sort of desperate. And you said yourself, she’s been clammed up and not talking to you. I’m worried about her. It was Tiffany’s new guy who almost killed Dubs. I don’t know if she blames herself for not figuring that out…”
Isabelle didn’t finish her thought. She didn’t need to. Holt knew what she was thinking. She should have been thinking the same thing herself. She ran her hand through her hair. Damn it. Why haven’t I been checking on her more? If she’s been carrying that weight and I let her down…Damn it.
“Hey, babe,” Isabelle said, stroking her back, helping her reel in her emotions. “I’m just speculating. No proof. She got cheated on, dumped, and embarrassed in front of her family. That alone is enough to explain why she’s been a little distant.”
“Yeah, but if she does blame herself, she’s going to try and make up for it. And I should have seen it coming.” Holt wasn’t willing to let herself off the hook.
“Well, you do now,” Isabelle said. “And we aren’t supposed to be talking about work at home.”
“You started it,” Holt said. “And how did you become better at my job than I am?”
“Oh, I’m certainly not. I do not look good in ass-kicking boots.” Isabelle whispered “ass” since George was still in Holt’s arms.
“You look good in anything,” Holt said. She took her time looking her up and down to make her point.
“Stop it,” Isabelle said with a grin that would have sent them racing to the bedroom before George, and if they weren’t about to have a house full of people.
The doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of their first guests for family dinner. Holt knew it was probably Amy. She usually got there first so Superman and George could play.
“Guess I’m going to have to break the news to Superman,” Holt said. “Amy will probably enjoy watching me stumble through this one.”
“You’ll survive, tough guy,” Isabelle said. “And, sweetheart, Lola will be okay. You’ll make sure of it. Tonight let’s enjoy family dinner. No more work talk.”
Holt hoped so. Isabelle was right. Now that Holt was alerted to the possibility that Lola was carrying an extra burden, she would be more aware of her actions. But she was out on a limb three thousand miles away. Damn it.