Always the Last to Know

Chapter 4

After an exhausting day of saying goodbye to all the kids and their families, and receiving many more gifts that I would need to catalogue before sending my file box to my storage unit, I got my good friend and fellow volunteer Sera to drive me to the nearest airstrip where I caught a small plane to the main airport. I was hauling my duffle bag over my should on the tarmac when a pair of strong, male hands grasped the strap, lifting it from my grip. I turned to assure whatever local that had thought to be helpful that I could handle my own luggage only to find Tank’s face grinning broadly down at me.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said, bending to pick up the two document boxes at my feet like there were full of Styrofoam balls rather than the papers and gifts they actually contained.

“You didn’t think I would go through with it,” I accused, hitching my hold-all-handbag and laptop bag higher on my shoulder.

“Can you blame me?” he questioned. “You’ve been back and forth over whether or not you’ll come back for six long, agonising months. I had to come and make sure you got on the plane.”

“Where does Ranger think you are right now?” I asked warily.

“Visiting my sister in Philly,” he replied easily, nodding his head in the direction of a waiting jet. “Not that it really matters, he’s at a mandatory family function this weekend anyway.”

“Aren’t I supposed to check in and all that before boarding the plane?” I asked as we neared the air craft. “And that duffle bag is definitely not hand luggage.”

“Relax,” Tank said smoothly, handing off my duffle bag to the man waiting at the rear of the craft. “It’s a private jet. We’re already checked in.”

My heart leapt into my throat at the mention of a private jet. “Please tell me it’s not a Rangeman jet,” I implored, unconsciously gripping his shirt.

With a grin, Tank adjusted his hold on my boxes into one hand and used his other to loosen my fingers until I was holding his hand instead of his shirt. “Rangeman doesn’t have jets,” Tank assured me, allowing a relieved breath to whoosh from between my lips before he amended, “Yet. But it does have the funds to hire a jet to deliver supplies to Mexico.”

“Supplies?” I squeaked.

“Ranger’s uncle has been working on and off down here for the last seven or eight years,” Tank explained as we started up the steps to the plane. “Once or twice a year, Ranger sends a care package.”

I could only imagine the kind of care packages Ranger would send. He didn’t seem the type to send a tin of cookies, or a hand crocheted rug. Guns. Ammo. Satellite phones. Kevlar vest. USB devices containing classified information. That was more his speed. Ranger wasn’t ensuring his uncle had his favourite comforts, he was making sure he had the right tools for the trade. And knowing the trade that Ranger was in, I wasn’t sure I wanted to contemplate how legal it was to send the things he needed to send across the border.

I followed the flight attendant’s directions to the spacious cabin and stowed my bags in the floor storage space provided next to my seat. I’d never been in a plane like this. Very luxurious. Definitely something Ranger would make a point of hiring to show off his wealth.

Tank was two steps behind me, stowing my file boxes in a similar storage container on his side of the plane. When he straightened, he held a large manila envelope in his larger, meaty hands. I knew the moment he turned toward me that it was for me.

“What is that?” I asked cautiously

“Your new identity,” he informed me, holding it out and gesturing for me to take a seat once it was in my grasp. “You’re gonna wanna familiarise yourself with that. Your job interview is tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred.” With that he settled into his own seat, fastening his seatbelt and pulling out a pair of earphones from his pocket and inserting them into his ears. I guess the conversation was over.

With a sigh, I sat down before my knees decided to give way and belted myself in.

The envelope weighed heavily in my hands as I stared almost blankly at it. Shocked. Part of me had thought Tank was joking when he’d suggested applying for this job under a false identity, not just because it would all be for naught once the Merry Men saw me, because I felt they would recognise me immediately, but because this was me. I was probably the worst actress I had ever met. And my ability to lie was so flawed that even little kids saw through it.

“Were you planning on absorbing the information via osmosis?” Tank asked. He’d been staring straight ahead since the moment he sat down, but his question let me know that while he was giving the appearance of allowing me some privacy, his ever watchful gaze was on me... Apparently Tank can see around corners now.

I placed the packet on the empty seat beside me and turned to face the large man across the aisle. “I didn’t think you were serious about this,” I said earnestly.

Tank finally shifted his body to look at me, removing the ear buds from his ears with an odd expression on his face. “Of course I was serious, Steph,” he said. “I’ve been trying to convince you to come back for months and you finally agreed when I suggested it. No way am I going back on that suggestion when it was the only thing that worked.”

“I can’t pull off being someone I’m not around the guys,” I pointed out.

“You just have to get past the interview,” he assured me. When I gave him a look he explained, “You said you wanted to earn the job fair and square, so I’ve organised Aaron to do all the interviews for a few days, including tomorrow.”

“Who’s Aaron?”

“Exactly,” he grinned. “You don’t know him. He doesn’t know you. All you have to do is be yourself and you’re guaranteed to get the job.”

That seemed a bit odd. How could he guarantee that I’d get the job if someone I didn’t know was doing the interview? I was sensing a plot afoot and was just about to ask what he was really up to when he spoke.

“Look, you’re exactly what we’re looking for. You have the work experience to work both in the community relief centre and in the field with us if we have the need. In fact, with your background you’d probably be a real asset in the field. I should remember to propose that to Ranger.”

“When did you get so talkative?” I asked, ignoring the daunting prospect of using my new found skills in a setting I hadn’t been in for the last six years. The word ‘challenging’ came to mind.

Tank gave me a weird look. “We talk all the time on Skype,” he reminded me. “Why would it be any different in person?”

He had a point, of course. We’d had quite extensive discussions on Skype, some leading into debate territory, and never once had it seemed odd or strange for him to be so open and verbal. But now that we were physically in the same space, it just felt... different. Tank had always been the silent observer. The muscle. The dark shadow of intimidation cast over the street. And now he was...

With a gasp, I realised that the word I would probably use to describe Tank these days was ‘friend’. Tank was a friend. A normal friend. The kind you could discuss your problems and worries with. And I know this, because I’d been doing it without realising for six months.

Rather than ask what my gasp was about, Tank gave me a smirk and returned his attention to the front of the plane as it began taxiing. “You should start on that new identity of yours,” he mentioned, inserting the earphones once more. “The flight isn’t as long as it seems and you need to be a different person from the moment you step off this plane.”

Just like that I was more or less alone, as Tank stared straight ahead, probably not ignoring my presence, but allowing me the illusion of privacy. Knowing my luck he wasn’t even listening to anything.

I waited until we were in the air before pulling down my tray and emptying the packet onto it. All the expected documents were there; resume, passport, driver’s licence, brief background. But there was also a pair of eye glasses, an eyeliner pen, a mineral make up palette, and a “Get The Look” guide booklet. I puzzled over the items for a few moments before picking them up and holding them out toward Tank to get his attention.

“What’s with these?” I asked, him when he turned his head in my direction.

“Take a look at your photo ID,” he said rather than answer my specific question.

I rolled my eyes at him, but did as he said, opening up my new passport to discover an incredible looking woman staring back at me. There was no way anyone would believe that I am this woman. Her hair was the same cut as mine, and just as spastically curly, but it had a reddish tinge rather than having red highlights. Her eyes were grey, like mine were when I was wearing my contact lenses, and framed by rectangular glasses, but their shape was completely different. And her skin just seemed to glow. I shook my head.

“She looks nothing like me,” I informed my companion.

“She is you,” Tank responded easily, not a shadow of doubt anywhere in his tone.

Sending Tank a dubious look, I held up the passport beside my face. “Really, Tank?” I said. “You expect me to believe that?”

“Don’t dis’ my sister’s handiwork,” he countered, reaching across the space between us and grabbing the makeup book. Opening it to the first page he held it up like one would a picture book when reading to a kindergarten class. “This is you,” he informed me firmly, pointing to a picture that was, quite obviously, me. It was the photo I’d sent him two weeks ago. He turned the page. “This is you after you’ve put the colour rinse through your hair.” Sure enough, it was the same picture with my hair red tinged. Another page turn. “This is you with the makeup contouring my sister spent hours perfecting,” he explained, pointing to the right hand page where the red tinged me now had awesome glowing skin, high cheekbones and a gorgeous nose. “And this is a map of how to achieve the contouring.” He turned the page again revealing the glowing, red tinged me with brilliant eyes.

“Let me guess,” I interrupted, before Tank could further treat me like a child. “This is where the eyeliner comes in?” He nodded in the affirmative and handed the booklet back to me. I examined the how to page closely for a moment. “What does your sister do?” I asked.

“She’s a highly acclaimed makeup artist and the photo editor for a well known women’s magazine,” he explained. “She also occasionally freelances for various government agencies providing photos for documents and guides like the ones you have in your hands.”

“Government agencies?” I repeated, dumbfounded.

“And loving brothers who offer to babysit the monsters so she can have a girls night out,” he added, a slightly sheepish grin creeping onto his face. This new side of Tank was blowing my mind.

I glanced through the booklet, spending more time on the how to side of pages, growing more nervous as I noted the amount of work that actually went into achieving this look.

“Is all this really necessary?” I asked nervously, fingering the eyeliner pen. I’d never contoured my face in my life. In fact, I usually just swiped on some mascara and lip gloss and called myself done. I’d taken an eyeliner pencil to my face once in my life and had ended up not only stabbing myself in the eye several times, but looking like a goth. There was a lot of pressure on me get this right.

“Marie swears by eyeliner,” Tank assured me. “She says something as simple as a couple of lines around your eyes changes their entire shape.”

I couldn’t argue with that, especially with the evidence right in front of me. I flicked to the last page, where the only addition was the glasses frames. “Why did she add glasses?” I found myself asking, before I’d even acknowledged the thought. “I’m already wearing coloured contacts, isn’t glasses on top of that a little over kill?”

Tank was grinning when I gazed up at him. “The glasses were my contribution,” he admitted. “Its for the Clark Kent Factor.”

I couldn’t even voice my confusion at that point, but apparently it showed on my face, because Tank continued.

“You know, Clark Kent? Superman?” he paused, waiting for a sign of my recognition. I blinked twice. “Clark Kent wore glasses. Superman didn’t. No one ever made the connection.”

I rolled my eyes. “You realise that everyone watching at home knew it was Clark instantly, right?” I pointed out.

“Don’t underestimate the Clark Kent Factor,” he warned sternly before tossing a bottle of ‘fast action, fail proof’ red hair rinse in my direction. “Go get started.”

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