"Did Kara tell you any details about the case?" Frank asked. He stood facing the window using his reflection to straighten his tie.
"Just the phone call last night to say she's bringing someone in. Another protection detail. Hush-hush client. She hasn't been around the last few days," Joe said, two fingers tugging at the collar of his shirt, which he was sure was going to choke him. "She had to go to Boston for some family thing. Whoever it is, they better be worth wearing the monkey suit." He shifted from side to side, noting with displeasure the looseness of his jacket on his frame. A quick glance in the window confirmed his fears. He looked like a kid wearing his older brother's clothes. He grimaced. Great. Just the image I want to project. I look like an amateur.
Frank finished fussing with his tie, buttoned his jacket, and sat on the front of his desk. He reached one hand back for his coffee and drank the last swallow, making a face at its tepid temperature. "With any luck it'll at least be less eventful than..."
"Don't say it," Joe warned, his hand moving unconsciously to his left shoulder. "I jinxed the last one by saying it." He flushed – irritated as he realized what he was doing – and shifted his hand, trying to make it look as if he was brushing some lint from his jacket. "Besides, you at least ended up with a girlfriend out of the deal," he said, a note of complaint in his voice. "All I got was shot." His eyes flickered towards Frank, and he swore internally as his brother's expression darkened. Crap. Wrong thing to say, he thought. Time to lighten the mood. He pasted a goofy expression on his face. "Hey, that would make a cool t-shirt slogan. We could make a million dollars." He shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant manner. "Then we wouldn't have to worry about getting paying clients, right? I mean, if I never have to look at the layout of another art gallery, I can die a happy man."
Joe was relieved to see Frank's eyes roll in amusement. "They pay the bills, little brother. They pay the bills."
They both straightened as the door opened. A second later Chet ushered in Kara and an Asian woman who looked to be in her early fifties. Her black, tailored suit was elegant and understated, rimless glasses were perched on her nose, and a streak of white hair on the left side of her face stood out in stark contrast to the straight, black bob that framed her face. She carried a leather folder under her left arm. Once the door was shut, Kara turned to them. "Frank, Joe, I'd like to introduce Dr. Kyung-ae Park. Dr. Park, Frank and Joe Hardy, the detectives I've been telling you about."
"Dr. Park, nice to meet you." Joe put out his right hand.
Dr. Park looked at him, her face impassive, her hands not moving from her sides. "They are younger than I would have thought," she said, glancing at Kara.
"Frank and Joe are very experienced detectives," Kara replied. "I can't think of anyone I would..."
The doctor put up a hand, cutting off Kara's words. She turned to Frank. "You are the elder brother, I presume?"
Frank bowed slightly. "Dr. Park. Oon-young, ha-sae-yoh. May we offer you some refreshment?"
A slight smile touched the woman's face. "Coffee would be lovely, thank you."
"Please make yourself comfortable," Frank said. "We'll be right back." As the two women sat, Frank turned towards the door leading back to the reception area.
"I'll just give you a hand with that," Joe said. "Sugar, cream?"
"Black." The temperature in the room dropped about ten degrees with that one word. What did I do? Joe thought. He shut the door behind him and grabbed Frank's arm. "'Bro, you speak Japanese?"
"Korean." Frank placed three mugs of coffee on a tray. "Can you get the door? I don't want to be wearing any of these."
"Japanese... Korean... whatever. Since when do you speak Korean?" Joe planted himself in front of the office door. "And what did you say to her?"
"Hello. The polite way. Like you do to an elder." Frank shrugged. "There's a Korean diner down the street from Anna's place. I've been going there for dinner after I water the plants. Mrs. Kim felt sorry for me and started teaching me a few things."
Joe stared at him, his blue eyes showing incredulity. "You're keeping yourself entertained while your girlfriend's away by learning languages?"
"Most of what I know is food, all right? Can you let me in now?"
"Sometimes I wonder if we really are related..." Joe shook his head as he opened the door and followed his brother back inside. "Freak," he muttered under his breath.
Frank shot him a dirty look as he put the tray on his desk. When he turned back to their client, his expression had smoothed out, and Joe was impressed at the speed with which his brother had gone back to his business face. He took one of the cups from the tray and gave it to Kara, surreptitiously caressing her hand as he did so.
Frank presented Dr. Park with the second cup and took the remaining one for himself. "Dr. Park, what can Hardy Investigations do for you?"
The woman turned to Kara. "What did you tell them?"
Kara flushed. "Nothing, Aunt Kay. You said you preferred..."
Joe gave Frank a sideways look. Aunt Kay? "Maybe if one of you could tell us what's going on here?"
"Your young man is impatient, Kara." Dr. Park took a sip of her coffee, then put the cup down on the tray and took a deep breath. "I am the daughter of Park Hunh-Bin."
Frank's head jerked up. "The nuclear physicist?"
The woman nodded, one eyebrow raised slightly. "I see Kara did not exaggerate when she spoke of your intelligence." Her tone was approving, and Joe mentally shook his head, wondering why Frank got praise while he was getting the cold shoulder. Dr. Park paused for a moment, still speaking only to Frank. "Yes. My father escaped North Korea with our family when I was a child. He also managed to smuggle out many of his notes regarding experiments he was working on, effectively crippling the government's nuclear program."
"A program they've gotten restarted in the last few years," Frank noted.
"That's interesting, but what does it have to do with us?" Joe asked, leaning forward. "Do you need a safe place to keep your father's notes?"
"I am concerned for the safety of my daughter," Dr. Park said, folding her hands in her lap. "I have been hearing rumors in the Korean community that those in power would do anything to get my father's notes back, that the North Korean government considers them essential to the success of the program."
"And you're afraid they'll go after your daughter to get you to give up the papers?" Joe leaned back in his chair. "Wouldn't it make more sense for them to attack you directly? Going after your kid seems stupid." He wondered what kind of reaction this wording would get.
"Joe..." Kara's voice held a faint warning.
"No, Kara, while the wording is inelegant, he asks a valid question." She turned to Joe, her expression grudgingly impressed. "Attacking me wouldn't get them my father's notes. I am the only one who knows where they are, and I would die before letting them into the hands of my enemy." She faltered. "But my daughter is vulnerable."
"What is it you need of us, Dr. Park?" Frank's voice was low and serious.
"Kara has told me of your undercover assignments." She smiled fondly at Kara before turning back to Frank and Joe. "I wish to hire you to protect my daughter, to pose as teachers at her school so she has someone around her twenty-four hours a day."
"For how long?" Joe's eyes flickered to Kara's face. Her lips were pressed in a firm line, and she wouldn't meet his eyes.
Frank tilted his head to the side, a questioning look on his face. "Why November?"
Kara cleared her throat. "Word from the State Department is the North Korean government is planning to fire an armed missile at the end of October. The Internet is buzzing, but there hasn't been any independent confirmation as of yet." Frank nodded.
"I believe this experiment to be based on my father's work," Dr. Park continued. "If the launch is successful, they will no longer need my father's notes. If it fails, they will assume my father's work was flawed. Either way, Soon-Yi will be safe."
"Soon-Yi is your daughter?" Joe asked.
"Yes." Dr. Park opened the leather folder that was now on her lap. She extracted a photograph from its inside cover and handed it to Frank. It showed a young woman seated in front of an oak tree. She looked like a younger, slightly goth version of her mother, her straight black hair cut at an odd angle and dark, thick lines of color around her eyes. She wore black, artfully torn clothes, and scuffed sneakers. "This is her school picture from last year."
Frank took a quick look at the photo, nodded, then handed it to Joe, who examined it carefully.
"She looks about seventeen, five feet, six inches tall, give or take." Joe squinted at the photo, focusing on the bottom half. "An athlete. The muscles in her legs indicate she's a runner. I'm guessing long distance." He continued without waiting for confirmation. "Your husband's American, isn't he?" He lifted his eyes to find Dr. Park watching him, one eyebrow raised. "What?"
"You are correct."
Joe's jaw clenched in anger at the slight tone of surprise in the woman's voice. Great, from Frank you expect intelligence. But not from me. Lovely. He saw a glimmer of worry in Kara's eyes and made himself relax. That would be a conversation for later. He turned back to the doctor.
"Soon-Yi will be eighteen in December. She is a runner, and yes, my husband was American. He passed away several years ago." She turned toward Kara, her eyes softening. "I met John at MIT. We were students together. It is also where we met Kara's father." She sighed and shook her head. "My daughter was always more comfortable with her father, with her American half." Her lips quirked up in a bitter smile. "In fact, she would be appalled if she knew I was here. She insists she can take care of herself." She paused. "I would rather she be offended and safe. I do not wish to lose any other members of my family."
"Dr. Park, I appreciate your concern for your daughter's safety," Frank said, "but I'm not sure how..."
"Headmaster Whitman was another classmate of ours." Dr. Park held her hand back out for her picture. "He is expecting a call from me this evening to let him know when you will be arriving."
"Arriving?" Joe spluttered. "We haven't agreed to take the case! We don't even know where this school is."
"Joe..." The word was knife-edge sharp, but Kara's voice held an undercurrent of worry.
"It's all right, my dear," the older woman said. "I apologize for my presumption, Mr. Hardy. I realize I am asking a great deal without providing many details." She let out a long breath. "Soon-Yi attends Pocumtuck Academy in Massachusetts. It is affiliated with Deerfield Academy." Frank's eyes widened. "Each of the students suffers from some type of disability that makes it difficult to attend a traditional school. Soon-Yi is dyslexic." Her eyes lowered, and she examined her hands for a moment before continuing. "She also stutters."
Joe noticed this was said in a much lower tone. She doesn't mind the learning disability, but the stutter bothers her. Interesting. He brought his attention back to what she was saying.
"Pocumtuck creates specialized lesson plans that take into account each student's learning style to help them reach their intellectual potential." The words sounded as if they came straight from the school's brochure. It also sounded as if Dr. Park hadn't bought into the concept. Joe had to keep himself from smirking.
"I've heard of Pocumtuck. The teachers are disabled as well, aren't they?" Frank asked.
Dr. Park nodded. "They serve as role models for the students, to show that their disabilities do not limit them."
A line appeared on Frank's forehead. "We're not disabled."
"Not all disabilities are visible. That can be worked out."
"I don't like the idea of lying to kids," Frank said. He picked up his coffee mug and held it between his hands. "How certain are you of the threat to your daughter?"
"I am certain of nothing, Mr. Hardy," she said. "What I am is afraid. I need your help."
Joe locked his eyes onto Frank's. Say no. Say no. Say no.
Frank's lips pressed into a line. The coffee mug made a clicking noise as he placed it back on the desk. "We can't say 'yes' right now, Dr. Park. We'll need to discuss this. We have other clients. You're asking a lot."
"I understand. I will return to my hotel room to allow you to talk this over." She rose to her feet. "It was a pleasure to meet both of you. I look forward to hearing your decision."
The door had barely closed when Joe jumped to his feet. "What do you mean, 'we can't say yes right now'? You're actually considering this? This isn't a case; it's paranoia."
"Joe!" Kara's voice was indignant. "I've known her since I was a child, and I've never known her to be anything but scientific and pragmatic. She's really worried about Sunny."
"Sunny?" Frank moved behind his desk and flipped open his laptop.
"It's what Uncle John called her," Kara explained. "She and Aunt Kay have never had what you'd call a close relationship." She moved closer to Joe, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Aunt Kay can be a little... difficult."
Joe snorted. "Really? I hadn't noticed."
Kara continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Controlling. Uncle John used to keep the peace between them. Sunny applied to Pocumtuck a few months after he died. Aunt Kay only found out when the headmaster called about setting up an interview. He'd recognized Sunny's name and was looking forward to talking with his old friend's wife." She paused, shaking her head. "I'm not sure who was more shocked – the headmaster, Aunt Kay, or Sunny when she realized she wouldn't actually be getting as far away from her mother's sphere of influence as she wanted."
Joe pulled away from Kara's touch. "Kara, there's no evidence to prove her daughter's in danger. Why did you even bring her to us?"
Kara's expression went still, her brown eyes troubled. "Because my father asked me to. That was the family emergency."
"What?" Joe's face clearly showed his disbelief. "Your father hates me."
"He doesn't hate you," she sighed. "He just doesn't like the fact that we're living together."
"Doesn't like? He practically threw me out of..."
Frank cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt the lovers' spat, but you might be interested in what I've found here." He turned the laptop around to face them.
Onscreen a pretty Asian newscaster was reading from a sheaf of papers, the English translation of her words scrolling across the bottom of the picture. "Tomorrow at one o'clock we will broadcast our Dear Leader as he speaks to the nation and the world about the missile tests that will restore our country to prominence."
Frank snapped the laptop closed. "Do I believe Soon-Yi is in danger?" He shook his head. "I don't know." He paused, looking intently at Joe. "But if we don't take this case and something happens to her? I don't think I could face myself in the mirror. Do you?"
Joe swallowed. "No, I guess not."
"Kara, can you give me your aunt's number?"
Kara pulled out a card and handed it to Frank, who immediately picked up his phone, then swiveled his chair so his back was to them. Joe let out a breath and walked out to the reception area. He turned as he felt a soft touch on his arm.
Joe grimaced. He was sure this was going to be a giant waste of time. A waste of time that would keep him apart from Kara for months. Which was probably just what Mr. Malone wanted. "I've got another art gallery visit in about 15 minutes. How about we talk about it at home, okay?"
"I still like hearing you say that." Kara reached up and placed a light hand on his face. "I'll take care of dinner. See you later."
The smell of Chinese take-out drifted through the hall as Joe walked to the apartment he and Kara now shared. He could make out fried rice, beef chow fan, and hot and sour soup. His stomach rumbled as he unlocked the door, hunger dampening down his continued irritation over the meeting that afternoon. "Kara?"
The table was set with candles, a bottle of wine, and white cartons with chopsticks poking out of them. Joe swallowed, his mouth starting to water.
"They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach." Kara's voice came from the door to the bedroom. She wore a short, royal blue silk robe, her brown hair damp and hanging loose around her shoulders. She sauntered over to him, reached up, and pulled his face down to hers, kissing him until he almost forgot about the food. "But I think there are other ways to get there, too. Miss me?"
"Yes." Joe's breath was ragged. "Don't ever go away again." He ran his hands down her back, his fingers brushing again the lustrous silk. "Have I mentioned how much I like this robe?"
She smiled. "Once or twice." She kissed him again. "Did I mention I'm not wearing anything under it?"
Joe smiled. "Really? I may need to investigate to see if you're telling the truth."
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't."
The food was cold by the time they sat down to eat, but Joe didn't care. The past few days had been the first time he and Kara had been apart since... Since I got out of the hospital, he thought. Her constant presence during his recuperation had made the apartment feel barren and empty when she left it even for just a few hours. There hadn't been extensive discussion about living together; one day Joe just realized the place felt more like home with Kara in it. By the time the sun set, most of Kara's belongings were being unpacked. That had been several months ago, and Kara's absence over the past few days had left him feeling empty inside. As they ate, he replayed the meeting with Dr. Park, knowing that taking the case would mean months of separation. He put down his chopsticks and let out a long breath.
"You're not eating?" Kara teased. "What's wrong?"
"Why did your father ask you to bring Dr. Park to us?"
Kara tilted her head to the side, some noodles trapped between the chopsticks she held in her hand. "Because he thinks you and Frank can help Aunt Kay."
"Is that the only reason?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, her smile fading.
"Come on, Kara. Your dad's not my biggest fan." He snorted. "If I were a betting man, I'd put money down that he was trying to split us up. If it was Frank you were dating..."
"But it's not," she interrupted. "Frank's my friend, but you're the one I'm in love with. My parents know that." Joe looked off to the side. "Joe, my dad suggested I bring Aunt Kay to you because you're good at what you do, not because he doesn't like you."
Joe's eyes whipped back to Kara's face. "So, I'm right. He doesn't like me."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Joe, I'm his baby girl. He wouldn't like anyone I was living with."
Joe picked up his chopsticks again. "I guess that makes me feel better." He stabbed a piece of steak. "I'll miss you."
"I know." She put the noodles in her mouth, slowly pulling the chopsticks out from between her lips. Joe's mouth went dry. "I suppose we'd better make the most of the time we have now, shouldn't we?"
"So, how was the Dragon Lady?"
Frank glared at his brother, his brown eyes practically shooting lasers. "Dr. Park was very gracious. And grateful. She appreciates an extended assignment like this will cause some difficulties for us." He shook his head. "She didn't blink when I gave her the fee estimate. She actually told me money was no object, that she just wants Soon-Yi safe."
Joe whistled. "She used those words?"
"Those exact words." He took a manila envelope from his laptop case and unsealed it.
"Weird. Almost like a movie script." Joe sat heavily in one of the chairs in front of Frank's desk. "So, did you talk to Headmaster what's-his-name?"
"Whitman. Donald Whitman. He's been the headmaster there for about ten years. He's an interesting guy. It turns out he was instrumental in starting Pocumtuck. His son has cerebral palsy. The kid was a genius, but with his speech problems and physical symptoms, the public schools wanted to put him in special ed classes which weren't academically challenging enough for him. When they tried private schools, they found out they didn't have the facilities to deal with his disability." He shook his head. "He didn't want other kids to have to go through what his son did. I was impressed."
"So, what's Pocumtuck like?" Joe grabbed a pencil from Frank's desk and started shifting it between his fingers.
"It's small, only about forty students, ages ten through eighteen." Frank folded his hands on the envelope. "The classes are kept small so each student can learn at his or her own rate."
"Speaking of learning..." Joe eyed his brother apprehensively. "What do I teach? Please say it's not math."
Frank smiled. "Gym."
"You're going to be the athletic director." His brown eyes danced with amusement. "We're not actually teachers, little brother. These kids deserve a real education."
"All right. If I'm teaching gym, what are you teaching?" Joe started beating a drum cadence on the desk with the pencil. "Computer science?"
"No." Frank's lips quirked up into a mocking smile. "I'm going to be the school media specialist."
"You're the librarian?" The pencil fell to the floor as Joe howled with laughter. "Tell me you're going to wear those glasses again, yes?"
Frank nodded a puzzled expression on his face. "That was the plan, why?"
"Oh, this is too good." He grabbed the pencil from next to his foot, stood, and tapped Frank on the shoulder with it. "I hereby dub thee Giles."
"Giles?" Frank brushed some dust from his shoulder.
"Didn't you ever watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" Joe's eyes widened at Frank's obvious confusion. "'Bro, you need to broaden your horizons," he said as he worked to get his laughter under control. "Are you going to wear those jackets with the suede pads on the elbows?"
"No reason, but I'm putting you on notice. I'm taking pictures and will be sending them to Anna."
Frank shook his head. "I'm glad you find my disguise so amusing."
"You have no idea," Joe said, wiping his eyes. "It'll be the only thing that makes this assignment worth taking." He paused and took a breath, sobering suddenly. "When do we have to be there?"
"He wants us there the Sunday of Labor Day weekend." Frank started shaking documents out of the envelope. "Monday is move-in day for the students. I told him you'd be there Sunday afternoon, but I can't be there until Monday night."
"How come I have to get there before you?" Joe flipped the pencil upside down and began bouncing the eraser off the desktop. "That doesn't seem fair."
Frank cocked an eyebrow. "I've got non-refundable tickets to Paris that weekend. Besides, we're not supposed to know each other. Showing up at different times will reinforce that impression." He started rifling through the pile of papers. "Here. There's not enough time to come up with new identities, so we're going to use some old ones."
Joe took the license Frank was holding out. "Wait a minute, 'bro, the last time I was Joe Miller I had a 'brain injury'," he made air quotes around the words. "That won't work with this assignment. I can't carry around that notebook again. No one will take me seriously."
"Not to worry. This Joe Miller has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy."
"And the translation of that is?"
Frank finished sorting the documents before looking back up. "It's a thickening of the heart muscles that can slow the flow of blood to the heart. It was discovered when you were a college football player. You had to stop playing but wanted to keep up with sports, so you went into education to pass on your love of athletics."
"Nice to know I'm so altruistic. What's your story?"
Frank pulled a small box from his desk. It contained a hearing aid. "I'm pulling Frank Tennison back out. Minus the sparkling personality, that is. He's got hearing loss, the result of a car accident in high school." He plucked the device from the package and placed it behind his left ear. "I stuck a GPS chip in it. As long as it's in one piece, it'll transmit my location. If it stops, Kara will know where to look for me. Us."
Joe put the pencil down on the desk, the light in his blue eyes dimming. "Do you think there's really any danger to Sunny?"
"I don't know." Frank sighed. "I hope not, but I'd rather be over-prepared than be caught surprised. Wouldn't you?"
Joe nodded. "Definitely." He shrugged. "I never thought I'd ever be a teacher. I guess I'd better start working on Joe Miller's wardrobe and characteristics."
"It wouldn't be a bad idea." Frank put the hearing aid back into its box, then placed the container in his desk drawer. "Oh, by the way. That gallery you were at yesterday? They called back this morning. It turns out their next exhibit won't fit the way they originally planned. They need to you to go back and redesign the camera set up for the new layout."
Joe rolled his eyes. "Again? Why do I get stuck with all these calls? Remind me not complain about this assignment any more. If it gets me out of any more art galleries, I'm okay with it."