"So, I'll pick you up at six-thirty for the Martinez case." Joe Hardy checked off the last item on the list of things he needed to discuss with his brother. "And I think that's the end of it for today." He looked up to see Frank regarding him with an odd expression. "What?"
"You really don't listen to anything I say, do you?" Frank's voice was caught between amusement and irritation. "It amazes me that we were raised by the same parents." He leaned back on the rear legs of his chair to get closer to the door of Joe's office, being careful not to spill his coffee in the process. "Hey, Chet," he yelled over his shoulder, "remind me to call home tomorrow and ask if Joe was adopted."
A burst of laughter rang in the reception area. "Sure thing, boss." A beat. "What'd he do this time?" The phone rang, and they heard Chet's upbeat voice say, "Hardy Investigations, how may we help you?" before it faded into the background.
Joe raised his eyebrows. "Very funny," then he sighed. "All right, what did I forget?" He started drumming his fingers on the table. "It's not geek night – that's Thursday."
"Chess club," Frank corrected, bringing his ceramic coffee mug to his mouth, "and you didn't forget, you didn't listen... Again."
"Whatever." Joe waved the words away impatiently. "You do laundry on Mondays, housecleaning and calling home on Tuesdays, Chess club on Thursdays..." he ticked each item off on the other hand as he listed it, "which means tonight you're free because it's Wednesday. And it's for a case. So I'll pick you up at..."
Frank shook his head. "No. I have a date."
"What?" Joe's mouth dropped open.
"I. Have. A. Date," Frank said slowly, emphasizing each word.
"I'm sorry, did you say you have a date? Tonight?" Joe asked, stunned.
"You know, you're just proving my point. About not listening?" Frank sipped his coffee. "I told you this two weeks ago."
Joe shook his head like a dog shaking off water. "No. That I'd remember." He narrowed his eyes. "A date. Like with a girl?"
Frank's expression turned serious and his gaze dropped to the mug he cradled in his hands. "Would it matter if I told you it was with a man?" he asked, his voice dropping nearly to a whisper. He lifted the mug so it hid the bottom half of his face and looked at his younger brother with a fearful, almost pleading expression in his eyes.
"Uh, no?" Joe stammered, his eyes growing wide and face turning red. "Look, Frank, you're my brother, and if you're... I mean, you're still you... I mean, uh, there's nothing wrong..."
"You can stop now. It's with a woman," Frank interrupted, his features relaxing. "I was mostly curious what your reaction would be. Now I know, and, I have to say, I'm impressed." He flashed a grin at his still-sputtering brother. "And the look on your face was priceless. You really need to stop doubting my acting abilities." He swallowed the rest of his coffee, watched as Joe's face slowly returned to its normal color, then tilted his head to one side. "Don't you think I would have told you if I were gay?"
"You? Robot man, share something?" Joe snorted. "You'd been broken up with Callie for months before you told any of us." He thought for a moment running a hand over his forehead and through his blond hair, his blue eyes distant. "Come to think of it, you didn't tell me. Phil did, and he only knew because he ran into Callie at some museum. And you've been on, what, four dates since then? Since college? And you wonder why I believed you?"
Frank shrugged. "It's been a few more than that. What can I say? I'm particular. Unlike some younger brothers I know."
"Who is it?" Joe asked. Frank shook his head. "Oh, come on, 'bro. You're leaving me to do a stakeout on my own, and I don't even get to know who you're going out with? That's so not fair. At least tell me where you're going."
"Life's not fair. Get used to it." Frank rose from his seat. "And why don't you take Chet with you?" he suggested, moving towards the door. "He'd probably enjoy it. I'm taking her to see a show" – he mentioned the name of a popular musical playing on Broadway – "so, I'm heading home to clean up before she arrives. We're meeting at my place," he said, responding to the confused look on Joe's face. "I live closer to the theater."
Joe regarded Frank, puzzlement still evident in his blue eyes. "You're taking her to see a musical?"
Frank stopped in the doorway. "Yes. Why?"
"'Bro, are you sure you're not gay?" At the look on Frank's face, Joe erupted in laughter but still managed to raise a hand in enough time to catch the empty coffee mug when Frank threw it at his head.
"Be right there!" Frank took a last look in the mirror, straightened his already straight tie and smoothed his dark brown hair, noting it was almost time to get it cut again. He strode to the door and threw it open, the smile on his face fading when he saw his brother in the hall. "What?" he asked, his tone bordering on unfriendly, his eyes glancing up and down the hallway.
Joe shrugged. "My telephoto lens went AWOL. I need to borrow yours for tonight." Frank glared at his brother and opened his mouth to protest, but Joe cut him off. "We're being paid to do a stakeout, Frank. It's much less effective if I can't actually see what's happening."
Frank walked to a closet and wrenched the door open, practically taking the hinges off in the process. Still glaring at Joe, he reached one hand up to a shelf, pulled down a small box, and thrust in his brother's hands. "Leave. Now." The words came through clenched teeth and closed lips.
"Charming," Joe said with a grin. "Your lady friend will be very impressed with the ventriloquist bit, I'm sure." He pulled the larger of the two lenses from the box, handed the container back to his brother, and attached the lens to the camera looped around his neck. "Have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"That leaves the field wide open," Frank muttered as he rolled his eyes. "Just go."
Joe gave a jaunty salute and opened the apartment door. A stunningly beautiful woman stood in the hall, her hand raised to knock. She was at least a foot shorter than Joe and wore a deep blue, V-neck dress that wrapped around her body, showing off curves without being too revealing, the color making her skin glow a rosy pink. Dangling earrings highlighted a graceful neck, and her dark brown hair was swept back from her face in an elegant knot. A few loose tendrils had escaped from the knot and framed a pair of sparkling brown eyes, which were now widening with surprise and annoyance. "Hardy? What are you doing here?"
Joe looked down at the woman. At first glance he didn't recognize her, but there was something in the way she said his name... He leaned in to examine her face more carefully. "Malone?" He turned to Frank, shock in his face. "You're going out with Malone? Jeez, Frank, isn't that kind of like dating yourself?" He turned as the FBI agent entered the room, admiring the way the dress hugged her curves but still flared out at the bottom, showing off a pair of very attractive legs he had never noticed before. "No offense. It's not that you don't look great – fantastic, actually – but you know what I mean." He craned his neck trying to catch a glimpse of her from behind.
Frank twisted Joe's arm behind his back, marched him to the door, and shoved his younger brother bodily out into the hall. "If you value your health, you will leave now," he muttered through barely-opened lips. He slammed the door shut, then turned to Kara Malone, eyes closed and head bowed, one hand on his forehead. "I am so sorry. He's supposed to be working." He lowered his hand and opened his eyes, an appreciative look on his face. "You do look... absolutely stunning. I must be the luckiest guy in New York tonight."
Malone raised an eyebrow at him. "Thank you. You're pretty dashing yourself. Shall we go?" Frank offered her his arm. She moved closer to him, tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, and they headed out the door.
Joe and Chet pulled in to the diner's parking lot. "I don't get why we had to drive," Chet said. "We could have just taken the subway and the LIRR and sat in a booth near them. The boyfriend doesn't know what you look like, right?"
"No," Joe answered, holding his camera up to his eye, "but it's better not to get too close, just in case. He might get suspicious if one of the same two guys keep showing up at each rendezvous."
Chet appraised his friend and sighed. "You two do kind of stick out, don't you? Is he there yet?"
Joe scanned the inside of the restaurant. "I think so. The girl's sitting in front of him, so I can't... Yeah, it's him. She bent down to get something from her purse." He shifted his weight in the driver's seat. "Just once I'd love for them to switch places. We haven't been able to get a decent picture of her yet. She always sits with her back to the door." Chet made a 'humph' noise. Joe lowered the camera. "What?"
"I just can't believe you need two people to watch a guy cheat on his girlfriend." Chet wrinkled his nose. "It just feels – I don't know – wrong."
"Not every case is glamorous," Joe said ruefully. "You should have seen some of what I was doing while Frank was undercover – bookkeeping fraud, fake jewelery, a guy who wanted to prove his friend was cheating at cards. We can't end up in that kind of danger all the time; the hospital bills would be enormous, and this is a business, so we have to take what comes our way."
"I know. I just don't have to like all of it." Chet reached down to the floor and brought out a bag of chips and a notebook. "So, Sherlock Hardy, what are we looking for exactly?" He opened the chips and offered some to Joe, who declined. "And why don't I know Ms. Martinez? She's a relatively new client, isn't she?"
"She hired us about a month ago. Weren't you at that Scrabble tournament then?" He peered into the restaurant again.
"A month ago? Crossword puzzles." Chet leaned back in his seat, his eyes growing distant, his lips curving into a smile. "That was where I met Julie."
Joe tilted his head to the side, eyes still focused ahead of him. "Julie? And why haven't I heard this name before?"
Chet laughed. "I've mentioned her several times over the last few weeks." His voice grew wistful. "As nice as it would be to claim she's my girlfriend, we mostly just talk on the phone and email. She lives in Quebec, so we're really just friends. It's not really going to go anywhere. It's hard to meet anyone with so many guys like you around." He chuckled. "You really don't remember? I think Frank's right. You don't listen." Joe shifted uncomfortably, and Chet's expression softened. "Hey, Joe, that wasn't a criticism. Your brain just moves fast. You miss details sometimes. You get the important things. That's what matters."
Joe nodded, making sure he kept his eyes pointed forward. "File's in the back seat, if you want a recap." He waited until he was sure Chet had grabbed the folder before continuing. "Elena Martinez. Thirty years old. Her boyfriend's been acting strangely for the past few months. Changed his computer password, a lot of whispered conversations on his cell phone as of late, generally just acting suspicious. Ms. Martinez hired us to follow him and see if he's cheating on her."
Chet's eyes widened as he opened the folder. "This is her?" He pointed to a picture attached to the inside cover. It showed a gorgeous Latina woman with a heart-shaped face, brown eyes, and flawless skin the color of café au lait. "You're kidding. He's cheating on someone who looks like this?"
"She's even better looking in person," Joe said. "She studied ballet for years; she practically floats across the floor when she walks. It's enough to make me hope he is two-timing her so I might have a shot at asking her out. Anyway, she managed to get into his calendar and passes the information on to us. So far we've seen them three times – at least we think it's the same girl; she keeps changing her hairstyle – and all they do is look at photo albums. Stupid way to have an affair, if you ask me."
"Maybe they knew each other when they were younger and reconnected through the Internet," Chet mused. "That could explain the photo albums. High school sweethearts, girl next door, you know." Joe gave Chet a skeptical sideways glance. "What? So, aside from the cheating aspect, which I find reprehensible, I'm a romantic. What's wrong with that?"
"First of all," Joe lowered the camera and grabbed a few chips, "Sean O'Malley there?" He gestured to the man in another photo attached to the inside cover. This one showed a man of about the same age as Elena Martinez with dark hair and bright blue eyes. He wasn't as strikingly good looking as his girlfriend, but his smile indicated a good-humored personality. "He emigrated from Ireland about two years ago, and from the few glimpses Frank has gotten of the girl he's meeting, she's Mediterranean or Hispanic." He tossed the chips in his mouth and crunched them down. "Secondly, according to Ms. Martinez, he was a candidate for the priesthood until about six months prior to moving here. His family's choice, not his. It's why he left Ireland. His family disowned him when he left the seminary."
Chet whistled. "So now he's making up for lost time? I don't get it." Joe shrugged as Chet tried to stifle a yawn. "Did you bring any coffee? I'm bored." This time Chet yawned widely. "And I'm falling asleep. Are stakeouts always this boring?"
Joe snorted. "If you're lucky. And I don't drink coffee. That's Frank's vice, not mine."
"Well, I'm going in for some. You want something else?"
Joe stared at him in disbelief. "Chet, we're on a stakeout. The idea is not to be seen. Going into the diner? It kind of defeats the purpose."
"How?" Chet unbuckled his seat belt. "They don't know me from Adam. I haven't been following them around for the last three weeks."
Joe shook his head, the camera still glued on the couple who were now leaning towards each other over the table. "I just don't think it's a good idea." He pushed out a long, exasperated breath. "I wonder what they're doing in there."
"Joe, I have to get caffeinated, or the next sound you'll hear out of me is snoring. If I visit the bathroom first I can get a good look at her. Maybe even a picture of them together if I pretend to send a text message while I'm there." He pointed to the inside of the restaurant. "I'd have to go right by her both ways." He turned and put a hand on the door release. "You're sure you don't want anything? A Coke? It's the last time I'm offering."
"No." Joe shook his head again, resigned. "Frank says too many things get broken when I have caffeine; He thinks it makes me hyper. Anyway, I promised to bring this" – he indicated the lens with his chin – "back in one piece." He thought for a moment. "I wonder how his date's going?"
Chet rolled his eyes. "You mean you get worse?" He ducked as Joe tried to swat his head. "Who's Frank going out with anyway? Did you find out?"
"Malone." Joe couldn't keep the chagrin out of his voice. "I'd really rather not end up with her as a sister-in-law. She keeps threatening to shoot me."
"He's out with Kara? Hmmm."
"I just can't see her with Frank, that's all. They're too much alike." Chet pushed the door open, stood in the parking lot, and stretched. "I'll be back in a few." With a flip of his hand, he shut the door and sauntered towards the diner's front door.
Joe watched as Chet entered the diner, ordered his coffee, and asked for directions to the bathroom. As he approached O'Malley and his date, he made a show of tripping and dropping his cell phone right by their table. Joe whistled in appreciation; Chet was better at this then he'd given him credit for. The woman bent down to pick up the phone, and when she handed it to Chet, Joe was able to get a clear shot of her profile. "Finally." He grinned widely. Through the lens he watched as Chet spent a few seconds thanking the woman, then turned and made a beeline for the back of the diner.
Within seconds, Joe's cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He yanked his keys from his pocket, threw them on the seat next to him and pulled out his phone. The picture Chet had snapped clearly showed a pretty and vivacious Hispanic woman in her late twenties or early thirties. O'Malley must like the Latin type, Joe thought as he looked at the photo. We should bring Chet on these jobs more often. Now all I have to do is get these to Ms. Martinez. He tossed his phone on the seat next to the keys and leaned over to grab the folder with Ms. Martinez's contact information. He could forward the picture to her cell phone and...
With his peripheral vision, Joe saw a blur of blue zipping close by his car window, and, on reflex, his head whipped to the side to investigate. What he saw was a woman walking quickly across the parking lot to the diner. For a few seconds, an appreciative smile appeared on his face as he watched the swinging of her hips in a pair of tight blue jeans as she purposefully – and somewhat forcefully – approached the entrance. Something about the way she walked caught his attention. She looked familiar, but Joe couldn't put his finger on where he had seen her before. He picked the camera back up and focused on her back. One arm swung back and forth as she walked; the other was tucked in her jacket pocket gripping something. As she turned and opened the door – practically yanking it off its hinges in the process – he caught a clear view of the very angry expression on her flawlessly beautiful face.
It was Elena Martinez.