Late March 2005
The crash of a full dish tub snapped Mark Daniels from his trance. He blinked his brown eyes hard, and then turned in the direction of the sound. A woman he judged to be just out of high school gave him a sheepish shrug, gathered up the tub, and disappeared toward the kitchen. “So much for manners,” he muttered, mimicking his partner’s voice and cynicism toward this younger generation.
He ran a hand through his freshly cut, dark brown hair and diverted his attention to the front windows. There, the citizens of Mason City, Washington carried on with their lives. He glanced about the mom-and-pop restaurant. He should be out there. What was he doing here? He smiled at the woman approaching him. “Excuse me? Did I order something?”
“Chicken salad on wheat with chips, and a bottle of water,” she replied, setting the bottle and a glass of ice down on the table. “Did you wish to change it?”
“Oh. No, I don’t. Thank you.”
She studied his face. A look of concern came to hers. “Sir? Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Mark replied, a little too quickly. “I’m fine.”
She nodded and walked away. Mark stared at his drink. He didn’t remember coming in, or anything else he had done since rising that morning. Then again, he didn’t recall much of what occurred these past five months. Since that horrific day in November, it had been a series of nights filled with horrid repeating §nightmares, and unnerving days of unchecked grief. Today seemed to be a continuation of it. Would it ever end?
“Detective Daniels, fancy meeting you here,” a deep baritone voice chimed.
Mark looked up at the tall frame and round face of J. Jacob Embry. His balding gray head was neatly trimmed and he stared at Mark through lively green eyes. His lips formed a wide smile under his gray-white moustache. This was the first time Mark could remember seeing him without his black robe. Today, the judge wore a charcoal gray business suit and royal blue shirt. His tie was a perfect match and complemented his hair and moustache. Mark went to stand, but Judge Embry waved him off. “May I join you?”
Mark hesitated, and then he gestured to the chair across from him. Judge Embry undid his jacket and sat down. He gazed about the tiny restaurant. When Mark’s server returned, the judge ordered a bowl of chili and a glass of water. As she left, he turned his attention back toward Mark. “How are you, Detective?” the judge asked.
“Fine sir, and you?”
“I’m busy dispensing justice, as usual.” The judge unfolded his napkin and tucked it into his shirt collar. “Your presence hasn’t graced my chambers lately. I was beginning to wonder if you were still on the planet.”
“I took some time off, sir. I’ll be back at work soon.”
“You don’t need to give me an explanation, son. I’m well aware of what’s happened with you and Nelson Chambers.”
Mark swallowed. Nelson Chambers was the subject of one of his recurring nightmares. “It was a mistake, sir,” Mark explained. “I reacted, when I should have acted.”
“Not to worry, my boy. I don’t know if I would’ve reacted the same way, were I in your shoes, but I’m glad that the chief realized that he shouldn’t fire you because of it.”
Mark didn’t know how to respond. Their server returned with their meals. Mark found it hard to look into the judge’s face. Judge Embry’s signature had graced many search and arrest warrants he requested these past seven years. Mark kept glancing about, hoping that no one he knew would see them. He also forced himself to eat his sandwich, although it tasted more like sawdust on paper. “I have to admit, Detective, you’ve been on my mind a bit these last few hours,” the judge continued.
“Oh? Why’s that, sir?”
The judge sighed and set his spoon down. The light glittered off his law school ring, as he gazed over his hands at Mark. “Maybe it’s because I hadn’t seen you or your partner in some time. Is he all right?”
Judge Embry took another bite of his chili. “There were other reasons why I thought about you,” he continued. “Perhaps it’s because the quality of the warrants being presented hasn’t been up to snuff. I know that being a cop wasn’t what your father wanted of you, but he taught you to be thorough, I must say.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Yesterday was when I realized that I hadn’t seen you in a while. I signed some papers that had your name on them.” Judge Embry reached for his glass and took a sip of water. “Your final foreclosure papers, I believe.”
Mark paled. He had thought only his best friend knew how desperate things had become. “Your Honor…”
“Don’t worry, Mark. What’s happening in your personal life is your business, although if there’s anything that I can do to help?”
“No. I’m heading to the bank today to see what can be done.”
Judge Embry leaned forward. “Mark, if they’ve requested foreclosure with intent to evict, there’s little that can be done, unless you can come up with the money quickly.”
Mark set his sandwich down, his appetite now gone. He sat in silence and watched Judge Embry polish off the last of his chili. “Tasty indeed—almost as good as I remember it,” Judge Embry said, as he pulled his napkin from his shirt, retrieved a $20.00 bill from his wallet, and laid it on top of the bill. “Lunch is on me, today, Detective.” He stood, pulled a card from his monogrammed card case, and handed it to Mark. “If the bank won’t listen, call my friends here. They might be able to help.”
Mark wasn’t sure if he should or not. Would it be disrespectful, or demonstrate just how desperate he was? He bit back a sigh and took the card, his hands shaking. The name of the company, Lemont-Bay Industries, barely registered. “Thank you, Your Honor. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“You’re welcome, son. I hope to see you back in my courtroom soon, dealing with issues regarding your job, and not your life.”
Judge Embry patted Mark on the back, turned, and strolled out of the restaurant. Mark watched him go. Then he turned his attention back to the business card—it listed a local number. He ran his fingers over the raised print. The judge’s offer seemed sincere enough. Should he accept? His face hardened and tears stung his eyes. Silently, he slipped the card into his jacket pocket, picked up his change, and walked out of the restaurant.
He drove around town in an attempt to kill time, but he still reached the bank well ahead of his 3:00 p.m. appointment. He parked his truck and sat there, staring at the brick structure. With all that had happened, it was hard to believe that in a few minutes, the rest of his life would be decided. Would he be able to live with the inevitable outcome? What would he do? Where would he go? He got out and took determined steps toward the front door. He greeted the secretary. “My name’s Mark Daniels. I’m here to see Mr. Smith, the bank president.”
“Yes, Mr. Daniels, he’s expecting you.”
She picked up the telephone receiver and punched in a few numbers. Mark made his way to a chair. A few moments later, Mr. Smith came out to greet him. His gray suit was wrinkled, but the knot in his black tie was right against his Adam’s apple. “Come in Mr. Daniels,” he said, motioning to his office.
Mr. Smith gestured to a chair, and Mark sat down. He glanced around—truly a glass box. Mr. Smith’s office offered a full view of the goings on in the bank. He saw two women at the counter, gently bantering with each other. Off in another corner, a young couple waited as another bank official laid out some papers in front of them. Mark adjusted the fit of his jeans and watched Mr. Smith read Mark’s file. Mark noticed that Mr. Smith’s dark hair was thinning, causing Mark to run a hand through his own hair. Despite everything, no bald spots had materialized yet and he smiled at the thought.
Mr. Smith cleared his throat, breaking Mark’s concentration. “Things are not looking very good for you, Mr. Daniels,” he began. “According to the records, you’re already more than six months behind with the mortgage. We are aware of the loss of your wife’s income and your extended leave of absence, and understand the financial and emotional strain that you’re going through.”
Understand my ass. You’ve done nothing but harass me. Mark cleared the lump from his throat. “I was just wondering if there was any way to delay the final sale. I finally have a buyer for the last of Jessie’s work, and I should have some rent money coming in shortly. That income should help to offset some of the back payments.”
“I’m afraid not. You need to have the account paid in full before close of business Friday, or the bank will take your home.” Mr. Smith’s expression turned grave. “You’ve probably already done this, but is there anyone you can contact for help?”
Mark took a steadying breath. “No, there isn’t,” he murmured.
“Then I’m sorry. I wish I could do more for you.” Mr. Smith stood up and offered a hand. “I’ll make a note of this conversation for the file. If things change in the next day or so, please let me know.”
Mark stood and took Mr. Smith’s hand and looked into his eyes. Was the concern in his face real, or was it the face of a well-accomplished actor, used to delivering news like this on a daily basis? Mark let go quickly, and made his way out of the bank, his eyes fixed on the floor. He waited until he reached the parking lot and his vehicle before slamming his fists into his truck’s hood. There was a deep boom, as he heard and felt the vibration move though the hood. He pressed his knuckles into his eyes. “Jessie, if you can hear me, help me! Please!”
He fought back the tears and clambered into the truck. As he drove, he tried to remain focused on the future, not that it looked any better than the recent past or present. Monday, he was due back to work after three months of administrative leave. His boss had informed him of the conditions for his return. Given all he was going through, was it worth the effort to return? Perhaps it was time to employ the other final solution to all his miseries.
He turned onto his tree-lined street and swung the truck into the driveway. Mark was so distracted, he didn’t notice the vehicle that had been parked there, and slammed on the brakes just in time. He backed up, swung his truck to the right of the vehicle, and shut off the engine. He studied the strange car in his driveway. It was a new Ford Escape. Its dark blue paint and chrome bumpers gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. He admired its fully loaded dashboard and black leather interior. Once his curiosity was satisfied, he made his way to his front door. He was halfway there when he stopped. A young, well-built black woman sat on the top step of his front porch, writing something in her notebook. Her hair was short and straight, nicely cut with a slight wave to it. She was dressed in a dark denim jacket, white T-shirt, black boot-cut jeans, and low-heeled black boots. She started chewing on the end of her pen as if pondering a thought, ignorant to Mark’s approach. He stopped just a few feet away from her, eyeing her. Finally, he spoke: “Excuse me? Can I help you?”
She looked up, startled. Then her expression softened. Behind the black angular glasses, Mark noted that her deep brown eyes showed warmth and friendliness. “I hope so. Are you the owner?”
She pointed at a sign in the garage’s second floor front window. Mark looked to where she was pointing, and then back at her. “Yes.”
“Oh, good. I thought I might’ve missed you.”
She stood and stepped down off the porch. As she reached his level, Mark realized that she was almost as tall as he was. She placed her pen and tablet in the black messenger bag that leaned against the front step. Mark spotted a newspaper tucked inside its dark folds as she picked up the bag, threw the strap across her left shoulder, and held out her right hand. “Julie Warren,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you, Mister…”
“Daniels, Mark Daniels.”
They shook hands. Julie sighed and redirected her attention to the windows above the garage. “Mr. Daniels, I know it’s late, and you certainly must have other obligations, but I read your advertisement and I saw the sign. I was hoping I might be able to get a glimpse of the place. I’ve spent weeks hunting for a place to live and you’re my last hope.”
Mark’s attention returned to the window, where the “For Rent” sign stood in prominent view. A few months ago, he sought to rent out the space above his garage to help fight the foreclosure of his home. More than two dozen eager applicants appeared at his doorstep. They all disappeared the moment they discovered his occupation. He figured she wouldn’t be any different. “Sure. No problem.”
He turned on a heel. She rushed to follow him. As he reached the stairs alongside his garage, he remembered the newspaper he had seen inside her bag. “I could’ve sworn I took my advertisement out of the paper,” he commented, as he began his ascent.
“You did? Well, the paper I have is from a couple of weeks ago. It’s just taken me this long to get to this side of town.”
“Why’s that?” Mark asked, pausing halfway up the stairs.
She gave him sheepish smile. “My job. I have to travel a lot for it,” she admitted. “I do hope your statement doesn’t mean that you’ve found a tenant already.”
Mark took his time finding the right key. Did he dare tell her that the property would be going to the bank in a few days? He had no doubts that the bank wouldn’t appreciate finding someone living there who believed she had a legal right to be there.
He reached the landing, fitted the key into the lock, and pushed open the door. The bottom hinge squealed and he cringed. Then he breathed the stale air. Instantly, his thoughts flew back to Jessie and her paintings. He could see them leaning against the wall, her last canvas unfinished on its easel, her stained smock hanging in the corner, and the tubes of color and multitude of brushes scattered along her worktable. He moved aside so that his visitor could have a full view. She stepped into the doorway, and a peculiar odor caught her attention. She inhaled deeply and wrinkled her nose. “That smell? It smells like oil paint, like the type they use on pictures,” she commented.
“It is. This is my wife’s studio.”
“Your wife’s an artist? Wow!”
“She used to be.” Mark paused. “She’s dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I…”
“It’s all right.”
He stood in the doorway with his arms crossed. Her bag rustled against her hip as she walked around the place. Her footsteps echoed through the empty structure, as she took in every detail, while being careful not to disturb anything. The prior property owner had converted it into an apartment before Jessie took it over as her studio. Now, it felt wrong that someone else would just live here, oblivious to the artistry created within it.
She paused to look out the kitchen window, which offered a view of the giant maple that grew between Mark’s house and the garage. Its leaves were beginning to flower, and its pale green, wing-nut seeds littered the ground. When it was through, it would block the view of everything but the driveway. The front room had two smaller windows. One faced Mark’s dusty green house, the other the yellow house across the street. She reached for the kitchen faucet and watched the water flow from it. Then she took a few steps into the larger open area. Mark followed her around the corner, watching as she dipped her head first inside the small bathroom to her left, then the bedroom, which also faced the yellow house. She walked out back into the living room. She turned in a circle, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “It’s a little smaller than I hoped,” she murmured, “and yet…” She opened her eyes again and stole another glance out the kitchen window. Then she smiled and turned her attention back to Mark. “I’ll take it,” she announced.
“What?” Mark blubbered.
“I’ll take it. Now, how much did you say a month?”
His arms dropped to his sides. “You want it?”
“Yes. That is, if you’re still renting it?”
Mark eyed her. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am. Shouldn’t I be?”
“But…you haven’t pestered me with questions, like the other applicants have.”
Her brow furrowed and she rubbed her chin. “What questions should I be asking you, outside of how much rent is, and when it’s due?”
“Well…aren’t you curious as to what I do for a living?”
Julie shrugged. “Okay. What’s your occupation?” she asked.
“I’m a detective with the Mason City Police Department.”
She looked at him quizzically. “Why should that have anything to do with me renting this place?”
“It doesn’t…it shouldn’t…I mean…” Mark caught his breath and considered his words: “My other applicants weren’t too keen on having a cop as a landlord. I just thought you should know up front who you’ll be dealing with when the first of the month comes.”
Her expression turned serious. “Your occupation doesn’t matter to me, Officer Daniels.”
“Detective,” Mark corrected her.
She nodded. “My apologies. Detective Daniels, my goal today was to finally find a suitable place to live, and it appears I have done so. If anything, your occupation works to your benefit. Seeing as I’ve agreed to take you up on your offer, all I want is for you to maintain your end of the agreement.” She pulled out her notebook and pen again. “Now, how much is the rent?” “Julie? May I call you Julie?”
“Yes, if I can call you Mark.”
“Julie, you should know that I may not be the owner of the property for much longer.” Mark wavered, unsure if she should say anything more. “I’m…having some issues with the bank.”
“Oh? Nothing serious I hope.”
“Yes. No.” Mark shook his head, hoping the action would help him say what he meant. Why hide it? It made no sense, since it would be of public record by the end of next week. Then again, maybe this would be a short-term thing. If she got the money into him before tomorrow afternoon, he could make up a couple of mortgage payments, and maybe stay the procedure. “I’m just giving you fair warning that they may not be happy that you’re here.”
“Well, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime...” Julie eyed him carefully, chewed-up pen in hand. When he continued to stare at her in disbelief, she raised an eyebrow. “The rent?”
Mark scratched his head and racked his brain, trying to remember the terms he had generated. “The rent’s $625 a month,” he stated, “plus half of the heat, water, and electricity usage. I’ll need last month’s rent as a security deposit, and no pets.”
Julie scribbled the information down. “Okay. I’ll have a check for you by Monday. Great! Now I’ll have to call the movers. They won’t be too happy with me giving them such short notice, and I’ll need to get in touch with Jennifer to let her know I’ve finally found a place, and have her set up the appointments for the tech people to come in. Oh, and I’ll need to make arrangements with you to sign the lease and pick up the keys. Perhaps I can delay that trip to Somalia a day or two, and I should call Simon so he’ll stop worrying, not that he ever stops worrying, and I need to get to the bank to get you your money, and call the warehouse where they’re storing my things, and …”
Julie seemed to say all of this in one breath, as she stuffed the notebook back into her bag and made her way past him. Mark watched her in stunned silence, and then followed. She was already halfway to her car and still muttering to herself when Mark caught up to her. He grabbed her left arm. “Wait, just wait a minute!” he said, just a tad too loud for the circumstance.
Julie turned. She looked confused. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Yeah. Are you sure about this? I mean, you barely looked at the place, you may not be able to live here very long, and I’ve already pissed you off. What gives?”
Julie placed a hand over his. Her touch was warm, gentle, and reassuring. He met her gaze. To him, it seemed like she was looking deep into his mind, his heart, and his soul. He also he thought he saw something like star fields reflecting in them. He blinked and it was gone. She smiled. “Mark, I have few needs,” she assured him. “As I told you, I travel a lot, so I won’t be much of a bother to you, or anyone for that matter.” She released a deep sigh and she cast an eye back up at the structure. “Besides, I do like it. It feels so warm and comfortable, like someone was meant to live there.”
Mark took this information in and let go of her arm. Julie opened the driver’s door of her vehicle and climbed inside. After she started it, she rolled down her window and handed him a business card. “I need to return to San Francisco for the weekend,” she informed him. “I’ll stop by Monday morning with your check and to pick up the keys. What time do you normally leave for work?”
Mark took the card, still struggling to accept everything that just happened. “Around 8:00 a.m.,” he heard himself say.
“Then that’s when I’ll see you.”
Julie winked at him and backed out of the driveway. Still a little bewildered, Mark walked down to the edge of the driveway and watched her drive away. He looked down at the card. She was a consultant for some company out of San Francisco called the Foundation. “Building a stronger universe one life at a time,” he murmured, reading the slogan underneath its logo. “Lofty goal.”
He waited until he saw her vehicle disappear around the corner before returning to his truck to retrieve his dry cleaning. He tossed it over his left shoulder and headed to the front door. A nagging feeling gnawed at his subconscious. The detective in him was screaming that there was something very wrong about what just transpired. Ignore it, his heart told him. So many doors have closed around you. This is your first window. Granted, it’s a small window. Still, climb through it, and enjoy the view. He turned and took one last look at Jessie’s studio. Then with a sigh, he opened his front door and went inside.
Julie drove to the end of his street, and pulled to the side. When she was certain no one was watching, she reached into her bag and retrieved the gun from within. She stared at it with disdain. “A final solution,” she whispered. “You’re right, but there’s always another way, Mark.” She looked up at the roof of her vehicle toward the sky above. “NIK?”
“Rerun that profile on Mark Daniels, please, especially his finances. I need to understand what’s going on.”
A tingling sensation surfaced at the base of her neck. It was her indication that NIK was working on her request. When that was completed, Julie sat back in her seat. “Well, that confirms what I learned from him.”
What would you like me to do, Ambassador?
Julie set the gun down in the passenger seat. Then she waved a hand over it. It vanished into nothingness. Her path was clear, but she decided not to follow it. “Contact Elise. Make sure that she has a check ready for me. Have the others prepared for any inquires he may make about me. If he’s as good as I sense, he should be asking for them. I also want Elise to help you take care of Mr. Daniels’ finances, especially his mortgage. Discreetly, please.”
You do not trust my abilities, Ambassador?
Julie smiled. If she didn’t know NIK was a computer, she would have thought it was pouting. “Not your abilities,” she explained. “It’s just this human’s incessant curiosity. I don’t want him finding out more than he needs to know.”
As you wish, Ambassador.
While NIK worked on her request, Julie settled back into her seat and breathed a long sigh. After much arguing and debate, Halbrina had finally arrived back on Earth. The human part of her was thrilled; her immortal half wondered how long she would be able to stay.