Banter watched the car drive past the park for the third time. It was the same car; a dull metallic blue four-door sedan. A man was driving, but because he was wearing a plain white and beige baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, he was indescribable. She probably wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been for the fact she was with Kyle, Corey’s youngest son. She was feeling somewhat protective. Kyle was her little buddy.
She also wouldn’t have been so observant, if it wasn’t for the fact that she and Kyle were the only ones in the park. It was early afternoon in the middle of April and a very nice day. She’d picked him up from morning kindergarten with the promise to take him to his favorite park after lunch. They were planning on being there for another hour before walking home and meeting Colo, Kyle’s brother, at the school bus stop.
Banter also might not have noticed the car if it wasn’t for how she was perched on top of the swing set while Kyle was swinging with all his might below her. She had a bird’s eye view of the whole area.
“Did you see that?” Banter said to Kyle.
“When a car comes around, you should watch it and see if you’ve seen it before.”
She had been teaching him how to be careful. Kyle was too trusting of everyone.
“Oh. The blue one?”
Banter smiled. He had been pulling her leg and had been watching. She was pleased. He was a very smart kid; much smarter than the typical five-year-old.
She thought about Kyle’s brother, Colo. He was eight, showing all the signs that he was his father’s son and probably would become a police detective himself in due time. Kyle, however, seemed totally enamored with her and did everything she did. She was a little worried about that.
“You gonna get that swing as high as me?” she said.
Kyle giggled, losing his concentration and his momentum. He glanced up at her with a big grin, no longer trying to get the swing as high as he could. His black hair was flying about his face. He had the same brown eyes as his father. In fact, both Kyle and Colo looked like carbon copies of their father.
“Can I jump?” he said.
“No. If I don’t jump, you don’t jump.”
She rose, walking along the top of the swing set as if she was on a balance beam. At the end, she placed one foot on the swing set support, and then bent to take hold before sliding herself down to the ground. She brushed back her wavy brown hair.
“We gonna have to leave?”
Kyle stopped the swing altogether by dragging his feet on the ground. The mulch used around the swing set was worn away under all the swings.
“That car makes me nervous. Did you get the license plate?”
Kyle shook his head.
“Yeah,” she said, feeling uneasy.
The license plate had been obscured with mud. She could only tell that it was from the same state as they.
“Can we play ninja?”
His eyes lit up.
Banter almost laughed. It was a game only she and Kyle played, and it consisted of being careful in public, especially when around strangers. Sometimes it became a game of staying invisible while on the move. The game tended to evolve for whatever situation arose.
“We can. Have to figure out where that car is and go in a different direction,” she said.
Kyle jumped up from the swing.
“Let’s go.” He had intense excitement in his eyes. “One hundred points. We gotta make it out of the park without the car seeing.”
When they played the game, goals and points were determined. Points seemed to be the only motivation that Kyle needed. She often wondered when he would decide he needed some reward tied to the points he earned.
“What direction do we go?”
She liked having him make the decisions.
Kyle looked around before taking off at a run toward the street that was furthest from where the car had last disappeared. Banter followed, easily keeping up with him. Kyle skidded to a stop at the curb, did a quick look both ways, then crossed at a sprint. He dashed around a parked car and fell to the ground. She joined him, laying on her belly alongside him, so they could watch from under the car. They would both be able to see if a car was coming from either direction.
Banter felt as much excitement as Kyle when they played the game. She loved seeing which decisions he would make.
Kyle grinned back at her.
They sat in silence for fifteen minutes. Kyle had developed an unusual sense of patience from being around her and playing the ninja game. He didn’t even fidget as they waited. Banter decided to see how long he could sit there, unless the car showed up again.
“Car,” she said in a whisper.
The same blue car cruised by slow, taking the turn to go around the park and drive down the other side. It disappeared toward the same direction it came from.
“Now what?” she said.
“We have to go ninja.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Follow it. He’s not gonna look where he’s already looked.”
He had good logic. Banter was impressed. She nodded her approval at him. He grinned wide.
“The person probably thinks we’ve left,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They both trotted along the street, heading in the same direction the car went. Kyle kept slightly bent over, using whatever car was parked along the curb for cover, amusing her since there weren’t enough cars to supply enough cover. However, she let him do what he felt he needed to do while she kept watch. After two blocks, they stopped at the corner, using a tree to hide themselves from one direction. This was where they had to make a turn.
“Now what?” she said to Kyle.
Kyle ducked down.
“Car,” he said in whisper.
Banter followed suit. Kyle had heard the car just as she’d spoken. The same metallic blue four-door car was coming toward them from the blind side of the tree. She pulled Kyle close and they moved around the tree, a big mature maple, while the car drove past. She waited until the car was out of sight before they moved. It didn’t look like the driver had noticed them.
“This way,” she said, crossing the street at a jog.
The only problem she had traveling on foot with Kyle was that he couldn’t go as fast or as far as she could. She was used to jogging long distances at a pretty fast pace. However, she was working on his distance.
“You don’t have to go so fast,” she said as he was trying to race as fast as he could now that he wasn’t trying to hide behind cars. “Slower and further is just as good. We got to make it all the way home.”
She was pleased when he slowed down to a pace that she knew he could keep up for longer than a block. He managed to jog for four blocks before they stopped by another tree.
Banter let him rest. The last pass of the car had allowed her to get a better look at the license plate from both ends of the car. A few of the number and letter images were clearer, even though the person had muddied both plates. She put what she had seen to the back of her mind to let her sub-conscientious figure them out.
“Ready,” Kyle said.
Banter had to admit that he was getting better at running further and needing less rest in between.
“Two more blocks and we’re on the busy street. Can’t use our ears. Only our eyes,” she said.
He nodded and set out at a jog. Banter trotted behind him, listening hard should a car come up behind them. However, she still glanced back every half dozen steps, just in case. They made the busy street without seeing the car. Kyle pressed the button for the crosswalk.
“I think we earned two hundred points,” Banter said, noting how tall Kyle was getting. He was the tallest kid in his kindergarten class. She wasn’t surprised by this since both of his parents were tall.
Kyle smiled. She smiled back at him. He was a happy kid, especially when he was with her.
“Five hundred if we make it home without seeing the car,” he said.
Banter figured that was going to be hard. She wondered why they were being followed in the first place. Did the guy think she was a kid? A predator thinking he was stalking two kids? Had to be. Why would he be stalking an adult and a kid?
Banter was only a couple of inches over five feet and rather petite. She was often mistaken for a kid. And since she’d been sitting on top of the swing set, she’d put out the image that she was a kid. What adult would be sitting on top of a swing set? As well, she’d been letting her hair grow longer and leaving it down. It probably hid some of her features, making it hard to see exactly how old she was. Her brown eyes were rather large, also adding to the illusion of youth, despite she was twenty-eight years old.
The light changed, and they jogged across the street.
“Drug store,” she said, redirecting Kyle.
Half a block down was a drug store, along with a single gas station and chain grocery store that serviced the housing division they lived in. The homes tended to be upper middle class. The neighborhood was nice, and Banter occasionally did security checks on some of the older neighbors whenever she’d go jogging. Of course, the neighbors she checked just thought she was stopping by for a visit.
She and Kyle ducked into the drug store. The checkout ladies knew them and waved. Banter waved back as she followed Kyle. He liked to cruise up and down the aisles. She knew he was ultimately heading for the toy aisle.
They passed a new guy working there. He followed them until he figured out she was an adult and not a kid.
Kyle paused to check out what was new in the toy aisle. Banter had already established that looking and touching was acceptable. However, she wouldn’t succumb to any whining should he want her to buy anything. Both boys had already figured that out. Kyle looked through all the toys but didn’t seem excited by any. She figured it was because he knew he couldn’t have any of them.
“Let’s go meet Colo,” Banter said, after enough time had passed.
She took the lead, heading out of the store.
They jogged the three blocks to the bus stop, while continuing to watch the traffic that passed them. There was no sign of the blue car.
Three blocks farther up the street was their house. Five blocks the other way was the school. Colo was the last one picked up in the morning, but the first one dropped off in the afternoon. He had a short ride. Banter used to walk him the eight blocks to school until he decided he wanted to be with his friends. She had chuckled at his insistence of riding the bus. He was embarrassed that she walked him, showing his independence. In the end, she was the one who championed the idea that he should ride the bus. Corey didn’t want him to, not understanding why Colo needed to ride the bus for five blocks. So now, she only walked him to the school bus stop with Kyle along, pretending that they were going for a walk anyway.
Banter smiled, remembering Colo’s reaction to her giving him a choice. His choices of getting walked to the school bus or to school didn’t include the choice he wanted; of neither. He complained and showed ill temper, stomping around the house, which got him nothing but ignored.
Banter was pleased that Corey let her have a little parental control, especially since as of late, she had totally taken over as mom to both boys since his wife had been murdered six months ago. She was even living full time at the house, but kept her apartment as her hideaway. And while she no longer carried a gun since she had been forced to retire from being a gun-for-hire due to Corey being a police detective, she still had all her other equipment.
“Is that five hundred total? Or two hundred and the five hundred?” Kyle said as they waited.
“How much is that?”
He rolled his eyes as she was making him do the math.
“Five million,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Another wrong answer like that and no park for a week.”
He stuck out both hands, unperturbed by her warning.
“Five hundred. Two hundred. Five, six, seven. Seven hundred,” he said with a grin as he counted fingers.
She smiled and nodded.
“I’ll write it down when we get home,” he said.
He wrote down all his points in a notebook. She kept from laughing at his singular joy of keeping points.
“Bus,” Banter said as she took Kyle’s hand.
They headed down the street toward home. She made it look as if she and Kyle weren’t really waiting for Colo.
The bus stopped behind them. It wasn’t until the bus past them and was out of sight that Colo caught up with them.
“What’d you do today?” he said.
“Park,” Kyle said.
Banter knew Kyle wouldn’t say a word about the car. It was all part of the ninja game. Neither of them would say a word about it to Colo. In fact, she knew Kyle wouldn’t even tell his dad.
“What did you do today?” she said.
“School,” Colo said, but he grinned.
That’s all she would ask. And that’s all he would answer. Banter knew Colo didn’t mind her, but he liked to wait and talk about his day when Corey came home. He liked to talk with his dad. Not a girl. She knew she was just a girl to him. Banter let him have that image as he and Kyle were unaware that she used to be a hired gun. Corey didn’t say anything either.
“I did school today, too.”
“Baby school,” Colo said.
Kyle stuck his tongue out at him.
Banter found herself checking out license plates. She now decided she knew what four of the six numbers and letters were on the blue car.
Kyle ran ahead as they turned up the front walk of their house. He liked being the one to key in the code to unlock the door and turn off the alarm. Their dog, Ollie, was barking his greeting.
Ollie, their golden lab, was still a big puppy at ten months of age. He no long jumped on them due to a lot of patient training by her. Instead, his whole body quivered with excitement as he danced around them with his tail whacking everything in its way.
Banter took her time, without saying a word, as she closed and locked the door. She monitored what the boys did without being too obvious. Colo had a chore to do when he got home. He learned rather quickly that Banter put up with nothing. Not doing his assigned chores had consequences, and running to dad meant even worse consequences. Corey was no pushover either for which she was glad.
Colo dropped his school bag on the couch and headed out back with Ollie. It was his responsibility to let the dog out, clean up after the dog, and make sure there was food and water. Ollie helped with training him by peeing on Colo’s baseball shoes one day when Colo forgot to take him out. Colo loved his baseball stuff, and the lesson was well learned.
Banter followed him out with Kyle. Colo had also grabbed the tennis ball tosser and the tennis ball. It was always fun to watch Ollie race around the backyard, retrieving the ball. Kyle ran after Ollie, pretending to go after the ball, but Ollie was much faster and more agile. She knew Kyle just like to run around and giggle.
“Snack time,” she said after twenty minutes.
Ollie was showing signs of tiring.
They all headed inside. She pulled out chocolate milk and string cheese from the fridge; the boys’ favorites. Dinner, which was already in the oven, was a little over two hours away at six thirty when Corey came home. The boys settled down at the kitchen table to eat their snack and get their homework done.
Kyle entered the points for the game in his notebook while she pulled out worksheets for him to do. Since he had been sassy about adding up the points, which she knew he could do, she made him do math worksheets that she downloaded from his school. Colo unloaded his backpack on the table. Ollie lay under the table by Colo where Colo could rub Ollie’s belly with his foot.
Both boys arranged their things around them, creating obvious barriers. Neither of them liked her looking over their shoulder as they worked, not that was something she wanted or liked to do. She pretty much sat there, pretending to be engrossed in her phone and ignoring them, while she watched that the peace was kept.
They also didn’t like the other bothering them. Usually, it was Kyle bothering Colo, but after Banter started him on worksheets, that came to an end. As well, any groaning or complaining about homework wasn’t allowed; therefore, the kitchen was quiet. She had told both boys that she would help them if they were ever stumped, but that hadn’t happened yet. They were smart kids.
Dinner was starting to smell pretty good. Corey still employed the nanny, but with Banter being at the house, she only came on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of the nanny’s jobs was to put meals together that Banter could throw into the oven. Banter had yet to master a meal for four people, being used to only feeding herself. She was better at pizza or Chinese takeout nights where she called in the order and Corey picked it up on his way home.
Banter liked nanny days. Those were the days she could get out of the house. She occasionally helped Corey with his case load. He liked it when she helped and she liked helping, although, usually, all she really did was give insight because of her years of experience as a hired gun or act as a grunt, doing research.
“How was lunch today?” she said to Colo.
“Okay,” he said with a nod.
“Chocolate or vanilla?”
She rose to make his lunch for the next day.
“One of each,” he said.
“I want chocolate,” Kyle said.
Colo was rather fussy about his lunch. The first day she had made it he had made a huge fuss, not paying attention to what she was actually putting into his lunch bag. He had gone to school grouchy, complaining about going hungry. He didn’t know she had already consulted with Corey. She knew how to make his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so it wasn’t soggy. She also put in, not one, but two pudding cups. He usually wanted one of each: chocolate and vanilla. As well, she put in fruit, usually an apple, his favorite, and some string cheese, also his favorite, and a small jug of chocolate milk. He never came home with any lunch left and never had tales of swapping out his lunch for something else. Or at least, none that he’d told his dad and he tended to confide in his dad for everything. And he never complained about her making his lunch again.
“Clear the table, please, so I can set it,” Banter said as she put Colo’s lunch bag into the fridge.
“I just got reading left,” Colo said, putting his books into his backpack and heading up to his room.
Ollie followed him.
Since day one, Ollie had picked Colo as his person. Wherever Colo was in the house, then that was where Ollie was. During dinner, Ollie stayed in Colo’s room, since he was no longer allowed in the kitchen at mealtimes. That hadn’t been the case when Banter first started living in the house, but she had made the new rule. Both she and Colo trained Ollie that mealtime was when he needed to go to Colo’s room. Only at first did they need to shut the door, but now, Ollie knew to stay there, and the door remained open.
Kyle also followed Colo. Colo used to complain about that, but Banter had ended that complaining too as long as Kyle knew he had to stay out of Colo’s room. After his mother’s death, Colo seemed to think he ran the household and should get his way with everything. With Banter around, he had a rude awakening, especially when Corey backed her up.
Banter set the table, watching the clock. Corey would be home soon. She wanted to have a chat with him about the car in the park.