Vradin, Chapter Fourteen

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I had gotten two texts from Jody during the hospital trip. The first was her letting me know that they were done with her and her sisters at the police station and asking where the hell I was. I made Dan send her a text back filling her in on the happenings. He had added a note not to wait up for me. A little later, she had texted that Carl was a sweetie, her sisters were home safe, and she was couch surfing, no worries about coming in the apartment loud.

Dan insisted on doing a circuit through the apartment complex before parking his sedan. Then he made me stay in the sedan while he did a “perimeter check” of my building. He even went so far as to shine his mag light in the cars parked within view of my front door. I wasn’t sure how much was him taking the abduction attempt seriously and how much was him being an ass and playing with me to get me truly paranoid, but it did set my nerves on edge.

His hand hovered near the butt of his service revolver as he walked me to my door. It felt kind of weird to realize that Dan was still in uniform, and barely to his normal lunch hour. I mean, I was having this weird, fuzzy around the edges thought about cops and strippers having similar working hours and stuff.

He held out his hand, palm up, and it took me a moment to realize he wanted my keys. I frowned at him, but he put his finger to his lips and held out his hand again.

I sighed, rolled my eyes, and handed over my door key.

My keys jingle. I have my “simple” key ring and my “these are fun” kitchy blob. The simple key ring has my door key and my car key and a clip that I use to hook it into my kitchy blob-that-impersonates-a-key-ring. The kitch key ring has hard plastic tags with sayings embedded in the acrylic, fun blingy things like fancy old time skeleton keys that have seen the business end of my bedazzler, some of the crystal bead weaving strips I made when that looked like a fun hobby, and other … well, things. Jody once laughed and said my kitch keys needed a purse of their own, and they kind of do, but, back to the point, they jingle.

Except Dan managed to separate the simple ring from the kitch one and open my door without jingling. At that point, I was about ready to believe in unicorns again. Or that I had suffered brain damage and just wasn’t hearing anything.

The living room light was on. My hearing couldn’t be damaged because I clearly heard voices. At first, I ignored the words because I figured Jody had the TV on (which she did), but then I heard a deeply masculine voice say, “Company,” and I was one big nerve ending attuned to Tank once more.

Dan entered first, asking, “And who might you be?” as if it was his home.

I took a moment to breathe and came in, kicking Dan in the back of his knee. He stumbled and recovered, shooting me a quick disapproving glance. I stuck my tongue out at him and said, “Hey, Tank, Carl, what are you two doing over?”

Jody piped up, “Carl sent me a text to make sure we got home all right, and came right over as soon as I told him about our run in with freaky creepy dude tonight. Tank was with him when Carl got the text and tagged along.” She very deliberately did not look at Dan.

Dan turned an antagonistic glare in Tank’s direction. “You’re Carl Brawnley?”

Tank raised his eyebrows and said, “That would be the big man sitting on the couch. I’m Jeremy Griswald, but most folks call me Tank. And you are, Officer?”

“Sgt. Fergusson,” Dan answered, starting to puff up. I was not having a macho pissing contest in my house on top of the rest of this night, so I kicked Dan’s calf this time.

“Daniel Lewis Fergusson, don’t you be mean to my guests or I will throw you out myself, even if I end up having to get another ride in to the ER for it!” I groused, my temper getting near that dangerous point. Turning to Tank and Carl, I apologized. “My cousin is an ass hat; he takes pride in being one of the biggest ass hats our family ever spawned, and we have more than our fair share to start with. Giving him a badge has only made sure that he turns that ass hattery on people who usually deserve it, but it still comes out at rather inopportune times.”

Tank’s eyebrows rose and I managed to pull a shocked laugh out of him.

Dan started to ruffle my hair, but thought better of it, pulling me into a one armed hug. “Brat!” he scoffed, but with fondness. I have no clue why, but the pissier I get, the more affectionate the men in my family get. I punched him in his gut, but not hard. He works out with Dad a lot and my fingers still hurt a little from hitting creep number two. My knee felt fine, though, come to think of it.

“Fine, sit down. You got any soup in the freezer?” he asked.

I snagged one of chairs at the dinning table and watched my cousin try to take over our kitchen. “Fridge. I just made some beef stew yesterday and we didn’t have any of those single portion ZipLocs available.”

“Got any biscuits to go with the stew?” he asked.

I growled. “What the hell kind of question is that? You think I don’t know any better? Bread box on the counter. Butter’s already on the table. Don’t you dish me up one of your platters, either. No need to be wasting food just because you’re used to eating like an army unit all on your own.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, pip squeak. I’ll get you a- God damn, don’t you have any real bowls in the house? These are like tea cups without the handles!” Dan held up a dish and I laughed.

“That is a tea cup, you heathen! The bowls are on the other side of the stove!”

Jody came and sat down next to me, her eyebrows raised in a silent inquiry.

I sighed and pulled the new bottle of pain pills out of my pocket, pointing to the label that said, “Take with Food or Milk”.

Tank snagged the bottle and read the labels. “This is an anti-depressant,” he announced, frowning.

Dan gave Tank a narrowed eyed look and said, “Yeah, so? Uncle Andy checked up on it when she was in the hospital last week and it turns out that Elavil is often prescribed for post concussion syndrome. Something about it also working for migraines, which pip squeak gets a lot of.”

I shrugged. “It messes with brain chemistry, and I don’t like it, but I’ve never had the side effects to the point where it kept the doctors from prescribing it.”

Tank set the bottle down and brushed his fingers over the bump on the side of my head. Despite the pain in my forehead, his fingers felt like magic.

“What don’t you like about it?” he asked me.

“Mostly it makes me feel like I’ve got cotton mouth, and I have to be careful standing up and stuff or I get real dizzy. One or two times, I’ve felt like the real me stepped out of my body and this fuck-all stranger took over. It was like I didn’t care about anything, but I knew I should, and I couldn’t. If Sergent Pain-in-my-ass hadn’t promised Dad he’d stand over me until I took the damn things, I’d just drop ’em in the garbage and go hole up in my room for a while.”

Jody frowned at me. “You okay to climb up into your bunk?”

I had to think about that, and before I could say something, Tank was shaking his head like a disappointed granny and saying, “You should come stay with me again.”

There was a clatter and the clank of the microwave door closing. Dan asked, “Again? Wait, you’re the fella she went home with instead of Uncle Andy?”

I put my head in my hands and fought the urge to start beating my temple against the hard surface of the table.

“I am,” Tank said. There wasn’t enough machismo in the words to be a challenge, but enough testosterone in the room that it was hard not to read it as such.

“Zoe, how do you know this guy again?” Dan asked, his voice going quiet in a way that made it very hard not to start banging cranium into wood-like substance.

I took a deep breath and realized that I was at my limit. “Daniel, I know you think the creepizoids were targeting me specifically, but that is going too far.”

“Wait! Hold up! What do you mean, they were targeting Zoe? Why the hell didn’t you say something at the station, Boo?” Jody turned the full weight of her pissed off persona on Dan.

I held up a hand. “No, your history does not play into this, Jody. Dan didn’t hear the full story until we were riding here. No drama. Not either one of you. Especially not you, Dan.”

Dan leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “I asked a legitimate question, Zoe. As far as the family’s concerned, he didn’t exist until you were choosing to go home with him over going home with your father. Where’d he come from? When did he start sniffing around you?”

I felt the corner of my jaw twitch. Raising my head, I locked gazes with Daniel. “Out,” I said, my voice soft with rage. It was way too much anger for his “sniffing around” comment, but it was like my patience was held in a bucket that had been riddled with holes lately, and pouring out as the bucket became more and more like a sieve instead of a container.

Tank made a soothing sound and brushed his fingers over my temples. I could almost feel his scent enveloping me, patching the holes in my patience bucket one by one as his fingers moved the pain away from my sinuses and dissipated it in his touch.

Addressing Dan, Tank said, “We met at the Pike Place Market, bumped into each other in one of the funky clutter shops where she and Jody were looking at a goddess statue. We had a conversation about manners. I said a few things that were less than politic, and she graciously afforded me the opportunity to take my foot out of my mouth. I’ll make no bones about it; I do want to get to know Zoe better. She’s … precious.”

I shivered, and blushed, and felt utterly tongue tied.

There was a long moment of silence during which Jody and I watched Dan taking Tank’s measure. “Griswald?” he finally asked.

I think Tank nodded behind me, because Dan reacted as if he had gotten an affirmation. “Any relation to Griswald Security?”

“It’s in the family, yes.”

Dan shifted his gaze to me. “You’ll do what ever you want, short stuff. I’m not stupid enough to try telling you not to go with him, but I gotta wonder why you’re suddenly targeted by a random creepizoid stalker. Griswald’s got a … call it a reputation for getting the job done by whatever means necessary. Never caught in anything illegal, but ruthless. And ruthless makes enemies.”

Tank’s fingers stilled on my forehead for a moment, then resumed their stroking. “Yes, it does,” he agreed, simply enough.

There was some silent macho-macho communication that passed between the two men, broken by the pinging of the microwave. It was the ping the microwave gave to remind you that food was waiting to be taken out, which made me wonder when I missed the original ending bell.

Dan dished up a bowl for both of us and made me drink some fruit juice with the stew, then watched me take the pill. I made a face at him, but he also grabbed our empty bowls and rinsed them out. He eyed Jody’s liquor, arrayed on top of the fridge, with an unhappy frown but wisely said nothing.

Dan went back to work, pausing only to plant a kiss on the crown of my head and growl at me, “Watch your back, short stuff.”

I both wanted to go to bed and to not move, and at the moment, not moving was winning the war.

Tank had taken the seat on my other side, leaving me facing my cousin while we ate. He and Carl and Jody had made some light conversation, but Dan and I were both taught that you shut up to eat, unless the food was bad or you were too full to do it justice. I hadn’t really wanted to eat, but I did feel better for having something in my stomach.

Tank reached over and pushed some hair off my face. “You know,” he started. “if your cousin’s right and you were being targeted tonight, regardless of the reason, you’d be a lot safer in my home than here, with that rinky-dink front door and ground floor sliding glass door, not to mention the fire-code-compliant fit-a-cow-through-them windows. I don’t see a security system, either. So, please, why don’t you and Jody come spend a bit of time in my home, a week, say, see whether anything happens again?”

I did not quite manage to stifle a yawn when I opened my mouth to respond.

He chuckled, and asked, “What do you say, Jody?”

Jody got up and, as she passed me on the way to her room, said, “If you aren’t packed when I get back, I’m packing for you.”

I would have gotten pissy with her, but there was an underlying uneasiness to her that gave me pause. The fearless Amazon was not feeling very fearless right now. In the end, that was my tipping point. “Okay.”

I pushed up from the table. Everything was starting to feel just very heavy, especially the air around me. I could see Tank wanting to cart me around like he had in his home, and I nearly changed my mind at that, but he simply rose with me and gave me room to stand on my own two feet.

He did trail me to my room. I braced myself on the door jamb and reached for the cord switch to turn on my twinkle lights. The dimness of the light against the dark chocolaty colored crushed velvety wall drapes was an almost instant balm to my brain cells. Tank frowned at my closet in curiosity when I went to the wardrobe instead. I had a duffel bag that lived on top of the wardrobe/armoire/whatever you want to call it.

I hooked my desk chair with my foot and brought it to the side of the wardrobe, but before I could use it like a step stool, Tank moved up behind me and snagged the bag. The heat of him at my back felt both exhilarating and soothing at the same time, and was gone too fast when he stepped away, giving me room to turn around.

He handed me the bag, and I thought I saw his eyes glowing in the reflection of my twinkle lights, but he looked down at the bag, hooding his eyes.

I took the duffel with a casual “thanks” that actually managed to come out casual. Score one for my acting abilities. He looked again from the wardrobe to the closet.

“Yeah, don’t open it; it’s my geek out grave yard,” I said in answer to his silent inquiry.

That was too much for him to maintain silence. “Geek out grave yard?”

I opened the wardrobe and started going through clothes. My brain was foggy, so I spent a moment looking at the pretty colors. Tank prompted me again. “Geek out grave yard?”

“Huh? Yeah, old gaming systems, scrapped computer components, all the music and movie discs that I transferred to our media server, stuff like that. I’ve been a techie since Momma Lu showed me her laptop, and Pop found it was a lot easier to entertain me with the puzzles of putting PCs together than going over katas. Still gives me grief over it, too.” I popped my head out of the wardrobe and looked toward Tank, the question of what I was doing on the tip of my tongue when I remembered.

I was packing a bag for another week long stay with the man who I was starting to believe I wanted to have pop my cherry. What the hell to wear?