His Second Chance by Emily Josephine

“Mrs. Redman, I don’t want you to panic, but Melissa collapsed in the cafeteria a few minutes ago. . . .”

Cynthia Redman barely heard the rest of the principal’s words. She caught the words “ambulance” and “St. Peter Community” before closing her phone, blindly groping for her keys on the dining room table, and racing out of the house.
His Second Chance
His Second Chance by Emily Josephine
Her heart pounded beneath her breast as she started the car, and she forced herself to hyperventilate to assuage a wave of nausea. When the view in front of her became blurry, she became irritated with herself. Stop overreacting. The flu had been going around the last couple of weeks, and Melissa had told her of two classmates who had gone to the hospital for treatment and were out a couple of days later. Cynthia took a deep breath and wiped her eyes, willing herself to calm down. Melissa would be fine. It was just one of those things. At least St. Peter Community Hospital was seven minutes closer to her home than Benjamin Franklin Elementary, the school her ten-year-old daughter attended. Cynthia could be at the hospital in fifteen minutes if she took the side streets, ten if she got on the freeway. Since rush hour was two hours away, she decided to take the freeway. Not two minutes after entering I-685, the traffic came to a near standstill. Good grief, now what? She hit the window power button to unroll it, and stuck her head out as a frigid gust smashed against her face. The bumper-to-bumper cars seemed to stretch for miles ahead, with no relief in sight. She’d never get to the hospital. Not that way. And Melissa needed her. Robert Wade, the principal, had told her not to panic. Easy for him to say. He was a confirmed bachelor, had never had his one and only child collapse in school. He hadn’t even told her why Melissa had collapsed, had he? She could only recall bits and pieces from the brief phone call, none of them providing any speculation as to what might have caused the collapse. If he had suspected the flu, wouldn’t he have mentioned that? Then maybe it wasn’t the flu. Maybe it was something worse. When they were both just twenty years old, Justin Redman asked Cynthia to marry him. A year after the wedding, Melissa arrived, and Cynthia felt that her life was complete. She had a husband who loved her passionately and devotedly, and a beautiful, sweet baby girl. She never imagined that six years later, her life would be shattered when the man of her dreams was killed in a car accident. That was four years ago, and she still wasn’t over the pain. If something were to happen to Melissa as well… With sweaty palms, Cynthia gripped her steering wheel and flipped her turn signal, twisting her neck to see if someone behind her would let her move into the right lane. If she was going to get to the hospital any time soon, she would have to exit. Though they were moving at a snail’s pace, the cars to her right would not leave her any room. One crept passed her without stopping, then another, then another. Cynthia’s frustration grew with each agonizing second. When five cars had gone by, she could no longer restrain herself and let out a blood-curdling scream. The next driver must have noticed her red, anguished face, since he braked abruptly and waved for her to pull in ahead of him. Inching her way into the spare space, she felt little relief. The next exit was still a half mile away—which might as well have been fifty miles at the rate they were moving—and she still didn’t know what was wrong with her baby. She peered through her windshield at the handful of skyscrapers, ahead and slightly to her right, that marked downtown St. Peter. Somewhere near them was the hospital. Cynthia sighed. So close, yet so far away. With one hand on the steering wheel, she thrust her other hand into her purse and pulled out her phone. She had to call information for the hospital’s phone number, which she immediately dialed. “Hi, my name is Cynthia Redman, and my—no, I do not want to be put on hold. My daughter Melissa Redman—” a choice word exploded from her lips as jazz music replaced the receptionist’s voice. Cynthia had to wait a full two minutes before the woman came back on the line. “I need you to check to see if a Melissa Redman has arrived. She’s a fifth-grader at Benjamin Franklin. . .She’d be in the emergency room. . .I already told you I’m her mother.” The jazz music came on again as the receptionist transferred her call and Cynthia finally got to the exit. Because of the long line of cars in front of her, it took another five minutes to get through the stoplight. In the meantime, she was told that a Melissa Redman had been brought in about ten minutes earlier, and that she seemed to be having an allergic reaction. “What do you mean?” she demanded, but her phone cut off. She threw it onto the passenger seat, acid bile rising into her throat. An allergic reaction. How bad? Didn’t some kids die when they had a reaction to food? Cynthia began to reach for the phone to call the hospital back, but changed her mind. She didn’t need the frustration of being put on hold again; besides, she was sure she was just letting her imagination run away. She’d heard once that out of the few kids who do have allergic reactions to food, only something like one in a million actually die. Melissa will be all right. They’ll just give her some medication and I’ll be able to take her home. Cynthia’s heart beat began to slow as the alarm that had gripped her slid away like raindrops from a weeping willow. Then, her phone began to sing at her. She grabbed at it, swerving dangerously close to the curb. “Hello?” “Mrs. Redman, this is Mr. Wade.” The principal sounded weary. “I just need to warn you. Someone who was at the school at the time of Melissa’s collapse called channel 5. There’ll be a hoard of media waiting to greet you outside the emergency room.” The media? What did they care—unless they’d somehow gotten wind that Melissa was in grave danger. Panic gripped her again. “Mr. Wade, be straight with me. How is my daughter?” “I’m sure everything will be fine.” Still calm, cool, and collected. Cynthia wished she could reach through the phone and slap him. “You know how the media is. If they don’t have a better story, they have to make a mountain out of a molehill.” “Can’t you get rid of them? Call the police or something?” All she wanted to do was see her baby, make sure she was all right. She didn’t need to fight off dogs in the process. Robert sighed. “You know, freedom of speech and all that. Listen, I’ve dealt with this kind of thing before. I’ll meet you outside the emergency room and escort you in. You won’t have to say a word.” Seven minutes later Cynthia arrived at the hospital. She instantly recognized the vans from the city newspaper and two of the local television stations, and groaned, wondering how many more would show up before this was all over. Robert broke through the small crowd of media personnel as she approached the entrance, and took her arm in his. They were immediately accosted by journalists and reporters. “Are you Ms. Redman?” “Were you aware that your daughter had food allergies?” “Any idea what caused the reaction?” “Do you know the condition of your daughter?” “Do you believe your daughter’s illness is linked to the death of the second-grader last week?” As the doors closed behind them on the last question, Cynthia stopped, squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. She felt like she’d just been wrung dry. Opening her eyes, she turned to Robert. “What second-grader?” A forty-something man, Robert Wade’s receding hairline and round, owlish face gave him a bookish, intellectual look that fit his aloof and dry personality. He even wore a pocket protector for which, Melissa reported, some of her peers teased him mercilessly—behind his back, of course. He now raised his brow at her. “You didn’t hear about the boy who died mysteriously after eating lunch last week? He attended another elementary school, across town.” Cynthia froze. She hadn’t heard the story. Of course, she made it a point to avoid the news. But even if she didn’t mind the negativity, she was always too busy even to scan the headlines on the Internet. Three days a week, she worked at a neighborhood daycare center. The rest of the days, and many evenings, she worked as a freelance web designer. And she always made sure she gave her daughter a good two hours of attention every weekday evening. Now it seemed she might have a reason to begin keeping up with current events. She shook her head. “I – I missed that one.” But it had to be a coincidence. The media was always looking for a way to blow things out of proportion. There was more money to be made that way. But what if it wasn’t a coincidence? She shoved the thought to the back of her mind as she squeezed her purse to her side. “Do we know the condition of my daughter?” She felt Robert stiffen beside her. “No.” He walked her over to where the school nurse, Jeralyn Phillips, and the office manager, Lucy Perez, were sitting, then released her arm. “Please, have a seat.” “Not until somebody tells me what happened, and I see Melissa.” Lucy, a gray-haired Hispanic woman whose round figure filled the chair, looked up with a troubled expression. “They had refried beans, broccoli, and vanilla pudding, and some other kids said she was having trouble breathing, then she just passed out.” “Excuse me.” Cynthia turned to see a nurse half-walking, half-sprinting toward them. The nurse looked at Robert. “Is she the mother?” “Yes, I am.” Cynthia couldn’t quell the tide of emotion that rose in her. “Is my baby okay?” The nurse hesitated. That was all Cynthia needed to release the storm that had been brewing inside her for the past half hour. “I said, is my baby okay?” She grabbed the nurse’s arm. “Answer me!” She grabbed her other arm and began to shake her. “I demand—” Strong arms pulled her away from the nurse, who stared at Cynthia with an ashen face. “Mrs. Redman, calm down.” Robert held her arms firmly. “They need to know if Melissa has ever reacted to food before, or if she has any other medical condition or allergies.” Cynthia spoke through gritted teeth. “No.” Except for an occasional cold and three bouts with the flu, Melissa had been a picture of perfect health up until now. She twisted her neck to look at Robert. “Let me go, please. I’m okay now.” She willed her voice to match Robert’s in its composure. No one was going to let her see Melissa if they thought she was going to go beserk. She turned to apologize to the nurse, but she was already trotting toward the swinging doors on the other side of the waiting room. “That’s where they have Melissa, isn’t it?” The silent glances exchanged among the trio from the school was answer enough. Cynthia began following the nurse, sidestepping Robert’s attempt to catch her, and picking up speed. She wasn’t going to be kept away from her daughter a minute longer. She pushed open one of the doors, ignoring the protests behind her. She caught a glimpse of the nurse slipping out of the sterile hallway and into one of the rooms. Melissa must be in there. Cynthia straightened, steeling herself for what she might find. Although she didn’t know what she was so worried about. They’d probably already given her whatever medication was necessary, and she’d probably find her daughter lying peacefully on a bed with an IV in her arm. She followed the nurse into the room, only vaguely aware of the hurried footsteps coming up behind her. At first, she couldn’t see Melissa. It seemed to her that half the hospital staff surrounded the bed, their heads bent over it, their hands in constant motion. Then two people moved, giving Cynthia a clear view of her daughter. Her entire face, even her lips, were blue, and her neck was swollen like a balloon. And she wasn’t moving. “Doctor, the epinephrine doesn’t seem to be having any effect.” “Blood pressure still dropping.” “Blast it. We’ve got to get her breathing. Increase the dosage—” “Melissa?” Every head turned in Cynthia’s direction. “Melissa!” She tried to get to the bed, but the same arms that had released her a minute earlier were gripping her again, even more tightly. “Get her out of here!” one of the doctors ordered. “Melissa! My baby! Oh, no!” Cynthia’s screams were muffled by the sobs that broke through her throat at the same time. She felt herself being dragged backwards, and struggled futilely. As the door closed on the horrifying scene, her legs suddenly buckled, and she sank against the school principal, weeping uncontrollably. ********** Preston Brenner set the boxed dinner on the glass dining table and sat down in one of the four black leather chairs around it. He stared at the steaming Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes in the green cardboard, wondering if it would taste better if he bothered to scrape it onto a plate. Who are you trying to impress? He smiled to himself, forking up a mouthful of potatoes, as he remembered an episode with his last girlfriend, Katherine. She came from a high-society family, and was utterly shocked one day when Preston invited her over for dinner and served her a meal just like the one in front of him now, box and all. After she finished sputtering all over herself, she managed to ask Preston in the most coldly civil tone to transfer the food to a plate. Even after that, despite Preston’s half-joking that the boxed meals were a perk from his job, she barely ate anything, and their relationship soon fizzled. Which had been fine with Preston. The luxury surrounding him, the money in his bank account, had never felt like it was really his. Having been brought up in a middle-class family in Minneapolis, he was much more comfortable with the beer-drinking, jeans-wearing, T.V. dinner-eating crowd. He could have made himself fit in with Katherine’s family and their values, but he would have been miserable doing it. The problem was, most of the ladies he met in his line of work were a bit too refined for his taste. He was beginning to wonder if, at the ripe old age of thirty-four, he would finally have to resort to hanging out in clubs and bars to find a down-to-earth woman. His eyes flickered idly from his plate of food to the large, flat television screen on the far wall. He had muted it, but the scene depicted in front of him made him sit up a little straighter and reach for the remote to turn on the sound. On the screen flashed a woman, probably around his age, with flowing brunette hair and a petite figure that showed through a tailored leather winter coat. She was walking arm-in-arm with a balding middle-aged man into what appeared to be a hospital. “. . .said the girl is in critical condition,” the reporter’s voice was saying. “Doctors are still unsure about the cause.” A doctor appeared on the screen. “We’re not ruling out the possibility that she had a reaction to something she ate.” The reporter’s face replaced the doctor’s, staring into the camera with practiced seriousness. “And if it was something she ate, it will have been the third episode this month that a child eating cafeteria food in the St. Peter school district ended up in the hospital.” A photo of a smiling little boy appeared on Preston’s T.V. as the reporter reminded viewers of the child who had recently died after getting sick on school food. Preston cocked an eyebrow as the reporter strongly implied that there might be a connection between the boy’s death and the latest apparently food-related illness. Then there was another clip of the beautiful woman who turned out to be the mother of the latest cafeteria case. She was in hysterics, turning away from the cameras, with her hand up to try to keep them from filming her. Then the reporter was back on the screen, wondering aloud whether the child would live through the night, and closing with, “I’m Joseph Menard, for WBHG news, St. Peter.” The camera cut back to the news room where the anchors began joking about the dangers of school cafeteria food. Preston would have normally laughed along with them, except the report meant that his job was about to get a lot more difficult. He was the regional V.P. for the food processing company that provided most of the meals for the St. Peter school district. Chapter Two The director of the daycare, a plump sixty-something woman named Barbara Tenniger, was full of compassion and understanding when Cynthia told her that she would have to take an indefinite amount of time off from the job. “I’ve got a couple of girls who can fill in for you,” Barbara told her, “and when Melissa gets back on her feet, your job here will be waiting for you.” Cynthia wondered if her daughter would ever recover. It was two days after Melissa’s collapse, and yesterday afternoon she had slipped into a coma. At least Cynthia had had the foresight to put aside the small amount of life insurance money she’d received after Justin’s death. It would likely cover the impending medical bills, and might also be necessary to help with the household expenses, as Cynthia had decided to temporarily set aside her web design business, as well. She needed to be with Melissa. And she needed time to seek answers to the questions constantly bombarding her mind. Holding her daughter’s limp hand, she tried to ignore the daunting plethora of machinery humming and clicking around her that made her feel like she was in the middle of a sci-fi movie. She had dozed for about seven hours out of the last thirty-six, and fatigue was beginning to envelope her in its haze. She was going to have to go home soon. “I can’t find out what happened to you,” she whispered to her daughter, “if I stay here.” She brushed a wisp of hair out of Melissa’s pale face. At least it wasn’t blue anymore. At least the medical staff had finally gotten her to start breathing. But there could be brain damage. The doctor’s warning rang through her mind like an alarm, and she had to shake it away. Melissa was a high achiever with her whole life ahead of her. Cynthia knew she would fall apart if she entertained any thoughts that her daughter might be less than normal when she began her road to recovery. She glanced at her watch. Ten o’clock. She had an interview with the school district’s nutrition executive director in an hour, so she had to leave if she was going to go home, change her clothes and make it to the special services building on time. “I love you, sweetheart.” She leaned over and kissed Melissa’s gaunt cheek. “I’ll be back later, okay?” Lucy Perez, Franklin Elementary’s office manager, met her on her way out. Hours after the fact, Cynthia had wondered at the woman’s presence when Melissa was first admitted to the hospital. She had a teacher friend who had told her more than once that if the office manager is absent from a school office, the whole place starts to fall apart in a couple of hours. Yet, here she was again. Did she have some sort of special bond with Melissa that Cynthia didn’t know about? But if that were true, Melissa would have told her about it. She eyed Lucy with suspicion, but if the office manager noticed anything hesitant in Cynthia’s manner, she didn’t show it. Instead, she smiled at Cynthia with a compassion that reflected in her deep brown eyes. “How is Melissa doing?” Cynthia shrugged. “The same.” She rubbed her temples, suddenly aware of a throbbing behind her eyes. She could take a Tylenol, but she had a feeling that a good night’s sleep would be the more effective remedy. “I’ve got an appointment with the district’s nutritional director, and then I’ll need a nice, long nap.” She tried to step around Lucy, but her large form blocked the door. “Mrs. Redman, can we sit down for just a couple of minutes? There’s something I want to talk to you about.” Cynthia would have insisted on leaving, except for the urgency in Lucy’s tone. Was it about the meeting with the nutrition director? Lucy had given her his name and phone number; perhaps she had further inside information that would help Cynthia with her cause. “Okay, sure.” They each sat down on one of the upholstered chairs near the entrance, and Cynthia looked at Lucy, waiting. “Ten years ago,” Lucy began, “when my husband and I lived outside of Dallas, my eldest son, Juan, died after eating a particular lunch meat made by Sunnyview Foods.” Is this supposed to make me feel better? A tide of anger began to swell up inside Cynthia at Lucy’s brazen insensitivity. She was about to excuse herself, but noticed that Lucy’s eyes had grown moist. Her voice was hoarse as she continued, “He was only twelve years old. The autopsy uncovered a food additive in his blood that had been banned by the FDA because it had been determined to be as toxic as strychnine.” Cynthia leaned forward, intrigue replacing the anger. Lucy wasn’t just commiserating with her. She was trying to tell her something. “After a huge recall, the FDA investigated the plant. They concluded that the additive had been put in by mistake, and had only appeared in one batch of the luncheon meat.” Lucy took a shaky breath, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her finger. “Forgive me. You would think after ten years it would be easier.” “Don’t worry about it.” Cynthia reached over and patted Lucy’s arm, compassion causing her own eyes to well up. “But what does all that have to do with Melissa?” Surely an event that had occurred a thousand miles south ten years ago had no bearing on what had happened to her daughter. Kids had allergic reactions to food all the time. For a long moment, Lucy’s eyes bore into hers, searching. Finally, she whispered, “Maybe nothing.” Then she leaned back slightly and tilted her head. “Maybe everything.” She raised her voice somewhat, but still kept it low. “Three other kids in the Dallas schools got sick that same week. None of them died, but they all got sick while eating school cafeteria food.” Again, she paused for a long moment, chewing her lip as if contemplating whether to continue. “Mrs. Redman, this happened just after the President declared the war on terror. Some of us began to wonder if the illnesses – Juan’s death – weren’t just strange coincidences.” Shocked, Cynthia sat back. “You believe the food poisoning was some act of terror?” Lucy hardly seemed the kind who would see a demon behind every bush. Lucy’s voice diminished to a whisper once again. “I didn’t say it. You did.” She handed Cynthia a piece of paper. “My home phone number. Call me if you want to talk about anything having to do with…this.” She waved her hand toward the interior of the hospital, then stood up. Cynthia took the piece of paper, staring at the school office manager as she waddled out of the building. Was the woman crazy? She knew people could go to extremes in order to get closure for a death of a child, but terrorism? Really? And if it had been terrorism in her son’s case, why would she think the recent cases in the St. Peter schools would be? What were the chances of the incidences from ten years ago and the past month being connected? Her mind had already been a whirlwind of questions and confusion during the past two days. Now her brain was an absolute tsunami. Even if there weren’t any connection between Lucy’s son’s death and Melissa’s problem, there might be a similarity. Could someone be purposely tainting the school district’s food in order to harm children? The idea seemed far-fetched, but now that it had planted itself in her mind, she couldn’t shake it away. It gave her a whole new perspective on the situation. Should she mention the possibility to the nutrition director? Only if I want him to think I’m off my rocker. But if the school district would not help, she would do her own research and do her best to solve the problem on her own. Terrorists. Serial killers. Psychopaths who hated children. She clutched Lucy’s phone number. What was she getting herself into? ********** Snow was drifting down in large flakes as Cynthia made her way out to her car. She looked up at the gray sky that seemed to stretch for an eternity, wondering if the small city of St. Peter would see the sun any time soon. She never could stand February. Despite it being the shortest month, each of its typically sunless, arctic days depressed her, made her feel boxed into the dull routine of everydayness. Now she was going to have to shovel the sidewalk later on top of it. She drove to the SPISD Special Services building in time for her appointment, but was forced to wait for fifteen minutes. Not interested in the magazines lying on the coffee table, she gazed at one of the planters filled with a silk peace lily surrounded by silk pothos wrapped around its base, then studied the landscape painting behind it. A small house in the foreground was almost swallowed up by the breathtaking view of mountain scenery behind it, and Cynthia found herself wishing she could escape to that place, wherever it was, just her and Melissa, completely recovered, of course… “Ms. Redman, Dr. Munger will see you now.” The receptionist’s voice interrupted Cynthia’s daydream. She turned her head, giving the receptionist a polite smile as she arose. The receptionist came out from behind her desk and led her over to the mahogany door that bore the name “Barry Munger, Ph.D.” Opening it slightly, she gave Cynthia a nod and returned to her desk. Cynthia pushed the door open and walked into the office. As she did, the overweight man with dark circles under his eyes slowly stood up from behind a large, cluttered desk. “Hello, Ms. Redman. I am Dr. Munger, executive director of SPISD Food And Child Nutrition Services.” The smile he gave her was fleeting and did not reach his eyes. Indeed, his face wore the haggard look of someone who had been fighting an overnight battle and had lost. Cynthia wondered if she would look as bad without her makeup. She shook his outstretched hand. “Cynthia Redman.” He knew why she was there, and after the harrowing past couple of days and Lucy’s recent insinuations, she was not about to take the effort to remind him. It was only after they had both been seated that she noticed another man sitting off to the side. Although Dr. Munger was professionally dressed in a suit, coat, and tie, the other man’s clothes seemed more fashionable. And somehow, more expensive. He was sitting rigidly in the upholstered chair, and when Cynthia glanced at him, the smile he shot her, while longer lasting than the one Dr. Munger had offered, was colder. She raised a brow and looked back at Dr. Munger. “I would like to speak to you in private, if I may.” Dr. Munger frowned as he cut his eyes toward the other man, but he nodded, then got up and left, closing the door behind him. Cynthia narrowed her eyes. “Who was that?” “A lawyer retained by the school district.” Dr. Munger rubbed the back of his neck with a sigh. “We may need to invite him back in later.” Cynthia stiffened. “I don’t see why. I only came to find out if you had any idea about why my daughter – and other children – have required hospitalization after eating school cafeteria food.” Dr. Munger’s face softened. “How is she doing? What was her name? Mary?” “Melissa.” Cynthia fought the tears that suddenly stung her eyes. “She’s in a coma now.” The creases in Dr. Munger’s forehead deepened. “I am so very, very sorry. I have three of my own, you know.” If he had divulged that personal bit in order to make her feel better, it had worked. A little. At least he knew what it was like to worry about sick kids. “Do you let them eat school lunches?” The question came out before she could stop it. She hadn’t planned to ask it, nor to sound as sarcastic as she did when the words came out. This time, the smile Dr. Munger gave her was sad. “My kids live in Indianapolis with their mother.” Cynthia felt her face flame. “Oh.” So much for being professional. She had even worn a sort of business suit – a navy blue wool skirt and matching blazer – to make the best impression she could, to increase her chances of getting the most information she could. Now she’d probably blown it. “But.” The nutrition director leaned back slightly and steepled his fingers, nodding slightly. “I can’t say you haven’t asked a pertinent question. If the man in charge of St. Peter school food won’t let his own kids eat it, you would do well to wonder about it. The fact is, Ms. Redman, we work hard to make sure our children are getting as nutritious and high quality food as is within our budget. It is government subsidized, and therefore constantly subject to inspection and quality control.” Government subsidized. The phrase did nothing to assuage Cynthia’s concerns. She trusted nothing about the government. The phrase “within our budget” was an even greater red flag. If the budget wasn’t very large, the food wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – very good. Cynthia wrinkled her brow. “Are you saying you believe what happened to Melissa – and to the two other St. Peter students – is just some kind of fluke?” Dr. Munger leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk, his smile disappearing again. “Ms. Redman, I have spent the past two days dealing with reporters who haven’t had any exciting political intrigue or celebrity infractions for the past two months, and so are desperate for an interesting story. Perhaps you haven’t been following the news, but I have already given my official opinion about this situation, which is that the food distributors and manufacturers responsible for the school meals will be undergoing strict inspections during the next month or so. However, to answer your question, we do not believe that these recent incidents are more than, as you call them, flukes.” That the food was going to be inspected should have given Cynthia some comfort. But if Lucy was right, and just bits and pieces of the food were being tainted, then an inspection wouldn’t matter. Whoever was doing the tainting would quit for that period of time, then start right up again. Cynthia took a deep breath, knowing that what she was about to say might make her appear more than a little loony. “What if someone is poisoning the food on purpose?” Dr. Munger stared at her for a long moment, unmoving, while his red face paled a shade or two. Had she hit a nerve? When his gaze wavered, for just a split second, shifting toward his desk, she knew that she had. He hadn’t had the same suspicions, had he? His eyes met hers once again, completely clear of the uncertainty Cynthia had seen in them a moment ago, then he picked up the phone on his desk. “I believe it is time to call Mr. Johnson back in.” He made a call to the receptionist, and before Cynthia had a chance to protest the other man had returned to the room. This time, he sat in a chair next to Dr. Munger. “Ms. Redman, our school district’s attorney, Jeb Johnson.” Cynthia sat back, indignation and fear heating her middle. Was she in some kind of trouble for confronting Dr. Munger? Had she said the wrong thing? But surely a parent had a right to talk to school officials when a problem arose with a child who was a student in the district. Mr. Johnson gave her a suave, condescending smile. “The school district is willing to provide just and reasonable compensation for what has happened to your daughter, in return for you agreeing not to sue it or any individuals you may believe to be held responsible for your daughter’s…issue.” So that was it. Say the word “poison”, and everybody thinks you’re on the brink of flinging around lawsuits. Say it to the right people, with the right resources, and they may try to talk you out of it. Her jaw dropped as she looked from one man to the other. “You – you’re trying to bribe me to keep me quiet.” A blank numbness gripped her mind from the shock of the realization. The attorney’s smile wavered. Just a little. “Oh, good heavens, no.” He leaned forward. “It’s standard legal procedure. Settling out of court before anything goes to court. Happens all the time.” Cynthia flicked her gaze back to Munger, whose face, if possible, was redder than it had been a few minutes ago. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and his eyes narrowed. Clearly he disliked being accused of being party to a bribe. Well, then, he should understand perfectly how she felt. Hearing Johnson’s words, seeing Munger’s reaction, dissipated the shock in the next instant. Her very veins were on fire. She glared first at Johnson, then at Munger. “I don’t need your money,” she hissed. “I don’t need to be placated.” She stood up, tossing her purse over her shoulder, grasping her coat with trembling hands, satisfied to see both men cringing under her continuing glare. For several long seconds, she struggled with words. A hundred things jumped into her mind at once. But she wasn’t about to waste her time and energy vomiting her angry opinions all over this pathetic pair. Every ounce of energy she had, every spare second, she needed either to spend with Melissa, or to seek answers on her behalf. Clearly, the answers were nowhere to be found in this office. This thought gave shape to the final reply that she seethed through clenched teeth as she stomped out of the office door. “If you don’t have the answers, I’m sure you can figure out how to say so without insulting my moral character.” Chapter Three A woman was leaving the building as Preston was going in. Out of habit, he held the door open for her, but if she knew what he was doing she made no acknowledgment of it. Didn’t even look at him. Even so, and despite her bending her head down to avoid the snow blowing into her face, he got a good look at her. Recognized her. He hiked an eyebrow as he stared after her bundled figure. He didn’t wonder that the woman seemed to have no idea of his presence; with a child in the hospital, she had a lot more important things on her mind. Part of him wanted to jog after her and ask how her daughter was doing, but how would that turn out? “Hello, I’m the jerk you likely believe to be partly responsible for your child’s illness.” Hopefully, she was only still ill. He had yet to hear or read any reports of the girl having died. And hoped things would stay that way. With a shake of his head, he went through the door himself and was ushered into Dr. Munger’s office not a minute later. He had spoken with the man on several occasions before, of course, their two jobs being intricately linked. Their last visit had been only a week earlier, when the second-grade student had died after eating lunch at a St. Peter school. Then, Dr. Munger had made the appointment with Preston in order to discuss possible issues with food quality. Preston had assured him that their plant followed FDA regulations to the letter, and that there could be nothing in the resulting products that could have caused a problem. This time – yesterday, as a matter of fact – the regional president of the company had asked Preston to call another meeting. “We need to make sure that the school district,” Guy Polowsky had told him, “and especially every parent of every kid in the district, understands that these incidents have nothing to do with our food.” Preston certainly hoped this was the case. But if forced at gunpoint, he might just admit that his confidence in his company’s food quality had taken a dive during the past couple of days. But he wasn’t being forced at gunpoint now. Although, if the looks on the faces of the two men looking at him now could kill, Preston would have to scream, “Uncle!” The cold from outside suddenly seemed to have followed him into the room, and he had to work to paste a professional smile on his face. No matter his opinion, he was there to represent Delico Foods, a national company that had been filling grocery store shelves with a wide variety of products for decades. And he was to represent it as a shining, flawless star in the food manufacturing industry. Dr. Munger nodded with fiery eyes in response to his smile, waving his hand at the chair across from his desk. Preston took this as an invitation to sit down, and so he did – though he would have preferred to remain standing. He had a twisty feeling in his gut that told him something was wrong. Very wrong. He felt like he should be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. Dr. Munger briefly introduced the attorney by his side. Then he stated, “This has to stop.” That was all. Amazing how the rotund man managed to fill four small words with such a tenor of venomous accusation. Preston let his fake smile fade. “There is nothing wrong with the food we are providing to your school district.” That was bad. He was getting defensive, and making assumptions. In essence, pushing himself into the exact corner Munger wanted him to be in. The nutrition director leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “And I hope the inspections find just that, Mr., uh, Brenner.” He looked over Preston’s shoulder at the office door. “The last thing we need is an uprising from parents such as the one who just left this office.” Preston mirrored Munger’s stance, down to the narrowed eyes. “That woman’s daughter is very ill. She must be in a very emotional state just now. I’m sure whatever she said to upset you meant nothing.” Why Preston felt obligated to rise to her defense, he had no idea. But the first time he met Munger, the man had seemed sympathetic and compassionate, truly wanting to discover why kids were getting sick from school lunches. Today, he was almost a different person. Arrogant. Harsh. Unyielding. “Nothing,” Munger repeated with a deepening frown. “A presumptuous remark to make, since you weren’t even in the room at the time, don’t you think?” Then he leaned back slightly and raised his brow. “Or did you happen to overhear?” The tone in which Munger asked the question indicated that if Preston did hear anything from the last meeting, it had not been merely accidental. Preston chafed. Since when was he the bad guy? And why was he letting this peon get the better of him? Preston probably made three times the salary of a school district nutrition director, and certainly had more clout. He knew he needed to regain control of the conversation, but was afraid it might be too late. “I came into the building as the lady was walking out.” He forced a smile. “I like to think that I have enough human compassion to imagine what a person in her shoes might be going through. Regardless,” he added quickly, as Munger opened his mouth to give what was likely going to be another retort, “the fact remains that Delico Foods has nothing to hide or be ashamed of, whether from you or from any of the parents in the St. Peter school district.” Dr. Munger cut his eyes toward the lawyer, who had sat stiff and unmoving, his sly smile stuck to his face, the entire time. Mr. Johnson merely lifted one shoulder a hairbreadth in reply to what appeared to be an unspoken plea for help. Munger sighed and looked back at Preston. For the first time since Preston came into the office, he smiled – though his smile was obviously as fake as Preston’s. “I want you to be aware of something, Mr. Brenner. I was in meetings half the day yesterday with school district officials, who were demanding that I find out what’s going on. When I wasn’t in a meeting, I had reporters knocking on my door and calling me about the situation. “Over the past two days, a hundred parents have pulled their kids out of the school lunch program and three hundred have threatened to move their kids to another district entirely unless we prove that our schools are safe. I have another meeting this afternoon with my superiors, where I’m sure there will be another pleasant tar and feathering event, of which my rear end will be the main focus. I am under pressure to solve this problem, Mr. Brenner, and to solve it quickly.” He shot his words out at machine-gun speed, his face growing redder by the second. “And right now, my only recourse is to make sure that those who provide our food here are adhering to the strictest regulations of purity.” This was nothing new. Preston’s last meeting with this man, although enveloped in camaraderie and good humor, had been for the same purpose. “So, what am I doing here today?” Preston wanted to retort in a clipped voice. His own desk was piled high with unfinished reports and papers that needed to be read and signed. He had phone calls to make, e-mails to initiate and reply to. This meeting was turning out to be not only a major waste of his time, but also a personal attack – on his company’s reputation or his professional competence, he wasn’t yet sure. Perhaps both. “Our standards and procedures haven’t changed one iota in the past month, Dr. Munger.” Preston practically winced to have to use the elitist title. “Perhaps you need to focus your inspections on the cafeteria ladies who prepare the meals for the kiddos.” Johnson’s brow arched while Munger’s jaw tightened, his smile abruptly disappearing. The silence that followed Preston’s comment, stated in the most indifferent, professional tone he could conjure, was thicker than Delico’s famous peanut butter. Finally, Munger straightened his large shoulders, causing the chair to groan under his weight. “I called this meeting, hoping we could put our heads together and figure out a more efficient way to take care of this…problem.” He glanced at Johnson, then turned back to Preston. “But if Delico Foods is unwilling to cooperate – “ “Delico Foods is agreeing to take some serious losses by having to slow down operations while these extraneous inspections take place.” Preston swallowed the rising fury burning his throat. “We will likely lose millions in sales as we take the brunt of the blame for the unfortunate mishaps with those children. Even though,” he leaned forward to emphasize his point, “there is no proof, and likely never will be, that our product has anything to do with any of this. We are cooperating as much as can be realistically expected.” Another long pause. Preston spent it wondering if he was on the verge of losing his job. If the CEO of Delico – or even his immediate local supervisor – got wind of this meeting and decided Preston had gone too far, he would be dismissed. The thought made him cringe. He had come too far in his career to have to start over. But he wasn’t about to let this fat, pompous bobble-head insult him any further. Finally, Munger tore his gaze away from him, grabbing a sheaf of papers and pretending to study them. “Good day, Mr. Brenner.” ********** “It wouldn’t kill us to eat regular hamburger from a regular store once in a while.” Lucy’s husband, Mario, thrust the grocery receipt back into her hand and stalked into the living room. Barely five-foot-three, his stocky, muscular build made up for his slight height. Lucy followed him. “How do you know?” She shook the slip of paper in his face as he dropped into his recliner. “What about mad cow disease? What about the steroids that increase the risk of cancer and heart problems?” It was an old argument, which they usually had when the construction company Mario worked for was having a dry spell. Mario would insist that his family could be just as healthy eating food from a conventional grocery store, and save money – a lot of it. Lucy would disagree, quoting facts and statistics about the dangers of pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables, about the questionable quality of meat that had been pumped up with various chemicals. She’d done a lot of research on food and nutrition after their son Juan died, and within a year had begun shopping exclusively at health food stores. If she could help it, none of her family would ever ingest a poisonous man-made chemical again. Mario reached for the newspaper on the coffee table. “How many people do you know of that have fallen ill from mad cow disease?” His dark eyes flashed anger just before he turned them downward. Lucy got right in front of him, knowing he felt her glare, annoyed that he was ignoring it. “Mario, look at me.” With an exasperated sigh, he complied. “I know, I know.” He scratched his mustache as he continued, “God wants us to have the best, and He’ll provide it, so I need to stop worrying about how high the grocery bill is.” Seeing the hardness melt away from her husband’s face made Lucy’s ire begin to fade. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re getting to be a good husband. Parroting everything I’ve taught you.” He swatted her wide backside – although not nearly as wide as it used to be – as she passed him, and she turned to see him giving her a sly grin. “Be careful, or I’ll get you while you sleep.” Lucy giggled. “I might like that.” “Oh, gross, Mom and Dad!” Their younger daughter, fourteen-year-old Emma, emerged from the hallway. “Now I’ll have bad dreams tonight.” She sat down on the sofa next to her mother, who grabbed her in a playful embrace. “Oh, I’m sorry, baby,” Lucy said as she squeezed her squirming daughter. “Let Mama kiss it and make it all better.” “I’m not a baby,” Emma mumbled, but did not pull back from the wet kiss Lucy planted on her cheek. “Were you guys fighting about food again?” Lucy exchanged a glance with Mario. Before their eldest, Gabriel, had been born, they’d decided their children would never hear them argue. For most of their nineteen years of marriage, they’d managed to keep their resolve. “No,” Mario said, “we were just having a loud discussion.” “Whatever.” Emma flopped back, stretching out her legs. “Hey, Ma, how’s that girl—what’s her name?—doing?” “Oh, Melissa?” Lucy hesitated. How much should she say? “She must be doing pretty bad.” Emma yawned. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be afraid to talk.” The insinuation renewed Lucy’s anger, and she turned toward Emma. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’.” “You better tell God you’re sorry. For lying.” Emma, thin and athletic, was up off the sofa and down the hall before Lucy could react. She looked at Mario. “Are you going to let her get away with that?” Mario stared at her for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice had dropped several decibels. “I think she has a point. There is one thing you’re afraid of.” Lucy opened her mouth to argue, but then clamped it shut as Mario turned back to the newspaper. He and Emma were both right. Death by food scared the daylights out of her. Chapter Four Her cell phone rang, jolting Cynthia out of a slumber she hadn’t meant to slip into. She snatched it up off the wheeled table next to Melissa’s bed and answered it, her heart beating a hundred miles per second. “Mrs. Redman? Dr. Hill would like to see you today to discuss the results of Melissa’s blood tests. Does one-thirty work for you?” At the appointed time, Cynthia left her daughter’s side and walked down the hall to the elevators. The doctor’s office was on the other side of the large building, and it was a full five minutes before she had located it and announced her presence to the receptionist. Ten minutes later, she was in Dr. Hill’s office, talking to him. Neatly trimmed gray hair and a clean-shaven face, coupled with his tall, trim figure gave him a distinguished appearance. The few times Cynthia had spoken with him before, he had carried a kind of reserved cheerfulness. Today, the creases above and around his eyes were deepened with solemnity. “The laboratory found an unusual concentration of monosodium glutamate and a couple of other common food additives that the FDA has labeled ‘generally regarded as safe.’” Nothing shocking there. Cynthia wasn’t one to religiously peruse food labels, so she was sure that at both home and school, Melissa consumed her fair share of lab-synthesized flavorings and colorings. But everyone always said such additives were perfectly benign and inert, so Cynthia had never worried about them. Until now. She shifted in the pale-green cushioned steel chair, furrowing her brow. “An…unusual concentration? What does that mean?” The doctor shrugged. “Could mean nothing, could mean anything. But the lab reports states that the amounts of the substances are up to a hundred times more than what is usually found in a person’s blood, and that’s just after eating a meal.” He turned to the computer screen on the small desk in the room. “And your daughter’s blood wasn’t drawn until early yesterday morning. Hours after she had collapsed in the cafeteria.” Cynthia drew a long breath. After talking with Lucy, she had expected to hear that they’d found strychnine or some other poison in Melissa’s system. Or that they had found nothing, and that her daughter had simply had some sort of reaction that would never be able to be traced. She shook her head. “Okay. Are you saying these additives are the reason Melissa is in a coma?” Dr. Hill rubbed his chin. “Hard to say. But we haven’t been able to isolate any other source for her reaction.” Cynthia sat back, widening her eyes. “I’ve heard of kids getting ADD from MSG and people breaking out in a rash from food colorings, but…” Then another thought occurred to her. “Was this kind of thing found in the other kids, too? You know, the one who died, and the other one who got sick.” Dr. Hill stared at her for a long moment. Then, “The results of the autopsy on the second-grader have not yet been made public. As far as I know, nothing conclusive was found in the blood of the other child.” He lowered his hand, revealing thin lips. “Of course, he didn’t go into a coma, and was released after twenty-four hours. His body may have worked out any toxins that caused the problem before they could be detected.” “What is your professional opinion?” “I wasn’t their doctor.” “I mean about Melissa. And the lab results.” Dr. Hill squinted his eyes, then leaned forward with slightly uplifted lips. “My professional opinion is that your daughter is in the hospital because of something she ate. Beyond that, it’s impossible –“ At that moment, Cynthia’s cell phone rang again. She shot an apologetic glance toward the doctor as she fished it out of her purse. “Mrs. Redman? This is Jenna, the nurse on duty on the fourth floor. Melissa appears to be waking up from her coma.” ********** The sound of shoes squeaking on the tile floor outside his office provoked Preston to raise his head. The door was slightly ajar, and it opened further to frame his boss, Guy Polowsky. Preston’s gut tightened. He knew why he was here. But he smiled, stood, and invited him inside the office. Polowsky shook his head. “Don’t want to waste your time. Just give me the thirty-second version of your meeting with St. Peter school district.” Preston could do better than that. “They want to put all the blame on us.” There. A five-second brief, probably the briefest brief on record. Polowsky frowned. “That was it?” Preston held up his smart phone. “I recorded the entire conversation, if you want me to upload it and e-mail it to you.” Polowsky shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.” The band around Preston’s abdomen loosened. “Are they threatening legal action?” Preston puffed out a breath. “There was a lawyer present at the meeting, but no threats were made. At least, nothing explicit.” His boss rolled his eyes, then stepped into the office, closing the door behind him. “But a lawyer was present. Anything you said can and will be used against us.” Preston clasped his hands behind his back to keep them from nervous activity . “Like I said, I have the entire conversation on record – “ Polowsky waved his hand with a loud sigh. “I trust you implicitly, Brenner. Although, you may want to get it on your computer and to your cloud account in case it’s required by somebody else, sometime in the future.” “Yes, sir.” That was the end of the conversation, but hardly the end of Preston’s insecurities regarding the whole situation. Three kids in the past month had been adversely affected from eating food in the schools of St. Peter. And most of the food served came straight from the local Delico plant. Not all of it, but, say, sixty percent. That was enough to make Preston squirm. He wasn’t one to think a lot about children, hadn’t ever seriously thought if he wanted any of his own, but his dad had had a large family and he remembered big family get-togethers during all the major holidays, lots of kids everywhere. Of course, he was one of those kids, but even as a teenager he remembered having the time of his life playing ball with five- and six-year-old cousins-once-removed, and teaching board games to nine- and ten-year old cousins and other oddball relations, both boys and girls. And he hadn’t gotten into this business to hurt anyone. Despite his bravado at the meeting with Munger, he was beginning to wonder if he might somehow be doing so anyway, if only indirectly. But as far as he knew, nothing had changed in the production for at least two years. The ingredients were the same, the proportions were the same. So Delico Foods was unlikely to be the culprit. As Preston hooked his phone onto the computer to upload the recorded conversation, the thought gave him little consolation. He’d no idea why. If his company wasn’t at fault, he should just be able to let it go. But he couldn’t. Something was wrong, and for some reason, he felt like he should do everything in his power to fix it. Perhaps to make up for what he did – or, better said, hadn’t done – when he was eighteen. Perhaps because he couldn’t ignore this problem because it had a face to it. And a beautiful one at that. Perhaps a little bit of both. And he just might have enough power to make a difference. ********** “Mom? What happened?” Three words that Cynthia would hold near to her heart for years to come. She smiled down at her daughter, her vision blurry. “You got sick at school. But you’re going to be okay.” “You’re crying.” Cynthia lifted her free hand, the one that wasn’t stroking Melissa’s hair, and brushed the errant tear away with a laugh. “It’s a happy cry.” She wanted to burst into sobs with relief, but she didn’t need to further alarm her just-awakened daughter, who was surely weak and exhausted. She backed away for a minute so that the nurse could check her vitals, and Dr. Hill and the other doctor who had been present in the O.R. with Melissa, a younger woman who went by the name of Dr. Liz, conferred with the nurses, examined Melissa, and told Cynthia that if all progressed as they hoped, the patient would be released tomorrow afternoon. Joy mingled with frustration over the next couple of hours, during which Melissa dozed off and on. Cynthia’s child was going to be all right. She wasn’t going to die. But what exactly had sent her into a coma remained a mystery. Cynthia knew the easiest thing would be to forget anything ever happened. Just move on with life as usual. But Cynthia had heard – and believed – that the easy way wasn’t usually the best way. Besides, as a mother she felt it her duty to do whatever it took to find out just what had happened to Melissa. And she wouldn’t rest until she did. No matter what else she did, she would make sure that Melissa never ate another school lunch again – or partook with any food her friends might want to share. During one of Melissa’s naps, Cynthia called the school to tell Lucy that she was awake, and to please relay the message to Mr. Wade. She couldn’t be sure, but the Hispanic woman sounded like she was near tears herself when she got the news. “Remember, I’m here if you want to talk about anything,” she reminded Cynthia before she hung up. Cynthia had already decided she would definitely want to talk to the woman. Eventually. After she had done some of her own legwork. But if there was any merit to what Lucy had insinuated the other day, she just might be the best ally Cynthia could hook up with at this time. Melissa was released on Saturday, giving her a day and a half to recuperate enough to return to school. On Sunday afternoon, after Cynthia called Mrs. Tenniger to tell her she would be back to work at the daycare on Wednesday – she needed to catch up on her sleep – she snuggled up with her daughter on the couch as they drank hot chocolate and watched the cars crunch by on the snow-covered street outside the window. “I was wondering,” Cynthia began after they had sat in companionable silence for several minutes, “if you noticed anything about the lunch you ate on Tuesday.” Melissa scrunched her forehead, biting her lip. After a few seconds, she nodded and looked up. “The refried beans and the pudding tasted…strange. I almost didn’t eat them, but I was hungry.” Cynthia set her mug on the coffee table and looked the girl straight in the eye. “Strange?” Melissa shrugged. “I don’t know how, really. Like the flavor was too – oh, I don’t know the word.” “Intense?” “Yes!” Melissa beamed up at her. “Like, the beans were super salty, and the pudding was super vanilla-ey.” Cynthia’s heart began to pound. “Did any of the other kids mention anything about it?” Melissa shook her head as she took a sip. “But I saw Joseph make a face when he tried the beans, and throw down his fork. And Darla said the pudding tasted weird, and a couple other kids barely touched either the beans or the pudding.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I guess I was stupid, huh?” Cynthia squeezed her arm. “You weren’t stupid. Just hungry. But…I hope you’ll be okay when I tell you I’ve decided that you won’t be eating any more food from the school cafeteria.” Melissa grimaced. “I was hoping you wouldn’t make me.” Cynthia laughed and hugged her carefully, so as not to upset her mug of hot chocolate. “Have you always disliked school lunches?” Melissa shrugged. “Some days yes, some days no. But more and more lately it’s been yes.” She lifted her mug to her lips again. “Guess I’m just getting tired of it all.” Or your body’s trying to tell you something. The thought came out of nowhere and made Cynthia freeze with her hand halfway to her own mug. “Mom? You all right?” “Yes.” She gave her daughter a reassuring smile, then picked up her mug. Then set it back down. What was in this stuff, anyway? Was the chocolate flavor even real? Was there anything in it that might send Melissa’s body back into crisis mode? It took all her might not to snatch the mug from Melissa’s hands. No use causing her worry; anyway, if anything she was just borrowing trouble. How many cups of hot chocolate had Melissa drunk every winter with no seeming ill effect? Even so, Cynthia decided then and there to find a more natural solution to their hot chocolate cravings. And start paying attention to food labels. Perhaps even pay her first visit to the health food market that had been only a couple of miles away from her home for the past five years. But before anything else, she would get online and do some serious research as soon as she had seen Melissa off to school tomorrow. It wasn’t just about saving her daughter’s health. The next kid to collapse after eating cafeteria food might end up in the morgue, and somebody had to do something to try to prevent it. If not me, then who? The song lyric floated through her mind almost as loudly as if it were playing on the radio. As she and Melissa walked through the rest of the day in quiet activity, her answer silently rose up: I’ll do it, Lord. I’ll do it. ********** Delico Foods contained their Midwest regional offices in downtown St. Peter. The actual food processing plant was some miles south of the city, and on Monday morning Preston found himself taking the highway toward it in order to speak with the manager and overseer there, and bring home a few samples that he planned to surreptitiously send out to a lab for analysis. The inspections that SPISD was demanding were supposedly going to be unannounced, but sometimes word got around. If it did, managers, assistant managers, and factory employees alike would all be on their best behavior and be sure to provide the inspectors only the purest product. No one was expecting Preston to show up today, not even said manager, so if there was any funny business going on, anything being put into the food that wasn’t supposed to be there, he aimed to find out. At least the roads were clear of ice and snow. Preston stared at the road ahead of him, his peripheral vision taking in the white and gray fields interrupted by clumps of pine trees and groups of various native deciduous trees, their naked branches like crooked fingers scraping at the sky. When he spotted a smokestack in the distance, he sighed. Almost there. The factory sat on two acres, and was soon in full view. The L-shaped building in front housed several small offices, most of the flat-roofed, rectangular structure consisting of factory machinery. In the back gigantic steel drums and pipes looked like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, and the consummate picture of the acreage was a wart on the surrounding beauty of the Midwestern landscape. It was, in a word, bleak. But if not for it, Preston wouldn’t be where he was today. “Preston, my man!” Kelly Jackson, a heavyset, dark-skinned man, arose from the seat behind his desk in the cramped office with an outstretched hand. “Let me guess. The latest news from the city school district has you down here.” The man’s thick-lipped smile remained as broad as ever. It was his cheerfulness, Preston had decided a couple of years ago, that made him the most respected manager that Preston had ever hired. Employee absences had dropped considerably since he’d hired Jackson, and production had gone up. Preston nodded as he tried to match the grip of the large man’s hand and failed. Despite the tension headache threatening behind his eyes, he smiled. He could never help smiling in the presence of the manager of this Delico Foods plant. Even when under stress, Jackson was known to weave in and out of the line of factory workers, bestowing words of encouragement, telling jokes, and bursting into happy tunes. He was the first manager of that plant to go two years without having a single complaint filed against him by an employee. The man was either half-crazy or had a mother who was on happy pills during her pregnancy with him. “Consider me the inspector before the inspector.” Preston now shook his head when Jackson gestured for him to take a seat. “I’d like to tour the facilities before we talk, if you don’t mind.” An hour later, his hands loaded down with boxes of several freshly-produced cans, bags and boxes of items, Preston returned with Kelly to his office where he bombarded the manager with questions. No, there had been no new hires in the past month. No, he hadn’t heard any grudging talk against the company. No, no, no. Just as Preston suspected. Not that Kelly could possibly know everything about everything and everybody, but the big man was as astute as he was joyful and he seemed to have a knack for understanding people. By the time Preston headed back to the plant parking lot, he felt fifty pounds lighter. Let the inspections begin, and let Munger and his cronies think whatever they wanted. Delico Foods was not the reason the children had been hospitalized. Kelly walked him out, and as they approached the front doors he said, “There is one thing.” Preston eyed him over the stack of boxes he carried. “Do I really want to know?” Kelly lifted a shoulder, still smiling. “Prob’ly ain’t all bad. Marge has gone and gotten herself pregnant. Gonna go on maternity leave in two weeks.” Kelly shook his head. “Don’t really want to mess with temporary workers.” He let the comment settle between them just inside the door. Preston turned and glanced at Marge, the receptionist behind the nearby counter. She’d been a faithful employee for six years, and every manager during that time had told Preston that they’d never worked with anyone more pleasant, competent, or efficient. He’d noticed her bulging belly when he first came in, but his mind had been so full of food and toxins and insinuating accusations from arrogant school district officials that he hadn’t considered any consequences of her condition. Preston nodded with understanding. “Go ahead and hire a substitute. Just make sure that she understands that the job will become Marge’s again as soon as she wants to come back.” Kelly chuckled. “A permanent temporary? Got it, boss. And,” he opened the door for Preston, letting in a gust of frigid air, “thanks.” Chapter Five Cynthia blinked at the computer screen, then re-read the blog post for the third time. She’d heard about conspiracy theories related to politics – Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations, for example – or how a series of well-planned “coincidences” are the real reason a certain person is elected President of the United States. She’d always thought these theories to be the result of an overactive imagination. Or somebody with too much free time. But the conspiracy theory laid out before her now made her arch her eyebrows, then suck in a swift breath. Very likely it wasn’t any more true than political theories. Most probably if it hadn’t been that Cynthia was hypersensitive over the area of manufactured food right now, she would have glossed over this kind of information and accused the author of being a nutjob. However, after her first read-through of this article, she had read the blog author’s bio, then did a general search. Why would a former university medical professor and FDA advisor who appeared to have the support of numerous health-conscious bloggers make this stuff up? If he was on the up-and-up, the world was suddenly a much scarier place than Cynthia had made it out to be. It wouldn’t be a hard leap for her to believe what he’d revealed on this web page. For some years she had had her doubts about the federal government’s purported mission of caring for the nation’s citizens. She knew that money, not love, made the White House go ‘round. But would they go this far to ensure that only the wealthiest elite thrived? She squeezed her eyes closed, leaned back in the swivel chair, and rubbed her temples. Her brain was already swimming with a plethora of other new information gleaned in the past two hours. The actual impact upon the human body of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives was not known. White flour was white because it was bleached. And chlorine was a known carcinogen. The pesticides used on commercial produce had been connected to everything from headaches and rashes to Alzheimer’s and cancer. Laboratory-synthesized vitamins and minerals with which breakfast cereals and many other processed foods were “fortified” were mostly unable to be absorbed by the human body. Cynthia had already begun a list of book titles she had encountered during her research: Fast Food Nation, The Hundred Year Lie, Never Be Sick Again, and Wheat Belly headed the list. She’d watched a “Sixty Minutes” clip online that demonstrated how chemicals could be mixed and manipulated to imitate any aroma, flavor, or texture of any naturally-occurring food. So Cynthia’s mind had already begun swirling with fascination, fear, wonder and doubt. She had already begun to seriously contemplate going through her pantry and refrigerator and starting over, as one blogger had suggested, and giving her and Melissa’s diet a complete overhaul. Now, her brain ground to a halt. For an entire five minutes, the sole thought hammering there was, What if he’s right? When the shock began to wear off and her mind began to function again, she knew that she already knew somebody who might be able to help her sort this guy’s claims out. Lucy Perez certainly was not anti-conspiracy, and might have already done her own research that could potentially save Cynthia a lot of time and effort. Keeping one eye on her laptop screen, she picked up her cell phone and dialed the school. Because if this old professor was even partly right, Cynthia was going to have to make a whole lot more lifestyle changes than she’d been thinking a few hours ago. ********** “I’m here.” Lucy looked up from the typewriter on the opposite side of the front office corner, and beamed at the woman standing at the office door. Then she glanced at the large clock on the wall. Just in time. “I would’ve worked straight through lunch if you hadn’t shown up,” Lucy declared cheerfully, then she bent over to retrieve her purse and lunch bag. She had been excited when Cynthia had called her an hour ago, asking if she would have time to talk over lunch. Most people with whom Lucy shared her experiences and knowledge about food and health smiled politely and never made any changes. Probably over half of them thought she was a little crazy. So Lucy couldn’t help feeling giddy over the idea that here was somebody who might actually be interested in what she had to say. Plus, she’d had a stressful morning, what with a Kindergartener coming into the office first thing in the morning and vomiting all over the carpet, two parents giving veiled threats in Mr. Wade’s direction about the quality of the school food – as if he had anything to do with it – and, just after Cynthia called, one of the fifth grade teachers who was in her mid-forties and in desperate need of balancing out her hormones dragging one of her male students in and screaming at him at the top of her lungs. Lucy, who usually retreated to the nurse’s office next door to take her lunch break, was ready to get out of the school building for a while. She had, at first, toyed with the idea of leading Cynthia to the first-floor teacher’s lounge, which, by all reports, was rarely used. But she had a feeling that the impending conversation with Melissa Redman’s mother was going to be confidential, and Lucy wasn’t about to take any chances. After some thought she’d decided to invite Cynthia to the nearby grocery store. There were a few tables next to the deli area, and while they would not be alone, the store would be noisy enough and busy enough that they would not be noticed. Cynthia was quiet during the six-block drive, answering Lucy’s questions about Melissa’s welfare in nervous and clipped tones. She would have expected a mother whose child recently came out of a short coma to be more relaxed, if not happy. Cynthia obviously had a lot on her mind. Once seated at a table, Lucy withdrew a leftover corn tortilla and homemade organic guacamole from her lunch bag as Cynthia pulled an apple and a banana out of her purse. Hungry, Lucy tore off a piece of tortilla and dipped it into the guacamole, but Cynthia made no move to touch her fruit. Instead, she closed her eyes and sighed. Lucy frowned as she swallowed. “Deary, are you sure everything’s all right with Melissa?” Cynthia gave her a sheepish smile. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry. I just – well, I’m not sure how to start this conversation.” Lucy reached over and patted her hand. “How about you just tell me the reason you wanted to talk today?” The aromas of freshly baked bread and cookies mingled with rotisserie chicken, wafting around them as shopping carts jangled by and voices – talking, laughing, arguing – floated in the air. But between Lucy and Cynthia, silence hung for a long moment. Cynthia’s expression became pensive, almost fearful, and for a few seconds Lucy was afraid she was going to change her mind about confiding in her. Finally, Cynthia looked her straight in the eyes. “Okay. Conspiracy theories.” Lucy raised her brow. “Which one?” Cynthia shifted her gaze down, bit her lip, looked back up. “I found an article online this morning. I wanted to not believe it, but I Googled the author and couldn’t find anything but that he was legit.” She quirked one side of her mouth. “Of course, not everybody thinks he’s got all his screws tight, if you know what I mean, but I guess that’s true of anybody who puts out any kind of conspiracy theory.” Lucy nodded. “Of course.” She took another bite. Her gregarious personality tempted her to launch into her own beliefs on a wide variety of such theories, but the wisdom that had slowly been gaining on her during the past decade held her back. She simply chewed, watching Cynthia curiously. The other woman covered the apple with her hand, but merely fingered it lightly. “Okay, so, here it is. The guy claims that the government, drug companies, and food manufacturers are in cahoots to purposely cause the early death of Americans so that the wealthy elite can be assured of being able to continue being the wealthy elite.” Lucy tried not to be surprised that this was apparently news to Cynthia. She reminded herself that not everyone – most people, as a matter of fact – had not delved into the world of food and nutrition and natural health and therefore had no reason to have ever heard of such a theory. She finished the bite, nodding again. “What do you think about it?” Cynthia’s brow furrowed. “I was wondering what you thought about it.” “You first.” Lucy winked, dipped, and popped the morsel in her mouth to give her an excuse for not talking. Cynthia’s appetite seemed to be non-existent, so she might as well dominate the conversation for a few minutes. Dealing with irate parents and teachers always left Lucy feeling famished. Cynthia frowned and rolled her eyes. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.” Lucy lifted a shoulder. Cynthia shook her head. “Fine. I think he makes sense. In a way. At least I could see how all the organizations could be feeding into each other and causing a huge problem, even if they’re not doing it intentionally.” Lucy had come to the same conclusion after coming across similar information several years ago. Swallowing, she took a sip from the stainless steel water bottle she had brought along, then leaned forward. “I don’t think you’re crazy.” Cynthia’s whole face relaxed. “But I’ve never been convinced the government – or wealthy elite – is trying to kill people. Or make them sick. More like what you said – the Powers That Be care more about money than anything else, and that’s causing dire consequences.” Cynthia slowly nodded. “But Melissa didn’t practically die because of some entity slowly infringing on our right to good health.” She removed her hand from the apple, stared at the two pieces of fruit for a minute, then picked up the banana and began to peel it. “But what I read this morning – not just that article, but everything about processed foods and drugs and all that. It’s…scary.” She held up the banana. “See what I brought for lunch? Fruit and a few vegetables were the only things I could find in my house that were ‘legal’ to eat. I can’t believe I’ve been told all these years that packaged foods were good for me. For us. Why didn’t I find out about it before?” She took a bite of the banana, chewing slowly and contemplating Lucy with narrowed eyes. “No money to be made.” Cynthia’s eyes widened. “Beg your pardon?” Lucy tore another piece off her quickly-shrinking tortilla. Why she hadn’t packed two, she wished she knew. “There ain’t a lot of money to be made from people eating fruits and vegetables.” She was always careful to use correct grammar at school. But now that she was feeling more comfortable, her Tex-Mex speech was going to slip out. “And using herbs and homeopathics and essential oils for illness and diseases,” she added. “Not the kind of money that Big Pharm and Big Food are used to making.” Cynthia paused, banana halfway to her mouth. “Big…Farm?” “P-H-A-R-M. Pharmaceutical companies.” She placed the bite into her mouth while Cynthia’s eyes twinkled with understanding. Then Cynthia ate three bites of her banana, staring off at a point beyond the top of Lucy’s head while she chewed. After she’d swallowed the third bite, she set the banana onto a paper napkin with a sigh. “I can only hope we’re both right about that. The food-government conspiracy being non-existent, I mean.” She fixed her eyes on Lucy with an intent expression. “But that doesn’t get me any closer to figuring out why Melissa’s food was sabotaged.” Lucy stilled, her hand hovering above the last bit of tortilla. She felt her eyebrows knit together, tightening the skin on her forehead. “What do you mean, sabotaged?” She listened with renewed interest as Cynthia explained what the blood tests had found, and what Melissa had told her about lunch that day. “I guess it could be,” Lucy replied slowly, “a mistake on the food processor’s end.” Cynthia shook her head. “That’s what I thought at first. But Melissa told me that two completely different foods had been affected. And what about the two other kids before her? I doubt they’d eaten the exact same thing.” Lucy’s heartbeat picked up. Terrorists? But if it was an act of terrorism, wouldn’t they do what they did in her son’s case, and use a quick-acting poison? She sat back in her chair. “If it was done on purpose, it sounds like whoever did it was just trying to make a few kids sick.” “But why?” Cynthia picked up her apple and hit it against the table, as if it were her fist. “What’s the point?” Her face wore the exasperation seeping from her voice. “Psychopaths don’t have to have a point.” “So a mentally ill person is going around, screwing up school lunches?” Lucy shrugged. “I’m saying, if it is a psychopath, they don’t need any reason to commit a crime other than that they are a psychopath. If it ain’t, well, I don’t got no idea why somebody would be doing this intentionally, just to make a few kids throw up or have an allergic reaction.” What she wanted to say more than anything was, why would Cynthia want to eat, and feed her kid, food that had stuff in it that was potentially deadly – or at least illness-provoking? But she’d learned the hard way that people don’t like to be told what to eat. They have to experience their own hard knocks and/or do their own research and come to their own conclusions. So after her last comment, she simply crossed her arms on the table, pushing what little was left of the guacamole aside, and gave Cynthia a small smile. Cynthia grimaced. “I don’t get it either.” She sighed and leaned back. “I guess the best I can do is what several bloggers advise: transition into a whole foods diet. And somehow make sure Melissa never puts one morsel of cafeteria food in her mouth again.” Lucy’s smile broadened. Finally, somebody got it! She had to work not to jump off her chair with glee. “I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can.” “I might have to take you up on it.” Cynthia polished off the banana, giving Lucy the opportunity to spoon out the rest of the guacamole. When she finished Cynthia said, “I have another idea.” She frowned. “But it might not go over very well.” Lucy raised her brow and straightened slightly. “Let’s hear it.” Chapter Six He was still alive. Not sick. Not in the hospital. Preston polished off the last of the food samples he’d brought home – a single-serving plastic cup of banana pudding – with a victorious flourish. He’d eaten half of the samples that he wasn’t sending to the lab for lunch, brought the other half home for dinner. A loud belch escaped his mouth as he stood to rinse the plastic things off and toss them into the box in the laundry room relegated to recyclables. Not using sustainable, sometimes biodegradable, packaging was one thing no one could accuse Delico Foods of. Several years ago, he had been ordered to hire an environmental awareness consultant team who were then charged with examining the company’s processes and packaging with a fine-toothed comb, and write up a report of their findings and recommended changes. The report had ended up being over two hundred pages, and they made numerous recommendations – from replacing conventional fluorescent lights with CFLs or LEDs, to switching to recycled toilet paper in the restrooms. For a time, Preston had actually felt guilty for working for a company that had, up to that point, been so lackadaisical as far as eco-friendly practices went. But while implementing all the recommended changes would be too costly for Delico, the company had taken action on about ten percent of them. Probably the most publicly visible change was adopting post-consumer recycled plastic and paper for their packaging – and to use only the kinds of plastic that most cities accepted in their recycling programs. When a six-month-long ad campaign informed consumers of these facts, sales of Delico Food products skyrocketed over the next year. Maybe that’s what Preston needed now. An ad campaign proving that Delico was not out to poison schoolchildren. As he clicked on the television, he sighed, remembering his conversation with Guy that afternoon. “Looks like I’m going to need a copy of your conversation with that St. Peter school guy after all.” Preston had glanced up from his computer to see Guy standing just inside his office. “Am I in trouble?” Guy’s expression was unreadable. “Doubt it. But Dawes and Lester have got wind of some kind of rumor about St. Peter wanting to replace our desserts with a competitor out in the Northeast. They want to make sure that you said nothing…inciting.” Preston huffed out a breath. “E-mail it to you?” “That’d be fine. Right now, if you don’t mind.” Guy turned sharply and walked away, leaving Preston under the impression that Guy might be in trouble if Dawes and Lester, the CEO of the parent company and his C.O.O., decided that Preston had screwed up. He pressed the power button on the remote, and the screen flickered to black. He wasn’t in the mood for either dramas or sitcoms right now; besides, for the most part, Hollywood seemed to have developed a desperate void in the area of creativity. Whatever happened to the writers who used to churn out classics like Hill Street Blues, M.A.S.H, and Cheers? Okay, so maybe Cheers wasn’t the greatest example. Flicking off the living room light, he strode into the spare bedroom where his computer, printer, and fax machine sat in a row on an expensive hardwood desk. He booted up the computer, rubbing the tense muscles in the back of his neck while he waited. He wasn’t sure what he was after, but he couldn’t just sit around and wait to get fired. Or not. He couldn’t just sit around and watch more kids get sick. What if Delico Foods was the culprit? He wondered what his sister would have to say about all this. Carly had been a health nut for the past seven years, and a year ago had announced that she was “going raw”. Whatever that meant. It at least meant that any and all food processing companies – including the one that stuffed Preston’s bank account – had suddenly become Evil Incarnate. Thanksgiving dinner with her and her husband, and Preston and Carly’s parents, last year had been awkward, to say the least. Carly had all but told him that he needed to find a different line of work, that he was playing into an elaborate scheme of power-mongers who were out to destroy the “little people.” At the time, Preston had had to shove down anger with a large bite of turkey and dressing. He still thought she’d gotten a little brainwashed by whatever she’d read that had led her to this strange diet that had her limiting her Thanksgiving dinner to salad and fruit, but he’d forgiven her. He could ignore her “holier-than-thou” jabs. He had to. No way was he going to throw away over a decade of career ladder climbing. Unless Delico Foods was doing something unethical under the proverbial table. His first search was “Delico Foods harming children.” To his amazement, one of the first results was a thread on a natural health board where some of the members had apparently already picked up on the rumor Guy had told him about. His eyes widened as he read through the accusations. It brought him little relief to see another of the St. Peter school district food providers mentioned. Delico Foods was obviously the target of this thread; it was even named in the subject line. Preston expelled a breath, brow pinched. Who had started the rumor in the first place? The question had hounded him all afternoon, and he’d been able to come up with two possible answers: the mother of the most recent victim of St. Peter school food, or Dr. Munger or one of his cronies. He could see why an angry parent would spout off half-truths and stir up trouble. He couldn’t be happy about it – it was going to cause him a lot of grief, and possibly a cut in pay if Delico lost too much money over the issue – but he could understand it. But why would the school officials leak out a blatant lie? After all, no one knew what had caused any of the children’s illnesses. And until a couple of days ago, SPISD and Delico had enjoyed a friendly relationship for years. Even though it made no sense that Dr. Munger would have instigated the rumor, Preston couldn’t shake the idea. In fact, it shouted more loudly in his head than the other possibility. He remembered something his mom told him a few times when he was a teenager: “If you have a choice to make, and one choice looms above the other in a huge way and you can’t get it out of your mind, take it as a sign from God.” While Preston wasn’t a particularly spiritual person, he did believe in God, and wondered if her advice had any merit in this case. If it did, he would have to turn the tables on Munger and investigate him. Preston sighed, then clicked on another search result, an online newspaper article that talked about the three kids who had gotten sick in the city of St. Peter after eating cafeteria food. Delico and the other companies were mentioned at the end. Not quite as condemning as the forum thread, but any reasonably intelligent person would put two and two together and infer that the food manufacturers were at fault. So much for objective journalism. He searched “toxins in Delico Foods.” Nothing specific there; all the results seemed to be articles that talked about toxins present in food, both processed and natural. Preston had skimmed over information like this before, but had never taken too much stock in it. He had been eating processed foods and non-organic fruits and vegetables for years, and his health was okay. But this evening, one article summary in particular caught his eye and his curiosity got the better of him. He clicked the link, but at the same moment the web page opened before his eyes, somebody knocked on the door. Karen. Who else would it be? He considered ignoring the knock. There was no reason for her to believe he was in there. Sure, she could see the light on under his door, but a lot of the residents of this luxury apartment complex left a light on in their absence to deter burglars. And he hadn’t been making any noise that she would have been able to hear. A second knock, more persistent. Preston sighed and stood, regretting for the umpteenth time the day several months ago he had entered into conversation with the twenty-year-old. Opening the door confirmed his guess. “Yes?” He didn’t smile. Karen Lewis didn’t need any more encouragement. And he’d learned early on not to ask, “What do you want?”, or “Can I help you with anything?” Her inevitable coy response, accompanied by a flutter of eyelashes and given in a seductive voice, was, “My, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?” “I brought you some brownies” was how she greeted him tonight. She held out a glass plate wrapped up in plastic wrap as proof. Well, at least the girl did something to occupy her time. According to her, an uber-wealthy aunt had left her multiple millions of dollars when she died three years ago, enabling Karen to live a life of leisure. “I hate chocolate.” “No you don’t.” She pushed by Preston and into his apartment. He tried not to look at her tight skirt, much too short for the mid-January weather, and equally tight blouse that hiked up her belly and revealed her bellybutton, and failed. Her face was as attractive as her curvy body, framed by earlobe-length blonde hair cut and sprayed in a movie-star style. But Preston had learned the hard way by age twenty-three not to fall for a girl based on her good looks. And Karen’s attractiveness was merely physical to Preston. She was overbearing, self-centered, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She set the tray of brownies down on his kitchen counter as if she lived there. “I saw you eating chocolate pudding once.” “I was trying a new product.” And that was the truth. Wanting to branch out into healthier dessert options, the plant had produced a small sampling of a concoction using stevia, a super-sweet, no-calorie, no-carb herb, as a sweetener. Preston had taken two bites and couldn’t finish it, and the company tasters ended up agreeing that the recipe should be trashed. Karen whirled around on her red high heels, crossed her arms, and pouted. Another thing about her he despised. And he didn’t think it was a habit she was going to grow out of. “Most people say ‘thank you’ when someone gives them a gift.” A gift. The last thing he wanted to do was accept a gift from her. Talk about encouragement. Preston walked over to the counter and picked up the plate, trying to smile, trying to be gentle. Karen was, after all, only twenty, obnoxious hussy though she may be. It was within reason to believe that she might actually be clueless. Meaning well, but without any social finesse. “I really can’t accept these from you, Karen.” The pout deepened. “Why not?” Oh shoot, now she’s whining. “I don’t want you to think I owe you anything.” He met her gaze with reluctance, and immediately regretted it because he saw moisture gathering in her eyes. “You think strings are attached or something?” She sounded weepy. Preston inwardly kicked himself for answering the door. “Fine.” She snatched the plate out of his hands and sauntered toward the door, her hips swaying in an exaggerated manner. Then she turned, a single tear streaking down her cheek. “Of the five other neighbors I’ve offered brownies, you’re the only one who has flatly refused them. I guess the first impression I got of you was totally wrong.” Preston was not about to take the bait. How he wished he could honestly tell her he was involved with someone else. Leaning against the kitchen counter, his only response was to slightly lift a shoulder. Let her think he was a colossal jerk. She turned her head toward the door again, glared at it, then with her eyes shot daggers in his direction. “Well?” She canted her head toward the door. With tightened jaw, Preston shoved himself forward and moved with clipped steps to the door. He opened it, hating that he liked whatever perfume she had on, hating that her full red lips now turned upward in a wily smile. “See now, it’s not so bad to get close to me, is it?” Preston ignored the sudden change in her tone that was clearly meant to give him pause and make him regret his decision. He had no regrets. None whatsoever. “Good night, Karen.” She gazed at him for a long moment, her smile growing. Finally, she reached her free hand out and caressed his cheek. “It won’t be as good as it could have been.” Preston backed away from her touch and shut the door. Bolted it. Then practically jogged back to his computer before he could give into temptation. No matter how annoying his young neighbor was, she sure knew how to get his heart going. Chapter Seven Cynthia must have been out of her mind. She needed to get her web design business back up and running. Where was she going to find time to organize parent demonstrations? More to the point, where was she going to find the nerve to face the first little group she was supposed to address today? “Cynthia Redman, this is Erin Halley, one of our second-grade teachers. This is Cynthia’s daughter, Melissa.” Lucy stood next to Cynthia and Melissa at the classroom door, gesturing toward the slim, plainly-dressed teacher coming toward them. Erin stuck out her hand. “Great to meet you.” Then she bent down toward Melissa. “I remember your daughter. How are you feeling?” Her voice was gentle and full of concern. Melissa smiled up at her. Not too far up, since her height was creeping near the five-foot mark and Erin was not that much taller. “A lot better, Miss Halley, thank you.” Melissa went to a desk in a corner and sat down, where she pulled out a math book from her backpack. Erin glanced at Lucy. “You told her we were being illegal, right?” Lucy nodded with a chuckle, but Cynthia didn’t like the sound of that. “Um, illegal?” Erin laughed. “Sorry. That’s the drama queen in me coming out.” She moved away and led Cynthia and Lucy toward a grouping of chairs at the front of the room. “If someone, even a teacher, wants to use a classroom for reasons not directly related to school use, they’re supposed to apply to the district and get permission.” She glanced around the room, then toward the door. As she continued, she lowered her voice. “But I believe in what you guys are doing. Been a health nut myself for the past decade or so. And Thursdays are faculty meeting days – we’ll be there for at least an hour, and the custodian doesn’t get to my room until four-thirty.” She turned to Cynthia, her eyes pleading. “Thirty minutes. Please make sure everyone understands. If you need to chat longer, you’re going to have to take it outside the building.” Cynthia shifted uncomfortably as she watched the teacher walk out the door with Lucy, who didn’t dare give up her post in the office for more than five minutes. The last thing Cynthia wanted was to risk a teacher getting into trouble, and she wondered at Lucy for having done so. But she had no time to confront her about it. As soon as Erin and Lucy walked out, three women and a man walked in. Within five minutes, twenty-five parents were seated around the room, more than twice the turnout Cynthia had expected considering she had only passed out flyers two days ago. Fifty eyes fixed curious and interested gazes on her, and her hands grew sweaty. Melissa looked up from the back of the room and gave her a thumbs-up and a big smile. Cynthia smiled back, relaxing a little. Still, uncertainty suddenly hung over her like a snow cloud. She had prepared a little speech for the occasion, had the basic outline on a notecard on the table in front of her, but now she wished she’d never spoken to anybody about her idea. They would think she was going to extremes. Maybe even a little crazy. Besides, she was no expert on health and nutrition. If anybody should be leading this show, it was Lucy. Lord, help me say the right things. She took a deep breath, and began. Twenty minutes later, she was surprised when every single person there expressed agreement with her strategy, agreement that if something was going to change in the St. Peter cafeterias, it was going to be up to them, the parents of the students. Cynthia sent three parents out at a time in two-minute intervals so as not to arouse suspicion from anybody in the front office. So a few more than thirty minutes had passed by the time the room had emptied, but none of the faculty and staff seemed to be around. Cynthia sank into the rocking chair at the front of the room with a sigh. Melissa came up to her and gave her a hug. “You did great, Mom.” “Thanks.” She should have been relieved. But now that the meeting was over with, her mind flew back to what Erin had said, about them not having permission to use the room. It would only take one irate parent showing up at the principal’s office to get her into trouble. No, not her. After all, she was only a parent. But what about Erin? Could she lose her job over this? Lucy? Stupid, stupid, stupid. She would have said it aloud if Melissa hadn’t been right there. She looked up at her daughter and forced a smile. “Finish your homework?” She grimaced. “No. Half of math, and I still have language arts.” Cynthia rocked herself to her feet. “I suppose we better get going.” She had her own homework to do; namely, preparing another flyer that would alert parents about the first demonstration. And she needed to find out exactly where the St. Peter schools obtained their food, get some phone numbers and e-mails. If there was some sort of grand conspiracy taking place, none of this would probably make any difference. If not, her voice – along with the voices of other concerned parents – might actually lead to changes. ********** “Are you crazy? You gonna lose your job!” Mario glared at Lucy from across the dinner table. Lucy set her fork down. She had expected her husband to react like this, so she could give him a genuine, placid smile. “All I did was start Cynthia on her way. I don’t plan to be in any of the demonstrations.” “But if word gets around – “ “Baby, rumors are constantly flying through the school hallways.” She picked up her fork and waved it around. “How many teachers do you suppose have been fired ‘cause of them? None, in my eight years working in the schools, anyhow.” She forked up some pepper chicken and put it in her mouth. “You ain’t a teacher.” But Mario’s voice had mellowed somewhat. “I think it’s cool,” Emma said from her place on Lucy’s left. “I’m sick of other kids making fun of me because I won’t eat chips and sandwiches and those disgusting Twinkie things. If word gets around that there’s a bunch of parents preaching against fake food, everybody’ll lay off me.” She poked at her salad with her fork, and filled her mouth. “This salad dressing is great.” Mario shot her a look. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Lucy couldn’t help but smile. It was a habit they’d both been trying to get their daughter out of ever since she was a toddler. “Olive oil, cilantro, lime. And a pinch of salt. Made it up myself.” “It is tasty, Luce. Just don’t go overboard on the limes.” Despite the smile accompanying Mario’s words, Lucy tensed. The money thing again. Several months ago, Mario had balked at the price of organic limes, which is why Lucy hadn’t tried the recipe earlier. “Then I just won’t make it again.” She stabbed her fork into a piece of steamed sweet potato with inappropriate force for such a soft food, rendering it into little pieces. She didn’t care. She thrust her fork underneath them, then carried them to her mouth. She might as well have been eating cardboard. Cynthia Redman didn’t know how lucky she was, being able to transition into a healthy diet without having to convince an unbelieving spouse. More than a decade, and hers still wasn’t convinced that a strictly whole foods, strictly organic diet made enough of an impact on their bodies to matter. She stared down at her plate, but at the corner of her eye caught Emma shifting her gaze from one of her parents to the other. In a small voice, more like one that belonged to a scared seven-year-old than the confident teenager she was, she asked, “Has – has one of you lost their job, or something?” Lucy shot Mario a see-what-you-did-now glare, then softened her expression as she turned to her daughter. “No, deary, we would tell you something that important.” “My fault, Emma. I just worry too much about our budget.” While Emma appeared relieved, the words fell flat against Lucy’s eardrums. She was usually more patient with him when he hinted at her not needing to spend so much on food. Was she, too, concerned about being implicated in the parent demonstrations Cynthia was planning to organize? Or maybe she was just feeling the sting a bit more this evening because she’d finally met someone who really seemed to want to make a change when it came to food. And she was hurt that it wasn’t her own husband. She swallowed the sweet potato along with a retort that she never spent more than the food budget allowed – except, of course, during the holidays. She got up and picked up her plate. Emma gave her father a look of reproach. “You made her mad. She can’t finish eating.” Lucy always finished every bite on her plate. Unless she was upset. Lucy jumped when something pounded on the table, rattling the dishes. She turned to see both of Mario’s palms flat on the table, his features twisted in consternation. He said nothing, only huffed out a breath, went to their bedroom and shut the door. She glared at her daughter. “Chica, how many times I got to tell you that you don’t get into mama and papa’s business?” She looked down at her plate. “Sorry.” The air grew thick with tension, then she jumped up and ran to her own room, slamming the door in teenage fury. Tears burned behind Lucy’s eyelids as she leaned against the counter. When was she going to learn to just be quiet? Her own bedroom occupied by a person she would rather not see for a while, she stayed in the kitchen, cleaning up, then reading the latest legal thriller. But she comprehended nothing until, three pages into her reading session, she made a decision: Mario would hear nothing more about Cynthia Redman or parents fighting for healthy cafeteria food. Not from her, anyway. Chapter Eight “Dr. Munger, I think you need to see this.” Barry had been sitting at his desk with his office door closed, trying to concentrate on the paperwork in front of him, when his receptionist, Shelly, poked her head in the door. Strange. Routine procedure dictated that she call him before entering his office, and she was the type to always follow procedure. Plus he had told her before never to open his office door without asking first. If he had the authority to fire her, he might, based on this slip alone. But at the moment, his curiosity was stronger than his irritation. Shelly wouldn’t have done what she just did without good reason. The leather chair creaked as he arose. He stretched, scratched his head, and yawned before stepping to the door. He attributed his sleepiness this early in the morning – it was only nine-thirty – to the overcast skies that were predicted to bring more snow by one p.m. He was ready for spring. Summer. No, he was ready to move to a much warmer place. But unsure that he’d be able to find a job elsewhere at his age, that wasn’t going to happen unless he made a lot of money fairly quickly. Which would probably be happening within the next several months, if all went according to plan. Not that anything was going to plan. He hadn’t planned for anyone to die. As soon as he opened his office door, he heard muffled voices outside the building. He walked to the reception area, turned toward the entrance doors, and stared. Standing just outside, nearly blocking the doors, was a group of men and women – mostly women – holding signs and chanting. He stepped closer to the doors, both to hear what they were saying and to read the signs – although it was not really necessary. He had a feeling he already knew what it was about. “Ban bad food! Ban bad food!” came the chant. One sign said, “School food should be safe.” Another: “Don’t kill my kid with your lunches.” A third sign said, “No more fake foods – whole foods rule.” “Are you going to go out there?” Barry jerked his head around. He didn’t realize Shelly had come up behind him. “What’s the point?” “Media’ll be here soon. Looks like there’s already a couple of bystanders taking a video with their phones.” Barry scanned the crowd and saw at least one of them. “I would think you’d want to get out there and try to sweet-talk them before this gets all over the Internet.” Barry’s jaw clenched. She was right; except, it was going to be all over the Internet whether he went out or not. And with the ease with which digital videos could be edited, anything he said, no matter how positive, could be put into a very bad light. His head began to pound behind his temples. He had not counted on a parent revolution. “Have you called the police?” The receptionist sighed from behind him. “They’re not – “ “Call the police.” “Fine.” He turned his head slightly to make sure Shelly was headed for the phone. She was, her face stony and back stiff. He didn’t care if these parents were within their rights; he was at least not going to make this little demonstration easy for them. Maybe the sight of a cop car pulling up would be enough to cause them to disperse. He turned back to the door to see the very vehicle he didn’t want to see pull into the parking lot. It was the van belonging to the local television station. Great. He combed his fingers through his scant hair, grabbing it as they reached his earlobes. Now he was going to have to go out there, make some sort of comment. Steeling himself, he opened the door, shivering from the gust that met him. The first thing he needed to do was to find out who the leader was. If he could talk some sense into him – or her – then this whole thing would just go away. “Excuse me, who’s leading this?” he asked the first woman he saw, a large black woman whose head was nearly swallowed up by the large hood and scarf protecting her from the cold. She didn’t even look at him, just went on chanting and waving her sign. He got the same response from the next two people. He had to hurry; the reporter was headed right toward them, a large camera on his heels. Taking several more steps to his right, he fought against the burning rage rising up from his gut. Then he froze. There she was. It had to be her, the mother who had visited him in his office just a week ago. Mrs. Redman. ********** Cynthia thought she’d been thrilled by the turnout of thirty other parents. When she saw the T.V. station van drive in, she nearly went into ecstasies. They would have a voice. They would be heard. Then she turned and saw Dr. Munger standing a few feet away, glaring. Let him glare. She hadn’t done anything wrong. The only thing that might make her a little bit nervous was if the police showed up. She had prepared the other parents for such an event, counseling them, based on what she’d read online, to follow any instructions an officer might give, not to resist either verbally or physically. “My daughter wants to see me after school today,” she’d told the group, “and I’m sure your kids feel the same way about you.” She could only hope there weren’t any fanatics in the group who would put their need to voice their opinion above their children’s need for their parents. So she met Dr. Munger’s hard eyes with her own narrowed gaze, chanting more loudly and waving her arm a little harder. He moved toward her, but the reporter whom she recognized from the rare occasions she watched the local evening news, approached her first. After she explained what they were doing and why, the reporter caught sight of Dr. Munger and walked briskly toward him. Cynthia stepped aside to let the cameraman by, feeling a grim satisfaction that the overweight school district official was about to do some serious sweating, despite the below-freezing temperature. As she turned, she stopped short, her stomach balling up into a knot. Not one, but two police cars were slowly driving up to the small crowd. ********** When he was a kid, Preston lived in a modest house on one acre on the edge of a small town. There, his mother dabbled in flower gardening. Half of the front yard was filled every summer with flowers of all shapes and sizes, the smallest ones, like the honey-scented white and purple alyssums, in the front, and the tallest, such as the multi-colored zinnias and hollyhocks, in the back. Preston was less fascinated by the showy array of flowers than by the large black and yellow garden spiders that called it home. He remembered dropping flies, crickets, and any other insects he could catch into the spiders’ webs and watching, mesmerized, as the creatures caught, killed, and ate their prey. Today, Preston wondered if it was payback time for all the innocent victims he had tossed into the webs. He felt like he was the helpless insect being dropped into a large, hungry spider’s sticky tangle of a home. Guy had asked him to visit Barry Munger one more time, in an attempt to cool things off. The head honchos at the national level of Delico suspected Munger and other St. Peter school district officials of creating all the bad press for Delico Foods. And it was getting bad. During the past week, sales of a variety of Delico brands had dropped off while online social network gossip and health-related forum posts were more than hinting that Delico Foods was the culprit behind the sick school children of St. Peters. Preston had argued against the idea. He told Guy that he and Munger hadn’t exactly parted on good terms last week. But Preston was known for his skill at peacemaking and disarming volatile situations, and Guy insisted that he was smart enough to turn the situation around if he set his mind to it. But even though Preston was driving into the parking lot of the Special Services building, he still had no idea what he was going to say to the man. He hadn’t made an appointment this time; Guy didn’t want Munger to be able to come up with any kind of ammunition, such as having a lawyer in the office. And he’d told Preston that Munger might be friendlier if he didn’t have time to think about Preston’s return. While Preston could concede the first point, he disagreed with the second. Especially when he saw what was going on in front of the building. A group of people, dressed in heavy coats, gloves, scarves, and hats, walked in a slow circle, chanting and waving signs. Some organization or other was demonstrating against something the school district had done. And he had a sinking feeling he knew what it was. If he was right, there was no way he was going to try to talk to Munger today. The man would be crazy with anger. Preston’s hunch proved correct as he drew nearer the group, able to read their signs. “Ban bad food!” was the passionate chant that arose out of the small crowd that Preston guessed must have easily topped two dozen. He heard another vehicle roar into the parking lot, and looked behind him. The local news. No way. He was not going to let them make a fool out of him. He backed away to hide among the parked cars, thinking he should just get back to his own car and return to the office. But as the reporter and cameraman made their way to the demonstrators, he found himself nearly as fascinated as his eight-year-old self had been with garden spiders. If nothing else, he wanted to witness the media chew Munger up and spit him out. Talk about bad food. Not five minutes later, two police cars drove in. He grinned. His somewhat monotonous job had become so stressful lately that even his six-figure salary couldn’t compensate, so he was definitely in the mood for some free entertainment. *********** Cynthia immediately bowed out of the circular path that she and her fellow parents were marking in the slush and walked toward the first officer who emerged from his car. Having anticipated such an event, Cynthia had come up with a little speech. She practiced it as she approached the cop, as much to calm her nerves as to renew it in her mind. “Good morning, officer.” The man nodded. “Ma’am.” “I am the lead organizer for this demonstration. We want to be peaceful and don’t mean any harm, so if we’re doing anything illegal it is completely inadvertent and we’d appreciate you advising us of anything we need to change in order to keep our demonstration within the confines of the law.” She took a deep breath, satisfied she hadn’t confused any words, and a little dizzy from having regurgitated it all so quickly. The officer she’d addressed smiled as the other officer walked up to them. “We appreciate you wanting to cooperate with the law.” Both officers headed toward the demonstrators at a leisurely pace. “Let’s head over there and see what things look like.” After a minute of scrutiny and a brief conference together, the only request the police officers made was that they move back twenty feet farther from the entrance. Cynthia, relieved, ordered her group to do so as the officers went inside the building – to talk to Dr. Munger or whichever other school official had summoned them there. Though she quickly found a place in the circle, she had to abandon it. A journalist for the city paper had pulled up while she was talking to the police, and was waving at her wildly. A second cameraman appeared from the television station van, and the other demonstrators continued with even more vigor, likely aware that their plight was being put on film. After the reporter talked to her for about five minutes, he moved on to someone else, and Cynthia reinstated herself into the circle. As she did, she looked out over the parking lot. Her eyes met the gaze of a well-dressed man who seemed to be hiding among the parked cars. Did she know him? Was he one of the fathers she had met during the past week? But he broke eye contact after a couple of seconds, and Cynthia hoisted her sign and joined in the march. ********** About twenty minutes later, the T.V. people headed back Preston’s way, and he casually made his way through the row of cars in the other direction. When he saw the T.V. van leave, he turned back toward the building and began walking at a brisk pace, suddenly aware that he was cold, despite the leather coat covering his sports jacket, which covered a polyester striped button-down dress shirt. He was here; he might as well face the music. His job was in a precarious enough position as it was. Besides, he had been suffering from curiosity ever since the cops showed up. He could swear the woman who talked to them, and to the reporters, was the mother of the latest victim of St. Peter school food. It was hard to tell through all the winter clothing covering her, and he hoped to get close enough just to confirm his suspicion, or not. The protestors had continued their circling and chanting the entire time, although both their steps and voices had lost energy since Preston first arrived. It suddenly occurred to him to wonder if Munger would have the gall to accuse him of setting the whole thing up. Too bad he couldn’t honestly say he had; it would have been a brilliant strike against how Preston had been treated last week. ********** Cynthia was cold. Despite wearing a down-filled coat, acrylic hat, Thinsulate gloves, and wool pants, she was near to the point of shivering. Then, just as the T.V. crew left, occasional flurries began to drift down. Cynthia had promised the others that no one would have to drive home through snow, so she decided they’d have to cut their time thirty minutes short. But before she could open her mouth to quiet the group, the man she’d seen among the cars earlier approached her. Meeting his gaze for a second time, she stepped outside of the circle once more. It was clear he wanted to speak to her. For some reason. As he grew closer, she grew more confused as to what that reason was. She had never seen him before in her life. If she had, she would have remembered him. The man was blessed with movie star good looks, with dark hair and coffee-colored eyes. Several inches taller than she was, he looked to be quite fit, even under the bulky leather coat. When he stopped within three feet of her, she could easily see that his ears, cheeks and nose were tinged pink from the cold. How he could have spent the past twenty-five minutes outside without a hat or scarf was beyond her. Just like Justin, she thought, and a twinge pinched her gut as a memory of Justin playing in the snow with a very young Melissa floated through her mind. “Can I help you?” she asked. Then another idea struck her. “Are you another reporter?” He grinned in a disarming way. “Yes to the first question, no to the second.” “Good.” She twirled the sign around in her hands. “A parent? We’re about to go home, but next week – “ He shook his head, laughing. “Not a parent. Now, aren’t you going to help me?” The sign in Cynthia’s hand slipped lower to the ground and she took a step back, eyes narrowing in confusion. “You asked if you could help me.” His smile made him twice as handsome. You did not just think that. Cynthia shook herself, then smiled back. Why did she feel more nervous now than when the reporter had shown up? “I did. Sorry.” The man’s face sobered. “I – excuse me if I’m wrong, but I think I recognize you. As the mother of the girl who recently was hospitalized after…?” His voice trailed off. Did he not remember why Melissa had been hospitalized? “You have a good memory.” Then she frowned. “Or, oh heavens, don’t tell me, my picture is all over Facebook.” The man lifted a hand to negate her assumption. “Oh, no, no. I mean, not that I’ve seen. No, I watched the news that night. And since I saw you here, I wanted to, uh, let you know how sorry I was. Am.” “Cynthia, this man bothering you?” She turned to see Faith Carver, a large black woman, behind her, glaring at the stranger. “No, it’s okay. He just recognized me from the news clip when Melissa first got sick. Would you mind telling the others we’re going to wrap it up early, since it looks like more snow?” “Sure thing.” Faith turned away, and Cynthia could hear her passing the news to the other parents. She cut her eyes back to the man, smiling. “Thanks. She’s okay now, though.” And hopefully would be the last kid to get sick eating cafeteria food. ********** Preston was genuinely relieved to hear it. But he hoped the fact wouldn’t make Munger more complacent. “Well, I guess I better be going. I have an appointment with,” he cleared his throat to give himself time to think up a lie, “the guy in charge of delivery trucks. For the school district.” Cynthia nodded. “Thanks again. It was nice to meet you – well, I guess I didn’t get your name. I’m – “ “Cynthia Redman.” Until the black woman had provided her name, Preston had been at a loss. But somehow hearing just her first name brought her last name to mind, as well. “And I’m Preston Brenner.” He took her gloved hand in his bare ones. And didn’t let go for several seconds. Then he realized that this woman was a mother, and therefore likely was married. Embarrassed, he withdrew his hand. “I – I’m sorry. That was kind of inappropriate. Forgive me.” He rushed toward the building before she had time to respond, his cheeks warm despite the chill outside. He needed to get a grip. He’d only meant to find out the state of her daughter, nothing more. But when he started talking to her, he’d found he hadn’t wanted to stop. And found her, heavy hood and all, more beautiful than she’d appeared on the television screen. Then he’d almost done a really dumb thing, and handed her his business card. If she was available, the last thing he wanted was for her to know that he worked for Delico Foods. ********** That evening, Cynthia and Melissa sat down to a stew that had been simmering in the slow cooker all day. She served it with a tossed salad, and planned on offering apple slices dipped in an almond butter-honey sauce for dessert. She had been pleasantly surprised to find out how easy making meals from scratch could be, if she planned and organized well. “Mmm, Mom, this is awesome!” Melissa had never been a particularly picky eater, but she wasn’t known for gushing over food, either. Cynthia smiled. “Thanks.” She would add this recipe to the rotation, and make it at least twice a month during the cooler seasons. Melissa ate several more bites of the stew, then some salad. When she had swallowed, she asked, “How did it go this morning?” Cynthia gave her a summary, leaving out the part that she’d met a handsome stranger who had looked into her eyes and held her hand so long that her legs had begun to get weak. She had almost gone after him when he rushed into the building, but number one, she did not want to risk running into Dr. Munger again, and number two, she did not want to cause a scene. Or gossip. Lord only knew how much the rumor mill would grind her up just for speaking out about school food, let alone running after men. When she started talking about the reporters’ visits, Melissa’s jaw dropped. “Really? You’re going to be on T.V.?” She shifted her eyes to the clock on the kitchen wall, and her eyes grew wide. “Mommy, it’s five till six! Hurry!” Cynthia grimaced. The last thing she wanted was to watch herself on T.V. She should have waited a day or so before telling Melissa. But no, Melissa would have probably heard about it from someone else by then; either way, if she found out that her mother had been on the news after the fact, she would not have been happy. Cynthia followed Melissa, who had jumped out of her chair so hard she had nearly knocked it over, into the living room. “They may not even use the story.” Melissa picked up the remote and clicked on the T.V. “But if they do, we don’t want to miss it.” Cynthia sighed. “I’m going back to finish my dinner – which you will too, young lady, as soon as the news is over. Call me when you see my pretty face.” Left alone for a few minutes, Cynthia’s mind went back to another pretty face. What was his name? Prescott? Whoever he was, he made an impact on her that wasn’t quite welcome. She still loved Justin, had avoided dating since his death because she couldn’t see herself hitched to any other man. But ever since leaving the school district premises that morning, his face had haunted her. And not just his face. A yearning that she hadn’t felt for a long time had been reawakened. She snorted as she forked up some salad. It must be that time of the month; she and Melissa were doing just fine. Seeing a man as handsome as her deceased husband shouldn’t send her mind reeling – especially since the chances she’d ever see him again were slim to none. Fifteen minutes later, the call came. Actually, it was more like a scream. If she hadn’t known any better, Cynthia would have thought the house was on fire, or Melissa had cut an artery. She plodded into the living room with wooden legs. Having heard horror stories about how news reporters twist words and edit video, she was afraid that the newscasters were going to make her look like some sort of nut. The clip ended up being only two minutes long. She, Faith, and one of the dads made the cut. As far as Cynthia could tell, none of the quotes had been taken out of context, and made the parents look like competent, caring people who wanted to help prevent any more sudden illnesses or deaths via school cafeteria food. Dr. Munger was given a short bit of air time, as well. The same anger that had roiled inside her during her meeting with him – and that slimeball lawyer – last week rose up again, causing her to ball her fists involuntarily. The reporter asked him whether parental demonstrations would bring about any changes in the school menus. “The St. Peter school district menus already have the stamp of approval from qualified dietitians and the government.” Dr. Munger spoke in a calm, professional manner with a smug smile that made Cynthia want to reach out and slap the glass screen. “We don’t mind peaceful demonstrations, but we at the school district want to assure everyone, parents, staff, and students, that we aim to continue providing high quality, safe food, the same as we have always done.” She couldn’t help letting out a short, sardonic laugh at that point, earning a violent, “SHHH!” from her daughter, whose eyes remained riveted to the screen until the anchors had had their say on the piece, and announced that the weather would be coming up. Then, Melissa turned to Cynthia. “Why did you laugh?” Cynthia hadn’t told her about her run-in with the school district attorney and his attempt to bribe her last week, and didn’t intend to. But Melissa did know that Cynthia had gone to speak with him, and had left without having her questions answered to any level of satisfaction. So she replied, “That’s the man in charge of the school food that I talked to last week.” Melissa gazed at her for a long moment. “Are you still mad at him?” She was, but hadn’t known it until now. She stood up with a sigh. “I guess so. He just sounds like such a know-it-all, like your almost dying couldn’t have possibly had anything to do with what you ate that day.” She couldn’t help the sarcasm that dripped off her tongue. Melissa came over to her and gave her a hug. “But I’m okay now, Mom. Don’t be mad at him because of me.” She let go and looked up into Cynthia’s face. “You said yourself that staying mad at people only hurts the person who’s mad.” Out of the mouths of babes. But something else Melissa didn’t know was that Cynthia had gotten the distinct impression from the meeting with Munger that he was hiding something. And that frustrated her more than anything. “You’re right, honey. I’ll try to let it go.” She stepped back toward the kitchen. “Now you need to finish that stew. I put another dish over it to try to keep it warm, but no guarantees.” ********** Erin Halley grimaced in Lucy’s direction as she walked out of the principal’s office. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Mr. Wade wants to see you now.” Lucy arched her brow. “Me?” But the teacher had already slunk out into the hallway with slouched shoulders. Lucy took a deep, shaky breath. So. Somebody had told. She could only hope nobody was going to lose her job over it. Namely, her and Miss Halley. She wouldn’t have been at all worried about it, except that this was her second offense. And Mr. Wade had a good memory. As she slowly got to her feet, Betty Dale, the gray-haired lady in charge of school records, burst through the main office doorway. “Mr. Wade just called me to keep an eye on things while he talks to you.” Too numb to speak, all Lucy could do was nod. Mr. Wade, usually professionally cheerful even in stressful circumstances, gave her a stern look when she entered his office. “Close the door, and have a seat.” She obeyed meekly. The last thing she needed was to offend Mr. Wade by getting her gander up. Assuming traditional Hispanic etiquette, she looked down at her lap to show her respect. But the principal would have none of it. “Mrs. Perez, look at me.” She lifted her eyelids. “I don’t suppose you happened to watch the news last night.” She and Mario usually avoided watching the news, for their psychological health. But Cynthia had stopped by the office a few minutes before school was dismissed yesterday to let her know that the local T.V. news had shown for their first demonstration. Lucy wasn’t going to miss that for the world. “Yes, sir.” “The parent protest in front of the Special Services building yesterday morning?” “Yes, sir.” Lucy’s mouth grew dry, and she licked her lips. “Word has it that you and Miss Halley conspired to let those parents use a classroom last week in order to organize their demonstration.” She closed her eyes. “Is it true?” he asked sharply. She opened her eyes, nodded, and pursed her lips. Mr. Wade sat back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “Mrs. Perez, you are not going to excuse yourself by telling me that after eight years with the district you are unaware of the procedure required in order for classrooms to be made available for public use.” “No, sir.” Her voice refused to rise above a whisper. The pause that followed judged, convicted, and hung her. She looked down again, unable to meet the principal’s accusing glare, knowing with a twisted stomach what was coming. “You remember the incident two years ago when you had that run-in with a parent?” Lucy’s gut feeling hadn’t steered her wrong. Mr. Wade remembered. And, being the man of integrity that he was, was going to follow through on what he had said back then. Still, she wasn’t about to go down without a fight. She sat up straighter in her chair and forced herself to look him in the eyes. “I remember. But helping a hurting mother to find a place to meet with other concerned parents is hardly the same thing as what happened two years ago.” Mr. Wade leaned forward, folding his hands on his desk. “What did I tell you two years ago?” Lucy’s throat constricted. “That if I ever failed to follow proper school district procedure in anything ever again, you would terminate my employment.” “And you know I am a man of my word.” “Yes, sir.” Mr. Wade sat back and sighed, looking genuinely disturbed. “It’s hard to find good help, and I wish I didn’t have to do this. I’ve decided to make it a little easier for you and allow you to resign.” Lucy frowned. “Pardon me?” “It will look better on your resumé and job applications if you leave this position voluntarily instead of getting fired.” He offered her a small smile. “And I would not feel remiss in providing you with a good reference.” “Even though I broke the precious school rules twice in two years?” she shot back. “Try not to get another job in the district,” Mr. Wade replied dryly. Lucy stood, then sank back into her chair as Erin’s contrite face flashed through her head. “You – you didn’t fire Erin, did you? Or ask her to leave? It was really all my – “ Mr. Wade waved his hand. “Her position is secure, as long as her first offense remains a first offense.” That was one load off her mind. Lucy was already going to have to face the wrath of her husband over this, plus deal with the guilt of having risked family turmoil by her actions. She did not want to feel responsible for the termination of another school staff member as well. She got up again, weariness suddenly seeping into her legs. “Is that all?” The principal looked down at his desk calendar. “I plan to have hired a new secretary by the eighteenth.” “Office manager,” Lucy couldn’t help correcting on her way out. At the threshold, she turned, mustering up all the courtesy she could. “I’m truly sorry, Mr. Wade. And, thank you. For…letting me quit.” Words she’d never thought she’d hear coming out of her mouth. Chapter Nine Although he could well afford it – being a V.P., even a local one, of a major company had its advantages – Preston usually didn’t see a doctor. He was only seeing one now on a bet. Out of the blue, Carly had e-mailed him a couple of weeks ago and bet him fifty bucks that if he had routine blood work done, it would show signs of imperfect health. His first reaction had been anger. But he didn’t reply, just ignored the e-mail for several days. Finally, a primitive urge to win rose up inside him. He knew his numbers would turn out normal. As far as he could tell his only health challenges were afternoon fatigue and a slight protrusion in his belly, but he chalked both of these small issues up to age. His reply to his health-crazy sister: “Deal. I’ll copy you the result by the end of next month. Look forward to receiving your check in the mail.” Giving up his blood last week had taken only a few minutes, but he knew that even if the doctor had nothing to say to him he would likely not be seen until at least twenty minutes past his appointment time. So he had left work an hour early, instructing his secretary to have anyone who called leave him a voice mail on his office phone. Now, he relaxed in a cushy upholstered chair, flipping through an old copy of People and doing his best to ignore the heavy breathing and snorting coming from a fat, white-haired man on the other side of the small waiting room. Twenty-five minutes after his scheduled appointment, the nurse took him back into an exam room where he waited another fifteen minutes to see the doctor. Not two minutes later, he dropped the bombshell. “You’re pre-diabetic and have high cholesterol.” This was Dr. Lester’s response to Preston’s request to give him the bad news first. Of course, he was being facetious. He had been sure there wasn’t going to be any bad news. Preston stared. “But – but…I’m not overweight. I exercise four days a week. Usually. How can this happen?” The doctor shrugged. “Everybody’s different. I’ve seen stranger.” He went on to relate the good news – that those were the only two anomalies discovered by the blood tests – and explain that before prescribing a drug, he would like Preston to try changing his diet. “Great. Cardboard and sticks,” Preston muttered on his way out of the office as he glanced over the recommendations for lowering both blood sugar and cholesterol. At least half of his company’s products were suddenly on the forbidden list. He made his way down the hall, took the elevator down to the first floor, and stepped out when the doors opened. And nearly walked into the woman who had entranced him yesterday. ********** “Oh!” In her haste, Cynthia almost collided with the man stepping out of the elevator. She and Melissa were already five minutes late for their appointment. After discharging the girl from the hospital, Dr. Hill had recommended that they check in after a week to make sure all her vitals were still normal, and answer a few questions to make sure Melissa’s recovery had stuck. Not wanting Melissa to miss any school, Cynthia had made the appointment for 4:30. But a second after the near-collision, she forgot about being late. Standing before her was the man she had spoken to at the demonstration yesterday. By the look in his eyes and the smile that suddenly appeared on his face, he recognized her, as well. “I’m so sorry.” He extended his hand and touched her forearm as she stepped backward to catch her balance. She laughed. “I’m the one in a hurry.” “Always let the people on the elevator get off before you get on.” This from Melissa, who was standing next to her, and looking up at her with reproach in her eyes. Cynthia nodded, then glanced back at the man – whose name had completely escaped her. “This is my daughter, Melissa.” He immediately turned his gaze to her and offered his hand, shaking it gently when Melissa took it. “So nice to meet you, Melissa. I’m glad to see you’re well.” Her daughter shot Cynthia a puzzled glance. “Uh, Mom, am I supposed to know this guy?” “Preston Brenner,” he gave a little bow, “at your service.” Preston. Cynthia forced the name into her memory. “We met yesterday. He was going into the building as we were finishing the demonstration.” “And you are Cynthia, yes?” “Yes.” A long pause. Awkward. As if they both wanted to say something more, but weren’t sure what. An elderly man with a walker and his more able-bodied wife excused themselves and got into the elevator. “Mom, you said we were late.” “A little bit.” Cynthia looked at her daughter. “Sweetheart, would you mind sitting on that bench over there for a minute?” Melissa let out an exasperated sigh, a foreshadowing of teenage behavior to come. “All right.” She went, and sat. Cynthia turned back to Preston, lowering her voice. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you yesterday…” What on earth was she thinking? She couldn’t tell this perfect stranger that his holding her hand for so long hadn’t been inappropriate. What kind of message would that send? She didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. So, what is the right idea? Preston cleared his throat, his cheeks flushing slightly. “I should really let you get to your appointment.” He began to walk away. Cynthia began to let him. He’d misunderstood. And that was fine with her. She was going through a major deal right now, and didn’t have time to spend mooning over a man. But she just couldn’t let him go. “I mean that when you said – “ “I really am sorry about – “ They both spoke at once as Preston turned back to her. Both laughed awkwardly. Preston gestured toward her. “Ladies first.” Cynthia took a deep breath, making sure to lower her voice again since Melissa was now staring at them intently. “When you held my hand, you apologized and said it was inappropriate. It wasn’t. Not at all.” She pushed the words out in a torrent, so she wouldn’t have a chance to change her mind. To get scared. Preston’s smile faded. “I would think your husband might disagree.” “He’s in heaven.” Cynthia felt a tug on her arm. “Mom, we really need to go.” Melissa cast a suspicious glance toward Preston. Cynthia sighed. The girl was right. “Press the button again.” She turned back to say something more, but he was already walking toward the front doors at a fast clip. Maybe he sensed that Melissa didn’t like him. She probably shouldn’t set her sights on a guy who couldn’t stick around long enough to find out if a woman is interested in him, but she couldn’t help feeling a little irritated toward Melissa as they got into the elevator. “Missy, that was rude.” Cynthia only ever called her the nickname when she was annoyed with her. No answer. Melissa stared at the elevator buttons, pouting. “Melissa.” A pause and a sigh. Then, “I don’t want another dad.” Her daughter’s voice had grown small, and higher-pitched, more like that of a three-year-old than a ten-year-old. Cynthia couldn’t help laughing. “Boy, that’s an assumption if I ever heard one.” Melissa jerked her head around, eyes full of fire. “He looked at you the way Daddy used to look at you.” “He did not.” And how would she remember, anyway? She’d only been six when Justin had been killed. “Yes, he did.” The elevator stopped and opened, and she followed Melissa out, gently laid a hand on her shoulder. “Melissa.” In response, her daughter crossed her arms and glared at the wall. “I’m not looking for another husband. Or boyfriend, as far as that goes. Not right now.” Melissa spun around, tears glistening in her eyes. “Not ever, Mom! You hear me?” She spat the words out in whispered fury. Cynthia opened her arms, and Melissa threw herself into them, sobbing. Cynthia wasn’t sure what to make of it; she didn’t generally make scenes in public or easily cry. So she just stroked her hair for a minute, shushing into her ear, and hoping that Melissa’s erratic behavior wasn’t being caused by the coma or anything she’d eaten. She also wondered if they would still be allowed in the doctor’s office; it must have been approaching five o’clock by now. They ended up being just in time, and they left twenty minutes after arriving with a good report. Melissa was suffering no after-effects from whatever had caused her bodily trauma last week. The suspense of finding out must have been weighing on her as much as it had on Cynthia, because when they left the office Melissa walked with buoyant steps and a big smile on her face, looking and acting happier than she had for at least a couple of days. “Honey, were you worried about what the doctor was going to say?” she asked her daughter as they left the clinic building. “A little.” A downplay, most certainly. Maybe her worry was what had made her overreact to Cynthia’s conversation with Preston. The thought of his smile warmed her heart again, and made her wonder if the unexpected encounter today could have been mere coincidence. What were the chances two strangers in a city of this size would see each other the very next day after meeting for the first time in a completely different place? She shook her head as if she could shake the memory of Preston’s touch on her arm right out. Melissa’s feelings aside, now was not a good time to be contemplating a relationship. Cynthia was a woman on a mission; besides, what if this guy didn’t understand the new diet she and Melissa had just undertaken? She couldn’t risk letting somebody into her life who might lead them off this new path. For her, it was a matter of life and death. She and Melissa got into the car at the same time, and as she put the key into the ignition she noticed a folded piece of paper jammed under her windshield wiper. “What the heck?” “What, Mom?” But Cynthia had already exited the car. She grabbed the paper, got into the car, and unfolded it. And, as she read it, widened her eyes. ********** It was a long shot. But the car with the magnet advertising a web design service was the same one he’d noticed in the St. Peter ISD Special Services parking lot yesterday. If it wasn’t Cynthia’s, Preston might get a phone call from an irate person. Either way, he didn’t really expect a call. But he had wanted to offer his phone number, or ask to call her, before she rushed off to her appointment. Now she had it. He hoped. She seemed like the kind of woman he’d like to get to know better, and her daughter seemed sweet, even if a little leery of him. Besides, what better way to find out for sure whether or not she was behind the slander going out about Delico? He continued to believe no St. Peter ISD parent was at fault, but he’d feel better knowing for sure. He certainly didn’t want to go for Munger’s jugular if the man was innocent. Which Preston doubted. ********** “He is such a pompous, narrow-minded…ERRR!” Erin threw the notebook she’d been holding onto one of the desks near the door of the classroom. Then she looked over Lucy’s shoulder, out of the door, and lowered her voice. “Come in,” she said, closing the door behind Lucy. “The walls of this school have ears. Obviously.” “I’m just so sorry – “ Erin waved Lucy’s apology away. “I knew what I was doing when you asked me the favor.” She gave her a conspiratorial grin, then winked. “We health nuts have to stick together, right?” Lucy had carried on three or four conversations with Erin over the past couple of years about food and healthy eating. Although Erin took a more extreme view, preferring a mostly raw diet that excluded all grains, she was the only other staff member Lucy had found that understood her distrust of processed foods and the industry surrounding it. Erin sat down on top of a desk with a sigh. “So, any idea what you’re going to do next?” “Find a secretarial or receptionist job somewhere else, I guess.” Lucy forced a smile, though she could feel her lips tremble. Erin put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be praying for you. When God closes one door, He opens another.” Lucy couldn’t help wincing. “But what if I shut the door myself?” She could have answered herself the same way Erin did: “God isn’t surprised. He’s got a plan.” All the way home, Lucy tried to believe this. While her family could survive on Mario’s income, it wouldn’t be easy. They had a mortgage to pay, and property taxes seemed to sneak up a little every year. And her fight to keep the food on the dinner table pure would undoubtedly escalate to new levels. She had to find another job. She just had to. So the next question was, should she tell Mario she was about to lose her job? In her heart of hearts, she knew the right thing to do – the best thing for their marriage, even if it hurt at first – would be to tell him the whole truth. The problem was, she knew how Mario would react. And that’s what he’d do: react, not respond. He’d turn red in the face, yell, and give her an I-told-you-so lecture. And she would yell right back, feel guiltier than ever, and slam into their bedroom, letting him and Emma fend for themselves for the rest of the evening. By the time she got home, she’d made her decision: she would not tell him. Not until after the fact, until she’d started a new job. He would still get angry, but not as angry because he would at least see that she had not taken any income away from the family. In fact, she decided to tell him nothing more than that she’d gotten stressed out dealing with parents and decided to resign, after finding another job. Yes. That would do. It was mostly the truth, and would keep the peace in her house. After supper that night, while Mario played with the remote control, clicking through channels, Lucy got online and found the classified ads for the local newspaper. In the ideal world, she would find a few positions listed tonight, apply to them all over the next couple of days, and have a new job before her last day at Benjamin Franklin Elementary. A snowball’s chance in a hot place, she knew, but there was no law against dreaming. “Mom, do you know where my red sweats are?” Lucy, starting at the sound of her daughter’s voice at the door, minimized the window displaying the ads and turned around. “It’s in the pile of clothes I put on your dresser yesterday.” “Whatcha lookin’ at?” Before Lucy could reply or stop her, Emma had walked up to the computer, grabbed the mouse, and maximized the window. “You looking for a – “ “Shhh! I mean, lower your voice. You know how Papa gets when he can’t hear the T.V.” Emma narrowed her eyes. “He can’t hear us all the way in here.” She glanced back at the screen, still holding onto the mouse with a purposeful grip. “You are looking for a job, aren’t you? Why?” Lucy held out her hand, frowning. “Hand me the mouse, and I’ll answer your question.” Emma relented with a sigh. “Okay. I’m just browsing. I’m thinking it might be time for a change of scenery. You know, somewhere where little kids ain’t coming in all hours of the day and puking on the office carpet.” “Eew. Okay. I get it.” Emma turned to leave. “Baby?” An exaggerated roll of the eyes. Emma hated being called “baby.” “What?” “Please let me tell Papa if I decide to make the switch. He don’t need to be worrying about nothin’, ‘kay?” A slight lift of the shoulders was Emma’s only reply. Lucy let out her breath as the door clicked shut. Too close. Good thing she could think fast. But if Mario were to suddenly appear, he probably wouldn’t believe her as readily as Emma had. She went back to scanning the computer screen, scrolling down and clicking links, trying to ignore the pricking of her conscience, warning her of the danger of keeping secrets from her husband. But I will tell him, just not right now. It wasn’t as though she were planning to gamble all their money away, or carry on a cyber relationship with another man. Finally, she saw it. The ad. WANTED: Receptionist for 47-year-old national company in local office. Experience required. Apply in person at… Lucy snatched at the notepad and pen she had arranged on the desk for this purpose, and wrote down the address. She would dress up especially nice tomorrow and take her lunch break to go to the place and apply. With any luck, she would be asking Mr. Wade for a little time off one of these afternoons for a job interview, and be secure in a new job before Mario could say, “Cheap food.” Chapter Ten Cynthia ignored the paper she’d found under the windshield wiper until Saturday. One reason was that she empathized strongly with Melissa’s feelings, because she was afraid of forgetting Justin if she became involved with another man. Another reason was that between working at the daycare and receiving two new website projects, she’d spent the past few days fighting off guilt about the stir she’d created at Franklin. Wednesday evening, Lucy had called her to tell her about the consequences of her and the teacher’s working together to let Cynthia use Erin’s classroom. Cynthia had nearly burst into tears, from a combination of shame at herself, worry over Lucy, and anger at Mr. Wade. She could have, she knew now, rented the conference room at the local branch library, or arranged to meet the parents in a local restaurant. But in her desperation to take action against the unhealthy school food, she didn’t want to take any time to think things through. Now, two people were suffering because of her impulsiveness. It didn’t help her to know that neither Lucy nor Erin held her culpable. She was culpable, and she was determined not to make such a mistake again. So, the past few days had been stressful, to say the least. She’d never had a root canal, but thought that experience might have felt like a walk on a warm, quiet beach in comparison. But even with her head full of everything else, it found plenty of room and time to dwell on the two brief encounters she’d had with Preston Brenner. She’d prayed for the thoughts to stop, but if anything they only became stronger and more frequent. So, with Melissa playing at a friend’s house, Cynthia decided to take a break and call Preston. She was almost finished with the first website, anyway, and needed to take her eyes off the computer for a little while. “How did you know it was my car?” was the first thing she said after he answered and she’d told him who was calling. She laughed as he explained, thinking about how things might have turned out for him had he put his name and phone number on the wrong car. They went on to chat for several minutes, mostly about her, she realized later, because he asked her endless questions about both her job and her business as soon as he found out how she made her living. The more they chatted, the more comfortable she felt, even though she knew where the conversation was going. Suddenly, he muttered a mild curse, said, “I have to go, sorry. I’ll call you back,” and hung up. ********** Disgusted, Preston ended the call with Cynthia and hit the green button. “Preston here.” “The first inspector just showed up.” Preston furrowed his eyebrows. “You working today?” Normally, Kelly only worked Monday through Friday, and his part-time assistant, James, oversaw the operations on Saturday. “Nope. But James called, all freakin’ out. Says they started out this morning with a bad batch of soup, which they’ve set aside to dispose of, but the inspector is insisting on taking a sample.” Hot anger rolled through Preston’s belly. “He’s not supposed to touch anything marked for disposal.” “I’m on my way there now. But if Delico’s smooth-talking V.P. showed up out of the blue, he might do better than I could to convince this inspector.” Preston laughed. “Thanks for the promotion.” He only wished he were V.P. over the entire corporation. “I’m on my way.” Great. All he needed was for an inexperienced inspector to overstep his bounds and then write up a report that could easily be misconstrued to make it look like Delico was purposely tainting their products. And the way things were going, he might never have a chance to find out for sure whether Cynthia had any part in the Delico-related rumors. While they had settled down during the past few days, they were still out there. And as long as they were still out there, they would continue to threaten the bottom line of his company. And possibly his job. He grabbed his coat, wallet, and keys and left his apartment, relieved when Karen was nowhere in sight as he rushed down the hall and then took the elevator to the parking garage. Within the half hour, he had diffused the situation, putting on his most charming manner while secretly fuming inside. His job wasn’t easy, and he cherished his days off. Being called in for an incident that should never have happened was as irritating as a wasp sting to the groin. Kelly knew it, and apologized profusely once the inspector had continued on his rounds around the plant, leaving the manager and vice president alone. “But since you’re here, I got some news that’ll hopefully make your day a little brighter.” Preston thought the only thing that could brighten his day was if he could get back on the phone with Cynthia and set a dinner date with her, but said nothing. Only nodded his head, hoping that the garrulous man would simply state the one piece of news and let Preston return home. “I hired a new receptionist. Mexican lady, I think. Ramirez…no, what was it now?” He stroked his chin, looking at the ceiling. Then he cut his eyes back to Preston and snapped his fingers. “Perez! Yeah, that’s it. Lucinda, though she told me if I ever call her that she won’t answer. Says she’s only ever gone by Lucy, and if anybody decides to ‘Ms. Perez’ her she’ll be turning around, lookin’ for her mother-in-law.” Preston frowned. “That was pretty fast, wasn’t it?” “An answer from heaven, I b’lieve, sir. She was the fourth person to apply, and when I saw her application I had to interview her. She’s got plenty of experience, very personable, and her reference only had great things to say about her work.” Preston should have admonished him for not interviewing more people, for not allowing more time for more applications to come in. But the position was likely only going to be temporary, and Preston had bigger things to worry about right now. “I hope she works out for you, Kelly.” “Oh, I’ve no doubt, no doubt.” Kelly pumped his hand warmly in parting, and Preston heaved a sigh of relief as he exited the main building. If only the inspector would be so positive about what he found at the plant today. ********** “I got the sample you asked for.” “Bring it by seven o’clock sharp Monday morning.” Barry maneuvered his car into the grocery store parking lot as he spoke on his cell phone. “I don’t want anyone to see you coming or going.” “They ended up bringing the V.P. in, and I let him think he talked me into leaving the stuff alone.” The other voice, low and gravelly, chuckled. “But I wasn’t about to leave that much money on the table.” Barry, shifting his car into park, cringed at the mention of money. He was going to be losing a good chunk of it come Monday, but he wasn’t sure he had much choice. Not if he was going to keep his own hide safe. Then the meaning of the man’s words hit him in the stomach. “The…the vice president?” “Yeah. Some young hotshot. Brandon, was his name? Or Bindon?” Barry’s heart sunk into his toes. “Brenner.” “That’s him. Okay, see you Monday.” Barry slowly closed the phone, uttering a curse. If Preston Brenner had been there, he could make a connection. And if he did, the inspector might snitch. After all, he was clearly a man with low morals. A man who could be easily bought. Like yourself. Barry shook the thought away. His situation was different. Very different. If only it was as cut-and-dry as the deal he’d made with the inspector. With trembling fingers, he removed the key from the ignition and pulled open the door. He sure hoped Brenner wouldn’t make things any harder than he already had. Chapter Eleven “What’s wrong, Mom?” Melissa stood at Cynthia’s bedroom door, fright written all over her face. Cynthia laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She had just let out a loud shriek, but Melissa apparently had not been able to tell what kind of emotion had caused the noise. “Look.” She turned so that Melissa could see the back of the dress she had just tried on. “This thing finally fits me again!” It was her favorite, solid rose with black trim, in a silky fabric that stopped two inches above her knees. It wasn’t frilly, but fit her curves well. Justin had always called it her “sexy” dress. Melissa took a couple of steps into the room, frowning. “I’ve never seen that dress before. Have I?” Cynthia turned back to face her daughter, grinning. “I haven’t been able to wear it since I got pregnant with you. But now, look.” She waved her arms around, bent forward and from side to side. “It doesn’t even feel tight when I do that. No dieting or anything. Just from getting the junk out of our diet. Sweetie, are you all right?” Melissa’s face had gone a little pale, and her eyes darkened as they swept Cynthia with suspicion. “Why are you trying on nice dresses?” Ah. She thought Cynthia was getting ready for a date. Which she would be one of these nights soon, but Melissa wasn’t going to know until she needed to know. “Lucy is coming over for supper tonight, remember?” Melissa’s features relaxed slightly. “But you never dress up when you have other friends over.” “No, not usually.” She reached behind her to unzip the dress, but couldn’t quite grab the zipper. “But I wanted to put on a clean blouse, and when I saw this I got curious. My pants have been feeling a little looser, so I wondered. Thank you,” she added as Melissa stepped back into the room and unzipped the dress for her. She put her hands on Melissa’s shoulders and lowered her voice. “Now, are we good?” Melissa nodded, not smiling, but the darkness had slid out of her eyes. Lucy arrived a few minutes later to help prepare the meal. Cynthia wanted more ideas on how to fix simple healthy meals, as well as to talk to her about what she was learning in the books she’d been reading. The book Wheat Belly was blowing her mind, such that she’d already made the hard decision to keep all bread and other flour products out of the house. She and Melissa had never been big on bread, anyway, but how would she replace things like muffins and cookies? She knew there were a lot of gluten-free baked goods available, but they were just as much processed food as the wheat flour goods. Then there was the whole veganism versus meat-eating debate. Talk about confusing. “We don’t think God’s mad at us for killing animals for food,” Lucy remarked as she grated a carrot into a bowl of shredded lettuce, “at least not animals that are raised humanely. So we eat meat. Not a lot. Maybe three or four times a week. But if you got a problem with killing animals for food, you should be able to get the nutrition your body needs without meat.” Cynthia stood at the stove, lifting the lid of the saucepan to check the broccoli. Lucy told her that it was perfect when it was softening but still bright green. As soon as the color began to dull it had been overcooked, making it almost worthless to eat. “What about people who eat raw meat?” “Gross. Really?” This from Melissa, who had just come into the kitchen and plopped down on a chair. “Finished with your homework?” “Yes. Who eats raw meat?” “Extremists.” Lucy went to the sink to rinse off the grater. “I mean, I know it has its health benefits, but if you’re careful to cook your meat low and slow you get a better flavor and texture without denaturing the protein.” At that moment, the phone rang from somewhere in the living room. Cynthia left Lucy to explain the word “denature” to Melissa, located the phone, and picked it up. Warmth flowed through her body, especially her face, when she saw who was calling. “Hi, Preston.” “Hi. I’m sorry about earlier. Work emergency.” “What do you do, anyway?” They hadn’t gotten around to that before Preston had had to cut off their earlier call. Cynthia walked toward the bedroom as she spoke to make sure Melissa wouldn’t overhear. Preston fell silent for so long that Cynthia was afraid they’d been disconnected. “Are you still there?” “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. It’s just that – well, I want to make a deal with you. I’ll tell you what my profession is if you’ll go out with me this coming Friday night.” Cynthia shifted her eyes in the direction of the kitchen. A big part of her wanted to say yes, but another part wanted to honor Melissa’s wishes. She questioned whether giving into her own loneliness might not make things worse for them in the long run. She must have paused for too long, because Preston spoke again, in a soft and disappointed voice. “It’s all right. I understand if – “ “Yes.” “Yes?” “Yes.” ********** “No. No, you can’t! I won’t let you!” Preston stepped back from the front door of the white house in alarm. The loud, child-like voice mingled with Cynthia’s as both faded into the distance. Preston put a death grip on the small bouquet of flowers he had bought for the occasion. What was the girl’s problem? Well, maybe Melissa’s flash of temper was a good sign. Maybe she wasn’t used to her mother going out on dates. Still, the shrill sound completely unnerved him. When he’d met her the other day, she’d seemed old enough to be over separation anxiety, old enough to not mind her mother going out once in a while. Then again, what did he know about kids? He only hoped that the girl would get over whatever her problem was. If she was going to make it hard for him to see Cynthia, he would just go on his merry way and find someone else. There was always someone else. After Preston had spent a couple more minutes of shivering in the cold, the door opened a few inches. Cynthia stood before him in a beautiful pink dress, face creased with worry. “I’m so sorry, Preston. I’m not going to be able to go tonight.” She glanced at the flowers, and her face fell. “And you even bothered to get me flowers.” That gave Preston an idea. “No, I did not get you flowers.” He cleared his throat, leaned closer to the door, and increased his volume. “These flowers are for the pretty little lady. Melissa. And if they don’t get into some water pretty soon, they’re going to wilt and start looking very sad.” Cynthia’s eyes widened, then she smiled as understanding dawned on her face. She turned her head toward the inside of the house. “Sweetie, look. Preston brought some flowers just for you.” He winked, and she smiled more broadly, ushering him into the house. “It’s too cold to stand out here and wait in suspense,” she whispered, her lips mere inches from his ear. He liked the feeling of her warm breath on his skin, and fought the temptation to reach out and caress her cheek. He followed her inside, finding himself in a tastefully yet simply decorated house. But he didn’t have a lot of time to take in his surroundings, because Melissa appeared a few seconds later, dragging her feet with hesitant steps. When she looked up at him, her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. Her expression was one of blank resignation, lacking any of the fury or fight he’d heard in her voice a few minutes ago. He took a step toward her, squatted down to her level, and held out the flowers. “These are for you.” Melissa glanced at Cynthia, then back at him. “Really?” Her voice was small and shaky. “Really.” She studied him for a long moment, then took the bouquet. He swallowed back a sigh of relief, then swiveled backwards to sit on the bench that was right next to him. He patted the space just to his left. “Mind if we talk for a minute, Melissa?” She looked away shyly. “I – I should put these in water first.” She walked quickly away before either he or Cynthia had a chance to say anything. Cynthia looked at him with one eyebrow quirked. “What’s this about?” Preston smiled. “I want to make this a win-win situation.” He would have said more about it, except that he didn’t know exactly what he was going to say to the child. “You look stunning in that dress, by the way.” Cynthia blushed. “Thanks.” Melissa returned a minute later, her step more confident, her eyes brighter, yet flashing a challenge as she met Preston’s gaze. She sat next to him on the bench, as far away as she could so that she was precariously perched on the edge, and crossed her arms. “So, talk.” “What do you think about me taking your mother out to dinner tonight?” “I don’t like it.” “Melissa – “ Preston, keeping his eyes on the girl, cut off Cynthia’s protest with a backward wave of his hand. “Why not? I’m a nice guy.” She looked away, but not before he noticed her eyes well up with tears. “You’re not my daddy.” Her voice was so soft, he barely heard her. “You still love your daddy a lot, don’t you?” A slow nod. “What if I told you I’m not trying to be your daddy? Just a friend for you and your Mom?” She whipped her head around so fast he expected to hear a cracking noise. Anger flashed in her eyes, and a tear streamed down her cheek. “I don’t believe you! You’re going to fall in love with Mommy and ask her to marry you and she’ll say yes and then you’ll be my new dad and I don’t want a new dad!” Preston couldn’t help himself. He looked up at Cynthia, whose face was horror personified. “Does she always move that fast?” “You’re the first man I’ve gone out with since Justin died.” That explained a lot. He turned back to Melissa. “Tell you what, Melissa. I’ll make you a deal. And just so you know I won’t go back on it, we’ll seal it with a handshake. Does that sound fair?” She nodded, silent tears still streaming down her face. “You let me try to be your friend and your mom’s friend for a little while. Give me two weeks. If you decide any time after those two weeks that I’m not a good friend, you just say the word and I’ll leave and never come back.” It was a crazy thing to say, he knew, and completely unconventional. But he had friends and a cousin who had ended up in mixed marriages, and he knew how hard it could be when the kid was against the relationship. He wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life walking on eggshells around a kid he knew didn’t like him. Not for the most beautiful, most affectionate woman in the world. Melissa stared at him for a long moment, her eyes at first reflecting skepticism. But that faded and was replaced by a twinkle of hope. She stuck out her hand. “Okay. Deal.” As Preston shook her hand, the doorbell rang. Cynthia turned and opened the door to a teenage girl stamping her feet and shivering. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Mrs. Redman,” she said with chattering teeth. “There was an accident on Century and Fifth and it took forever to get around it. And the heater in my car decided not to work, and I’m freezing.” While Cynthia invited her in and offered her a cup of herbal tea, Melissa asked Preston if he wanted to see the science project she was working on for school. He was genuinely impressed by her homemade weather center, including a thermometer, barometer, and rain gauge, and for the next ten minutes discovered that Melissa was a bright child who loved making new discoveries. During that time, Preston made a decision. When they returned to the kitchen where the babysitter sat with Cynthia, drinking a cup of tea, he announced, “Cynthia, I’ve changed my mind about tonight.” By the disappointment that came over her face, she had misinterpreted his meaning. Understandably so. But hopefully he would redeem himself in the next minute. He cut his eyes toward the teenager. “How much was Mrs. Redman going to pay you for watching Melissa tonight?” The girl glanced at Cynthia with a lifted brow. “Fifteen dollars,” Cynthia replied. Preston dug into the back pocket of his slacks and pulled out a wallet. “Here’s your pay for tonight.” He leaned in close to the girl to whisper as he handed her several bills. “Plus a little extra to get your car heater fixed.” The girl’s eyes popped as she saw the denominations he had given her. “Oh, thank you, Mr. – “ “Brenner. It’s the least I can do, since I’m going to ruin your plans and send you home now.” She glanced up from the money with a confused look, first at him, then at Cynthia. The latter looked just as confused. He smiled at Cynthia. “I want to take both you and Melissa out for dinner, if that’s okay.” ********** The chill in the air the next morning, along with the clouds that hung low in the sky, forewarned of yet another snowstorm. As he took his morning six-block walk, Preston hoped that it would hold off for a little while. At least until he could get to Cynthia’s house. He couldn’t have been happier with the way last night had gone, and doubted it would have gone so well if it had been just him and Cynthia. Having a child present seemed to have served a kind of buffer between them, easing the typical first-date awkwardness and making it feel more like a family get-together than a date. His only regret was that he’d had to lie to Cynthia about where he worked. He told her that he was vice president of a local company, but when pressed for a name he told her it was a new distribution company she’d never heard of. On the other hand, he had confirmed his suspicions that Cynthia had nothing to do with the negative talk flying around about Delico. As far as he’d been able to ascertain, the only thing any St. Peter school parents had done was to participate in demonstrations. She had headed up a second one that past Tuesday, she’d told him proudly, and this time sixty parents had shown up. She doubted it did much good to protest in front of individual schools – they had walked the parking lot of Melissa’s school this last time – but she figured the more they annoyed principals and school cafeteria managers, the more they would annoy higher school district officials, and the more likely their voices would be heard. The next bit of conversation had made Preston squirm. A little. For one minute. “What we’re trying to do,” Cynthia said between bites of a chicken salad, “is to convince the school district to eliminate unhealthy sweets from the menu and provide a larger choice of healthy items. More fresh fruit and vegetables instead of the canned mush, and steamed and buttered potatoes to replace French fries. Organic milk.” Melissa paused with a forkful of green beans halfway to her mouth. “You said pasteurized milk was bad for us.” Preston quirked a brow at this. He’d never heard that before. How many of Delico’s soups and desserts contained powdered pasteurized milk? Cynthia shrugged. “It is. But if most parents are going to insist that milk be included in the school lunch program – and they will, Lucy says – it might as well be from chemical-free cows.” Lucy. Where had he heard that name recently? No matter. The more pertinent and important question was, should he feel uncomfortable sitting with a woman who was unknowingly threatening the well-being of his company – not to mention his job? If her grass-roots effort continued to grow and became a real influence among the school district Powers That Be, Delico would lose money. A lot of money. However, what the parents were demanding, the schools couldn’t possibly afford. Not to any extent that Delico would need to worry about, so he wasn’t going to worry about it. He certainly wasn’t going to let the issue affect his plans to see where his relationship with Cynthia might lead. “I commend you for what you’re doing, Cynthia,” he said with a smile. “Not many people have the courage to actually take action to try to fix a perceived wrong.” And he meant it. Of all the women he had ever dated – not that he was anything close to a playboy – this one seemed to have the most integrity, the strongest sense of purpose of any of them. Besides that, he’d felt an instant connection with her even before they had ordered the food. And the more they talked, the more he liked her – and her daughter. But to keep things safe, he steered the conversation to more neutral ground. The three of them laughed and talked like they were old friends, rather than new acquaintances. Apparently Preston wasn’t the only one who didn’t want the evening to end, because Melissa had, as they got up to leave the restaurant, asked Cynthia if he could come over to their house the next day. So here he was, taking a walk in one of the northern-most neighborhoods of the city, the area populated by doctors and lawyers and prominent businessmen, looking forward to having lunch and watching a movie at a house on the more modest east side. On his way back into the building, he stopped to buy the Saturday paper from the stand just outside the front of the apartment building. He might not purchase it at all, except that he had always been a sucker for the comics. Since the St. Peter newspaper didn’t put out a Sunday edition, the comics were in the Saturday paper. He tucked the paper under his arm as he made his way back into the building, back up to his floor. Out of idle curiosity, after hitting the elevator call button he unfolded it to glance at the front page. As his eyes hit the bottom of the page, he did a double take. He scanned the article, heart in his throat, and groaned. Today wasn’t going to be such a great day, after all. Chapter Twelve Cynthia had been shocked and horrified when Melissa had asked Preston to come over today. Clearly, the girl needed some serious lessons in social protocol. “Melissa, Preston is a busy man. Don’t you think he might have better things to do – “ “I can think of nothing better than to join you two ladies for a few hours tomorrow,” Preston had interrupted with that smile that never failed to warm Cynthia like an invisible soft fleece blanket. At first she doubted that he really wanted to see her so soon, and was merely placating Melissa. But a brief discussion ensured her that he was in earnest, so now tomorrow had arrived, and both she and Melissa walked around the house restlessly, waiting. Cynthia could only hope that their casual date today would go half as well as last night. She came home last night feeling like she was floating, a feeling she hadn’t experienced since her first few months of marriage with Justin. She had connected with Preston in a wonderful way; even better, he had seemed to connect with Melissa. How many men would have done what he had, first giving her the flowers he’d intended for Cynthia, then allowing her to be part of the date? It was genius, pure genius. And said a lot for Preston’s character. At eleven o’clock, she and Melissa were finally able to occupy themselves with fixing lunch. They had decided on a carrot-cabbage-Romaine salad tossed with crumbled goat cheese and a simple olive oil-lemon dressing. Cynthia put out some leftover chicken, and they would have gluten-free oatmeal cookies she’d bought at the health food store for dessert. One of these days soon, she intended to learn how to bake gluten-free goodies from scratch. At five to twelve, the doorbell rang. Melissa’s face lit up. “I’ll get it!” She ran to the door as Cynthia whipped off the apron she was wearing and smoothed down her hair. Hearing Preston and Melissa greet each other cheerfully caused an anticipatory thrill to shiver up and down her spine. She took a deep breath and tried to reason some calmness into herself – she barely knew the man, she had no idea how he felt about her or what he was hoping from their relationship – but to no avail. She was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. When he appeared on the threshold between the living room and dining room, her heart fluttered. Melissa had helped him shed his coat, and if possible he looked even more handsome today in blue jeans and blue-and-black striped sweater than he had last night in his more formal dress. “I’m so glad you could make it.” She tried to sound calm as she took his proffered hand, but was afraid she’d failed. “Me, too.” He sighed, and his smile faded slightly, as though he’d had a rough morning and almost hadn’t made it to her house. “Is everything okay?” His full smile returned, but it seemed a bit forced. “Oh, yes. Just thinking of work issues.” “Oh, Preston,” Melissa protested, “today is Saturday. You need to leave your work problems outside.” Preston gave a slight bow. “You are quite right, madam. Excuse me.” He went out the front door, closed it, and after a few seconds, returned. “There,” he said, his gaze taking in Melissa and Cynthia in turn, “I have taken those naughty thoughts outside and told them to stay there.” Cynthia and Melissa laughed together, then invited Preston to sit down at the table while they went to get the food. He glanced at the table, complimented them on the pretty centerpiece, then insisted that he help with the meal. “I grew up with a brother and two sisters, and we were taught that life went much more smoothly when everybody did his fair share of the work.” Cynthia allowed him to follow them, wondering when she was going to wake up from this dream. Not even Justin had seemed this perfect when they first started dating. Of course, they had been in their late teens, muddling their way through the whole romance thing. Unless she missed her guess, Preston had been around the block enough times to have learned a few lessons in that arena. The thoughts had her emotions in a sudden tug-of-war. Guilt welled up at her at having considered that there might be a better man out there than Justin had been. At the same time, jealousy, unfounded and unreasonable, clawed at her heart. She suddenly couldn’t stand the thought that any other woman had ever been in Preston’s arms. Ridiculous. She inhaled slowly and deeply as she opened the oven to take out the platter of re-heated chicken. Last night her only goal was to reboot her social life in the company of a potential friend. Now she realized she wanted more. Much more. From him? Or was it just that he happened to be the first good-looking nice guy to turn her head in the past four years? “We only eat organic now,” she heard Melissa telling Preston as the two of them walked into the dining room carrying food. “Mom says it’s a lot safer that way.” She smiled, once again relieved that Melissa had taken all of the sudden diet changes in stride, and seemed to understand the reasoning behind it. As she carried in the chicken, Melissa informed Preston that they no longer ate meat produced in factory farms, and maybe one day they might even become vegetarian. At this, Preston’s smile faltered a little, and when he spoke, his voice was tight. “That’s nice.” Cynthia felt a squeezing in her chest as she set the platter down on the table. Was he some sort of junk food addict who believed that Twinkies were okay, as long as you ate them in moderation? She quickly forced the thought out of her mind. He had probably just let one or two of his work-related thoughts back in the door, and was distracted. She caught his gaze, smiled, and said, “I need to do everything I can to make sure Melissa – neither of us – gets sick again because of what we eat.” His smile broadened. “You’re a good mother.” Cynthia relaxed, and the meal went off without a hitch. Preston entertained them with stories from his childhood, enthralling Melissa and making Cynthia laugh. How long had it been since she laughed so much in an hour? Preston helped to clear the table and do the dishes, and a few minutes later the three of them were settled on the couch, Melissa sandwiched in between the two adults, ready to watch Melissa’s favorite Pixar film. Who knows where the afternoon might have taken them if the phone hadn’t rung at that moment? It was Lucy. “Do you get the paper?” “No. Listen, could you call – “ “I won’t take your time, but I thought you’d want to know that there’s a big write up about one of the companies that sells food to the schools. The inspector found soup that was tainted so bad with chemicals he claims it could make any number of people sick.” Cynthia went numb. “You still there?” “Uh, yes. Um, which company?” “Delico Foods.” She repeated the name, thanked Lucy, then hung up. ********** Preston knew he was toast when he heard Cynthia say the name of his company. He worked hard to keep an expression of casual indifference, but when she got off the phone and came back to the couch, she was ready to take up arms. “You won’t believe this, Preston. One of the companies that provides food to the St. Peter schools failed inspection big time!” Her cheeks flamed, and her eyes burned with fury. “Idiots! They almost killed my daughter! How could they be so slovenly?” If the sudden moisture in her eyes had come from any other cause, Preston would have had a hard time resisting the temptation to take her into his arms. As it were, he was getting angry himself. Nevertheless, he used every ounce of energy to control his voice. “How do you know the company wasn’t set up?” “Why should I think that?” She stopped her pacing in front of the couch and glared at him. “Why shouldn’t I think that somebody did it on purpose?” “Delico Foods has been around for a long time.” Preston prayed to keep his voice level. “They have a good reputation.” “Not anymore.” Cynthia sat heavily down on the other side of Melissa. “Not in my book.” Melissa immediately jumped up. “You guys ruined everything! You ruined it!” Before either of them could respond or stop Melissa from running out of the room, Preston’s cell phone rang. He cast Cynthia an apologetic glance, then got up himself to take the call. He knew exactly what it was going to be about. As he approached the entryway, he answered the call. Guy got straight to the point. “Have you seen today’s paper?” “Unfortunately.” “You need to be at headquarters in an hour. The board wants to meet with us and find out what happened.” Preston felt his throat constrict as his head began to throb. He knew what had happened. The inspector had gone behind his back. But why? Inexperience? Did he have a grudge against the company? Or had he gotten paid to smear Delico’s name? “I’ll be there.” He hung up, then stood there for a minute rubbing his temples. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and saw Cynthia standing on the other side of the living room, watching him. “Work. I’ve got a fire to try to put out. Not a literal one,” he added when Cynthia’s eyes widened and she gasped. Then he stepped toward her with a sigh. “Look, I’m really sorry. About…everything.” Especially that he’d upset Melissa. Cynthia crossed her arms and shrugged. “It’s okay.” But the strained smile on her face neither reached her eyes nor brightened her voice. Preston stopped where he was. If the stupid newspaper article had never been brought up, if they’d all enjoyed themselves watching the movie, he was sure he would have given them both a hug before leaving this afternoon. But now… Melissa was right. Everything was ruined. He almost invited Cynthia to call him again, or ask permission to call her, but he stopped himself. She obviously had developed some extreme views about food lately, views that, in and of themselves, would make Delico look like a murderous member of the Mafia. But on top of that, now she seemed ready to convict his company for a crime it hadn’t committed, without any evidence in sight. If he continued to see her, he would eventually have to tell her the truth about his job. And once he did, they would both end up with a broken heart, because Cynthia would unlikely be able to reconcile her new lifestyle with his career. Especially if she remained convinced his company had a part in Melissa’s illness. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, lunch was delicious.” “Thanks.” After an awkward pause, he lowered his voice. “Please tell Melissa I’m sorry. That I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.” “She’ll be all right.” Cynthia broke eye contact and turned slightly. Preston took the hint. “All right then. I – I guess I’d better go. Before the boss gets mad.” “Bye,” was all Cynthia said, and that to the floor. Preston slowly turned around, swallowing a sigh of disappointment, and let himself out. A snowflake landed on his cheek as he stepped outside the door. The weather was a perfect analogy to his life: cold, gray, and dreary. By the time he got home several hours later, he began to wonder if Cynthia might be worth putting in his resignation. The board had chewed him up and spit him out, blaming him for the inspector’s error and the resulting public fiasco. It didn’t matter that he had not been called upon to be present during the inspection. It didn’t matter that he had made it clear to the inspector that the bad batch of soup was off limits. Somehow, the problem was all his fault. Monday, the stuff was going to hit the fan, and those radical parents who were protesting the St. Peter schools as well as the school district itself were going to have a hey-day dragging Delico’s name through the mud, possibly even causing the district to look for another food provider. And it would all be Preston’s fault. He didn’t even get tomorrow, Sunday, to distance himself and recharge, or to plan out any counter-attacks. A conference call was scheduled with the national company leaders at ten o’clock in the morning. Preston may not have to resign. He might end up getting fired. To his surprise, the idea didn’t make his pounding head feel any worse. It actually relieved the pain a little. Maybe God was trying to tell him something. His mother would probably agree. Regardless, he was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the children’s food-related illnesses. He wasn’t going to sit around and helplessly watch people die, like he had with his father. Never again. *********** “Excellent work, Munger. I must say, you have a bit more ingenuity in that brain than I gave you credit for.” Barry ignored the jab. He shifted on the luxuriously soft red leather recliner, wishing he could afford such furniture even as guilt nipped away at his stomach like ants chewing an earthworm alive. “It was a wild guess. You said you wanted Delico to go down, and I thought if I could encourage a negative inspection result we might save the kids.” The man sitting on the couch across from him, dressed impeccably in an Italian suit even though it was Saturday, glowered at him. “The deal is you do what I say, without arguing, and you get paid. If not…” As his voice trailed off, his scowl turned upward into an evil grin. An implied threat. “You’re not saying you expect me to – “ “I expect you to go through with your side of the bargain, completely and thoroughly!” The man rose to his feet and towered menacingly over Barry as he shouted. Barry struggled to keep his composure, as fear pushed against his lungs. “I didn’t think anybody would die.” “That was your fault, not mine.” The man settled back down, his features relaxing as though they were discussing the latest hockey game instead of the ruination of a national company. Or the death of children. Barry swallowed, and looked away. He was right, of course. The poison is in the dose, and that one time Barry had gotten a little too enthusiastic with the dose. Or the child had been particularly sensitive to the chemical. The man leaned forward, a condescending smile on his face. “Tell you what, Munger. If this tainted soup episode blows up and wreaks all the havoc you hope it will, three more schools and you’re done.” “Done?” “As in, I’ll pay you for a complete job, and forget I ever knew you. Or what you did five years ago.” Barry puffed out his breath. Three more schools was a lot fewer than what was left in the original plan. “Can I have that in writing?” The man’s grin broadened. “Isn’t that what my profession is all about?” Chapter Thirteen “Qué mujer tan loca! You are a crazy woman!” Mario shifted to the edge of his chair at the dining room table. He was really angry. He only ever spoke in Spanish to Lucy if he was angry. “You got a secure job at a school, but it ain’t good enough so you quit and get a job at a place that’s probably gonna go belly-up in a few months because it’s putting poison in the food. What were you thinking?” Lucy sat up straighter in her chair. “I was thinking about getting a twenty percent better salary.” Emma furrowed her eyebrows. “Mama, how could you? That’s like consorting with the enemy! So now money is more important than your principles?” Lucy felt her face flush. But she was prepared for this argument. “I’m not planning on being there forever. Think of it as a time of paid research. You know, to see exactly how the enemy does things.” She winked at Emma, but saw Mario glaring out of the corner of her eye. “So you got a job you’re planning to leave.” Mario slammed both hands on the table and stood up. “I appreciate you letting me know, querida. I’ll try to line up a second job so you can keep buying them organic limes.” Lucy closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands as he stomped away from the table. A moment later she felt a hand rub her back. “Mama,” Emma said in a softened voice, “don’t you think you should’ve talked this over with Papa before making such a big change?” Lucy sighed and lifted her head. “Yes. But then he wouldn’t have let me do it.” “It does seem a little hypocritical, though, doesn’t it? For you to work at a food processing plant? I mean, you’re always telling me to be true to myself.” Lucy looked her daughter in the eye for a long moment. Then she decided to go ahead and tell her. She didn’t want any more secrets. “I really am there to do research. I think as a receptionist, I might be able to find some of the answers about the school food making kids sick.” “It would be really cool if you could, Mama,” Emma said, picking up her and Mario’s breakfast plates, “but please be careful. You could get into big trouble.” The thought had occurred to Lucy. Her hands shook as she put the key into the ignition of her Kia. She tried to pray for help, but the words got all jumbled up in her mind. On top of that, she was beginning to doubt that God could bless anything she was doing, because she had instigated it behind her husband’s back. Nevertheless, after fighting rush-hour traffic – thank heavens there was no snow to fight this morning, for once – she made it to the Delico Foods plant with ten minutes to spare. The man who had hired her, Mr. Jackson, greeted her warmly and introduced her to the current receptionist, Marge, who would spend the next three days working with and training her before she went on maternity leave. Before he left her at the desk, however, he led her into his office and gave her a pointed look. “I can’t assume anything, Mrs. Perez, so I have to assume you know nothing about the current scandal surrounding Delico Foods.” Lucy met his gaze, even as her palms grew sweaty. “The soup a recent inspection discovered to be poisoned?” Kelly shook his head, his ever-present smile turning sad. “You have put your own spin on the information. Like too many other people. The article never mentioned the word ‘poison’.” Lucy’s face grew warm, and she shifted her eyes down. Was she trying to get fired before she even started her first day? She made herself look up at him again. “I’m sorry, sir, you’re right. I didn’t mean to offend.” Kelly nodded. “No offense taken. But all our other employees have been briefed about the truth of the incident, so you need to know it, too.” The truth? Lucy knew the truth. The truth was that the foods produced here were full of toxic chemicals of all kinds, not to mention trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and plenty of ingredients from genetically modified plants. The truth was somebody had put too much of some artificial flavor or preservative in the soup, and that if the inspector hadn’t shown up that day – “The truth is, the machinery got stuck when it was adding flavor to the soup, and ended up putting about a thousand times more than it was supposed to.” Kelly leaned back in his chair, his tone firm yet still friendly. “That batch of soup had been set aside for disposal, and both I and the regional vice president showed up to explain that to the inspector.” Now he leaned forward, still smiling, but eyes flashing anger. “For some reason the authorities are in the process of determining, the inspector took some of that soup for analysis, anyway, resulting in the newspaper article and subsequent bru-ha-ha surrounding it.” Lucy swallowed, feeling her face flame, as embarrassed as she would have been had she spoken her thoughts from a few moments ago out loud. She had jumped to a conclusion that was not only completely wrong, but that had prompted her to upset another person. Cynthia was probably going on the warpath right now, telling parents left and right about the soup incident and how they needed to rise up in mutiny and take both the school district and Delico Foods to task. “I appreciate you straightening me out on that,” she finally managed to stammer. “It’s awful that somebody would do that, and I’m sorry.” Kelly grinned. “I’m just glad you showed up today in spite of it. I b’lieve we’re gonna get along just fine.” He stood up and moved toward the door, gesturing her to go ahead of him. At the door, she turned, her pulse quickening. “Mr. Jackson, do I have time to make a two-minute phone call? I have a friend I think would feel a lot better if I told her what you just told me.” “By all means.” ********** Cynthia watched with disinterest the four children who had arrived at the daycare so far. She had had a hard time feeling interested in anything since Preston left on Saturday afternoon. Melissa spent the rest of the day sulking, ostensibly as upset as Cynthia that Preston had left, but expressing a sour grapes attitude by telling her that she didn’t care, she didn’t want a new daddy anyway. They both lost interest in the movie, and on Sunday neither one spoke or smiled much. It didn’t help that Preston had not hinted at wanting to see her again, or even talk to her, for that matter. He just said good-bye and left. She should have been okay with that. She kept replaying in her mind all the reasons she had given herself a week ago for not getting involved with a man – especially a man who seemed eager to defend an entity which, in her mind, had become an enemy. But she wasn’t okay. His abrupt departure that seemed to close the door on a relationship that had barely begun had left her feeling empty. It was enough to make Cynthia wonder if she was already falling in love with the guy. A half an hour into her ten-hour shift, her cell phone rang. The children continued to play happily, so Cynthia answered. “Hi, Lucy.” Lucy had told her that she had purposely taken a new job at Delico Foods in hopes of helping Cynthia and the other parents of SPISD by ferreting out information about ingredients, financial undertakings, and potentially shady characters at the plant. While Cynthia appreciated that, she thought Lucy was taking things a little too far. “Cynthia. Boy, did I drop the ball.” As Cynthia listened to Lucy explain the truth about the soup incident, her heart sank into her toes. She thanked her, hung up, and spent the next several seconds blinking back tears. She wanted to kick herself. She didn’t know why her anger at Delico Foods should have affected Preston as it did, but now it turns out her anger had been completely misdirected. If Lucy hadn’t called her on Saturday, Cynthia wouldn’t have thrown a mini-fit, and Preston wouldn’t have tried to argue with her, and they would have watched the movie in bliss. And when Preston left, she was sure there would have been promises made to get together again soon. Promises that would have been kept. “Cynthia, are you okay?” the daycare director, Barbara, whispered into her ear as she came in with a three-year-old boy. She nodded. “I had a rough weekend, that’s all.” Barbara’s forehead creased with concern. “Is Melissa all right?” “Oh, yes. Stuart, honey, why don’t you go play trucks with Sammy?” She looked back at Barbara as the antsy boy ran to where Sammy sat, running a large dump truck across the floor. “It’s not Melissa. It’s just the we encountered some disappointment.” But Cynthia intended to rectify the situation, if at all possible. During her lunch break, she called the number Preston had given her on Friday night. She didn’t expect him to answer – he was a busy man, and likely didn’t share the same lunch schedule – so when he did, she nearly choked on her heart as it thudded in her throat. When she could finally speak, she found her mouth was dry. “Preston, I have to apologize for my behavior on Saturday.” “Apology accepted.” But his voice sounded flat. Weary. “I mean, I don’t know why you should care why I might get mad at some food processing company, but it turns out I jumped to a wrong conclusion.” Once again, the pause on the other end went on for so long Cynthia was afraid he’d hung up. “Preston?” “I’m here. How – why do you think you drew a wrong conclusion?” Then she realized that what she’d been about to say was inside information. The public at large knew nothing of what Lucy had told her that morning, that the plant inspector had purposely taken a sample of something earmarked for the sewer in order to badmouth the company. So she decided to change what she’d been about to say. “I – I talked to the manager of the plant where the discretion took place. He told me what happened.” At the lie, she felt a twinge in her gut and wondered why she couldn’t tell him that she had a friend who’d just been hired on at Delico and found out the whole story from her employer. Then she wondered why she should believe Delico’s version of the story. How could she know they weren’t just making it up to save their skin? No, she knew why she believed it; Lucy did. If anyone was going to be skeptical, it was Lucy, but for some reason, she took her manager at his word. All Cynthia could do was hope that Lucy was a good judge of character. Another pause. Then, “Well, I’m sorry I fed fuel to the flame, so to speak.” Preston’s baritone voice actually held a tinge of sorrow. “I guess I was behaving like a typical man, trying to help my woman logically think something out before getting emotional about it.” My woman. The words struck Cynthia’s brain so hard she barely registered the rest of what he said. He must have realized what he’d said, because he instantly added, “I mean, not that I have any claim on you. Generally speaking, I mean.” The little Cynthia knew of him, he wasn’t a man who tended to repeat himself or get tongue-tied. He must have been nervous. How cute. She smiled to herself. “I know what you mean,” she reassured him. But his Freudian slip might have indicated that he had already developed feelings for her, too. She was very glad she had called. “Cynthia.” “Yes?” “Do you think Melissa could forgive me, too? I – I’d like to see you guys again some time. If you can put up with my manly logic,” Preston added in a teasing tone. Cynthia thought she might be willing to put up with more than that, if she could only see him again. “If you apologize to her in person, I’m sure she would forgive you.” “Would Wednesday evening work?” Cynthia would work double time on the website projects tonight and tomorrow in order to make it work. “Yes, Preston. That would be fine.” ********** Strange that she would have taken the initiative to call Kelly, but he couldn’t be more relieved that she had. Perhaps she would take it upon herself to comment on somebody’s blog or Facebook page or food forum about her discovery today. Perhaps the Delico Powers That Be would call him in for another special meeting…to dismiss their blame against him. That was about as likely as the temperature hitting ninety degrees tomorrow. He chuckled to himself as he turned back to the e-mails he’d been reading when Cynthia called. At least he had two things going his way this week. First, he hadn’t been fired yesterday, simply told to be present at every single subsequent inspection and to document every move and every conversation related to it. And now, Cynthia had called him. Agreed to see him again. She might eventually become “his woman” after all. Before he could revel too much in that thought, his eyes scanned a subject line that made him start, then re-read it: You are about to get fired. He looked at the sender. John Smith. “A likely story,” he mumbled to himself. He hovered his hand over the mouse, contemplating whether or not to open the e-mail. Usually, a virus wasn’t spread until you clicked a link inside the e-mail. And usually, a hacker trying to spread a virus didn’t have specific information on his many potential victims, such as whether their jobs were in jeopardy. He narrowed his eyes. Was this some kind of joke from one of his underlings? Of all the things he didn’t need today, it would be to fire an employee. But if this e-mail came from one, he would send them packing in the next five minutes. Finally, jaw clenched and the mouse in a death grip, he clicked open the e-mail. He read it, re-read it, then read it a third time. Preston didn’t like to fight, but if he found out someone in the company was playing a joke on him, they would get a bloody nose right before being kicked out on their gluteus maximus. Because this was one sick joke. If it was a joke. If you want to keep your job, meet me at six o’clock p.m. in one week at the abandoned warehouse on the west side of St. Peter. Be ready to make a serious compromise. And don’t show this e-mail to anyone, or else. Compromise? What did that mean? And who on earth would be threatening his job? Preston studied the sender’s e-mail address carefully, but could make neither hide nor hair of it. It couldn’t be from Guy or any of the company leaders. Or, could it? Had someone changed his mind about Preston’s culpability in the soup incident? Perhaps the person disagreed with the other leaders and believed that Preston should be dealt with in another way. Preston leaned back in his chair, wide-eyed and heart racing. Whether it was the CEO of Delico, or someone who just decided not to like Preston for some reason, the e-mail sender clearly meant to cause Preston trouble. Show up, and keep your job. Don’t, and lose it. His first instinct was to show the e-mail to Guy. But what if Guy had sent it? Preston pressed a hand to his forehead. Now he was losing it. He’d watched too many spy movies. However, the longer he thought about it, the more strongly he felt that he shouldn’t share this e-mail with anyone. The “or else” clearly implied danger for Preston, but what if it meant danger for anyone else who knew about it, as well? This had to be some kind of prank. It had to be. After several minutes of mental tumult, Preston hit the “spam” button, then worked the rest of the day to forget that he’d ever read it. Chapter Fourteen On Tuesday, Preston, at Guy’s urging, took a field trip out to the plant. Despite Kelly’s cheerful outlook and encouraging words, several employees had approached him and confessed that if they could find another job, they would think about leaving. Even though Guy had publicly stated on television last night that the soup analysis had been a mistake and that Delico would never let any subpar product get out the door of the local food processing plant, rumors were flying that the company was already in financial trouble and layoffs were imminent. Would Preston go down and give all the factory workers a pep talk, and ensure them that all was well with the company? As tempted as Preston had been to argue, his position being much higher than Kelly’s he knew his word would carry more clout with many of the employees. He walked in the front door at eleven-thirty and was mildly surprised to see a black-haired, olive-skinned woman at the reception desk. Then he remembered that Kelly had hired a new “temporarily permanent” receptionist. If Marge decided to stay at home with her child, this woman – Hispanic, didn’t Kelly say? – would likely be there awhile. Preston pasted on his professional smile and walked over to the woman, who appeared to be busy studying some papers. She looked up at him and smiled. “Hello. Welcome to Delico Foods. How may I help you today?” He reached his hand out over the desk. “My name is Preston Brenner. I’m the regional V.P. of the company.” The woman’s eyes widened as she stood up and took his hand. “Oh, my. Well. I’m very pleased to meet you. Today’s my second job, I mean day, and I hope – “ Preston laughed. “No need to get nervous, Ms….” “Perez.” “Perez. Yes. I’m not here to evaluate you. Kelly told me you come with fine references. I’m here to talk to the factory workers today. Would you be so kind as to let Kelly know I’m here?” His little lunchtime speech went over well, he thought, and that was confirmed later that day when Kelly e-mailed to tell him that three of the formerly fearful employees had returned to tell them they would stay on, after all. Now all he had to do was to think of a proper speech to give to a certain ten-year-old girl tomorrow night, so he could have half a chance with her mother. ********** “Larry, I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to use that sign.” Cynthia spoke as politely as she could while seething inside. She thought she had made it clear that no food company names were to be mentioned in any way during any of the demonstrations. The short, rotund man frowned. “Listen, lady, we gotta hit ‘em where it hurts. I don’t want my kids ending up like your daughter did, or worse. We need to show these people we mean business!” Cynthia pushed back a tendril of hair that had escaped from under her hood. “I understand your frustration, but if you end up getting sued for libel, or we’re made to stop protesting because someone accuses us of…” “What happened to free speech?” Larry threw down his sign. “Fine. I’m going home. Anybody else?” Cynthia felt utter relief as all the other parents stared him down. Larry stomped away, red-faced, like a child who’d just been told to go to his room without supper. She then raised her voice to address the rest of the group. “Please, everybody, keep the goal in mind: healthier food for our children, not making accusations.” “The newspapers and T.V.’s doin’ that for us,” Faith said with a wry smile. Cynthia glanced at her. “And not necessarily waiting until they have the full picture before they do so.” Faith nodded in agreement, picked up her sign, and began the chant. “Ban bad food!” The demonstration in front of Harriet Elementary brought some onlookers, but no media, and no school staff. Cynthia might have gone home disappointed, but for two things. First, she had too much work to do. Second, when her mind wandered for a few seconds away from the web design project she was working on, it inevitably settled on her and Melissa’s date with Preston tomorrow night. But even that thought rarely had a chance to squeeze into her consciousness for the rest of the day, she was trying so hard to make up for today’s lost work time, as well as tomorrow night’s. She was beginning to question the wisdom of taking on the role of Anti-Processed Food In Schools Leader. It wasn’t that she didn’t have time to get her web design work done on demonstration days, but that she had very little down time then. She felt like she had to be in constant motion on those days, scrambling to meet her business work goal for the day before Melissa got home, get dinner on the table, and help Melissa with her homework. And today, she had an extra interruption. Just as she and Melissa were sitting down to supper, the phone rang. Usually, she ignored the sound when they were having a meal. But she had talked to her current client twice already today about some changes he wanted to make, and didn’t want to put him off until tomorrow if it meant she would present him with a draft that he wouldn’t be happy with. So she answered the phone, so certain of who it was she didn’t even check the caller I.D. When Lucy’s voice greeted her, she blinked in surprise. “Oh, hi, Lucy. We were just getting ready to eat.” “No problem.” Her voice was cheerful, as usual. “I just wanted to tell you real quick that I got to meet the vice president of Delico today. Okay, not the vice president, the regional one, but he’s almost the top person in a five-state area.” “That must have been…exciting.” Cynthia didn’t even try to feign enthusiasm. She’d had a busy day, and was facing a busy evening. She wanted Lucy to take the hint and hang up. Instead, she said, “But that wasn’t the half of it, Cynthia. He is a handsome, and I mean, handsome man. I felt like a silly schoolgirl for a minute. Afraid I acted like one, too. And he didn’t have a ring on his finger, either.” She spoke these last words in a conspiratorial tone. Cynthia got her drift. “Lucy, first of all, married people walk around all the time without their wedding rings on. Second, I am not interested in a man who works for a food processing company. I still wonder at you for having taken that job.” “Nobody can say he’s gonna stick around at that place forever,” Lucy persisted. “I just wanted to let you know, for future reference.” “Mom, why is your face all red?” Melissa whispered from beside her. More irritated than she’d been after her meeting with Dr. Munger that one time, Cynthia waved the question away impatiently. Should she just tell Lucy she already had a man in her sight? The thing was, Lucy was acting like they were best friends, when the truth was they’d only spoken a few times, and had the one dinner together. They weren’t best friends – Cynthia’s had died four years ago, and she had yet to find another woman who could replace him – and so she felt in no way obligated to reveal all her secrets to Lucy. Taking a deep breath to help her maintain an even voice, she said, “I’ll keep that in mind. Now, our supper’s getting cold.” She turned off the cell phone and slid it vehemently to the middle of the table. It probably would have gone over the side if Melissa’s glass hadn’t slowed its momentum. She closed her eyes and took another deep breath, and when she opened them, found Melissa staring at her. “Mom?” “It was Lucy. She wanted to tell me…about something that happened on her job today.” Melissa’s eyes brightened. “Did she find out something dirty?” Cynthia shook her head. “No, nothing like that.” Her daughter frowned. “Then why did you get so mad?” “I wasn’t mad.” She smiled sheepishly. “Okay, I was a little mad. It’s just that…she…I’ve had such a busy day, and I didn’t want our nice evening to be interrupted.” The frown deepened. “But I thought Lucy was your friend.” Cynthia sighed. “She is.” Just not that good of a friend. Yet. “I just have a lot on my plate now, that’s all.” Melissa’s eyes flitted to the dish in front of Cynthia. “Actually, Mom, you don’t have anything on your plate right now.” Cynthia rolled her eyes as Melissa grinned. Chapter Fifteen Wednesday after work, Preston would have broken the speed limit if traffic had allowed. He had to work hard all day to make sure he’d be able to leave in time, and then still ended up stuck at the office an extra thirty minutes. He almost hadn’t stopped by the florist, but remembering the conciliatory magic the last bouquet had produced, he wanted to try the method again. The air was icy but fresh when he got out of his car in front of Cynthia’s house. What few stars the city night sky allowed to be displayed twinkled brightly, harbingers of a sunny, snowless – albeit cold – day ahead. He should have felt less nervous than he had on Saturday, but if anything he felt more so. Funny thing was, his anxiety had little to do with Cynthia and mostly to do with her daughter. And that confused him. Until recently, he had sworn off any women who came with kids attached. Now here he was, desperately trying to insinuate himself back into the good graces of a ten-year-old so that he would feel free to date her mother. Crazy. He walked up the sidewalk toward the door, a bouquet of pink roses in one hand and a small pot with a single iris growing out of it in another. He’d reasoned that Cynthia might want something that wouldn’t fade and have to be thrown away after a few days. And he had to admit to himself: he wanted her to have something that would keep reminding her of him. He hadn’t even reached the door when it flew open. Melissa’s blonde head appeared with a broad smile. She turned, yelled into the house, “He’s here!”, then offered to help him with the flowers. “These are for you.” He handed her the roses. “Ohhh,” she breathed. “How beautiful.” She sniffed the bouquet. “Thank you. Come in.” He followed her in, to find Cynthia standing nearby in the living room, looking beautiful in a pair of black jeans and a red sweater. For a moment, he lost his powers of speech. Had she any idea how alluring that color combination was on her? It made him want to call the babysitter and get Melissa out of the house for a while. On the other hand, it was a good thing Melissa was there. Preston did not want this relationship to be based only on physical attraction. The presence of a child would go far to help him behave himself. “Preston. We’re so glad you came.” Cynthia stepped toward him tentatively. It took everything within him not to set the pot in his hand down and embrace her. But he was a good boy, and simply handed her the flower. “An iris. The florist says it’ll bloom late every winter for about a month.” Cynthia’s eyes danced with delight as she took the pot. “Oh, thank you! It’s beautiful.” “I have more flowers than you do,” Melissa teased as she disappeared with her bouquet. “This will look great on the table.” Cynthia turned. “Come on in.” Preston shrugged off his coat and hung it on a hook on the entryway wall. Now that he was not distracted by her looks, he noticed a delicious aroma in the air. “What’s for dinner?” he asked as he followed her into the kitchen. “Vegetarian,” Melissa announced brightly, waving her arm with a flourish toward the stove. “I sauteed garlic, onion, and celery, and then added water and quinoa. We just learned how to sprout lentils, so we’re going to have raw sprouted lentils with it, and a salad.” Preston arched an eyebrow. “You cooked this?” He also wanted to ask what the heck quinoa was, and why would anyone want to eat lentils raw, but decided to reserve all judgment of the meal until he’d tried it. The girl nodded proudly. “Mom fixed the salad, but anybody can fix a salad.” While Cynthia gathered up a potholder and the pan holding the quinoa, Preston approached Melissa and squatted down to look her in the eye. “Does this mean you forgive me?” he asked quietly. Melissa’s face sobered, and she nodded. “I wasn’t really mad at you. I think I was madder at Mom for being such a drama queen.” Preston laughed loudly. “Am I missing a joke?” Cynthia called from the dining room. He winked at Melissa conspiratorially. “Just an inside joke between friends.” After they began eating, Preston waited for Cynthia to be done with her first mouthful, then asked, “So, why vegetarian?” Cynthia’s gaze fell to her lap, and she shifted uncomfortably. When she looked up again, she had a wry smile on her face. “I’m really not sure. My friend says that if we don’t have an ethical problem with eating meat, it’s not unhealthy to eat as long as it’s raised ethically and naturally and is cooked the right way. But a lot of other people have a different opinion.” She scooped up more quinoa, which Preston had found had a delightful nutty taste and fluffy texture, with her fork. “This is definitely cheaper than eating meat. But then, I’ve read bloggers who are adamant that we shouldn’t have any grain in our diet, even if it’s gluten-free.” Which was exactly why Preston had ignored all the pleas from health nuts – particularly his sister – most of his life. There was too much controversy, too much disagreement. Cynthia shrugged. “We’re just trying to feel our way around this whole-foods eating thing.” He spent a few moments thinking how to frame his next question, determining to keep his tone light so that Melissa wouldn’t get upset. “What in the cafeteria food do you think made Melissa sick?” “I’m a big girl.” Melissa looked at him pointedly, but without reproach. “You can ask me that question directly.” Her mature manner tempted Preston’s lips to curl upward, and he had to fight to keep a serious expression on his face. “Okay then, what in the cafeteria food do you think made you sick?” Melissa had just taken a bite of salad, and waved her fork around several times to indicate she wanted him to wait for her answer. After swallowing, she replied, “The doctor said my blood had a lot of MSG and other food additives in it. Mom says packaged food has a lot of other hidden ingredients that are bad for you, and the only way to make sure we don’t in…in…what’s the word, Mom?” “Ingest.” “Ingest them is to eat foods in their most natural state possible.” There was a pause. Then, “Nutrients,” Cynthia prompted. “Oh, yeah.” Melissa’s face shone with excitement now, as if she were presenting her master’s thesis to a group of professors. “Processed food isn’t very nutritious, either. But,” she glanced at her mother, lowering her voice, “I don’t remember exactly why.” Preston shifted his gaze to Cynthia, who smiled approvingly at her daughter before looking at him. “High heat, chopping and grinding, and adding chemicals strip food of its nutritional value. When food manufacturers say they add vitamins and minerals back – which they sometimes blatantly lie about on the label, I’ve discovered – the nutrients are in a synthetic form the body doesn’t recognize and so has trouble assimilating.” Preston had just forked up some quinoa, but now froze with it halfway to his mouth. If what they were saying was true, then he’d been sold a bill of goods. Plus, deceived himself his whole life thinking he was making a positive difference in the world by helping to run Delico Foods. “You look like a deer in headlights,” Cynthia teased. “Have we overwhelmed you?” He put down his fork. “Frankly, yes. This is a hard bit to swallow.” He gestured to his plate, smiling. “Not this. This is surprisingly delicious.” It was the kind of food the doctor had ordered. He had no idea healthy food could taste so good. He was considering asking them how to sprout lentils. “I mean, how do you know all this about the nutrition and the chemicals?” Cynthia met his gaze, her eyes flashing with challenge. “If I give you a book to read, would you promise to read it?” Preston thought about his busy schedule, how tired he was after work. But he would be lying if he said he wouldn’t have time. “I suppose I can give up a few nights of television to read it.” Cynthia smiled. “Just a second.” She vanished into a room he supposed was her bedroom, and returned with a paperback with a green cover. He took it from her, reading the title. The Hundred Year Lie, authored by a guy named Randall Fitzgerald. He furrowed his brow and looked up. “Looks…interesting.” “It’s about how the accumulation of toxins in our bodies and the environment is – well, you have to read it.” Preston couldn’t say no to that beautiful face with the beautiful smile. But as he committed silently to read it, somehow he knew the book, as well as this tiny family sharing their meal with him, was about to turn his world upside down. “You should make him read Wheat Belly, too, Mom,” Melissa said. Cynthia glanced from her to him, and back. “I’m not making him read anything. I’m inviting him to.” Preston set the book beside him on the table and smiled at Melissa. “Have you read that book?” She shook her head. “I tried, but the language is too grown-up for me.” She cut her eyes toward her mother. “But it’s all about how modern wheat, even organic wheat, makes people sick in all kinds of ways because of the huge amount of gluten in it. Right, Mom?” “Basically.” She shifted her eyes back to Preston. “You’re welcome to borrow that, too, at some point, but you’re already overwhelmed as it is.” She didn’t know the half of it. Up until a few minutes ago, he had decided he was going to tell the truth about where he worked. Sure, she might kick him out on his rear. But if she were like most people who went on a health kick, she would be over it in a month and, if they were meant to be a couple, would call him back. She was not going to be over this in a month. She was in this too deep, apparently devouring books on the subject in her spare time. And he knew from their last visit that she had about as much spare time as he did. Not much. Besides, his mind was spinning with all the new information – new to him, anyway – that she and Melissa had so generously shared. Generously, and enthusiastically. Yep, there was no doubt about it. One way or another, he was toast. Gluten-free, of course. ********** Since it was a school night, they didn’t have time for a movie once dinner ended, so they played a couple of board games before Preston went home. Cynthia kept sneaking glances at him, hoping, wondering. She hoped that his questions tonight indicated a serious interest in his own health, not just idle curiosity for what she and Melissa were doing. Wondered that several times during the conversation, he seemed more than overwhelmed. A couple of times she was certain she caught a flicker of guilt in his eyes, and more than a trace of uncertainty. A couple of times, he had been on the verge of saying something – she could tell by the way he’d opened his mouth and postured himself – but then clamped his mouth shut and relaxed back into his chair. Well, maybe “relaxed” wasn’t the right word, because both times his jaw clenched slightly while his normally smooth brow wrinkled. Only for a couple of seconds, but she’d noticed. At least this time he’d seemed more open to hear what both she and her daughter had to say about their new choice of diet. She surprised herself with her confidence and excitement, because this was all so new to her and the information on diet out there was often so contradictory and confusing. Or, maybe her feelings had nothing to do with her newfound knowledge and everything to do with the fact that a kind, handsome man was sitting at her supper table, apparently taking an avid interest in her. In her daughter. And there was another hope. She hoped that his interest in Melissa was genuine. She wasn’t naïve enough to believe that there was no chance he was treating her daughter like a princess in order to get to Cynthia. But the more they talked, laughed, and played, the less she feared that this might be the case. Preston reminded her of Justin: kind, solicitous, honest. He wasn’t as soft-spoken as Justin had been, but that was likely for the best. She didn’t want to expect that Preston would replace her deceased husband. That would be a greater burden for him than to read the book he’d borrowed tonight. Another hope: she strongly hoped he would bring the book back, because she needed to re-read it at least five more times in order to absorb and understand the information itself, as well as the ramifications implied by the information. Thirty minutes past Melissa’s usual weekday bedtime, Cynthia reluctantly insisted that Preston go. She could have had him stay after Melissa had gone to bed, but Cynthia was tired herself and couldn’t afford to take a day off from her business. “Thank you so much for the delicious meal.” Standing at the door, Preston looked from Cynthia to Melissa, smiling, his gloved fingers holding the book against his side. When his gaze alighted back on Cynthia’s face, their eyes locked for a long moment. “We should get together again soon,” she ventured, suddenly feeling shy. “I’ll call you.” Was Preston’s voice shaking? He wasn’t nervous, was he? Yes, he was. That made her feel better. He broke eye contact with her, and turned to her daughter. “Melissa. Would you mind if I gave your mother a hug?” Melissa shook her head, grinning slyly. “As long as you hug me first. And no lips. It’s too soon.” The declaration broke the spell, and both Cynthia and Preston laughed as he reached his arms out to the girl. Then he met Cynthia’s gaze again. If it weren’t for Melissa, he would have kissed her, she could just tell. But his embrace was nice enough. Warm and gentle, but still strong. Lingering. As he pulled back, Cynthia felt a little dizzy from the closeness. The light smell of aftershave that lingered around him, the caress of his arms, the touch of his cheek against hers, awakened sensations deep inside her that had been asleep for a long time. Sensations that told her it was too late. Too late to avoid Preston for the sake of focusing on her healthy-food-for-kids mission. Too late to pretend that the memory of Justin was enough. Too late, regardless of how Preston felt, not to fall in love. Chapter Sixteen It was too late. If Preston thought he was going to keep thinking of Cynthia as just a friend, or going to be able to harden himself against the inevitable pain that would come when he finally talked straight with her about his job, he had blown it tonight. He hadn’t felt desperate to kiss her, as Melissa had feared. He’d tried moving fast with women before, and moving slowly, and discovered that the latter was always the wiser course. Still, he had wanted, more than anything, to show her some affection. Even though in reality they hadn’t spent that much time together, in his soul he felt like he’d known her for years. And wanted to physically express what their friendship was coming to mean to him. He hadn’t expected her touch to arouse in him the desire that had been aroused. Not just physical, but emotional as well. He’d had to force himself to leave her house that night, struggling against a powerful longing to sit up with her all night and learn as much about her as he could – her past, her hopes, her dreams, her fears. More than anything, he wanted to learn if she was feeling as strongly toward him as he was toward her. He believed she was, since she had invited him back. But he didn’t know if he would come back. If she called Kelly to find out the “scoop behind the soup”, what would stop her from finding out the names of the company leaders? His name was, after all, listed on both the national corporate website as well as the smaller website for the regional headquarters. And she had apparently been online a lot these days, doing research. And when she found out who he really was, she would not want him to come back. As he had a few days ago, all the way home he wrestled with this idea. Except this time, the fight was so painful his chest began to ache. He could give up a promising career that paid a salary that put him in the top five percent of wage earners in the U.S., and be able to continue on with his relationship with Cynthia. Or, he could keep his financial and career future secure, and lose Cynthia. The catch-22 about the whole thing was that he had no guarantee he had a future with Cynthia. Of course, with the way things were going with Delico, he had no guarantees there, either. On the other hand, if he left Delico now, he would have a hard time trying to ascertain whether or not the company truly did have anything to do with Melissa and the other St. Peter students’ illnesses. If he could convince Cynthia his job gave him a position to help her in her plight, would it make a difference? By the time he got up to the floor where his apartment was, he’d grown exhausted by the mental tug-of-war. All he wanted was to get into bed, pull the covers over his head, and sleep like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a brand new world where all his previous troubles were but a distant memory. The last time he had had such an urge was when he was eighteen. When his father died – because Preston had copped out on his convictions. As he traipsed down the hall to his door, another door opened. The door to Karen’s apartment, he realized too late. In a flash, the girl was beside him, clinging to his arm with both hands, smelling of wine and dressed in – could he even say that she was dressed? Frilly, lacy lingerie, a scanty top and a bikini bottom, barely covered her private parts. “Preston, I’ve been waiting for you all night.” He scoffed, keeping his eyes straight ahead after that first glance and trying to shake her from his arm. “It’s only nine o’clock. That’s hardly all night.” Her fingers gripped him more tightly. “All the more time for us to have a little fun.” Preston stopped walking, grabbed both her wrists in his hand, and peeled her hands off his arm. “Look, I’ve told you before, you’re too young for me. Besides, I’m seeing somebody else.” Thank God, he could honestly tell her that now. “So? Are you engaged?” Her voice was sweet and seductive. “None of your business.” He tried to walk away, but she kept pace with him. “Even if you were committed, there’s no law against having a little fun on the side.” “My mother would say differently.” It just slipped out, and he immediately regretted it. “Your mother?” Karen’s tone became mocking. “Are you still under Mommy’s thumb?” “No, but – “ “Spend the night with me. Just this once.” Preston, nearly at his door, stopped abruptly and pivoted around to glare at her. With strength he didn’t know was inside him, he managed to keep his eyes on hers, ignoring the rest of her body. Her beautiful, voluptuous body that reeked of female desire. Even without looking at it, its presence made his vulnerable emotional state go off-kilter. Just a little. He inhaled deeply, reminding himself that he was not cheap, nor a womanizer. He felt his gaze soften. “Karen, I don’t do cheap sex.” The hurt immediately registered in her eyes. “Cheap? You think I’m cheap?” Preston glanced around, afraid that her shouts would be heard by the neighbors. “That’s not what I –“ “Fine!” She stepped away from him. “If that’s what you think of me, it’s over between us. Hear me? You’ve blown it, mister!” She whirled around and began stomping toward her apartment as his next door neighbor, another single businessman, opened his door. He glanced at Preston, then stared after Karen’s scantily- clad figure with wide eyes. “I wouldn’t mind some cheap sex.” Preston almost said, “Help yourself.” But he didn’t want to see Karen used any more than he would use her himself. Instead, he shook his head at the man – whose short, obese body would likely have no chance with Karen, anyway – and said, “You need to think better of yourself.” As he went into his apartment, he realized that his mother had just come out of his mouth again. Perhaps Karen was right, in a way. But if being under his mother’s thumb meant that he would be less of a screw-up, that wasn’t such a bad thing. ********** Taking a tour through the factory on her lunch break on Thursday was an eye-opener for Lucy. She had had an idea of what went on, of course, but actually seeing all the machines and the huge vats of steaming liquid and watching robots pour pre-mixed additives into various cans and containers cemented her conviction that the resulting products were as natural foods for the human body as were yarn, quilting pins and knitting needles. She had asked dozens of questions, careful to avoid any that would make her sound critical or skeptical, and studied the different lines of production with hawk-like eyes. But nothing she saw or heard gave her any reason to believe that anything fishy was – or had been – going on in this factory. She either needed to dig deeper, or decide that the poisoning of the food was happening on the various school campuses, not at any of the factories of the companies that provided school meals. She would dig as deeply as she could, of course, but the second possibility began to make more sense. If Delico – or anybody else – was putting out dangerous foods, why wasn’t anyone in the general public getting sick from them? Why just the kids at school – and why only a few kids? Cynthia had given her a partial answer to that when she’d told her that Melissa had revealed that several of the kids around her that fateful day had complained about the taste of the lunch, and then not eaten it. But what about all the other kids? Were their lunches distasteful, too, or just the batch of food for Melissa’s class? Lucy had held fast to her vow not to discuss anything else about the tainted food issue with her husband, but she had to talk to somebody. So after supper, she went into the bedroom to call her former partner in crime. “Ick,” was Erin Halley’s comment when Lucy had summarized her factory tour. “It’s a wonder people who eat that stuff aren’t dead within ten years.” “They maybe are half dead.” Lucy shifted on the bed. “They just don’t know it.” “Not till they have a heart attack.” “Or get diagnosed with cancer.” “Or suddenly develop Parkinson’s.” Erin’s voice rose with excitement. Lucy wondered if she could quit teaching school and make twice the money she did now by channeling her enthusiasm for healthy eating into some sort of business. Lucy tried to keep her voice down, but felt the same excitement. “Of course, then they blame it on genes.” “Or bad luck.” Erin paused. “This doesn’t have anything to do with food, but my and Leila’s classes are bussing over to Wainwright next week to perform for their Kindergarten classes. Do you have any idea whether this would require a field trip permission letter signed by the parents? I’ve e-mailed Mr. Wade, and left him a note in his mailbox, but for some reason he’s not getting back to me.” Lucy told her that if the kids were getting on a bus, even if for only half a mile, she needed to count it as a field trip and at least notify the parents to give them an opportunity to forbid their children from going. That was the end of the conversation, and after, Lucy felt she wasn’t done talking about all she had seen today at the plant. Witnessing the actual processing of what had once been nutritious food had given her a whole new perspective, spawning dozens of new thoughts and questions. A short phone call wasn’t enough. She needed to sit down with somebody and share what she was thinking, somebody sympathetic to her cause. Not Mario. And not Emma, because she was a little too young to take in everything swirling through Lucy’s mind. Nearly in high school, the girl had enough stress in her life without Lucy adding to it. Looking down at the phone she still cradled in her hand, Lucy scrolled through her contacts until she found Cynthia’s number. A few minutes later, the two women agreed to meet together for a couple of hours on Saturday morning. *********** “This can’t be true.” Preston sat in his recliner on Thursday night, reading the book Cynthia had lent him. Non-fiction, especially diet-related, was not the genre he typically read. The suspense-thriller novel, Koontz and Grisham style, was his usual pick. But this relatively slim volume was turning out to be just as riveting. He’d started reading as he ate dinner, and now sat in his recliner, unable to put the book down. His muttered comment didn’t reflect his belief that the author was making things up as much as his fear that the author was relaying straight facts. More than that – truth. If Fitzgerald was indeed revealing a truth about the modern world and how its inundation with toxic substances was gradually and progressively destroying not only the planet, but even the brains of each successive generation of people, whether or not Preston was going to stick with his career was more than a matter of catching or losing the woman he wanted. It was a serious matter of moral and ethics. Even the fact that Delico used chemical dyes and oodles of plastic every year in its packaging was enough to indict the company under this author’s scrutiny. But Preston hadn’t gotten to be V.P. of a big company for nothing. He was smart enough to know not to take the word of one person. He got up out of the chair, went to his computer, and began searching and surfing. An hour later, stunned by what he’d discovered, he knew the author was in no way misinforming, misleading, or deceiving his readers. Where had this information been all his life? And could it be true that just because he was cancer-, Alzheimer’s-, and Parkinson’s-free now did not mean that the cocktail of toxins that had been growing inside him since before birth was going to cause him serious pain, misery, and financial loss ten, twenty, thirty years ahead? By this time, it was getting late. Preston needed to somehow find time to do some of his own investigating into the school lunch illnesses, and if he was going to get an early start on things tomorrow he needed to go to bed soon. But he could spare a few more minutes. He sat back down in his recliner, intending to read just the next chapter. Four chapters later, he went to bed, his mind reeling so that it took him another forty minutes to finally drop off into a restless sleep. The next day, Friday, he wanted nothing more than an excuse to drive out to the plant again. After a morning staff meeting, the excuse came. Another quality inspector was scheduled to show up at the factory at one. Perfect. Preston was required to be there, so he did not have to risk raising suspicion by shirking his office duties in order to make an unplanned trip out. Not that Guy would have cared, but if Preston were to receive an e-mail from the national office and not respond in a timely manner, things could get ugly. Then again, he thought wryly, if the strange e-mail from Monday had not been a hoax, he was about to lose his job, anyway. He had no plans to show up at an empty warehouse alone for some bogus “meeting” which objective might be to blow his head off. And even if the e-mail had been some kind of sick joke, there was the book The Hundred Year Lie, whose powerful statistics and persuasive weaving together of connections between modern industry and health were absolutely convincing – and convicting. Preston was starting to wonder if he was young enough to start his career over. The mid- winter air was a bit warmer than average, the sky mostly blue. Preston had to put on his sunglasses as he drove to the Delico Foods plant, so strong was the glare of the sun reflecting from the white snow. Not wanting to bother with the bulk of his winter coat, and not feeling that he needed it that afternoon, he left it in the car after parking in a spot marked “corporate officers” and went into the building. Today, the cheerful, round-faced Hispanic woman worked alone at the desk. When she glanced up, she appeared startled, and was excessively effusive with her greeting. He smiled, not so much out of friendliness than humor. The woman apparently became unnerved in the presence of what his father used to refer to as “Big Shots,” his uncomplimentary term for anyone who made a lot more money than he did and must perforce be greedy and selfish. Preston would be a big shot in his father’s eyes, were he still alive, and Preston wondered if it was just as well he was dead. Guilt pricked his insides. He forced himself to focus on the tasks at hand, the first one being to put Kelly’s new receptionist at ease. “Ms. Perez, good afternoon.” She blushed under her tan skin. “Oh, please, call me Lucy. Everybody does. Unless you think – if it’s not – professional. Enough.” He smiled more broadly as he stepped closer to her desk. “Ms. – Lucy. I assume you do not express this kind of agitation with Mr. Jackson?” She bit her lip, looked down, and shook her head. “Nor with the employees at the plant, or with strangers who come in off the street?” Another shake of the head. “Lucy, please look at me.” He kept his voice gentle. But for her south-of-the-border heritage, she reminded him a lot of his mother. She looked. “Do I intimidate you because you’re afraid I might fire you?” She shifted her gaze sideways, down, then back at him. “Not really. Well, maybe. A little. It’s just that you’re, well, the vice president.” Now he laughed out loud. The way she intoned his company title, he might have been the Vice President of the United States. Or her favorite rock star. “Lucy, first. Kelly – Mr. Jackson – is the one who hired you, and he is the one who will fire you, if he believes you are not doing your job. Second, I am only – wait. Your name is Lucy?” Her left eyebrow arched. She nodded slowly. Lucy. Cynthia’s friend was – no, that couldn’t be. Surely there was more than one Lucy in this city. He huffed out a breath, irritated with himself for letting his mind go on such an irrational rabbit trail. “I’m sorry. Where was I?” “The second reason I shouldn’t be intimidated by you.” She was smiling, although she still looked a little perplexed by his query about her name. “Thank you. I am just another person. I get up in the morning, get ready for work, go to work, do my job, go home to an empty apartment, eat, watch some T.V., and go to bed.” Why he threw in that bit about an empty apartment, he had no idea. Except that he had a feeling this woman was married, or at least divorced with children, and therefore deserved his envy, he thought, more than he deserved hers. He extended his hand out to her. “Can we shake on not being nervous around me anymore?” She took his hand, beaming. “I’ll do my best, sir.” He supposed that was all he could ask. He did his best, too. His best to make sure this inspector was on the up-and-up, his best to make sure that the woman was not left alone for a single second, from her entrance into the main building to her exit back to the parking lot after she completed the inspection. He also did his best, since he was there, to watch the machines for any sign of malfunction and the people for any sign of sneaky behavior. By the end of the inspection, he was satisfied that all was well with the plant, and the inspector had given Delico a tentative preliminary thumbs-up. “This is one of the cleanest operations I’ve seen,” she commented, “and as far as I can see you are in compliance with all of the relevant regulations.” If only Preston could have had a television reporter standing next to them when she had made those concluding remarks. No matter. When the official results came back, he would be sure that at least the newspapers would vindicate Delico for the false accusations of the previous couple of weeks. Saturday, he would have to work up his nerve to tell Cynthia the truth. She might at least be relieved to find out that Delico Foods had nothing to do with Melissa’s food-related trauma, even if she did throw him out on his ear. Chapter Seventeen “How was work today?” “Fine.” Lucy tore off a piece of the corn tortilla with more vigor than necessary, then scooped up some guacamole with it. She was not going to let herself get excited and tell Mario everything. She was not. Mario sighed and set down his fork. “You used to talk my ear off every night when you worked at the school.” “Yeah,” Lucy said around the bite she had just taken, “and you didn’t like it, so count your blessings.” Mario stared at her for several seconds. “I give up. What did I do?” “You didn’t do nothin’.” “Lucy.” He reached his hand over and gently took hold of her wrist. “I ain’t been married to you for all these years for nothing. When you don’t talk to me, you’re mad at me. Tell me what I did so I can make it right.” “As if you don’t know.” Mario’s next sigh was much louder. “I don’t know.” Lucy shook her head and tried to pull out of his grasp. He tightened it. “Talk to me, mujer.” His voice was still gentle, but edged with frustration. Lucy rolled her eyes and took her turn to sigh. “You don’t share my passion for healthy food, so it doesn’t matter.” Mario looked like he’d been slapped. He opened and closed his mouth several times, apparently trying to decide how to answer, but finally just let go of her wrist and focused on his plate, devouring the rest of his meal as if he hadn’t eaten for a week. Lucy was glad Emma was staying at a friend’s house. She didn’t need to experience the tension that ensued, and hung thickly around the house for the rest of the evening like a wet blanket. She didn’t need to see her parents acting immaturely and modeling exactly how a loving couple should not treat each other. Lucy knew she was being immature, but didn’t care. She was tired of being hurt by Mario’s indifferent attitude toward her interest in natural health and nutrition, and didn’t think talking to him about it would make things any better. In fact, she was pretty sure it would make things worse. They ignored each other until bedtime. “Lucy, sit with me a minute,” Mario urged her, patting the side of the bed where he sat in his nighttime shorts. Lucy sat, back ramrod straight and eyes fixed on the closed bedroom door. She stiffened further when Mario’s arm went around her shoulders, but he didn’t let go. “I miss you, baby,” he whispered. Her resolve weakened, and she relaxed against him. “I haven’t gone anywhere.” “I miss your talk. Your banter with me and Emma at the dinner table.” Mario rubbed her arm with his fingers. “It started when you got your new job.” Lucy pulled away from him. “I got the idea you didn’t care about it.” “I was only upset because you kept something important from me.” His voice grew in volume and was fringed with frustration. “It made me feel more like a roommate than a husband.” What did he think she felt like all these years, with him only going along with the changes she’d made to her family’s diet but never wholeheartedly buying into them? Did he have any idea how lonely it was when one spouse took an intense interest in something she believed to be vitally important, while the other cared little to nothing about it? But she knew voicing these thoughts would do nothing positive for their relationship, so she simply said, “I already said I was sorry.” Get over it. Mario reached for her hand, and she let him take it. “And I already forgave you. So why the silent treatment?” She shot him a glare. “I’ve been talking to you.” “Not much.” He squeezed her hand. “Yes, sometimes I have a hard day at work and the last thing I want is to hear about yours. But most of the time, I enjoy hearing your stories and opinions.” Lucy snorted, pulling her hand out of his. “I’ve gotten the feeling my opinions don’t count for much.” Mario stood up to face her directly, his eyes blazing. “Stick to the point.” Lucy got up and brushed past him to get into her side of the bed. “Okay. Here’s the point. The point is you never did understand why Juan died. Why what you eat is so important. The point is that I’m tired of talking to a brick wall. No,” she added, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture toward Mario when he opened his mouth to respond, “I’m done. I’m not going to keep confiding in you when you think I’m half crazy. Good night.” She pulled the covers up so that they almost covered her face. Mario always kissed her good night when they went to bed. But she didn’t expect it tonight. And didn’t get it. In fact, without another word, Mario grabbed his pillow from the bed and left the bedroom, and didn’t return the whole night. ********** Friday was no fun. No fun at all. Preston was the center of a conference call involving all the leaders in the company around the nation. While he wasn’t exactly framed as a bad example, he was used as an illustration for why the three other regional V.P.s and presidents, as well as their immediate support staff, should always keep careful watch because you never knew what kind of underhanded game your competition was going to play. Because by now, the CEO, CFO, and several other of the national corporate leaders had become convinced that the soup episode, and possibly the tainted school food, had been a ploy by the competition to make Delico look bad. Preston didn’t agree. The next largest major food manufacturer to Delico was much smaller, and had been around for less than half the time. And from all reports – Preston had done his due diligence and checked them out online – they were increasing their profits every year as well as holding their own in the stock market. They would be stupid to try to come against someone as powerful as Delico. But Preston kept his mouth shut. He was quickly becoming aware that he was more of a cog in the Delico big wheel than anyone of any importance, despite his title and salary. So, Friday turned out to be quite the miserable day for him. He couldn’t even get himself to pick up Cynthia’s book that evening, though he intended to finish it soon and discuss it with her. Assuming she still wanted to see him after tomorrow. Tomorrow came, and Preston was as ready as he was going to be. He fought hard to keep the memories of yesterday’s meeting out of his mind, because he planned today to be a special day, and wanted to be in the best mood possible. The girls were going out, but they didn’t know it yet. By ten o’clock that morning, the anticipation of serving up a pleasant surprise had, for the most part, overshadowed the events of the day before. Now all he had to do was get down his hallway without Karen seeing him. As he had the past couple of days, he slowly opened the door of his apartment and peered up and down the hallway before swiftly exiting, closing and locking the door as quietly as he could, and going to the elevator as quickly as he could without making noise. The carpeting on the hall floor was an immense help. He heaved a sigh of relief when he got off the elevator in the parking garage. He hated moving, but he was seriously considering doing so just to get away from that woman-girl. Fifteen minutes later, he was approaching Cynthia’s door. This time, without flowers, because he didn’t want to overdo it and figured Melissa still might have her bouquet from Wednesday. Besides, his surprise for them would more than make up for any disappointment they might feel when he showed up flower-less. He rang the doorbell, and waited. And waited. They were home, weren’t they? He had called and made the date Thursday night, and Cynthia had sounded excited about it. He was on the brink of pulling out his cell phone to call her when the door opened. Preston took two steps back, his eyes widening as he felt his eyebrows hit his hairline. “Ms. – Lucy?” Yes, it was. Kelly’s receptionist stood in front of him, looking as shocked as he was. But she seemed to recover more quickly, as a grin covered her face in the next instant. “You’re Cynthia’s boyfriend?” He felt heat creep up his neck and into his face. “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” Before he could finish what he was going to say, Lucy whirled around. Oh, no. She was going to tell Cynthia. She couldn’t tell Cynthia. If she did, he would lose any chance of being her boyfriend. His heart thudded in his ears like a war drum. “Lucy,” he fired off in a fierce whisper, “please, you’ve got to pretend…” But she was already several steps inside the house, too far away to hear, and shouting to Cynthia that she had a visitor. He was now officially toast. ********** “Cynthia, you have a visitor!” She wondered at Lucy’s excitement. She had already told her she had spent a couple of evenings with a man that seemed interested in her. She also told Lucy that she was going to have to leave soon because they had another date today. So why would Lucy be acting like a giddy teenager when he shows up at the door? But her own excitement at Preston’s appearance overwhelmed any wonder about Lucy’s behavior. Pulling on her sweater to smooth it out, and hoping the dry winter air hadn’t completely flattened her hair, she walked to the door, heart tripping. She shouldn’t feel this way about a man after just two dates, and two dates not even spent alone with him. Then she laughed at herself, remembering that she was head-over-heels in love with Justin by the end of their third date. Melissa, having emerged from her bedroom, was at the door, shaking Preston’s hand before Cynthia could get there. She had apparently invited him in, because the door was closed behind him. Lucy stood a little to the side, her eyes dancing, mouth curved up into a grin. Cynthia once again wondered why she was acting like a child. More immature than Melissa. Much more so. Her gaze went back to Preston. Although he had taken Melissa’s hand, he seemed to be barely conscious of it. His face looked stricken, as though he’d just heard some very bad news. Even when he looked at Cynthia, he did not smile. This all happened within a space of a couple of seconds. Then Lucy stepped toward her and said, “Cynthia! You didn’t tell me you were dating the regional vice president of Delico Foods.” Cynthia froze where she stood. Preston dropped Melissa’s hand, his face turning pale. She glanced from one to the other, ending with Preston. “What?” She felt like a giant vacuum cleaner had just sucked all the air from her lungs in a single swoosh. “Y – yes,” Lucy faltered, apparently picking up on the tension between Cynthia and Preston. “I – I’ve met him twice now at my job.” A pause. “Cynthia.” She turned her head toward Lucy, fighting a sudden wave of nausea. “Don’t tell me he didn’t…tell you.” Cynthia turned back to Preston, hoping, underneath her shock, that there was some kind of misunderstanding. “You – you told me you were part of a new distribution company.” Preston fixed his gaze on the floor. Only for a few seconds, but long enough for Cynthia to realize the truth. He had lied to her. Now it all made sense. Why he had risen to the defense of Delico last Saturday. Why he had met her outside of the Special Services building the day of her first demonstration. Then an invisible fist squeezed her stomach. Was he somehow in cahoots with that Munger idiot who had blown her off? Suddenly, an idea hit her head so hard that it almost knocked her off balance. Is that why Preston had been trying to get close to her? To charm her into stopping her demonstrations and her research into processed foods? Preston looked back up. “I was going to tell you today.” His voice was quiet, sorrowful. But it was just a show. A way to manipulate her further. Clenching her teeth, she grabbed Melissa’s arm and pulled her away from him. “Get out of my house.” “But I – “ “Now.” Her blood had never felt so hot, and she was in great danger of screaming and lashing out at him. She turned to Lucy. “You, too. You work for him. I don’t know if I can trust you anymore.” Lucy’s face crumpled, and her eyes grew moist. But Cynthia didn’t care – couldn’t care – whether she’d hurt the other woman’s feelings. Her own heart felt like it was bleeding to death. “Mom, what’s going on? Why are you so mad?” Cynthia glanced at her daughter and saw confusion and pain mingled on her face. Another reason not to trust. She had a child to protect. “Let Mommy handle this, Melissa.” As they had their exchange, Preston, crestfallen, opened the door and slowly walked out. Lucy followed. But when she got to the door, she turned around and said, “I promise, I ain’t never lied to you, Cynthia.” A single tear streaked her cheek. Then, she was gone. Fighting her own tears, Cynthia walked into the kitchen, where she had prepared another tasty lunch for the man she had hoped to have a future with. Melissa followed her. After sinking into a chair, she looked up at her daughter. “Mr. Brenner lied to us, honey. He works for one of the food processing companies that provides food to Franklin Elementary.” Melissa lifted her brow, and her eyes widened. Then her features twisted and she fell into Cynthia’s arms, sobbing loudly. “How could he, Mommy? How could he?” Cynthia didn’t know how he could. Yes, she did. With that kind of man, in that kind of position of power, it was all about money. And wasn’t that what she had been learning, that Big Food poured those dangerous chemicals into its concoctions in order to make their products as addictive as possible so that people would continue to buy more and more of them? But she would say none of this to Melissa. Not now. She needed to grieve. All she could manage was a weak apology, because her daughter may have been hurt as much as Cynthia. And it should never have happened. She should have listened to her gut instinct to stay focused on spreading the message about processed food, on figuring out how the food in the St. Peter schools were being poisoned. As Melissa’s sobs decreased, Cynthia determined that she would not waste any time grieving over what might have been. Not only that, but also she would not allow another man to distract her from her mission. Chapter Eighteen Preston needed a distraction, but he couldn’t make himself spend the afternoon as he had been planning to do with Cynthia and Melissa. Besides, a large part of it – the shopping spree – was a girly thing he had thought of just for their pleasure, not because he would enjoy it. He toyed with the idea of driving to the plant and talking in depth with a few employees, but right now, he wanted to forget he’d ever heard of Delico Foods. He ended up at the local Rec Center that featured an ice skating rink. He hadn’t been on ice skates for years, but he figured that if he had to put all his attention into something he wasn’t sure he could do, he could take his mind off the events of this morning. He parked his car, paid the admission and skate fees, and walked to the rink where he put on the skates. As usual for a Saturday, it was crowded, mostly with kids. He watched them for a couple of minutes and decided that most were more skilled than he was. He would be safe. Relatively. Doing his best to ignore the pop music that blared through the speakers, he slid out onto the rink and took a deep breath. Cautiously, holding his breath, he pushed his right foot out. He wobbled a little, but kept his balance as he pushed his left foot. It was all he could do. Nothing fancy. No twirling or skating backwards, like some of the kids were doing. But he made one whole circle around the rink without bumping into anybody and without falling down. He decided to increase his speed, and made several more circles without incident. The heaviness from the morning began to lift, and he began to feel a little bit like a kid himself. How he had wanted to grow up and be out on his own by the time he was fourteen! Now, he wished he could go back and tell his fourteen-year-old self what adult life was really like, and to enjoy being a kid while the lack of real responsibility lasted. Engrossed in his thoughts, he lost focus on what he was doing for a split second – the wrong second. Before he knew what was happening, he had plowed full speed into another body, lost his balance, and fallen onto the ice with a hard thud. The other person, apparently having instinctively gripped his shirt, fell on top of him, covering his chest and chin. The rasping of skates on ice continued around them. One person shouted at them to get the “blank” out of the way; another, a teenage girl, braked to a stop to ask if they were all right. Preston couldn’t answer. Whoever had fallen on him was crushing both his lungs and his larynx. But at least he hadn’t landed on the back of his head, he determined by the lack of pain there, and the abundance of pain in his tailbone. He could only hope he hadn’t broken it. The other person mumbled in response to the teenager, “I think so,” and began to struggle off of Preston. She was a woman, he saw then, a pretty, thin woman, probably in her mid-twenties, dressed in blue jeans and a pink-striped sweater pulled over a white turtleneck. As the pressure eased off his chest, he choked out to the teenage girl, “I’m all right.” The girl smiled, nodded, and skated off. Preston pushed himself up to a sitting position. By then, the woman who had fallen on him was standing up and looking down at him with a wry smile. “Been awhile since you were on skates?” The implication was that the accident had been all his fault. He wasn’t about to argue with her; she was right. “About twelve years.” Then he noticed a growing spot of red on her chin. “Oh, shoot, I made you bleed.” He struggled to get up, but failed until he finally rolled over onto his knees and somehow managed to stand upright – albeit unsteadily. The woman gave him a perplexed look. “Your chin. Right there.” He didn’t dare touch it, for fear of aggravating the pain, but pointed his finger within half an inch of what he now realized was a scrape. “Well, let’s get out of here before we get run over,” the woman suggested as two kids barreled by within a foot of them. “Need help?” She held out her hand. Preston took it without thinking. He had seen her pass him several times, and knew her ice skating skill level was much higher than his. While he wouldn’t expect her to hold up his weight if he started to fall again, she was probably a good anchor to help him keep his balance. His legs still felt wobbly from the scare of the impact, and his butt was killing him. They slowly skated to the edge of the rink, then stepped out of it and collapsed on the nearest bench. The woman burst out laughing. Preston hiked a brow at her. “I’m sorry,” she said. Then she touched the injured place on her chin. “Just a scrape. I felt it when it happened. No worries.” She had stopped laughing, but grinned at him broadly. “Well, that was funny now that it’s over, don’t you think?” Preston smiled, not so much because he agreed with her, but because her smile was contagious. He did not find her as attractive as Cynthia, but she had a winning smile. Then he winced, and shifted his bottom. Her smile faded. “You’re hurt, too.” Preston lifted a shoulder. “My tailbone. Hopefully just a bruise.” “That’s still really painful.” The lady grimaced. “I bruised my tailbone when I was sixteen, and had to stay in bed for a week. During Christmas vacation.” She stuck out her hand, smiling again. “Erin Halley, health nut and schoolteacher.” Preston shook her hand, knowing right away that he was going to be perfectly truthful. “Preston Brenner, regional vice president of Delico Foods.” Erin withdrew her hand as a shadow passed over her face. Preston didn’t miss it. “Yeah, I seem to have that effect on all health-conscious women.” “Oh, I didn’t mean – “ Erin cut herself off with a sigh. “Yes, I did. I’m a nutrition snob. I can’t deny it. My diet is better than your diet, and chances are good I’m going to live a lot longer than you, with a much better quality of life because I don’t eat fake food. Such as your company manufactures.” She said all this in a light, teasing tone, but underneath her words he heard a challenge. He decided to take her up on it. He wanted – no, needed to understand where Cynthia was coming from. Even if he never saw her again. “Listen, I know you came here to skate, not talk to some stranger who will confess complete ignorance when it comes to the health nut world. But can you spare a few minutes to answer a few questions?” Erin’s eyes twinkled with understanding. “You have your eye on another woman who is a health nut, and she has a problem with your career choice.” Preston leaned back, his brow furrowing. “It’s scary how you women do that.” He’d had girlfriends with incredible sixth senses that he could never comprehend. Erin shrugged. “Just putting two and two together. I have to know that much to teach second grade.” Preston chuckled. At least they understood each other. The last thing he needed today was an awkward conversation to explain that he was not interested in her romantically. He sobered. “I really am sorry about your chin.” Another shrug. “You gonna pick my brain, or what?” Preston paused. A teacher came into contact with a lot of people every day. And she more than likely worked in one of the St. Peter public schools. He had to make sure she wouldn’t go to work Monday – or any day – and blab about having talked with one of the evil men who were trying to poison children. “I – I need to be assured, first, that this conversation stays between the two of us. My position being what it is, and what’s been going on with the school food…” He let his voice trail off, suddenly aware that Erin may have no idea what he was talking about. Unless she worked at a school where one of the food-related illnesses had occurred and/or kept close tabs on local news, he might have just opened a Pandora’s box. But Erin responded without hesitation, and with a reassuring smile, “Let’s pretend I’m your health coach, and you’re my client, and so the usual professional confidentiality rules apply.” Preston relaxed. As much as he could while feeling like his lower back was on fire. He couldn’t wait to get back home and lie down. Too bad it couldn’t be for a whole week. “What’s wrong with the food that my company – and others – produce in a factory? It’s all sanctioned by the FDA.” Erin laughed sardonically. “Okay, first lesson. All health nuts believe that the FDA is paid off by both government lobbyists and Big Food – that’s companies like yours – and Big Pharm, while I’m at it, so that food and drug manufacturers can do whatever they want.” Preston stiffened. He had never paid anyone in the FDA off, never paid an inspector to lie on his or her report, and had never heard of anyone else in the leadership of Delico doing it. “You’re offended.” Erin spoke in a clipped tone. “But that’s the truth. I don’t give one flip about which practices the FDA sanctions. It means nothing to me. The higher-ups in that organization hold a lot of stock in both food and drug companies. Can you say, ‘conflict of interest’?” Preston felt his jaw tighten. Not so much because he was angry with her assertion, but because he was afraid she might be right. “Would you mind answering my question?” Erin looked at him blankly for a moment. “Oh. What’s wrong with your products. Well, think about it this way. The kind of so-called food your company puts out has only been around for about a hundred years. Every year, they come up with new chemical mixtures to flavor and color food. Nobody has ever done any scientific studies to find out how the individual chemicals affect the human body over time, not to mention how all the different chemicals thrown in together can impact the body.” She paused to take a breath, glanced over at the rink, then looked back at him. Straight into his eyes. He liked that, her not being intimidated by his professional title. She continued, “People who live on processed foods, plus go around using toxins to clean their house and bodies, their livers can’t take care of all that crap. Some of it – a lot of it, maybe – builds up in the body over time. And that causes health problems.” Preston frowned. “Prove it.” Then he regretted his fighting words. He was trying to understand Cynthia better, not antagonize his new acquaintance. To his surprise, she smiled brightly. “Okay. I’ve read probably fifty stories of individuals who had cancer, or M.S., or lupus, or chronic fatigue, and they got all the unnatural stuff out of their diet and cured themselves when doctors said their only help was symptom-relieving drugs. I’ve read books where medical doctors – medical doctors, Preston – tell about helping hundreds of patients with various health problems the same way. Some of these people went all raw, some of them went Paleo, some of them just stopped eating all packaged foods.” Her eyes flashed and her smile stiffened. “Dare you to tell me the stories were all made up.” Preston began to shift away from her, but a searing pain on his rear told him to stay put. “I – I take it you’ve had…trouble telling others this kind of information.” Erin sighed, her features softening, and nodded. “And here’s another thing. There was hardly any obesity before high fructose corn syrup and before the stupid government started telling people to eat eight frickin’ slices of bread a day.” This teacher definitely had a strong opinion or two on the subject. “There was hardly any autism or ADD or manic depression several decades ago. And hardly anybody ever had a heart attack back in 1900, when people were eating real fat like butter and lard. Heart attack incidences skyrocketed when people started eating hydrogenated oils.” Interesting. Preston’s doctor had told him to lay off saturated fat in order to help lower his LDL cholesterol. But could his problem have been with the oils in Delico’s pre-packaged meals? He swallowed, then watched the ice skaters on the rink for a long moment. Whether or not Delico products were at fault in Melissa’s or the other kids’ illnesses, they certainly didn’t seem to be the answer for health that he’d always believed they were. Not that he’d ever thought about food much in terms of health. Growing up, he’d been taught that food was for fuel. And although he’d read newspaper and online articles that talked about studies that connected higher vegetable and fruit consumption with lower cancer rates, he had come to believe that as long as he ate a variety of foods – including the kinds Delico produced, as he’d been told that they were “specially formulated” nutrition-wise – he would get everything his body needed. And if he got diagnosed with some horrible disease, genetics were to blame. Now a schoolteacher who probably made less than a quarter of the income that he did was shaking his beliefs to his very core. “You either don’t believe me or you’re totally overwhelmed.” Preston tore his eyes from the rink and gave Erin a small smile. “Overwhelmed.” Again. She nodded. “It’s a lot to take in one fell swoop. Here’s the rule that makes it simple.” She crossed one leg over the other. “Eat foods in the most natural form possible. If you can eat it raw, eat it raw. If you can’t, cook it as little as possible to make it palatable. I personally stay away from grains because you can’t eat them anywhere near their natural state. “If you want to add flavor, add fresh herbs or a little salt. Maybe apple cider vinegar. Raw honey to sweeten. But all this means you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and supplement that with a little fresh meat or eggs. For extra fat, butter and virgin coconut oil don’t go through too much processing. But, vegetable oils? My gosh, would you ever think about eating plain corn on the cob in order to get fat?” Preston shook his head, which was swimming. “Anyway, you get my point.” She looked at him, her head tilted to one side. “Don’t you?” Preston let out a breath. This woman had a passion for healthy eating, that was for sure. Much more so than Cynthia, as Cynthia’s passion seemed to be more along the lines of protecting her child. Then again, Cynthia had only just changed her diet. “I do. I get it.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “How long have you been into this…nutrition thing?” Erin smiled again, and Preston contemplated telling her she would make a great salesperson and make a lot more money with that smile than she did teaching. “Nine years. And believe me, it takes a lot of reading the right books to wade through all the bias and come up with the truth about food.” Preston leaned back and to the left to put his hand in his pocket and pull out his iPhone. The effort made him groan in pain. “Give me some titles,” he said, turning on the device’s recorder. Erin hiked her brow. “Really?” “Really.” Her smile went from one ear to another. “Okay. Nutrition And Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price. You can read it for free online at Australia’s Project Gutenberg site. Eat To Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. One of those M.D.’s I mentioned earlier. The Raw Food Detox Diet by Natalia Rose. Except, she doesn’t have the revelation about grain. Wheat Belly. I forget who wrote it, but that’s by another M.D. He does have the anti-grain revelation.” Preston arched his brow. “My – uh, the lady I’m interested in wanted me to read that one.” Erin smiled her approval. “Good. Look, I could go on, but those give you a pretty good foundation for a healthy diet. And there’s one more – but you – well, it really hits processed foods in the head.” She spoke more slowly now. “If you read it, don’t hold me responsible.” He looked up again. “For what?” “Anything.” “Title, please.” “Excitotoxins by Russell Blaylock.” Preston nodded, wondering if it was as complicated as the title made it sound. Not that he would avoid a challenging book. He was already convinced that manufactured foods weren’t doing anybody’s health any favors. Reading that book just might knock him over to Erin and Cynthia’s side of the fence. Preston stopped and saved the recording, turned off the phone, and met Erin’s gaze. Her face was flushed, and her eyes sparkled. Then she laughed. “I’m sorry for staring. It’s just that – nobody has ever asked me for a book reading list before.” She paused. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” “I am.” Serious because if he had any chance at all, he wanted to win Cynthia back. Serious because he didn’t want to continue in a career that wasn’t really helping the world to be a better place. Serious because he was not happy about the recent doctor’s report. “Thank you very much, Erin.” He extended his hand toward her. “Really. I only wish we could have met under less painful circumstances.” Erin laughed as she shook his hand. “I’ll be fine. Maybe I should thank you for giving me a fun story to tell my kids on Monday.” She stood up, and was back on the rink a few seconds later. Preston eased up off the bench, muttering a curse word under his breath. His tailbone hurt. Hopefully, he could spend the next day and a half in bed, recovering, and trying to figure out how he could convince Cynthia that he wasn’t the epitome of evil she thought he was. Chapter Nineteen All too frequently these days, Barry felt like the epitome of evil. He wished he could get into a time machine and go back five years and not get on the freeway that night. Because if he did, he would never have killed that man, and Johnson would never have seen it, and he would never have been able to set up this blackmail. Instead, on Wednesday night Barry had found himself loitering on the fifth floor of a luxury apartment building, hoping not to be seen by anybody, least of all Brenner. As usual, he had a dirty job to do, and if he didn’t do it, Johnson told him that their deal would be off. Barry had argued that the job didn’t need to be done until Brenner didn’t show up to the meeting on Monday. But Johnson was sure the man wouldn’t. And Johnson was nothing but efficient. He wanted to make sure that the threat he’d given Brenner would not prove futile. But Wednesday night, Barry witnessed some drama that made him hesitate. And gave him another, better strategy. He hadn’t told Johnson about it, because he had wanted it done by Friday. Barry couldn’t do it by Friday. The next day, his car broke down and he didn’t get it back until Saturday morning. That was time enough to put a note in the mailbox of that young, sexy, half-drunk thing he’d seen accost Brenner on Wednesday. “If you want to make an easy $1,000, meet me at the art museum admission desk Sunday at one. I’ll be wearing a cowboy hat. I know what you look like.” Now it was Sunday, and as he opened the door to the museum his hand shook. He’d never done anything like this before – bribed someone into doing a criminal act – and he was afraid of messing it up. Then again, how much worse could he mess his life up? He hadn’t counted on number one, a child dying, and number two, Johnson targeting a specific individual to persecute. The original plan was to take down Delico, not ruin the reputation of any one person. He supposed he should be happy Johnson wasn’t planning on killing Brenner. Barry took a deep breath, went into the museum, and sat down on a cushioned bench near the door. The gray-haired admissions clerk looked at him with narrowed eyes through small-framed spectacles. “I’m waiting on a friend,” he said before she could speak. The clerk smiled, adjusted her glasses, and focused her attention on a couple who were just coming in the door. A few minutes later, the girl came in. She was dressed in tight jeans and a jacket that accentuated every curve on her body. As she glanced around nervously, no doubt looking for him, he allowed himself a long moment to enjoy the sight of her. While she was considerably more covered up than she had been Wednesday night, she was still almost unbearably alluring. He wondered that Brenner had been able to turn her down. Finally, he stood and walked toward her. She met his gaze at the same time, but didn’t move. Instead, her eyes darted from him to the door, as if she was thinking about leaving. But then her gaze settled on him, though her eyes were narrowed into mere slits and her full lips turned downward into a frown. No, make that a pout. He shook hands with her. “My name is Darryl Klein.” Her grip, if you could call it that, was limp and ultra-feminine. “I’m not going to tell you my name. If you try to make me, I’m outta here.” So, she suspected that his offer was going to be not quite legal. Good enough. At least she was that smart. “You don’t have to tell me your name.” He spoke in a low tone, then pointed to the desk. “I’m going to pay the admission for both of us, then as we browse the art we will search for a vacant room. When we find one, I will tell you what I would like for you to do.” He made a move toward the desk, but she crossed her arms and stood as if rooted to the spot. “First, give me a clue to what this is about.” Barry gave her the most charming smile he could muster. “Would you like to get revenge on a certain Preston Brenner for making you look like a fool?” Her eyes widened, and she stared at him. After a long pause, she nodded, then followed him to the admissions desk. *********** Monday night, Preston was staring at his cell phone, wondering if he should call either his sister or his mother. His mother always seemed to have the right words of wisdom whenever he was in trouble, or had a decision to make, all through his childhood and well into his twenties. His sister seemed to have inherited this tendency to keen insight into problems. However, she would have more than a little bias about the sticky situation Preston found himself in. No matter what, she would counsel him to do what she had been nagging him to do for the past few years: quit his job. But he wanted to tell somebody about the strange e-mail he’d received a week ago. He hadn’t received a follow-up, and had stayed home tonight. As much as he wanted to believe that it was a hoax, he’d had a bad feeling about it ever since this morning. If he told his mother, she would worry. If he told Carly, she would nag. If only he could talk to Cynthia. As the thought went through his brain, somebody began pounding on his door. He started up. Was it the police? Had the anonymous e-mailer set him up as having perpetrated some crime or other? “Preston, please let me in. We have to talk!” Karen. Preston clenched his fists by his side and huffed out a breath. When would that girl ever learn? As quietly as he could, he walked into his bedroom and shut the door. The pounding and yelling continued, although in muffled tones. “Preston! This is important. I promise, I’m not trying to come onto you this time.” Yeah, right. And the President was from Jupiter. A long pause followed, and then he heard his name shouted, angrily this time, then a loud “harumph!” Then, quiet. Preston wanted to believe that she was lying, that she was just saying that so he would open his door and succumb to her seductive dress and mannerisms and words. But Karen was a rich, sexy, beautiful girl. She could have any number of good-looking upper-class men. There was no reason for her to desperately cling to her fantasies about Preston. Was there? He went out of his bedroom, shaking his head in confusion. He needed to call his sister, Carly, and tell her about the e-mail. She would tell him to call the police, to quit his job, to get a revelation about healthy eating. But what would she say about what Karen had just done? What would his mother say? He picked up the cell phone, put it down, ran his hand through his hair. He couldn’t be sure about Carly, but he knew what his mother would say. His mother would tell him to work it out. With a sigh, Preston snatched his keys off the table and walked out of his apartment, locking the door behind him. A glance around the hall revealed no Karen. He assumed she had returned to her apartment. Which suddenly seemed a mile away. His feet were like bricks as he spanned the distance, and at her door he almost turned around and ran back. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a chicken walking into a fox’s den. His hand felt like it weighed a ton when he raised it to push her doorbell. The task accomplished, he took a couple steps back and waited. The door swung open a few seconds later. “Why, it’s Preston. Imagine that.” Karen’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “So nice of you to condescend to visit me.” She could have lowered her voice. As it was, he glanced around to make sure none of her neighbors were opening their doors to find out what the disturbance was. At least she neither smelled nor appeared drunk. When his gaze settled back on her face, she was giving him a steely glare. “Why didn’t you answer your door?” “I – I was busy.” He really needed to get out of the habit of lying. Of course, he had in a sense been busy – busy trying to ignore her, busy trying to decide what her motives were if not to “come onto” him. Karen let out an exasperated sigh, then stepped aside. “Come on in, then.” Preston went in, but went no further than the door. Karen followed him, closing the door behind her and dropping into a high-end dining room chair that went with the glass-topped high-end dining room table. “I suppose you don’t want to sit down.” The girl was smarter than he thought. “No, thank you.” Karen sighed heavily. “Fine. I suppose you wanna know why I wanted to talk to you.” “Yes.” Preston tried not to let his impatience show. She knew why he had come over. “You know a guy named Darryl Keith?” Preston searched his memory for a few seconds, then shook his head. “No.” Karen frowned. “He seemed to know you.” Preston narrowed his eyes. “What are you talking about?” “You know a guy who’s fat, red-faced, and a little bald?” He was sure he knew several. “And talks down to you like a college professor trying to show off his vocabulary? An image of Dr. Barry Munger floated into his head. He stared at her. “I…might.” He felt the artery in his neck begin to throb. “Why?” Karen broke eye contact, seeming to study a crumb on the table for a long time. Preston was on the verge of stepping toward her to demand an answer when she spoke again. “He wanted to pay me money to get you into trouble.” She cleared her throat, looking at the abstract painting adorning the opposite wall. “Okay, he did pay me money.” That lowlife slimeball. Preston should have known Munger was up to no good the last time they met. Was it he who had sent the threatening e-mail? “Go on.” He spoke between clenched teeth, but for once his anger was not directed toward Karen. “I was supposed to go to your apartment tonight or tomorrow, and distract you and plant a packet that has some kind of evidence that would get you fired.” She turned and looked at him then. “He suggested I drug you and get you into bed.” Her lips quirked upward, but her smile did not reach her eyes. Preston’s mouth went dry. “You took the money. Why didn’t you do it?” The fact that she had taken the money astonished him. She surely didn’t need it. Unless it was a huge amount, or she was in some kind of financial trouble. Her smile faded, and she gazed at him with a seriousness in her eyes he’d never seen before. Not that he’d seen them all that often. “I was pretty torqued with you after Wednesday night. But not that torqued.” She lifted one shoulder slightly. “I like you, Preston. You know that. I don’t think I could live with myself if I made you lose your job.” So, the girl had some scruples after all. Preston would never have guessed it by the shameless way she chased after him. But he couldn’t relax. Not just yet. Not until he asked her – “You’re not attaching any strings to this magnanimous decision of yours?” Karen shook her head. “Whatever that ‘magma’ word means, no.” She got up, walked over to her kitchen, and opened a drawer. After withdrawing a large envelope from it, she went over to Preston and handed it to him. “This is what I was supposed to hide somewhere in your apartment.” He took it, his shoulders and jaw finally beginning to relax. “Thank you, Karen. Very much.” Their gazes held for a long moment. Preston was relieved to find that he felt no spark between them. Any affection he harbored toward her at the moment went no further than that of a big brother for his little sister. He hoped Karen felt the same. She finally tore her gaze away and stepped backward, which he took as a good sign. “I – I’ll leave you alone after this, if you want me to.” Preston held up the packet. “I owe you big for this. But,” he gave her a small smile, “not in the way you probably want.” Karen continued her study of the floor. “I know.” “There’s a handsome, smart guy out there for you, I’m sure of it.” Although Preston hoped Karen grew up a little before she found him. “I’m just not him.” She looked up at him, a resigned smile on her face. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.” She took a step toward him, hand outstretched. “Friends?” Preston gently held her hand for a brief moment, waving the envelope slightly with his other hand. “I guess only a friend would do something…like this.” He released her hand, turned to go, turned back as a thought rammed into his head like an eighteen-wheeler against a concrete wall. “Karen, you took the money.” She nodded. “And you’re not going through with your side of the bargain.” She stared at him blankly. What should he say? He didn’t want to scare her, certainly had never thought Barry Munger to be capable of a Mafia-type crime. But he may have been partnered with somebody who was. And Karen needed a heads-up. It was the least he could do. “If they find out that you didn’t keep your end of the bargain, you might be in danger.” The sassy twinkle returned to her eyes, and she shrugged. “So I’ll give him back the lousy thousand bucks. Like I need it, anyway.” Preston let out a heavy breath. “I hope it’s that simple. Karen, promise me you’ll tell me if you feel like anything strange is going on. Like, somebody’s stalking you or anything.” She laughed her carefree laugh, and tonight, it grated on his nerves more than ever. Despite her assumed sexual prowess, she was quite innocent and naïve. And her innocence might get her killed. He leaned forward, speaking sternly. “Promise me.” Another laugh. “Okay, okay, I’ll promise, you old worrywart.” Preston returned to his apartment, the invisible weight that had begun to press on him a few days ago now tripling to a crushing degree. Cynthia hated him, Munger was – for some inexplicable reason – trying to get him fired from his job, and now Karen’s life might be in danger. The first two issues he could probably struggle his way through, but over the last he had no control. He was helpless. Eighteen years old all over again. Chapter Twenty Why had she been so hasty? She couldn’t even blame “that time of the month” on how she had treated Preston a week ago. Cynthia glanced at the calendar on the wall. Yes, a week ago today. Last Wednesday. It wasn’t like her not to give people second chances, not to hear out their side of the story. Which just proved how deeply she had come to feel for Preston. If she hadn’t, one little lie – a lie he most certainly told because he knew she wouldn’t have given him the time of day if he had told her the truth at the outset – would not have made her throw a potentially good relationship away. She should call him, she had frequently thought over the past couple of days. But every time she did, another thought trailed right after it: he had lied. Deceived her. Justin never had. She could not, especially since she had a child to think of, continue on in a relationship founded on a lie. Even if he wasn’t trying to use her, which she still couldn’t be sure of. His smile was too charming, his words too smooth, for her to be easily convinced that he hadn’t been trying to get under her skin so she would lay off her persecution of the food industry. “Mom, are you okay?” Melissa’s voice brought a welcome relief to her mental self-torment. “You’ve hardly touched your dinner.” Despite herself, Cynthia had to smile at her daughter throwing her own motherly words back at her. Then she sighed, dropping the fork she’d been moving her green beans around with. “I was thinking about Preston.” Melissa scrunched her brow. “Why? You’re only going to make it worse.” She shoveled a forkful of dinner into her mouth. Cynthia lifted her brow. “Make what worse?” “Your moodiness. I got over him pretty fast, Mom. But you’ve hardly smiled since we last saw him, and half the time you look like you’re going to burst into tears.” That’s what she felt like half the time. “You’re right. I need to forget about him.” But Preston’s face loomed larger than ever in her mind when she gathered with a group of forty or so other parents the next day in front of yet another St. Peter school, Wainwright Elementary. She had already e-mailed and called both Dr. Munger and several of the district cafeteria managers, but as of yet had heard nothing back from the Special Services department and only polite, vague e-mails from the managers, telling her they had no power to change the menu. It looked like she would keep on demonstrating until she could garner enough parental interest to create a protest group that nobody could ignore. Say, two or five hundred people. But that seemed a long way off. The only thing that kept her from giving up was hearing Preston’s words that first time they meant, the affirmation that she was taking action and trying to make a difference. Had he really been sincere? The demonstration began around ten-thirty, and soon after they had to regroup in another location a few yards away when a school bus drove up, coughing out several dozen children. They filed into the building behind two teachers, one of whom Cynthia recognized. It was Erin Halley, the teacher at Franklin who had gotten into trouble for letting Cynthia use her classroom after school. Erin glanced at the parents as she walked by, and gave them a thumbs-up. Cynthia didn’t think the teacher had seen her, but appreciated her encouragement all the same. She was on their side. Probably would have been part of the demonstrations if she hadn’t had a day job. Cynthia hoped to see her again before they left, but by the time their hour-long demonstration ended the children from Franklin still had not come back to the bus. After thanking the parents for coming, and reminding them of the Saturday meeting at the library and to bring as many other parents they could persuade to come, Cynthia turned away from the school building and began to cross the street. A silver Lexus careened around the corner as she did so, and she jumped back onto the curb just in time. Her heart thudded violently and her mind spun with confusion. She thought she had recognized the driver. Dr. Munger, from Special Services. But an employee of the school district wouldn’t be driving like that, would he? She must have been mistaken. “Cynthia, honey, are you all right?” Faith was by her side, an arm around her shoulder, a few seconds after the car sped by. Cynthia inhaled slowly, trying to quell the rising nausea inside. “Yes. I’m okay.” Faith glared after the disappearing car. “I wish I’d had my phone out to take a picture of the jerk’s license plates. Ought to be put in jail.” Cynthia agreed, but was still too shaken to speak. It was with trembling hands that she started her car, and a sickening stirring in her gut made her keep coming back to an idea which seemed more like truth every time she thought about it: the driver had been Dr. Munger. And he had been driving like a criminal fleeing the scene of his crime. At six o’clock that evening, Lucy called. Cynthia didn’t know because she answered the call, only by looking at her caller I.D. It was two hours later, after Melissa had gone to bed, that she decided to listen to the voice mail Lucy had left. No doubt there would be groveling, and begging for Cynthia to continue on with their friendship. Which is why she hadn’t answered the phone in the first place. So she was surprised, and shocked, when instead, Lucy’s voice said, “Cynthia, if you don’t talk to me now, you’ve got to get online and watch the six o’clock news. It’s the first story. Cynthia, not one, but two kids at Wainwright Elementary were sent to the hospital after eating lunch today.” *********** “I have something to show you.” “And I have something to tell you.” Guy’s eyes were grave, and the look in them made Preston’s heart skip a beat. “But you go first.” Preston handed him the envelope that Karen had given him, which contained correspondence supposedly between him and the CEO of another food manufacturing company. Preston hadn’t been able to figure out if the entire packet was fraudulent, or if it was real and someone had signed his name to the letters in which the person posing as Preston was sharing secret formulas for Delico’s five top-selling products. “A neighbor gave this to me last night.” Preston paused to give Guy time to scan the first letter. “She said someone paid her to take the envelope and plant it in my apartment. I guess the plan was to give you an anonymous tip, and you would find this in a drawer somewhere and think that I had betrayed the company.” Guy’s eyes widened as he continued reading. After going through three letters, he set them down and looked at Preston with his brow at the top of his forehead. “If this were real, it could get you fired.” Preston then proceeded to tell him about the strange e-mail, and why he had ignored it. Guy shook his head in amazement. “I didn’t know you had any enemies.” “Me, neither.” Preston shifted in the chair on the other side of Guy’s desk. Guy let out a laugh, rather humorless, Preston thought. “The thing is, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second. I can’t speak for the national office, but I would have smelled a fish. And gone to bat for you if the CEO had wanted to can you.” He sighed, and looked away. During the pause that followed, tension seeped into the office like a north wind through an old, back door. Was the regional president thinking that Preston might be in danger? Wondering whether he should involve the authorities? Preston cleared his throat. “So, what are we going to do about this?” Guy turned his gaze back to him, his expression apologetic. “Nothing.” He took a deep breath. “You see, Preston, after what happened yesterday, the national office decided they’d better be prepared for a drop in sales. And they decided that they needed to take action to offset that drop.” He paused, rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand. “Don’t tell me.” Preston could barely speak for the rock that suddenly hit him in the chest. “They’re laying some employees off, beginning with yours truly.” Guy nodded with a wince. “You and a few assistant secretaries they have deemed to be superfluous.” “Beginning…?” “Now.” It was nine-thirty in the morning. National headquarters wouldn’t even give him the decency of a seven-day grace period? But he wasn’t going to try to argue the point with Guy. He could see his boss was not any happier about it than he was; besides, he had to follow orders if he wanted to keep his job. Thanks to a father who had taught his teenage children the importance of investing, and the help of a few books on the topic Preston had read in his early twenties, he had no financial worries. He could go without a job for at least several months. And if he had to give up his luxury apartment, he could live with that. What left him with a dry mouth, roiling stomach, and white-hot blood was the utterly cold, ungrateful treatment of a company to one of its most loyal, hardest-working employees. Worse, this was over a few local incidences that likely had nothing to do with Delico Foods, except for what the rumor mill churned out. Guy’s brow creased with a mixture of sorrow and concern. “If you need any references, you know I’ll give you the best.” Preston nodded, his mouth and body equally numb. His father had told him once that a good man finds a well-paying career and sticks to it until retirement. Now he had let his dad down on two accounts: he had lost his job of twelve years, and he had let him die. After another long, awkward pause, Guy extended his hand. “I’ll miss you, man. And between the two of us, you can take the whole damn day clearing out your desk. What they did to you is beyond unjust.” Preston shook his hand, appreciating the sentiment, but knowing he would be out of the building within the hour. He wasn’t going to stay where he was no longer welcome. After turning in his badge and filling out the necessary paperwork, Preston trudged out the main entrance of the office building. But he wasn’t going home. Not just yet. He had some unfinished business at the plant. He sat down with Kelly in person to tell him what had happened. For once, the smile left the kind black man’s face. But he was quick to promise to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity, and to keep Preston in his prayers. His second and last objective for the visit to the plant was more difficult. He stopped in front of the reception desk, waiting for Lucy to get off the phone. When she did, she immediately turned to him with a look of desperation. “Oh, Mr. Brenner,” she gushed, “I’ve been wanting to tell you thank you this whole week.” He frowned. “For not letting me go after – well, after what happened at Cynthia’s last week.” Preston felt his eyebrows meet in the middle of his forehead. “I told you before, I’m not the one who hired you. And even if I were, I would never let you go as a personal vendetta.” He forced his features to relax as he sighed. “Besides, as of today I no longer work for Delico Foods.” Lucy looked to her right and to her left, then leaned forward. “So you quit?” Her stage whisper was full of triumph. Preston shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. Yesterday’s school lunch incident was the last straw. They fired me.” He would say nothing about the company’s potential financial difficulties. He believed that was just a smokescreen to get rid of an employee they perceived had failed in the case of the poisoned school lunches. Lucy raised her brow. “They did not.” Then anger flashed into her eyes. “It makes me want to quit my job this second.” “Please don’t.” He lowered his voice as a couple of people walked past the desk. “You and Kelly can be my eyes and ears for a little while, if you know what I mean.” Lucy nodded. “But listen. That’s not why I stopped to talk to you. I – well, would you believe me if I told you that if I hadn’t been fired, I was about to resign?” “Yes. I believe you.” “Would Cynthia?” Lucy looked away, huffed out a breath. “Cynthia and I are not exactly on speaking terms right now.” “But you’re her friend. Would she?” Lucy spoke slowly. “I think she would. But that’s not the point. She wouldn’t…take you back just because you no longer work for the food processing industry. You would have to really change.” She tilted her head, her brow raised in question. Preston understood. “But I have changed. I mean, I am changing. I’m a baby at this healthy eating stuff, but I’m finally starting to get it.” Lucy’s eyes brightened. “Then you need to call her.” He shook his head. “No.” He fished in his pocket as he spoke. “It would be too easy for her not to talk to me.” He withdrew the small envelope he’d been looking for. “Look, Lucy, please just do me this one favor, and I’ll never ask you another.” He handed her the envelope. “Go to Cynthia’s house. She may be angry with you, but I bet she won’t slam the door in your face like she would with me. Tell her I came to talk to you, and give her this. Please.” Lucy looked down at the envelope and took it. She looked back up at him, meeting his gaze in a long, silent moment. Finally, she said, “All right. I’ll do it. Tonight.” ********** As Preston left the building, presumably for the last time, Lucy remembered that Mario had made a date with her tonight. She closed her eyes and groaned softly. But he had told her they would leave at about 6:45, to have dinner at seven. If Lucy hurried, she could run to Cynthia’s right after work and still be home in plenty of time to get ready for dinner. She wasn’t sure what Mario was up to. He knew she didn’t like eating out, didn’t trust food that she – or someone who believed about food as she did – didn’t prepare with her own hands. Mario had been acting nicer lately. Not that he could ever be characterized as cruel, but over the past couple of days he had been paying more attention to her, giving her more affection, much like the old days when they were dating and first married. He had to be up to something. On the way home, she tuned into the local Christian radio station. She almost always did, because the encouraging, uplifting lyrics helped mellow her mood as she struggled through rush-hour traffic. Close to five-thirty, they ran their hourly news update, including a clip about the children who had fallen victim to cafeteria food yesterday. They had both been released from the hospital in good condition. Despite the good report, hearing about it made Lucy feel that much more strengthened in two convictions: one, that she had to keep her job in order to snoop around Delico, and two, she needed to get back in Cynthia’s good graces. Two were better than one. She had just pulled up to the curb in front of Cynthia’s house when her cell phone rang. It was Erin. “Lucy, have you heard the news? What happened yesterday, I mean, in the Wainwright cafeteria.” She swallowed hard. “You mean about the kids. Yes.” “Remember that I and another teacher took our kids over to that same school yesterday? Well, I saw something. It may be just a weird coincidence, but when I heard the news I got the heeby-jeebies seriously big-time. I thought I might just be paranoid, so I sat on it all day. But the more I think about it, the bigger this bad feeling gets. I can’t ignore it anymore.” Lucy suddenly realized this may be something Cynthia would want to hear. “Hold on. I’m at Cynthia Redman’s house. Yes, the Cynthia who borrowed your classroom. Do you think…That’s what I thought. So let me get her to the door, and I’ll put you on speaker.” Lucy got to the door, rang the bell, and took a deep breath. Remember to give her Preston’s letter. Remember to give her Preston’s letter. Now that her objective for the visit had taken a twist, she wanted to make sure she didn’t forget her original reason for coming. The door opened a crack, revealing Cynthia’s eyes and nose. “Oh, hi, Lucy,” Cynthia said in a flat tone. Lucy rushed her speech, afraid of being turned away before she had a chance to complete her mission. “Cynthia! Erin’s on the phone, you know, Erin Halley, the teacher who lent you her classroom for your first parent meeting? Anyway, she has something real interesting to say about – well, you got my message yesterday, right?” Cynthia opened the door a little wider, nodding. “Two more kids in the hospital. After eating school lunch.” She frowned. “Erin was there yesterday. Is it – did she…?” Cynthia vanished for a second as the door swung wide open. “Come in.” Her tone was clipped, professional, but her eyes reflected a mix of surprise and curiosity. Lucy came in and put the phone on speaker mode. “Okay, Erin,” she said as Cynthia closed the door behind her. “Fire away.” “Hi, Cynthia. I thought I saw you yesterday demonstrating in front of Wainwright school.” Cynthia looked at the phone Lucy held in her hand, as though expecting the teacher’s image to appear. “I saw you, too.” “Well, something really weird happened,” Erin continued. “We needed ice for our performance, and I volunteered to go get it. As I got to the cafeteria, I heard someone calling into there over the P.A. system. I didn’t hear exactly what was said, because the cafeteria doors were closed, but I guess the workers were called to the office because as I went in, three ladies dressed in cafeteria scrubs passed me going out. I was in a hurry, so I didn’t ask, I just went on ahead with my errand. “I went to the freezer to get ice, but I had a hard time finding the pail they told me I could borrow. It took me a couple of minutes to find it. The ice was in the back of the kitchen, and when I walked to the machine I thought I saw movement behind me out of the corner of my eye. I thought one of the ladies had come back, so I turned to greet her so I wouldn’t startle her, but it wasn’t a lady. It was a man. “He seemed out of place, especially since he was dressed in a business suit and was hovering over the food that had already been set out in the cafeteria line, so I decided to watch him. Then he pulled a baggie of something out of his pocket, lifted the lid of one of the trays, and looked like he was about to pour it in.” Lucy and Cynthia exchanged wide-eyed glances. Lucy didn’t consider herself a mind reader, but she could have told Cynthia exactly what she was thinking at that moment. “I had something like a stab of terror slice me in the gut, and I knew I couldn’t let him do whatever he was doing. I said, ‘Excuse me.’ He jumped a foot off the floor, turned his head, and when he saw me he was gone in a flash. He moved fast for a fat man.” Cynthia’s eyebrows went clear to the top of her head. “Hold it, Erin. He was fat?” “Yes. And a little balding. You think you know him?” “Maybe.” Her voice sounded faint. “Go on.” “Well, I dropped the ice and ran as fast as I could up to the office to tell them it looked like somebody was about to put something in the food. One of the custodians was standing there, and he was off like a rocket, shouting that he would catch the - well, he said a bad word. “The three cafeteria ladies lit off after him. All I could do was sink into a chair and pant. I thought the guy had gone for good, but I guess based on what happened there, he snuck back after I left.” Her voice began to break. “I should have just stayed there. Stupid, stupid!” Lucy shook her head. “Erin, it ain’t your fault. You hear me? Not your fault.” “If they had had half a brain,” Cynthia put in, her cheeks blazing and eyes flashing, “the cafeteria workers would have thrown out all the food and started over, just to be on the safe side. I’m with Lucy, Erin. It’s totally not your fault. In fact, it might have been worse if you hadn’t been there. You probably made him lose some time, so he couldn’t do everything he’d planned.” Cynthia glanced at Lucy with a rueful smile. “Now it’s time for my side of the story.” Cynthia related the near-accident she’d had that day, a little while after Erin and the other second-grade class had gone into the building. When she theorized who the driver of the car was, Lucy couldn’t help letting out a cry. At that moment, Melissa appeared, brow furrowed and her glance skipping from her mother to Lucy to the phone, and back to Lucy. “Mrs. Perez, are you okay?” Lucy glanced at the girl, then cut her eyes to Cynthia. “Should we tell her?” “Tell me what?” Cynthia turned to her daughter. “We think we know how the school food made you sick.” Chapter Twenty-One Cynthia felt like she did the one time she ever went on a roller coaster ride. When she stepped off, the world was spinning, her head felt like it was full of lead, and her heart was beating a thousand miles per hour. The revelation about yesterday’s events at the school had been enough to make her head spin, but now, in addition, she had a letter in her hand. A letter from Preston. Lucy had given it to her after their conversation with Erin had ended. Vowing to call Cynthia the next day about what to do with their secret knowledge, she thrust the envelope into her hand, declaring that it was the reason she had come in the first place and announcing that if she didn’t get home right away, Mario would have her head for dinner. Almost breathlessly, she had insisted that Cynthia had to give Preston a second chance. He wouldn’t have bothered talking to Lucy if he wasn’t sincere, and he had looked so sorry, and Cynthia needed to at least read the letter. She wouldn’t leave until Cynthia promised to read it. So now, Cynthia sank into the sofa cushions, taking in several deep breaths in an attempt to calm her tempestuous mind. Her first impulse was to throw out the letter. But for one, she had made a promise, and she wanted to maintain her integrity. For another, the regrets about how she’d treated Preston last week still hounded her. She wondered if this not might be God’s way of telling her that she needed to give him a second chance. Assuming that was what he was asking. Which he might not be. For all she really knew he was going to try to convince her of the superiority of Delico Foods to her new way of eating. But she’d never know until she read the letter. With a sigh, and trembling fingers, she ripped it open and removed the single piece of paper, handwritten in small print. Dear Cynthia, I’m sorry I lied to you. I wish I could express how sorry. May I explain why I did so? I lied because by the end of our second encounter, I knew that you were somebody special, and I wanted to get to know you better, to find out if you could be my somebody special. I also knew, based on our brief conversations, that if I had told you right away who I was, you would have turned me down flat.” Cynthia nodded. He was right about that. I have to admit, I was hoping that eventually I could help you see the error of your ways, that one doesn’t have to go to extremes with one’s diet in order to be healthy. And then you wouldn’t care what I did for a living. But then, several things happened. First, you and Melissa explained to me the basics of why you made the switch. Second, remember when we met at the clinic? Well, I had just received news that my health wasn’t as pristine as I had believed. Third, a chance encounter with a self-proclaimed health nut – the last day that we saw each other – at the skating rink began to open my eyes. Really open my eyes. I hope you will believe me when I tell you that a few days later, I decided to quit my job. I realized I wasn’t making the positive difference in the world that I thought I was, had always wanted to. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I decided to give up eating processed foods, and there was no way I could keep telling the rest of the world how great Delico Foods was. “Turns out I didn’t have to quit. After this last fiasco with kids getting sick at school, the Powers That Be decided they needed a scapegoat to save their public reputation. They picked me to be that scapegoat. They didn’t even give me a notice; I had to leave the next day. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to believe me when I say that number one, I am not a habitual liar, and if you take me back I will never lie to you again. Number two, the brief amount of time I’ve spent with you and Melissa I’ve grown very fond of you both. I was hoping our relationship might eventually culminate in the ‘L’ word. Love. Preston had strong feelings for her – even Melissa – and was hoping the feelings would turn into love. Cynthia paused to wipe a tear that suddenly tickled the corner of her eye. Then she could see clearly to finish reading. I hope with all my might that you will think about letting me back into your home. I want to apologize in person. I want to eat some more of your healthy, delicious whole-foods meals. Most of all, I want a second chance with one of the most beautiful, smartest, and strongest women I’ve ever met. If you turn me down, I will hold no hard feelings. But I wish you would at least think carefully about it. I was already starting to feel like part of a wonderful family. Warmly and most sincerely, Preston Cynthia leaned back, closed her eyes, and fought against the onslaught of tears that seemed to be inevitable. Her inner turmoil regarding Preston had been like a long, continuous prayer, and now it seemed like God was answering. “Mommy?” Melissa’s voice beside her was small, timid. Not like her at all. Concerned, Cynthia opened her eyes. “I know you want to say no, but can – may I read that letter, too? Please?” Then she smiled. “I mean, if it’s not too mushy.” Cynthia picked the sheet back up and scanned it to make sure there was nothing inappropriate for ten-year-old eyes. Then she handed it to her daughter. She didn’t believe in parents keeping secrets from their children. Melissa sat down next to her, brow wrinkled as she perused the words on the page. A couple of minutes later, she looked up. “I can forgive him, if you can.” Her eyes suddenly shone. “I – I miss him.” She set the letter down as she bent her head to look at her lap. “That’s stupid, isn’t it?” Cynthia scooted over next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Well, then that makes two of us. I miss him, too.” She would have called him right then and there if she hadn’t been on the verge of tears. The last thing she wanted was to break down over the phone to a man she had basically only ever had two dates with. What would he think? She would call him tomorrow night. ********** “Fancy meeting you in a place like this.” Lucy twisted her head to look behind her, to see Preston coming up the walk toward Cynthia’s house. She beamed at him, reveling in the knowledge that she had played a small part in getting him and Cynthia back together. “Preston Brenner, this is my husband, Mario Perez.” She canted her head toward Mario, although the motion was completely unnecessary since Mario had a firm arm around her waist. As he extended his free arm toward Preston and the two men shook hands, Lucy’s heart warmed as she recalled the events that had brought her husband here. Their date the other night had been all about him wanting to make a fresh start with their marriage. “It takes two to tango,” he had said in regard to the fact that Lucy had gone behind his back and gotten another job. He admitted that if he had paid more attention to her and really listened to her desires and opinions, she would not have felt compelled to do such a thing. After spending an entire evening being as sweet as he could be, he asked that they would both agree never to keep secrets from each other again. In return, he promised to be more empathetic toward Lucy’s view of food and eating. So of course when Cynthia had asked her if she could come to her house today to discuss Dr. Munger and his apparent role in sick schoolchildren, she had had to tell Mario and ask for his permission. When he had told her he wanted to go, both to learn and to be a help, Lucy almost fell on the floor. Now here he was, meeting the ex-vice president of Delico Foods, who was in the process of reforming himself. This promised to be a most fascinating day. ********** Preston forgot his nervousness temporarily as he shook hands with Lucy’s husband. But not twenty seconds later, the door opened. And his heart gave a leap. “Mario, let’s give them a minute,” he heard Lucy say as she tugged her husband a few feet down the sidewalk. He stepped forward, his mouth suddenly dry. Swallowing, he looked into Cynthia’s eyes – and lost himself there for several long moments. But he couldn’t stand there like a mute forever. He had something to say. “I forgive you, Preston!” Before he saw her, Melissa had careened through the doorway and wrapped her arms around his waist. His breath caught as he looked down at her. Then he returned the embrace. “Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely. He looked up to see Cynthia standing there with a shaky smile, hesitation in her eyes. He lifted his right arm, beckoning her. She stepped forward and let his arm pull her into their little circle. “I am so, so sorry,” he whispered. “I forgive you, too.” Cynthia’s voice cracked, and he dared to look up into her face, which was just inches away from his. She smiled, and he smiled back, and it took everything in him not to kiss her. Who knows how long they would have stood there if Melissa hadn’t suddenly let him go and declared, “It’s freezing out here! Time to go back inside.” The Perez’ followed them into the house, where a sweet, spicy aroma wafted around like snowflakes in a gentle breeze. “Something smells delicious,” Lucy effused as she took off her coat. “Gluten-free spice cake.” Cynthia kept her eyes on Preston as she answered, a flush seeping into her cheeks. “Homemade and sweetened with real, honest-to-goodness local honey.” Preston winked at her as he slipped his own coat onto one of the hooks. He was going to say, “Sounds too good to be true,” but even though he would have been teasing, the wound between him and Cynthia was still a bit raw, despite their mutual display of affection a couple minutes ago. So at the last minute he changed the comment to, “Sounds delicious.” He did have one real concern about it, though. He stepped over to Cynthia and said in a low voice, “But the doctor told me I had to stay away from butter.” Cynthia shook her head, smiling. Then she looked behind her. “Lucy, back me up on this.” As the Hispanic woman approached, Cynthia gestured for them to go into the living room and sit down. “It’s not the saturated fat causing cholesterol and heart problems,” she said as she sat on the sofa. Preston settled next to her, working hard to focus on her words and not her beauty. “In fact, I’ve read several blog posts where people testified to lowering their cholesterol levels after beginning to eat several tablespoons of butter a day.” Preston lifted his brow, realizing that he had heard something like this before. Recently. “Then why are we told otherwise?” Lucy took over, settling into the recliner, explaining about the effect on the cells of trans fat produced by hydrogenated vegetable oils. She also told him about a biased nutritional study in which the researcher threw out most of the results, the results that disproved his theory that saturated fat was connected to heart disease. “So, yeah, the cake has butter,” Cynthia concluded with a teasing smile. “In order to help you get healthier.” Then Preston remembered. That teacher that he’d knocked down at the skating rink had mentioned something about butter not being the cause of heart disease, but had not elaborated. Mario, who was leaning against the recliner with his hand on Lucy’s shoulder, cleared his throat. “Shouldn’t we get to the agenda at hand?” “We’re waiting on one more person,” Cynthia replied. Some teacher or other who had possibly seen Munger at the last school where the food-related illnesses had occurred. Cynthia had told him as much, but hadn’t mentioned any names. Almost the instant after she finished her statement, there was a knock at the door. Lucy pushed herself up. “I’ll get it.” Preston watched as she went to the entryway and opened the door. A familiar figure stepped inside. At least, she looked familiar from the back. Then she turned around. Preston felt his brow travel to the top of his scalp. Slowly, feeling dazed, he stood up. The woman caught his gaze a second later. “Wait a second, I know you.” “How – how is your chin?” Confusion fluttered over the woman’s face for a brief moment. Then her eyes widened and she began laughing. “No. It can’t be you. Really? How’s your tailbone?” By now Preston was in front of her, grinning, and offering his hand. As she shook it, he heard Cynthia’s bewildered voice behind him. “You two…know each other?” Preston turned around. “Remember the letter I wrote? I mentioned getting help from someone at the skating rink?” Cynthia stepped up to them, cutting her eyes first to one, then the other. “You have got to be kidding me.” Erin – Preston finally remembered her name – laughed even harder. “You’re the woman he was interested in?” she asked, panting, looking at Cynthia. Cynthia glanced at Preston, eyes narrowed. “Just exactly what did you tell her about me?” ********** She wasn’t mad. Although, when Preston first recognized Erin, a stab of jealousy had seared through her middle. But – well, except that bit about the chin and the tailbone – she understood now. Would have laughed along with Erin – and Lucy, who was near hysterics – except that she was so stunned by the turn of events that she could barely speak. What were the chances an acquaintance of hers would meet Preston at the skating rink? And give him a lecture about food and nutrition? Erin took a deep breath. “He said nothing, really. By his hinting around I guessed that he was in trouble with a woman over food issues.” She finally shed her coat and walked into the living room as she spoke. To Cynthia’s relief, she put some distance between herself and Preston, approaching Mario to introduce herself. Once they were all seated around the living room, having recovered from the mild shock, Mario leaned forward and let his gaze scan the room. “So my first question is, why ain’t none of y’all called the cops?” His accent was like Lucy’s – a light Spanish one mixed with a moderate Southern twang. “I was called in to talk to a police officer,” Erin volunteered brightly, “after I reported seeing a strange man in the Wainwright cafeteria. But since nobody could identify him, the authorities couldn’t do much about it.” “And I’m not absolutely positive that was Dr. Munger in the car that almost hit me.” Cynthia felt Preston’s protective arm go around her shoulders, and the touch sent a pleasant thrill up her back. “I’m not sure the cops want to hear conjectures based on our paranoia.” Preston rubbed her shoulder lightly. “Or bias.” “Or bias.” Cynthia let herself lean against him. She hadn’t expected her and Preston to get closer – literally and figuratively – during this meeting, but neither had she expected to embrace him when he showed up at her door. The day was proving to be full of surprises. Preston let out a sigh. “I am not only not an eyewitness, but I probably would have little clout in this matter, seeing as how the company just terminated my employment.” Lucy glanced at her husband. “They would think he was just trying to take some sort of revenge against the school district, don’t you think, sweetheart?” Mario crossed his arms, frowning. “But y’all seem to be convinced Munger’s behind all the food poisoning. Don’t you think that might count for something in the eyes of the justice system?” “Possibly.” Preston put his arm down, clasped his hands in his lap, and turned to face Mario more directly. “My mother taught me to respect my elders. So I personally will defer to whatever direction you want to take the issue.” Amusement sparkled in Lucy’s eyes, but Cynthia remained sober. Preston sounded as serious as a heart attack, and the last thing she wanted was to alienate Lucy’s husband. The tan-skinned, dark-eyed man with gray-streaked black hair nodded solemnly at Preston. “I believe it’s our duty as American citizens to tell the police what we know. And what we might suspect.” He glanced at Lucy, then scanned the others with his eyes. “But I also have a feeling they won’t do a whole lot with the little we can give them.” His gaze settled back on Preston. “I’ll throw the ball back in your court, Mr. Brenner. You’ve dealt with him personally, I understand, and I suspect you’re none too happy about what’s gone down the past few days.” “No, sir.” “So you have a plan?” Preston sat up a little straighter. “Yes, sir. I think I do.” He cut his eyes toward Cynthia. “We need to set Dr. Munger up.” Chapter Twenty-Two It was Monday afternoon. Five days after he almost got caught doctoring food in the Wainwright Elementary cafeteria. He almost hadn’t finished the job. Had almost simply lit out of there when he realized he was being watched. But then he remembered Johnson’s threats. And the money. So he hid, panting, right outside the cafeteria, counting to sixty to give the woman a whole minute to disappear. He was sure she would. She didn’t look like the type to blow off witnessing what she might have perceived to be a crime. After that minute, he ran back into the cafeteria, and gave the casserole and dessert the extra flavorings and additives per Johnson’s order. Sweating like a pig the whole time. His hands had shaken, and by the time he’d finished he’d felt like it had taken an hour rather than three minutes. Then he ran out again, jumped into his car, and drove away. To his relief, Thomas, the black man Munger had been paying to masquerade as his assistant, told him later that he had left the school office before anyone had shown up there to report seeing Munger in the cafeteria. After that fiasco, he was hoping to have this week off. Actually, according to the plan, he was supposed to have had this week off. But the note in his hand told him something different. “Hit Franklin again, 10:00 on Tuesday.” It was typewritten, not signed. But who else would have sent it? Barry considered calling Johnson to confirm, but he knew the crooked lawyer hated to be kept from other money-making activities unless it was an emergency. So Munger chose to believe Johnson had written and left the note in the department mailbox. That gave him two unsavory tasks to execute this week. The other one was to confront Brenner’s would-be girlfriend and neighbor and demand the money back. A simple phone call to Delico’s corporate office on Friday afternoon revealed that Brenner had been let go for financial reasons. As far as the secretary knew, and she claimed to know everything about all the major company goings-on, no one had found any dirt on Brenner. At his request, she even called him back later to confirm this knowledge with her superiors. Barry was out a thousand dollars, and he was going to teach that little girl not to lie. ********** Erin just happened to know that the cafeteria ladies all went on break at ten o’clock. Because all but one of them smoked, they generally congregated outside near the big trash bins. She had happened to see them there a couple of times on bitterly cold, but sunny days, so she wasn’t concerned about them huddling inside today. Besides, likely as not Munger was going to pull the same trick he had at Wainwright: have the office call the cafeteria ladies in for a brief meeting, then commit his crime while they were gone. So her only challenge was to find an excuse not to be in her classroom for about twenty minutes that morning. She wanted to hide herself ten minutes before the appointed time, in case Munger showed up early, and give herself plenty of time to make the video. At the Saturday meeting at Cynthia’s, Lucy had come up with the brilliant idea of simply claiming a morning substitute because she had a dentist appointment. Erin rarely ever saw a dentist, but nobody else on the staff knew that. As much as she loathed getting back to the mess – and hyper class – that the substitute would inevitably leave for her that afternoon, she couldn’t find any other way around it. She had padded into the cafeteria a few minutes ago with her lesson plan book and a pen. If anyone asked, she would tell them that she had the morning off and had snuck in early to get some work done in peace and quiet. But while her eyes stayed riveted on the kitchen through a bank of interior windows, none of the ladies seemed to notice her. Finally, almost as one, they went out the back door, chatting and laughing. Erin glanced up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was two minutes until ten. She crept from her spot next to the wall and went through the doorway that the students walked through in order to pick up their food. At the threshold, she stopped. Held her breath. Listened. Nothing. Allowing herself to take a breath, she headed back to her hiding place. Then the new office manager spoke over the P.A. system, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. “Mrs. Kratzky, are you there?” Erin froze. Should she answer? Tell them they were taking their break? “Is anybody in the cafeteria?” If she didn’t answer, Dr. Munger might lose his nerve and not show up, which would ruin their plans. And it was unlikely they’d be able to get away with this a second time. If it was even on the right track. On Saturday, they must have spent a half an hour arguing about whether the Food and Nutrition Director was working solo or with a partner. Their best guess, based mostly on Preston’s opinion that Barry Munger was a wimp who would never so much as swat a fly unless someone held a gun to his head, was that he was taking directions from someone else. But if he wasn’t, the note they had left him yesterday would have meant nothing. However, just as had happened at Wainwright right before Munger doctored up the food, the office was calling for the cafeteria staff. The man had to be here. Either way, the better choice seemed to be to respond. “I just came in to get some water,” Erin shouted at the ceiling. “I think the ladies all just went outside for their break.” “Thank you.” Erin had no time to lose. She trotted to her hiding place, behind the giant food warmer, and pulled out Preston’s iPhone. He was the only one among the group who had one, as the others either didn’t want to pay for it, or didn’t want to expose themselves to that amount of radiation on a daily basis, or both. No one owned any sort of other small video camera. Preston had assured her that since he was not working at the moment, he could go for one day without his phone. She was to give it to Melissa at the end of the school day, who would deliver it to Preston that evening. She stood as still as stone, not daring even to breathe. Dr. Munger would be in here at any moment. And if he saw her… Her heart beat double time, and her mouth became as dry as her palms became wet. A minute later, she heard rapid footsteps pounding in from the seating area. They were soon scuffling in the kitchen. Her heart slammed up against her ribcage. What if he was armed? She didn’t have health insurance. If he turned on her, she could only pray that she would die. Stop it, stop it! He probably didn’t dare bring a weapon onto school grounds. The elementary schools didn’t have metal detectors at the entrances – yet – but not even adults, excepting police officers, of course, were allowed to carry weapons into a public school. Dressed exactly as he had been last week, Dr. Munger came into her line of sight. Erin, per Preston’s instructions, had started the video recorder as soon as she had hid herself so that her nerves wouldn’t get in the way of figuring out which buttons to push. Good thinking, because if she had tried to start it now, she probably would have dropped it onto the floor, her hands were shaking so badly. Cynthia had found herself one smart boyfriend, and no mistake. Erin had even zoomed into the area by the cafeteria line, so now all she had to do was keep quiet, stay as much out of sight as possible, and record the crime. This time, he poured the contents of a bag into only one of the trays. As he had at Wainwright, he wore gloves, Erin guessed to keep from leaving fingerprints. His eyes kept darting back and forth, as if afraid that someone was going to walk in on him at any moment. If only you knew, you big jerk. Erin hoped this was the last time he would get away with it. After quickly stirring whatever was in the tray, Dr. Munger replaced the lid quietly, then turned away from her and ran out the door. Erin wordlessly walked toward the line and pointed the camera at the metal tray that he had just messed with. She almost lifted the lid, then remembered fingerprints, and used a nearby tongs to lift the lid instead. Then she videoed the contents and the dirty spoon that he had used for stirring. Clicking the camera off, she pivoted on her heel and raced out the back of the cafeteria. The cafeteria ladies were no longer there. Erin guessed someone had been sent to ask them to come to the office, which worked perfectly. Everybody who needed to see the video would be in one place. If nothing else, Erin had to make sure that particular tray of food was thrown into the garbage – after, of course, a portion was saved for laboratory analysis. Despite her rubbery legs, she was in the office in record time, sweating and heaving. The new office manager, a gray-haired lady with glasses named Annabelle Newsome, jerked her head up in surprise at her entrance. Mrs. Kratzky and the other cafeteria ladies frowned at her. “Wait here,” she gasped. “There’s something you have to see!” She burst into Mr. Wade’s office, not caring what he would think or say, or whether he was in the middle of an important meeting. Ignoring the angry-looking fourth-grader sitting opposite the principal, Erin blurted out, “Mr. Wade. I’ve caught him. On video. The man who’s been poisoning the school food.” Chapter Twenty-Three “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.” Barry had been set up. He knew that as soon as the police officers had barged into his office exactly one hour and fifteen minutes after he had perpetrated the latest food tainting. As the officer rattled off the Miranda rights, anger and remorse simmered together in the cauldron of Barry’s soul. He was angry at Johnson for trapping him in a corner, angry at himself for not checking with him about the note he’d received yesterday, angry at whoever set him up. He was not only going to lose a substantial amount of money, but, if he was convicted, his freedom. If he was released by the criminal justice system, he would no longer have a job – and likely would never be able to find another one as well-paying as the one he currently had. He was remorseful because he had never really wanted to hurt anyone. Especially a child. He had three of his own. But fear and greed had stripped his mind of all sound judgment. One thing he knew: he was not going to go down alone. He would make a full confession, including the hit-and-run that Johnson had been hanging over his head for the past several months, and, of course, Johnson’s blackmail. The only thing Barry wouldn’t tell them was why Johnson had done it. He couldn’t. He didn’t know the answer to that. ********** “So they took Preston’s phone as evidence.” Cynthia looked up from the dining room table where she sat with her laptop, designing a new website. Melissa’s eyes were wide and shiny with excitement. Cynthia could only imagine how a fifth-grader felt about being part of a scheme to take down a criminal – not just any criminal, but the very criminal who had nearly killed her. Cynthia herself had nearly jumped up and down and screamed when Erin had called to tell her the news. “I know, honey. Miss Halley told me around lunchtime today.” Melissa plopped into a chair next to her, then stood up again. “I can’t sit down, Mom. I feel like there’s a million butterflies inside me. Or jumping beans or something.” She began pacing the floor. Cynthia got up and walked over to her, calming her with a warm embrace. “Are you going to be able to eat tonight?” “I think so.” Melissa hugged her back. Tight. “Do you think Preston really knows how to cook?” Cynthia laughed. “I guess we’ll find out.” “If it’s horrible, will you make me eat it?” “No.” Cynthia gave her another squeeze, then let go. “We’ll just tell him to let the women do the healthy cooking from now on.” Melissa grinned up at her. “I’m pretty good, aren’t I?” “Yes, you are.” Cynthia was pleased at how easy cooking whole-food meals had turned out to be. More, she’d been pleased to discover that a meal with all-organic ingredients, including naturally-raised meat, could be less expensive than a fast-food meal. Since they used to go out for fast food twice a week, and regular restaurants twice a month, she was now seeing a little more money stay in her bank account each week. An hour and a half later, they were on their way to Preston’s apartment for the first time. The tricky part was finding the entrance to the parking garage where he had instructed her to park. Once inside, the parking spots marked “visitors” were easy enough to find – and all but one were vacant. She pulled her car into the nearest space. A sign pointed the way to the elevator, which required a special code to get it to work. Cynthia called Preston. “Ah, my two beautiful ladies are here,” he said. “Be right down.” As Cynthia hung up the phone, somebody approached them from behind. She turned and saw a young lady, maybe in her late teens. “Excuse me.” The girl, dressed in tight-fitting fashions better suited to spring weather, barely looked at them as she punched in the elevator code. Cynthia stepped back, not liking the negative energy emanating from the little princess. “Um, we’re here to visit somebody. Do you suppose we could ride up with you?” She thought it would be fun to have the elevator door open on Preston’s floor, and there he would be standing. The girl answered in a cold, high-pitched voice, still without giving them a single glance. “You have to call the resident and have them come down and meet you. Complex policy.” Cynthia exchanged a glance with Melissa, who rolled her eyes with a slight shake of the head. Her mouth dropped open slightly in a silent whatevah. Cynthia’s thoughts exactly. They waited for a couple of minutes in uncomfortable silence. The young woman stood stiffly, as if aware of the two other people behind her and afraid they might try to initiate conversation. She needed not fear. At this point, Cynthia was relieved she had basically forbidden them from riding up the elevator with her. When the elevator doors opened, Preston stood just inside, smiling. The girl’s entire attitude, physical and social, made an instant 180. Her body relaxed and she flashed Preston her perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. “Why, hello there, neighbor,” she said as she stepped onto the elevator, her hips making an exaggerated sway. “Going out with your special someone?” Then she leaned in close to him – way too close for Cynthia’s comfort – setting her hand on his chest and lightly rubbing it. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.” The elevator door began to close. Preston jumped forward, pushing the young woman out of the way, and grabbed the door with his hand. His face was beet red as the doors reopened and he looked at Cynthia. “Sorry about that.” He gestured with his head for them to step forward. Cynthia didn’t. And since Melissa had a firm grasp on her mother’s hand, neither did she. “My neighbor here has trouble taking no for an answer.” Now the girl’s face took on a pinkish hue, and she took a step back from him. But Cynthia still didn’t move. Shock thawed into anger. But she had to control herself. Believe the best. Believe that Preston was not at fault in this…scenario. Preston’s expression lapsed into desperation. “Please. We don’t want dinner to get cold.” His pleading eyes promised that he would explain the behavior of that – that woman later. Cynthia sighed heavily and led Melissa onto the elevator. But the excited anticipation of spending an evening with the man she was in love with had drained out of her like egg whites down a garbage disposal. She positioned herself on the opposite side of the elevator from the girl, and in the corner where Preston would have difficulty making physical contact since Melissa stood between them. “Uh, Cynthia Redman, this is my neighbor, Karen Lewis. This lovely young lady is her daughter, Melissa.” Karen looked away, hugging her chest. “Nice to meet you,” she murmured, not at all sounding like she meant it. Cynthia felt Melissa’s grip on her hand tighten. She looked down, and saw that her daughter’s face had turned scarlet, her brow pinched with anger. Without warning, a word exploded from Melissa’s mouth that she had never spoken before. And if Cynthia had anything to say about it, would never speak again. Not in her hearing, anyway. It rhymed with the word “witch.” But a part of Cynthia did not want to rebuke her. As a matter of fact, more than anything she wanted to burst into laughter. Either way, the point was moot. Before anyone could say anything, Melissa – with both Preston and Karen staring down at her with shocked expressions – went on a tirade. “You don’t have any right to touch Preston! He’s my mom’s boyfriend, not yours! And you better not ever do that again. Or talk to him in that tone of voice. Like you’re some kind of – “ This time Cynthia had the presence of mind to put her hand over her daughter’s mouth. She met Karen’s fierce gaze with a shrug and an apologetic look. Although the last thing she wanted to do was to apologize. Karen turned her back to them abruptly with a huff. Preston looked at Cynthia, lips pressed in a thin line, and winked. Then, his shoulders started shaking. Was he trying not to laugh? Just in time, the elevator doors opened. Karen stalked away without so much as a backward glance, flinging her head back as she went and swaying her hips as if her life depended on it. None of the others moved. The doors closed again. And Preston, after pressing the button to the garage floor, burst out laughing. Cynthia felt something tickling inside her middle. “We really shouldn’t laugh about this…” She started chuckling. “…because Melissa, really, your behavior was utterly…” It was no use. She broke down into hysterics, leaning into Preston as he put an arm around her, still shaking uncontrollably. By this time Melissa had released her hand and was standing off to the side, staring at them wide-eyed. Her face was still flushed, but most of the anger had gone out of it. She crossed her arms and shook her head. Then she began to smile. “I’m sorry, Mom, but somebody had to tell her which way is up.” Cynthia reached out and pulled her to her side, and as the doors opened once again at the garage, Melissa began to laugh. On the way back up, Preston explained who Karen was to him – leaving out details, Cynthia was sure, that would be inappropriate for ten-year-old ears. Cynthia felt better, but remained somewhat guarded. She really didn’t know Preston all that well, and Karen seemed to be extraordinarily persistent. All she could do was trust. And Preston had already betrayed her trust once before. ********** Once safely inside his apartment, Preston couldn’t help himself. He leaned down toward Melissa and whispered, “What were you going to call Karen when your mom put her hand on your mouth?” Melissa gave him a mysterious smile and shook her head. “That’s for me to know, and you to find out.” He took their coats and hung them in the small coat closet near the door, sensing tenseness from Cynthia as he did so. He wanted to reassure her about Karen, but not in Melissa’s hearing. So he said to Melissa, “How about you run into the kitchen and check on everything, see how it all smells?” Melissa, beaming, did so. His kitchen was not all that far from the front door, but it was far enough. Preston turned to Cynthia and picked up her left hand in his right. She met his gaze, smiling, but the smile seemed forced. He spoke in a low voice so that Melissa couldn’t hear. “Cynthia, I need you to understand something about me. That girl – Karen – she’s tried everything to get me to sleep with her, short of putting a gun to my head or drugging my food. I have resisted. Even before you came into my life. And I’m no different than any other man when it comes to…need. Desire.” Her gaze softened, and he picked up her other hand. “I’m not that kind of guy. I need you to believe that. And now that I have you, and Melissa…well, there’s no way she can have any power over me. Understand?” Cynthia nodded, her eyes shining. “I understand,” she said softly. Their gazes locked. A thrill went up Preston’s spine, and Cynthia’s lips suddenly enticed him like a tasty delicacy. He was hungry, but not for the food he’d prepared tonight. He began leaning his face toward hers. And Melissa came bounding back. Preston straightened up, clearing his throat, while Cynthia broke eye contact and stepped away. But Melissa didn’t miss much. She cut her eyes toward one, then the other, and demanded, hands on hips, “Were you guys about to kiss or something?” Cynthia glanced at him with a sly smile, then looked at Melissa. “That’s for us to know, and for you to find out.” Melissa let out a dramatic sigh. “You were. I could see it in your eyes. Should I go to the bathroom and hide?” Preston had been on the point of laughing, but now he grew serious. “Melissa,” he asked, getting down at her level, “would it upset you if I kissed your mother?” She grinned. “Not anymore. So, do you need privacy or anything?” He shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.” He turned and winked at Cynthia. “I trust this won’t be my last chance.” Melissa picked up her mother’s hand. “Anyway, Mom, you’re not going to believe this. Preston didn’t cook a thing!” Cynthia arched a brow at him as Melissa led her toward the kitchen. He only shrugged in reply. “I cooked one thing.” Arriving at the kitchen, Melissa pointed to a large glass pan with a couple layers of zucchini that Preston had painstakingly cut into thin strips, then to a blender full of tomatoes, a garlic clove, and a few spices. “Oh.” Cynthia gave him a blank look. “So you’ll need to bake it for a while, I guess?” Preston shook his head. “It’s a raw food recipe. My sister e-mails me one every once in a while. They usually end up in the trash, but this one looked good enough that I thought I might actually try it one day to compare to Delico’s spaghetti sauce.” “So you just blend all this,” Cynthia canted her head toward the blender, “and pour it on top of the zucchini in the pan? And eat it…raw?” Preston leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. “I am cheating a little bit. The mushrooms that we’ll mix into the sauce are sautéed because I just don’t like them raw, and we’re going to have real cheese on top instead of that crazy nut cheese Carly has told me about.” He pushed himself forward, and moved to stand directly in front of Cynthia. “I hope you don’t mind, but even though I’m okay with this healthy eating thing, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to go vegan.” “Me, neither,” Melissa piped up, releasing Cynthia’s hand and peering into the blender. “I love cheese.” ********** Cynthia was about to get lost in Preston’s gaze again. Wondered if he was going to kiss her right then and there, despite Melissa standing only a couple of feet away. But then he suddenly turned. “Shall we eat now, or after the six o’clock news?” She’d almost forgotten about that. “After,” she and Melissa replied together. It was almost six o’clock anyway. They all walked into the living room, huddling together on the couch as Preston clicked the remote. He kept the volume low for a few minutes, while the three of them reiterated the events of the day, which consisted mostly of Cynthia sharing with Preston what Erin had told her. When a mug shot of Barry Munger appeared on the screen, Preston turned the volume back up and all three of them focused on the news clip. Because Erin’s video was now in police custody and considered court evidence, the anchor reported that it had not yet been released for public viewing. But the description of how the crime went down more or less fit what Erin had told Cynthia. And Erin herself got some air time. “I couldn’t let any more kids get hurt,” she said, looking and sounding almost as good as the reporter who was interviewing her. “So when a friend and I both saw Dr. Munger at Wainwright Elementary the same day the kids got sick after eating lunch, we put two and two together and decided to take action.” Cynthia felt a sick twinge in the pit of her stomach. She had no doubt that, within the next couple of days, everyone who was involved in the set-up would be discovered, and would be having reporters beat down their doors. She did not relish the idea of being put on the spot by a television reporter. Twice in one month was plenty. The report went on for another minute, and Cynthia grasped Preston’s hand and squeezed it in satisfaction when they showed Munger being led in handcuffs into the county jail. But her satisfaction didn’t last long. In the next instant, the reporter revealed a fact that they – she, Preston, Erin, and the Perezes – had all agreed on, but in the excitement of catching Munger in action, had completely forgotten. Barry Munger, admitting to all the recent food-tainting episodes, also told the police that he’d been blackmailed into it – by the St. Peter school district attorney. And that man was nowhere to be found. ********** Melissa ate her meal with relish, asking Preston to give her mother the recipe, but neither of the adults did no more than pick at their food. Finally, Cynthia dropped her fork onto her plate and exclaimed, “I am so stupid!” Preston reached over and took her hand. “If you are, then so am I.” Melissa glanced at one, then the other, with furrowed eyebrows. “What are you talking about?” Preston looked at Cynthia. He was not about to get into criminal details with Melissa that might disturb her. Cynthia sighed. “You heard the news reporter say they can’t find the guy who hired Dr. Munger to mess with the food.” Melissa wiped raw tomato sauce off her lips with a cloth napkin. “So?” “So, he might hire somebody else. Or go to another school district.” Melissa’s brow slowly lifted. “O-oh.” Preston gave Cynthia’s hand a squeeze. “At least they know who he is. I don’t suppose he can hide forever.” “You could pretend you’re the Boxcar Adults.” Preston shot a frown at Melissa. “You know,” she said, making a vague, sweeping gesture with her hand, “instead of the Boxcar Children, the Boxcar Adults. There are even four of you, just like there are four Boxcar Children.” “Melissa, I don’t think Preston’s ever heard of the Boxcar Children.” Cynthia sent him an inquiring glance to confirm, and he shook his head in response. “It’s a middle-grade mystery series where four kids are the same age forever and run into a mystery every time they turn around.” Cynthia looked back at Melissa. “Besides, you’re miscounting. There are five of us, not four, including Mr. Perez.” Preston smiled at Melissa. “Ah-ha. Well, I think it would be best to leave this mystery to the police.” “Maybe Miss Halley could do something again.” He exchanged a glance with Cynthia. Convincing Erin that she was the perfect one to capture Munger on video had been like having a root canal. Whatever confidence she had exuded the day at the skating rink while lecturing him on the many reasons to eat natural foods, had vanished like a snowflake in summer at the Saturday meeting. She’d been afraid of losing her job, terrified of being hurt, sure that Munger would see her and run off, thereby escaping all just consequences for his cruel actions. “There’s one tiny flaw with that plan.” Preston let go of Cynthia’s hand and sat back in his chair. “We knew where Dr. Munger was, and how to get to him. We have no idea where this cockamamie lawyer is.” ********** Great. Not only was she stuck in a job she didn’t like, now she’d let herself get talked into becoming a potential murder victim. Erin closed the window for the local television station website with a muffled cry of frustration. She was being a bit of a drama queen, she knew, but what if this Johnson lawyer guy saw her? Found out where she lived? Would he take revenge on Munger by blindly attacking anyone involved in the Food and Nutrition Director’s arrest? As much as she liked to tell herself at her loneliest times that she was just fine without a man, thank you very much, right now she felt a stab of envy for Cynthia Redman. Preston was a good guy. Good-looking. And, even though he’d just lost his job, most probably pretty wealthy. But just the fact that he was a good guy was enough. Erin wished she had a good guy to lean against right now, even if he picked up garbage for a living. She shivered – and it wasn’t just because her thermostat was set at sixty-seven degrees. At least the newscasters hadn’t made her look like an idiot. Or skewed her words. They had only broadcast a tenth of what she’d said, but it had communicated all the right things. She got up, turned on the radio, and sunk into the rocking chair in the apartment’s small living room after wrapping her one extra blanket around herself. She was always done eating by six p.m. – it was the healthiest way to go for both liver health and sleep quality – and generally spent a little bit of time online before settling down with a book and the Christian radio station until her nine o’clock bedtime. After viewing the live stream of the news program, she couldn’t concentrate on blogs or health philosophies or even easy fiction plots. She just wanted to rock. She considered calling Lucy, but she had Mario and at least one kid at home. Besides, unlike most women, Erin needed time and space to ingest emotionally disturbing information. She didn’t like to immediately hash everything out. It never got her anywhere. Ten minutes after she turned on the radio, the phone rang. It was Lucy. So much for not immediately hashing everything out. She almost didn’t answer it. But if she couldn’t have a good man to lean against during her current state of distress, she at least could have a good girlfriend. She answered. “Girl, you looked good on the news tonight.” “Thanks.” Erin sat back down in the rocking chair and asked Lucy to wait while she plugged the headset into her phone. She hated putting that radiation right next to her head. When given the signal, Lucy continued, “It’s kind of freaky that they can’t find the lawyer.” “Tell me about it.” A pause. Then, more gently, “How are you doing with everything?” Erin released a sigh. “Not very well. I probably just watched too much T.V. when I was a kid, but I keep wondering if I might not end up being the lawyer’s next target.” “Why?” “I’m the one who uncovered Munger’s barbaric acts. He – the slimeball lawyer – probably isn’t very happy with me.” “Oh, deary, would you like me to come over and sit with you awhile?” Lucy was too sweet. “I’m fine. Anyway, you’ve got a family to look after.” “You need a man.” Lucy made the statement as if it were Bible truth, and without any hesitation, as if answering a question to which Erin was demanding an immediate answer. Erin wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It certainly fit her thoughts of the past few minutes. On the other hand… “Most of the time, I’m happy being all by myself.” “Two can put more enemies to flight,” Lucy countered. “Have you thought that you might be even happier with a life partner by your side?” Yes, Erin had, but she wasn’t about to admit it. Not right now. Besides, who would put up with all her finicky ways? She couldn’t marry just any mainstream-minded person. “Listen, Lucy, I appreciate you calling, but I’m really exhausted by everything that happened today.” “I’ve offended you.” “No, you haven’t.” “I have,” Lucy insisted, “but that’s okay. Now you’ll think about it until it starts to make sense. Call me, girl, anytime you need to talk about anything, okay?” “Okay.” The next day at school, the morning was wasted by her having to deflect a thousand questions from her students who had seen her on T.V. last night. She was called in to Mr. Wade’s office right after lunch to brief her on what she might say if she was contacted – God forbid – by any other reporters. Not only the principal, but the superintendent of schools himself was there. Of course, she couldn’t get off without being told what a dangerous trick she had played yesterday, and that from now on she should tell the police of any suspicious activity and leave it up to them. She was also advised that if she was not going to follow district policy, she’d better make sure she was current with her union dues. In other words, if she kept playing with fire, the district would burn her, and she’d need somebody on her side in order to keep her job. Which she wasn’t sure she wanted to do anymore. Her one bright moment in the day was when, a few minutes after she returned to her classroom, Melissa Redman poked her head in the door. Erin’s students were busy working on four-number addition problems, so she met the fifth-grader at the door. Melissa looked up at her with a shy smile. “I thought you might need a hug.” Erin accepted it, and for several seconds developed blurry vision. God must have spoken to this child, although Melissa probably wouldn’t have been conscious of it. A tap on her upper thigh is what finally caused Erin to release Melissa. She whirled around and glared at the offending second-grader. “Jordan, what is the rule about asking the teacher a question?” The boy sighed, hung his head, and slunk back to his desk. He flung his arm up into the air and twisted his head around to stare at Erin with pleading eyes. Erin turned back to Melissa and smiled. “Thank you. I needed that.” Melissa nodded. “Mom said to tell you to call her any time you want to talk about health or school stuff or anything.” “Tell her I said thank you.” Erin wasn’t one to make friends easily, or feel that she needed a lot of them, but she wouldn’t mind having a new one in her life right now. Chapter Twenty-Four After Melissa’s remarks about the Boxcar Children, both Preston and Cynthia had relaxed enough to eat at least part of the…interesting…meal. It wasn’t that bad. But the sauce was runny – Carly had warned Preston that it would be better if set inside a dehydrator for an hour – and the raw garlic flavor strong, and the raw zucchini tasted like, well, raw zucchini. The organic mozzarella cheese he’d purchased during his very first trip to a health food store was the redeeming factor of the meal. All in all, he decided that Carly could keep her raw food diet. Cynthia told him that it was likely an acquired taste, after eating only cooked processed foods for so long, but Preston wasn’t so sure. They played a board game after supper, then he gave them both a hug and kiss on the cheek as they left. It just wasn’t the right time for a first kiss with Cynthia. Not only because of Melissa’s presence, but Preston felt that he still wasn’t quite worthy of his new lady friends. He had past issues to face. One past issue in particular. It had been weighing so heavily on his mind the past couple of weeks, that he dreamed about it in living color last night after the Redmans had gone home. “But you’ve only tried it for three days, Dad. She said it would take at least a week to start noticing results.” Preston, on the verge of starting his freshman year of college, stood by his father’s bedside, desperately praying that the older man would hear him. His father, propped up on pillows, looked at Preston with his ever-yellowing face. “The doctor said that’s all quackery. Chemo’s the only thing that can help me.” “Dad, we’ve been over this before. Chemotherapy kills. I thought you agreed with that.” His father sunk deeper into the pillows with a resigned sigh. “There’s more research on chemo. More evidence to support it.” He lifted his hand to stop Preston, who had opened his mouth to protest those statements. “I’m dying, son. Juicing and enemas won’t be aggressive enough. My only chance to live is modern medicine.” Preston woke up from the dream, reliving the frustrated grief at his father’s death a couple of weeks after that scene. He hadn’t been persistent enough. He should have had the old woman herself come and talk to his father. Instead, he had taken his father’s beliefs to heart, and decided that so-called “natural cures” were bogus, that if it was your time to die, it was your time to die, and nothing you did would matter, anyway. Preston sat at the table where he’d shared his first – and perhaps last – mostly raw meal with Cynthia and Melissa last night, nursing a cup of coffee, and thinking. His lackadaisical philosophy had served him well until a couple of months ago. Then the students in the local schools had started getting sick. One of them had died. Melissa had almost died. He couldn’t believe that mainstream culture lie anymore. He had decided that he could and would use his position at Delico to stop the tainting of school lunches, but now he no longer had that position. Moreover, he knew that keeping the position would not help anybody in the realm of health. In the back of his mind, the idea kept niggling at him that he had to do something to make up for all the lost years, the years when he ate whatever he wanted, wasted whatever he wanted, thought whatever was easiest to think. To make up for his father’s death. Finding that scumball lawyer would be a good start. First, though, he had to get a clue about where the man had hidden himself. Preston downed the last drop of his coffee and pushed the mug away. He assumed that the police would have looked for Johnson at his home and various school district offices. Did they have any leads as to where the man might have run to? The bigger question might be, why had he been poisoning kids in the first place? Exhaling with explosive force, Preston pushed away from the table and began pacing his spacious apartment, trying to recall every detail of the several meetings he’d had with Munger, and then with Munger and Johnson. During the latter meetings, he had been under the distinct impression that the pair had been trying to implicate Delico in the tainted food cases. But, why Delico? Why not one of the other companies that provided food for the school district? On the other hand, Preston was the one who had received the mysterious e-mail, the one against whom Munger had paid Karen to plant fraudulent evidence. Did Johnson have it in for him for some reason? Preston forced the image of the man with a permanent mocking expression back into his head, trying to bring up any recollection of it from his past life. He mentally unfiled pictures of high school and college classmates and various Delico employees at every level. He mulled over the several lawsuits that Delico had gone through during Preston’s years at the company. But Jeb Johnson did not seem to fit anybody from Preston’s past. Finally, frustrated beyond measure, he picked up the phone. There were two women he needed to talk to. First on the docket was Cynthia. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said when she answered. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” “Sure. I needed a break, anyway. Are you okay? You sound upset.” “Have the cops contacted you yet?” “Yes. Just a phone call, though,” Cynthia replied. “They asked me to come down and make a statement this morning, so I did. What about you?” “Same.” Preston stopped his pacing at his bedroom door and leaned against it. “Got an interesting phone call from the national V.P. of Delico, apologizing profusely and begging me to come back.” Cynthia was silent for a long moment, as he had suspected she would be. “What – what did you say?” Her voice was a mixture of hesitancy and dismay. “Thanks, but no thanks.” “Oh, thank God. I mean…” Preston chuckled. “I know what you mean. How about reporters?” “Not yet. You?” “I expect them at any moment.” Another pause. “Preston, you’re putting off telling me something.” That scary female sixth sense at work. “You’re right.” He was putting it off because as soon as Cynthia had answered the phone, he realized that she ultimately was not going to like where the conversation led. “Let me act like a man, and get straight to the point. I need to know every detail you remember from that meeting you had with Dr. Munger. That was the only one, right?” “Right.” Cynthia told him as much as she could about the meeting, including anything Jeb Johnson had said – which turned out to be not much – or had done as far as mannerisms. “Hold on,” Preston interrupted after a couple of minutes. “You never told me they offered you money to keep quiet about Melissa’s illness.” “I didn’t think it was a big deal. Johnson said it was a common practice.” Preston suppressed a sordid laugh. He didn’t want Cynthia to think he was making fun of her. “I wonder if you talked to the school board if they would know anything about this bribe. You are right to call it that, you know.” “Why are you wanting to know all this?” Cynthia asked, her tone suspicious. “You’re not going to try to find him on your own, are you?” Preston said nothing. “Your silence condemns you. Preston, this guy is dangerous. Please, don’t do this.” “I only want to see if I can come up with any leads to pass onto the police.” His gut clenched at the lie, and he remembered his promise to her. “Okay, so I want to find the jerk and pound his head into the ground.” “Preston, you can’t.” Cynthia sounded desperate. “More kids might die if somebody doesn’t do something.” “The police are doing something!” The call ended soon after, with Cynthia pleading for him to be careful, and Preston promising not to get himself into a precarious situation. Now all he had to do was make sure that didn’t turn into a lie. After he hung up, he snatched up his keys and walked to the entrance door. If he procrastinated the next conversation, he would never go through with it. Karen was the last person on earth he wanted to talk to right now. He opened the door, walked out into the hallway, began to put his keys in the door. But then he saw a note taped to his door just above the doorknob. A note with his name on it. In decidedly feminine handwriting. He ripped the note off and unfolded it. “Preston, I almost can’t believe you gave me that invitation. But in case it was you, I’m going to get to the park about fifteen minutes late. I have an appointment with my manicurist. In case it wasn’t you, I’m taking a knife and please come and make sure I’m all right. I’ll be at Powers Park at 2:30.” Preston stared at the paper with wide eyes. He most certainly had not extended any kind of invitation to Karen. Then he dug into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and turned it on. He’d begun leaving it off after Erin had told him how dangerous smart phone radiation was, especially to places like the brain and reproductive organs. But now he chafed inwardly at having to wait even a few seconds to see the time. Two-twenty-four. Powers Park. There were three parks around the neighborhood, and he didn’t know the names of any of them. He grabbed the keys out of his door and sprinted for the door that led to the stairwell. He didn’t have time to take the elevator. Karen was in trouble, and he had a sinking feeling he knew with whom and why. ********** As soon as Cynthia got off the phone with Preston, she headed out the door. Something was wrong, very wrong, and if she didn’t stop him, Preston was going to get hurt. She paused in her car after starting the engine only to leave a message on Erin’s cell phone, asking her to find Melissa after school and have her stay in her classroom until Cynthia could get there, by four-thirty, she hoped. Worst case scenario, Melissa would end up in the front office, worried that Cynthia hadn’t come to pick her up. By then, Erin would have probably checked her messages and gone to get her. Under ordinary circumstances, Cynthia would have felt awkward, even guilty, for asking someone she barely knew to do such a big favor. But these circumstances were beyond ordinary, and she trusted Erin. So did Melissa. Cynthia had to force herself to keep her speed slow as she backed out of the garage and into the street. At least it was a relatively quiet street, even during rush hour. The temperature had warmed up to the mid-thirties today, so Cynthia was comfortable in the car as long as she had her coat buttoned up to her neck. The low-hanging, gray clouds portended more snow. Accumulation wouldn’t happen until the temperatures fell below freezing again, but Cynthia sent up a silent prayer for any flakes to stay in the clouds until she made sure Preston was safe and sound. She wanted nothing to make driving more difficult. Almost every traffic light she encountered turned red as soon as she approached it, and ten minutes into the drive she wanted to scream. The longer she was in the car, the stronger the urge to find Preston became. Then she began to wonder if she shouldn’t call the police. But what would she say? “Hello, I’m a crazy woman who thinks the lawyer responsible for turning the school lunches into poison is about to kill my boyfriend. No, I have no proof, just an awful feeling in my stomach.” That wouldn’t fly. Besides, now she was going through a school zone and cell phone use was not allowed. She slowed down, gritting her teeth in frustration. She put so much pressure on her jaw that it hurt by the time she had driven past the school zone a few hundred yards later. After what seemed like several hours, she came close to the high-rise that Preston called home. To get there, she had to go around a park that had a small lake, two playgrounds, and a paved trail winding around the lake and through areas that were part meadow, part greenbelt. When Cynthia saw it last night, she’d thought it would make a great place for a romantic picnic once the weather warmed up. Now, she could only hope her romantic interest would still be alive by then. She had gotten to the eastern edge of the park and was about to take a left to head the two blocks north to the high-rise when a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She twisted her neck and saw a woman trying to wrench herself free of a man’s grip. The figure of the woman seemed vaguely familiar. The man twisted the woman’s arm and pulled her tightly to himself. Now Cynthia, her stomach turning over, stopped the car completely. She rolled down the window. The woman started to scream, but the man cut the noise off by slapping his hand over her mouth. Taking a quick look in all her mirrors, Cynthia backed her car up to park it against the curb. No way was she going to be the average person who shuts her eyes to an attack going on right under her nose. She yanked the keys out of the ignition, fished her phone out of her purse, and got out of the car, closing the door as quietly as she could. She moved toward the scene, ducking behind the evergreen trees and bushes that dotted her way there, while fumbling to turn on the phone. When she was a few yards away, relatively safe in a small grove of trees, she yelled out, “Hey!” The man whirled around, dropping the woman, and when he saw Cynthia he took off running. She knew there was no use going after him, so she dialed 9-1-1 as she jogged toward the woman, who sat on her knees in the mushy, gray snow, panting. Then Cynthia recognized the woman and stopped short. Karen Lewis. Preston’s neighbor. The one Melissa had called…a not nice name. It didn’t matter. Cynthia had to help her, if she needed help. The emergency operator answered just as Cynthia reached her. “Yes. I’m at…” She glanced down at Karen, who was staring up at her with unbelieving eyes. “I called 9-1-1. What’s the address here?” “Powers Park,” she gasped. “At the corner of Hebron and Fifty-first.” Cynthia relayed the information to the operator, then added, “I just witnessed a man attacking a woman. He ran away as I approached.” At the operator’s next question, Cynthia looked back at Karen, who was slowly easing herself up to a standing position. “Do you need an ambulance?” Karen shook her head. “No. But tell them –” She broke off with an expletive, panted some more, her face twisted in fright. Suddenly, the expression eased as she shifted her gaze to a point behind Cynthia. “Preston!” Cynthia turned. Yes, Preston was running toward them. “Ma’am? Are you still there?” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I’m sorry.” Cynthia turned back to Karen, starting to feel numb. Wishing she hadn’t stopped to help her. Wishing she hadn’t showed up at all. “I’m trying to get the…victim to tell me what happened.” By now, Karen was standing, and in the next moment Cynthia felt a slight pressure on the small of her back. Preston. How did he know Karen was here? Or had he just been passing by and happened to see them? Either way, she wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or confused by his presence. Glaring at Karen, she demanded, “What were you going to tell me? Do you know who that man was?” Karen nodded, cutting her eyes back to Cynthia. “That lawyer who’d paid off Munger to poison the food. I knew him from the photo they showed on the news.” Her gaze went back to Preston, and she pointed with a frantic gesture. “He went that way.” With her free hand, Cynthia grabbed onto Preston’s arm when he tried to run in the direction Karen was pointing. “No! He might have a gun.” “Ma’am? Who might have a gun?” the 9-1-1 operator asked. Cynthia stumbled over her words, trying to explain who had attacked Karen while silently pleading with her eyes for Preston to relax. She did not release him until he nodded and unclenched his jaw, then moved toward Karen. To Cynthia’s chagrin, the girl fell against him, threw her arms around him, and burst into tears. Preston, looking at Cynthia sideways, rolled his eyes. At that point, the operator told her she was sending police and an emergency response vehicle, and to stay near her phone. Cynthia hung up, and watched with amusement as Preston peeled Karen’s arms off him. “Did he hurt you?” he asked her. “No,” Karen responded, pouting now. Then she glanced at Cynthia. “Did you send…her instead?” Cynthia frowned at Preston. “What is she talking about, sending me?” Preston told her about the note that Karen had left on his door. Cynthia didn’t know whether to be angry or feel sorry for her. Then Karen filled in the blanks, telling them that Jeb Johnson had left a note signed in Preston’s name in her mailbox, asking for a rendezvous with her, and Cynthia decided to feel sorry for her. The girl must have serious issues to fall for something like that. Sirens began wailing in the distance, and Preston stepped back to Cynthia’s side and put his arm around her. “I told you, Karen,” he cut his eyes toward Cynthia, “I told both of you, I’m not that kind of guy.” Cynthia believed him. By the scarlet flush on Karen’s face and her sheepish manner, she gathered that the girl finally did, too. But they had no time to discuss anything relationship-wise for a while after. At that moment, piercing sirens made conversation impossible, and a few seconds later they were talking to the police. Chapter Twenty-Five The past few days had brought more excitement than Lucy had seen in the last several years. Of course, on her part it was more vicarious living than anything else. Since she had never directly been involved with Barry Munger, neither the media nor the police requested an interview with her. But Erin, Preston, and Cynthia had all had their fifteen minutes of fame. And the women had eagerly and liberally shared their experiences with Lucy. Both tried to make it sound like they felt harassed, but Lucy could tell they were pleased to have been able to have their say in public about the dangers of consuming processed food. She could have been envious by the attention they’d received, but trying to decide whether to stay with Delico any longer was causing her enough emotional turmoil. Although she loved working under Kelly Jackson, and enjoyed the other employees she encountered on a regular basis, the reason she’d gotten herself hired on there had shriveled up like a raisin. Mario had told her that he would be fine with whatever decision she made, but to please get hired somewhere else first before quitting her job at Delico. They had, just the past couple of weeks, both been given a huge incentive to begin to keep careful track of their finances. So as Lucy pushed her cart down the aisle of the health food store, she clung to a list that substituted chicken thighs and free-range eggs for grass-fed beef, and eliminated a few unnecessary items she used to toss in the cart without thought, like the three-dollar-a-piece organic red bell peppers. Turning toward the dairy case, she thought she saw a familiar face down the adjacent aisle. She looked again, the corners of her mouth curving upward, and turned her cart. “Cynthia!” Cynthia, who seemed to be comparing two different brands of ketchup, straightened up, glanced at Lucy, and smiled. “Hey.” When Lucy got closer, she asked, “Which is healthier, agave nectar or evaporated cane juice?” Lucy shook her head. “Like so many things in the nutrition world, depends on who you ask. I think the cane juice is more natural, myself.” Cynthia put one bottle back on the shelf and the other in her cart. “That makes sense.” Then she sighed. “I can’t wait ‘til this all blows over.” Lucy frowned. “Are you still getting calls from reporters?” As she spoke, Preston appeared at the end of the aisle. He smiled and lifted a hand in greeting as he approached. Lucy lowered her voice. “Grocery shopping together? You must be getting serious.” She was teasing, but not really. “Melissa’s staying with a friend until 8:30.” Cynthia, though beaming, flushed slightly as she said it. That gave them a good four hours as of now, three and a half by the time they left the store and got to either of their homes. “Do tell,” Lucy said as Preston came up to Cynthia and picked up her hand with his. Lucy winked at him. “I hear you have a hot date tonight.” He put the first three fingers of his free hand in the air. “We’ll behave ourselves. Scouts’ honor.” He let Cynthia’s hand drop as she prepared to push the cart. “To answer your question, no, it’s not the reporters.” Cynthia leaned into the handle. “It’s everybody on Twitter and Facebook. Oh. My. Gosh.” Preston squeezed her elbow while looking at Lucy. “I’ve told her she doesn’t need to respond to every single message she gets. So, what’s new on your side of the globe, Lucy? Decided whether or not to stay with Delico?” She shook her head. “Not yet.” She paused, wondering if she should tell them what she and Mario – with Emma’s blessing – had decided to do. She did not want to take any more time away from their date, nor did she want to push her newly hatched ideas about personal finance onto other people. Cynthia narrowed her eyes. “You’re holding back, Lucy. Spill it.” She gave a “come hither” gesture with her fingers. Nothing like an open invitation. Lucy felt her smile broaden, and her heart beat a little faster at the excitement of what she was about to tell them. “Mario and I discovered this book, Your Money Or Your Life. We’ve decided we’re going to do it.” Cynthia and Preston exchanged a glance. “Do…what?” Cynthia asked. Lucy suddenly felt awkward. How could she say exactly what was on her mind without sounding like a nutcase? “We’re going to do what the book says. Well, you have to read it to believe it. I’ll let you guys go. I don’t want to take up your date time.” She grabbed her cart and wheeled it back toward the dairy before either of them could say a word. ********** Forty minutes later, Preston and Cynthia were back at her house, assembling a simple meal consisting of a large salad with grated cheese and walnuts, with blueberries for dessert. The date had been Melissa’s idea. “It’s time for you guys to go out on a date by yourself,” she had said a couple of days ago in response to Cynthia’s announcement that Preston would be coming over for dinner tonight. Cynthia had been surprised, but pleased and relieved. Pleased because, of course, she was yearning for some time alone with Preston. Relieved, because Melissa seemed to have accepted – embraced, really – the idea that Preston may one day become her stepfather. “Should I toss these in whole, or chop them up a bit?” Preston picked up the half cup of walnuts. “I prefer them chopped.” Like it mattered. She was so excited to have Preston by herself that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to eat. When he took the chef’s knife that she held out to him, their fingers brushed and she felt a jolt go up her arm. Preston must have felt something, too, because he paused and met her gaze with a heated one of his own. For a moment, she was sure he was going to drop everything and kiss her. Then he smiled, cleared his throat, and began chopping the walnuts. “I have a confession to make,” he said, eyes focused on the knife. Maybe his guilt was making him keep his distance. “Okay.” Cynthia set down the cheese she was grating and watched him chop. “When I was in my late teens, I was totally turned on to natural health.” She arched her brow. “Really?” Preston said nothing more during the ten seconds or so it took him to finish chopping the walnuts. Then, he set down the knife and turned to her. “When I was seventeen, my father was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. I went and talked to the old lady who owned the neighborhood health food store, and she told me about Gerson Therapy.” He leaned against the counter. “Ever heard of it?” Cynthia shook her head. “It was a method a doctor named Max Gerson successfully used to heal cancer patients. It consisted of consuming a lot of fresh green juice and doing daily enemas.” Cynthia grimaced, and Preston chuckled. “Yeah, that was my initial reaction. And Dad’s. But he was willing to try anything at that point.” His face grew serious again, and he sighed. “He tried it for three days. And felt so miserable, so weak and sick, that he refused to go on with it. Said that the doctors knew best, and that Gerson Therapy was quackery and would kill him.” Preston turned slightly away from Cynthia, staring at the cabinet in front of him. “My dad and I had always been tight. If I had pushed him, just a little…I’ve always blamed myself for his death.” Cynthia took a step in his direction. “Oh, Preston.” He turned back to her with a sad smile. “I know, it wasn’t my fault. And maybe he was so bad off that by then, nothing would have worked.” “Maybe.” An uncomfortable silence settled between them. Preston broke it after a few seconds with, “That’s why I wanted to help you, you know.” Cynthia furrowed her brow. “No, I don’t know.” “When the kids started getting sick.” Preston turned his back against the counter and crossed his arms. “I felt like, in my position of quasi-power, I might be able to stop it. And if I could, somehow that would…” His voice cracked and trailed off, and he turned his back toward Cynthia. “Make up for your dad’s death?” Cynthia offered quietly. Preston’s head bobbed down and back up once. Compassion and appreciation welled up inside her. She hadn’t been the only one carrying around sadness, and his had gone on a lot longer. And instead of just wallowing in self-pity, he had harnessed his sorrow to try to help others. His motives may have been a little bit skewed, a bit unhealthy psychologically speaking, but it was better than what many would have done – sticking their heads in the sand and letting the hurt slowly suck away their lives. Cynthia eliminated the distance between them and gently grasped his arm with both her hands. “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure.” Preston turned, blinking quickly. “Was it your dad’s death that made you bitter about the natural health world?” He nodded, the sad smile returning. “I threw the baby out with the bathwater.” He reached out his hand to caress Cynthia’s cheek. “But then you came along. You and Melissa.” He turned to face her fully, and she dropped her arms down as he moved. Their gazes met. Locked. Cynthia’s body temperature went up at least ten degrees. Preston lightly set his hands on both her shoulders and stepped close to her. Leaned his face close to hers. Cynthia tilted her mouth up in expectation. The kiss was soft, gentle. Caring. Cynthia’s heartbeat tripled as pleasure shuddered through her. Preston stepped back, his eyes searching hers. Hungry. Cynthia again closed the gap between them. This time, the kiss was not so gentle. Their arms went around each other, and passion erupted in their mouths. Just when Cynthia felt things were getting dangerous, Preston pulled away, leaving her breathless. He seemed out of breath himself as he said, “I promised Lucy we’d behave ourselves.” Cynthia was not disappointed. She held to certain boundaries that she didn’t want to cross unless and until they were married, and was relieved Preston had gotten control of himself. That, in itself, said a lot. She smiled at him. “I think we should hold to that promise. For a time.” “How about supper?” A few minutes later, they were seated at the table, enjoying the salad. The heat of the moment over, they easily stepped into friendly conversation and banter. But the events of the past week were too fresh to be avoided, and they found themselves constantly coming back to them. “Isn’t that something about Jeb Johnson?” Cynthia said when she’d finished about half her salad. Preston wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Which something?” “That he and the Delico CEO had gone to school together and fought over a woman.” The story had unfolded within the past couple of days: Jeb Johnson and Mike Dawes, the current CEO of Delico Foods, had been classmates and friends in college. Until the woman Jeb was engaged to be married to broke off the relationship. Three months later, she was engaged to Mike. That ended the friendship between the two young men and began a lifelong enmity fueled by jealousy. Even though Mike and the woman had been divorced for five years, Johnson had sworn he would take his revenge. He couldn’t find a better way than to ruin the company his former friend headed. “All is fair in love and war,” Preston quipped. “I mean,” he added quickly when Cynthia cast him a glare, “that’s obviously what Johnson believed.” Heat rushed into Cynthia’s cheeks, but this time it had nothing to do with romance. “He succeeded in killing one child, and almost killed mine.” Preston, seated across from her, reached out his hand and laid it over hers. “You told me you’d forgiven him.” She sighed. “I’ve said the words to you and to God. But I’m afraid it’ll take a while before I feel it.” Preston squeezed her hand and released it. “I know. And I want to be here to walk you through all that.” Warmth filled her middle. “Me, too.” She could hardly believe that a month ago, she’d been convinced that she would never be able to accept another man into her life again, let alone need another man in her life. Preston broke off the gaze to fork up some more lettuce. “Are you going to keep demonstrating?” Cynthia sat up straighter. “Oh, Preston, I completely forgot to tell you with all the other craziness going on!” She put a hand to her cheek and shook her head as Preston cast her a curious glance. “The other day I got a call from one of the school board members. They want to meet with me and a few other concerned parents and talk about possible healthy changes to the lunch menu. Apparently a few of them have been researching what some other districts are doing, as well as a few private schools, and they’ve decided to look into some of the options.” While she would never let Melissa eat school food again, short of Franklin beginning to cater in lunch from the health food store, she was thrilled that her hard work – and maybe the bad publicity of the district Food and Nutrition Director – was finally paying off. If other parents maintained their ignorance about the importance of healthy food, at least their kids would get something better at school than they were now. Preston grinned at her. “Cynthia, that’s wonderful. I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.” Cynthia’s stomach fluttered at the term of endearment. “I have to say, though, I’ll be happy when life can get back to normal again.” She, Preston, Erin, and even Lucy were prepared to be called as witnesses in both Munger’s and Johnson’s trials. Cynthia could only hope that between now and that time, the media and social networks would forget about the excitement of the past week. The only thing that kept her from completely dreading the inevitable trials was that she would not have to face them alone. After polishing off a bowlful of berries, she and Preston settled down to watch a romantic comedy for the remainder of the evening. Even though they “behaved themselves”, they sat hip-to-hip on the couch, and stole numerous kisses. At 8:20, the movie ended. Precious few minutes remained of their time together. Cynthia already felt lonely at the thought that Preston would be leaving soon. She began to stand up, but Preston pulled her back down to the couch. Taking both of her hands in his, he gazed deeply into her eyes. “There’s something I have to tell you.” His voice was husky, making Cynthia’s heart skip a beat. Then he said nothing for a long, heated moment. Cynthia thought she was going to melt. In a good way. Finally, Preston released her hands and cupped her cheeks. “Cynthia, what I feel for you I’ve never felt for any woman. I love you, very, very much. And I love Melissa.” He leaned over, and kissed her. This time, it was different. It was soft like the first kiss, but it lingered. It was not hungry, but hopeful. When it was over, Cynthia wanted to cry. But she swallowed her tears and choked out, “I love you, too.” Preston gave her a smile that radiated from his eyes and into her heart. “I am hoping we have a future together. You…you feel the same?” Before Cynthia could answer, the front door banged open. “Mom, I’m home! Oh, there you are.” Melissa smiled at both of them, then froze. “Uh, Preston, were you about to kiss my mom?” Cynthia glanced back at him. His smile broadened. “Come here, Melissa.” She shrugged out of her coat, removed her shoes, and walked over to the couch. Preston scooted over so that she could sit between him and Cynthia. “Melissa,” he continued, “how would you feel if I told you that I’ve fallen in love with your mom?” Melissa’s eyes widened. “Are – are you going to be my dad?” “You like that idea?” “Yes.” Preston shifted his gaze to Cynthia, then he winked. Leaning close to Melissa, he lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Your mother and I can’t say for sure right now, but it’s looking good, Melissa. It’s looking real good.” Melissa sprang up off the couch. She cut her eyes first to Preston, then to Cynthia. “Then you need to kiss again and get it figured out. Go on.” Cynthia laughed, and turned to Preston. Amusement danced in his eyes as he filled in the space Melissa had just vacated. Then he wrapped his arms around Cynthia and melted his mouth into hers. ### THE END A Note For My Wonderful Readers Dear Reader, If you think that I have an agenda with this series of novels, you’re right! I’ve heard that Jesus taught in parables because people can relate to stories. When you relate to a story, you remember it. I’ve tried blogging, and I’ve tried publishing non-fiction books to Kindle to teach people why following the mainstream status quo is unhealthy, unfulfilling, and a tremendous hindrance to both spiritual and personal freedom. I reached a limited number of people, and felt that my message mostly fell flat. So I decided to take a risk. I decided to take my passion for natural health and simple living and combine it with my gift for writing stories to create both plots and characters that would not only entertain, but educate. I hope that you not only enjoyed the first story in this series, but also have gleaned some life-changing information from it. If you have enjoyed it, would you please take a moment to give it a positive review? That way, more people will be able to discover the novel much more easily. Thank you! The next story will focus on Erin who, disillusioned with her chosen career, decides to start a home-based business in an attempt to find financial freedom. At the end of the second book of the series, I’ll tell you which character in this series strongly represents me! What follows is the first chapter from that novel… His First Choice, First Chapter “Logan. Sit. Down. Now.” Erin Halley’s patience had not only worn thin, it was completely gone. When the second-grade boy rolled his eyes and sat down with a dramatic air and sigh more fitted to a fifth or sixth grader, it was all she could do not to grab him by the neck of his shirt and shake him until his teeth fell out. And it was only the second week of October. Grace Stevens, the first grade teacher whose student Logan had been last year, had given her fair warning both at the end of the last school year, and the beginning of this one. He had not gone to Kindergarten, and had been, in Grace’s words, a holy terror. With over thirty years of teaching under her belt, Mrs. Stevens was known for order and discipline. But even she had struggled to keep Logan from harassing the other kids and disrespecting her. Off and on during the summer, Erin had prayed for Logan – mostly that he would move away before school started. Or somehow be transformed from a devil into an angel. Neither had happened. The first few days of school had gone off without a hitch, but that was normal. Even the biggest troublemakers spent that time feeling their way and working to overcome the intimidating circumstances that a new school year always brought. But on day five, Logan had let his true colors shine in all their glory. During recess, he cut off Emily Mason’s braids with Erin’s big scissors that she kept in her desk, and when he returned from talking to Mr. Wade about the incident, he purposely spilled a bucket of beads that Erin had set up in the art center for making crafts. When she insisted that he pick them up, he did so for about two minutes. Then he began rolling them in different directions around the room. Erin had been busy helping a couple of students with the math seatwork and didn’t catch him until several others started laughing and half the beads were covering the floor. When she talked to Logan’s mother about it after school, the woman simply shrugged and said that he was just as bad at home and she didn’t know what to do about it. Erin, despite believing that corporal punishment was never the best solution, wondered to herself if Logan’s parents had ever tried a good spanking. Of course, the boy was academically behind, as well. And had not returned a single homework assignment since the school year began. Erin clenched her teeth and tried to compose herself. She didn’t want to take out her anger towards Logan on the other kids. For the fifth time in the past hour, he’d gotten out of his seat without permission. Each time he had been as slow as molasses in January to return and sit down when Erin asked him to. She had started out nice, but now had had enough of him. Besides, it was two o’clock and she was exhausted. She collapsed into her desk chair, wishing she dared close her eyes for two minutes, but knowing trouble would ensue the second she did with a kid like Logan in the room. Reina, a quiet, smart girl approached her desk timidly. “Miss Halley? Is it okay if I do the odd-numbered questions, too?” The math assignment was to complete the even-numbered questions on the page. Erin forced a smile, glad that nobody else would ask such a question. The last thing she wanted was more work to grade. “Of course, Reina. Go right ahead.” She gave a swift glance in Logan’s direction. He was leaning his head on his hands, staring off into space. At least he was sitting down. ********** An hour and a half later, she was on her way to pick up a new filtering element for the air purifier she had purchased last year. Reading up on healthy eating, which she’d begun to do ten years ago at the age of twenty, had led to books and blogs about natural health, which had led her to discover a podcast put out by a local businessman who sold the highest quality, state-of-the-art health equipment on the market – at least, so he claimed. Last year, after listening to Theodore Greco talk about how toxic indoor air is and how his air purifiers cleaned it like no other, she had bit the bullet and bought one. Bit the bullet, because on a teacher’s salary to shell out $400 for a small black appliance was painful. But it worked as well as Greco claimed. Her apartment now always smelled like fresh mountain air. Until recently, which was her cue to replace the purifier element. Driving thirty minutes out of her way was cheaper than paying to have the thing shipped to her house. She also bought her shower filters there, although she ignored the wide array of nutritional supplements on display. She took a whole-foods based multi that she bought at the health food store, and it was less expensive than anything Greco had for sale. A typical teacher, Erin had a hard time leaving her job behind when she went home every evening, and today was no exception. Five years ago, she’d started to realize that she had serious issues with the educational system. She’d chosen the career because she wanted to help children discover their gifts and talents. But three years into her position, she realized that the system was all about conformity. And in order to ensure that everyone conformed, the focus was on student weakness. Diverse interests and talents were ignored, even discouraged, and God help the teacher who tried to redefine her job description in order to persuade kids to become creative thinkers and innovators. Not wanting to lose her job because she didn’t know what else she could do to earn an income, Erin had finally resigned herself to sticking strictly to the boring, tedious curriculum that was thrust upon each and every teacher, and each and every student. And then there was Logan. And not just Logan, but every year there were one or two kids whose aim in life seemed to be to make her life miserable. Erin loved to teach, but she hated conformity, and she hated discipline. And Logan was the biggest discipline trial she’d encountered so far. By the time she pulled into the parking lot in front of the small building that served as Greco’s business quarters, she had thought herself into a mild depression. She was even thinking about taking a couple of days off. And that was something, because more than her job, she detested having to return to her classroom after a substitute teacher had taken over for even a few hours. Taking a deep breath, she uttered a silent prayer for help as she opened the glass door on which the words “Pure Living, Inc.” were painted. The last thing she wanted to do was spend the time away from her job thinking about how much she hated her job. She blinked several times as she stepped inside. The autumn day, though chilly, was bright and it took a few seconds for Erin’s eyes to adjust to the darker interior. As they did, the now-familiar ozone smell of the Purity Now air purifiers wafted through the room. Theodore Greco was not a hypocrite. He had one of those purifiers up and working in every single room of the suite. “Good afternoon, and welcome to Pure Life. How may I help you today?” The voice came from the receptionist desk a few feet to her left; she had been looking at a table to her right as her vision readjusted. She glanced toward the desk, surprised to hear a male voice greeting her. The handful of other times she’d been in this office, the receptionist had been a gray-haired, wrinkly-faced female named Mary. “Oh, hi.” She frowned. “Doesn’t Mary work here any more?” “Moved to a retirement home in a small town in Wisconsin.” The man, who had been sitting behind a small stack of papers, stood up and reached out his hand toward her as she approached the desk. “I guess you’ve been here before. I’m Paul Court.” She shook his hand, trying not to flinch at the sound of his last name. She had been in court this last spring and summer, several times, as a witness to a crime involving the tainting of cafeteria food in the St. Peter Independent School District, the district she taught in. “Nice to meet you. I’m Erin Halley. I’ve been here four or five times.” She pulled her hand out of his, feeling that he was holding it a bit longer than appropriate. “I ordered an air purifier the other day. Theo said he’d have some in stock if I came in.” If Paul took any offense at Erin’s gesture, he didn’t show it. Instead, his smile widened. “So, you’ve talked to the big cheese himself, huh?” Erin was tempted to retort that she happened to be friends with the former regional vice-president of a Fortune 500 company, but merely lifted a shoulder in reply. She didn’t think it was any big deal to be on a first-name basis with an owner of a local store. Even if he did market nationwide, thanks to his podcast and one of the best online stores she’d ever surfed. “Let me call back to Bert and have him bring your order out,” Paul continued, sitting back in his chair. “Multi or one-room?” “Multi.” Paul made the call, and Erin studied him out of the corner of one eye. While he was a little bit forward, he was also handsome. His light brown hair, though stylishly cut, almost came down to his shoulders, and his blue eyes sparkled with life. Unlike most of the other people on staff here – including Theodore Greco – his figure was fit, his stomach flat. Of course, that might have been due to his younger age. But Erin had never bought into the idea that a man over the age of thirty was arbitrarily doomed to a flabby belly that hung over his belt. It had, as she believed about most conditions of less-than-perfect health, to do more with diet and nutrition than anything else. “He’ll be here in a couple of minutes.” “Thanks.” Erin unzipped the pocket of her fanny pack that was closest to her body and pulled out her card holder. Paul leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “Say, that’s a handy contraption you’ve got there.” Erin smiled. “It saved my life in the classroom. My first year I was forever looking for a pencil and notepad, and it was such a pain to have to walk all the way to my desk to find paper clips and things like that. When I bought this, I felt like I got my sanity back.” “So you’re a teacher?” “Second grade.” Paul’s eyes flashed interest, and he lowered his voice after looking around for a second. “Kind of rough to buy high-end air purifiers on a teacher’s salary, isn’t it?” Erin bristled. Her financial situation was none of his business. She must have let her irritation show on her face, because he immediately leaned back in his chair with a contrite expression. “I’m not trying to be nosy or anything. I just thought you might be interested in earning a little extra money on the side.” Erin shook her head. “I’ve already had this conversation with Theo. I’m not interested in becoming an affiliate.” She loved to write, but she didn’t want to commit to keeping up a blog in order to try to sell Pure Life, Inc. products. “Oh, no, no, no.” Paul’s eyes widened. “Of course, that’s always an option we encourage happy customers to consider, but I was talking about something else.” He bent down for a moment, opened a desk drawer, and pulled out a wrapped disc. “Free DVD. Don’t even worry about returning it. I think you’ll like what you’ll see.” Erin stared at the item as Paul tried to hand it to her. But she didn’t take it. “What’s it about?” He shrugged. “Just a way to earn a little extra money. It’s working great for me. Take a look and let me know what you think.” Erin felt divided. On the one hand, that Paul wouldn’t tell her straight out what was on the DVD made her suspicious. On the other, she was curious. And sick of her job. And, yes, wishing she had a little extra cash to make her healthy lifestyle – eating only organic food, buying things like shower filters and air purifiers – feel like less of a pinch. Besides, the same DVD was on the table displaying the supplements. Obviously, it was something Theo was promoting. And if he was promoting it, Erin knew from experience it would be something worth considering. Finally, she took the DVD from Paul’s hand and thanked him for it. He handed her a business card. “Call me after you’ve watched it. Or drop by here again. I’d really like to know what you think.” He gazed at her with an intentness that made her feel…uncomfortable? No, not uncomfortable. Shy. He was looking at her with a kind of attention she wasn’t used to. Like he was interested in her. As a woman. The idea made her feel warm and awkward at the same time. She didn’t like it when her emotions fell out of her control, so she looked away, hoping he couldn’t see the blush she felt suddenly heating her cheeks. Just as she broke eye contact, Bert walked into the reception area with a box, and she let her breath out slowly with relief. If only she could get him to stay there while she paid for the air purifier element. “One multi-room air purifier element,” Bert said cheerfully as he set the box on the desk. His dark brown hair had a few streaks of gray, and he was overweight. Too old for her, and too ugly. Married, besides. Exactly the man she needed in this room right now. “How is your wife these days?” Erin said as she handed her check card to Paul. “I hope she’s feeling better.” When she was there a few months ago to pick up a new shower filter, Bert had told her that his wife had just been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Bert brightened. “Oh, she’s doing so much better, thanks to the world of nature.” He went on to explain the dietary changes, supplement additions, and other natural remedies his wife had been using to relieve her symptoms. Erin’s question achieved its goal. By the time Paul had given her a receipt and she was ready to leave, Bert was still there, talking in animated tones about how great his wife was doing – with the help, of course, of several of the products in the Pure Life warehouse. Erin rejected both men’s offers to help her out to her car, and when Paul jumped up to open the door for her as she navigated out with the DVD balancing on top of the large box, she made a concerted effort to avoid looking at him. She didn’t need to start liking a guy. Her life was complicated enough right now as it was. ********** Jim Rogerson knew starting a multi-level marketing company would be complicated. But he hadn’t realized it would be this complicated. Even with all the high-tech security, robbing a bank would be an easier way to make a lot of money fast. But he was in too deep to quit now. Besides, he’d seen the numbers. In five years, he’d be a rich man. A very rich man. And at that point, the company could go to a very hot place under the earth, as far as he was concerned. But only under one condition: he had to find a product to beat all other MLM products. And he had just the thing in mind. It was sitting in a small warehouse of a small business known as Pure Life, Inc. And one of the newest up-and-coming distributors of Rogerson’s fledgling company, Paul Court, was going to help him get his hands on it.


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