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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
It was an ugly, cold November day, with rain sluicing down in torrents. It wasn't just the ugliness of the day, Jack Emery thought. It was everything going haywire at the dojo, where he and Bert Navarro were trying to keep things going while Harry Wong trained for the martial-arts trials that would, if he was successful, enable him to capture the gold medal in the field of martial arts.
It wasn't that he and Bert weren't capable of handling and training the classes that flowed into the dojo, compliments of the FBI and the CIA and a few other lettered agencies. They were. That they were exhausted at the end of the day was true. It was also true that there had been no complaints apart from a little whining now and then. Once in a while there was even a compliment tossed their way by the agents' superiors.
All in all, both he and Bert were content with their performance and handling of the dojo, along with twice as many classes as Harry had before he went into training mode. Money by way of government flowed into the dojo like clockwork. Chunks of money. Lots of money. The United States government loved Harry Wong.
And on top of all that, his married life was now rock solid, as was Bert's relationship with Kathryn. Win! Win!
Jack felt Bert's presence before he clapped a hand on his shoulder and said, "Crappy day out there. Doesn't look like it's going to let up anytime soon, either. Since Georgetown floods with rains like these, you might want to bunk in with me tonight or hang out here. Your call. But first we have to Clorox these mats and clean up the training room. Jesus, there's nothing worse than a hundred men's sweat swirling around."
When Jack continued to stare out the window at the driving rain without responding, Bert poked him in the arm.
"Earth to Jack! What's wrong?"
Jack whirled around, his tone fierce when he said, "You know damn well what's wrong, Bert. Didn't you see Yoko's face when she came home at lunchtime? How much longer are we going to stand still for this? And don't tell me you don't know what this is. It's been three months, Bert! Three months!"
Bert yanked at Jack's arm and pulled him over to a slatted bench. "Listen, Jack, Harry ... Harry will not appreciate us sticking our noses into his business. We both know that. Yoko ... well, don't you think Yoko would at the very least talk to us, ask for our help?"
"It's not their way, Bert. You know that. I've done a lot of thinking on this, just as you have, and I can't think of a way to do a sneaky intervention. Harry would see right through anything we tried. Unless we hog-tie him and make him listen."
Bert's eyes almost popped out of his head at Jack's suggestion. "Hog-tie Harry! That's never going to happen. What planet are you living on, Jack?"
"Okay, okay. So we drug him by putting something in that shitty green tea he drinks. That way we can hog-tie him. With steel cables."
Bert actually pondered Jack's suggestion for a moment. Then he shook his head. "I think we're going about this all wrong. Let's try going through Yoko first. She should be home soon. She can't be blind to what's going on. Hell, she knows Harry better than anyone, and she just might have some ideas. It's worth a try, don't you think?"
"I'm willing to try anything right now. He's already wasted three months. What's really weird is, he has not come into the workout rooms once since he started his training."
"That's because he trusts us, Jack. He knows he can depend on us, so why waste time railing at us when there's nothing to rail at. Harry's Harry. We should both be proud that he has that much confidence in us."
"Yeah, I know, but I miss that cranky son of a bitch! Watching him through the windows isn't doing it for me. I can't even imagine what Yoko is going through."
"Come on, let's get this place cleaned up, and by that time Yoko should be home. Let's agree that we both talk to her. Not that we're ganging up on her, but she might pay more attention to what we're going to say if we both say it."
"Okay. I'll do the blue and red rooms. You do the yellow and green ones." The colors of the rooms referred to the level of the class the agents were taking. The brown and black rooms had yet to be used because the students hadn't progressed to that level of achievement.
An hour later, with the smell of Clorox overpowering even with the AC going full blast to drive out the fumes, Jack and Bert stood outside the back door, under the overhang. Jack fired up a cigarette and waited for Bert to chastise him, and when he didn't, Jack just tossed the cigarette into the soaking bushes.
"I hate the smell of Clorox," Bert mumbled.
"Yeah, it does stink," Jack mumbled in return. He fired up another cigarette just to have something to do.
"How do you think she'll take it? Her meaning Yoko."
"I know who you mean. Who the hell knows? She isn't spending much time here, that's for sure. Last night was our late night, and by the time we cleaned up at nine thirty, she still wasn't here. Plant nurseries close at six as a rule, especially in the winter months. We are in the winter months."
"Yeah. I noticed that, too."
"So, things are going good with you and Kathryn?"
"Yeah, pretty good. We might even get married someday. She said that. Someday might never happen, but I'm hopeful. We had this ... really, really good talk. I understand her better now than I ever did. I don't push anymore. I even came to understand how she likes going on the road. And here is something even stranger that you might find hard to believe, but I now know and realize there is a part of her life that she will never really share with me. I'm okay with it now. Sometimes, Jack, you have to actually hear the words to make them penetrate. So, in summary, Kathryn and I are okay. Things good with you and Nikki?"
"Yeah, they are. Once Jellicoe was out of our lives, it was like someone waved a magic wand, and we got back to where we were before all that bullshit went down. The firm is doing great. Of course, she's rarely home before nine or ten most weeknights. Weekends, and when she does manage to get home early, she makes dinner, and we just do what married couples do, hang out, get comfortable with each other. I only wish the press of work would ease up some. I'm looking forward to after Thanksgiving, when things usually get quieter until after New Year's. I know this sounds corny, but I feel blessed. Do you ever feel that way, Bert?"
"Every damn day! I really like this life. Every so often I think about the FBI and how I loved being the director, but I do not miss the politics of it at all. I just keep telling myself that we're the good guys, and now I believe it a hundred percent."
"Wonder what happened to that deal the president presented to the girls in Vegas, at Kathryn's birthday party? The girls were talking about it last weekend out at the farm," Jack said.
Bert barked a laugh. At least Jack thought it was a laugh. "Annie said the president was fine-tuning the offer, whatever that means. By the way, I hear Thanksgiving this year is going to be at Annie's new house. Kathryn told me last night that it's all done now except for some minor things. She called it a punch list. New furniture is being delivered, and they're hanging drapes, all that kind of stuff. Twelve bedrooms in that farmhouse! Annie had the girls each pick a room, then decorate it so when we all stay overnight, it will be like home."
"That's Annie for you. Where the hell is Yoko?" Jack asked.
"Speaking of the lady of the manor, I do believe I hear the sound of her chariot approaching," Bert replied.
"Thank God! I'm freezing my ass off out here. You know what? I think I will bunk with you tonight. I'll text Nikki now and tell her. We can pick up some Chinese or Italian. I'll buy."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Bert said as he watched Yoko park the car and run through the rain.
"Is something wrong?" Yoko asked as she hit the overhang and started to wipe her face with the sleeve of her jacket.
"Yeah, Yoko, something is wrong," Jack said. "We need to talk. Do you want to talk in your apartment upstairs or in one of the classrooms?"
"Let's go upstairs so I can make some hot tea. It's cold and damp. Aren't you freezing out here?"
"We are, but we were waiting for you, and the smell of Clorox was especially strong today."
"I understand. Come along. It won't take long to make the tea, and yes, Jack, I know you only like Lipton. I keep some just for you. Bert?"
"I'll go with the Lipton, too."
Yoko made a sound that could have been laughter. Bert looked at Jack and rolled his eyes as they followed the tiny woman through the dojo to the stairs that led to her and Harry's apartment on the second floor.
Within ten minutes, the tea was ready, and the three of them were seated at a tiled kitchen table. "Talk to me," Yoko said after the tea was served.
Jack took the lead. "Listen to me, Yoko. We, Bert and I, wouldn't be Harry's friends if we didn't ... What I mean is ... Harry is like a brother to both of us. You know that. It's not working for him. Surely you can see that. That ... that guy in there, his so-called master, has to be at least one hundred fifty years old. He sleeps through Harry's training. Harry is training himself. He is still at the same level he was at when he started three months ago. He has not gained one bit of ground. There's no way he can be ready or even hope to win at the trials if he doesn't switch gears. Can't he get a new master or something?"
"Master Choy is one hundred three years of age. He is full of wisdom, as all the ancients are," Yoko said softly. "It would be disrespectful for Harry to say other wise."
"With all due respect, Yoko, what good is he to Harry if he sleeps all day? Didn't you hear me? Harry is essentially training himself, and he is not advancing beyond his own level. Can't you do something? If you can't or won't, will you tell us what to do?"
"Harry is my husband. I cannot interfere. It must be Harry's decision. I can tell you this. He is not sleeping. He has lost weight, and he is not eating properly. All I can do is be supportive of his endeavors."
Bert's eyebrows shot upward. "Even if it means he will go to the trials and lose face? There must be something we can do."
"How much are you paying that master?" Jack snarled.
"A fortune," Yoko said sadly. "We have had to tap into our nest egg. It is a complicated monetary situation, one neither of you would understand. I have been staying late at the nursery and doing most of the work myself to cut back on expenses. We pay all the expenses for the dojo out of the nursery profits. My money is dwindling."
"That doesn't make sense, Yoko. Those old ways don't work here in the United States. You pay for something, you expect a return on that money. The guy just sleeps. Two days ago, I turned the surveillance cameras on and the old guy did not move a muscle for seven hours. And he damn well snores."
"What do you want me to do, Jack?" Tears sparkled in Yoko's eyes.
"I want you to fire the son of a bitch. Bert and I will train Harry. We're qualified."
"You aren't a master, Jack, and neither is Bert. One must have a master to go to the exhibition. It does not matter how qualified you are. And it won't look good for Harry if his master quits in the middle or bows out for whatever reason."
"So what you're saying is, we're between a rock and a hard place?" Jack fumed.
"No, no, no, that doesn't work for me," Bert snapped. "I refuse to accept that. I say we try to talk to Harry. If that doesn't work, we'll go to Plan B."
"And Plan B would be what?" Jack thundered. "Plan Bs for some reason don't work all that well for us, or haven't you noticed?"
"The vigilantes!" Bert exploded.
Yoko's teacup shattered on the floor.
"Well, hot damn! Why didn't I think of that?" Jack said, excitement ringing in his voice. "I do think, Mr. Navarro, you just might be onto something here. Yoko, what do you think?"
"I ... I can't be part of ... I just can't, Jack," Yoko said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"You won't have a choice. You are one of them. You have to follow the oath you all swore. This is for Harry, for his lifelong dream. We can make it happen for him but only if we have help. Harry will understand. At least I hope Harry will understand," Jack mumbled.
"Let's call it a night now and attack this first thing in the morning," Bert said. "We'll call the girls when we get home. Then we'll try and talk to Harry about it in the morning."
Her eyes wet with tears, Yoko led the way downstairs and through the dojo. She allowed herself to be hugged and her tears to be wiped away by Jack.
"It's all going to work out, Yoko. Trust us, okay?"
Yoko's head bobbed up and down, but fresh tears trailed down her cheeks.CHAPTER 2
Jack Emery leaned back and sighed. "I'm stuffed. We should have just gone with the Chinese instead of doubling up on the Italian. I guess the good thing is, you're going to be eating all of this food for the rest of the week, unless Kathryn cooks when she comes over."
"Kathryn does not cook. She's on the road and won't be back till the weekend. You're right, though. One or the other would have been enough. C'mon, we've danced around this long enough. What are we going to do about Harry?"
At that very moment, the doorbell decided to ring. Bert's eyebrows shot upward as he walked through the living room to the foyer and front door. "It's Maggie!" he shouted to Jack. "Bet she couldn't get through the streets of Georgetown, either. That takes care of what to do with all this food. Set another place, Jack!"
Bert opened the door with a flourish and bowed low. "Welcome to my abode, my soaking wet friend."
"Eat me," Maggie snapped as she sloshed her way into Bert's house. "I need some dry clothes and I am not fussy. Oh, food. Warm some up for me."
"Hello to you, too, Miss Cranky Curmudgeon," Jack said.
"Can you turn up the heat, Jack? I'm freezing," Maggie said as she followed Bert to the bathroom and waited while he brought her a pile of clothes.
"Absolutely I can turn up the heat. I'm here to serve you, Miss EIC of the Post." Not for the world would Jack ever admit he was glad to see Maggie. Three heads, or even four if one counted Yoko, were better than one.
Jack slammed the door of the microwave oven and pressed the buttons that would warm up all the leftover food. He knew it would all be gone by the end of the evening and Bert would be back to eating out for the rest of the week.
Maggie walked into the kitchen, dressed in a pair of Bert's sweats, which were only a dozen sizes too big and made her look like something out of a traveling circus. The arms and legs were rolled up six or seven times, and they still hung like a sack on her slim frame. "Ah, Chinese and Italian, my two favorites." She crunched down on a garlic stick and sighed happily. "Everything is flooded. Can I sleep on your couch? Did you put my clothes in the dryer? Paper plates, plastic silverware. How gross," Maggie said as she dived into the food Jack had put in front of her. "Can you eat and listen while we talk?" Bert asked.
Both men rattled on, one or the other jostling the other's memory with something forgotten or left unsaid.
"You getting all of this?" Jack asked.
Maggie nodded again as she stuffed the last of a shrimp roll into her mouth.
"Yoko isn't going to be any help," Bert said. "You got any ideas?"
Maggie swallowed hard and reached for her tea. "With Harry? You have to be kidding. You've already said that the guy doesn't move. Are you sure he isn't dead?" Reaching for a wonton, she crammed it into her mouth.
Jack grimaced. "Now, why didn't we think of that? He's not dead, but we didn't really check. We think he's just sleeping. That's all he does is sleep. For hours and hours and hours. And his sect, his clan, or whatever you call his people, the ones who set this all up, are charging a fortune for his services. From what Yoko said, you can't piss them off. I think that means if you piss them off, they kill you."
Maggie burped and apologized. "Aren't you being overly melodramatic? I think your original idea of calling in the vigilantes is a good one. Did you run it by any of the girls?"
"Not yet," Bert said. "Kathryn's on the road, for one thing. She'll be back by the weekend."
"There's no real urgency, right? Like a few more days isn't going to matter, is it? Time enough to talk to everyone and make a plan. Think about this. Can we find a way to maybe have someone else hire that particular master for even more money? Then Harry would have to be assigned a new master, hopefully one who is more ... alive and with it."
"You mean a bogus trainee?" Jack asked, hope written all over his face.
"Exactly," Maggie said as she commenced her attack on the plate of baked ziti.
Excerpted from Home Free by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2011 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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