3rd Tango – Misty Evans, Adrienne Giordano

Sunday dinners are something I always look forward to with my parents. Until today. Dad’s heading out for a fishing trip with his friends, so Mom switched it to Saturday lunch and topped it off by insisting Meg and I bring our boyfriends. I’m honestly not sure I want JJ to meet them. Yet. Our relationship is just starting to deepen, and well, my parents can be a handful. The summer is in full-swing, the temperature pushing the low nineties. D.C. is swamped in humidity and sunshine. “There are three subjects you do not want to bring up or engage in,” I tell JJ Carrington III and Jerome Metcalfe. I hold up a finger. “One, politics.” In the backseat, Meg expands on this to Jerome. “Dad gets hot under the collar about the state of the economy, healthcare, and just about everything else related to Washington.

” “Two,” I hold up another and spear Jerome with a look in the rearview as I take the offramp from the highway, heading southwest. “Legalized marijuana.” Meg’s boyfriend deals in the stuff, along with being a brilliant artist, and talks as casually about it as I would breakfast. Once more Meg chimes in. “Mom is for it, Dad isn’t. Funny too, since they grew up during the sixties. Charlie and I are pretty sure they experimented with pot at least a few times.” In the passenger seat, JJ laughs softly under his breath. He looks and smells good enough to eat, and I smile when he glances at me with his beautiful blue-gray eyes. My dad will love him—he’s an alpha male, a U.

S. District Attorney, and treats me like a queen. His recovery after being shot at my place several months ago has gone well, and I thank the universe for him every day. It was my fault he nearly died. I’ll never take him— or any of my family—for granted again. “And three,” I continue, “do not bring up anything about serial killers or the neighbors.” Both men give me odd looks. My sister fills them in about this as well. “Mom’s sure the man across the street is not just eccentric, but a serial killer and she spent the majority of our youth trying to prove it.” Meg and I run a private investigation service, and it’s only been a few months since our run-in with a legitimate serial killer, so it’s been a frequent topic of conversation.

Today, the last thing I want to talk about is work, though things are good right now. However, it’s unavoidable as either Mom or Dad will surely bring it up. After our last two prominent cases in the public eye, we came out looking competent and successful, although it was rocky on the most recent. Business is up enough that I’m considering hiring another junior investigator to help. Expansion is something Meg and I have been discussing off and on for a while now. “Whoa,” Jerome says, his honey-blond hair is in a low bun and he has removed the earring. He’s clean shaven and wearing a nice polo shirt and khaki pants—somewhat of an upgrade from his usual artistic, pot-dealing self. “That must have been freaky.” Meg leans her shoulder against his, and I see the love in her eyes. “Mom was an investigative reporter until she gave it up to stay home with us.

Dad was gone a lot, being career Army. Her brain needed something besides dirty diapers and endless rounds of Chutes and Ladders. The guy was always a touch suspicious acting, but she does have an overactive imagination, to say the least.” We arrive, and after I park and get out of the car, JJ takes my hand as we stroll to the door. “Stop worrying,” he says. “It’s just lunch.” He doesn’t realize he’s about to walk into a gauntlet of my father’s endless questions and my mother’s need to find something wrong with him and Jerome. I envy Meg—she doesn’t seem nervous at all. She and Jerome laugh and talk as they climb the steps of the back porch. JJ stops me at the bottom and bends to kiss my forehead.

“I promise to be on my best behavior.” “I’m not worried about you. It’s them I’m worried about.” He puts an arm around me and we climb the stairs together. Mom greets us and ushers us into the kitchen, her and Dad shaking hands with Jerome and JJ, Mom hugging Meg and kissing my cheek. Light conversation follows as we seat our boyfriends at the dining room table and Dad takes his spot at the head of it. Meg and I already worked this out. I stay there to referee the conversation, while she helps Mom bring in the food. Everything goes well, the dishes are passed around, both guests making complimentary comments about the house and the different items Mom made. It is an impressive spread.

She never seemed interested in cooking when Meg and I were young, and many of our meals consisted of Cheerios and mac and cheese. In recent years, she’s become quite a foodie. Everything in front of us is homemade, some of it organic, and most requiring more than three ingredients—something Mom never tackled before. There’s general conversation regarding the weather and heat—we haven’t had rain in weeks, and everyone is weary of all the sunshine and humidity. JJ asks about the family homestead and Dad fills him in, proud of his father and grandfather, the two generations who lived here before him. He also throws in a little zinger about how he hopes Meg or I might move in when he and Mom are gone. I suppress an eye roll as this subject seems to come up more and more as they age. As if they’re both going to up and disappear on us at the same time. Meg and I exchange a glance across the table, her slight brow lift my cue to redirect the conversation. “How’s your golf game, Dad?” I know very well how it is—he pretty much stinks—but he likes to talk about it and the details regarding his latest outing with a group of fellow retired, veteran friends.

This is a safe, although slightly boring, topic, that allows the rest of us to eat. He moves onto his upcoming trip, and yep, I relish the fact that everyone I love is safe, and the biggest thing we all have to discuss is lures, fishing poles, and trips. Mom interjects and turns to JJ. “What do your initials stand for?” He swallows and dabs the napkin to his lips. “Joseph Jefferson. I was named after my grandfathers.” Dad makes an approving noise. “Joseph Jefferson Carrington, the third. Sounds like a strong presidential candidate.” Dad winks at me while cutting the meat on his plate and loading his fork.

“Ever think of running for office?” JJ takes a drink of iced tea. Buying time? “Not high on my list of priorities, but it’s not off the table.” This makes my father extremely happy, while I turn a raised eyebrow on my boyfriend. “You never told me that.” He gives a deprecating smile. “I like to keep my options open.” I’m truly stunned. With a “hmm,” I signify we’ll discuss this more later. Mother turns to Jerome. “Meg mentioned the other day you’re thinking of moving.

This is a lovely residential area, and I know the Petersons on the next block are putting their condo up for sale. Ask Meg, it’s a great place for artists. We’re one of the few neighborhoods left with woods so nearby. You like to connect with nature, I bet. I know Meg does.” Her hint is obvious, and I try not to laugh, thinking about Jerome, who can barely match clothes or remember when he’s supposed to pick Meg up, buying a condo in this neighborhood. “I’ll have to check it out,” he says, and Meg smiles. She knows as well as I that he has no intention of doing so, realizing he’d be far too close to our parents for one thing, as well as out of his price range in this area. Hell, I doubt JJ could afford it. The only reason my parents are here is the generational inheritance.

“It’s too bad we can’t get the neighbor across the street to move,” Mom says in a disgusted voice. “I’m getting closer, though. It won’t be long until I’ll have enough for the police to arrest him.” Meg kicks me under the table. Here we go. Lunch was going so well, and now I have to find a way to divert Mom off the subject we feared would come up. A tense silence falls from JJ and Jerome, the two knowing we just dove head first into the hot zone. Dad puts down his fork with a clank. “Helen, not now.” Mom looks around, wide-eyed and innocent.

“What? I’m just saying, the man is going to jail. I’ll make certain of it. Of course, who’d want that house, knowing a serial killer lived in it.” She totally believes this is the truth. At the continued silence, she straightens her spine. “I’m working with the CSCC.” She nods at Meg and I, as if this makes sense to us. “We’re compiling all the evidence we can find linking Gayle to at least three cold case deaths. My notes from all these years are key to proving he’s been getting away with murder.” She leans forward and lowers her voice.

“Literally.” JJ digs into his mashed potatoes. “CSCC?” I pinch him under the table for engaging the enemy, as Mom nods adamantly. “Citizens Solving Cold Cases. The group has grown considerably in the last year, and we’ve had success with more than six cases. You should join,” she says to him. “We have former police officers, detectives, even a retired FBI agent. He founded it.” At this, she flicks her eyes to me. “We could use people like you helping us.

” Meg kicks me again, and I give her a look telling her I don’t know how to change this flow of conversation. “Mom, can we talk about this later? Tell us what you made for dessert.” She screws up her face, letting me know she’s not going to be diverted. She rises from the chair and walks out of the room. Meg and I glance at Dad. He shakes his head, as conflicted about what to say as we are. He tosses his napkin on the table and stands. “I’ll check on dessert.” Before he steps away, Mom strides in, arms loaded with blue file folders. She thunks the stack next to my plate, making the silverware jump.

“No one move. Here are my notes, and the recent internet investigation Al conducted with my guidance.” I look up to see determination and something else brewing behind her brown eyes— the investigative reporter she was in her heyday. “I’d love to go through these after lunch. It’s great that you’ve joined a group.” Total lie. That’s the last thing she needs, other people encouraging and supporting her obsession with our neighbor. “Who’s Al?” Jerome asks, and I see Meg turn her fierce gaze on him. “Alfonzo Baez,” Mom answers. “The retired agent I mentioned.

He and I were going through my notes from the mid-nineties, and he saw a link between information I had on Gayle, our neighbor, and a place in Virginia he knew about where three women’s bodies turned up in the early 2000s.” Now that, as much as I hate it, catches my interest. “The fishing cabins on Whitetop?” Dad asks. The mountain is a popular spot with hikers, hunters, and fishing enthusiasts. Mom nods and points at him, like we’re playing charades and he’s guessed right. “Remember the weekend you took me up there? We went without the girls, so we could have some alone time, and I thought I saw Gayle’s car at another cabin on that lane?” Mom turns back to me. “Your father wouldn’t let me go say hi, but when we got home, Gayle was putting the garbage out. I told him I thought I saw him there and he threatened me.” Her face is flushed and she’s shaking slightly with anger. I’ve never heard this story and I glance at Meg, questioningly and she shakes her head.

“You never told me that,” Dad says, and I can see he’s now angry at Gayle. Dad is extremely protective of all of us. “Why, that no good bastard. I ought to walk over there and knock his block off!” Perfect. Could this spin any farther out of control? I jump to my feet, ready to intercept him, even though I feel like confronting Gayle myself. “Let’s take a deep breath.” I turn to Mom. “How exactly did he threaten you?” “Told me I was a nosy bitch and needed to leave him alone. He went to the woods to get away from everybody, especially his snoopy neighbor. Said he knew I was always watching him, and if I didn’t stop, he’d get a restraining order.

” “Mom,” Meg says, sounding astonished. “What if he is a killer? You could’ve been in serious danger.” She waves this off. “I had my can of pepper spray, and your father was within shouting distance. That’s not the point.” Another tap of the files. “Last week, I was telling Al about the run-in and he remembered that bodies were discovered buried in that location, and now he has Gayle linked to that area, thanks to my research.” Okay. That is something, even though it’s still circumstantial. Mostly, I’m relieved she didn’t end up with the other bodies.

“You never should have confronted him,” Dad chastises. “Not without me there to look out for you.” Wrong thing to say. “I took care of myself and your daughters just fine while you were traveling all over the world. Gave up my career for yours. I think we did just fine.” She looks at me and nods, encouraging me to support this declaration. It is true, but I still hold out hope of salvaging our lunch. “You know what? I’m sure Al and his group can continue to assist you in your investigation. Meanwhile, I’d like to finish our meal and talk about something less depressing.

” She slams a hand on top of the folders. “There’s a man next door who’s been murdering young girls for years and no one’s done a damn thing about it.” That’s because there isn’t any actual proof. I’ve had this argument with her many times, and yet, there’s no winning it. Still, this development with the bodies has me curious. I may have to look into it on the downlow while I try to distance my mother from it. I set my hand on top of hers. “You’re an amazing investigator, and I’m sure that’s where Meg and I inherited our skills,” I attempt to placate her, “but this is the first time JJ and Jerome have had a chance to meet you and Dad. I’m sure they’d prefer to discuss less gruesome things over their food. Let’s get back to something normal.

” Please, I mentally plead. “Well, guess what? I’m tired of everyone acting like I’m crazy. I’ll make you a deal, Charlize.” I know I shouldn’t ask, but what else can I do? “Okay, Mom.” I start to pick up the folders, attempting to take this on alone so the others can resume eating. “How about we go in the other room and talk about this deal?” She won’t take her hand off the stack, pressing down and not allowing me to cart the folders off. “I know I’m right. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll prove Gayle Morton is a serial killer, and you’re going to help me.” At this point, I simply have to agree in order to pacify her. “Okay, Mom.

What can I do?” “Good.” The tension in her face relaxes slightly. She taps the files. “I want to hire you and your sister.” “What?” She nods and smiles. “I’m done playing around. I’m hiring Schock Investigations to help me prove our neighbor is a serial killer.” I 2 Meg ’ve known for a while now my mother is nuts. The odd part is that neither I nor any of my family members find this to be a big deal. It’s simply the way it is.

An accepted part of life. Charlie likes designer shoes, I enjoy micro-dosing weed and Dad loves genealogy. Mom? Crazy. Typical American family. Except, according to my mother, we have a serial killer across the street. And after this latest news about the three bodies found on Whitetop, I’m beginning to think she isn’t as wacko as we thought. In her day, she was an excellent journalist. Something, in recent years, I’ve tended to not give her enough credit for. I swing my head to Jerome who stares at the prongs of his fork as if they’ve suddenly sprouted wings. Smart man staying out of this one.

Across from me, JJ uses his cloth napkin to hide a smile. Our esteemed United States Attorney for the District of Columbia is amused. By a serial killer. Talk about twisted. His sense of humor is one of the things that binds him and Charlie. Without a doubt, it’s a coping mechanism that keeps them emotionally stable while investigating cases involving child molesters, rapists, and murderers. “Mom,” Charlie says, “we should take this into the other room.” As if that’ll work? My sister should know better. Mom lets out a huff and waves a manicured hand at JJ. Mom, like Charlie, is big on personal grooming.

With their sculpted cheeks and slim builds, they’re knockouts. “We have JJ here,” Mom says. “He can help.” At that, JJ lets out a noise that might be a half cough-half gag. The hot-shot lawyer isn’t laughing now. “Yes.” I give him a rueful smile. “JJ can.” He spears me with a look and my smile widens. If he intends to be part of this family, he needs to embrace the chaos.

Join the ranks like the rest of us. “No,” Charlie says. “He can’t. At least not until we have solid evidence.” At the end of the table, Dad grabs his and Mom’s empty plates and once again rises, this time appearing more determined to make his getaway. “I’ll take JJ and Jerome out back. Show them the new shed.” The new shed. Lamest excuse ever, but Jerome and JJ—weaklings that they are—bolt from their seats, quickly stacking dishes as they go. Charlie shakes her head.

“Cowards.” Clearly unfazed, the men keep moving. It’s just as well. This is Jerome’s first meeting with my parents and I’d prefer to ease him in. If that’s even possible after this episode. Mom slides back into her chair and waves us over. “Come sit by me. I know once you see what I have, you’ll understand.” I doubt it, but if it’ll get her out of this obsession once and for all, I think we’ll need to suck it up. “All right.

” Charlie sits next to her. “Let’s see what you have. But I’m not promising anything.” Surprisingly, Mom nods. “I have no problem with that. Believe me, you’ll want in on this.” Mom removes a folder from the top and slides the rest to the center of the table. “This is my most recent research.” She flips it open and—pfft—smacks pages of typed notes on the table. I lean in to peruse the first document and let out a low whistle.

My mother, given her history as a reporter, is no slouch when it comes to surveillance. Outlined in front of us, broken down by day and hour, is one week of Gayle’s activities. Mom is nothing if not thorough and her notes prove it. “Lord, Mom,” Charlie says. “You’re keeping daily tabs on the man.” “Well, of course. How else am I supposed to gather evidence?” She has a point there. I move to page two. Tuesday’s activities. At nine in the morning, Gayle dragged his garbage cans and recycling bin to the curb, adding a desk chair that, according to the notes, appeared to have a broken arm.

Twenty minutes later, he drove off in his ten-year-old Toyota, returning at ten-ohthree with a woman. Forgetting that I should be horrified my mother is spending her days sitting in a window spying on her neighbor, I key in on Gayle’s guest. “Who’s the woman?” “His girlfriend.” Charlie meets Mom’s eye. “You know this for sure?” “Well, she’s there a lot and spends the night. I think she’s living there. Until five months ago, I’d never seen her before. Unless it’s his long-lost sister, I’m going with girlfriend. I think she’s an artist.” This little detail interests me.

“What makes you think that?” Half-rising, Mom rifles through the stack, withdrawing one halfway down. She holds it up. “Garage sale last month. I wandered over there.” Charlie’s mouth drops open. “Mom, seriously? You’re convinced he’s a murderer and you walked over there? You just told us he threatened you all those years ago. Where was Dad?” “He was putting the shed together. He doesn’t know I went.” My sister leans forward, looking straight at me. “Am I the only one that thinks it’s a little wacky she did that?” I wave a hand over the documents laid before us.

The whole damn thing is firmly entrenched in Screwyville. Why should snooping in a suspected serial killer’s household items be a problem? “Right,” Charlie says, obviously understanding my point. “What was there?” “Nothing special. Lamps, dishes, the normal stuff.” “No bloody axes?” Mom, clearly unhappy with my humor, pins me with a look. “Hardy, har, smarty pants. If you’re not going to take this seriously, I’ll find someone else. I’ve worked hard and you’re…minimizing…it. I don’t appreciate that, Megan.” The use of my given name indicates her distaste.

Shame burns my throat. No matter how off-base I think this whole thing is, she’s a smart woman who believes our neighbor is a murderer. For that alone, I need to respect what she’s accomplished. I hold up my hands. “I’m sorry. You’re right.” I take the folder, set it on the table and flip it open. More hyper-detailed notes of Gayle and the woman’s activities and a full inventory—with photos—of their garage sale items. At this point, I don’t know what to hope for. If he winds up being just a quirky neighbor, my mother will have spent what equates to years of her life surveilling him.

All that time. Lost. She will, in short, be devastated if a serial killer doesn’t live across the street. How the hell did we get here? Sighing, I skim the list of catalogued items. Midway down I pause. “Art supplies?” “I knew you’d like that,” Mom says. “She had brushes, canvasses, graphite pencils, the works. There was a nice easel I thought you might like, but I refrained.” Now my mother is pushing it and the urge to wisecrack terrorizes me. No, no, no.

Nope. Not doing it. I gnaw on my lip. Later, I’ll tell Charlie I want serious bonus points for not cracking a joke about our mom buying art supplies from a murderer. I flip to the next page where a flyer announces a neighboring town’s upcoming festival. “What’s this?” Mom taps her finger against it. “I picked it up from the table with all the art supplies. I didn’t ask, but I heard his girlfriend tell one of their customers she’ll have a booth. I’m assuming she’ll be selling her art. If that’s what she wants to call it.

” Mom shudders. “She’s no match for my Meg, that’s for sure.” Aww, thanks, Mom. Charlie leans in again. “When is it?” I check the flyer. “This weekend.” “Oh, hell.” I meet Charlie’s eye and know exactly what she’s thinking. The festival? Total catnip when it comes to surveilling a target. If I know my sister at all, we’ll be hunting down Gayle and the mystery woman and possibly buying some art.

S 3 Charlie unday morning I’m at my desk fanning myself with a piece of paper. It’s only ten, but the heat index is nearly a hundred outside and I have the feeling our air-conditioning is on its last leg. I need to wrap up at least one of the three cases on my desk so we can get paid. Since I’d like to stay as cool as possible, I’m debating whether I can hand off the case requiring leg work to Matt, so I can stay in the office. My phone pings, the security app alerting me I have company. The camera over the back door shows Meg arriving, dressed in shorts and a tank top, a wide brimmed hat in her hands. She uses her key, resets the system, and stops in my doorway a few moments later. “What are you doing?” “I’m working.” I wave a hand across the stack of files, making it obvious. “Since I couldn’t get everything done yesterday due to our fabulous lunch.

” “We’re supposed meet Mom in twenty minutes.” I don’t have to tell my sister that going to an art festival with our mother, in order to snoop on Gayle and his girlfriend, ranks right up there with my worst nightmare. “Art festivals are your territory. I have three clients whose cases I should wrap up this weekend, so I’m staying here. You go with Mom.” She leans a shoulder against the doorjamb and gives me a scorching glare. “You promised to help with this investigation.” I point to the stack of folders she gave us at the most-embarrassing-lunch-in-recenthistory, sitting on the credenza behind me. “I’ve been working my way through all of those files, but these cases hired us first, and they don’t get the family discount.” “She’s our mother.

” The word conveys so much more than your everyday label. Familial loyalty, our mom’s ferocity when it came to raising us, her undying love and protection. “I know that, and I’m taking it seriously, I promise. I’ve made an appointment with this Al Baez guy to discuss the case with him at three. I want to know more about the three bodies found in the Whitetop Mountain woods.” Meg gives me a look that says that’s not good enough and she’s dragging me with them, regardless, when another alert lets me know someone’s at the back door. I raise a finger, pausing the chastising speech she’s about to launch into, and check my phone for the video feed. “It’s JJ. What’s he doing here?” He peers up at the camera, smiling. He’s dressed in casual clothes and sunglasses.

I buzz him in, hoping he can help get me out of this shindig. Maybe he’s bringing me a new case from the District Attorney’s office. Not that I want more work, or that we need it, but anything to keep me from having to poke my eyes out at the festival. Meg launches into her argument, and I sit there and take it. She chews me out about not taking Mom more seriously, about how she was an accomplished journalist, not to mention the only mother we’ll ever have, etc., laying the guilt on with an extra dose. “Meg, you know I can’t imagine what our life would be without her, and I respect her for giving up her career to raise us while Dad was gone. I made peace a long time ago with her obsession over Gayle, but honestly, it’s unhealthy, and you and I both have legitimate cases. I’m not blowing this off. I am going to meet with her friend from the CSCC.

If there’s any tie between Gayle and these bodies, and this guy feels I should dig deeper, I’ll do it.” JJ appears behind Meg. He lifts a hand in greeting as she half-turns toward him. “Are we ready?” “For what?” I ask, feeling my hopes sinking. He looks confused, glancing between us. “We’re supposed to be meeting your mom in a few minutes, aren’t we?” I throw my hands up and sit back in my chair. “Oh, for God’s sake. You, too?” He leans on the opposite doorjamb, his wide shoulder bumping Meg’s petite one. He grins cheekily. “I have nothing better to do on this hot Sunday than spend time with three beautiful women.” I’m such a sucker for him. He always knows exactly what to say to throw me off guard and make me feel tingly inside. Damn him. Charlie Schock doesn’t do tingly. I don’t do art festivals. “You and Meg run along,” I tell him, but I feel my resolve slipping. “Tell Mom I said hi, and I’m meeting with her friend. That will make her happy.” The back door buzzes again, and I glance over to see… “Oh no.” Meg comes forward to glance at my screen. “What?” She groans. I hit the buzzer so the door will unlock, and seconds later, Mom’s voice rings out. “Hello. I’m here. Where are you guys?” Meg meets my eyes. Her voice is a whisper. “What is she doing here?” JJ moves aside as Mom sweeps into the room. “Good morning. Are you all ready to go?” “I thought we were meeting you there,” Meg says. Mom is dressed in a linen outfit, a gauzy scarf around her neck, dark sunglasses and a straw hat. She has an extra hat in hand. “I thought we should get our undercover story straight before we go.” She glances at me. “Charlize, is that what you’re wearing?” I’m dressed in my usual white shirt and dark pants. I glance at myself, wondering exactly what she thought I should wear. With a frown, she pivots back to Meg. “So who are we pretending to be? What if Gayle is there? Do you think he’ll be pissy again, if he recognizes me? Do you want me to hang back so the gal doesn’t?” I feel a headache forming between my temples. “You’re not undercover, Mom. This is not a spy mission.” Meg laughs. “We’re going as ourselves, but you should stay out of sight, just in case Gayle is there. Charlie will ask his girlfriend some questions, see if she gets any clues, while I look at her art.” Mom looks disappointed. I stand and text Matt about the case I’m dumping on him. He’ll be okay with it—he needs money to pay off the giant diamond he just bought his new fiancée. “I’m not going anywhere near the art festival. I have work that has to get done today.” At Mom’s hard look, I continue, “I’m meeting with your friend later. Baez? That’s all the time I have for your case this weekend. First thing Monday, I’ll dive in more fully. Hopefully, Baez has pertinent information on those bodies I can start with.” She worries the brim of the hat in her hands. Gives me puppy dog eyes. The accusation. The disappointment. “You can’t spare a few hours to go with us? Please, Charlize. I so rarely get to spend time with you.” Meg and I have dinner with her and Dad every Sunday. She saw me at lunch yesterday, and spent the majority of the time talking about a suspected serial killer. Welcome to Guilt Town, USA. My mother is an expert hostess there. “It’s not exactly like I can walk up to this woman and start asking questions about Gayle.” I’m still trying to weasel out of this, but my resolve is crumbling. It’s probably easier to get it over with and get back here as soon as possible. “What am I supposed to say, oh hey, is Gayle burying bodies in the backyard?” Mom looks offended. Meg snorts. She links an elbow with Mom’s. “Charlie, you and JJ drive separately from us, and that way, you can return here once we check out this gal’s booth. If the opportunity arises for one of us to ask her some questions, just friendly stuff, we’ll take it. If not, no harm done. I’ll help you finish those”—she points at my desk—“before the weekend is over. Win-win.” JJ, behind both of them, wiggles his fingers at me, a come-on gesture. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll pitch in, too.” He hammers the last nail in my coffin. “Come on, Charlize. A little fresh air will do you good.” Three against one. I’m a former FBI agent, trained in interrogation, manipulation, pressure. Normally, those odds don’t bother me. Today, maybe it’s the heat, JJ’s eyes, or my mother’s flippin’ guilt trip. I want to dig in my heels, but I can’t seem to work up the effort. I toss the pen I’m holding on top of the files. “Fine,” I acquiesce. “I’ll give you a couple hours, no more.” I point to Meg, then JJ. “And you two are mine for the rest of the weekend.” “Deal,” Meg says. Behind her, JJ winks. “I think that’s doable.” Mom hands me the hat in her hands. “You’re going to need this,” she says. “And I hope you have some dark sunglasses. This is going to be so fun!” I sigh, pretty sure this will be a complete, and utter, disaster.

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