The sound of a car door slamming broke the afternoon's peaceful silence. "Michael! So nice of you to drop by!" Madeline drawled as her son flashed in and out the side door like an uninvited cat. She leaned sideways in her easy chair, directing a stream of smoke his way as she peered out into the garage. Michael lingered in the doorway a moment as he shrugged on some nasty old jacket — probably one of Frank's third-hand mechanic uniforms — then disappeared around the corner into a stack of musty boxes and Rubbermaid containers.
"I'm just looking for some parts, Ma!" he hollered through the house, making a clattering racket and probably a mess. "I can't stay for long."
She rolled her eyes. "What a surprise." She ground out her cigarette viciously, watching the smoke curl up and disappear.
Michael reappeared in the living room with a cardboard box that was just as greasy as the jacket, plopping it on the dining room table in a little puff of dust. Madeline winced. Her son's eyes flicked from side to side almost unconsciously as he rummaged through the junk in the box, his fingers sorting and separating casually by touch. She could still remember when he used to take apart all sorts of household items with that same unfocused intensity — lamps, toasters, vacuum cleaners — carefully organizing all the sprockets and springs so he could retrace his steps, spreading everything out on a towel on the floor and playing around for hours...
Michael fished out his prize triumphantly, wearing a tiny smile of satisfaction. It was a round black thing with a lot of ridges on it. She puzzled over it for a minute, but as he turned the piece over she recognized it as an old Vivitar lens.
"What're you gonna use that for?" she questioned dubiously. Frank had pawned the camera body twenty years ago.
Michael gave her a toothy grin. "Forget I asked," she grumbled. It was probably better not to know anyway.
He drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully, then strode purposefully over to the window and peeked out the drapes, turning the lens over in his hand. After a moment he returned to the dining room, pulled out his phone and started fiddling with it, probably sending a message to Sam or Fiona. He'd always been a fidgety child, she mused. Some things hadn't changed.
She pushed herself out of the chair with a grunt and wandered over to the table just as Michael sighed heavily. She laid a hand on his arm and looked up at him. Michael might think he had the world's best poker face, but Maddie could still tell when he was upset. She gestured at the box, his phone, and spread her hands hoping to include the whole spy thing in general. "Wanna tell me about it?"
Michael's upper lip twitched, then he sighed again. He flipped open his cheap-looking phone.
"See this guy?" Michael indicated a sour-faced young man on the tiny screen, and she leaned in. He had a pencil mustache. "He's an assassin. Not a very good one, but Sam thinks he's been contracted to take out an old friend of his," he continued. Michael's voice was a flat monotone - he was definitely stressed out. Still, something in his voice hinted at what kind of friend they were talking about, and she exchanged a long-suffering glance with her son. Sam had a lot of friends.
"Is he very dangerous?" Maddie asked tentatively, trying not to let any worry come through.
Unsuccessfully, apparently — Michael shook his head reassuringly. "As assassins go, he's not exactly Larry Sizemore."
That was less reassuring, considering what Michael had told her about that man, but for once he answered her unspoken question.
"He's just sneaky." Michael shook his head again. "We haven't been able to track him down to find out what he knows or scare him off. I'm...more worried about Fiona's little side project. She won't give me all the details, but..." Michael's gaze slid around the room surreptitiously; instinctively scanning for danger. "...There are a lot of bad people with a lot of guns who are going to have a lot less guns in a short period of time. On top of that, Barry thinks someone's been nosing around my finances. So far everything's secure, but..."
She was pretty sure Barry managed her son's money in a clandestine and highly illegal way so the idea of someone trying to sniff out Michael's information was disconcerting. "You've got a lot on your plate," she finished for him understandingly, and he gave her a grateful smile. Two smiles in one visit! It was probably a record.
"You just take whatever you need, and take care of yourself," she said graciously. Madeline decided she could hold her tongue just this once and didn't press Michael any further. She patted him on the arm benevolently and moved into the kitchen to make lunch, lighting up another cigarette and enjoying the way the warm light spilled over the counter as she washed a glass for milk. Michael's phone buzzed, and she looked up just in time to see Fiona's blue Hyundai whip up to the curb at a hair-raising speed and screech to a halt.
Michael was halfway out the door before she could even shut off the faucet. "Bye Mom!" he shouted back at the house as the door slammed behind him, and in a half-second they'd sped away.
"Bye, Michael," she sighed at the door, and yanked open the fridge.
The milk carton was completely empty.
"Dammit, Sam," Maddie swore, and grabbed her own keys.
She decided to make a fun trip of it and hit the tiny neighborhood Publix in Coral Gables instead of the bigger one closer to her house. The smaller store had the best pastelitos, and if she took a cooler she could stroll around Miracle Mile and window-shop even after she'd made her purchase. Hell, she could take a cold Thermos and stroll with the milk and the pastry, and maybe make a stop at the library before going home. Already salivating, she loaded up the Buick, put on her face, donned a nice pair of earrings and declared herself ready for a day on the town.
After twenty minutes of swearing, bullying her way into turn lanes and leaning on her horn, she finally managed the five miles to the grocery.
"Now I remember why I don't like to drive anymore," she grumbled, scowling as she passed a double-parked Escalade. She darted into a lucky spot near the front, nosing an abandoned cart out of the way, and put the car in park as another driver trundled on, disappointed.
The grocery itself was busy as always, something made worse by its narrow aisles and an overabundance of carts designed for newer, larger stores. Still, its towering shelves were piled high with things she couldn't always find at her own store, and she snagged a few additions for her new spice rack. Michael hadn't seemed to like her last attempt at spice cake...maybe licorice and coriander would be a better combination? Madeline resolved to look it up later.
Thirty dollars and fifteen minutes later she was checking out at the cigarette counter with a 12-pack of toilet paper under her arm and milk, spices and guava pastries in her bags. She had just handed the woman behind the counter her check when the hair on the back of her neck prickled and something unsettling moved at the corner of her vision.
What could it have been? The smiling baggers in the checkout lanes behind her looked vacant, but harmless. The man checking out in the lane closest to her looked small and weasely. She shrugged.
Then he turned toward her.
It was the man from Michael's phone! The assassin! Maddie gaped openly, then quickly shut her mouth and fiddled with her hair as he looked up, fumbling one-handed with his plastic bag. It appeared to contain a single jar of peanut butter and several packages of store-brand pasta: as she watched, the heavy jar slipped free from the bag and fell to the floor where it rolled around impotently. The man sighed and scooped it up, briefly making eye contact with her as he stood.
Shit. Had he seen her looking? Was he suspicious, or just embarrassed? She was pretty sure he wasn't carrying a gun, at least — years of living around Michael and his friends had taught her that much. She knew this man could still be very dangerous. She fixed her eyes on a display of phone cards by the Lotto tickets. Was it really him? What should she do?
Maddie jumped, eyes wide, and turned back to the counter to see the clerk holding out her receipt with the air of the long-suffering. Behind her a queue was beginning to form, and several of the patrons were giving her displeased looks.
Embarrassed now herself, Madeline gave the clerk her friendliest smile. "Thank you dear," she cooed, tucking the receipt away and stepping towards the exit, trying to look back without being too obvious. The possible assassin was heading toward the other door — parked at a meter on the street, she guessed, next to the garage. They were almost never in use, and any ne'er-do-well type could come and go in a hurry.
She couldn't just let him go, could she? Juggling her groceries, Maddie trotted out the near entrance and hurriedly pulled out her phone, hitting  on speed dial. The phone rolled into voicemail after one ring and she whispered into the receiver as she peered around the corner, spotting the assassin trudging towards the garage.
"Michael! I need you to call me back right now. It's about —" ...Maybe she shouldn't say anything over the phone. "It's an emergency!" she finished harshly, then hung up. She waited a few moments.
Her son didn't call back. She dialed again, but didn't have any more luck than the first time. Across the parking lot, her target was disappearing behind the store. Madeline dropped the phone in her oversized purse and followed at a very brisk walk, bags still dangling from her arm. She fished around and carefully withdrew the tiny pistol she never, ever left home without anymore. Holding the gun nose-down half inside her purse, she tucked the toilet paper under her chin and shifted her bags to her left arm, holding them in front of her as if they were heavy. Hopefully they'd hide the gun from view. Hopefully she wouldn't have to use it. She told herself she just wanted a closer look at the man's face, so she could tell Michael where he was.
"This is crazy. What am I doing?" she asked herself rhetorically as she rounded the corner. The man was still there: he was bent over the trunk of his car and the trunk lid obscured his view. Across the street, a security guard was idly scanning the foot traffic into the garage, and up the street a few blocks a young couple walked together, absorbed in each others' company. Madeline wavered.
The man looked up and spotted her, and she made her decision. "Young man! Young man!" she called out to him querulously, tottering towards him as though overburdened by her purchases and about to fall forward. His expression was mixed: he looked at once suspicious and relieved, and he smiled at her guardedly. She approached as casually as she could, brazening her way into his space with fluttering hands. She held out the bulk toilet paper package and the bag with the milk, and he took them automatically.
"Oh, thank you," she sighed in relief, turning her back to the garage and its guard.
"Can I help you carry these somewhere, ma'am?" he asked politely. He glanced up the street, clearly searching for her vehicle. He seemed nervous, but surprisingly willing to help a lady with a heavy load make it to her car. He was also very clearly the man from Michael's picture, and this close she could smell a faint scent of sweat and gunpowder clinging to his body.
Her resolve firmed. "Yes, thank you," she replied gratefully. "Put them in the trunk."
He looked around, confused.
She poked the business end of the gun out of purse so he could see it. "And then you get in there with 'em."
He gave her a disbelieving stare, wrinkling his wilted mustache as his jaw fell open.
"Come on," she encouraged, gesturing with the weapon again. He looked up and across the street at the blissfully unaware security guard.
"I guess you could sound the alarm and have him running over to arrest me," she told him skeptically, "but my guess is you don't really want to compromise your identity by getting involved with the police." She gave him a hard stare, and he backed up against the car slowly, sitting on the lip of the trunk. Circling, she noticed with relief that it was empty of weapons. It did, however, hold a small burner phone and a large bag of plastic zip-ties.
Perfect. "Get in and tie your hands," she ordered in her most authoritative voice, the one she reserved for boys who were in deep trouble. "...And your feet," she added as an afterthought. To her bemusement, he stuffed himself into the trunk without a fuss, binding his wrists and ankles. He was probably thinking he'd get a chance to escape later, without needing police intervention. After all, she was just one little woman. Madeline snorted.
"Roll towards the back, and don't get cute with me, I know how to use this," she threatened, and though he gave her a resentful glare he complied.
Trying not to let her gun hand shake, she moved to close the trunk. "Who are you?" he asked finally, a faint accent showing through his careful English.
"Just call me Mama Westen," she replied thoughtlessly before she could second-guess herself. He gave her a rewardingly bug-eyed stare from the back of the compartment; and after a moment, she let the lid slam closed.
She'd never needed a cigarette so badly in her life.
Madeline tried to hit a few good potholes on the way home, hoping her prisoner would be shook up when she opened the trunk, but she wasn't about to take any chances. She left her purse on the front seat and hurried inside the house, glancing back at the car the whole time. She'd tried to call Michael again, but again gotten no response. The shotgun was right where she'd left it behind the door, and she loaded it carefully, scooping up the shells she'd stashed in a silk plant. She stepped outside to see the car rocking faintly, the trunk thumping with blows from inside, and she wasted no time: letting off a round into the front tire and reloading as the trunk went silent.
She circled around to the driver's side and found the trunk release. "That's a shotgun! Come out slow!" she warned, popping the trunk quickly and keeping her sights on her prisoner. He obeyed, holding his ziptied hands in the air and hopping out. She backed him towards the house carefully, herding him into the bathroom.
"Who are you?" Pencil Mustache questioned again, even as he obediently ziptied himself to the toilet. He didn't look so tough with his arms pinned to the pipes at the back of the commode. He peered around the bathroom — damp green shower curtain, fluffy bathmat, four toothbrushes at the pedestal sink — as if hoping it would give him answers.
"I told you," she answered him firmly, "I'm Michael Westen's mother. I've got a few questions for you, and I want you to be honest with me, okay?"
He nodded quickly, and she revised her estimate of his age downward again. The poor thing really did look terrified, and she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt if he'd let her.
They stared at each other for a moment as Maddie wracked her brain. Then she cleared her throat and nodded to herself decisively.
"All right, let's get started..."
When Michael came back to the house, he found the target of Sam's frantic search snuggled into his mother's favorite chair with half a sandwich, a pile of Ritz crackers, and a tall glass of iced tea.
"More pimento cheese, dear?" Madeline called out from the kitchen.
"Yes, please," Anton replied courteously, gazing into the kitchen in adoration. When he spotted Michael he straightened, but didn't get up. "Mister Westen," he nodded respectfully, only the slightest wobble in his voice betraying how nervous he was. Anton's hands were bound in front of him, but he was still managing to eat with unusual gusto.
Michael looked from the kitchen to the dining room and back again, fixing his mother with a disbelieving stare. Madeline strolled out casually and served her guest another dollop of the bright orange spread. He thanked her and began dipping his crackers into the pimento cheese enthusiastically. It had to be store-bought.
"Mom," he began, "What the hell is going on?"
Madeline swooped back into the kitchen, leaving him standing in the middle of the room, and let her spoon clatter into the sink.
"Well, I ran into our friend here at the grocery store, of all places," she replied, as if that was all the explanation necessary. She came back into the room, sitting down at the table with a crossword puzzle. Michael favored her with a penetrating stare that she shrugged off all too easily.
"Turns out he was in a bit of a situation himself. He agreed to the hit because he had no choice, but he never wanted to hurt Sam's friend, and it sounds like he has the evidence to prove it, Michael," she elaborated unhelpfully.
"I told him I was sure you'd be able to help him out with his little problem as long as he agreed to leave her alone. And he even says he'd like your help in getting out of this crazy lifestyle of — of 'guns and kidnappings and secret meetings,'" she finished, air quotes and all.
Anton interrupted gently. "Mama Westen is a very wise woman. I once thought the great Michael Westen was a myth, but this woman? Very fearless, very clever," he shook his head. "She must have taught you a great deal."
Madeline raised her eyebrows at him and folded her hands.
"Fine, Mom. Fine," Michael relented. "I'll check his story out and see what I can do. Okay?"
"Great!" she replied enthusiastically, breaking out in a smile.
She didn't make a fuss when he insisted on taking Anton back to the loft, only told him to be gentle and sent the box of crackers with them. Anton thanked her profusely as he stood, and allowed himself to be led quietly away, hands still tied in front of him.
"Michael! Don't forget to have someone pick up my car!" Madeline shouted out the window.
"I WILL, MOM!" Michael rolled his eyes behind his shades as they stepped out into the muggy afternoon, then turned to his newest client. He'd noticed the strange car with its trunk open when he first pulled up...
"Would you mind...telling me exactly how you got here?"