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Most Of All You've Got To Hide It From Your Kids

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“All Right, “ Sam Axe said, turning from the kitchen counter with plates full of food. “Cereal for the little guy,” he said, dropping a bowl of candy-coated chocolate drops in front of Liam. “AND fruit,” he added under the kid’s groan, adding a cup of sliced bananas and oranges. “Yogurt, garden sausage and a no-yolks omelet for the big guy,” said Sam, handing Michael a plate. “Annnnd one cup of flat ginger ale for the lady of the house.” He retrieved his own platter of bacon, fried potatoes and cereal from the side board and sat beside Liam.

“Are you sure you’re not too sick to come with us?”Michael eyeballed his wife as if he were afraid she’d explode.

Fiona sat beside Michael, carefully breathing, carefully moving, and slowly sipping the drink. When she spoke, it was very deliberate. “I’m fine. It’s just a stomach bug,” she declared. “A wee little beastie that won’t sit still.” Carefully she reached over and ruffled Liam’s hair. “I wonder where I got that from?”

“Mommy!” Liam shrieked, dodging her hands. “I’m not little!”

“Yes you are!” Fiona declared. “No matter how old a woman’s bairin gets, you’ll always be your mommy’s wee scrapper.” She seemed a bit better, and Sam tried to worry a little less about her. She had been puking all morning, only to stop a half-hour before they woke Liam.

“….That was so Irish I think my coffee turned into Draumbie,” Sam said, staring into his cup, earning him an elbow in the ribs from Fiona.

“We have thirteen minutes to eat,” Michael said, checking his watch, “then we have to run a supply check and evac to the car.”

“Mike, it’s the kid’s first day at school, not a munitions op.” The look of total disdain that crossed Michael’s face a moment later forced Sam to laugh into his coffee. “Stay frosty, baby. We’ll get the kid to school on time before we have to go meet our client.”

“I’m aware of that, Sam,” Michael said, glancing again at his watch. Sam kept an eye on the entire table as everybody ate, occasionally making mention of how good the food was and how much they wish they could luxuriate in eating more of it for a century or more. Then Sam pushed back his chair and started tossing empty plates into the sink while Michael went to warm up the car and Fiona applied her make-up.

“Okay,”he said, dropping to his knees to examine Liam. “New shirt on, pants buckled, shoes tied, looks like you combed your hair – did you wash your hands before breakfast?”

“YES, papa Sam,” Liam whined, clearly hating Sam’s distrust.

Sam spun the kid “Let’s check your backpack.” He unzipped Spider-Man’s head and rifled through the contents therein. “Crayons, kiddie scissors, one pencil and milk money. Looks like you’re all set, kiddo.” Liam gave him a hug.

“Promise you’ll pick me right up?” asked Liam.

“I’ll be there at noon, I promise.” Liam had been assigned to the morning session at his kindergarten, something Sam found a bit of a quiet blessing. He hoped to get the meeting in followed by a bit of leg work before they had to swing by and pick up the kid.

Fiona emerged from the bathroom with winged eyes and a fashion model’s glare; she looked great, though not particularly maternal by any stretch of the imagination. Sam raised a brow. “You’re a knock-out as always,” he said, pecking her forehead as they shooed Liam out of the house. Let the school itself complain about her lack of conformity. Sam thought she looked pretty damn great, even if she did smell too much like mouthwash.

****

A short drive northward deposited them on the front steps of the Butterscotch Lane Kindergarten building. Sam had been here before; they had protected client’s children from harm in this very place. The large, intimidating brick structure seemed bigger and more imposing now than it had when they weren’t sending precious cargo to be schooled within it. They paused to take pictures in the parking lot and on the front steps of the school, and Sam double-checked himself in the shiny plate glass window in front of the school, just to be sure he wasn’t too scruffy-looking to be presented to the child’s teacher. Fiona yanked him away and scolded him loudly while they climbed up and to the proper room and entered it.

What greeted them was a gaggle of small children, a beautifully-decorated room with lots of toys scattered about, two sweet-faced elderly ladies in floral pantsuits, and a series of cupboards and cubbyholes and tablescapes. It was warm and inviting, and Sam felt instantly at home.

“Miss Archer,” said Michael, extending his hand, automatically in charge, “I’m Michael Westen, Liam’s father. This is his mother, Fiona, and his father, Sam.”

Miss Archer’s smile froze and she paused mid-step, lost like a graceful statue and stunned into quiet silence. “I see,” she recovered quickly, her soft, low Mediterranean –accented voice gradually modulating in pitch back toward human tones. “We’ll do everything we can to take care of little Liam.” She squatted down. “Hi, little guy, and welcome to Butterscotch Lane Kindergarten. I hope you brought along your big, sunny smile, because I sure did, and it’s ready to come out and shine like a diamond!”

Sam saw Fiona dry heave out of the corner of his eye and grabbed her elbow – she shoved him away, containing herself. “Miss Archer,” said Fiona, “Liam’s got a big enough smile for us. I promise you, he’ll be good.”

“I bet he will.” She reached for the little boy’s hand and he took it with surprising eagerness. Sam felt a little tug deep within his heart; geez, you spend years raising the kid and then what do they do? They grow up on you.

Michael awkwardly rested his hand on Liam’s shoulder. “Be good, all right?”

“Okay Dad!” He received a cheerful hug, and Sam noted that Michael tried to loosen up with it. He left the woman’s aids with a list of the boy’s allergies and dislikes, Fiona kept an eye out for sharp objects and pertinent threats, but Sam was the one who lingered by the door, making sure nobody had dared to pick on Liam, double-checking that he was faring well against the slings and arrows of his peers. They socialized lightly with their fellow parents as they passed by. But Michael eventually tugged Sam’s shoulder, forcing him to turn back, making him realize that it wasn’t his job to keep the little guy out of trouble anymore. And then they sprinted out to the parking lot, where Fiona soon lost what was left of her breakfast.

***

They left her at home with some flat ginger ale as they went to meet their client, a middle-aged divorcee with old money named Jessica Filbert who’d been scammed by her gigolo boyfriend. She happened to be waiting for them, chewing her nail and staring into the distance in a way that screamed panic to Sam. It would be his job to play wise, calm and learned then. If he could pull it off while he was worried for Fiona.

Michael, as always, was all business. He asked the right questions, the smart questions, and Sam acted as a human micro recorder and paid attention to her reactions. Their client was rating a two on the anxiety scale but a ten on the pissed-off scale, so Sam kept her mouth full and her anger on-mission.

“It all started with this guy, Vinnie DePesto,” she began, shoving another chunk of bread into her mouth. “Tom and I were totally close. I thought he was the one, y’know? Only before I knew it I woke up one morning in an empty apartment with my television set and car totally gone.” She opened up her phone and scrolled to a picture of the guy, spraying Sam with crumbs as she ranted. “There he is! There’s the creep!”

Sam eyeballed the man’s face. He was average-looking at the very most, with large blue eyes and a big nose, and acne sprinkled along his lip line. His red hair was thinning atop his head, though it sprouted in thick gouts up from the neckline of his shirt to kiss the disco medal he wore at the base of his throat. This was the kinda guy who wasn’t born – he emerged fully-formed from a production of Xanadu with roller skates on his feet. “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”

“No. All I know is that somewhere there’s a man with a tv set who likes Shalimar and Betty White.”

Sam sucked down a mouthful of mojito while Michael probed for a better answer. “Did he mention any relatives? Does he have any local hangouts, or any hobbies?”

“Well,” she said. “He loves building little miniatures of speedboats.”

That was an in. Sam started mentally filofaxing away names of hobby shops and craft stores that catered to miniature builders. “Anything else?” Michael asked.

Jessica kneaded her handful of bread between her palms, hard and fast. “There was this girl he used to see on the south side of town named Dolores Wishman. He SWORE that she was just his cousin, but I trust the creep as far as I can throw him, and he was always real careful to be a gentleman whenever they were together. You know the type; kiss up to you when you’re down, so they can use you. Wish I saw the signs back then.”

“It happens to the best of us,” said Sam.

“You might want to check her out too. Otherwise I ain’t got anything else to help you out with.” Jessica crossed her arms and pouted, looking all of twelve in her anger.

Michael and Sam exchanged careful looks and plotted out their next moves in silent gestures with all of the finesse of a couple of long-partnered ballet dancers. “We’ll check out Dolores while we try to track this guy down,” Sam said. He took a picture of her picture of the man with his own cell phone, saved it, and prepared to work his contacts. Their client required a few more stiff gins before heading out to the world, leaving Sam and Mike to prepare for the next stage of their search.

****

Back at the loft, Fiona was conspicuously absent when Sam set down to run the names he’d gotten out of Jessica. According to what he could track down, her boyfriend hadn’t been anywhere within the vicinity of the club she’d mentioned, but he got a couple of hits for Dolores’ house, and recorded the address down quickly.

Michael, meanwhile, plotted the practicalities, along with their next trip to the grocery store. Liam had another hour in school before they had to pick him up, and just as Sam wondered when Fiona would be coming home she strolled through the door, toting a tiny brown paper sack.

Sam raised his eyebrow as she slipped by him to the door of the bathroom. “Thought Mike was doing the shopping this week,” he said.

She smiled. “Personal business, Sam.”

“Personal?” he raised an eyebrow as Michael looked up from his shopping list. Then, out of the corner of his mouth he asked, “is this a period thing?”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s the opposite of a period thing.” Then she slipped off to the bathroom, leaving her men sitting behind, confused and completely bereft.

They ended up waiting outside the door until Fiona emerged with a roll of her eyes. “You boys survived life in Iraq and yet you won’t let a lady use the loo by herself.”

“What was in the bag, Fi?” Sam’s curiosity couldn’t be contained; he wanted to find out what she was hiding, why she was hiding it, and how much damage it would do in the end to their relationship.

She sighed very patiently. “It’s confidential,” she declared. “Until I get a positive answer.”

Michael – having many years as Sam in intelligence – finally blurted out the obvious question. “Are you pregnant?”

Sam raised an eyebrow. He didn’t even want to imagine that might be true.

Fi pressed her lips close together and settled down on a stool in the kitchen. “Pass me the ginger ale and tell me about our client.”

Michael briefed Fi while Sam went back to his Google searching. He soon longed for the old-fashioned world of Yellow Pages and card catalogs, and when he finally pinged Dolores’ position – a large and swanky-looking retirement community east of Boca – he let out a grunt of relief. A couple of calls would’ve gotten him there quicker, but alerting ‘old friends’ to his new position in Michael’s life wasn’t exactly an easy – or even a kosher – thing for him to do. But locating the retirement village made everything much easier for him; he’d had a girlfriend there six years earlier, and Sam knew a shortcut to the place. He scribbled notes while Fiona laughed softly at Michael’s summary.

“Sounds like we’re going to have to send Sam in.” Her hand came to rest on the inside of his arm as he entered the kitchen, left the computer, and came around the island to hand Mike the docs they needed to get hold of Dolores.

“She’s in Boca,” he said. “How does everyone feel about a little bit of afterschool recon?” he wondered.

“I think I might be up to it. You owe me a new handbag from the last one,” she sold Sam, deliberately squeezing the inside of his arm. “Fendi. Bright red, with a lot of buckles,” she said blithely.

“Yeah right,” Sam blurted, and Michael prodded his side in reproach as he headed over to the kitchen door. “Uh, right, Fi – I’ll just see what I can do there.” Michael would pay for it, of course – Michael was still the family saver, the family martinet, and he was the one who controlled the group’s finances still. “And Mikey,” he said, catching up to Michael as they headed out the back, “owes me a beer.”

“One beer.”

“A whole case.”

“You drive a hard bargain.”

“And you know it,” Sam said, while Michael’s mouth spread into a flat, displeased line.

***

Back at Butterscotch Lane, the gang quickly discovered that Liam had a pout to rival his father’s as he sat on the front stairs and moped. The second they pulled the car around, he leapt from his seat and raced toward the car, throwing his arms around Michael when he opened the driver’s side door, sobbing the whole time.

“Bad day?” he asked mildly.

“People are jerks!” said Liam.

“Hey, buddy,” Sam said. “You’re awfully young to pass judgment like that on the whole human race.”

Fiona, naturally, chose not to give the benefit of the doubt to anybody and turned toward her son, patting his shoulder. “Who were they? I want names!”

“His name is Jeffy,” sniffled Liam, rubbing his eyes against Michael’s shoulder. “He stole my apple sauce and then he pushed me when we were in line for the slide.” Michael awkwardly rubbed his son’s back and turned to Sam for some sort of guidance.

“Hey, little man,” Sam said, then tousled the kid’s hair. “That Jeffy sounds like a bully. And y’know how we deal with bullies?”

“Shoot ‘em?” said Liam.

Sam cringed. “Not when they’re under the age of three. No, kiddo, think about it - y’know what the right thing to do is, don’t you?”

All at once, the adults offered their well-lived advice to the child. “Hit him,” Fiona said.

“Walk away,” Michael said.

“Try to be his friend,” Sam said, which made Fiona turn on him.

“Be his friend?! The little bastard pushed my son, he’s lucky he has working legs!”

“Fi, y’know the old saying, don’t you? Honey draws ‘em in better than flies.”

“And who wants to hang about with flies?” She kissed the top of Liam’s head. “You show them to me, tomorrow, I’ll take care of them.”

“Fi…” Michael’s voice held a note of warning, and Sam knew that Michael had visions of her executing children dancing in his head.

“Oh boys,” she sighed piteously. “You know nothing about the motherly instinct.”

Sam knew they didn’t. “We’ll talk to his teacher tomorrow, right Mikey?”

“Yes,” Michael said. “But first we’re going home. Somebody needs a nap before dinner.”

There was a complaining whine from little Liam, but for all of his protests he couldn’t ignore the wiseness of his father’s proclamation. The foursome adjourned to the loft, where Liam had a snack and watched a cartoon while they called around to find an evening sitter for him.

Madeline was willing to watch him, as always. She even managed to bring long a new board game that Liam had never played, keeping him engaged while they gathered themselves for an evening’s stakeout. In Sam’s case, that meant stocking up on chips, solid-tipped bullets, and memory cards for his digital camera from the loft’s neverending supply of stuff.

He heard Fiona box Madeline in the bathroom as he passed by. “Madeline,” Fiona whispered. “Be careful; keep Liam out of the medicine cabinet.”

“I managed to raise two boys by myself,” Madeline said, carefully leaving Frank’s contribution out of the equation. “And they both turned out to be fine, upstanding citizens.”

“I have a pregnancy test in there.”

“Oh. OH MY GOD! Oh Sweetie, that’s wonderful!”

“Don’t get too excited yet, hmm? We have no idea if it’s positive or not. It’ll be ready in ten minutes but I can’t just stuff it in my pocket and carry it off to the stakeout.”

“Oh, of course! I’ll keep him out and I promise not to peek,” she said. “Be sure to take care of yourself, Fiona. Get as much rest as you can!”

“I’m fine! I’m no milksop,” she insisted gently. “I’ll be just fine.”

Sam tried to muffle his proud smile as they all adjourned to the Charger. Michael couldn’t help but notice Fiona’s serenity. “Have a nice talk with mom?”

“I always have nice talks with your mother,” she said. “I just hope she doesn’t let Liam make popcorn this time.” The last time he’d positively flooded the apartment with inedible mountains of white kernels.

“She’s cleaning up this time if she does. I just hope she doesn’t smoke in the bedroom again,” said Michael.

“You’ve gotta give your mom credit, Mike – she’s cut back to two packs a day. That’s not bad.”

“Not bad for her, yeah. But it would be better if she’d quit altogether before I end up paying her medical bills.”

“Be nice,” ordered Fiona. “I love that woman and I happen to need her help constantly. The last thing I want is to lose her.”

Michael fondly turned his eyes toward the heavens. The sun was just setting, and they had a good chunk of time to get to Boca and back before Liam’s bedtime.

***

Dolores was easy enough to find – she was hosting a cocktail party that had spilled out of the car in a rowdy flood of humanity, all of them clearly beyond drunk.

“Looks like Blutos gone wild,” observed Sam, as an elderly man grinned at him, shaking an enormous bottle of Port Royale at him. “Wonder if this is what she does in her spare time? Throw Grannys Gone Wild parties?”

Fiona tugged on Sam’s elbow. “Who should we pose as?”

“Undercover cops coming to break them up? No way do I look old enough to blend in with them…” he rolled his eyes at Fi’s mock-simpering look. “Fine, but if I hve to do this you’re coming with me. Play the kid role again or something.”
“Fine,” Fiona smirked. It didn’t take look for them to find an empty bottle of beer in the back seat and dishevel Sam up. Fiona untucked her tank top, demurely tugging her skirt down and borrowing a pair of glasses from Michael’s glovey. A pair of granny glasses completed the look.

Together, they wove their way through the crowd, Sam “drunkenly” greeting strangers as if they were old friends, and Fiona trying to aim him through the crowd with careful diligence. “ANYBODY SEEN DOLORES?” Sam slurred out. “DOLORES WISHMAN! WHEREARE YOU!”

“Daddy, please,” Fiona mock-sniffled. “You’re making a huge scene!”

“SHUUT up! I know when I’ve had enough to drink,” Said Sam, tugging out of Fi’s grip.

“I’m going to have to call your sponsor!” She sobbed.

“Then do it!” Sam shouted. “I’m here to live, baby! Liveee!” he bumped deliberately into the classy-looking blonde behind him, spilling a squirt of nail polish remover they’d mixed up with apple perfume to better replicate an apple-scented booze. The blonde turned around, and there were the unmistakably pugnacious features of Dolores Wishman.

“DOLORES! BABY!” Sam yelled, throwing his arms around her. Dolores stiffened in his arms, and Fiona put on an even heavier display of waterworks to back up Sam’s blandishments.

Disgust resonated in Dolores’ voice. “Do I know you?”

Sam paused. “Do you-“ he pulled away, tried to project bleary-eyed confusion. “Dolores, baby! It’s me! Sammy-man! I don’t believe you don’t recognize me! We met at Doug’s luau a couple of weeks ago! I was the guy in the Hawaiian shirt with the eyepatch and the bottle of Kahluah!”

“Um…I’m really sorry…Sammy…man…” she backed away from him eyeballing. “I don’t really remember you. But don’t take it personally - a gal like me meets a lot of guys in the line of work I’m in. Now you’ve gotta excuse me; I’ve got some hot guys to wrangle out of my ice box.”

Sam rocked back on his heels- mock-offended and trying to project blowsy insecurity. “You don’t….she doesn’t remember me, honey, can you imagine that?!” Fiona rolled her eyes with mock-patience and then patted his shoulders.

“Of course she does, daddy. Who wouldn’t remember the kind of man who makes an evening so special?”

“I brought her wine! And pate!” Sam put so much emphasis on pate that Fiona had to bit her bottom lip to block a laugh. “It was a night of passion I know I’ll never forget.” He sighed. “I guess I’ll have to give these diamond earrings to some other gal…” Fiona’s eyes dilated as she realized Sam held her own diamond studs in his palm, retrieved from the front pocket of his shirt, where they’d been ever since laundry day.

That was enough to make Dolores spin around. He could see the wheels turning behind her eyes, but was careful to seem as innocent as a lamb when she charged toward him with her arms wide open and an incredibly plastic smile upon her lips. “Sammy, honey, it’s you!”

“Heh, it sure is.” He was carefully to put on a solid blast of Sammy charm, grabbing her by her rear and throwing in before they broke apart and he applied a kiss to her forehead. It wasn’t hard; every woman was beautiful to him in some degree, and while Dolores had clearly seen better days, she had a certain spunk to her that made her undeniably interesting. “You’re looking spicy,” he grinned. “Boca’s agreeing with you.”

“Oh, it’s not just Boca that’s agreeing with me!” she smiled, leaned in close, and whispered to him, “it’s making me blossom. I’m seeing this gorgeous man named Vinny, and we’ve been getting more and more serious…no offense.”

“None taken.” She seemed surprised. “Hey, we’re swingers, baby! You do your thing, I’ll do mine, right?”

“Eww, daddy,” Fiona interjected – then she let out a muffled yelp and set one of the party guests sprawling drunkenly to the sofa, neutralizing him with a rabbit punch to the hip.

“Right,” said Dolores. She pouted. “I think me and Vinny might be the real thing, y’know. It’s kind of a shame. If I could remember what I did that was so earring-worthy, I’d be giving you a ringy-dingy.”

“It was cumulative,” Sam said. “Hey, I’ve gotta go!” HE grabbed both of her hands and squeezed them. “You’re beautiful, baby! Don’t forget it!”

“Hey!” she shouted in his wake. “What about the earrings?”

“I’ll mail them to ya!” he said, remembering to bob and weave as he left the scene, Fiona trailing behind him, giving out mock-apologies to everyone on the way outside. They didn’t stop the daddy-daughter routine until they’d picked their way through the sprawled bodies on the lawn – they found Michael at the foot of the drive, and finally relaxed their way out of character with a grunt.

“Well, she’s been snookered,” said Sam to Michael when they were firmly in the clear. “Old Vinny’s convinced Dolores she’s the only one rocking Vinny’s world. I’ll bet you a hundred smackers that she’s got no idea about Jessica and that her expensive new trinkets all belong on another dame’s hand.”

“I heard,” Michael said. “The question is – does she know where Vinny is now, and would she be willing to turn him in to the police if we told her what he’s been up to?”

“I have an even easier solution than that,” Sam said. “How about we send your mom in to take care of her?”

“My mother,” Michael repeated. “In an orgy of elderly swingers. Thank you for the mental picture.”

Sam patted Michael’s knee. “There’s a first time for everything, Mikey. Maddy’ll do a great job, and she’ll get us all the info we need in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“Stop joking around,” he grunted. “I don’t like using mom on jobs, you both know I don’t.”

“But,” Fiona said reasonably. “She’s an older woman with a certain look who could probably play a swinger with some convincing make-up work. If she gets close to Dolores, she’ll lead us to Vinny, and from Vinny to the garbage he stole from Jessica.”

“Garbage is putting it nicely,” Sam said. “I’m telling ya, it’d be better if we just dropped the whole case now before I have to blow into Dolores’ ear.”

“We promised we’d help Jessica,” Michael said. “And I’m a man of my word. Money’s money, and if I were in her position I’d want my….” Michael glanced at the list he’d crumpled and thrown into the front pocket of his shirt for more information. “…black velvet Elvis painting back, too.”

“C’mon, Mike, this is a nothing case! We deserve something interesting!”

Fiona raised her eyebrow. “You don’t think some sort of elderly ring of swingers headed up by some kind of klepto gigolo isn’t interesting?”

“Huh…now that you put it that way…”

They reached the peace of the loft soon afterwards, and after Michael escorted his mother home they tucked Liam into bed. This involved a lot of negotiating, and a lot of Liam dragging his feet as they took him from the sink to the bed, listening to him slowly fall away and into sleep as they peeled through a copy of Where The Wild Things are. All the while Sam remained focused on the existence of that little plastic wand hiding up in Fiona’s bathroom cabinet. Its status would confirm their delight and complicate their future, but he had no idea which would be the stronger pull on their plans; or even if Fiona planned on keeping the baby once it was born.

With Liam asleep and only dishes left to be completed, the three of them collapsed on the sofa in the living room, making vague plans for dinner and passing about a single cup of flat soda back and forth between them. Sam played casual, but his heart was ready to thump its way out of his chest. When Fiona finally spoke up, he about jumped out of his skin.

“Well, boys, now what would you like to do?”

“You’ve gotta be joking,” Sam croaked out.

“Hmm?” Fiona flicked her hair back behind her ears and looked utterly insouciant. “What are you getting at, Sam?” He opened his mouth to shout at her, but she blithely cut him off. “Oh yes. My little test…”

“Would you just get it?” Sam wondered. “And why aren’t you nervous about this?” he asked, prodding Michael’s shoulder.

“Remember Belize?”

Sam did – though he honestly wished he didn’t. “Look, those tacos weren’t my fault, no matter how much Peterson wanted to put them on me…”

“No, Sam – the hour and a half when you were taken hostage by Ramos. What did I do?”

“Nothing.”

“And why did I do nothing?”

“Because you knew I knew what I was doing….” They were both startled as they heard a series of vile curses echoing up from the bathroom, and both took off toward the bathroom, Mike still jumping up to Fi’s call in spite of his professed calmitude.

“What’s the matter?” Sam asked, rapping on the door.

“There are green spots!,” Fiona cried out.

“Is…that bad?” Sam asked, looking to Michael for confirmation. Mike stared back with stony silence, and Sam thought it was pretty unfair of him to keep quiet; after all, Sam wasn’t the one with field experience here, so to speak.

“Are you a complete idiot?” she snapped. “Green spots aren’t a possibility! They’re not on the back of the box and they’re not listed anywhere on the information packet.” She flounced out of the bathroom. “We’ll have to buy another test. I don’t know what I was thinking, letting it sit there and FERMENT in this heat.”

“It’s all a mystery to me, Fi,” Michael sighed. “Shouldn’t we be getting to bed? Seven comes awfully early.”

Sam flung himself to his feet. “Don’t you wanna find out for sure? This isn’t gonna bother you at all?”

Fiona shrugged. “A day won’t make a difference, either way,” she yawned. “And I’m starving and exhausted.” She hopped to her feet and sauntered toward their bed. “If you’re both good, we could make the bed sing.”

Sam and Michael exchanged knowing looks. This is, of course, what got them in trouble in the first place.

But Sam was already on his feet, moving toward the bed. And Michael was already following, with his cell phone, gun and shades.

Maybe it was best that they didn’t learn their lessons after all. If they had done that years ago, they wouldn’t have the family that so enriched their daily living.

***

The next morning dawned warm and bright, but the table was ringed by grumpy faces who were less than pleased by Sam’s carefully prepared cuisine. Liam pushed his cereal around in his bowl and pouted his way to the school, while his mother sat beside him, green-faced and sipping a water bottle filled with flattened ginger ale. After dropping Liam to school with a triplicate assurance that they would be there as quickly as possible once the school bell rang, the Westen-Axe-Glenannes made their way to the next stop of the morning: Madeline’s house.

She’d made them cookies. Sam pasted a frozen smile on his face and passed them off to Michael as if he were trying to get a bomb away from the still green-faced Fiona. Maddie gave her a sympathetic smile.

“Are you hear to give me some good news?”

Fiona shook her head, then sat heavily down at the kitchen table, breathing deeply until she no longer looked quite as green.

“Good, now I can light up,” Madeline said. She did so but kept a respectful distance as Michael and Sam formed a protective barrier around Fiona and Maddie dug through the fridge until she found a jar of iced tea. “So what brings you three by, then?”

“It’s business, ma,” Michael said. “Important business – but still, business.”

Madeline stared at the three of them. “All right, how much will it cost, where are you going to stick me, and will it involve me having to look after Liam? Are you going to use the house, and if you’re going to use the house will you take your shoes off before tracking mud in all over my nice, clean carpet?”

“It’s not like that this time, mom.”

She crossed her arms. “Well, somebody explain already!”

Sam took a deep breath and blurted out, “we’re kind of sort of working for this woman who got herself swindled by a low-level crook. The guy’s part of a local swinger’s group, and we need somebody to go in and cozy up to him.”

Madeline froze, then nailed Sam to the wall with a glare. “You’re asking me to go undercover for the three of you as some sort of…”

“Swinger. Big time partner-swapping swinger.” Sam didn’t mind teasing Maddie just a little bit, because he knew in the end she’d stand up for them, take part in the plan, because it gave her a little thrill to do so on top of the fact that it meant Michael owed her a favor.

“It would be a big deal for us, mom,” Michael cut in quickly. “She’s already met

Madeline kept her face an unimpressed mask, but Sam saw the spark in her eyes and knew she was ready to leap to the kill. “All right,” she grumbled. “When do we start, and how long is it going to take?”

“Doris’ Facebook says the next party’s happening Friday at six o’clock” Sam said. He showed Madeline a picture of Vinny. “This is the guy we’re looking for. His name’s Vinny and he’s got a major stealing problem.”

“And a major problem with his hairline,” Madeline noticed, squinting at the picture. “What did he take?”

Michael pulled the list from his breast pocket and read, “one Thighmaster, a toaster oven and a negligee, black.”

Madeline stared at him. “I can see why she didn’t call AllState.”

“Don’t make me beg, mom. And I will beg if I have to.”

Sam grinned, which just earned him a kick under the table.

“It would mean a lot, Madeline.”

“Okay,” sighed Maddie. “I’ll dig out my platform heels with the goldfish in them. But don’t expect me not to smoke,” she said, poking her finger at Michael.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, ma.”

“I think I’ll have a cookie after all,” Fiona said, reaching for the platter Sam had hidden behind him in the vain hope of avoiding angering Madeline.

Sam stood by the kitchen basket in case she felt the sudden need to recycle it, but Fiona persevered. He was pretty proud of her.

****

On the way down to interview Jessica one more time, this time hoping to exploit Fiona’s feminine wiles and get a bond going between the two women, they picked up another test. Sam jammed it into the glove compartment and refused to look at it as they road down to Boca.

“Are you sure you don’t want to pop into a ladies room and do it now?” Sam asked.

Fiona sighed. “I won’t be less pregnant tonight.”

“I don’t get why you’re so calm!” Sam slapped the steering wheel, and Michael seized his upper thigh, a silent gesture that requested calm without the effort of speech.

“Remember what Michael said to you about Panama?”

Sam glared at her. “Fi, you’re not a terrorist with a bald patch on your chest, and we’re not waiting for the Feds to Evac us out of the area before the abandoned hotel gets arc lighted. We’re talking about our future here!” Sam passionately squeezed Michael’s hand. “Me! You! Mikey! Liam! MAddie – to a lesser extent – and maybe whoever’s sitting under your ribs!”

She rolled her eyes at Sam’s sentimentality. “that person might just be half a gallon of ginger ale and seven cookies,” she said.”That reminds me: we need lunch. Maybe a platter of ceviche?”

“Are you going to pay for it?” Michael teased.

“Boys,” she smiled enigmatically. “When have I ever been afraid to pay my way?”

They arrived on Jessica’s doorstep in a mob, and she seemed relieved to see them. “Finally! The SOB’s been using my credit cards!” She waved a slip in Michael’s face, showing him an enormous record of debits and credits directly printed out from her bank.

Part of Sam leapt with excitement – finally, they had something more interesting to work with than hundred dollar black velvet Elvis paintings and mood rings. The rest of him watched as Fiona’s eyes came to life, sparkling with brand new energy, and wondered if it wouldn’t be better for poor ol’ Vinny to skip town now. “Show me everything,” she demanded.

Jessica gave them the full story while Fiona hung on her every word and Michael and Sam committed it all to memory. They’d need to act soon if they wanted to preserve any of Jessica’s finances. Sam helped her freeze her remaining assets and they took down more numbers, names and records to better nail Vinny down to the wall with. They had quite an enthusiastic helper in Jessica, who definitely wanted to tackle the guy, who seemed to get redder and redder in the face as she relayed her tale of woe to the gang.

“And then. AND THEN!” She said throwing her cable bill on top of the enormous pile. “I find out that he’s been ordering porno behind my back! PORNO. What, am I trash or something? Do I look like less of a woman, huh? If he wants to see some tits what’s wrong with mine?”

“No, you certainly don’t,” Michael said, knowing exactly what she wanted to hear and delivering without thinking of it.

“And you have lovely tits,” Fiona observed, as Sam grinned and Michael barely masked his pained expression behind a folded hand. “Any man would love to touch them. Except for mine.”

The threat was perfectly implicit. Sam lurched forward and scanned the list. “And he’s got lousy taste in the stuff too. Everybody knows Blazing Foxholes 4 sucks compared to Blazing Foxholes 12…or so I’ve heard.”

Silence passed. Michael seemed ready to murder them both on the spot, but Jessica, fortunately remained too lost in her anger to flat-out fire the three of them. “We’ll work with the cable company and get you your money back,” Michael said, and Sam knew he actually meant they’d beat in Vinny’s door until he agreed to pay the bill off along with her stolen property.

“And we’ll find a way to get Vinny to return your….waffle iron and Chia Pet,” Fiona said, after taking yet another look at the list of her stolen property.

“I don’t care what you do,” Jessica said. “As long as he keeps his mitts of the of the rest of my cash!”

“Your bank will handle that,” Michael said. “But I’m on the rest of it…” His cell phone rang, and with a frown he grabbed the device and picked it up, pressing it to his ear. He turned from the company and started chatting away.

“We’ll take care of him for you.” Sam promised.

“Everything will be fine. Just imagine him naked and being dipped in phosphoric acid…”

“Fi…” Sam began.

“Guys, we need to go,” Michael said, ending the call and shuffling together the files lying scattered over the table.

“What happened?” Fiona asked.

“It’s Liam,” he said. And naturally he refused to explain while they were in Jessica’s company. They all simply picked up and left, promising to say in touch with Jessica via phone.

In the car he said even less, though Sam tried to wheedle it out of his lover with every once of persuasiveness in her body. But Michael was tight lipped until they reached the step of the kindergarten, and then he silently stomped up to Liam’s room without adding another room.

The problem was apparent to Sam the second they entered the room. It was in total anarchy; teachers shouting, the children ringed at the center of the room around some sort of conflict, and at the very center of it was Liam, straddling the chest of a much larger, stockier boy an waling away at the kids’ face with his tiny clenched fists.

There was the briefest moment – maybe a roll of an eye or a deep groan at the child’s too-familiar behavior – before diving right into the fray. So simultaneously all three parents sprung to the child’s defense, pulling Liam off of his opponent, limbs flailing and little voice strained to shout above the worries of the adults surrounding him.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked, going into disciplinarian mode. He knew Fiona’s inclination had been to just let Liam keep hitting the kid until he surrendered; a practice Sam sort of subscribed to with terrorists and bombers, but not small children with parents who might try to sue them.

“I told you! That’s Jeffy.” Jeffy was too busy clinging to an aide’s skirt and crying to give Sam much of an impression, but he listened to Liam quite closely as the kid blurted out his full anguish. “He’s a jerk.”

“Liam Westen, language,” said Fiona, but Sam noted her pride. “Why did you hit him.”

“I can answer that,” said Liam’s teacher, suddenly without her halo of calm benevolence she looked a bit monstrous as she confronted Michael and his family. She seemed to shield them all with the breadth of her body, her small weight and height suddenly coming off as threatening. “Your son swept Jeffy’s leg out from under him, then started punching him in the head.”

“Why did you do that, huh?” Sam asked his son, cuffing his shoulder. But Liam shook off his touch, glowering with all of the strength of Michael Westen.

“HE SAID YOU WERE WEIRD,” Liam jumped in. “That nobody else has a family like we do, and I was a freako

“You are,” said Jeffy, sniffing into his teacher’s skirts.

Liam advanced on him menacingly. “I am not!”

“Liam,” said his teacher, “apologize to Jeffy this instant, or I’m afraid you’re going to have to go to the principal’s office…and you might need a permanent time-out from this school.” She glared right at his parents, firmly informing them of her seriously she took this threat.

“GOOD,” Liam said, his eyes filled with defiance.

In the same moment, Fiona’s eyes bloomed to blistering life. “Listen?” Fiona snapped, stepping toward his teacher as swiftly as she could, nearly tripping over Sam to get to her. “Why should my son have to apologize for anything that happened here today? That little boy insulted him! If anything he should kick him much harder than he was.”

“Ms. Glenanne, your son’s spent the past few days behaving in a manner that’s more suited to wild beasts in Borneo! He’s drawn shotguns during recess, performed pretend bullet triage on the girl’s Barbie Dolls and tried to tell me that the parameters of the classroom left just enough space for a terrorist under four feet tall to invade the building and take up to two hostages before being taken down in a gristly firefight. To paraphrase, of course. I strongly encourage you to either find him a qualified therapist or stop showing him violent movies, but I hope you’ll do both in a more supportive educational environment than I can provide him. ”

Fiona’s hair flew about her face, her eyes snapping and bright. “Our son may be more…prepared for danger than your other students. But Miss Applewhite, is he telling the truth?” Sam could tell from Michael’s tone that he believed his child and not the aide.

The teacher remained mum as she quietly weighed her words. “Maybe,” she said. “But there was no need for violence.”

“Guys,” Sam said, “conference.” They huddled up briefly. “What are we doing about this?”

“Withdrawing him,” Michael said. Immediately.” That much was obvious.

“Oh, Michael, don’t be so hasty - let’s pretend we’re not pulling him out of the class, then surprise them with a nice fat lawsuit,” Fiona suggested sarcastically. “Rub salt into the wounds,” she said, sensually caressing the word ‘wound’ like a lover’s wrinkled palm.

“It’s too easy for them,” Sam said. “Let’s make the break clean and sharp…like the knife we’re gonna use to cut the principal’s tires open.”

“What are we going to do? Run a raid on their bake sale?” Michael wondered. “We’re going to have to approach this with maturity and grace. Sam do you…”

“I know guys at three private schools and two ladies at two different parochial schools. Still have that priest’s collar, Mikey?”

“I don’t think we’ll go the religious root. We’ll figure it out – tomorrow.” He turned around, taking Liam by the shoulders and addressing his teacher. “I’m afraid this school won’t be working out for us. We’ll withdraw Liam today and have him in a new school by the end of the week.”

“I suppose that’s for the best,” said Miss Applewhite blandly. “Good luck to you all. And I will miss you, Liam, even though you bit my leg during naptime.”

“Napping’s for the weak!” shouted Liam, and Sam squeezed his shoulder, laughing quietly, apologetically. Fiona gathered his backpack and took his hand, and Sam rushed over to the classroom door to let him out.

He’d been ready to leave the room when he heard Miss Applewhite turn toward the remaining children and told them, “now you all must try to behave. Whatever you do, DON’T act like Liam unless you want to be a bad boy like him, too!”

That was the final straw for Sam. The last little golden thread atop the heaping pile of BS this lady had been shoveling about unity and togetherness for the last week. “Miss,” Sam said, as Michael and Fiona scooped Liam up and all but carried him out of the room, his legs kicking forlornly in the open air, “you can go fuck yourself.”

***

“You told the teacher to go f-.”

 

Sam pressed his index finger to Liam’s gigglingl lips. “Shh,” he snapped. “I know what I did, and just because I did it doesn’t mean you can do it too, got it?”

Liam nodded gleefully. “Now I can hang around the house all day in my underwear and eat peanut butter sandwiches!”

“No you cannot,” Fiona said. “As soon as your fathers and I find the right school for you you’ll be going back to school.”

“Awwww,” Liam grumped. “What if I try to bite somebody else?”

“Then I’ll take you to the dentist and find out what mommies with little boys who don’t pay attention to them should do to make them pay attention.”

Liam pouted. “Daddy,” he whined to Michael.

“Listen to your mother,” Michael said - and frowned as a too-familiar figure snapped into focus as they coasted by it. It was Jessica, and she was trying to flag them down with every ounce of energy in her body.

Michael made an illegal u-turn to get back to her, then rolled down the window. “Can we help?”

“YES, Mister Westen, you can help!” cried Jessica, clutching the front of her trenchcoat. “He came back last night,” she said, waving her cell phone triumphantly over her head, “and this time I got him on tape!”

They ended up having lunch together, with Sam entertaining Liam while Mike and Fi watched and rewatched the footage Jessica had scored.

“That’s definitely him,” Fiona noted. “I’d recognize that bald spot anywhere.”

“The question is, what does he want with your Foreman Grill?” Sam asked Jessica.

“Fuck if I know…pardon my French,” she said, eyeing Liam. He obliviously colored away at his placemat while she added, “he must be looking for something. What I don’t know – maybe he just wants revenge after I turned him in to my bank.”

“It can’t be that simple,” Fiona declared. “If it was he would have taken something that’s easier to hock on the black market.”

“We’ll find out soon enough; we’ll be sending a decoy in to trap him soon…”

“Thank God,” muttered Jessica, slugging down her bloody mary. “The sooner I get my Kesha tapestry back, the better.”

“Right,” Michael said. “We’re on it. In the meantime, buy titanium locks for your doors, don’t let anybody in, and keep an eye on your back door.”

“Can do,” she said. Then Jessica watched Sam shoveling chicken fingers into Liam’s mouth and she wondered, “So, is he yours?”

Sam brushed Liam’s hair back, fondness in his eyes. “Ours,” he said, settling the question.

And Jessica knew enough about love to avoid asking them any more awkward questions.

***

“Do I really have to wear a see-through tank top?”

Michael cringed as Madeline tossed herself into the passenger side seat. “It’s all part of the look, ma…:”

“What Mikey said,” Sam declared, between bites of curly fries. “Uh…you’re wearing underwear, right?”

“Sam, If I weren’t strapped into this car you wouldn’t have a working jaw to ask that kind of question of me again.” Madeline opened her purse and pulled out a cigarette and her solid brass lighter. “How’s Fiona doing?”

“She’s fine. She just decided to stay home with Liam for the night while we took care of this….OW Geez, gotcha,” Sam grunted as he ducked Maddie’s pinching fingers. “Don’t have to be so touchy, Mad. I’m just trying to make sure you’re ready for this guy.”

“The last thing I want to be is ‘ready’ for this kind of guy,” Madeline huffed. “He looks like a porn star. Probably smells like one, too. I don’t know what Dolores sees in him.”

“You’d see it if you could see Dolores,” cracked Sam. “Besides, she had no clue that Vinny’s a two-timing scumbag. She thinks he’s her scumbag, the poor gal.”

Madeline took this in, lighting up a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “The two of you are spending next Sunday painting my bathroom for this.”

“Got it, Mad.”

“Fine, Ma.”

“Is the bug still in my lighter?”

Sam and Michael traded glances of pure concern. “Boys, do you think I’m stupid? I know you bugged my lighter for ‘safety’s sake’ a few years ago.” She rolled her eyes. “Why do you think it gets awfully quiet over at my place whenever Virgil comes over?”

Sam choked. “Right. Just try to keep it natural – even in your purse it should pick up everything.” He double-checked his receiver, making sure it was fully powered before adding, “Stay calm.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Madeline. “I can take care of myself.”

They coasted up the driveway and Madeline flipped open her car door. “Don’t leave the area, Michael,” she said. “I can probably handle him, but if he goes too far I might need somebody with a big can of mace to help me out.” Sam felt a quick surge of sympathy for her; as tough as she could be in a clinch this was probably entirely new territory for her. He hoped. He thought….and now he was thinking of it.

“We won’t be more than a foot away,” Michael promised. “And we’ve got everything we need to save you, if it goes south.”

“Trust us?”

“Trust you,” Madeline sighed. “Be careful, boys.”

“Always, ma.”

They found sanctity under a copse of palm trees after they’d made sure to watch Madeline’s entrance to the party. Sam used his binoculars and Michael pressed an ear to their communicator.

“Y’know, Mikey,” Sam observed, “I know you want me to remember Tanzania and…other stuff. But be honest with me – are you a little freaked out that one of us might have knocked up Fi?”

“Sam, four years ago I watched that woman give birth. She called me a pig’s ass in Gaelic and broke the tip of my ring finger. But the end result – the kid – I know it’s a cliché but it was worth everything we had to go through to get him. And we can afford to have a kid; my burn’s been resolved, and I still have time to take care of jobs with you two and my mom would love another grandkid to spoil…and give me an ulcer over. So two kids wouldn’t be a stretch. Anything over three and I’ll draw the line. It’s that simple. “

“It’s just weird. Fi’s usually so careful.” He could remember a time when she’d adamantly told him that she’d had no plans for children. Then she and Mike had made Liam, and now this? The possibility of there being another Axe on the planet after nearly fifty-six years was a revelation in the making. “We just never talked about it, did we? I just thought she’d go on taking her pills and I wouldn’t have to ask questions.”

“So did I, but I’m adapting,” Michael said. “And,” He added quickly, “so are you. But we’re not perfect, Sam. Taking into consideration the amount of sex we have together it’s a miracle we don’t have more accidents.”

“Only you’d think that’s a lot of sex,” Sam pointed out. In reality he was getting less than he had back in his tomcat days, but he’d traded quantity for quality. He was happier than he’d ever been in his entire life. “No complaints. Damn, Mikey – I’m gonna get you a Hawaiian shirt. I’ve gotta be rubbing off on you, ‘cause that was ridiculously chill for a guy like you.”

“Hold on to your receipts, Sam,” Michael said dryly.

But Sam was on a roll, and he couldn’t stop himself from poking at his friend. “No way! This is a huge break through! Maybe….my god, you might actually decided to let spontaneity in you might start wearing jeans!”

Michael pecked Sam on the cheek. “You’re pushing it. Don’t worry about Fiona – she’ll be the one to tell us what she wants to do with her body. Have you ever known her to stay closed-mouthed about anything?”

Sam grinned. “Yeah, I know you’re right,” he sighed. He tilted his head toward the radio. “Did your mom just call somebody ‘ginchy’?”

“Mmm yeah,” Mike cringed. “Let’s pay closer attention to her, make sure she doesn’t get hurt.”

And so they listened as Madeline navigated the party until she finally found Dolores. The introductions between them were a little more friendly than Michael had anticipated.

“Are we going to just let them go to the hot tub together?”

“Yes…if it gets us to Vinny,” Michael said.

“Mind if I plug my ears while she does it?” Sam asked.

“If I have to suffer,” Michael said flatly, “so do you.”

Their time of suffering wouldn’t be very long; it seemed that Vinny was at the hot tub, too. Pleasantries were exchanged, followed by an offer for a threesome. Madeline agreed – if Vinny would drive them back to his place.

“I don’t believe she hasn’t used the code word yet,” Sam remarked.

“My mom’s tough,” Michael replied. “She doesn’t need us until she really needs us.”

“Brillant, Mikey,” Sam chuckled. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard you say about Maddie.”

“How kind of you to say so.”

“ Yeah. Well, I meant it,” he dedadpanned, then reached for his cell phone. Even in the semidarkness he could see Michael punching in a familiar number.

“Jessica?” Michael said into the receiver. “We’ve got your stuff and the guy your guy in our sights. Head to twelve and Palm, we’ll meet you there.” Sam silently turned the ignition as he hung up.

“Ma said they’re at the corner. You know where that is, Sam?”

“Like the back of my hand, Mikey.”

“Hope you do,” Michael declared. “Or my mom won’t live to see her next party.”

“Really?” Sam’s eyebrow bobbled.

“Well….her wallet, definitely. The rest of her, maybe. Just drive, Sam!”

And Sam did as Michael requested.

 

***

Sam and Michael stayed a respectable foot away from Madeline, parked just around the corner. Jessica was just around the bend; all Madeline would have to do is hold him off until she showed up, with guns blazing. Sam pressed the tiny ‘record’ button on their receiver, capturing Vinny’s every confession.

And he seemed intent on confessing every little detail of his crimes to her. “…And this is my black velvet Elvis. It’s gorgeous, ain’t it doll?” His gum snapped obnoxiously against Madeline’s ear and into the stunt mike.

“Right, right, gorgeous,” Madeline replied.

“If he shows her the Ronco Vegetable Peeler we’re gonna be in like Flynn,” said Sam aside to Michael, who said nothing.

“And this is my Foreman Grill. Hey, you want some grilled souvlaki, baby doll?”

Madeline let out a pronounced and very fake yawn. “No thanks. Uh, you want anything Dolores?”

“A bump of cocaine. You got any on you, Vinny?”

“Nah, I’m trying to cut back….”

At that point Jessica’s car fishtailed wildly up the street. Sam and Michael jumped out of the Charger, but she stormed past them and started hammering on the front door.

When Vinny answered she clobbered him with a right hook.

“Ow! Jesssie-baby…!”

“Don’t you Jessie baby me!” Jessica shrieked. “I thought we had something special! I thought I was the one! But no, NO!” She pointed wildly at Dolores. “You’ve been two-timing me with these bimbos!”

“BIMBO?” shrieked Dolores. “I don’t know who the hell you are…”

“I’m Vinny’s ex-fiancé. Never heard of me, right?” She elbowed Vinny while he doubled over and clutched his groin. “Cause you’ve been using my dishes and my clothes and…my Foreman Grill!” She shrieked, running pel-mel into the kitchen proper so that she could grab her now-smoking kitchen appliance before it went south. While Doris confronted Vinny, who could barely speak between gasps for the pain his lower extremities were in, Jessica ransacked the house, dragging out armfuls of her property and placing them on the lawn.

“Hey!” shouted Vinny, gathering his strength. “That’s my picture of the King! NOBODY fucks with my picture of the King!” he screamed.

Sam glanced at Michael. “Should we?”

“Wait,” instructed Michael. He had 911 on speed dial and was apparently willing to call them if things got rough.

Jessica had wrapped her arms around the portrait and was cradling it against her belly like a newborn baby. “I spent my last Wagamama check on this!” she snapped. “It ain’t yours and you ain’t getting it!”

“Jessie, you don’t understand! I was just setting up a love nest for us – for all of us! I couldn’t tell you til I got it just right!”

“Wait a minute,” Dolores blurted. “Us?”

Vinny was on a role; he went into a full on beg, wrapping his arms around Jessica’s legs. “Remember when you said you wanted to have one of those fancy three-way setups. Well, here we are! Dolo and you and me! I don’t see why this wouldn’t work!”

“Gee, I dunno Vinny - maybe because you didn’t ask me first?!” spat out Dolores.

But Jessica was softening. “Oh Vinny,” she said, wrapping her arms around Vinny, tossing aside the painting to fully embrace him.

“Oh Jess,” he said, kissing her, one hand clutching his balls.

“I don’t believe you did that for me,” she kissed every inch of his face. “Let’s never fight again.”

“Right on! Dolores?”

“Nope. This scene’s a little too freaky for me.” Michael returned his phone to his pocket with a sigh, then slowly pulled the car around. They stared at a frantically making out Jessica and Vinny for a moment before Michael rolled down his window and his mother flew toward the car.

“We’ll bill you,” Michael called, and Jessica waved off an acknowledgement, dragging her boyfriend back into the house.

But Dolores – sitting on the doorstep – looked completely bereft as she watched them roll by. “Chuckie?” asked Dolores weakly.

Sam gave her a well-meaning smile. “Sorry, Dolo. I’m a one-girl kinda guy.”

***

“…I still think we should slip her ten bucks or something. Just for having to put up with Vinny.” They had dropped a mildly disgusted Madeline back at her place before swinging back to the loft.

“Many people have to put up with Vinny,” Michael observed, slipping his key into the lock. “That doesn’t mean Dolores should be paid for it.” He patted his breast pocket, where the payoff from their client sat before gently easing the door open.

What greeted them was the most pleasant sight imaginable; Fiona in a red teddy, holding two glasses of wine in a low-lit living room with soft jazz records playing on the stereo.

“Wine,” Michael echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Mood lighting,” Sam said.

“So…” Michael wondered aloud.

She smiled, sylphlike, and carried a cup over to each of them. Her own had been sitting on a table by the door, and she picked it up and sipped it.

Sam felt his insides clench and the knot of tension he’d been carrying in his chest for days ease. “You’re not pregnant,” he said.

“First of all,” Fiona demurred, “I took care of Liam’s little problem. An old bounty of mine has a sister who works for the school department. She’s ready to see Liam, and she’ll probably put him in her class – if we can teach him to…how did she put it? Stop copping an attitude.” She drained the glass and returned it to its proper resting place. “Do you boys remember our little side-trip to Panama the other month?”

“The one we spent holed up in a hotel eating lousy takeout?” Michael asked.

She nodded. “I’m the proud mother of a case of amoebic dysentery,” she sighed. “We’re all on antibiotics for the next two weeks.”

“Oh great,” Sam rolled his eyes. “That ain’t the kind of visitor I was looking forward to, Fi!”

“You don’t seem happy,” she pointed out, elbowing him. “What’s wrong?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I kind of got used to the idea of having a baby around, that’s all.”

“Well,” Fiona purred. “We could always plan for a baby this time…instead of just letting it happen..."

She kissed Sam’s neck and tugged Michael closer by the collar of his shirt.

“Wait,” Michael demanded, breaking through the pleasant sexual haze. “We need to discuss this! It’s not easy to economize around a child,” he added. “And I wasn’t planning to…to…”

Fi and Sam exchanged a knowing, easy look, one loaded with knowing, as they closed in on Michael.

Two sets of hands are always better than one in the Westen-Glennane-Axe household. Michael didn’t stand a chance against the happy onslaught.

Not that he wanted to.

The End