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Undercover Between Friends

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It took Charles an insanely long ninety-seven days to put together the puzzle pieces that Jake had been totally and completely subtly — and anonymously, of course, because, duh, witness protection and all that — sending him since he and Holt had “disappeared”, and it took two days after that for Charles to finally figure out what had happened to them both.

“I knew I should have sent them to Amy,” Jake moaned to Holt that night, shaking his head. “But Charles loves puzzles. And it was literally a puzzle. I cut the paper into these shapes and … What?”

Holt, a.k.a. Greg the Gardener as Jake liked to call him because, damn, no one took care of their lawn like Holt did, shook his head, fingers templed, an almost thoughtful expression on his face. “I do believe we had discussed that it was best to make a clean break and not inform anyone from our old life of our whereabouts?”

“Whaaaaat?” Jake made a face. “You told Kevin!”

“That is different,” Holt said. “We share a dog.”

“I don’t see how that’s different,” Jake said. “But you know what, it’s all cool! Charles isn’t going to tell anyone. It’s totally on the down-low!”

“I hope you are right.” Holt shook his head. “Charles does not seem very on the down low as you say.”

“He is so on the down-low, and I’m totally right!” Jake said. “Don’t worry! I’m always right!!”

•••

Jake was totally not right. In fact, he was pretty much completely the opposite of right. Which he realized at seven in the morning the next day when the god-awful sound of the neighbors who were not Holt mowing their lawn with what could only be a jackhammer based on the sound they were making woke him up from what had been a quite deep and peaceful sleep and sent him marching down the hall in his robe and bunny slippers and swinging open his front door like he imagined disgruntled neighbors always did, only to find the familiar figure of Charles Boyle curled up on his front porch and snoring only slightly less loudly than the jackhammer lawn mower next door.

For a split second, Jake thought about slamming the door and calling the cops and telling them an intruder was trespassing on his property. But then he realized that would never work because Charles was very convincing.

Instead, Jake nudged the sleeping figure with his toe, looking around totally non-obviously as he scanned his front yard while he did, making sure no possible mobsters had followed Charles and were now hanging out in his trees. “Boyle? Boyle, wake up! What are you doing here?”

Boyle opened an eye to see who was nudging him, saw Jake, and then let out a high-pitched screamed that Jake was pretty sure was louder than the jackhammer lawnmower next door.

“Jake!” Charles was on his feet faster than a dog that sees a cat, throwing his arms around Jake and … was he sobbing?

“What? No!” Jake tried to detach himself from Charles’ very suffocating bear hug he had going on. Plus he really didn’t want snot on his brand new robe that he had just bought at Macy’s like a total suburbanite. “I’m not Jake.”

Charles pulled back. “What? Of course you … Ohhhhhh.” Charles’ eyes went wide. “Oh, yes, right, my mistake.” He shook his head, like he was clearing dust from his hair. “Larry! I’ve missed you so!” He latched on again.

“What? No! Who are you? Do I know you?” Jake tried to peer over Charles’ shoulder but all he could see was the black of Charles’ shirt, which wasn’t great when he was trying to search for would-be killers in his trees and rose gardens. He raised his voice, continuing his protests, just in case anyone was in hearing distance.

“Larry, it’s me! Don’t you remember me? It’s your good friend, Barles Coyle!”

Now Jake pulled back, frowning. “Okay, seriously? That is the worst alias ever.”

“What? No.” Charles looked hurt. “It’s a great alias.”

“Oh, my god,” Jake said. He grabbed Charles by the arm and shoved him inside. “Get in here. You’re not supposed to be here.”

“You sent me a puzzle.”

“A puzzle! Not an invitation!” Jake followed Charles inside, closing the door behind him, then locking it. Then unlocking it and locking it again. And then doing it again. One could never be too safe.

“It wasn’t an invitation?” Charles asked. “Come on, Jake. It really seemed like one …”

Jake stopped fiddling with the door lock. He was going to have to get some extra security just in case. Maybe an alarm and a safe room while he was at it. He turned to Charles and dropped his voice. “Does anyone else know you’re here?”

“Ummmmm …”

Jake clapped a hand over his mouth as Charles suddenly found the plain white ceiling of Jake’s new house very, very interesting.

“Charles!” he hissed. “I very clearly told you not to tell anyone. It was at the end of the puzzle!”

“Oh, come on, Jake … “ Charles stopped looking at the ceiling long enough to meet his eyes. “I mean, Larry. You know I never finish the whole puzzle. You should have sent it to Amy.”

“Charles, who did you tell? Tell me you really didn’t tell anyone.”

“Just the Nine-Nine.”

“The whole Nine-Nine?”

Charles shifted from foot to foot. “Maybe?”

“Damn it,” Jake whispered. “Greg is really going to kill me now.”

•••

“Let me get this straight.” Holt spread his hands in front of him as a way, Jake guessed, to include him and Charles in whatever he was about to say, which Jake was pretty sure was not going to be complimentary and grateful. “The entire Nine-Nine now knows the whereabouts of Larry and me and are planning to — as you say — ‘come visit’.”

“Ummm, yes?” Charles was nodding. “That about sums it up.”

“I am very displeased,” Holt said.

“I am very displeased, too!” Jake chimed in.

“You were the one who caused this. You cannot be displeased.”

“But I left clear instructions!”

“In a puzzle!” Charles protested. “You know I hate puzzles!”

“You have a hundred and seventy two of them in your living room!”

“That’s why I hate them.”

Jake shook his head. “See what I have to put up with?”

“I do not see,” Holt said. “Everyone should have puzzles.”

“What?” Jake frowned. “Okay, no .. just, I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“But yet it is happening,” Holt said.

“I’m guessing ‘I’m sorry’ is not going to make it okay?”

“You guessed correctly.”

“Well,” Jake tried. “We could always move again. And this time I could be Greg.”

“No.” Holt shook his head. “No, you may not. I am Greg. You are Larry the Loser.”

“Larry the Loser.” Charles snorted.

“Shut up, Charles.”

“Larry the Loser,” Charles repeated.

“It does have a ring to it, doesn’t it?” Holt asked.

“It sure does,” Charles chortled.

“I hate you guys.” Jake crossed his arms. “I really, really do.”