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Undercover in Suburbia

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***

 

"This plan," Jake said, "is so fucking dumb it might work."

"Can it, Jensen," Clay said, looking annoyed. "It's a standard undercover op."

Pooch shook his head. "Listen, man, I know we gotta lie low and avoid Max, let the dust settle awhile since that dick Wade made me, but we can't all be campin' out in some white picket fence suburban house, emphasis on white. People're gonna notice. We don't exactly blend in."

Clay threw up his hands. "Jesus fuck, alright already, we'll rent two houses! You keep saying you need time with Jolene, so you and Jolene can take one house, and me, Aisha and Roque'll take the other."

Cougar pushed back his hat and scowled up at Clay. "Yeah," Jake said truculently. "What about Cougs and me? Why don't we get a goddamn house as well?"

"My funds aren't unlimited," Aisha said angrily. "Even two rentals will be stretching it, as we don't know how long we'll have to maintain this charade."

"Well, we're not sleeping in the motherfucking car, Clay," Jake said. Cougar nodded sharply and sat back, staring at Clay narrowly from under his hat brim.

"Okay, okay," Clay growled. "Look, Roque can take a room with Pooch and Jolene. He can be some hanger-on relative . . . ah . . . maybe Jolene's brother or some shit." Roque and Pooch shot dubious glances at each other.

"Yeah, right," Jake said, rolling his eyes. "Like he's not gonna be over at your place doin' the nasty with you two all the damn time."

"Say that again, if you want a knife in the belly," Aisha said darkly.

"Like he's not g–"

Cougar got Jake in a headlock. "Silencio," he hissed. "Do not play games with the crazy lady." Aisha sneered, showing her teeth.

Jake extricated himself and scrubbed his hands through his hair. "No really, that's your plan? You, Aisha, me and Cougs all together in one little house? Plus, like I said, Roque popping in constantly for a 'cup of sugar'." He shook his head. "The neighbors are never gonna buy it. No way."

"Well I don't fucking know!" Clay snapped. "You two can be the, the gardeners, landscapers, whatever."

"Oh, way to impose a stereotype!" Jake was outraged. Clay squinted at him, puzzled. "Hello?" Jake explained, waving his hands. "Mexican gardener?" Cougar crossed his arms, glaring at Clay.

"Least you didn't get segregated off in the black people's house," Roque snarled.

Pooch frowned. "Yeah, the Pooch ain't crazy about that part." He brightened. "Hey, maybe Cougar can be the pool boy." Cougar shot him the bird.

"Whoa, no, I can be the pool boy, I've totally got the physique for it," Jake said, momentarily forgetting Cougar had just been racially oppressed. "But we're not sleeping in a fucking cabana."

"There will be no cabanas, because there will be no pool," Aisha hissed. "I'm not made of money."

Clay waved a hand airily. "No, no, you two can sleep in the house, you'll just have to pretend to leave at the end of the day then sneak back after dark, lock your van in the garage and come into the house that way. The neighbors'll never know."

There was a tense silence.

"So let's see if I've got this right," Jake said after a moment. "You and Aisha are gonna pretend to be married and rent a house in suburbia, and you'll let me and Cougs use the second bedroom as long as we pretend to be your gardeners in the daytime and sneak in and out, and Pooch and Jolene'll be next door, with Roque in their spare bedroom pretending to be Pooch's brother-in-law but actually sneaking over all the time to make out with you and Aisha. That's a shitload of sneaking in this plan."

Clay nodded confidently. "Yeah, like I said. Standard undercover op. It'll be fine."

*** 

Sarah-Jane Cassidy of 32 Peach Haven Crescent watched the new people move in next door out of her second floor bedroom window. Number 34 had been vacant for a while with a realtors' sign out front saying it was available to rent. Beyond 34 was no. 36, which was still empty and had the same sign. Sarah-Jane's dad said house sales were down due to the economy, so they were offering more places as rentals. On the far side of no. 36 was 38 Peach Haven Crescent, where Sarah-Jane's BFF Maisie Johanssen lived. The Crescent curved gently, so Sarah-Jane could just see the upstairs front window that was Maisie's bedroom. They'd gone through a phase of sending each other Morse code signals using flashlights, but they'd grown out of that and just texted these days, like everyone else in school.

Sarah-Jane reached for her phone.

R u seeing this? Hood got classy!

Maisie texted right back.

Ur whiter than wonderbread. U dont get to call it a hood.

Sarah-Jane snorted. Not like Maisie was any less white than she was. Maisie had red hair and freckles. She peered out the window again.


Hey, three of them. Three way ship?

In ur fanfic not in RL. Most likely spies.

ZOMG - here?

IDK. Need intel.

Mom'll do the neighbor thing. Chance for recon?

Watch yourself. Might be armed!

Sarah-Jane shook her head. Like anything interesting ever happened in Peach Haven Crescent.

Yeah right. Later.

She settled in cross-legged on her window seat, watching the two guys unload a van and carry boxes into the house. The stocky one's bald head gleamed in the sun, and the taller guy wore a long black leather coat, like in The Matrix. The stuff they were toting seemed mostly to be entertainment gear and computer equipment. For a family, they didn't have a lot of furniture. Maybe they were gangsters?

The woman came out onto the path and yelled at the guys, hands on hips, and Sarah-Jane saw she was pregnant. Hmm. Maybe not spies. Although a pregnant spy'd be perfect deep cover. It was definitely worth keeping an eye on them, and besides, what else was there to do in this dump? 

*** 

The knock at the front door startled them all. Pooch saw Roque drift to one side where the opening door would mostly conceal him, a large knife magically appearing in his hand.

"The fuck you think you're doing?" Jolene demanded in a heated whisper. Pooch figured her back was killing her; that always put her in a bad mood.

Pooch went to the edge of the net curtains and peered cautiously out. "It's just a couple of locals, so cool it. We're makin' like normal folks, remember?"

Jolene snorted derisively. She'd been thrilled to see him again—well, she had been once she got over the shock and had stopped crying and whaling on him for letting her think he was dead—but she wasn't a big fan of Clay's half-assed plan to hide out in the suburbs. Mostly, she wasn't a big fan of having to pretend Roque was her brother, or of sharing the house with him. Pooch had tried to placate her, saying Roque'd mostly be over next door screwing Clay and Aisha, but somehow that hadn't helped much.

Pooch went to the front door. "Move it," he said to Roque. "You're acting all weird, lurking like that." Roque stalked sullenly off and threw himself down on a sofa that still had the plastic cover on. It squeaked loudly.

Pooch opened the door. "Ah, hi there," he said. On the porch was a woman in her late thirties with neat, expensive-looking blonde hair. She was carrying something covered by a dishtowel, and wearing tan slacks and a turquoise polo shirt with a little animal on the breast pocket. An alligator? Beside her was a wide-eyed teenage girl with fair hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. There was a striking resemblance, except for their clothes. The girl was wearing carefully ripped jeans and a black hoodie with a decal of Tupac and "THUG LIFE" on the front.

"I'm so sorry to barge in," the woman said in a falsely perky way. "I know you must be absolutely frantic, with moving and everything. I'm Marlene Cassidy from no. 32, and this is my daughter, Sarah-Jane. We just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood." The woman looked past Pooch to Jolene. "I thought you might like a peach pie, because, you know, Peach Haven Crescent. " She smiled, showing perfectly even white teeth. "It's fresh-cooked today."

"Oh my goodness," Jolene said, coming forward and elbowing Pooch out of the way. "Isn't that so kind of you?" She lifted the dishtowel to reveal a gleaming, baked pastry lattice over golden peach slices. "My heavens, that looks absolutely delicious!" Jolene stepped back. "But where are my manners? Do come in."

"Well, maybe just for a minute," the woman—Marlene—said, stepping through the door followed by her daughter, who was looking around interestedly. "I know you must have such a lot to do, and you really should be resting, you poor dear. When's the baby due?"

"In about three months," Jolene said. "But we haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Jolene Porteous." She grabbed Pooch by the arm and reeled him in. "This is my husband, Linwood, but we call him Pooch."

"Nice to meet you," Pooch said, extending his hand then remembering the pie. "Ah, maybe I should just put that over here somewhere?" He relieved her of the dish and headed for the back of the open-plan living-dining room, setting it on the table he'd just finished assembling.

Behind him Jolene said, "And this is my brother, Roque. He's staying with us for a while." The dour expression on Roque's face worked pretty well for a divorced hanger-on in-law, Pooch reckoned. But then, Roque looked like that all the time.

Roque waved from the couch, not bothering to get up. "Hi." Pooch hoped like hell all his knives were well hidden. Unfortunately, there wasn't much they could do about the scar.

"So have you folks bought the house?" Marlene asked, looking around at the semi-organized chaos. There were stacks of boxes containing computer equipment and the wide-screen TV and game consoles Jensen had insisted they needed if he was ever going to hang out with them. The only other things in the room were the lounge suite still in its plastic, two bean bags and a Walmart dining table and coffee table that Pooch had managed to put together with a shitload of cursing and no help from Roque. Pooch noticed Jensen had scrawled DROP THIS AND I WILL END YOU on several of the cartons. He winced, and tried to block the nearest one with his leg.

"I'm afraid not," Jolene said. "Pooch and I are building our own place over in Westmere Heights, but it'll take a couple months before it's ready for us to move in, and all our furniture's in storage. We're just making do, meanwhile." She shrugged helplessly. "I'm so sorry not to offer you coffee, but we haven't unpacked all the kitchen boxes yet. There's some sodas in the fridge, if you'd like one?"

Pooch nodded. "Yeah. We got Sprite and Coke, out back."

The girl, Sarah-something, opened her mouth to say yes, but her mother put a restraining hand on her arm, like their sodas might have cooties. "No, no, we won’t trouble you. We just wanted to say hello and drop off the pie. I do hope you can get some rest, Jolene, and if there's anything we can do to help, don't hesitate to ask. Gary, my husband, sells heat pumps and air-conditioning so he's quite knowledgeable about home maintenance. He's the branch manager."

Beside her, the teenager rolled her eyes, and Pooch stifled a grin. Yeah, selling stuff wasn't the same as fixing it. Besides, Jensen'd deal with anything electronic that needed attention.

He and Jolene walked the neighbors to the door and they finally left after a bunch of thank-yous and fake waves. He closed the door behind them with relief. "Think they bought the story about us buildin' a house so not having much stuff with us?"

Jolene went over and plopped herself down in an armchair. She sighed wearily. "Most likely not. Not when what we do have looks like the ultimate in geek gamer chic, and we don't even have dining chairs."

Pooch winced. "Yeah, sorry about that. Aisha kind of threw a fit in Walmart and we had to get her outta there," he said apologetically. "Furniture's not really her thing, 'cept for beds."

Roque smirked, and Jolene rubbed her forehead. "Jesus, TMI. Get me a glass of water, babe?" She turned to Roque. "And you, mister. Put those fucking knives away when you're in my house."

"Might need 'em," Roque said, frowning. "Can't let our guard down."

"Well, we can't be knifing the neighbors either, can we? That'd for sure mess up our cover story."

Pooch grimaced and went to get the water; he was in the goddamn doghouse and no mistake. Jolene hadn't been at all thrilled to hear they had to hide out on account of being stalked by a supervillain. Pooch figured it'd take a foot massage or three and a whole lot of fussing and sweet-talking to bring her around. The sooner the others moved in next door and Roque got out of their hair, the better. 

*** 

Jake turned the van off Oak Grove Avenue into Peach Haven Crescent. The evening had just slid from dusk into darkness and he put her into stealth mode for the last stretch to the house. "Hey Cougs, you know the big advantage of this plan where we sneak in after dark?"

"I know driving without headlights attracts more attention. Also, you will crash."

Jake reluctantly switched the headlights back on. "I was going dark to sneak up on the place, but okay, be a party pooper, you road safety killjoy." He grinned at Cougar. "Anyhow, the nifty thing about this half-assed plan is that we didn't have to do any moving in—no hefting of big old boxes!" Cougar shook his head in a pitying manner. "What?" Jensen asked, glancing at him again before turning into the driveway. "You really think they'll have left a heap of them for us?" He considered this. "Damn, you're right. Fucking Aisha."

He parked the van and grabbed the garage door remote, raising the cantilevered door. The internal lights came on, brightly illuminating the front of the van and its occupants. Oh man, he was so going to have to rewire that and add another function to the remote. He dropped the garage door opener and accelerated forward, only just managing not to hit the far wall which was admittedly buffered by a row of cardboard cartons stacked three high. "Damn it, that's all my computer gear we almost pulverized!"

Behind them the garage door tilted down and clunked shut, and Jake saw that Cougar had swiveled around with the remote. "Shit, what a clusterfuck! Anyone see us?"

"No." Cougar returned the remote to the passenger glove compartment and pushed up his hat brim, frowning at the stacked boxes.

Jake drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "We're gonna have to work out a slicker way to sneak inside come nightfall. Like fixing these motherfucking garage lights, for starters."

"We cannot get inside until we move the cartons," Cougar pointed out.

Jake clambered out and checked the decal they'd applied earlier that day to the side of the van. It seemed to be sticking to the new dark green paint job okay. Jake had argued for TREE HACKERS but had been overridden so they were just boring old C & J LANDSCAPING. Underneath, in smaller letters, it read: Lawn Care, Tree Trimming, Landscaping and Maintenance – no job too small!

With a sigh, he edged around the van and started shifting boxes aside so as to get at the door into the house. He needed a beer. 

*** 

Aisha and Clay were in the kitchen supposedly making dinner but actually having a low-voiced argument. Jake had just gotten the last of the gaming gear hooked up to the TV when there was a sharp rapping noise from the sliding doors to the patio, where a light seemed to have come on. He grabbed the gun he'd left on the coffee table and threw himself behind the overstuffed couch. Cougar was pressed back against the wall beside the patio door curtains, pistol raised in a two-handed grip, squinting sideways at the source of the noise.

After some clicks, scrapes and a muffled, "Fuck!" Roque pushed the curtains aside and stepped into the room. "Need a new lock on that," he said, eyeing the weapons Jake and Cougar had trained on him with disdain. "Piece of shit door, way too easy to pick." He snapped shut the small penknife he'd been holding and vanished it into a pants pocket. The light went off outside.

"Aw, man," Jake complained, putting the safety back on his gun and setting it down on the coffee table. "We're not even here one day and you already broke the place."

"Should've left a goddamn door open for me," Roque retorted, moving toward the kitchen.

"Hello, there are these things called doorbells," Jake said, making a duh face.

Roque shot a contemptuous glance back over his shoulder, and okay, using the front door; not a great idea. "Alright already, we'll get you some keys."

Roque paused, hand on the doorknob "Had to climb the fence. I want a goddamn gate built, pronto." He went into the kitchen, shutting the door behind him.

Jake blew out a breath. "Since when did we get to do all the grunt work, huh?"

Cougar, who'd been checking the patio door lock, padded back to the couch. "Es verdad. Too easy to open."

"Guess we're gonna be home handymen as well as landscapers, tomorrow," Jake said glumly.

"Better to have something to do."

Cougar patted the couch, and Jake flopped down beside him and leaned into him, sighing. "Yeah, but if we're covering the outdoors that means Clay and Aisha are on housework and cooking detail. That's a fucking disaster waiting to happen."

Cougar frowned, considering. "Many knives. Open flames."

"Tell me about it," Jake said. "And neither of them can cook worth a damn."

Cougar put an arm around Jake's shoulders. "Roque can cook."

"Really?" Jake shot Cougar a disbelieving glance. "How come?"

"Part French." Cougar put his feet up on the coffee table. "His padre was a chef."

"Well, fuck. Guess that explains the knives," Jake said.

The door to the kitchen suddenly opened. "Alright, alright, no need to get shitty about it, jeez," Clay said, as he and Aisha were summarily ejected by a glowering Roque.

Clay came over and sank into an armchair. Aisha prowled about near the patio doors, occasionally pulling back the curtains and scowling out into the night. "So it appears Roque doesn't share well when it comes to kitchens. More like su casa es mi casa than the reverse." Clay rubbed his face. "I wanted to set up a regular pizza delivery, but–"

"Too expensive," Aisha muttered.

Clay waved a hand. "Yeah, so Aisha vetoed that, and now Roque says he's making a Bolognese sauce. He's pissed we've only got tinned tomatoes and macaroni, and no fresh basil. I foresee endless goddam supermarket shopping in my future. Fuck."

"We can probably get online deliveries set up," Jake said. "I'll look into it."

"Yeah?" Clay brightened. "Outstanding." Aisha frowned at him suspiciously.

The kitchen door banged open again. "Get me parsley," Roque ordered, a large knife gleaming in his hand. The door slammed shut.

Jake picked himself up off the floor. "Jesus fucking Christ on a bike. Where are we gonna get parsley this time of night?"

"Maybe the garden?" Cougar moved to the patio doors, pulling back the curtain. He peered out into the night, then went to open the latch.

Jake lurched up and grabbed his arm. "Wait, wait, we can't go out there. Might be seen and we ain't supposed to be here."

Cougar narrowed his eyes. "Is dark now, and that is Pooch and Jolene's place."

Jake rolled his eyes. "This whole fucking house's wired, man. Like how the garage door triggered the lights to come on, remember? It'll light the back yard up like a Christmas tree."

Aisha snorted. "Security measures? Here?"

"Nothing like the bourgeoisie for paranoia," Jake said. "Gotta stop prowlers breaking in and stealing all your shit." He pointed up where a sensor and twin spotlights glinted high on the brickwork.

Cougar peered up, pursing his lips. "I could shoot them," he offered. He glanced at Jake. "I have a silencer."

"Jesus fuck, no shooting out the perimeter defenses!" Jake said, alarmed. "Gimme a minute with the fuse box; I'll rewire it." Aisha nodded approval, then went over behind the couch, dropped down and started doing push ups.

Jake left Cougar leaning patiently on the wall by the doors while he dealt with the wiring. Finally, when he let Cougar slide them open, no alarm sounded and no spotlights came on. They stepped out into the night, Cougar's face dark under his hat. A few windows were glowing from the house next door where Pooch and Jolene were staying, but that was okay.

"Damn," Jake said. "We don't have flashlights. Plus I have no idea how to tell parsley from weeds."

"Is why I have this." Cougar wielded the automatic rifle he'd picked up. "My abuelo had a garden. I know vegetables, las hierbas." He flicked on the light built into the weapon, and they stepped out onto the lawn and started a systematic grid-search of the property.

"Here," Cougar said, after a few minutes, peering down at a garden along the back fence. He handed off the weapon to Jake, and crouched to harvest some kind of plant with a bunch of green leaves. Honestly, this biological shit was so not Jake's thing. "Also these," Cougar said, pulling up a handful of something grassy that turned out to have a bunch of small onions on the ends. "Chalotes," Cougar said with satisfaction. He screwed up his face, thinking. "Shallots," he translated, leaving Jake none the wiser.

"Well, it's a damn good thing we've got you on the gardening team, Cougs," Jake said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Because I have no fucking clue about this stuff."

"Gardening is soothing," Cougar said, and he was right, 'cause Roque cheered right up and even cracked a thin smile when Cougar gave him the onion-things and the parsley. Way to go.

The macaroni Bolognese tasted pretty good in the end as long as you heaped it with grated cheese, although Jake could have done with some meat. He figured he'd get that grocery delivery account set up tonight, for sure.

Roque pushed his plate away when he'd done eating. "Needed more garlic," he said critically, "there was only that powdered shit in the cupboards. Also, we gotta talk about the spies."

"The what?" Clay paused with a forkful mid-way to his mouth. "What spies?"

"Don't think they're with Max," Roque said, picking his teeth with his pocket-knife, which, ew. "Might be an agency, though. Hard to tell."

"I'll slit their throats," Aisha hissed. "How could anyone have located us so soon?" She stared accusingly around the table. "Which of you betrayed us?"

"Hey, whoa," Clay said, making a calming gesture with his hands, "no need to panic." He looked at Roque. "You'd better tell us about it."

"Blonde woman at Pooch and Jolene's earlier on. She was almost forty, and there was a girl, maybe fifteen. Said they were neighbors, but they were looking at everything, asking too many questions. The kid was wearing a Tupac sweatshirt, which was weird."

"What the hell is two-pock?" Aisha asked. "Another rogue CIA splinter group?"

Jake shook his head. "Naw, he was a rapper. Got killed in a rapper gang war."

"You think these women are with a gang?" Aisha bristled.

"Look, let's all settle down here," Clay said. "So these people, they just turned up? Why'd they say they were there?"

Roque frowned. "Said it was a welcome. The older one brought pie."

Jake sat up. "What kind of pie?"

"The pie's irrelevant," Aisha snapped. "Most likely a prop aimed at lulling us into a false sense of security. It may be bugged."

"Yeah, Christ knows we should ever feel secure," Jake muttered sourly.

"Peach pie, like the name of the road, she said." Roque looked around the table, shaking his head. "Who does that? I don't like it."

Jake stuck his hand up. "Hey, I  like it. I volunteer to test the delicious peach pie for bugs. That's if Pooch hasn't already eaten it all, the greedy bastard." He stood up. "Look, cool it, they were just being neighborly. C'mon, Cougs, we gotta get over to Pooch and Jolene's now. This can't wait."

"Don't use the front door," Aisha snapped.

"Man, we really need to build a goddamn gate in the fence tomorrow," Jake sighed, pulling the patio door open for Cougar to go through. "Hardware store, here we come."

"I want itemized accounts!" Aisha called after them. Jake gave her the finger once he was safely outside and she couldn't see him. 

*** 

Sarah-Jane's phone buzzed with a text.

OMG OMG we were right!!

What?

New people. My new people next door, not your ones.

The couple? He's too old for her. Creepy.

Spies! Truth!

Sarah-Jane stared at her phone, then out the window where she could see Maisie's outline on the blind in her front window several houses along. Sarah-Jane's own new neighbors hadn't done anything interesting overnight but she hadn't been able to keep a proper watch on them as her mom had confiscated her extremely cool Tupac hoodie and made her do homework downstairs at the kitchen table after dinner, saying she was "wasting too much time on the phone with Maisie." It was massively unfair, but this was her chance. It sure wasn't going to be wasted time when she and Maisie uncovered a massive conspiracy with real live spies!

Details, c'mon, spill!

Weird stuff going on.

What? How?

People climbing fence to ur neighbors place.

Lights in garden at night.

Yeah? My neighbors were for sure hiding something. Why spies tho?

The guy in the garden had a GUN!!

Sarah-Jane gasped. 

OMG really!!?

Really really!

Saw it catch the light from our bathroom window!

Sarah-Jane chewed her lip, thinking.

Why spies tho? Could be gangsters.

Maybe assassins!

Hit men!

Or ninjas!

Sarah-Jane grinned to herself—this was so cool. There was a pause while they thought about these exciting developments, then Sarah-Jane's screen lit with another text.

Why here tho? Nothing happens here its too basic.

Sarah-Jane pulled a face. Yeah, point.

IDK. Maybe deep cover?

On the run?

We have to find out!

After a while, Maisie texted back.

My mom wont go visit our neighbors like yours.

Too busy with school.

Sarah-Jane grimaced. Masie's mom was a paralegal who was finishing law school, and Maisie had said she and her dad hardly ever saw her these days. Her dad worked for some kind of save-the-whales charity. Sarah-Jane's mom and dad called Maisie's parents "those hippies" even though they looked just the same as everyone else in the street. Maisie'd recently confided in Sarah-Jane that she wanted to join the Marines after school, but there was no way her folks were going to be cool about that. Parents were the worst.

Her screen lit up with another text from Maisie.

Could try the old ball over the fence trick?

Sarah-Jane thought about that. Yes, it could work, but even better . . . She bent over her phone.

I'll come over after school tomorrow to play softball.

See what gives?

Yeah ok. See u in history. TTYL.

Sarah-Jane set her phone aside and pulled her legs up onto the window seat, wrapping her arms around her knees. She couldn't keep the grin off her face. This was so great, and they were totally going to find out what was going on. Spies! In Peach Haven Crescent! 

*** 

Jake glared at the inadequately deep hole in the ground and pulled his t-shirt up to wipe the sweat off his face. He caught Cougar eyeing his abs appreciatively. "Look all you want, Cougs. You ain't getting' any until the damn gate's in place."

Cougar shrugged philosophically and drank from his water bottle. "I can wait."

"I may be too damn tuckered out to ever have sex again," Jake said darkly. "This isn't dirt; it's concrete." They were digging a hole for a new post at the right spot for the width of the gate they'd purchased, but the ground at the fence line was hard-baked clay.

Cougar was looking around the backyard. "Any ideas for the rest of it?" Jake asked, accepting the water bottle from him and taking a long swig.

"More vegetables," Cougar said, shielding his eyes from the sun, "and shrubs." He thought some more. "Maybe trellis. Wisteria will grow here."

"Well, if it ain't got a USB symbol on it I've got no fucking idea," Jake said, shrugging. "Point me at it and tell me what to do."

"Perhaps a pond?" Cougar narrowed his eyes and walked nearer to the other fence, the one between them and the neighbors they didn't know. "With goldfish, and plants. Es calmante."

"Okaay," Jake said doubtfully. "That's gonna mean a shitload more digging, though, right?"

"We can hire a digger," Cougar said.

"A . . . oh, a machine type of digger," Jake said, nodding. "That I can do. I'm your man when it comes to machines."

"Of that I am aware." Cougar smiled over at him and Jake went kind of melty inside. Then a missile smashed into Cougar's hat, knocking it off, and sending Cougar sprawling.

Jake hit the turf, crawling over to check on Cougar and try to shield him from more attacks. It hadn't been a bullet, but what the fuck had it been? Grenade? Their guns were inside; it was too exposed out here to risk carrying. Fuck fuck fuck.

"Oh my God, mister, I'm so sorry!"

Jake's head whipped up and he knelt, looking around. Two teenage girls were peering over the fence bordering the neighbors' place. They must be standing on something. One had fair hair in a ponytail and the other a mass of red curls under a backwards-turned ball cap. Their faces were near-identical masks of dismay.

"We were just playing softball!" the red-head said, looking close to tears.

"You hit it too hard. I told you not to hit it that hard," the blonde girl said to her, biting her lip. "Is he okay? Your friend?"

Cougar was sitting up and rubbing the side of his head. "A glancing blow," he said. "Es nada."

"You sure?" Jake asked anxiously. "That ball was really moving. How many fingers am I holding up?"

Cougar pushed his hand aside. "I am fine. Help me up." Jake stood and gave him a hand.

Cougar bent and retrieved his hat, brushed it off and pushed it back into shape. He put it back on his head then went over to the fence where the two wide-eyed ball players were watching his and Jake's every move. "I have a rule," he said to them seriously. "Never touch the hat. Got that?"

"Yessir," the red haired one said earnestly.

"Never touch the hat," the blonde said, nodding like a bobble-headed dog. "Right."

"Then we are friends," Cougar said. He extended a hand to the red-headed girl. "I am Carlos, but I am called Cougar."

"Why?" asked the blonde girl, then she clapped a hand to her mouth. "Sorry."

Cougar shrugged. "A nickname."

The red haired girl stretched her arm down and shook his hand solemnly. "I'm Maisie."

"I'm Sarah-Jane." Cougar turned and shook hands with the blonde girl.

Jake joined them and went through the ritual as well. "You girls both live over there?" he asked.

"Maisie does," Sarah-Jane said. "I live down the street, at no. 32. She squinted past Jake. "Why're you putting in a gate? Are you friends with the new people at no. 34?"

Jake and Cougar exchanged a glance. "We're just the landscapers," Jake said easily. "The property developers hired us to give these two backyards a makeover while they're being rented out. Apparently when the real owners move in in a couple of months or so, they're gonna have some of the family in each house and they wanted better access."

"Oh." Sarah-Jane looked disappointed. So you guys don't live here."

"Nope," Jake said, pasting on a smile. It didn't feel good to lie; they seemed like nice kids. Plus the blonde one's mom had made that amazing peach pie, so it was worth getting on her good side. "We head on home at the end of the day, then we're back here at the crack of dawn. There's a lot to do, and we're kind of new at this."

"At being gardeners?" Maisie was frowning, curious, and Cougar's eyebrows were raised.

Jake tried to telegraph to him with his own eyebrows that it was going to be pretty damn obvious they were amateurs—might as well come up with a cover story. "Yeah," he said. "See, we used to have an IT company. You know, computers? One of those start-ups. But it kind of crashed and burned, and Cougar here knows a bit about gardening–"

"Un poco," Cougar said, holding his thumb and pointer finger a toothpick's width apart.

"Well, but still, more than me. I'm the tech expert, y'know? But we needed a career change, so here we are. Guess we’ll be looking a lot of it up online."

"My mom has a bunch of gardening books," Maisie said. "We could lend you some."

"Hey, that's real nice of you," Jake said, touched. Books were often better organized than internet sites. Easier for beginners, anyway, and it wasn't like gardening was a cutting edge field where they'd go out of date. "But you get your mom's permission first, okay?"

"Sure. She used to garden a lot but she's got no time for it now. She's studying to be a lawyer." Maisie looked behind her. "Our place is a real mess these days. Dad and me, we haven't got green thumbs."

"Even though he's a greenie?" Sarah-Jane elbowed her friend and giggled. Maisie rolled her eyes. "Like I haven't heard that one a zillion times."

"Well, ladies, it's been fun but we gotta get back to digging our exciting hole," Jake said. "We'll most likely see you again, though." He grinned, faked a bow. "We’re here all month."

"Adios," Cougar said, and tipped his hat.

"See you!"

"Bye!"

The girls disappeared from view with scuffling noises and a thud. Then Maisie's head popped back up. "Er, sorry. Can we have our ball back please, mister Cougar?"

"No problema." Cougar fetched it from the base of the opposite fence where it had rolled. He threw it back in an easy arc and Maisie reached up and caught it neatly. Good motor skills, Jake thought approvingly.

"Thanks!" She vanished.

"Nice kids," Jake said as they walked back to where they'd left the pick and shovel.

Cougar eyed him and snorted. "You are after more pie, compañero. I know you."

Jake put on a hurt face. "I'm wounded. Deeply wounded."

"Just dig the hole," Cougar said, "or Roque will gut us like fishes."

"See, this is why I prefer computers: unless they're part of Skynet, they don't threaten to disembowel you." Jake picked up the shovel. "And since when are you the boss of me, huh?"

"Since your IT business is kaput, mi amigo." Cougar raised a hand to forestall Jake's protests. "Is your story, do not blame me."

"Man, this sucks," grumbled Jake. "I'm gonna want a blow-job later, as payback."

"Maybe. Watch the dirty talk, in case those niñas can hear."

"Yeah, I don't think they've got directional mics trained on us, Cougs. They're not goddamn spies."

"More digging, less talking," Cougar said, wielding the pick. 

*** 

Jake waved an appreciative fork. "Very tasty enchiladas, Roque." He looked across the table at Clay, who was helping himself to salad. "Looks like that grocery delivery site I set up worked okay? Oh, and hey, can we get some stuff for Pooch and Jolene in the next order? She's got a real hard-on for pickled beets these days."

"Need garden things," Cougar added, crunching a raw jalapeno pepper like it was a carrot stick. "Plants. Tools." Jake winced. Maybe he wouldn't insist on that blow-job from Cougar right after dinner.

"اللعنة لك جميعا!" Aisha slammed her cutlery down and stalked out, muttering.

"Whoa!" Jake said, staring after her. "What new bug got up her ass?"

Clay shot him a jaundiced look. "She's bankrolling all this fun domesticity, in case you'd forgotten. Given that we can't touch our own accounts due to being off the goddamn grid."

"Yeah, but like, compared with getting grenades and guns for us, and renting trucks and helicopters and shit, this has to be small potatoes, right?"

Clay shrugged. "It's not really the money, though she worries some about the way it all adds up. It's a pride thing—she's got funding sources that'd most likely scare the pants off us if we knew and she's wanted by every alphabet soup agency in the book. She's not used to forking out for tinned beets, rocky road ice-cream, lawn fertilizer and potting mix."

"We've got rocky road ice-cream for dessert?" Jake asked, homing in on the really important issue. It was one of his better skills.

Clay sighed wearily.

"Eat your fucking enchiladas and we'll see," Roque said.

***

Jake laid on the bed in their bedroom and sulked. He should never have shown Cougar that site where you could map out your garden and do virtual landscaping to see how it'd look once everything had grown. What with that and the site about Japanese-style gardens, Cougar had been hunched over the laptop for what felt like hours.

"Cooougs," Jake pleaded, and he was absolutely not whining. "Come to bed, willya? We've got a lot to do tomorrow."

"Hmm?" Cougar didn't look away from the screen. "Momento. I must finish the design. Es importante."

"At least bring the damn laptop over here and do it in bed so you get some kind of rest," Jake said, cunning as a desperately horny cunning thing.

When he had Cougar sitting up against the pillows, still pecking away as he added yet more goddamn shrubs to his layout, Jake curled along his side. For a while that was enough, just being in contact with Cougar's warmth. He couldn’t resist edging up though, to get closer to Cougar's familiar scent, and after a while Cougar lost patience.

"Basta, Jensen, get down. I cannot work with you in my armpit like a puppy."

Jake withdrew reluctantly, then grinned to himself as he backed off and regrouped. If Cougs really wanted him to get down . . .

"Jesucristo!" Cougar jumped as Jake mouthed the thin fabric of his boxers. He blew hot air along the line of Cougar's cock and sucked again, humming happily as he felt Cougar's dick stir and begin to fill. "Jensen," Cougar said warningly. Jake ignored him. 

He'd counted on Cougar being too engrossed with virtual landscaping to take his hands off the keyboard or set the laptop aside to deal with Jake properly. Sure enough, Cougar just muttered another curse under his breath and kept on tapping. He couldn’t quite keep his hips still, though, thrusting up a little to chase Jake's mouth, and as his cock hardened, his legs fell open as Jake moved up and began sucking the erection tenting Cougar's now damp underwear.

"Madre de Dios," Cougar groaned, as Jake pulled his cock out through the fly and licked around the head, then took it into his mouth. He sucked gently, keeping it simple as he wriggled out of his own shorts and kicked them off the end of the bed. Oh yeah, that was way better. He wrapped his left arm around Cougar's hip to hold him steady, got his right hand on the shaft of Cougar's dick, and really went to town, rubbing himself on the sheets and moaning at the taste and the feel of Cougar's hard cock in his mouth, slick under his tongue as he licked and sucked.

"Bastardo!" Cougar snapped the laptop shut and slid it to the floor. His other hand was in Jake's hair, pushing him down.

Jake shook him off and grinned up. "Got your attention, huh?"

"Hijo de puta," Cougar gasped, writhing under him. "O, si, si!"

Fucking gorgeous. Jake loved it when Cougar lost it, too far gone for English. He wanted, oh man, yeah, that was a great idea.

He pulled off, dragging more slurs on his parentage from Cougar, and went up on his knees to scrabble in the nightstand drawer. Fumbling the cap off the lube, he squeezed a generous amount into his palm and slicked his fingers, getting two up inside himself without much difficulty. They didn't always get to stay somewhere with a double bed, or any bed at all for that matter, and they'd been making the most of it.

"Serás la muerte de mi," groaned Cougar, watching him avidly, hands gripping Jake's thighs. Ha! Take that, weeping maples, dwarf azaleas and koi carp. Cougar was sure as hell focused on him now.

Jake slid a condom onto Cougar's cock and slicked him with the last of the lube then lowered himself carefully, rocking until the head was inside him then pausing, sucking in deep breaths, arms braced on the bed on either side of Cougar's ribs.

He began to move, rising a little and sinking down. Cougar arched up, his fingers digging into Jake's hips, and Jake let himself slide all the way down until they were joined.

"Por favor, tengo que–" Cougar moaned and began moving, thrusting up helplessly, feet braced on the bed for leverage. Jake moved with him, mouth open, fisting his aching cock with his sticky right hand until his legs began to quiver and he just knelt there gasping as Cougar fucked up into him, Jake's hand moving faster and faster until he came with a hoarse cry. Cougar grunted and lost his rhythm, rutting up into Jake a few last times and then falling back, panting. They lay in a sweaty heap until Jake stirred himself, rolled off, dealt with the condom and found a shirt for clean-up, then pulled the sheet over them.

"You got my attention," Cougar said, when his breathing had calmed down.

"Yeah, well, I'm the one s'posed to be glued to the damn laptop, not you. It's unnatural—freaked me out. Plus, Clay'll be on my case again if I don't at least pretend to try and crack that goddamn hard drive. I keep telling him we have to get the main decryption key somehow, but–"

"Sleeping now," Cougar said, and pulled Jake close.

***

"Yeah, well I hate you, so there!"

Sarah-Jane slammed her bedroom door and flung herself down on the bed, pressing her face, hot with tears, into the covers. It was so unfair! Just because she was getting crappy grades in stupid horrible Computer Studies was no reason for Mom to put her Tupac hoodie in the garbage. It wasn't "inappropriate"—oh, how Sarah-Jane hated that word—and it had absolutely been the perfect thing to wear to visit the new neighbors. That cute bald guy, Pooch, had definitely winked at her behind Mom's back as they were leaving, so they were bonding already. It was a pity he was married to the pretty pregnant lady, Jolene, but that still left the cool ninja guy with the tragically scarred face. He'd given her some really intense, meaningful looks, and the scar was probably from a katana like with Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog.

Sarah-Jane's face was hot and it was hard to breathe, choked up with tears. She rolled onto her side and curled up in a ball, hugging herself. Mom had threatened to confiscate her phone and told her to stay in her room so she could talk to Dad when he got home. Mom couldn't take her phone; she just couldn't. Life without a phone would be total suckage. Disaster. Sarah-Jane shuddered and grabbed some tissues to blow her nose. Her face was gross and puffy and she felt wiped out, so she curled up again and pulled the comforter around her. Dad would be home soon, and surely he wouldn’t be as dumb as Mom? Sarah-Jane shut her red-rimmed eyes and sniffed miserably. After a while she fell asleep. 

She was woken by raised voices from downstairs, and sat up blearily, rubbing her face. It sounded like Mom and Dad, but they hadn't had a really big row since Jason left for college. Sarah-Jane felt cold inside. She'd calmed down about the hoodie now and Mom and Dad arguing always made her feel bad inside, especially as it hardly ever happened. Were they arguing about her? Was it her fault?

She tiptoed out into the upstairs hallway, then down the stairs, almost to the landing, sitting there, arms around her knees, just out of view.

"I don't care what kind of damn sweatshirts she's wearing, Marlene," her dad was saying angrily. "She's an adolescent; of course she's going to wear ridiculous things. We can't take her phone away for that—it's a phase!"

"Well, if this phase means she's going to flunk out of school and end up in a remedial class, you'll care about it then!" Mom retorted. Sarah-Jane winced.

 "Marlene, I've got far more serious things to worry about at work than whether Sarah-Jane's good at computers. Anyway, I thought her strengths were more in English. Her essays get good grades."

"What things at work?" Mom asked suspiciously. "What could be more important than your own daughter's future?"

There was a rustle of upholstery, and Sarah-Jane figured her dad had plonked himself down on the couch. Mom sounded like she'd sat as well. Their voices were quieter now, so she crept down to the landing and peered cautiously through the railing. Yep, they were on the couch and Dad had his head in his hands. Mom was looking worried.

"What is it, Gary?

"I don't know, but something's wrong with the books at work."

"Wrong with the books? The accounts?"

"Yeah, well not actual books, although Christ knows I wish they were—Sarah-Jane's not the only one who struggles with computers. It's the electronic invoicing and accounting system. There's money going missing."

"Oh my God, Gary, what? Someone's stealing it?"

"I don't like to think so but . . . yes . . . someone's embezzling. I have no idea who, though." Dad reached out and took Mom's hand. "Marlene, I can't go to Barstow with this, the regional manager. We never did get on—he's such a blowhard and he'd assume it was me. I'm the one with the passwords. The next quarterly audit'll definitely catch it."

"How much is missing?" Mom asked nervously, stroking Dad's hand.

"Almost ten thousand dollars. I mean it's not much compared to our annual cash flow, but they're not going to overlook it. I can't go to the police, either—they'd talk to Barstow and he'd for sure dump it all on me. Marlene, I could be arrested. I could lose my job."

Sarah-Jane crept back to her room, worried by what she'd overheard. Should she tell Maisie? She should definitely tell Maisie—this was too big for her to solve alone. Maisie was practical—she'd know what to do.

Need to talk to you!

Whats up? U ok?

Not ok. Crisis. Grounded tonight.

What??

Flunked computer class. Mom's pissed.

Dad's making Mom do a BBQ for new neighbors tomorrow.

Will get u all an invite.

Yeah ok.

Hey, get ur dad to invite my neighbors at 34 too.

Ok sure.

There's more but cant talk now.

More?

Worse. Dad's in trouble but TTYL. Tomorrow.

Ok yeah. ♥ ♥ ♥

Thanks See you then.

*** 

"I really don't have time for this, Aaron. I'm supposed to be studying this weekend."

Maisie pretended not to hear her parents' low-voiced exchange in the kitchen. Mom hadn't been happy with the barbecue idea, but dad had said they should welcome the new people at no. 36. He'd readily included Sarah-Jane, her folks and the neighbors at no. 34, when Maisie suggested it.

"We have to reach out, Beth—that's what being part of a community means. Maisie and I could do with seeing a bit more of you as well. It's hard on her, with you working so much."

"But the gardeners as well? Isn't that a little . . . strange?"

"The girls have made friends with them. You're not saying they're second class citizens, surely?"

Maisie could almost hear Mom rolling her eyes—Dad often won arguments by trotting out his social agenda. Pity he didn't think the military were necessary to keep his ideal society safe, like Maisie did. Dad wasn't a big fan of guns.

Maisie coughed loudly then entered the kitchen, carrying the sack of charcoal she'd brought up from the basement. Dad thought it was better for the environment than a gas-fired barbecue, but the internet said otherwise. Maisie hadn't pointed that out to him—she knew how to pick her battles and it was going to be hard enough to bring him and Mom around to let her enlist in JROTC next year. She wanted two years on her resume before applying to the Marines, and to enlist before her 18th birthday she'd need her parents' consent.

"Ah, Maisie, thanks for that," Dad said, trying to pretend he and Mom hadn't been arguing.

"There's another bag downstairs," she said, handing it to him, "so we've got plenty."

The doorbell rang, and Maisie pivoted. "I'll get it!" She was curious to see the new neighbors. Would any of them be armed? If they were undercover agents, they probably had permits for concealed weapons. Ninjas, of course, didn't bother with permits.

She pulled the door open, smiling up at the big, older guy who was wearing a black suit and white shirt. Weird clothes for a Saturday barbecue; maybe he was religious? "Hi there, I'm Maisie."

"Nice to meet you. Call me Clay," he said, turning to take the arm of a dark skinned woman with a watchful expression. "And this is Aisha, my, ah, my partner."

The woman looked like she really wanted to do an eye-roll and pull her arm away but was restraining herself. "Greetings."

"Come on in," Maisie said, pointing. "The barbecue's out back. Mom and Dad are through there."

"Hey, Maisie!" The gardener guy—Jake, the blond one—was coming up the path. "We tagged along with these folks," he said.

"Yeah. It felt kind of mean to leave them hard at work while we were next door enjoying hot dogs," Clay said with a grin.

"You indulge them too much," the woman—Aisha, was it?—said disapprovingly as she stepped through the door.

"Well, they're not the hired help, dear," Clay said, an edge to his voice as he followed her through to the kitchen. "They're contractors." Aisha did roll her eyes that time. Maisie had a sudden thought. What if they were hit-men? Was that what 'contractors' meant? There was no one to assassinate around here, though. Principal Roberts was a dipshit who hadn't voted for Barack Obama, but she didn't think anyone would put an actual hit out on him.

"Hola," Cougar said, taking Maisie's hand with a smile. "Good to see you again."

Maisie grinned, dismissing her wild ideas—they were too nice to be hit-men. "Come through and meet my folks."

When Sarah-Jane, her folks and the three people from no. 34 arrived as well, the kitchen got too crowded and they all spilled out into the back yard. Maisie grabbed Sarah-Jane and they made a whispered plan to meet upstairs later, then she got herself a lemonade and joined her Mom, Mr. Clay, Jake and Cougar at the edge of the patio.

"I just can't keep up with the yard work these days," Mom was saying, waving a despairing hand at the garden. Maisie and her dad had done what they could to clear the patio area and mow the lawn, but the garden border was full of weeds. "I'm studying law, you see, and it's taking all my time."

"Law? Really?" Clay grinned. "Reminds me of a joke I heard. What d'you call a bunch of lawyers at the bottom of the sea?" He waggled his eyebrows—OMG, was he flirting with Maisie's mom? Ew, gross. Jake had a hand over his eyes and was shaking his head, and Cougar was frowning. Clay held up a finger. "A good start!" He chuckled cheerfully and took a swig from his beer can.

"I don't plan to be an ambulance chaser, if that's what you're implying, Mr. Clay," Mom said frostily. "I'll be joining the eco-charity where Aaron works—they need legal assistance with their causes."

"Oops, put my foot in that one," Clay said, making what he probably thought was a comical face. "I'll just . . ." He backed away, waving vaguely at the drinks table.

"Sorry," Jake said. "He can be kind of an idiot." Cougar kicked his foot and Jake yelped. "Or, or so I've learned, in the, ah, the very short time we’ve been working next door. I'm a quick study of people, though, I can read 'em like books, you know. It's all in the body-language, cold-reading, they call it, it's what those con artists do. Not that I'd know anything about con artists, of course. Ahaha."

Oh great, now Mom was staring at Jake like he was an alien.

Cougar gestured at the garden. "Maybe we help here? Tidy up a little?"

Mom looked delighted. "Oh, do you think you could fit us in? What are your rates?" Cougar took her arm and steered her out for a closer look at the weed-choked borders.

"Smooth, bro," Maisie said to Jake, shaking her head. "What's really going on with all of you guys?"

"I could tell you . . . " Jake said, raising his eyebrows.

"Yeah, yeah, but then you'd have to kill me. Be like that."

Jake grinned. He was actually pretty built, now she saw him close up. "What exercise regime are you using?" she asked, eyes narrowing. "Only I wanna join the Marines, and I need to get my fitness up. D'you know any martial arts?"

"Ah, the Marines?" He blinked at her.

"Girls can do that these days," Maisie said, sticking her chin out.

Jake raised his hands. "Hey, hey, I know. Not meaning to give offence." He glanced over to where Clay was making strained conversation with Aisha and Sarah-Jane's dad. "But martial arts? Really?"

"Girls can do that, too," Maisie said mulishly.

"They sure can. In fact Aisha over there was telling us just before that she's a martial arts instructor." Jake studied Maisie. "You're serious about all this?" Maisie nodded vehemently. "Well, I, ah, don't know them well, y'know, but I got the impression Aisha's kind of bored out here in the suburbs. You should ask her to teach you—she might just go for it."

"Wow—you think she would?"

"Tell you what. She goes running pretty early each morning. We, er, we sometimes see her when we're getting here for the day. Why not go running as well, then maybe you can ask her?"

"Thanks, Jake, I'll do that."

Maisie hurried off to find Sarah-Jane and tell her the plan.

They snuck off and hid out in Maisie's bedroom. "Okay, you go first—spill," Maisie said.

"I overheard Dad telling Mom. Someone at his work's stealing money and he thinks they'll blame him for it. Maisie, he's gonna lose his job, maybe go to jail." Sarah-Jane bit her lip and sniffled, rubbing her eyes.

"Wow, that sucks." Maisie shook her head. "But he's not, right? I mean, he's innocent, right?"

"Of course he is," Sarah-Jane said indignantly. Her lip quivered. "But he can't figure out who's doing it. He doesn't know much about computers, and I can't help 'cause I'm flunking out of Computer Studies."

"Maybe someone at school?" Sarah-Jane shook her head, a tear running down her face. Maisie passed her the box of tissues. No, there wasn't anyone she could think of, either. Or at least, no one they knew well enough to trust with something like this. Although . . . "Hey, what about Jake?"

Sarah-Jane blew her nose. "Jake the gardener?"

"Yeah. Remember he said he used to run a tech company? IT?"

"The company that went bust?"

Maisie made a rueful face. Point. "Yeah, well, even if he's a bit crap at IT he'd be better than nothing. Plus, I think there's more going on with these guys than they're letting on. I mean, I definitely saw that gun, SJ. Maybe they're more badass than they seem?"

"Do you think they'd help me if they knew us better?" Sarah-Jane sounded more hopeful.

"Worth a try. Ask him to help you with Computer Studies. That way you can see if he knows anything about that stuff."

"Yeah, okay, that's a pretty good plan." Sarah-Jane looked a lot better. "So what was your news?"

"Wait until you hear this," Maisie said with relish, and she told Sarah-Jane all about Aisha and how she was a martial arts expert. "Jake thought she might agree to teach me, 'cause she's bored."

"Bored? In Peach Haven Crescent?" Sarah-Jane said with an arched-eyebrows look, and they fell about giggling, then got up and went back downstairs to the barbeque.

"Oh, hey, honey, there you are, just in time for the food," Maisie's dad said when she reappeared. "This is Jolene and Pooch Porteous." He gestured at her. "My daughter, Maisie."

"Pleased to meet you," Maisie said politely, taking a hot dog from the platter. She tried not to stare at the woman's pregnant stomach but it was kind of hard to miss. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"Maisie!" That was Mom, coming up behind her and ruffling her hair in the way Maisie hated. "I'm sorry," she said to the woman, Jolene. "That's our Maisie, I'm afraid, not a little bundle of tact."

"Good thing I'm not gonna be a lawyer then, Mom," Maisie said looking up sweetly before chowing down. Mom's smile got a little fixed and the guy, Pooch, choked on his potato salad.

"Kids these days," Dad said, mock-sorrowfully.

"It's fine. I'm used to people asking," Jolene said. She put her empty plate down on the picnic table and smiled at Maisie. "We don't know. I told them not to tell me—I like surprises." She shot Pooch an edged glance. "Which given what he gets up to, is just as well."

"Hey now," Pooch said, trying to look innocent.

"Yes, what do you do, Mr. Porteous?" Maisie's mother asked.

"I'm a driver," he said easily, stacking his plate with Jolene's and wiping his hands on a paper napkin. "You name it, I can drive it. Trucks, cars, airplanes, helicopters. Mechanic as well. I got a new job here—'s why we're renting, till our house gets done."

"Ooh," Maisie said around a mouthful. "Are you like The Stig on Top Gear?"

Pooch's face lit up. "I'm way better than any old Stig, sweetheart. Man, would I love to be on that show!"

"And on that note, I'm going to drag him away," Jolene said. "Get him started on cars and he's like the Energizer bunny: he don't stop. C'mon baby, I need to get my feet up and take a nap."

Jake and Cougar left soon after and the others started drifting out as well, Sarah-Jane with her parents, mouthing "text me" as she left.

Maisie waited as Clay thanked her folks and praised the food. Aisha and Roque hung about awkwardly looking impatient, and Maisie wondered why Roque hadn't left with Pooch and Jolene, since he was Jolene's brother. Not that they looked alike.

Maisie walked them out to the front gate, chatting about the gardening Jake and Cougar were doing. Roque and Clay didn't seem to know much about it, but Aisha pulled a face. "Cougar's gone mad. He's buying the whole garden center out."

"Well, no skin off our noses, right?" Clay said cheerfully. "It's the property developers that've hired him and Jake to do the yard up." He shot Aisha a warning look.

"Yes indeed. The property developers," she said bitterly. "Silly me. What a good thing the property developers are made of money."

Interesting. Maisie decided to go for broke. "How'd you get the scar, Mr. Roque?" she asked, touching her own face under the eye.

Roque gave her an appraising look. "Ninjas," he said flatly.

Clay laughed nervously. "I think someone's had a few too many beers."

"Was it from a katana?" Maisie asked eagerly.

Roque looked down at her, ignoring Clay. "Listen, kid," he said, almost kindly. "You don't ask people how they got their scars until you got a few of your own. It's not done."

"Oh, right," Maisie said, impressed. "Got it." She snapped off a salute. It was a pretty good one—she'd been practicing in the mirror. Roque and Clay saluted her back automatically.

"Thank you for your service," Maisie said. She'd been right.

Aisha glared at Clay and Roque, who were both lowering their arms, looking sheepish. "We'll be leaving now," she said. "And I will talk to you soon, Miss Johanssen."

"Looking forward to it, ma'am," Maisie said. She couldn't wait to text Sarah-Jane. 

*** 

"They make you work on Sundays?"

Jake looked up at the fence, but there were no blondes or redheads peeking over it. He turned, finding Sarah-Jane standing shyly beside the patio. "Oh. Hi there!"

"Sorry," she said. "I came around the side of the house. Didn't mean to surprise you."

"Naw, it's fine. They don't make us work any special days at all, we just got a project deadline and a whole lotta debts. Also, Cougar's been bitten by the gardening bug. He's down at the garden center getting trellis and stuff. Hey—thank your friend Maisie for those books; he's enjoying them."

Sarah-Jane came closer. "The gate looks good."

Jake shrugged. "Yeah, well it's practical, anyway. Making stuff's always been my thing—Cougar's the back-to-nature guy. So, you want a soda?"

They sat on the patio steps with a can each, sipping quietly. Jake figured the kid was here for a reason, unless she was just lonely. Christ, she wasn't getting a crush on him or Cougar, was she? Jake sighed. It'd be on Cougar, if she was. It was the goddamn hat; the hat was a babe-magnet. Sure as hell worked on him.

Sarah-Jane stirred and took a deep breath. "I wanted to ask for some help." She shot him an anxious glance. "Just, if you've got time, I mean."

Jake quirked an eyebrow at her. "What kind of help?"

"I'm not doing so well at school. I'm okay in most things, and I really like English, and writing, but I'm failing Computer Studies. I wondered . . . would you help me with it?"

Jake blinked. "What, like tutoring?"

She nodded. "Maybe after school? At Maisie's place? I go over there a lot anyway, and if you and Cougar are there doing the garden, well . . ."

"You've got this all thought out, huh?" Jake eyed her. "Why can't your parents know?"

She pulled a face. "It's just, you're new around here. They don't really trust new people, but they're used to me spending time at Maisie's."

"Hmm." Jake took a drink. "I'll help you out if Cougar okays it, but Maisie's gotta be there. Not to do the tutoring, although she'd be welcome to join in, but she's gotta be in the room, maybe doing her own homework?" Jake shrugged. "Just so people don't get weird ideas. What about Maisie's folks?"

"Her Mom's never home until late, and her Dad works the phones for his greenie charity Tuesdays and Thursdays until six. We could do it then."

"Computer Studies, huh? Which parts are you having trouble with?"

They were still talking, and Jake had his pad out and was demoing some basic coding, when Cougar got back with a small forest bursting out of the van.

"See you Tuesday!" Sarah-Jane waved, and ran off down the street.

"¿Qué?"

"Tell you later," Jake said, staring at the sacks and trowels and plants in pots spilling out the back of the van. "Jesus, Cougs. Aisha's gonna burst a blood vessel."

***

Maisie was ready to put her plan into action by Monday morning. She'd staked out the street on Sunday at dawn and had seen Aisha jogging north, past no. 38 where Maisie was hidden and off around the curve of Peach Haven Crescent. It wasn't anywhere near adequate surveillance—for all she knew Aisha varied her route every day—but it was worth a try.

This time when she waited in the gray twilight between dawn and sunrise she did stretches, and was wearing running clothes. As soon as Aisha passed her, she was out on the sidewalk, following. Aisha barely glanced back, keeping a steady pace. After five minutes, Aisha sped up, leaving Maisie struggling not to fall behind. She pounded grimly on, up and down the neighborhood streets, through the park on Slippery Elm Road and past the local strip mall, hardly any shops open yet. Just short of the freeway, Aisha doubled back, retracing their route.

They were coming back through the park again when Maisie ran out of steam. She'd never run that far before, and never with the periodic sprints Aisha had put her through. She staggered to a halt, gasped, "Gotta rest," and fell against a tree, panting.

Aisha turned, ran on the spot for a few steps, then strolled back toward Maisie. "Your stamina needs work," she said, barely even breathing hard.

"Yeah. It's . . . different when you . . . run by yourself," Maisie said, still getting her breath back. 

Aisha shrugged. "Not if you're disciplined and set goals." She regarded Maisie, eyes dark and unreadable. "Why?"

"I want that, that discipline. Want to join the Marines after school."

"The American military," Aisha said. It was an odd thing to say—she had a US accent.

"Yeah," Maisie said. She shrugged. "'cause I'm American."

"I'd gathered that," Aisha said wryly. "What do I have to do with this ambition of yours?"

"Jake said you might train me. I want to learn martial arts. And get fitter, like you said. It'll help me with JROTC, and being selected."

"Jake said I would teach you martial arts?" Aisha's eyebrows were raised. "He's not as smart as I'd thought."

"Oh." Maisie's heart sank. "I, maybe just give me some tips, then? About the Marines, I mean, surviving boot camp and all that?"

"Kid, I don't know why you think I'd know anything about that."

"You don't have military training?" Maisie'd been so sure. "I thought–"

Aisha came a couple of steps closer. "I don't have American military training. I trained in several places. Places very different to this," she looked around at the quiet streets bordering the park, the orderly lines of trees, and her tone became mocking, "this utopia."

Maisie flushed. "Okay, sorry I asked. I know it's boring here—no need to be mean about it."

Aisha's eyebrows rose again. "And that is no way to address your teacher." She raised a hand to forestall Maisie's delighted outburst. "Not martial arts. The forms I know are unsuitable for a beginner. We'll work on your fitness, your strength, and I'll teach you self-defense." She glared around at the inoffensive trees. "If there's one thing I've learned, kid, it's that nowhere's as safe as you think." She looked down, thinking. "Pooch is the one to talk to about boot camp, I think. He's the most sensible of them. I'll ask him."

"Really? Wow, thanks."

Aisha turned her dark gaze back on Maisie. "You will keep this training to yourself. Neither you nor your friend will gossip about us or our gardeners, or the people in no. 34. Not to anyone."

Maisie nodded vehemently.

Aisha continued. "We'll run every morning, at dawn. We'll stop in this park and do exercises and drills. I'll work you hard, and I expect you to take it seriously. Understood?"

Maisie straightened up, and just managed not to salute. "Yes, ma'am."

Aisha rolled her eyes. "And for fuck's sake, stop calling me ma'am."

"Yes, Aisha," Maisie said, grinning.

"Now drop, and give me twenty push ups." 

*** 

It had taken four weeks of solid work, but the back yard was looking pretty damn good, even to Jake's tech-oriented eye. He sat on the patio steps and admired it while Cougar fussed with the bog garden over by the pond; those irises would be spectacular in spring. Beyond the stones edging the pond a weeping maple trailed, reflected in the water. There were more maples beyond it and by the fence lines, and azaleas, plus some big dark green things that looked kind of like giant bonsai. Jake had toted the flat stones for the winding paths and built a simple bridge over the pond's narrow section. He'd helped plant the countless low, mossy-looking plants, ferns and clumps of spiky grass that Cougar said would spread and form ground cover. His back still ached from all the planting, but it had been worth it. He was especially proud of the shishi odoshi deer chaser fountain placed by a raked pebble garden below the patio. He'd built the fountain from pieces of bamboo and hooked it up to some black irrigation tubing. As he watched, the horizontal length of bamboo filled with water and tipped down, splashing the pebbles around it before rising up again with a soft thunk.

"I hope it's worth it, because it cost a fortune," Aisha said behind him.

Jake jumped. Fuck! He hated the creepy, stalkerish way she apparated in sometimes. "Oh come on—it didn't cost that much. Besides, we got all the bamboo second-hand for $20. That wisteria trellis cost less than $5 total."

Aisha shrugged. "Probably wasted. When the realtors sell this place the new owners will rip all this out and plant roses."

"You don't know that. And, just, don't say it around Cougar, okay?"

Aisha made an impatient noise. "Why d'you think I allowed the expenditure? I know it's been . . . rehabilitation for him. I'm not an idiot."

Jake blinked at her. "Oh. Well, um, thanks."

"Make sure you take plenty of photographs," she said, and vanished back into the house. 

*** 

"Whoah, these tomatoes and bell peppers taste amazing, baby," Pooch said, spooning more salad onto his plate. They were eating at Pooch and Jolene's this time—they all had dinner together in one place or the other every Wednesday. Roque always cooked; he'd gotten both kitchens kitted out to his minimum requirements long since, in terms of knives, pans and cooking pots. Tonight it was a pork roast with home made applesauce and roast potatoes, mmmhmmm. Pooch dug in.

"Yeah, those raised garden beds Cougar designed and Roque knocked together for me are great for vegetables. I gotta get some of those back home, Pooch."

There was a pause. They didn't talk so much these days about their other lives, or about Max and The Plan. Mostly as it couldn't be put off much longer, and Pooch thought even Aisha was going to find it hard to get back in the saddle as a badass Islamic terrorist, or whatever the fuck she actually was.

They finished the meal in a thoughtful silence, then Jolene pushed back her chair. "I'm just gonna check on dessert." Pooch watched her go. It was only fruit and ice-cream, but she probably needed a bathroom break. She was getting close to her due date.

"So, there's news," Clay said once she'd left the room, taking a sip of the Californian red that was on special at the mall. "I hate to break up the fun, but two months with us stuck in suburbia's done the trick. It's lulled them into letting their guard down. I got word today that we finally got the intel on Goliath HQ. That contact of Jensen's we had infiltrate their IT system is in place and ready to get Jensen organized with an ID, also he'll upload the building floor plans. He won't finish the job himself—he's not that good a hacker—but he'll do the set-up."

"So he should; God knows we paid him enough," muttered Aisha.

There was a silence.

"How soon?" Cougar asked.

Clay tilted his head. "You got five days, then we're out of here." 

*** 

"So this is the last time I can do the tutoring," Jake said. "Sorry, SJ, but hey, you've come a long way in the past few weeks, right? You're acing those tests now."

Sarah-Jane screwed up her face. "Yeah, I know. I'm gonna miss these sessions, though."

Maisie set her history book aside and came over from the couch, taking a chair at the table where Sarah-Jane had her laptop open. "You're all going?"

"You know the rule, kid—don't ask; don't tell." Jake smiled ruefully. "But, yeah. Pooch and Aisha too. All of us." Maisie looked downcast. "You've had plenty of time to pick the Pooch's brains about boot camp though, right? And mine. Plus Aisha says you're doing real well with the training."

"She does? All says to me is stuff like 'that was a marginal improvement', or 'you would probably have survived that assault'."

Jake grinned at her. "Hey, from Aisha that's high praise. Seriously, she's never said that to me." Maisie brightened.

Sarah-Jane was biting her lip, brow furrowed in thought. Maisie elbowed her. "You gotta ask him, SJ. Just do it."

"Ask me what?" Jake said, eyebrow cocked. Christ, this had better not be about the obvious crushes Sarah-Jane had on Cougar or Maisie had on Aisha.

"It's, um, it's about my dad," Sarah-Jane started. "You know how he runs the local branch of "Hot n Cool Air?" Jake nodded. "Well," she went on, "he's been worried for a while about stuff at work. He's kind of like me—not so great with computers—but he found out someone stole about $10,000 from the work accounts. Only he still can't figure out who it was, and there's an audit due in two weeks, and as he's the local manager and has the passwords, they're gonna blame him. He's been so worried, but I didn't know how to help him. I figured if you tutored me, maybe I could get good enough at this stuff so that I could deal with it, but–"

"What, you figured you'd hack the company's finances?" Jake shook his head. "Kid, you don't wanna go there, believe me."

"But, but he could go to jail, Jake. He's gonna lose his job!" She sniffled, her eyes wet. Jesus fuck, he was no good with crying kids—they were absolutely his kryptonite.

Jake patted Sarah-Jane awkwardly on the shoulder and nudged a box of tissues at her. "Whoa, hey, I never said I couldn't help. Just don't try hacking anything yourself, okay? It's a slippery slope, and unless you're pretty damn good at it, you can get in deep shit."

"Like you?" Sarah-Jane asked, wiping her eyes.

"I'm gonna take that as meaning 'am I pretty damn good at it', which, yeah, I am. But I'm also in deep shit, although mostly for other reasons which we are sure as hell not gonna go into, right?"

"DADT," they chorused, nodding. He wondered if they actually knew what that meant, but he figured they probably got the joke. They had Google.

"So, I'm pretty sure I can help your dad, SJ, and you can stop worrying about that. I'll email him the info he needs to clear his name, with the evidence trail."

She leaped up and hugged him. "Thanks, Jake. You're the best!" He patted her back awkwardly, pulling faces at Maisie across her shoulder.

"Okay, alright," he said when Sarah-Jane had calmed down and was back in her seat. "Aaand, I think we've earned ourselves a round of Ninja Blade, okay? Maisie, go get the snacks."

"Yessir," she said, grinning and snapping off one of her salutes. It still made him chuckle, the way she'd conned Clay and Roque.

Jake and Sarah-Jane went through to the living room where Jake plugged the laptop into the TV and flopped down on the couch, picking up the game controller.

"Will you all be okay?" Sarah-Jane asked, biting her lip. Maisie put the snacks down on the table and looked at him anxiously as well.

Jake smiled at them. "Hey, we've got Aisha on our side. We'll be fine." 

*** 

"Gotta have some ambience," Jake said, lighting a candle then rolling back to take Cougar in his arms. "Might be our last time for a while, in a bed."

He smoothed his hand down Cougar's back and ran his tongue along Cougar's collar bone. He didn't say it might be their last time anywhere, ever. There was no knowing where going up against Max would lead them, no point dwelling on all the shit that could go wrong. They had to clear their names and get their lives back.

"Then we make the most of it," Cougar whispered into his hair. "What do you want, querido?"

"Like this," Jake said, moving to sit back against the stacked pillows with his legs spread. He arranged Cougar against his chest, between his legs. Cougar shot a flirty look back over his shoulder and wriggled his ass against Jake's cock, making Jake catch his breath. "I'm gonna give you the hand job of your life, baby."

Cougar grinned and settled back comfortably. "Is good. You can do all the work, y me relajaré."

"Don’t you get too relaxed, now," Jake said, pushing Cougar's hair aside and kissing his ear, "'cause I got plans."

"Menos conversación, más acción," Cougar said, his voice low and husky.

Jake got the lube from the top of the nightstand by the candle holder and slicked his hand, letting it warm up. He took Cougar's dick, hard and curving up against his belly, and stroked it firmly from base to tip. Cougar made a strangled noise in his throat. Jake traced the rim with one finger and painted swirls over the velvety head, then set up a steady rhythm, sliding his fist up, a twist at the top, sometimes a sideways caress with his thumb before moving down to the base again.

"Dios," Cougar moaned, hips lifting into Jake's strokes. "Es bueno, muy bien."

"Yeah, Cougs, I got you," Jake whispered, nose in Cougar's hair. "Let me, c'mon . . ."

His own cock was hard, leaving wet smears in the small of Cougar's back as he arched helplessly into Jake's hand.

Cougar twisted back around, lithe and golden in the candlelight, his mouth seeking Jake's. The kiss was sloppy and desperate, tongues twining as Jake sped up, jerking him slick and fast now. Cougar fell back against him, fucking up hard into his fist, all control gone, guttural noises pulled from him as his hips jerked. It didn't take much more before he came all over Jake's hand.

Jake damn near came too, watching him; Christ, he was beautiful.

Cougar lay there gasping, twitching a little with aftershocks as Jake stilled his hand, cradling Cougar's softening cock gently. After a while Jake took some tissues and cleaned them both up.

Cougar sucked in a deep breath and sat, then turned, kneeling between his thighs without touching Jake's aching, leaking cock. He bent forward and took Jake's face in his hands, kissing him tenderly, deep and dirty. Jake moaned into it, trying to buck his hips up and get some contact, but Cougar didn't let him. Jake felt like he'd explode the second Cougar touched his dick.

Cougar kissed him and kissed him till he was backed off some from the edge, then pulled back, grinning wickedly, and slid down, tonguing Jake's nipples and his navel then his belly and the trail of hair, then completely avoiding his cock and sliding down to kiss the insides of his thighs.

"Jesus fucking Christ, Cougs, pleease," Jake whined, writhing to no effect whatsoever. Cougar had his hips in an iron grip, and was still not touching his goddamn dick. "I'm dyin' here!"

"You want I should touch you, mi amor?" Cougar murmured, and Jake could feel his breath, hot on his balls. Cougar had his eyes shut, long lashes dark on his cheeks.

"Fuck, fucking, I, yeah, fuck," Jake groaned, dick twitching. He felt his balls draw up. He was gonna, he couldn't—

"You want I should maybe suck you?" Cougar crooned, and his warm breath was on the head of Jake's dick now, an intense phantom caress. His hot tongue followed, the light touch a searing brand of pleasure, and Jake yelled something incoherent and came, hips bucking, all over Cougar's face.

He came back to himself bit by bit, heart pounding, chest heaving, legs limp and twitching like beached fish. There was a weird noise—oh, Cougar was laughing, kneeling back on his legs, cracking up, eyes still shut and his face streaked with Jake's come.

"Oh my god don't get it in your eyes!" Jake yelped, grabbing a handful of tissues and cleaning Cougar's eyes and cheeks carefully.

"Mmmm," Cougar said, opening an eye and licking his lips.

"You!" Jake said, grinning helplessly. He pulled Cougar in and kissed him, wrestling him down into the bed. "You are a goddamn cock tease."

"Si," Cougar said in a satisfied tone. "I am good at it, no?"

"You're appallingly good at it." He blew out the candle, pulled the covers up over them and snuggled into Cougar, head on his shoulder. Cougar put his arm around Jake, pulling him in.

"You know, Cougs," Jake said, "once this is over," he shut his eyes and swallowed, "we're gonna set you up with a landscaping company. We've got all the photos of your amazing Japanese garden, and Jolene's veggie planters. I'll make a website for you."

"Gracias, is a nice idea," Cougar said quietly. After a while he sighed. "It is good we had a break, un interludio."

"Yeah," Jake agreed softly. "Better for all of us. "Roque was so fucking angry with Clay, in Bolivia, and Miami. If we hadn't had this time . . . I dunno if he'd have stuck around."

"Or I think they kill each other," Cougar said dryly.

Jake snorted. "Yeah, all that shit between him and Clay and Aisha. Good thing they fucked themselves sensible again."

There was a comfortable silence, Cougar's fingers soft in Jake's hair. Cougar stretched his legs a little. "Pooch may not come with us to Houston, to Goliath."

Jake nodded. "I know. He's gotta think about Jolene now; she's nearly due."

"A hard choice."

Jake shut his eyes, drowsy. They'd be okay without Pooch if he couldn't leave Jolene. "We don't need him at Goliath HQ, anyway. That's on me."

"I got your back, querido. You know this," Cougar whispered, his arm tightening.

"Always," Jake said, and let sleep take him.

***

the end