The evening was coming on when Richard Maxwell and Robert Mitchell took the exit to Odyssey. Less than 10 minutes later they walked into Whit's End. They were instantly greeted by the usual bustle, laughter, and cheer of the ice cream shop.
Richard looked around. The place was almost unchanged since he had been there last. That was nearly six years ago.
Mitch walked to the front counter, where Eugene Meltsner was sitting, furiously scribbling down a mathematical formula on a piece of paper."Eugene?"
Eugene looked up from his work with a start, pushed his glasses up his nose, then recognized him and smiled broadly.
"Why Robert Mitchell! What a pleasant surprise!"
Richard stood there smiling shyly.
His eyes brightened even more. "And Richard Maxwell! This is indeed a wonderful event!"
Yup, same old Eugene. "Thanks Eugene, it's good to see you again too."
He looked from Richard to Mitch. "Did you two come here together?"
"Yes." Mitch replied.
"That's amazing! I wasn't aware you two knew each other!" Eugene exclaimed.
Richard and Mitch exchanged glances and smiled. They had both agreed to tell no one any more than was necessary. If in time, they were required to tell Eugene of what had happened, they would, but not now. Not yet.
Mitch leaned against the counter. "So how's the family doing?"
"Quite well. Katrina is working as a substitute teacher back at Odyssey Middle School. Buck has been doing very well. I think he is finally starting to feel like he belongs here." Eugene did a double-take, "Oh, my apologies, I suppose it has been a while since you've been here. Buck is our seventeen-year-old foster son."
"It's great that you're making an impact like that!" Mitch said.
Eugene smiled humbly. "I'm quite sure God has more to do with that than I."
"But he does use people to accomplish his will." Mitch replied.
"You're very kind." Eugene answered courteously, " Can I get you, gentlemen, anything?"
"Nothing for me, thanks." Richard said politely.
"I'm good too. Actually, we both need to talk to Whit. Any idea where we could find him?"Mitch asked.
"He's up in his office. I'll page him for you."
Eugene pressed a red button on the answering machine, which also doubled as an intercom. It was one of Whit's many innovations around the shop.
"Mr. Whitaker? There are two men here to see you."
A kind voice intoned from the speaker. "Send them in."
They walked into the office. It was beautifully decorated. The bookcases were lined with hundreds of books, as well as a laminated map that was framed, a ship in a bottle, and a certificate of excellence from Universal Press, along with a few other various items. There was a large bay window where the golden sunset streamed through. The solid oak desk was neat with everything in its place, but it wasn't sterile.
Mr. Whitaker looked up from the paperwork he was filling out.
"Hello? Mitch? And Richard!" He beamed, "When Eugene said two men were waiting to see me, I hardly expected you two! But I'm sure glad to see you both again!"
He walked up and embraced each of them warmly. His blue eyes, though tired, were sparkling.
"It's great to see you too, Whit." Richard said, smiling. He hadn't realized how much missed the older man until he saw him again.
"Did you both happen to come here at the same time, or did you come together?"
"Together." Mitch answered.
"I wasn't aware you knew each other!"
"We only just met earlier today." Richard explained.
"How did you meet?"
Mitch laughed and shook his head. "It's a long story. But it's why we're here."
Whit chuckled and nodded understandingly. "I've got time. Why don't you have a seat?" He pulled up two guest chairs and the two men sat down, and
Richard spoke up."Well, it all started when..."
Sometime later, they were still sitting and relaying the incredible story to Whit. He looked concerned, yet intrigued.He shook his head. "It's hard to believe all this has happened in the last 24 hours!"
"It may sound hard to believe, but it's true." Mitch said.
Richard nodded in agreement.
"Do you have any idea what your next step is?" Whit asked.
Richard shrugged. "I decided to go under the radar for a while to lose Jellyfish. So I'll stay at the Odyssey Hotel or somewhere until I can find an apartment and then I'll find a job." Man, this is why I hate not having a solid plan! It sounds so dumb when you say it out loud. I can think on my feet, but that doesn't mean I think things THROUGH on my feet.
Whit looked at Mitchell. "What about you Mitch?"
"I'm staying here for a few days to get some paperwork for an international criminal the police are holding here. Then another agent and I will escort her to a high-security prison in Springfield."
"Oh, you mean Mrs. Meido?"
"Yes, and actually, I need to get going. I'm meeting with my contact to confirm that I'm here." He fished in his back pocket for the car keys.
Richard hopped up. "In that case, I should get my bags out of the back of the car."
A moment later, Richard grabbed his duffle bag, and backpack, and walked to Whit. "Do you know which way it is to the Odyssey Hotel? I can't remember."
"Do you already have a room reserved?"
Maxwell blinked. "No, I don't."
"Well, why don't you come and stay at my house? I've got the room."
"I couldn't impose like that!"
"You'd be no imposition. I'd be glad to have you with us!"
Richard smiled. "Thanks, Whit." his brow furrowed, "Us?" He questioned.
"Well, I mean Me, Jason, and two children, Morrie and Suzu, who are staying with us for the time being."
Later, Whit and Richard drove to the Whitaker household. They walked in. The house was very beautiful. The living room was very clean and neat, and it felt like home.
There was a boy, who Richard guessed was Morrie. He was about fourteen, with light brown hair that almost could pass for blond, with slate-gray eyes. He was sitting cross-legged on the couch entrenched in an article in National Geographic magazine.
A young Japanese girl who looked about thirteen drifted in from upstairs, giving a curious look at the newcomer. She was petite and fair-skinned with eyes and hair that were coal black.
This one must be Suzu. Richard thought to himself.
Whit introduced him. "Morrie, Suzu, this is Richard Maxwell. He will be staying with us for a while."
Morrie nodded politely. "Hello." He then went back to his reading.
Suzu walked lightly up to him."Here, allow me to take your bags!" She spoke with a Japanese accent.
Before Richard could respond, Suzu reached and took his duffle bag. He grinned. He knew what she was doing. He reached out, gently grabbed her wrist, and held up her hand. She was holding his wallet."Thanks for your help, but I think I can handle carrying my wallet." He smirked."It's not that heavy."
Her eyes widened, and her mouth opened, then shut again.
Morrie, who had been watching all this time, put his magazine down and looked at them with new interest.
"Suzu!" Whit reprimanded. He looked at her sternly.
She looked at the floor. "Sorry! I wasn't going to steal it, I was just going to see how long it would take him to notice that it was gone."
"Well, that's not considered a good hosting, or a good way to make friends by most standards."
Morrie had lost his place in the magazine by now and was watching intently.
Suzu stared at Richard, impressed by his prowess. No one had ever caught her in the act before."How - how did you know?"
"That -" he paused, "is a very long story, which I will not jump into right now. Let's just say I know how to do a lot of things, ok?"
Suzu did not look satisfied with that answer, but she shrugged and replied; "Very well."
Jason locked up Triple J antiques and got into his car, where he sank into the driver's seat. He sighed loudly. He liked working at the shop, but today was just particularly exhausting.
Jillian had noticed a problem with the computer system and then attempted to fix it herself. Needless to say, that ended in disaster, because she ended up deleting the whole system! He didn't even know how she did that. What's worse, he couldn't figure out how to recover the system.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket to see if he received a text from Dad yet, but his phone was dead. "Rats." He muttered under his breath. "Oh well, I'll be home in no time."
He started the car, backed out, and began driving, homeward bound.
Jason pulled up and walked up the driveway. The sight of home was a comfort to him. The evening breeze blew the sweet scent of the roses past him. He breathed in blissfully and started to feel better.
He opened the front door and walked in to see Whit, Richard, Morrie, and Suzu all sitting in the living room talking.
Richard grinned. "Hey Jason."
Jason started. "Hey Richard! It's been a while! I didn't know you were here."
Whit spoke up. "Didn't you get my text message?"
"No, my phone died."
"He's staying with us." Morrie reported, looking up.
Jason beamed. "Cool." He looked at Richard. "Are you passing through, or on vacation?"
Richard smiled and held up his hands. "Sorry! I'm here to stay for a while."
"That's awesome! Any reason why?"
"It's a long story." He replied.
Morrie studied him curiously. "Do you just say that about everything?"
Maxwell chuckled. "No. I have a good explanation for it, I promise."
That night, Morrie and Suzu were in their bedroom. Silver-white moonlight streamed through the slats of the closed blinds. Morrie was lying on his side, away from his sister. Suzu was in her bed, laying on her back and staring at the ceiling, lost in her thoughts.
Morrie rolled over to face his sister, and he rested his head on his hand.
"I like that new guy. He's fascinating!"
Suzu laid there thoughtfully. "Yes - he is." she said slowly. "I'm wondering where he learned how to pickpocket so well that he caught me in the act."
Morrie gave a low chuckle. "Yeah! No one has ever done that before! Not even Jason."
"And I'm wondering why he is here." Suzu continued. "He said it was a long story."
Her brother waved it off. "It's just a throwaway phrase adults use to keep from explaining things."
"No, no, I don't think it is in this instance." She had that far away look she occasionally got when she was thinking hard.
Morrie nodded understandingly. "Oh, I get it. Your spidey senses are tingling."
Suzu shrugged. "Perhaps. Maybe it's nothing."
" If you have any revelations, tell me. G'night sis." Morrie rolled back to his comfortable side and slipped off to sleep.
The next day was Sunday morning, and everyone was getting ready for the morning service at Odyssey Community Church.
Morrie was eating cereal and looking at the Sunday paper. Jason put two slices of bread in the toaster. Richard opened the fridge and poured himself a glass of milk.
Suzu walked into the kitchen.
"Morrie, watashi no kutsu wa dokodesu ka?"
The boy swallowed. "Kanera wa dosa na soba ni imasu."
Richard nodded his head and looked impressed.
"We both speak Japanese fluently." Morrie explained.
"Because we both used to live at the U.S. embassy in Japan, with our father." Suzu elaborated.
"Can you speak any languages?" Morrie asked him.
Richard shook his head. "I'm afraid not." he laughed, "It's been a long time since high school Spanish. The only other language I speak is computer code."
Morrie perked up at this. "Seriously?!"
Richard nodded. "Computers are my area of expertise."
"Oh yeah, that's right!" said Jason, "if you have the time, I could use some help fixing the computer system at the antique shop."
"I have all the time in the world! What's the problem?"
"Well, an employee of mine accidentally deleted the entire system on my computer at the antique shop and I need help recovering it. We can work on it tomorrow morning if you like."
About half an hour later they all drove to OCC. The church was warm and welcoming, and the congregants were friendly.
Jason introduced Richard to Reverend Wilson Knox or 'Uncle Willy' as Jason called him.
After service, the collective Whitaker crew was out in the foyer talking with various people.
"Richard!" Connie Kendall ran up and ambush-hugged him. "You've come back!"
Richard was taken aback by this, but he really shouldn't have been. This was just Connie. She made it her job to love everyone.
"It's great to see you too, Connie." He laughed.
"Oh! This is my friend Penny Basset." She gestured to a petite blonde with glasses, "And this is my half-sister, Jules." She gestured to a brunette girl of about fifteen years.
"It's good to meet you both."
Connie motioned to him. "This is an old friend of mine, Richard Maxwell."
He elbowed her playfully. "I'm barely four years older than you Connie!"
They all laughed.
"Hey Jules, come over here!" One of the teen girls from the youth group shouted across the room. Jules excused herself and quickly walked over.
"I need to go find Wooton! He talks with everyone and sometimes he gets kind of lost." Penny explained, "it was great meeting you!"
She walked into the hallway.
He turned to Connie. "Wooton got married?"
Connie nodded. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"He and Penny are quite a couple. They are great though, Wooton really found the right one when he met Penny. It was love at first sight!"
Connie gave a cheeky smile. "So, do you have a significant other? Or someone you're interested in?"
Richard half smiled and shook his head. "Nope. Still single."
"We need to find you, somebody."
He laughed and looked at her sideways. "Conn-ie." He said in mock reprimand.
Connie held up her hands in fake surrender. "Alright, alright!"
They both laughed, then were quiet for a few moments.
"By the way," Richard said, changing the subject, "is Mr. Riley here today? I thought I would say hello."
Connie's usually sunny expression clouded over. "Um, Mr. Riley - er, Tom?"
"Yeah. He is here today isn't he?"
"Ooohhh, You don't know, do you?" She seemed to be talking more to herself than anyone else.
"Richard - Tom died almost five years ago."
A pang of sadness and even guilt hit Maxwell. His face paled."I- I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"It's ok. It kinda took us all by surprise. He had a heart condition, and one day, he collapsed and the ambulance didn't get there fast enough."
"That must've been so hard." He said quietly.
"Yeah, it was."
"I... I should have told him... how much I appreciated..." Richard choked up and felt his throat constrict. He fought back the tears he knew were coming.
Connie hugged him comfortingly. "I think he knows." She whispered.
Richard finally let the tears spill over.
Tears brimmed in Connie's eyes, too.
He sighed shakily. "But I should have told him. I know it's useless to regret things you should or shouldn't have done, but-." He didn't finish his sentence.
"I know how that feels. Whit once told me that we have to trust God, that He will fill in all the blanks to what we should have said."
"Yeah. We shouldn't expect him to, though." Richard said softly.
Connie gave a sympathetic smile. "That's basically what I said."
"Richard! We're going!" Suzu shouted out.
"Coming." He called back. He hurriedly brushed the tears away with the back of his hand. He didn't want them to know he'd been crying. "Thanks Connie, it was good to see you again."
"Yeah, it was great seeing you too."
Richard caught up to the rest of the Whitakers as they were walking through the parking lot.
Suzu noticed his red-rimmed eyes, but said nothing. Morrie however, did. "Are you ok Mr. Maxwell?"
"I'm alright, and you can call me Richard."
Whit looked at him like he knew what he and Connie had been talking about.
The next morning Jason and Richard went to open the antique shop.
"This is a nice place." Maxwell observed.
"Thanks. My employee decorated it."
After the shop was opened the twosome sat down at the computer behind the front counter. Richard quickly figured out what was wrong and got to work recovering the deleted systems.
Jason went to work in the back room.
An hour later, a frazzled-looking woman burst through the door.
"Look Jason, I'm really, really, really, really, really, REALLY sorry I'm so late, but my car broke down, and I had to use my curling iron to fix the-" She paused and looked bewildered. "Wait, you're not Jason."
Richard looked up and tilted his head a little. "No, I'm not. Can I help you with something?"
The woman seemed to melt on the spot.
"Oh no, I just work here, that's all." She said in a breathy voice.
"Um, I can go get Jason, if you need..."
"Oh no no no, it's ok. Um, let's talk. I'm Jillian Marshall, double L Jillian, double L Marshall."
She leaned on the counter and put her head in her hands, "So, are you new here?" Her face had a silly grin.
Richard coughed uncomfortably. What did I do? "Um, I'm new to this shop, but not to Odyssey."
"Really? I didn't know you lived in Odyssey and believe me, I would have noticed."
She giggled and booped his nose.
Richard jerked back quickly, accidentally tipped his chair back too far, and crashed to the floor. "Ow."
Jillian giggled. "Aww, you're LITERALLY so adorable when you're nervous!"
He rolled his eyes. LITERALLY viscerally uncomfortable is more like it.
He sat up and ran his hand through his hair. "Um, thanks." He mumbled.
Jason looked through the door. "Everything ok?"
"I'm fine." Richard replied.
He put his hands on his hips. "Jillian, where have you been?You're over an hour late."
"I'm sorry! My car broke down and I tried to use the curling iron to fix the toaster." She looked a little sheepish, "And needless to say, I lost track of time."
"You need to learn to be on time if you're going to get a good job and keep it."
Jillian looked down penitently. "Sorry."
"No real harm done, I suppose."
She straightened up."So, what should I do today?"
"You can sort the books in the book area upstairs."
"Are you sure I'm not supposed to watch the counter?"
"Yes." Jason and Richard said at the same time.
"Alright, alright..." She walked up the stairs. Jason followed.
As they walked up the spiral staircase Maxwell heard Jillian say, "Your new computer fixer guy is so cute, do you think he'd like to go out?"
"NO I WOULDN'T." Richard shouted back.
Jason came back down a few minutes later. "Ahh, sorry about that."
Richard waved it off. "You're fine." He turned back to his work.
That evening, a woman picked up the phone. "Yes, Agent Sierra Rolland 0987, code Tango Foxtrot, 2362."
"Yes, I have made contact with her."
"Something she has that you need?"
"A hard drive?"
" Very powerful computer program, eh?"
"Well that's a weird name, but whatever."
"Don't worry. If she's got it, I'll find it."