For Nomi. Based on our conversation about a scene in her fantastically convoluted story, Heartland.
Disclaimer: Don't own the ones you recognize.
"No!" the Gray Man yelled into the phone. "Joe Hardy may not be given access to the Network's prototype super-stealth, racing car. Who knows if we'd get it back?" He slammed down the phone and made sure two year old Zach was still strapped securely to his high chair.
It was 7:15 A.M, time for breakfast. His son definitely wouldn't like his strong, black coffee. He would probably love the donuts, but Arthur Gray wanted to eat all of them. There should be a box of cheerios in the cupboard.
"I take one day off in ten years," he grumbled as he rooted through the cupboard and pushed aside a five-year-old brownie mix until he found the box of cheerios on the bottom shelf with a still-valid expiration date. "You would think they'd be able to get through one day without calling me. Joe isn't even up at this hour."
His son signaled his approval of the breakfast choice with a wide grin, but promptly hurled his plate and bowl on the floor.
Oops, Arthur thought, running a hand through his tussled brown hair. I should have used the plastic ones. "Daddy forgot your favorite cup and bowl didn't he?" he asked as he laid the plastic spoon and bowl in front of Zach and silently scolded himself. He made one decision a week that affected millions of lives. He could recall every single piece of paper that had come across his desk in the last ten years. But he could not remember that Zach would only eat out of his blue Winnie-the-Pooh bowl and drink from the special Winnie-the-Pooh mug. Zach treated anything else, even the finest china they owned, like a football.
The Gray Man quickly grabbed a handful of cheerios and shoved them into Zach's mouth before his waving hands could scatter them all over the high chair. Sweeping the broken shards on the floor to the side with a broom, he tried to imagine the look on Frank and Joe's faces if they ever found out that he was married, with not only a two year old son, but also a seven year old daughter.
Five people in the world knew that fifth highest ranked person in the super-secret government agency known as the Network was married, two of them being his wife and himself. They had both met before his recruitment into the Network, before the shadowy figure of the Gray Man existed, back when he was Special Agent Gray in FBI and she was Melanie Hood, CIA. When the CIA discovered that a terrorist group was counterfeiting US currency to purchase arms overseas, they asked the FBI for assistance. The agent in charge of the CIA investigation was Melanie Hood. The FBI agent assigned to the case was Arthur Gray. Her assertiveness clashed with his stubbornness, but they both possessed the rare ability to put aside turf wars for the success of the mission. It wasn't long before a grudging respect friendship, and later affection, followed by love. By temperament and training, Melaine was one of the best analysts at Langley, respected and admired by both her desk colleagues and those in the field. Because her schedule was so much more predictable, she routinely took on the child care responsibilities. She was now in Mongolia, personally overseeing the search for one of her missing agents. While his wife braved the desert, all the Gray Man had to do was survive the dangers of their household until she returned.
If he didn't wake up his daughter, now, she would be late for school. But he couldn't leave a two year old in the high chair by himself, could he? He dragged Zach's high chair across the floor so he would have a clear view of it from the living room and opened the closet door and retrieved the blue and red checkered playpen. He turned around, tripped over the ball at his feet, and fell to the floor with the playpen over his head.
"Daddy," his favorite voice in the world said "what are you doing on the floor?"
"Practicing the waltz," the Gray Man said, pulling the play pen off his head and looking at Sabrina's upside down face. "Go get some cheerios while I get this thing set up.
"I hate cheerios," she pronounced. "I want donuts instead."
"No donuts," he said quickly.
"But mommy lets me have donuts."
"She does not! Now, get some toast out of the refrigerator and put it in the toaster."
"Why? I'm seven and I'm not allowed to use the toaster."
"Just this once," the Gray Man said getting up. "But don't tell Mommy."
Reminding himself that he had sustained far more serious injuries, Arthur slowly set up the playpen, which he found more complicated to assemble than his Browning. And Just how was four walls made of cheap fabric supposed to protect his son? He moved back to the kitchen, but the ringing phone interrupted his path to the toaster.
"This about Joe Hardy again?" he barked. "Kid still ain't up yet."
"No sir," his aide Duncan said on the line. "Our special ops team is leaving tomorrow and needs your final approval."
"Yes, I approved the retrieval mission last week, they're all set." He started to hang up the phone.
"Sorry sir, rules and regulations require that I read down the list of materials they are taking with them. First thing is one grenade launcher."
"No, it should be two grenade launchers," he started to chew Duncan out. "I told them-."
"What's a grenade launcher?"
"uh- a tool used for cutting the grass," he improvised wildly. "Duncan, hang on a sec."
"Sabrina, why don't you go get – what is that you're eating?" he asked looking at the black lump on the table.
"The toast, Dad," she said. "Nine is my favorite number so I turned put the setting on nine."
"Why don't you have some yogurt instead?" he asked.
"Ok, I'll get it," she said exuberantly opening the refrigerator and grabbing the container up by the top.
The Gray Man shut his eyes as he heard the plastic hit the floor.
"Oops," her small voice said. "Sorry Daddy."
"It's ok, honey," he said opening his eyes, relieved that the puddle on the floor wasn't too big. "Why don't you go get dressed and I'll clean up the yogurt and get you some fresh toast."
As the sound of tiny feet ran up the stairs, Arthur Gray took his hand off the phone receiver and put it to his ear.
"Sorry Duncan," he said. "Do you have kids?"
"Four, sir, next item on the list is 100 AK-47s."
"God bless you. Make it 150."
"And ten thousand rounds of ammunition."
"Fine. It's Agents Black, Shorty, Scott and Pierce, right?"
"Agent Scott switched with Agent Poodle," Duncan answered. "He's going to Australia instead."
"Wait – no, Zach, stop it!" Zach had already undone the straps of his high chair and was standing up and trying to reach the burnt toast Sabrina had left on the kitchen table.
Relying on muscles that he hadn't used in years, the Gray Man executed a perfect shoulder roll and caught Zach before he fell to the floor, but was too late to save the toast. Thankful that his son was ok, he carried him to the dining room and placed him in the playpen.
"Sorry Duncan," he said. "When do they stop trying to climb out of the high chair?"
"They don't, sir. Agent Poodle has had extensive experience in Uganda while Agent Scott is needed in Australia. Switch was approved this morning by Ryan."
"But Agent Poodle is an idi-" hearing a crash upstairs, the Gray Man bounded up the wooden steps two at a time. "Sabrina!" he called, "Duncan, sorry, Sabrina, what happened?"
"Nothing!" she said.
"Sabrina…" he said warningly.
"Nothing!" she repeated.
"You don't want me to call mommy, do you?" he threatened and wondered what was wrong with him. He could deal with frustrating, incompetent DEA bureaucrats and small-minded politicians by himself but couldn't deal with a seven year old girl without calling his wife?
The next time an officer who cared more about his career than human lives gave him trouble, maybe he should just threaten to put his daughter on the phone.
"Um, well, I wanted to try on her lipstick. So I was climbing on the back of the toilet to reach the medicine cabinet. And then after that I wanted to wear the jacket she has in her wardrobe. I swear, I didn't do anything to it, it just fell over when I looked at it!"
"So you're ok?"
"Are you wearing lipstick?"
"Wash it off, and then come and get your jacket downstairs."
"But Angela wears lipstick."
"I don't care what Angela wears, my daughter is not going to school with lipstick. Now, here's the washcloth." He turned to go but then -
"Sabrina, what's that on your arm?" he said grabbing her wrist.
"It's a tattoo," she said. "It's a dragon tattoo. Mike at school put it on."
"A tattoo?" he repeated. "It's not real, is it?"
"Uh-huh," she said. "It won't come off with soap and water for at least a week."
"Before you let any boy put a tattoo on your arm, make sure it comes off," Arthur said. "Now, we gotta leave to drop Zach off at daycare now or you'll be late for school."
"As I said, Agent Poodle is an idiot," he said to Duncan as he headed back downstairs. "Better have them take along an extra supply of bulletproof vests if he's really going. And alert the CIA station chief as well."
"Very good sir. I couldn't help but over hear the conversation, and the tattoo will come off, eventually."
"Better late than never," the Gray Man sighed as he signed off. Opening the closet door he stared at the mass of fabric in front of him. What did four people need this many coats for? Raincoats, winter coats, Fall jackets, couldn't people just have one jacket all year round? He ruffled through the closet and pulled out his daughter's Fall jacket and hung it over the railing in the hall.
Spinning around, he strode back into the kitchen and popped two pieces of toast in the toaster and reached for the sponge, stepping right into the liquefied yogurt on the floor.
He counted to five and then slowly turned his head. Zach waved at him from the playpen.
The Gray Man slowly stripped off his sopping wet sock and deliberately grabbed a paper towel, then silently mopped up the yogurt. When the toast popped out of the toaster, he carefully spread butter on it and folded it up in a clean paper towel. Taking the toast with him, he headed back to the hallway as Sabrina slid down the stairs on the railing. Knowing it wasn't worth the effort to scold her, he handed her the jacket and toast and looked closely at her mouth. He didn't see any lipstick, then again, he hadn't really noticed any the first time either.
"Time to go?" he asked brightly, and picked up the pink backpack that Melanie had left by the door.
"Yes… daddy, what happened to your sock?"
"Never mind," he said quickly, jamming one bare foot and one foot with a black sock into his old sneakers before grabbing the car keys. "Get in the car."
Resisting the urge to drive at his normal eighty miles an hour, the Gray Man eased their blue minivan down the driveway at a speed Melanie wouldn't have believed.
"Daddy," Sabrina said slowly from the backseat as she looked around. "I think we forgot something."
"What?" he asked worriedly. "You did your homework, didn't you?"
"Math and reading," she answered. "But where's Zach?"
"Shit!" he slammed on the brakes causing them both to lurch forward, put the parking brake on, and ran into the house.
Zach smiled brightly and clapped his hands, his happy face quickly turning to a frown as his father picked him up and carried him to the car. As the Gray Man buckled him into his car seat, his oval face scrunched up and he began to wail.
"I'm going to tell mommy you said shit," Sabrina announced from the back seat. She handed Zach a disgusting looking stuffed rabbit, and Zach immediately stopped crying.
"Please, don't!" the Gray Man screeched. If Melanie got wind of that, she'd make them use the CIA's babysitters the next time she went out of town. And part of him would prefer being caught by the Assassins to hearing the gossip at the FBI and CIA Christmas parties about how he couldn't take care of his own kids.
You know Melanie's husband. He's really hush-hush. Anyway, not quite sure what he does, but he can't be too bright. Melanie's in the Congo, and their kids are home with Fred, the agency baby-sitter. Maybe Arthur can't correctly assemble a playpen?
"Ok, I won't tell her about that word if you don't tell her about the lipstick," Sabrina said and pulled the tube out of her pocket and began applying it to her lips."
"Deal," Arthur sighed. It was what he deserved for being too distracted to notice her juvenile attempt to conceal a prohibited item. If she were an enemy agent, she could have bugged his car and killed him by now. "But the tattoo needs to be gone by the time she comes home."
"It'll be gone," she promised. "It'll come off with soap and water in a few days."
They dropped Zach off at the daycare center. Surmising from his facial expression that he had little experience with children, the staff quickly whisked Zach off into the corner where he was soon hollering and banging on plastic containers with the other two year olds.
The father and daughter rode in uninterrupted, peaceful silence to Brookside Elementary school. Just as they pulled up to the doors, the Gray Man's phone rang – again.
"Duncan, this better be good – bye Sabrina!"
"It's Frank sir," Duncan said. "He says if you don't give Joe the car so they can rescue Miss Shaw and Miss Bender, the local Dominos will deliver 500 pizzas to your boss, paid for with your credit card." To anyone listening to the tone of Duncan's voice, he sounded like he was commenting on the weather.
"Frank?" the Gray Man asked puzzled. "Are you sure it isn't Joe?"
"It's Frank. I asked him if it was really him two times."
"What's going on with Callie and Vanessa?"
"Assassins got them," Duncan said grimly.
"I'm driving toward the office now. What's going on?"
"Frank and Joe are on an oil platform off Dubai," Duncan explained as Arthur drove. "They found Pitr Petrovsky's hideout, but Petrovsky found Callie and Vanessa first and is holding them on the oil platform. Our team is en route, but won't be there for twenty minutes. Frank and Joe want to go in before we do, but that'll destroy the whole operation -"
"What do they need the car for if they're on an oil platform," the Gray Man interrupted.
"Pitr wants it in exchange for Callie and Vanessa," Duncan answered.
"Out of the question," the Gray Man said firmly. "Are the Hardys on a secure line?"
"They're calling on a secure line in thirty seconds."
"Ok, they have two options. We rig a fake car and give them a remote detonator. Or, we surround the place silently and we'll give them a five minute head start. When they call back, you talk to them, but route the conversation through my phone so I can listen."
Arthur Gray pulled over to the side of the road and watched as cars whizzed by him. He still had to go grocery shopping and back to school for Sabrina's parent-teacher conference. And what were the other things on that list? He pulled out the crumpled page from the back pocket of his jeans and read:
Do the laundry. Remember to separate the whites and the colors.
Grocery shopping. We need: shaved ham, powdered sugar, eggplant, parmesan cheese, key lime Yoplait yogurt.
Sabrina's parent teacher conference is at two. Try and act normal.
Mop the hallway and dust the furniture in the living room.
Weed the garden.
There were no instructions on how to reach her. Just as he had never once provided any for her. Noticing the blinking light, he snatched up his phone in time to hear:
'It's Callie and Vanessa. Don't for a second think we care about your operational procedures." Frank's voice was relatively calm, the Gray Man thought, all things considered.
"I don't have time for operational procedures, either," Duncan retorted as the Gray Man smiled broadly because his well-trained assistant would soon be ready for his own independent post. "I'm giving you your two options. We rig the vehicle in a warehouse and let Pitr show up there and blow him up."
"So you don't care about Van-,"
"I also care about the other people who will be harmed if the assassins get hold of that car," Duncan cut Joe off. "Our strike team will be there in seven minutes. You won't know they are there until they want you to, but we're giving you the access code to Pitr's base and the head start. They will be advised of your presence, but the highest priority is Pitr, preferably alive."
"Right, your highest priority," Joe said sarcastically. "We know how you define"
"If our priority was Pitr dead, you would know it," the Gray Man said coldly, glancing at the picture of Sabrina on the dashboard. "Knowing you two, you're already in or close to him by now. You now have six minutes, twenty seconds. I suggest you get going."
"You!" Joe exclaimed. "You trying to get your stooge here to-?"
"Later, Joe," Frank interrupted. "We rescue the girls first and deal with them later."
He heard some angry whispers in the background, the sound of Duncan transmitting the access code and then winced as the sound of Frank slamming down the receiver echoed in his ear.
"That went well," commented Duncan dryly. "Better than usual, at least."
"Keep me posted," the Gray Man responded. "If we capture Pitr, I want to know immediately."
Arthur Gray had not set a foot inside the grocery store in fifteen years. Someone else always did the shopping and he stopped at the nearest 7-11 for M&Ms and cashews whenever he needed a snack.
After picking up three purple eggplants, he stopped by the meat counter. Just how many kinds of ham were here? Resisting the urge to count, he looked for "shaved ham" but couldn't find it. There was honey baked, gourmet spiral sliced, and Smithfield hams, and many more as well as the local store brand, but no "shaved" ham. But if Melanie wanted it, that's what she'd get.
"I'd like some shaved ham, please," he said to the lady behind the checkout counter.
"Ok, what kind?" she asked.
"The shaved kind," he replied.
"There's honey baked, gourmet spiral sliced, Smithfield and our own," she said slowly as if she were talking to a child. "Now, you pick your kind and I will shave it for you. What kind would you like."
"The most expensive one," he said without bothering to look. In his line of work, there was no use buying shoddy, under priced equipment.
"Thank you," he said as he took the package and pretended not to hear the woman as she muttered under her breath about how you couldn't expect people with one sock on their foot to make any sense. He frowned when he saw how little ham there was in the package. You'd have to eat all of it to make a meal. Next time, he'd make sure they got some edible, thick ham.
The powdered sugar wasn't too hard to find. But he spent five minutes combing through the cheese section before he overheard another customer say that the Parmesan cheese was located in the spaghetti aisle.
But where was the Yoplait yogurt? He wandered around the store for a good twenty minutes, and saw lots of different yogurts, but no Yoplait. Just as he was about to give up, he saw the Yoplait yogurt by the windshield-wiper fluid.
Forty-five minutes after he had entered the grocery store, he left, toting three bags. In addition to the ingredients on Melaine's list, he had also gotten Ben&Jerry's ice cream, Cheese Its, Gold Fish Crackers and a two six-packs of ice-cold Bud Light. Judging by the way this vacation was proceeding, it would be another ten years before he would have another opportunity to consume one drop of alcohol.
But luckily, there was enough time to go home and start the laundry before Arthur Gray, the traveling insurance salesman, needed to be at school for Sabrina's parent teacher conference.