*The usual disclaimers apply-Scarecrow and Mrs. King is the property of Shoot the Moon Enterprises an Warner Brothers. All other characters are the property of the author and may not be used without permission. Special thanks to Ermintrude and the Wicky Gals for your help and support with this. Hope you enjoy *

Tea and Secrets-Part One

1000 Agnew Dr. Apt 3C

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

12:30 PM

"There we are, Mr. Gradin." Mrs. Murphy said. She took a few steps back, admiring her handiwork. "That makes all the difference, don't you think? Brightens everything up a bit."

"Sure." Carl Gradin took a swig from his flask as he stared at the object in the corner of the room. Twinkling lights and brightly colored balls—red, green, gold and blue—all the colors of the season, as his Dad would say. Carl could remember how he'd pile them all into the car every Christmas Eve and they'd drive around the neighborhood, seeking out the houses which were the most elaborately decorated.

"One day, Carl," his Dad would tell him, raising his voice so he could be heard over the carols playing on the radio. "One day that'll be us."

Of course it never had been them, he thought. Work had been sporadic at best, and with a mortgage and four mouths to feed there never been enough for luxuries. Still, it had been nice to dream at the time.

Now his father was dead—a heart attack last year at the age of fifty-three—and his dreams seem to have died with him, along with Carl's own dreams of a family, a career. All gone. He stared down at his legs—his now-useless legs, his sock covered feet in the footrests.

'If Dad could see me now….' Actually he was glad that he couldn't see him now. Carl took another swallow, feeling the burning sensation as the liquid went down his throat—painful and pleasant at the same time.

"No." Before he could protest, Mrs. Murphy snatched the flask from his fingers. "You won't be needing any more of that. I'll make us some tea."

Tea? What the hell century was this lady living in, anyway? "I don't have any," Carl told her.

"Never mind, I have my own," Mrs. Murphy assured him. "The Veteran's Aid Society always comes prepared. Do you have a kettle?" Carl shook his head. "Well never mind," she said. "We can always boil some water in a pan." Reaching up into the cabinet she pulled down a small saucepan along with two coffee cups. She filled the saucepan with water, setting it on the stove.

"So what exactly does this Veteran's Aid Society do again?" Carl asked.

"Basically whatever needs to be done to help our retired and our wounded vets," Mrs. Murphy replied. "Bring meals—help with daily chores—and even provide company when needed. We are contracted with the Veteran's Administration, as I said. Though I mostly work with retired vets—you're the youngest one on my list so far."

Her list. Carl's fist clenched—she made him sound like a thing instead of a person. "I'm not a charity case, you know."

"Oh I know that," Mrs. Murphy smiled over her shoulder. "Like I said, we're just here to help. You just recently moved here, right?"

"That's right."

"And your wife?"

Wife? Carl was about to ask how she knew that when stared down at his hands—at the wedding band still on his finger. He still hadn't worked up the nerve to take the thing off.

"We're—we're separated," he managed finally. "Been almost a month now."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Mrs. Murphy poured hot water into two cups. "Any children?"

"No. I got deployed almost as soon as we married." They had wanted children, of course—but after he was wounded—and even after he'd come home—the nightmares where he'd wake up in a cold sweat— the drinking—the uncontrollable bursts of anger—all those things had caused Marissa to leave.

"I'd like to understand," she'd told him as she'd stood at the door, tears filling her dark eyes. "I'd like to help." But he couldn't help her understand—even if he wanted to—not when he didn't understand himself. Burn-out, PTSD—all these words the shrinks threw at him, Carl thought sourly— and it didn't make one fucking bit of difference.

"Well you never know, Mr. Gradin." Mrs. Murphy's voice pulled him back to the present. She stood in front of him now, tray in hand. "Anything might happen in the future. Tea?"

"Sure, why not." He actually felt like something stronger, but what the hell. Carl took one of the mugs from the tray. "Here's to the future." Or what was left of it, anyway. He took a sip.

"That's the spirit, drink it while it's hot." Mrs. Murphy smiled as took a seat on the sofa facing him. She placed the tray on the coffee table. "I make mine strong and sweet—I hope that's to your liking."

"Yeah, it's good." Carl took another sip, feeling the warm liquid sliding down his throat. He wasn't sure if it was the warmth or the sugar, but already he was starting to feel better.

"So you were in Afghanistan, is that right? Where were you stationed?"

"Outside of Kabul," Carl replied. "I was with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing. It's kind of boring stuff."

"Not to me," Mrs. Murphy said. "Tell me about the 438th. What did you do?"

"I can't get into a lot of that—classified stuff," Carl found himself enjoying this conversation—

Marissa had never wanted to hear details about his work—she'd always said it bored her. "But we were activated as part of the Global War on Terror."

"Must have been a large base," Mrs. Murphy commented, her pale eyes watching him over the rim of her cup.

"Bagram? Hell, yeah." Carl said. "Three hangars—a control tower."

"Must have been a lot of men at that base."

"About 500, I think." Was he supposed to tell her that? He wasn't quite sure. "That's a rough number, of course."

"I see," Mrs. Murphy said. "Were you stationed at Andrews before you were deployed?"

Another sip of tea. "Briefly. But before that I was stationed at Langley Air Force Base."

Mrs. Murphy's smile widened. "Really? That must have been interesting. Why don't you tell me more about it, Mr. Gradin."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

1104 Agnew Dr.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

10:30 AM

The angel on top of the tree was still crooked.

The colonel stood on the stool in front of the tree as he fiddled with the thing. Christmas carols played on his radio, telling him to be merry and bright—at the moment, however—he felt anything but.

"Come on," he spoke to himself as he fiddled with the thing. It was supposed to be easy, after all. The angel was cone-shaped on the bottom, and according to the picture on the box it was meant to fit snugly and neatly on the top of the tree. In real life, however, the darned thing kept wanting to fall to the side.

'Should've gotten an artificial tree,' he thought to himself. But he'd been driving past a shopping center when he'd spotted them, sitting out there in the lot—he'd flashed back to the Christmas he'd spent with Matthew and Jennifer, when Lee was just a little tyke—not more than two or three at the time. The colonel remembered Lee valiantly trying to help his father carry it inside the house:

"I'm getting it, Daddy!" Lee had said as he'd walked behind his father, trying to lift the top part into his arms. "I'm helping!"

Matthew had smiled. "I can see that, sport. You're doing a good job, too."

Christmas trees weren't something you had to deal with on base—there was usually a tree in the mess hall and he'd never seen the point in putting one in his quarters. But now that he was living here—now that he was going to spend Christmas with his family he wanted to make it special.

"Got it—got it." The angel was almost straight—just a little more and it would be perfect—

At that moment the doorbell rang.

"Just a minute," the colonel called out. "I'm coming!" Leaving the lopsided angel, he stepped down off the footstool, praying that it wasn't any more teens selling magazine subscriptions—he'd already dealt with two this morning. With a sigh he opened the front door.

Instead of a scruffy youngster, however, he found himself staring down at a small bespectacled woman with gray hair.

"Colonel Robert Clayton?" Her voice carried a soft lilt—Irish, maybe, or something else? He wasn't sure.

"Yes?" The colonel wondered how she'd gotten his name, but maybe she was part of the neighborhood welcome wagon—that would make sense. "What can I do for you?"

"Actually it's what I can do for you," the woman fished in her purse and handed him a card. "Alice Murphy—I'm with the Veteran's Aid Society."

He looked down at the card with the photo ID—the picture and name matched what she'd just told him. "Veteran's Aid Society?" the colonel repeated. "Never heard of you."

The woman's smile widened. "That's not surprising," she replied. "We're actually a non-profit charitable organization with a contract through the VA—you've heard of the faith-based initiative."

"I see," the colonel said. "So what exactly is it that you do, Ms. Murphy?"

"Basically anything we can do to help," the woman answered. "May I come inside, Colonel Clayton?"

The colonel hesitated. "I'm afraid I don't actually need anything at the moment—" he began.

"Well that's all right," Mrs. Murphy replied. "If I could just have a few moments of your time to tell you about our work, I'd be most grateful. May I?"

She had the same almost-desperate air as the door-to-door magazine people, the colonel thought. But she also seemed sincere and friendly—he had no desire to be rude to a lady.

"Won't you come in, Mrs. Murphy?" he asked, opening the door a little wider to allow her to enter.

"Thank you," Mrs. Murphy said. She turned slowly, taking in the living room.

"May I get you something to drink—some coffee, perhaps?"

Well actually, I prefer tea," came the reply. "But coffee will do for now."

Do for now—just how long did she expect to be here? He did have to admit, though—it was nice to have the company. The coffee in the pot was still hot, thank goodness—taking two coffee cups from the cabinet he filled them both.

"Would you like sugar or cream? " he asked.

Silence. For one moment the colonel wasn't sure if she was still there. Finally she answered.

"Five sugars, please. No cream."

Five seemed like a lot to him, but if that's what she wanted—he tore open five packets and put it in the cup, using a stirrer to mix it in. Two creamers went into his own. Cups in hand, he went back into the living room. Mrs. Murphy stood on the stool on tiptoe as she straightened the angel.

"Just needed a little bit of adjustment," she said as she stepped off the stool, smoothing her skirt with both hands. "I hope you don't mind—things like that sometimes require a woman's touch."

"Not at all," he told her. "I was having trouble with it myself, so I have to thank you. Coffee?"

"Thank you." Taking the cup he offered her she took a small swallow. "Lovely, just the way I like it." Another sip. "I must say, for someone who only moved in a few days ago you've made a lot of progress with your decorating."

A few days ago—this woman had definitely done her homework before coming to see him. "Yeah, well I got some help," he replied. "My nephew and his family helped me to get settled in."

"Family?" A slight raise of the eyebrows—had the news surprised her? But the look faded, replaced by a smile. "It's always nice to have family around to help you, isn't it? Do they live nearby?"

The colonel nodded as he took a swallow of his coffee. "In Arlington—I moved here to be closer to them."

"Believe me, I understand," Mrs. Murphy said. "After such a long career it must be quite an adjustment, though—settling down in one place. At least that's what I hear."

"It can be," he agreed. "But there comes a time when you decide you're ready. Why don't you sit down, Mrs. Murphy—and tell me what the Veteran's Aid Society does."

"Right to business— that's very good, Colonel." Mrs. Murphy sat on the sofa beside him. "Well as I said, our job is to basically help with anything that needs doing."

"And what does anything involve, exactly?" he asked her.

"Anything. Bringing meals, cleaning, landscaping and gardening, cooking—even being a sympathetic ear when needed," Mrs. Murphy said.

"Your volunteers do all that?"

"Oh, I think you'd be very surprised at how much our volunteers can do," Mrs. Murphy said. "Everyone who works for us is very highly trained."

"Very admirable, I'm sure, Mrs. Murphy. But I don't really need—"

But before he could finish his sentence, the woman, reached over onto the coffee table.

"Oh my, would you look at this!" Mrs. Murphy exclaimed as she turned the blue and white object slowly in her hands. "This is really a beautiful vase. Where did you get it?"

"In Morocco," the colonel replied. "And it's actually an ashtray, or 'cendrier' as they'd say in French."

"Really? I never would've guessed that." Mrs. Murphy laid the object back down on the table. "Were you stationed there long?"

The colonel shook his head. "Just for a few months back in '62."

"There was some turmoil in the country at that point wasn't there?" Mrs. Murphy asked. "I think I recall something on the news."

"Well there was always turmoil between the Moroccans and the French, but most of it died down in the fifties when they won their independence."

"That's it, of course," Mrs. Murphy said. "I'm very forgetful with dates, I'm afraid."

"Well it's understandable. It was a long time ago."

He needed to tell her to go, he thought. She'd already made her sales pitch and he definitely wasn't interested. At the same time, the colonel found himself enjoying the company and the conversation—it wasn't as if the rest of his neighbors had gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. He took another sip of coffee as he regarded her. Not bad looking for her age, either—a bit old-fashioned, but that wasn't always a bad thing.

"Exotic foreign lands," Mrs. Murphy had a far-away look in her eyes. "Mr. Murphy kept meaning to take me to those kinds of places, but there was never enough money and then—" her voice faltered slightly. "Then there wasn't any more time."

"I'm sorry," the colonel said. "Losses like that can be hard."

"Yes," the woman gave a small sigh. "I suppose that's one of the reasons I like this job so much—I get to hear about all the places I've never been. I expect you've been to quite a lot of places."

"More than I care to admit," the colonel said drily. "Still, at least it was never boring."

"I can imagine. So where were you stationed back then?" Mrs. Murphy asked. "Was it near Marrakesh?"

"About 36 miles outside of the city," the colonel said. "It was at Ben Guerir."

"I see. And is that a large base?"

"It was—but for the most part we left that base in 1963," the colonel replied. "It's run by the Royal Moroccan Air Force now."

"I see," Mrs. Murphy said, her tone suddenly dismissive. "And where were you stationed after that?"

"After that it was Elmendorf."

"That's in Alaska, isn't it? Near Anchorage? What was that like?"

For some reason this was starting to feel a bit like an interrogation. Maybe he was overreacting, though—she was probably just trying to make small talk. The colonel opened his mouth to speak when the doorbell rang.

"I'll get that." Putting the cup of coffee on the table he rose from the sofa. "Just one moment." He opened the front door to find Dotty standing there, holding a large basket.

"I probably should've called, I know," she said. "Hope I haven't inconvenienced you."

"No, not at all—come right in, Dotty."

"Thank you," Dotty replied. "Amanda and I were doing some baking and we thought you'd enjoy some treats—some gingerbread and some poppyseed cake and some cookies—oh hello," she said as she spotted Mrs. Murphy seated on the sofa. "I didn't realize you had company."

"Actually, I was just leaving." Mrs. Murphy stood. "Mrs. Murphy—I'm with the Veteran's Aid Society. And you are?"

"I'm Dotty West," Dotty said. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Murphy."

"It's nice to meet you too." Mrs. Murphy looked the other woman up and down. "And are you friend or family?"

Dotty smiled. "Let's just call me family."

"I see—he told me he had family nearby—that's always a plus, isn't it?" Mrs. Murphy said. She glanced down at her wristwatch briefly. "Well look at that—I really must be getting on. I do hope to see you again soon, Colonel Clayton—hopefully very soon indeed. Good day."

"Good day, Mrs. Murphy." The colonel watched as the woman walked down the sidewalk towards her car. Dotty turned to face him.

"Veteran's Aid Society?" She repeated. "I've never heard of them."

"To be honest, I hadn't either," the colonel confessed. "But apparently they have a contract through the VA—she showed me her identification." With a slight screech of tires Mrs. Murphy's car pulled away from the curb, disappearing down the street. "She seemed pretty harmless, though."

"Hmm—maybe," Dotty said.

He looked at her. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm not sure, exactly—just that something about her seemed a little 'off', if you want my opinion." Dotty shook her head. "But it could all be my imagination."

"I told her I didn't require her services—maybe that discouraged her." Still, the colonel's mind kept going back to those questions—the stream of persistent questions about the bases he'd been to; the places he'd traveled.

Simple curiosity? He wondered. Or had it been something more? Suddenly he wasn't too sure.

"Shadow Shock." Dotty said suddenly.

"Huh?" the colonel turned to look at her. "What does that mean?"

"Just an expression—it means we could be seeing shadows everywhere—mysteries where there aren't any."

"Yeah," the colonel replied. "We could be." Shadows—he hoped that's all it was. "Hey, what do you say to having some of that gingerbread?" he asked Dotty. "Maybe with some hot chocolate?"

Dotty smiled. "I'd love to."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

Mrs. Murphy settled herself into her recliner. A fire burnt in the nearby grate, filling the room with warmth, and as always, she had a cup of hot tea nearby—just the thing for a chilly afternoon, she thought. The phone rested in its charger on the table nearby—picking it up, she dialed a familiar number.

"Extension 5973," a woman answered. "May I help you?"

"Yes, you may," she replied. "Just tell him it's Mrs. Murphy."

"One moment."

"Thank you, love." Her cat, Mr. Whiskers, jumped into her lap, purring loudly, absently she scratched the top of the ginger tabby's head as she waited for the familiar voice to come onto the line. She didn't have to wait long.

"Mrs. Murphy? How did it go?"

"Pretty well, I think." She took a sip of tea, feeling the warmth as it trickled down her throat and seeped into her bones. "Starting slow—I don't know that the colonel completely trusts me yet."

"You'll get there," he told her. "And you know that you can always use a little extra 'help' if you need to."

"Believe me, love," Mrs. Murphy replied. "I'm prepared to do whatever is necessary to get what I need." She paused, taking a sip of tea. "There is just one little wrinkle, though."

"One little wrinkle?" The man repeated. He was trying to remain calm; but she could hear the anxiety in his voice—she had to admit that it gave her a certain satisfaction to know that she could rattle him. "And just what would that be?"

"His family." Mrs. Murphy recalled the photo she'd seen sitting on the bookcase while the colonel had been busy making coffee—she'd picked it up, studying it closely. A man—his nephew, she guessed—a woman who was probably his wife—that older woman and a teenage girl—his great niece, perhaps? "They live nearby in Arlington and they help him out—they could interfere in our plans."

"Well we're paying you to make sure that they don't." he said. "Colonel Clayton could provide us with very valuable information—we don't want to lose that, do we?"

"No, sir, we don't."

"And I will remind you that time is of the essence."

"I haven't forgotten."

"Good. Find out everything you can about this family in the meantime—and if they do interfere, you know what we have to do."

"Oh yes," Mrs. Murphy smiled, taking another sip of her tea. "Don't you fret, now—I know exactly what I have to do."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

4247 Maplewood Dr

4:45 PM

"So that's all she did?" Lee asked. He, Amanda and Dotty sat together at the kitchen table. Outside the sky was beginning to darken, fluffy white flakes falling through the sky—the weatherman had predicted evening flurries. "Just asked a lot of questions?"

"Well yes," Dotty replied. "But it was more than that—it was the type of questions she asked."

"About the bases that he's been to," Lee said. "You told me. Dotty, this woman works with a lot of military men—she knows what they like to talk about— she could've been making small talk."

"He's right, Mother," Amanda added. "It might have just been polite interest."

"Polite interest about the size of the base?" Dotty said, raising her eyebrows. "About what it was like? Couldn't some of that stuff be classified?"

"Yeah," Lee agreed. "Some of it could be. But the colonel has a top security clearance—trust me—he knows better than to give away sensitive information."

"I guess you're right," Dotty sighed. Now that she'd actually said it out loud it did sound pretty flimsy. She took another sip of coffee, struggling to collect her thoughts. "It was just the feeling that I had when I talked to her—something about her just seemed—I don't know—a little strange."

"Believe me, I understand," Lee said. "But if I'm going to investigate someone, I need more than a feeling that someone is a little strange."

"Dad?"

Jenna's voice startled him—Lee turned to see his daughter standing in the kitchen doorway.

"I didn't mean to disturb anything," she said. "I just wondered if you could help me study for my test—Mom said you might."

"Test?" Lee looked at Amanda questioningly.

"Her test for her learner's permit," Amanda explained. "Jenna and I had a talk this morning—she wants to see if she can take it on her birthday."

"Yeah, well—" Lee ran his hand back through his hair—he could feel the knot in his stomach tightening. Why she was in such a rush to do this? She couldn't even get her license until she was sixteen—that was plenty of time to learn. "We'll ahh—we'll have to see about that."

"But Dad it's important," Jenna told him. "I need to get my permit before I can take Behind the Wheel—they told me."

"She's right, Lee," Amanda said. "She does need her permit first."

"Please?" Jenna asked.

That pleading expression in her eyes—he could never say no to these eyes. Lee let out his breath in a whoosh.

"Listen—I'll help you with it later, munchkin, I promise—maybe after dinner—right now we're a little busy."

"Okay," Jenna replied. "Didn't mean to interrupt. Oh, hey, Grandma," she said as she spotted Dotty. "Did Great-Uncle Robert like the treats? Did he have his tree up yet?"

"Jenna—" Lee said.

"Okay, okay—I'm going." They listened to the sound of her feet going up the stairs; her bedroom door slowly closing.

"What about this Veteran's Aid Society?" Dotty asked him. "Couldn't we check them out? I've never even heard of them."

"That's not exactly suspicious," Lee said. "There are a lot of non-profits out there—and a lot of them are a part of the faith-based initiative. We do investigate groups like that." They had cleared a lot of groups during the last spring cleaning, he recalled. Had this society been one of them? He couldn't remember. "But like I said—we would still need more to go on."

More to go on—Dotty took another sip of her coffee. Maybe there was nothing more to go on—nothing but an unfounded suspicion. Suspicion tinged with jealousy? At the moment she just thought of the colonel as a friend—but still, she couldn't deny that she found him attractive.

'It could just be in my mind,' Dotty thought. And Lee was right—the colonel would know better than to give out information that was sensitive or classified—he wasn't exactly a novice in these matters.

Then she remembered Mrs. Murphy—that strange, almost calculating look in her eyes: "I do hope to see you again soon, Colonel Clayton…hopefully very soon indeed." The words she'd said before she'd left—to Dotty it had sounded like she meant it.

Shadow shock, she thought again, a small shiver running through her. She sincerely hoped that's all it was.

TBC