"C'mon, Debi, aren't you ready yet?" Norton asked, restlessly turning his wheelchair in circles.
"Coming, coming," the thirteen-year-old called.
"You volunteered to help chaperone a dozen junior high school girls? You're a braver man than I am, Mr. Drake." Lt. Col. Ironhorse was only half-joking.
"Well, you know, eating pizza and ice cream is a dangerous job, but someone has to do it," the computer expert replied in a mock macho tone.
"I'm surprised Harrison didn't volunteer. Junior high should be just about his age level," Ironhorse commented.
"I think he's working on a new pet theory," Norton hedged. The truth was, Debi had invited him. She hadn't invited Dr. Blackwood. "Has the mail come yet?"
Ironhorse nodded. "Yeah. Nothing from her father."
"Make sure she has a good time. Help her get her mind off it. And, Norton, make sure she doesn't say anything about the Project to her friends," the Cherokee warrior instructed.
The computer programmer didn't know whether to be flattered by the colonel's trust, or disgusted at being asked to spy on a child who regarded him as a big brother.
Debi sat on the patio, a first edition Nancy Drew unread in her lap. Her cocoa had long since gotten cold. She stared unseeing at the pond, ignoring the swans.
"Gertrude, back five," Norton ordered quietly. His voice-activated, custom-made electronic wheelchair (his own design) obeyed, taking him away from the patio door and out of Debi's earshot.
"Is she still moping out there?" Ironhorse kept his voice barely above a whisper.
Norton nodded. "She's been like that for two days."
"What kind of a man did Suzanne marry?"
"They're divorced, Colonel," Norton reminded him. "And right now, she's ready to strangle him."
"I just might help her. Father or not, he's got no right to hurt a sweet kid like that."
The computer programmer's left eyebrow rose. Ironhorse hid his feelings so well that his co-workers sometimes forgot he had any. "Couldn't you use your Pentagon connections, track him down?"
I don't think Gen. Wilson would approve of us using Project funds and equipment that way." Besides, he'd already tried and drawn a blank. All he'd been able to find was that Cash McCullough was somewhere in Latin America. Even his own network wasn't sure which country he was in. The soldier looked out at the patio again. "I'm going into town. I have an errand to run."
Ironhorse came back forty-five minutes later, went down to the laboratory, ignored Dr. Blackwood's and Norton's greetings, sat down, and buried himself in paperwork. He hardly lifted his head from the desk until the phone rang an hour later.
"Ironhorse. What? Yes, pass them through," the colonel ordered. Then he corrected himself. "On second thought, escort them in."
Dr. McCullough picked that moment to look through the Plexiglas window of her work area. She wondered what made Ironhorse smile so widely. For that matter, what was he doing working in the lab, when he had a perfectly good office of his own upstairs?
Five minutes later, the microbiologist stepped out of her office into the main lab. "That's funny."
"Funny strange or funny ha-ha?" Norton asked.
"Funny strange. Mrs. Pennyworth just called. She wants me to come upstairs, but she didn't say why."
"Paul," Dr. Blackwood called.
"Yo." He still didn't look up from his paperwork.
"Come over here a moment," the astrophysicist invited. "Something's up."
Obediently, Ironhorse rose from his desk and walked over to join the others.
"You think something's wrong?" Norton wondered.
Ironhorse shook his head. "The security system would've let us know if anything was wrong. Still, it can't hurt to go up and take a look, make sure everything's okay. If nothing else, we could all use a chance to stretch our legs."
Suzanne McCullough stared. The slave-driver of West Point advocating a break? Although his copper face was a sternly inscrutable as ever, his dark eyes were smiling - almost dancing. She was struck with the incongruous memory that his middle name was Wayadigadoli, Cherokee for 'wolf eyes,' and wondered why that bit of trivia had stuck in her mind. She'd never bothered learning Harrison's middle name.
The elevator, for once, came when it was called. A few minutes later, they were all in the living room.
"Debi, is everything all - oh, my goodness." Suzanne McCullough stared at the giant vase on the table. Leatherleaf ferns and other greenery surrounded pink rosebuds, tightly curled rosebuds that were just beginning to open. Debi knelt on the couch next to the end table, doing a passable imitation of Ferdinand the Bull.
The thirteen-year-old took one last sniff before looking up. "Oh, Mom, he didn't forget. Daddy didn't forget."
"Of course he didn't, sweetheart," the scientist said softly, hiding her suspicions.
"Look, thirteen roses, and baby's-breath, and Mrs. Pennyworth says these are myrtle and - "
"They're beautiful, Debi," Dr. McCullough interrupted. "Was there a card?"
"Yeah, except ... it's not Daddy's handwriting," Debi told her.
"Well, he probably phoned the order in," Ironhorse suggested. "More than likely that's the florist's handwriting."
"Oh, okay." Debi went back to smelling the flowers, satisfied by the explanation.
"Happy Birthday, Debi. Sorry I can't be there with you. Love, Daddy," Dr. McCullough read aloud. It definitely wasn't her ex-husband's handwriting. It did, however, resemble the handwriting she had seen on memos and budget requests. She looked over to Ironhorse and smiled. "You old softie," she mouthed silently.
Ironhorse only winked.
Author's Note: the original publication of this story had a picture of Ironhorse (by Lana M.) at the beginning of the story, and a picture of Debi, Ironhorse, and her roses at the end of the story (by Cynthia G.) I'm sorry I don't have the ability to include them with the story. I'd at least like to acknowledge and thank them, as well as the fanzine's editor, Nancy K. Too do nakatae!