Kermit's being a real pain. He wants to talk about 'Nam.... and I promised to never repeat those stories... they're simply not suitable for the kind of writing I do. However....
As always, I've borrowed a character (or two) from others, to whom I am grateful for their genius, not to mention forbearance in not suing me for the unauthorized and highly unprofitable use of their intellectual property.
And, finally, for AnneACK, on whom I can place the blame for sending Kermit over to try and terrorize my musae... poor man never saw it coming.
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|It didn't happen often, at least
not like it used to, but every once in a while, the demons would come back for
a visit. On those occasions, he tried to absent himself from his friends and colleagues,
even those he trusted implicitly with his heart and soul.|
He wasn't quite sure what had triggered it this time, either. He usually did, and it bothered him that this seemed to come out of nowhere and bite him on the ass, but he'd deal with it. He always did.
He carried the bag of clinking ceramic up the stairs to his apartment.
As was his habit, he checked for loiterers, tails, and anything out of the ordinary, and for him, that could be anything at all.
His tells were all in place, the hair across the door, the bit of lint on the deadbolt. Sighing, he unlocked the door and entered his home. He sighed in relief at the darkness.
His heavy drapes blocked all but the most brilliant sunlight from the rooms, and it was one of the very few places he felt comfortable not wearing his trademark sunglasses.
He just stood in the entryway for a moment, taking deep breaths, and then he headed for the kitchen for a glass and some ice.
Setting down his bag, he pulled out two lovely porcelain jugs of Tullamore Dew. Setting them on the counter, he turned to get the ice from the freezer and a tumbler from the cupboard. With one of the ceramic jugs in one hand and the ice-filled glass in the other, he strolled back into the living room and slumped down on the sofa. He leaned forward and put the jug and the glass on the coffee table, then grunted in annoyance and got back up.
Heading for the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and took out his bottle of aspirin. Opening it, he took out four tablets and swallowed them dry. No point in making the aftermath any worse than it had to be, after all.
Returning to the living room, he muttered a curse as he noticed the flashing red light on his answering machine. He thought about ignoring it, but then decided there might be something important; although it was tempting, his dedication forced him to grumble in disgust and check the machine, first.
The first six messages were telemarketers wanting to sell him everything from a home loan, to internet service, to long distance phone service, to siding. He quickly fast-forwarded through them.
The last one was an invitation to a celebration. Tonight. He paused for half a second, then shook his head and erased that one, along with all the others. Satisfied that he'd done his duty, he turned off the ringer on the phone and settled back down on his sofa.
His expression was grim as he opened the jug of Tully and poured his first tumbler full. He looked at the amber fluid; still wearing his shades, he lifted it in a toast and said, "To old soldiers," and drank it down.
He didn't even flinch as the alcohol burned its way down to his stomach and then spread a pleasant warmth through him. He poured a second glass.
He leaned back and thought about his life, the way things had gone for him, the way he'd lived. He had plenty of regrets, but not a lot of choices at the time, or so he'd thought. Too late, now.
He drank down the second glass and poured a third. He thought about how he'd started in 'the business', as a raw young soldier in a war no one had wanted. His mind drifted back to the first horrors he'd seen and how they'd set him on the path he'd followed for the next twenty-plus years.
He was well on his way, now. Half of the first jug was gone, and he wasn't feeling much. Physically, at least. His mind, however, was still running through the newsreels of his memory. The people he'd killed, or had tried to kill him. The places, many of them the names of which he'd long-since forgotten. He sighed deeply and took another sip.
The first anxious need had eased, and now he was simply slowly drinking himself into oblivion.
The knock at his door was not only unexpected, but unwelcome. Growling, he staggered to his feet and shuffled towards the offending noise. Drunk, he may have been, but he hadn't survived this long without being careful.
He had his gun in his hand as he jerked open the door. The person standing there made his eyes widen in horror as he lowered his weapon. Slamming the door in their face, he spun for his bathroom and immediately puked up half a bottle of very expensive whiskey.
The knock came again, more tentative, this time. Shaking, he rinsed out his mouth at the sink and splashed water in his face, not remembering to take off his shades.
With a shiver, he avoided looking in the mirror and returned to the door and opened it, with his gun tucked back in his kidney holster and out of sight.
"Yes?" he asked, trying to stop his shakes.
"Hi. I'm sorry to bother you, but I lockeded myself out, and I can't get in." The little girl looked up at him with hopeful eyes.
Frowning, he looked up and down the hallway and then asked, "Where do you live?"
The child, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight, pointed across the hall. "There. We moved in last week."
Scowling now, he looked back into his apartment. It wasn't clean, but it was sort of presentable, good enough for a kid, anyway. He backed away and motioned her to come in.
"Aren't you a little young to be left alone?"
The child smiled. "Nope! I'm a latchkeykid. Mommy said so."
"Just where is your mommy?"
"She's at work. I got home from school, and I can't find my key," the girl frowned, angrily. "I had it on the bus, but when I got home I couldn't find it." She looked up at him and her face went back to smiling. "Can I call my mommy, please?"
"Yeah, sure, kid. Phone's on the desk."
He closed and locked the door and watched as the kid chewed on her lower lip as she carefully lifted the handset and pressed the buttons. She turned to smile at him as she waited for the phone to be answered on the other end.
He couldn't help himself and smiled back.
"Hello? May I speak to Mrs. Wardleigh, please?" The girl frowned at whatever was said at the other end. "Can you give her a message, please?"
Kermit could hear the angry voice even from clear across the room, and he frowned. Stalking across the room, he gently took the phone from his guest and with a smile, spoke into the handset.
"This is Detective Griffin from the hundred and first precinct. I need to speak to Mrs. Wardleigh, it's rather important." His jaw spasmed and his eyes narrowed at the surly reply. "What's your name?" he growled.
He listened for another moment, then asked his guest, "Where does your mommy work, sweetheart?"
"She works downtown."
He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from snarling at either the jerk on the phone or the child. "Do you know the name of the company?"
The jerk on the phone answered for her, telling him that they were a telemarketing firm, but not giving out the company name. Kermit stretched out to get to his computer and turned it on, "That's not very helpful, sir. What's your name, again?" His grin turned wolfish as he quickly typed in the information and also started a trace on the call.
"Now, why can't I speak to Mrs. Wardleigh?" The answer froze his smile and it took all his willpower not to grit his teeth to the point of breakage.
This, once it was over, was going to be fun... just the thing to take him out of his funk, he decided.
He glanced at the worried little girl standing beside him, watching.
His smile softened and he winked at her, then realized that with as dark as his apartment and his shades were, she couldn't see his eyes, so he took off the glasses and winked at her again. She looked relieved.
She bounced a bit and smiled back at him.
"Yes, Mr. Tingey, I really am a detective at the hundred and first precinct, and no, this is not some frivolous prank call. The child? She's Mrs. Wardleigh's daughter. Oh, you didn't know she had a brat, huh?" He snarled as he repeated the term the man had used and flinched as the little girl touched his arm, very lightly. He looked at her again and saw the hurt in her eyes at the term. He sighed and shook his head.
Covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he whispered to her, "That's what he said... jerk." Understanding, she smiled shyly back at him.
His computer beeped and he looked at the screen, which had come up with the company name, address, telephone number, and owner's name. Oh, how nice. Mr. Tingey was the owner. Gotcha.
"Well, Mr. Tingey, if you're not going to allow me to speak with Mrs.
Wardleigh, I'll just have to arrange for a patrol car to go to your business and go in to speak with her, instead."
His jaws were aching with the pressure to keep a civil tongue, and he smiled, rather like an alligator with a toothache as he gritted out, "Yes, you have a nice day, too."
He very carefully hung up the phone and looked down at the little girl.
"I think your mommy needs a new job," he told her.
Her eyes grew huge with fright. "But she just got this one! I don't want to go back to the shelterplace." She started to cry, huge, frightened tears. Kermit flinched.
"Hey, none of that, now." He patted the child on the shoulder, unsure of quite how to handle this development. Shelter? Great. So they had escaped what was probably an abusive environment, and she finally found a job, and now this. Wonderful. "First, let me see about getting someone to go down and get that 'boss' of hers to let her call home...." he trailed off, realizing he hadn't left his phone number. Shaking his head, he sighed.
"Hold on." He picked the phone back up and punched in a number. "Hey, just the person I wanted to talk to. Do me a favor, would you? No, I'm not coming in today. Probably not tomorrow, either. No, nothing's wrong.
I just need a little time off, is all." He tried to push aside the annoyance of the concerned questions, "Look, what I need, is for a patrol car to contact a Mrs. Wardleigh. She works for 'Ring-a-tingey telemarketing'.
Yes, that's the name of the company. It's on VanOchre. Just send them out and have her call me at home. No, nothing to worry about. She's a new neighbor and her kid's lost her key."
He listened for a minute and rolled his eyes, "I have no idea what she looks like. I haven't met her. Do NOT start matchmaking, Mary Margaret.
I'm not interested. All I'm interested in at the moment is getting the kid into her home, and off the street." He listened for another moment and couldn't help but chuckle. "Skalany, she's all of seven or eight."
He listened again and this time, the smile was genuine and he looked down at the little girl and winked at her again. "Oh, and have them let me know how it goes down, will you? The guy was rude to the kid," he didn't bother to add that the jerk had pissed him off, as well. Mary Margaret had probably figured that out, already.
"Thanks, sweetlips. I owe you one." He hung up the phone and turned his attention to the child.
"Now, we wait."
The girl smiled back and very primly held out her hand, "My name's Abigail,"
Kermit smiled and engulfed her tiny hand in his, bringing it to his lips to kiss. "Enchante', Mademoiselle," he replied. "My name is Kermit."
Abigail giggled, blushing prettily. "Are you from Sesame Street?" she asked.
Kermit couldn't help it and laughed. "I'm afraid not. But Mr. The Frog and I are best friends."
Abigail's eyes grew wide. "Really?"
"Yep." He turned back to his computer and pulled up his wallpaper, which was a photo of Frogs in Black. "See?" he asked, grinning as she stared at the picture.
She turned to look at him. "Is he an Alien?" she asked, in awe.
Kermit nearly choked. "Nope. Just a swamp thing," he replied.
He turned on his screen saver, and Kermit walked across the screen and then looked out at them. "Hidey-hoe, Kermit-the-Frog, here. How are you, today?"
Abigail was fascinated, as Kermit (the frog) began telling her a story.
While the child was distracted, Kermit (the man) got out his laptop and connected it to his network and began doing some research.
By the time the phone rang, thirty minutes later, Abigail was sitting next to Kermit, still watching the other Kermit on the computer, eating cookies and drinking a glass of milk.
Kermit scooped up the handset before the first ring completed and said, "Griffin." He listened for a moment and scowled. "Don't worry about it.
If she needs a ride, give it to her. I'll take care of everything." He gently hung the phone back up and scowled down at his laptop. Oh, yeah.
This was going to be fun.
Abigail looked up at him, a frown on her face and an expression that eight-year-olds shouldn't be able to make, yet. "Did that man fire Mommy?"
Kermit looked at her and sighed. "Yeah. She's on her way home, now."
Seeing the child's fear, he hastened to reassure her. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it. Promise."
"But it took forever for her to find this one!" Abigail wailed miserably.
"Hey, it's going to be okay, I promise."
Abigail looked at him sadly. "My Daddy always promised he wouldn't hurt us again, but he always did," she replied.
Kermit grimaced. Bending lower to get eye-to-eye with her, he said very softly, "I'm not him. I never make a promise I don't keep," he said very seriously.
He gently held her face in his hands as they gazed into each other's eyes. Finally, Abigail nodded, agreeing to wait and see. He knew she was still doubtful, but he'd move heaven and earth to keep his promise. He could do no less
Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Kermit stood up and with a reassuring smile at Abigail, answered the door.
The woman on the other side looked exhausted. She also looked depressed and maybe a little desperate. He backed up and invited her in.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Wardleigh. I didn't mean to cause you any trouble, but your daughter..."
"Abigail, is she all right? The policeman said that there was a problem."
"She lost her key, is all. Are you all right?"
Mrs. Wardleigh sighed in relief as she spotted her daughter standing quietly by the sofa. "Abigail? Are you all right, honey?"
"Yes, Mommy. Mr. Kermit let me use his phone and I called you, but Mr.
Tingey wouldn't let me talk to you, and then he wouldn't let Mr. Kermit talk to you, either, and Mr. Kermit called his policemen to go and make him let you call me." She took a deep breath, "Did Mr. Tingey fire you, Mommy?"
Mrs. Wardleigh sighed and glanced at Kermit, who was watching her closely and trying not to scowl. "I'm afraid so, baby." Seeing her daughter's fearful reaction, she hurried on, "It's going to be all right, though.
I don't think I could have kept working for Mr. Tingey for much longer, anyway." She glanced up at Kermit and explained, "I've been working twelve to sixteen hours a day for minimum wage, with no overtime, and I'm exhausted."
Kermit's eyes narrowed as he nodded his understanding. Oh, yeah. This was going to be fun. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Wardleigh. Look, I was just about to fix supper, so why don't you and Abigail stay? I hate to cook up a huge meal and then have to eat alone." He smiled, willing her to say 'yes'.
"Oh, I wouldn't want to impose," then she noticed her daughter's hopeful expression and relented. "If you're sure?" she asked uncertainly.
Kermit grinned. "Oh, yeah." He glanced around the rather rumpled living room and winced. Well, at least he didn't have dirty underwear on the floor.
"Make yourselves at home, while I throw something together."
He hadn't planned on eating, but he had some meat thawed, so he began putting together a meal. The chicken, he turned into a passable casserole, using broccoli and cauliflower, some cream of mushroom soup, mayonnaise, and a heaping spoonful of curry powder. He also put on a pot of water for pasta and while the casserole baked, remembering at the last minute to add the cheddar cheese to the top, he boiled the pasta and prepared a cream sauce that would, hopefully, compliment the meat and vegetables.
While he cooked, he gently probed, asking obliquely for information that he would use later when he got around to 'taking care of things'.
Mrs. Wardleigh exhibited all the signs of a battered wife. She was shy, reticent, and fearful. Kermit kept his voice soft and low, trying to be reassuring, rather than commanding.
Eventually, she started to come around. Abigail dragged her over to the computer and introduced her to his froggy friend. Mrs. Wardleigh smiled.
It was weak, but it was genuine, Kermit decided.
Once the child was again distracted by the frog, Mrs. Wardleigh felt safe enough to look around. She glanced at him, working away in the kitchen, and wandered closer. She watched him, surprised that he could cook.
Taking her lower lip between her teeth, she took a slow, deep breath and ventured to ask, "Is your name really Kermit?"
He glanced over at her with a grin. "Yep."
She smiled back at him, shaking her head. "It must have really been hard on you."
Kermit laughed. "Not in the least. By the time it might have become a problem, everyone who knew me was too afraid to say a word."
Her smile faltered. "Oh?" she asked, very softly.
Realizing his mistake, he winced and shook his head. "Sorry. I was in the Army, in 'Nam. By the time I got home, my life had pretty much changed, and not for the better."
He thought of his original plans for the evening, the two bottles of whiskey and his memories.
"I'm sorry. I lost a cousin in Viet Nam," she replied softly.
Kermit nodded. "I lost... a lot, myself," my life, my future, my hope...
He turned away to hide the emotion he knew his eyes would show and wondered where he had left his glasses....
"May I ask you a question?"
"Sure. I can't promise I'll answer it, though."
"Why do you keep it so dark in here?"
He winced again. "My eyes are extremely sensitive to light. Hold on a second." He left the kitchen and went to the computer desk, where he snagged his glasses up and put them on, then he moved to the curtains and pulled them open, letting in the late afternoon sunlight. "There,"
he smiled at his guests, "Better?"
Mrs. Wardleigh smiled tentatively and lightly bit her lower lip, trying to stifle the giggle that wanted to escape. It had obviously been a very long time since those drapes had been opened, judging by the amount of dust in the air,
Abigail looked up and smiled. "Mr. Kermit's a 'MIB', Mommy!"
Mrs. Wardleigh raised her eyebrows at him and realized that in his badly fitting black suit, white shirt, and red tie, he did, indeed look like a MIB. "Is that what you do, Kermit?" she asked, softly.
Kermit watched her obliquely as he answered, "I'm a detective with the hundred and first precinct."
She looked at him in surprise. "I was thinking FBI, or something," she admitted, looking again at his suit.
Kermit grunted. "Not gonna happen," he replied, then smiled to take the sting from his tone of voice. "What made you think Fed?"
"Uh, the suit?"
He looked down and noticed that his suit looked rather like he'd slept in it. He shook his head and smiled at her a bit ruefully. "Today was not one of my better days," he explained.
She nodded. "Me, either. So, what happened to you?"
He sighed. "Wish I knew. I went to work this morning, everything was per usual. I was okay until lunch, then, I don't know," he stared towards the sunlight pouring through his windows. He shrugged. "The past just came back and bit me."
He shrugged again. "Who knows? I certainly don't. I felt like crap, so I came home a bit early."
She looked over her shoulder towards the coffee table, where the open jug of whiskey sat, then turned back to look at the matching jug sitting unopened on the counter. "Two bottles? That's pretty crappy," she agreed.
Kermit stared at her for a moment, then roared with laughter. "Yeah, That it was." He shook his head and lifted the pot of boiling pasta from the burner and carried it to the sink to pour through the colander.
"So, what changed your mood?"
Kermit chuckled. "Abigail. I'd managed to get about half-way through the first one, when she knocked at the door." His mood turned somber.
"I, uh, hope I didn't scare her too badly."
Mrs. Wardleigh frowned. "Frightened?" She turned towards her daughter, who was still enthralled by the computer. "What happened?"
Kermit sighed, knowing what he was about to say would send her running.
"I, uh, well, I wasn't expecting anyone."
"Okay." She didn't get it.
"I, uh, well, I wasn't always a cop," he tried.
She nodded. "Right. You said you were a soldier in Viet Nam."
"Well, in between, I was something a... little less nice."
She shook her head. "What, you were an assassin for hire?"
He looked at her, surprised. "Sometimes," he admitted. Her laugh stopped and she gaped at him.
"You're serious," she said, mouth hanging open. He shrugged and looked away.
"Mercenary, assassin, pretty much the same thing."
She shook her head. "You're kidding,"
He turned and looked at her. "No. I'm not. I used to kill people for money. It doesn't much matter if the cause were just, does it? It was political. I'd choose sides, not always going to the highest bidder. Eventually, I realized that I couldn't make a difference, so I quit. That's when I became a cop. When your daughter came to my door, I had my gun out, expecting trouble." He clenched his teeth together and swallowed hard at the memory, just the most recent of the bad things that came back to haunt him.
"But you didn't shoot her, did you."
Kermit was aghast. "Of course not!"
"Did she see the gun and get scared?"
"Well, no, I managed to slam the door in her face before she noticed it, I think."
She frowned. Slammed the door? "Then what?"
He squirmed. "I, uh, returned the borrowed whisky," he muttered softly.
She couldn't help it. She giggled. "No wonder you're sober," she finally managed to say.
He scowled. "You're taking this rather well," he grumbled, fighting a grin of his own.
"I know it's not funny, but you see, Abigail isn't afraid of guns."
She sighed, glancing over at her still-engrossed daughter. "Because that was one of the 'games' my ex liked to play." Seeing the look of horror on Kermit's face, she shivered.
"He liked to play Russian Roulette... pointing the gun at us, of course.
Obviously, we always won, but still.... after a while, you almost hope it does go off."
Kermit's hands shook slightly as he poured the cream sauce over the pasta. "Where is he now?"
She shivered again. "I don't know. There's a restraining order, but you're a cop. You know how worthless those actually are. We've moved half a dozen times in the past year, trying to keep away from him, but he always finds us again. I think the Welfare Agencies call him, trying to get him to cough up the child support. The minute they do, he finds us."
"Is that why you were at a shelter?" Seeing her surprise, he jerked his head in Abigail's direction, "She said something about it."
"Yeah. Without an address, you can't get welfare. I got lucky and found this job..." she stopped, realizing that she didn't have that job any more. "Damn." Her shoulders sagged. She looked up at him and shook her head. "I'm tired. Tired of always looking over my shoulder. Tired of running, and for the past six weeks, I'm really tired of this stinking job."
"What's your husband's name?" Kermit had a faint smile on his face.
This, he could help with.
"You wouldn't happen to know his social security number, would you?"
She looked at him oddly. "Well, yeah. I've got it written down somewhere, why?"
"Oh, I have a few little things I can do that might at least get him off your case, and with any luck, get him to cough up the child support...
including the back-payments."
He smiled. His teeth were big and bright and his eyes hidden by his sunglasses.
Kermit turned away and opened the oven door to take the casserole out.
"It's better if you don't know the particulars," he said softly.
He turned, casserole in hand and his smile grew a bit wider. "Well, I suppose I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you, and I'd rather not have to do that." He pulled his glasses down so she could see his eyes and he winked at her.
It was so implausible that she shook her head and snickered. "Riiiight,"
she agreed. "I suppose you have some way of finding me another job?"
"What kind of work do you do? Besides working for scumbag telemarketers, that is?"
She sighed. "Well, I can type sixty-five words a minute, but most of my experience has been in retail sales. Unfortunately, I don't have the clothes to even begin to apply for those types of jobs. Meanwhile, I have to do something to keep us together."
Kermit nodded. "Well, supper's ready." He carried the dishes of food into the dining area and set them on hot pads. Then he got plates and flatware and glasses. "I've got beer, Irish Whiskey, milk, and orange juice. Take your pick."
He quickly set the table while Mrs. Wardleigh dragged Abigail away from the computer.
"Well, milk for Abigail, please. Could I just have water, please?"
"Water it is." Kermit returned to the kitchen and brought out the carton of milk and a pitcher of ice water he kept in the refrigerator.
Setting them on the table, he circled around the table and held Mrs.
Wardleigh's chair for her, then Abigail's, much to the child's amusement.
Sitting at his usual spot, he began pouring their drinks, opting for water, himself.
"Dig in. I don't stand on ceremony, here."
Mrs. Wardleigh served first her daughter, then herself. Kermit then loaded his own plate and prepared to dig in, only to be stopped by Abigail.
"Don't you say grace, Mr. Kermit?"
He looked at them in surprise. "Uh, no?"
Mrs. Wardleigh smiled. "Do you mind?" she asked softly.
He shook his head, "Be my guest."
They folded their hands and bowed their heads. Kermit flashed back to his childhood, for just a moment. He didn't hear a word she said until she hit the 'amen'. Looking up, he found Abigail beaming at him and he couldn't help but smile back. "Okay, now?"
Abigail nodded. "Yep," and dug into her food.
It hadn't occurred to Kermit that a child might not care for vegetables and strong flavors, but Abigail, after picking carefully at the funny yellow-sauced vegetables, discovered that she liked it.
"Mommy, can you get Mr. Kermit to teach you how to make this? It's yummy!"
Her mother smiled and nodded. "So, Mr. Kermit, could you teach me how to make this yummy dish?" She smirked at him and winked.
"Uh, it's easy. Take some cooked chicken, cut it up, add a pound each of frozen broccoli and cauliflower, toss in a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of milk, and a cup of mayonnaise, then add some dehydrated onions, a heaping tablespoon of curry powder, the cheap, American stuff, and mix it all up. Cover it with cheese and bake until heated through."
She stared at him. "You're kidding."
He looked confused. "No, that's all there is to it. Oh, you can add mushrooms, if you like, or use cream of chicken or cream of celery, if you prefer." He shrugged. "Depends on what's in the cupboard, if you know what I mean."
She nodded. She knew exactly what he meant.
The rest of the meal was fairly quiet, as all three were quite hungry.
Kermit watched them closely and was glad he'd invited them to stay for supper. It was pretty obvious that they hadn't had a lot of decent meals lately. He felt good that he hadn't attempted anything fancy, though, knowing that Mrs. Wardleigh might have felt uncomfortable about it.
After supper, she insisted on at least doing the dishes, although he protested. She gave him an implacable glare and he realized he'd better back down, or she'd be offended.
Instead, he went back to his laptop and started his initial search on her ex-husband. "Uh, Mark's your ex husband, isn't he?"
"Oh, yeah. It was final a year and a half ago."
Kermit blinked at hearing his patented phrase coming out of her mouth...
she even said it the same way he did. He grinned in delight.
While she washed the dishes, he asked, "Where are you from originally?"
"Vermont. But I met Mark in Rhode Island."
"So, what's his social?"
His fingers flew, searching places most people didn't even know existed.
"Uh," she went to her purse and dug through her day planner, "039-02-0969,"
Bingo. Got you you slimy little worm. Hmmm. His entire focus was on the computer screen to the exclusion of almost everything else. He jumped when Mrs. Wardleigh leaned over his shoulder and saw her ex-husband's bank statement.
"That can't be Mark," she said. "He doesn't have that kind of money."
Kermit hit another button and she gasped as her ex's picture appeared.
His grin was sharklike. "That him?" He already knew it was, just from her reaction.
"But.... how?" She looked at him, totally confused.
"Well, first of all, let's get you some back child support, shall we?"
"But, isn't that illegal?"
"So's being a deadbeat parent." He didn't bother to ask her what the court had ordered him to pay. He simply started rerouting the funds from the Cayman Island account through several dozen blind alleys and finally into a new account he set up for her at his own bank.
"By the way, what's your first name?" Kermit asked as he set up her new account.
"Isabel." She stared at the screen when the bank's customer page came up with her name and an amount deposited to it.
She gasped. "A hundred thousand... but that's... that's...."
"Hardly enough, I know, but I don't want to leave him too broke. As it is, he'll never be able to trace what happened to it."
Kermit grinned. "Meanwhile, let's see where all his money's coming from, shall we?" His fingers again flew over the keyboard and soon, the rest of the story appeared.
At least, for Kermit, it appeared. For Isabel, it meant nothing. So, Mark Wardleigh was into not-so-legal things? What a surprise, NOT! "Oh, yeah," he muttered, fingers flying faster.
"Uh, how much do you want him permanently out of your lives?"
"Permanently? You mean, like dead, permanently?" She remembered what he'd said about his past, and she felt a tiny thrill of fear.
Kermit scowled and shook his head. "Well, if that's what you really want. I was thinking more along the lines of putting him out of business and behind bars, where he belongs."
"Belongs?" She must be more tired than she thought. This wasn't making a whole lot of sense to her.
Kermit leaned back in his chair and gazed up at her. "Yeah. Belongs.
He's into some pretty nasty stuff. Gunrunning, drugs... he may just be a cheap hood, but he's running errands for some big boys."
He tilted his head as he looked at her. "Up to you. How, uh, law abiding are you?"
She regarded him for several long moments. This man, this stranger, had just gotten her ten times what the court had awarded her for child support for a year, in one fell swoop.
How law-abiding was she? She gnawed at her lower lip. "Are you talking 'law' or 'justice'?"
Kermit's grin spread across his face. "Well, in that case, maybe a little of both?"
Her smile matched his, "Oh, yeah," she agreed.
She had enough money, for now at least. She'd have to pay taxes on it...
she didn't want to get into trouble with the IRS, that was for sure. And the idea of her ex going to prison for greater misdeeds than beating and terrorizing herself and their daughter... even better. She watched Kermit as his fingers did their magic and avidly read every word that came up.
She was shocked and dismayed to discover just how much her ex was involved in the underworld. She shuddered in fear, no wonder he'd found them so easily. He was part of a vast network of crime.
Kermit felt her shiver and reached back to her hand on his shoulder and gently patted it. Normally, he hated people touching him, or reading over his shoulder, but in this case, he didn't mind in the least.
Kermit's grin grew wicked. "Watch this," he murmured softly. Fingers flying again, he replaced the hundred thousand dollars he'd spirited away from Mark's account with funds he spirited away from Mark's employer's accounts. Nothing big from any one source, but bits and pieces here and there, just enough to eventually catch their eyes... only this time, they'd be able to trace where the money went, even if they couldn't figure out how it had gotten there.
He finished and grinned over his shoulder at Isabel. "There. His only hope now, is to turn himself in, rat out his bosses, and hope for witness protection."
Isabel giggled. "This is fun."
Kermit gawked at her, jaw dropping. Then he straightened up a bit and almost purred, "You think so?"
"Oh, yeah. I love it." She bit her lower lip, then took a deep breath, "I, uh, don't suppose you could do anything to Mr. Tingey, could you?"
His smile was like the sun breaking through heavy overcast. "Oh, yeah."
By the time their 'game' was ended, her ex-husband was in a world of trouble, and her ex-boss was in a world of hurt. Kermit had sicced the IRS on him, sending an 'anonymous' message informing them that he didn't pay overtime, even though he made his workers work twelve to sixteen hour days.
Isabel chewed her lip and suggested, "I don't suppose you can do anything to his 'do not call' list?"
Kermit beamed up at her. "Great idea." He quickly hacked in and hid the list so no one would be able to easily find it. Giggling like schoolchildren on a spree, they quickly changed bills of lading and invoices, scrambling them all hopelessly. Finally, Kermit stopped. He was tired. His neck was beginning to ache and, most important, he'd run out of nasty ideas.
"Unless you can think of anything else, I think we're through." He tilted his head from side to side, trying to stretch the aching muscles.
Isabel giggled. "Gee, don't you think we've done enough?" She began to gently knead the tense muscles and ligaments in his neck. He groaned softly as she worked the knots out, first from his neck, then down into his shoulders and upper back.
"Oh, bless you," he murmured softly.
After several minutes of silence, she patted his shoulder and stepped back. Much to her chagrin, she'd forgotten Abigail. She was curled up on the sofa, with a huge stuffed Kermit the Frog in her arms.
Kermit frowned, wondering when she'd gone into his bedroom, then he shrugged, feeling a bit guilty for forgetting her for so long. He looked at the clock and groaned.
"Great," he grumbled, standing up and stretching. "As much fun as this has been, I need to get up in four hours to go to work." He grinned at her. "Let me carry Abigail home for you?"
Isabel smiled. "Thanks." She got her purse and her keys from it.
Kermit gently scooped the child up, frog and all, and carried her towards the door. Isabel got the door for him, and then unlocked and opened the door to her apartment across the hall. Kermit followed her in and to Abigail's room, where he gently set her down on her bed. He smiled gently at the child and brushed the hair off her face. Glancing at Isabel, he softly said, "She's adorable, you know?"
"She's a great kid, and I'm not just saying that because I'm her mother."
"I know." With one last look, he turned and headed back to his own apartment.
She followed him.
At the door, he paused, "Let me know when you want to go to the bank and sign for your money. I'll introduce you to the manager. He's an old friend."
She cocked her head to one side. "Ex-mercenary, perhaps?"
Kermit grinned. "Oh, yeah." He turned to his own door. "Good night."
"Good night." She watched him walking away. "Kermit?"
He turned back to look at her a questioning look on his face. "Yes?"
She blushed slightly and bit her lower lip. "I had a wonderful time, this evening. Uh, maybe I can return the dinner invitation some time?"
Kermit took off his glasses and smiled. "Yeah?"
She nodded. "I can't remember ever having a better 'first date'." She smirked at him.
Kermit was momentarily taken aback, then his own smile again graced his features. "Oh, yeah." He nodded. "Any time. And if you need someone to watch Abigail, if I'm home, I'm available, usually."
"Thanks." She tilted her head and looked playfully at him.
"What?" he asked, wondering what she was thinking.
"You're the frog prince, you know that? You know, rushing out to do battle with dragons and rescuing damsels in distress? All you need is the armor and the white charger."
He laughed. "Sorry, you'll have to make do with a green corvair."
"Ah, the green knight, then. Even better." Biting her lip again, she crossed the hall and stretched up the inch or three it took her to be able to reach, and kissed him softly on the lips. It took both of them by surprise, and was quickly over. She smiled at him, turned and ran back through the door into her apartment, leaving him standing there, his fingers touching his lips in surprise.
Shaking himself, he licked his lips once and grinned. Turning to enter his own apartment, he glanced across the hall and murmured very softly, "Oh, yeah."
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