The decade-old white panel van was unmarked and from the outside unremarkable. The interior was another matter. Configured for passengers, with a small cargo space at the rear, it bore several unusual features—most prominently a police-cruiser-style barrier just behind the front seats, albeit in a heavy-duty quarter-inch wire mesh instead of a thick sheet of transparent polycarbonate. The taciturn driver handled the vehicle expertly, allowing Rose to devote her full attention to the three girls sitting in the seats behind. They in turn looked around at the stereotypical suburban neighborhood of neat middle-class detached houses built, unmistakably, some forty years past, give or take a few. Ranch houses predominated.
In the middle of the block the van pulled to the curb and stopped. Rose called out, “All right, here we are,” then emerged onto the sidewalk and stood back a little way from the curbside rear door. The driver punched the control to unlock that door and, upon hearing the clunk of the lock disengaging, Rose beckoned the girls to exit. For a moment it looked as if they wouldn’t, but Sonata finally clambered over the others, nearly falling out onto the concrete as the door swung open. The brief comedic scramble that followed forced Rose to bite her lip in a fierce effort not to grin or, worse, laugh. After a minute or so, though, all three stood in front of her with varied expressions. Hope warred with fear on Sonata’s face. Resignation dominated Adagio’s. Aria resembled an actress sent by central casting to play the part of the rebellious teen, right down to the pout and folded arms.
Rose put her hands on her hips. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. The first order of business is to meet your caretakers and get a tour of the place. After that, if everything goes well, we’ll come back out so you can pick up your stuff. Understood?”
“What if it doesn’t?” Aria half-snarled.
“You don’t want to go there,” Rose replied. “Really. That’s not a threat, it’s just a fact. Your life would be a lot harder, my life would be a lot harder, everyone’s lives would be a lot harder. Please don’t.” There was a note of sincerity in her voice that clearly got through to Sonata and Adagio, the latter of whom elbowed Aria and glared at her. It didn’t have the voltage it might have before their defeat, but it was enough for Aria to subside with a muttered imprecation.
“Okay then. Let’s go.” She half-turned to extend her prosthetic arm toward the nearest house and stood aside to let her charges pass, careful to remain at arm’s length, an ingrained reflex born not only of her military training but years of experience with clients as delicate and dangerous as unexploded bombs.
The living room was pleasant but nondescript, much as the house itself was. Rose loomed behind the ex-sirens as they stood side by side facing the older couple who regarded them benignly. “Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, Sonata Dusk, meet Logos Rhetor and Harmonia. They’ll be your caretakers while you’re living here.”
The pair’s physical contrast was striking. Logos, long and lean, towered over everyone else. He studied his new charges over small spectacles with a slight twinkle. Harmonia was the shortest in the room by a small margin, solid and a bit plump. She examined the girls through large squarish tortoise-shell glasses. Both were dressed for the occasion with a native formality, he in a white shirt and dark slacks; she in a dress with a subdued floral pattern.
“Good day, girls,” Harmonia greeted them graciously. “And welcome.”
“Ms. Brass has been good enough to explain everything she could,” Logos added. “Quite fascinating, and we hope to learn more from you—another day, of course.”
“Oh my yes.” Harmonia nodded. “For now, though, the most imporant thing is to get you three settled in. If you’ll just follow us, we’d be very pleased to show you around your new home.”
Rose brought up the rear, her very presence chivvying along the trio, as Logos and Harmonia led the way. They were thorough, guiding the cavalcade from room to room and pointing out features and peculiarities that weren’t always obvious. Along the way, the veteran parents set forth firm, no-nonsense house rules that in short order had both Aria and Adagio just short of glowering. Sonata tended toward the blankness of concentration, but perked up noticeably when the path wended its way through the lavish kitchen.
Once finished with the public and semi-public areas of the lower floor, the tour moved to the private spaces of the upper level. The door to the master bedroom suite was closed, but the other three bedrooms, the communal full bath serving them, and a smattering of storage spaces fitted in to balance the floor plan, were shown to all and sundry. At last the whole group stood in the vestibule, overlooking the high-ceilinged living room, to address the next question.
“Now then, my dears, each of you will live in one of these three bedrooms.” Harmonia folded her hands. “You’ll need to decide amongst yourselves who gets which.”
The resulting discussion devolved rapidly from imperious demands to near-argument, mostly between Adagio and Aria. Sonata bit her lip and said little. After a couple of minutes Rose let out a piercing whistle, cutting short the heated debate.
“I figured this would happen,” she observed with a withering lack of surprise. “So here. You can draw straws.” She proffered three cut-down soda straws, protruding from the loose fist of her left hand. “Longest straw chooses first, middle straw chooses from the remaining two, and short straw gets the last one. Sonata, you go first.”
The other two backpedaled immediately and, refereed by Logos and Harmonia, resumed diplomatic talks at a lower volume. Whenever negotiations hovered on the brink of collapse, Rose held out the straws. At last a treaty was worked out that left all three looking only mildly disgruntled, ratified with shiny new nameplates affixed by Logos to the bedroom doors.
Rose monitored the girls while they trooped out to retrieve their belongings and cart them back to their new digs. The fancier clothing they once possessed indeed was gone, she discovered. From grudging oblique mutters she gathered the garments had been sold off for eating money after the first ego-bruising experiences with unsympathetic clerks and managers the three no longer could mesmerize into giving them what they needed.
Under cover of their unnecessarily noisy unpacking, she conferred quietly with the older couple. “Thank you,” she said with simple sincerity. “I know none of this is going to be easy.”
“That’s quite all right, dear.” Harmonia patted Rose’s prosthetic arm, relying on its state-of-the-art receptors to convey the tactile contact. “We know that too, and we understand how hard it would have been for you to find a suitable couple otherwise.”
Logos smiled dryly. “Yes indeed. How many foster parents can there be who are conveniently semi-retired empty-nesters with security clearances, accustomed to relocating, and used to potentially dangerous conditions? Not to mention qualified to home-school.”
Rose shook her head and echoed the smile. “I did think of you two immediately when I started looking into the problem. The Agency told me you’d hit your twenty-year limit, but they couldn’t say whether you’d moved on to other jobs. It was quite a trick tracking you down.”
“We’re glad you did. Logos and I needed a new challenge. After so many years working overseas to help build schools and other institutions, a quiet retirement just seemed so, well, quiet.”
Rose laughed softly. “I’m amazed you were able to bring up a family of your own through all that.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Logos admitted as he swept a hand through his short gray hair. “If it weren’t for our rotations back to the District, I don’t think we could have done it. At least we won’t have that to deal with—this is a fine place you found for us all.”
“Normally it’s a safe house used by law enforcement for witnesses and such.” Rose looked past them to make sure the younger set still was distracted with their own activities and lowered her voice a little more. “Just to make sure you know, the house across the street and a house at each end of the block are set up as watch posts. They’ll be occupied in the next few days to keep an eye on things.”
The other two nodded exactly as if they hadn’t read the briefing papers thoroughly. Their careers in the country’s international development agency had sent them to several poverty-stricken or war-torn regions, she as a project coordinator and he as a project engineer and educator. They were used to bureaucratic procedures, documentation, and hazardous postings. By comparison the current situation probably would be less hair-raising than the combat zone where Rose had met them.
They exchanged a few more pertinent comments before switching back to generalized pleasantries as their charges came stringing back into earshot, having left belongings haphazardly stowed in drawers and closets. When all three stood, shifting restlessly, in their habitual side-by-side arrangement, Rose asked heartily, “All set?”
Nods of varying reluctance answered, and she turned back to Logos and Harmonia and asked as innocently as she could manage, “So, what next?”
Logos clapped his hands and rubbed them together with gusto. “Lunch, I think! Girls, what would you like?”
Sonata spoke up in a small voice. “Tacos?”