Emily gave the twins a run-down of Morse Code, writing each of their names in dots and dashes. They had so many questions, she didn’t have time to turn her attention to the message she’d taken down. Then it was time to text Brent that she was ready to be picked up. Kara thanked her profusely and passed her an envelope of cash when she was ready to go.
"You have my number," Emily said, "and I’m pretty much available whenever. Just let me know when you need me next!"
A knock sounded at the door, and Kara peeked out the window. "It’s that cute non-boyfriend of yours!" she whispered, giving Emily a wink. "So sweet he came to the door for you instead of just honking."
Emily smiled. Brent was ever the gentleman, Kara was right.
Brent grinned broadly when they opened the door. "Ma’am." He nodded to Kara and touched the brim of a cowboy hat he definitely hadn’t been wearing before. "Ready, Em?" he said in slightly lazy, slow voice.
"Yes," she replied. "Bye, boys! Bye, Kara!"
The twins were so busy whispering about whether Brent was a Real Cowboy they completely forgot to say goodbye until Emily was halfway down the walk and their mother had nearly closed the door. Then they shouted it in unison.
Emily laughed and shook her head. "They’re a hoot. Kara sure has her hands full."
Brent smiled in reply. "So it went well? Think you’ll go again sometime?"
"I would imagine I will sooner than later. But, about the cowboy hatâ€¦"
They got into the pickup truck and Brent took it off and set it on the seat between them. "Just a little feed-store souvenir."
"So you’ve been at the feed-store this whole time?" Emily asked, raising an eyebrow. Then she wrinkled her nose, smelling a new scent inside the truck. "Is that you? Smells like cigarettes and–"
"Old beer? Yeah." Brent made a nasty face. "Last time I’m ever buying this cologne."
"No, I didn’t find the people I wanted to talk to at the feed-store. I did find a pretty great selection of hats. And did you know there were so many different kinds of chicken feed?"
"I did, actually!"
"I needed to find locals, old-timers or otherwise. Anyone willing to shoot the breeze with a slightly-convincing stranger. Most of the people at the feed-store were middle-aged horse ladies focused on their shopping lists."
Emily nodded. That sounds about right. I could have told him that.
"So I ended up at this little hole-in-the-wall bar called Palatine Oasis."
"Oh, yeah. That’s prime real estate for old-timers around here," Emily said. "I’ve never been–obviously–but it’s popular among the dairy hands."
"See, I should have just asked you where to go. I could have skipped the feed store entirely!" He patted the cowboy hat affectionately. "But then I would have missed out on this beauty, soâ€¦"
"How did the drawl go over?" Emily asked.
Brent chuckled. "I didn’t end up using it. I’ve used it in Texas before, but you were right that it was too much for Arizona."
Emily laughed. "I had a suspicion you were just messing with me."
Brent shrugged. "I really couldn’t resist."
Emily rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "So you were convincing, enough, then? They talked to you?"
He nodded. "They did. Especially after I bought some drinks for people."
Emily eyed him sideways.
"Don’t worry," he said, as if reading the question in her mind. "I happen to have a tablet I can drop into my cup to neutralize the acohol content. Still have to taste the stuff," he made a nasty face, "but at least it’s just like drinking gross juice or something once the tablet takes care of it. Plus, I have perfected the art of stretching out a single drink without anyone noticing I’m still on my first."
"Count on you to have a gadget that changes wine to water," Emily laughed. They were pulling into the small garage, and she braced herself against the side of the truck for the inevitable surprise of the truck lowering through the floor.
"It’s not really a gadget and it wasn’t wine. At least wine would end up like weird grape juice once the alcohol is gone."
When they got into the house, Brent went straight to the bathroom, and Emily heard him brushing his teeth and gargling mouthwash. She grinned to herself. Here was someone who hated the taste of beer as much as she hated the smell.
She followed the protocol set out in the binder and reviewed the surveillance footage from the time period she was away, setting it to play quickly. Brent reappeared just as she was finishing.
"Much better," he said. "Anything interesting?"
She shook her head. "Not on the cameras. Unless you count a curious hummingbird setting off the motion detector on the doorbellâ€¦"
Brent laughed. "At least it wasn’t a scorpion. We had that happen once at North Pole. It crawled right over the camera lense."
Emily shivered. "Ew. That’s almost more terrifying than if it had been a real bad guy."
Brent checked his watch. "I gotta get a move on. I need to take my new intel back to Vellichor and see what Santa’s orders are."
Emily stared at him for a moment, wanting to ask what intel and what mission and knowing he couldn’t really tell her.
He grinned knowingly and gave her a jaunty salute.
You really have to stop with the mind-reading, Agent Nighthawk.
She considered watching his progress through the garages on the security monitors, but then remembered the scrap of paper in her pocket.
She smiled at the memory of writing out the Magic Beeps and the twins’ delight. She found a pen in a drawer in the kitchen and then sat down at the breakfast nook’s table. It didn’t take her long to decipher the Morse, and it brought back memories of sitting at the slightly wiggly table in her father’s kitchen as he quizzed her on Morse Code in preparation for getting her Ham radio license. Knowing it was no longer a requirement for a Technician license, but he’d insisted it was a useful skill and should never have been removed from the requirements. She’d tried to introduce it to another girl at school as a way to write private notes, but the girl had been lukewarm about the idea, at best. So Emily had contented herself with writing in Morse Code in her journal on occassion, even though there was no point in keeping anything private since she had no siblings to go snooping.
Now, her pen moved rapidly across the paper, adding the translation under each set of dots and dashes. The word "key" emerged. Then, oddly, a string of six numbers. Then the phrase "applies to one".
Emily stared at the plain text and frowned. Then she picked up her phone and dialed.
Brent answered with a teasing, "Miss me already?"
She smiled faintly and then asked, "Your mission– it doesn’t have anything to do with a cipher or Morse Code, does it?"