Innocent Eyes

Tom Parker is a top-notch FBI agent and his 17-year-old niece’s hero. When he suspects a former agent of plotting for revenge, Tom makes full use of Carrie’s interest in his work. Before she knows it, Carrie is living three hours from home, attending a gymnastics camp with the suspected man’s step-daughter. Everyone in the household loves her, except for the person whose help she needs most. Toran Sweeney is a year older than Carrie and the first boy she has ever been interested in. Unfortunately for her, he thinks she is there to work with the step-father he hates. And that is only the beginning. As the summer goes on, Carrie begins to realize that nothing is what it seems. Innocent Eyes beings and ends with a chess game, but it is in between that the true game is played, with much higher stakes than bragging rights.

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7. Hattie's Cafe

    “Oh my God, this is going to be awesome!” Jayna said for about the tenth time as I turned off the truck.  We climbed out and I grabbed my bag from the truck bed.  Jayna had held hers on her lap.
    Toran’s grey truck and Addie’s vehicle, a red minivan, were both parked—Addie’s in the garage and Toran’s by the barn.  The white car with all-leather interior that could only be Caleb’s was missing.
    “Huh,” Jayna said, pulling out her phone to check the time, “I thought Caleb would be here.”
    Addie stuck her head out of the kitchen as we came in.  “Hey, how are the phenomenal gymnasts?”
    “Hungry,” Jayna said, dropping her bag and kicking of her shoes.
    “You can have supper in twenty minutes.  I’m making enchiladas and coleslaw.  Carrie, if there’s anything you don’t like, tell me and I’ll do my best to avoid it.”
    “Thanks.  I eat pretty much everything, though.”  Coleslaw certainly wasn’t my favorite, but I could survive.  “I’m not big on raw onion, but that’s about it.”
    “Mom’s a good cook,” Jayna said, lining her shoes up against the wall.  I didn’t miss her slightly resigned face.  Something told me neatness was not part of Jayna’s nature.  “Where’s Caleb?” she asked, standing back up.
    “He had a meeting until 6:30 and probably won’t be back until seven.  It would be silly to wait, and he’ll most likely get food on the way home anyhow.  Oh, and Jay?  After you take your stuff upstairs, go find Toran and tell him supper is almost ready.  He’s out in the barn.”
    “Did he get the 4-wheeler fixed?” Jayna asked.
    “You’ll have to ask him.  Now scat!”
    Jayna stuck her tongue out at her mother and bounded for the stairs, curls bouncing.
    “Do you need any help?” I asked once she was gone.  
    “No, everything is almost ready.  You might as well take a few minutes for yourself while you can.”
    Addie, I noted, had no qualms about letting me be alone.  It wasn’t enough to jump to conclusions, but I stashed it away in my mind as I climbed the stairs, stopping once more to look at the tree painting before continuing on.
    I bumped into Jayna at the top of the stairs.  “I really hope Toran got the 4-wheeler fixed!” she said.  “You will so have to go for a ride sometime.  Talk about like, super cool.”  Her face calmed a bit.  “And yes, I know I am easily excited.  I prefer to think of it as my charm.”  She gave me a megawatt grin and shot down the stairs.
    I shook my head.  “Lord, same me once again from twelve-year-olds,” I murmured under my breath, smiling as I walked down the hall to ‘my’ pretty room and collapsed onto the bed.
    Bliss. 

    Toran did get the four-wheeler fixed, but it was a week and a half before I got to ride it.  That morning I’d gotten up with the sun, and when Addie headed into the studio, I followed.  She laughed when I gave her my excuse—that I desperately needed a novel or magazine or something, anything, to calm the nerves that Jayna had nearly fried to a crisp.  I smiled back and wondered what disguise would work best if I ran into Caleb.  
    Addie pulled out of the driveway, and I bent down, pretending to adjust the radio.  In reality, I pulled my loose sundress over my head and tried not to think about what I was planning on wearing in a public setting.
    Then I backed out of the drive and headed down the road, turning left at the stop sign instead of right.  Half a mile away, I stopped and re-did my truck.  Faded magnets advertising Francie’s Flowers and other Necessities were slapped on both doors.  A bumper sticker advised other drivers that If You Can Read This, Back Off!  Mardi Gras beads and an air freshener hung from the rearview mirror.  I’d purposefully cleaned out anything that could identify the truck as mine at first glance, but Uncle Tom was to thank for the finishing touch.  
    “Gracias, mi tío,” I said aloud as I slapped magnetic Minnesota plates (land of 1,000 lakes!) over my real ones.
    My own disguises were far more textbook: a dark brown wig a bit too frizzy and glasses.  I ran dark eye shadow over my eyelids.  Next came a stick-on nose ring.  I smoothed my dark skirt (too short) and purple shirt over my leggings, then threw on scuffed flats.  Finally—I grimaced—I pulled out my old retainer.  Ugh.  I hated the thing, especially trying to talk like a normal person while wearing it.
    There.  Utterly unlike me, but not flashy enough that anyone would need to take notice.  I pulled out of the field entrance I’d borrowed and continued the whole way around the west side of town to come in from the north.  Luckily, Uncle Tom was chipping in for gas this summer too.  I felt bad using the money he gave me, but, I reminded myself, it was a job.  I had a feeling Uncle Tom also knew I’d feel indebted and thus do the best job I could.  As if I wouldn’t anyhow.
    But whatever.  Like, who cared about owing anything.  I was Gina Phillips, and all I cared about was a magazine and an iced vanilla latte to go.  What did espionage mean again?  Wasn’t it Spanish or something?  I drove the last few blocks immersing myself in Gina’s mind, almost amazed at how easy it was to do so.
    Hattie’s Café could have been placed in a better location if someone wanted posh and upscale, but it worked fine for Gina and me.  I parked the truck around the corner in front of a discount store and surveyed the ads in the window as I walked past, slower than I’d usually go.
    Huh, I thought as I ambled by a craft store and into Hattie’s.  Caleb wasn’t anywhere in sight.  
    There were fifteen or so people inside the café when I slipped in.  I bought a latte and Cosmopolitan and sat down at a table for two.  On one side of me, three women were laughing over scones and coffee; on the other, a grandma was trying to feed bits of pancake to a three-year-old who wanted her egg and sausage burrito.  
    With my back to the wall so I could see the length of the whole room, I opened the magazine and started learning how to tell if my boyfriend was cheating, or just not into me anymore.  
    Or at least Gina was reading.  I pretended to nurse my coffee and even send and received a few fake texts.  What I really did, though, was figure out the basics of Hattie’s Café.  
    There were two bathrooms, side by side in the back.  Both were empty until the three-year-old gave up on her pancakes and Grandma took her to clean off the excess syrup.
Caleb definitely wasn’t here.  Had he come earlier?  The room was large and open.  I could see part of the kitchen through the open doorway behind the counter.  No place to hide.  A change in plans?  Yesterday I’d heard Caleb say his week was completely normal until Friday.  Today was Wednesday.
    After fifteen minutes in which I thumbed through the entire magazine without seeing a page, I stood up, went to the bathroom, and left.
    Blinking in the sun, I almost missed seeing the car drive by—white, foreign, and sleek, but with a tiny coat of dust.  I caught the last three digits of the license plate: 637.  Yep, that was Caleb.  
    He drove east past where I stood, turned left, and disappeared from my sight.  Half a minute later, the car reappeared a block from where he’d turned.  He turned back onto the street he’d been on originally and continued.  What the—?  He hadn’t had time to stop anywhere.  
    Remembering my cover, I meandered back towards my truck, eyeing the street he had avoided.  A thought hit me and I glanced at my cell phone.  7:46 A.M. and the suspect is out of sight.  
    I pocketed my phone and looked up again, eyes landing on the ATM machine between a movie rental store and a bookstore.  Something clicked in my mind.  ATM=security cameras.  Tom had been right: Caleb was smart.  So where had he been?
    Taking another pretend sip of my latte, I turned the corner, headed for the alley that cut behind Hattie’s.  I stopped to leave the magazine in the truck, then paused at the storefront right by the alley.  Apparently Gina was interested in getting a tattoo.  
    Two scruffy guys and a girl in torn fishnets walked out of the alleyway.  “Yo,” the cigarette-less guy said as all three of them looked me up and down.
    I blinked, closing my eyes as a spy and opening them as Gina Phillips, Minnesotan and sometimes slut.  Amazingly, I relaxed into the role.  Drama had been my favorite class in middle school, and apparently it had paid off.  
    “Hey,” I said, giving him an openly flirtatious look that I hoped would never cross Carrie’s face.  “Are the tattoos here any good?  Or, you know, are they really, like, sucky?”
    “They’re not bad,” the girl said.  “Show her, Dillon.” 
    The boy with the cigarette smirked.  He took a long drag, then handed his lung-cancer-growing-kit to the girl.  She puffed it absently, eyes fixed on Dillon.
    He lifted the hem of his grungy T-shirt to reveal an almost life-sized skull and crossbones.  “Pretty sweet, huh?”
    “Awesome, dude,” I said.
    “I know,” Dillon said, puffing out his skinny chest and nodding importantly.  In the back of Gina’s mind, Carrie laughed.
    “If you want, I could probably get you a deal with Tiffany or Reggie,” the first guy said.  I had a feeling he was trying to pull my attention back to him, and I let it work.  “They both owe me big time.  They’re the people that run the place,” he added as an afterthought.  
    “Yeah, they’d really be in a fix without you, Ricky,” the girl said.  “I’m Baby,” she told me.  “I don’t answer to the name that woman gave me.  Ugh.”
    “Names suck,” I said, nodding sympathetically and feeling briefly sorry for her mother.  “I’m Gina.”
    “My name doesn’t,” Ricky said.  “I think I like your name, too.”
    “Yeah, well,” I shrugged, “you’re someone special then.”
    “You know it,” he said, inching closer and putting a hand on my hip.  “I am someone special.  I know the man to know.  I work with him,” he whispered in my ear.  A leg slid between my thighs and Ricky’s hand pushed my shirt up a bit until he found bare skin.
    “See that place back there?  Where you got your coffee, sweetheart.  It’s my kingdom and I’m a prince.  So you better believe that I’m special.  Be nice to me and I can hook you up with all sorts of,” he hesitated, “pleasures.”
    His breath was hot on my ear, voice so low the others couldn’t hear it.  They were sharing a new cigarette now, not really paying attention anyhow.  
    “Like?” I asked, pushing my hips forward just a bit.  God, how revolting.  
    It worked, though.  “How about I show you?  We could go take a look at my kingdom.”  The hand was working its way up my body.
    “Okay,” I said, giggling.
    The hand didn’t leave, sadly enough.  Ricky maneuvered himself so we could both walk, fingers caressing the side of my stomach.  “We’ll catch you later, guys,” he said over his shoulder.  “Shh,” Ricky whispered to me.  “This is a treat for you, babe.  Not everyone gets to see my kingdom.”
    I giggled again.  Carrie rolled her eyes.  People actually fell for this?
The slick idiot led me through a door—complete with peeling paint and a doorknob that had seen better days—that opened directly onto a dimly-lit staircase.  By the time I was three steps down, I could smell the meth.  Freaking disgusting.  Lord, let me find something with Caleb’s name on it.
    Somehow, I didn’t think the Lord was anywhere near here.
    The room at the bottom was slightly better lit than the stairs.  I tried not to breathe and started taking snapshots with my mind: a table.  A filing cabinet.  Several mismatched chairs.  A mattress in the corner.  Disgusto.  For a second I thought the floor was just dirt, but a closer look revealed it was wooden planks coated in years’ worth of dust and other nastiness.  
    “Ooh la la,” I said, making sure nothing touched me.
    “So, you want something to get you in the mood?” Ricky came up beside me, one hand tugging up on the hem of my shirt.  Oh, no.
    Right on cue, my cell phone buzzed.   I pulled my phone out and twisted slightly so Ricky couldn’t read the text message.  
    It was from Jayna: Hey.  I’m actually up b4 8 and u aren’t here 2 c it.  Not cool!  Eating poptarts ;)
    Maybe there was a God around here after all.

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