The mood in the apartment varied depending on where one was. Aspen paced the hardwood floors like she had something on her mind, but didn’t know how to say it or to whom.
She finally decided to halt her movements in the section of the open space that served as Champ’s sleeping area. He sat on a chair next to his bed and stared intensely at the chessboard that rested atop the bedspread.
It seemed like the chess pieces were the only thing that existed in Champ’s world until he spoke. “Champ is freaked out by your staring. Why don’t you pull up a chair and Champ will teach you how to play.”
Aspen shook her head. “I don’t think I’d be any good.”
Champ did not look up at Aspen. Instead, he moved one of the white rooks.
“Champ knows you would be an amazing chess player. You have a mind that works in mysterious ways, and that’s perfect for chess.”
He finally raised his head in her direction and smiled.
“Maybe later. I can’t focus right now.”
She punctuated her comment with a frown. Champ nodded like he understood the concept.
“Come back when you’re ready. Champ isn’t going anywhere.”
His eyes dropped back down to the board, and Aspen took that as her cue to go back to pacing.
Tex was on the couch in the living room area with his guitar across his chest. He strummed a couple of chords and then quickly scribbled something in the notebook that sat on the cushion next to him. He was so caught up in what he was doing that he did not notice Aspen’s approach.
“Working on something new?” she asked with genuine interest because she was still waiting for him to serenade her with a song about her.
He smiled at the sight of her and played the opening chords of a well-known Kinks song.
“Did you just play Lola at the sight of your girlfriend? That’s a very peculiar choice.”
Tex chuckled. “I just like the song. There was no underlying message.”
“I should hope not,” she quipped and then let him off the hook with a smile.
“To answer your question, yes, I am working on something new. Those meetings with Raptor and then the news about the dead bodies…there’s something there. It might be dark and heavy, but there’s definitely a song.”
He scribbled something else in the notebook. Aspen sighed.
“Am I the only one who’s bothered by the fact that they’ve got us locked up in here like prisoners?” she finally whined like a bird trapped in a cage.
Champ looked up from his chessboard, but decided to let Tex try his hand at answering the question before he dipped his toe in the piranha infested pool.
Tex looked up at Aspen, having quickly learned that it was always in his best interest to not say the first thing that came to mind when replying to her more pointed questions.
“If I’m being honest, I’m cool staying here with armed guards outside the door until the professionals tell me the killers have either been caught or won’t be coming after us. It’s not like this is going to be forever and I get to hang with my two favorite people.”
Aspen’s blank expression made it clear that she didn’t agree with the answer.
“Champ agrees. Champ spent way too many days living on the streets with all sorts of dangers around. Champ has no problem being told to hang out in a warm, comfortable apartment where the dangers can’t get to him.”
Aspen rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“But the cops wouldn’t have any case if it weren’t for us,” she complained. “Now they tell us we have to sit on the bench, while they get to do all the exciting stuff. How is that fair? Weren’t you just complaining about how you didn’t like being kept out of the action, Champ?”
Champ nodded. “That was before the corpses started stacking up.
His cackle echoed through the apartment.
Aspen lifted Tex’s notebook off the couch and sat down next to him.
“I want to know what’s going on,” she explained. “I want to be there when they take down these guys who tried to kill us.”
“Not that I’m defending their actions, but they wouldn’t have been trying to kill us if we hadn’t stolen their car and guns,” Tex mentioned and kept the guitar between them in case she decided to punch him for the comment.
“Champ agrees that wasn’t one of Tex’s best ideas.”
“Hey!” Tex snapped as his head spun on a swivel to face his betraying friend. “I remember you being there, too.”
“Champ was there as the muscle after you two snuck off without him! And if Champ hadn’t been there, maybe Champ would be talking to himself right now.”
The words hung in the air for a moment because they had never discussed what might have happened if Champ hadn’t been there to use the gun in the backseat to fend off their pursuers.
“Look, I’m not denying that this is dangerous, but isn’t that what makes it exciting?” Aspen decided to try another tact. “Life is boring when it’s only a spectator sport.”
“Spectators rarely get killed,” Champ pointed out with another cackle.
Aspen nodded her agreement, but there was a fire in her eyes now.
“I’ll give you that, but I think history has already proven that the three of us aren’t the type to let life happen to us. I’m not saying let’s run into the fire with bullseyes painted on our backs, but we can at least continue to participate in the investigation. After all, where would they be without us?”
Tex, who sat mere inches from Aspen, got a quick contact high from her enthusiasm.
“She’s right. We’ve basically led them by the hand through every step of this investigation, and who’s going to get all the credit when the good guys save the day?”
“Not us, because we’re supposedly dead,” Aspen quipped.
“Champ knows that Agent It’s A Wonderful Life is going to take all the credit. No one will even know about our contribution.”
A smile danced across Aspen’s beautiful face. “Now you’re thinking like a couple of guys who are sick of being locked up in an apartment while the action outside is just getting fun. Have I even mentioned the reward yet?”
Now she had them eating out of the palm of her hand. Champ wandered over, carrying his chair, and sat down in front of the couch.
“Champ didn’t know there was a reward.”
“You’ve heard Agent Vlak talk about how the FBI has been chasing the Crossers for months,” Aspen explained. “They take domestic terrorists quite seriously, especially the ones that embarrass them by carrying out terrorists attacks on multiple occasions without getting caught. There has to be a sizeable reward for information leading to their capture, even if they haven’t gone public with it.”
Tex and Champ nodded their heads emphatically because this was the kind of logic they could get behind and support.
“But what can we do?” Tex asked. “You heard Wally. They’re not going to let us anywhere near the investigation and put our lives in danger.”
Aspen waved off that idea. “Let’s start with baby steps. So far, we’ve fed them all the vital information that’s gotten them this close. Maybe if we figured out the rest, it would be enough to close the case and earn us the reward.”
“But how do we do that if we can’t leave the apartment?” Champ asked in confusion.
Aspen got up off the couch, walked over to the nearby table, and grabbed the laptop.
“We can start by learning where the groundbreaking is being held and then go from there.”
She sat down next to Tex again and typed the information she wanted into the search engine.
“According to this, the groundbreaking is tomorrow at noon at an abandoned lot on the corner of Henley and Gunther. What do we know about that location?”
“Can I see that?” Tex asked as he leaned his guitar against the wall and took possession of the laptop. He quickly pulled up the location on Google Maps.
He turned the laptop so Aspen and Champ could see the screen.
“That lot is directly across the street from where I used to live.” He pointed at the building on the screen. “That’s the house my buddy’s grandma finally decided to sell to Miles Fitzpatrick. It used to freak me out that I could see that giant, creepy billboard of him from the house. The thing basically said that he was going to buy up the neighborhood and throw everyone out.”
“The abandoned lot was from a house that burned down a few years before I moved in. Two people died in the fire. The owners couldn’t afford to rebuild and no one wanted to buy land with a tragic past, so the lot just sat there. We used it as a place to hang out. I played many a show there for my neighbors on nights after we’d gather to drink.”
Champ’s weathered face lit up in a smile. “Champ knows that lot! Champ crashed there more than once. I guess we were neighbors a few times and didn’t even know it.”
Champs wild cackling made Aspen and Tex laugh.
“Okay, so now we know the place and the time, and the two of you are familiar with the neighborhood,” Aspen laid out the facts. “Let’s figure out how the Crossers tend to terrorize the event, and then we tell our pals in law enforcement so they can thwart the plan.”
“Sounds simple enough,” Tex agreed.
“Can we come up with a solution that saves the event, but not Miles Fitzpatrick? Champ hates the man and thinks it would be doing the world a favor.”
No one disagreed with Champ’s assessment. Instead, they stared at the laptop screen for the longest time without saying anything.
“Champ wishes this part was easier.”
“It’s like playing chess,” Aspen urged him. “You just have to get into the mind of your opponent and stay a few steps ahead of him. Plus, if Agent Vlak can figure it out, we can, too. There’s no way that prick is smarter than the three of us.”
That earned her emphatic nods from the guys.
TO BE CONTINUED…
This is so exciting!! I am enjoying this journey, greatly! (And Aspen never ceases to amaze me).
I’m glad you think so!
mind game supreme!
Aspen is trouble. She can talk anyone into anything. 🙂
I was worrying they were going to wander out of the safe space unbeknownst to Wally, Michelle, Maggie and Agent Ng. You wouldn’t take them right into the middle of the danger, would you, Austin? Austin?? Austin???
There was no wandering in this chapter at least…
Look, I’d like to keep them out of trouble, but they seem to have a nose for it. Aspen knows how to rally to troops, and she often leads them into trouble, don’t you agree???
I agree for sure, Austin.