Madison pulled her car onto Lakeside and parked a half a block down from Mr. Black’s house. She needed a new lead, and while she didn’t know what good a stakeout would do, this was always what TV detectives did when they needed leads. She used the school’s Nikon as a telescope and scanned the exterior of the home. It was dark and the street was quiet.
There was no activity around the house. She could see into one of the windows, and there was a cable news station on the big screen TV showing pictures of a wildfire somewhere. She pointed her lens at the other windows, but they were all dark. There were no cars in the driveway, but there was a garage, so she assumed Mr. Black was probably home.
Madison put down the camera and reached for her bag, which she had thrown in front of the passenger seat of her car. It had wedged itself tightly on the ride, and she struggled to pull it free. She removed a water bottle and a protein bar and put them into the center console. She picked the camera back up and started scanning again.
The TV had moved on to a slow motion car chase, and she fiddled with the telephoto lens to try to read the words on the crawl at the bottom of the screen. The lens was good, but it wasn’t that good. Then she heard a click.
Madison recognized the sound immediately. Although she had never so much as touched a handgun, the noise made by a round being chambered was something anyone who went to the movies would know. She slowly took the camera from her eye. The telephoto lens was heavy and she had to use both hands to gently place the borrowed Nikon on the passenger seat. She waited for her eyes to refocus and adjust to the dark, watching the rear view mirror. She could hear her own pulse throbbing in her ear, but breathed slowly and deeply, trying to keep her cool.
“Who are you and what do you know?” her unexpected passenger asked.
Madison was surprised by the voice. While it was tremulous, as one would expect from a woman of that age, it was also forceful and self-assured. “Judy?” she guessed. She was unable to stifle a smirk as she saw the surprise register on the woman’s face.
“How the fuck do you know my name? Who do you work for?” Judy demanded, raising the gun so Madison could see it in the mirror.
Madison thought a moment. It wasn’t a question she was expecting. “The Bee,” she replied.
“The Springfield Bee. It’s the student newspaper at my high school. Can you put down the gun? You’re scaring me.”
“How old are you?” Judy asked.
“Seventeen. I’m a senior.”
“Jesus Christ.” Judy lowered the gun, and Madison heard more clicks that she assumed meant it was being put into safe mode, or whatever gun people called that. Madison watched as the older woman opened the rear door of the car, then the front door, and then slipped into the passenger seat. The two women took each other in. “Okay,” Judy continued, “perhaps you should start from the beginning.”
“I guess it all started when I got this phone,” Madison said, slipping her phone out of her pocket. She unlocked it and went to her text messages. She showed Judy the screen. “I’ve been getting texts for you ever since I got it. Your podiatrist seems pissed you missed your appointment, by the way.”
Judy looked at the phone. “God damn it. I totally forgot about that.”
“Yeah, anyway, a bunch of people who were using colors for names were texting about some meeting—”
“Oh good lord,” Judy sighed. “Do these people have no concept of operational security? Bunch of fucking bureaucrats. What should I have expected?” She shook her head. “Go on.”
“Yeah, so I was curious, and I went to the IHOP where they had this meeting—”
“IHOP! Are you fucking kidding me right now?” Judy seemed to be getting a little worked up. Madison was glad she had put the gun down.
“Yeah, the IHOP, and anyway I overheard this discussion…”
Madison proceeded to tell Judy about the meeting, what she had learned about Mr. Black, and her visit to the warehouse. It felt good to unload her secrets, and something about Judy made Madison feel comfortable. She chose not to mention the man who had helped her escape and returned her phone, since she didn’t want to get him in trouble. In her version of the story, she found the warehouse exit all by herself.
Judy sat in silence shaking her head the whole time. When Madison finished her story, they sat in silence awhile.
“Okay, kiddo,” Judy said. “Here’s how it’s going to be. You’re going to go home now. You’re going to go to school tomorrow and not breathe a word of this to anybody. You’re going to destroy any pictures you took. You’ll shred your notes. You will not give any of this a second thought. This is much bigger and much more dangerous than you think. I don’t want you getting hurt, but don’t think for a second that I won’t put a bullet in your head if I have to.”
Madison looked at the gun in Judy’s lap and then back at its owner. She believed every word.