“Back so soon?” Mr. Black asked as he opened the door.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Madison said, entering and unlacing her boots. “I had some follow-up questions.”
Mr. Black smiled. “Not at all. I was just making some tea. Would you like some?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” she said as he took her coat. Madison liked the way he treated her like an adult. Most grown-ups didn’t treat kids that way, in her experience.
“You can head on into the study,” he said. “I’ll join you shortly with the tea. You’ll find Judy is here.”
Madison grabbed her bag and headed down the hall toward the study. She acknowledged Judy and sat in the same chair she used last time. She pulled her notebook from her bag and got her pen at the ready.
“So,” Mr. Black said, handing her a small cup of tea on a saucer. “You had a question for us?”
Madison sipped the tea and then placed it on the side table. “I called the Red Cross,” she said.
“Oh?” he asked. Madison noticed Judy glancing at him with a slight I-told-you-so grin.
“Yes, sir. Seems they’ve never heard of you.” Madison looked at him, her pen poised to record his response.
“I see,” he said. “Well, that was just an example. I didn’t mean that we worked for the Red Cross, specifically. Just that we work for NGOs like them.”
“I see,” Madison replied. “Can you name one of those NGOs?”
“Not off the top of my head, no,” he said. He sipped his tea. “You should try this, Judy,” he said, shifting his gaze to the other woman in the room. “It’s quite good.”
“I’m good,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Another thing I learned when I talked to the Red Cross, is that they have five big warehouses, the size of yours. A little over a million square feet when you add all five up.”
“Is that right?” he asked.
“It is. And those five warehouses provide disaster relief for the entire country. They can take care of a hundred thousand people for thirty days with what they have on hand.”
“Impressive,” he said.
“It is. And so I was wondering…” Madison looked up from her notebook and fixed Mr. Black with a stare. “If they can do all that with just five warehouses, why would you need three thousand?”
Mr. Black choked on his tea. Madison glanced at Judy, who looked quite amused. Madison reached over and took the tea from Mr. Black and placed it on his desk. “Are you okay?” she asked.
He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Yes, yes. I just swallowed wrong. You’d think after spending seventy something years on this earth, I’d have figured out how to drink tea. But you’d be wrong.”
Madison smiled. She liked Mr. Black, even though he seemed to be a pathological liar. He was like a gentler, more affable version of her Grampa. “So?” she asked.
“So?” he repeated.
“The warehouses?” she asked.
“Ah. Well, I’m afraid you have me at a loss with that question, Miss Johnson. Did you say three thousand?”
“Yes, sir. Of course, that’s just an estimate, but I found evidence of a cell like yours operating in every county I looked in. And I looked at a lot of them.”
“Cell?” he said, glancing quickly at Judy.
Madison looked at Judy. There was no change in her expression. Madison looked back to Mr. Black. “Yes, sir. I think that’s the right term, correct?”
“I’m curious where you picked that word up,” he said.
Madison shrugged. “Around. On the street. You know kids these days.” She smirked.
“I see,” he said.
“Actually, I suppose I should amend that. That was just the United States. I’m aware of cells in other countries as well. I suppose there could be tens of thousands of cells operating. Each with a warehouse just like yours.”
“Could there, now?” he asked.
“Certainly looks that way,” Madison said. She looked down at her notebook and then back up at Mr. Black. A long silence hung in the room.
“Would you excuse me a moment?” he asked. “I’d like to consult with my associate, if that’s okay.”
“Of course,” she said. “Would you like me to leave the room?”
“Oh, no. We’ll be right back. Do you need more tea?” he asked.
Madison picked up her tea from the side table. “No, I’m good. Thanks.” She watched as Judy joined Mr. Black and they left the room, closing the door behind them. She looked around the room. She put her tea back down and went to the bookshelves to inspect. It was a quite different mix of books from those at her father’s cabin. No romances, no philosophy or religion. But there were several biographies, some dense-looking legal tomes, and several books about the environment. She turned to face his desk and notice his notebook. She placed hers next to it on the desk. They were identical.
She heard her host coming back toward the room, so she rushed to her chair and settled back in. By the time the door opened, it looked as though she had not moved from her spot.
“We’ve made a decision, Miss Johnson,” he said, resuming his position in the seat across from her.
“Oh?” she asked.
“Yes. We’ve decided to read you in.”