Rico Hernandez stood by the refrigerator door as his sister Lydia was finishing up the last of their lunch bags.
She glanced at her brother and grinned. "Are you ready for school today?"
"No big. Quiz today in algebra. The coach had everyone in after practice yesterday for a review."
Lydia nodded. "He is a good man."
"And a good coach; I'll be okay. An A for sure." He waved at the four lunch bags on the counter. "I wish..."
Lydia could only shrug. "I know, it sounds crazy. It is crazy," she told her brother. "I can't explain it, Rico. When I found the bad men at Valley Electric ... The way I felt..." Her voice trailed off into silence, words not truly being able to describe what she'd felt.
Rico grinned, a mirror of her own. "You should get a boyfriend, Lydia! Then maybe you could explain it!"
She laughed. "No, nothing like that." He raised an eyebrow and she stuck her tongue out at him. "It was my thinking against theirs, Rico. Like a chess match, only for a lot higher stakes."
"You could get hurt."
"I can get hurt in lots of ways, Rico. Who is sitting on the bench for the rest of the season with a green stick broken arm? Eh?"
"One job was a surprise, Lydia. But another?"
"This one will be even less real than the one before. I'll be a detective working for an insurance company, undercover at their client. Three checks! I'll be able to retire soon!
"Seriously, Rico, all I have to do is write a report and keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth closed. I did it before; it worked out just fine."
Well it had ... for Lydia. For Valley Electric Supply, a relatively small wholesaler of electrical parts, it had been a much bigger deal. She'd been asked by her best friend's boyfriend to investigate the accounts payable clerk at the company, because the man was driving a new Corvette, living in a new condo and sporting a lot of gold jewelry. It had taken her a while to figure out what he was doing, but she did in the end. The problem was, while she was at it, she'd also caught a store manager selling stuff out the back door and pocketing the money.
The married store manager and his lover -- a woman inventory clerk who was married to someone else -- had been easily caught. Jeff King, the accounts payable clerk was another matter. For one thing, he'd stolen more than a hundred thousand dollars, not a few thousand. Second, because no one saw him actually do anything illegal, he was still sitting at a desk at Valley Electric. Of course, now he was a file clerk, not the A/P clerk and was making considerably less, but it still rankled with her that he was out and about.
Rico laughed at her. "Guys daydream about pretty girls we've met. My sister dreams of arresting bad guys."
She shook her head. "Rico, I can't arrest anyone. All I can do is gather evidence and give it to the police."
"Yeah, there's that giving to the police, too."
Just then her two younger sisters trooped into the kitchen, wanting to know what was for breakfast. Elizabeth was twelve, willowy thin like her older sister, and if anything, a shade darker-skinned. She went straight to the cabinet with the breakfast cereal and poured a bowl for herself. Juanita, her ten-year-old sister, put in two slices of toast and starting slicing up an apple.
Momma, Lydia thought, would have had hysterics to see one of her "babies" using a knife. Well, Momma and Poppa were in heaven now and Lydia wasn't her mother. She'd shown Nita how to do it safely, when Nita stubbornly refused to let her older sister do it for her.
Juanita might be the youngest of their family, but she was also, beyond a doubt, the stubbornest.
Diego came in and dug around in the fridge coming up with two eggs. In a second he had them broken, and he was stirring them in a small frying pan, making his version of an omelet.
Diego was sixteen and because of the dislocations of her parents' deaths in the same car accident, had been denied a chance to learn to drive. She'd been making time on the weekends to teach him and this Friday she'd get off early and they would go to the Motor Vehicle Department and see if he could pass his driver's test.
The death of their parents had hurt them all terribly, but all in different ways. Diego had been talking for a year about how eager he was to get his driver's license. He was, he said, going to work on the weekends at a burger place and save up enough money for his own car.
Well, thanks to the monumental sum her father had insured himself and their mother for, none of them were ever going to need to work for a long time. And now Diego was tentative and unsure behind the wheel, not quite terrified by the other cars and trucks on the road, but he was certainly more aware than most kids his age of what could happen if things went wrong. Lydia was going to spend a lot of time in prayer between now and Friday afternoon, hoping to get her brother through the test, one way or another.
Finally they all went out and got into the van she drove these days. Juanita went to an elementary school, Elizabeth to a middle school and the two boys to the high school. Like her mother, Lydia made sure none of them forgot their lunch bags.
After Nita, the last of them to get out, Lydia watched her go into the school building. Then, with a sigh, she put the van into motion and headed for Valley Electric, for her last day.
Saying her goodbyes at Valley Electric was a lot harder for Lydia than when she'd left the university. The people at Valley seemed genuinely sad to see her leave. At college it had been far more perfunctory. Tom was the hardest goodbye to make.
"I'll not pretend that I'm happy to see you go," Tom said, as they munched Mexican food at his favorite restaurant. "The worst thing about this is that I really need a second programmer and I have major doubts that I'm going to find one anywhere nearly as good as you."
Lydia made some sort of socially acceptable noise and he looked at her across the table and grinned. "On the other hand, you've given me a great boost at work. Downside, though, is that both Jed and Jason are convinced that they have to redouble computer security." He made a face. "I can't keep the door to the computer room unlocked any more. That's going to be a real pain."
The diminutive Chicana nodded; that would be a pain. Carrying an armload of reports was hard enough; going through the door with them was going to be more than hard. But, she'd been waiting to surprise Tom and now was as good a time as any.
"About my replacement, I'd like to make a recommendation." He looked at her curiously.
There was silence for a moment, then he gestured impatiently, so she went on. "Do you know Doreen McWilliams, in Credit?"
"About your height, a little heavy? Quiet?"
Doreen was a good hundred pounds heavier than Lydia; she wanted to throttle her former boss, even if she knew he was pulling her leg. She could see the grin on his face.
Lydia very carefully said, "That's the one. She likes to be called Mac." Lydia tried to sound as disinterested as she could muster.
Tom nodded again. "She wanted that for her password; I told her no way."
"She has an Apple II at home. She's in her second year of computer science at Phoenix College." That was a local junior college. "She wants to be a programmer."
Tom laughed. "Right under my nose again, eh? You really do like to rub it in!"
Lydia was nonplussed when she realized what he'd said. That had hurt!
"Tom, she's very shy. She's just like she looks: a pudgy, timid, shy mouse. Except she spends almost as much time a week on a computer as you or I. I've been talking to her the last few weeks -- she knew I took C in college. It's her language of choice, but she doesn't have a firm grip on pointer arithmetic yet. I explained it to her and now she seems to understand."
Tom was silent. "I'll have to talk to her supervisor, but, yeah, there won't be a problem. If she's anything like you, I'll take her in a second." He paused, his memory obviously working. "Jeez, she's been with Valley since high school! She was a summer intern; everybody liked her and wanted her to stay. This is her third year with the company. Thanks, Lydia."
He chomped a few chips, after liberally dosing them with the extra spicy hot salsa they always brought to the table as soon as they saw Tom coming. "What about you, what are you going to do now? Go back and finish your degree?"
Both Reed and Denny had been emphatic about the need not to talk about what they were going to be doing, at least at first. Her common sense told her they were right ... but other things were right, too. "I'm going to follow the yellow brick road," she told him. She'd lied enough to the man already!
He looked at her steadily. "You're crazy, Lydia." A grin crooked at the corners of his mouth. "Of course, if I was your age, I'd think it a great idea, too. Watch yourself!"
After lunch there was a steady stream of people through the computer room, but not Jeff King -- the word had finally percolated down to him about who'd blown the whistle on him.
Sancho from the warehouse was one of the last. "Lydia, I am really pleased you are going back to school."
She was curious, because he sounded so serious. "People like you, you're going to make things a lot better for people like me and my family."
"All I'm doing is what anyone else would," Lydia told him.
"Yeah, but you're doing it in the big leagues! Look, I know you are pretty tight with Mr. Wilson and Mr. Fong, I was wondering ... My sister, she speaks English real good and she needs a job. Could you, would you say something for her?"
.... There is more of this story ...