“Not that we was invited to bid, mind you.” Walter removed the new lock from its packaging. “Perry Decatur is runnin’ things up there now. Doesn’t like dealin’ with local business if he can avoid it. Made it real clear he wanted to bring in out-of-town contractors. Said they were more competitive .”

“Like money’s the most important aspect of a good job,” Torrance scoffed. “No respect for fine craftsmanship these days.”

“So you two didn’t even get a slice of the project?” Gabe asked.

“Nope.” Walter positioned the new lock. “Not to say we don’t get some work on the side from time to time. Lot of the folks employed up there are local. They know us. They call us when they got a plumbing problem or need a hot-water tank replaced. Those fancy out-of-town contractors aren’t interested in the small jobs.”

“Claire Jensen mentioned that she had you take care of a clogged toilet for her,” Lillian said.

“Yep, she did, as a matter of fact.” Walter exchanged a meaningful look with Torrance. Both men smirked.

“What’s the joke?” Gabe asked.

“Nothing much.” Torrance readied a drill. “Just that while Walt and me was in Claire’s bathroom we couldn’t help noticing that she had some birth control pills and a box of condoms under the bathroom sink.”

Lillian frowned. “Don’t you think it’s a little tacky to snoop in people’s bathroom cupboards when they hire you to fix their plumbing?”

Walter had the grace to blush. “You’re right. We shouldn’t have said nothin’ about it.”

“Why not?” Torrance said. “Not like it’s news. That woman always did have what you’d call an active social life, even back in the old days. Remember how she used to sneak around with Larry Fulton?”

“Sure do,” Walter said. “The two of ’em used to crawl into the back of his dad’s delivery van and go at it like a couple of bunnies.”

Lillian straightened in the doorway. “She ran around with Larry Fulton? But he’s married.”

“This was back before he married Sheila Groves and took over his dad’s grocery store,” Walter assured her. “Way back when he was still in college. That sound right to you, Torrance?”

“Yep, sounds about right. Way I hear it, Claire hasn’t changed much over the years.”

“I think that’s enough gossip about Claire,” Gabe said.

He spoke quietly, but Walter and Torrance immediately changed the subject. Lillian smiled to herself.

Everyone knew that whatever else you could say about the Madison men, they didn’t kiss and tell.

Apparently, they didn’t listen to other masculine gossip about women either. That kind of old-fashioned chivalry was an extremely endearing trait in a man.

Chapter 18

The following morning Arizona held her security briefing from her dimly lit hospital room. She certainly looked the part of the heroically wounded warrior, Lillian thought. The bandages around A.Z.’s head gave her a dashing air. It was clear from the glittering determination in her eyes that she was recovering rapidly.

Lillian was quite relieved to see Arizona looking so much better this morning. She and Gabe had received the phone call summoning them to A.Z.’s bedside half an hour ago, just as they were finishing breakfast.

The only other attendee present today was Photon from the Incandescent Body bakery. He stood in the corner, serene and silent in his strange robes and jewelry. His shaved head gleamed green in the light of a nearby monitor. Could have passed for a space alien, Lillian thought.

“Way I figure it,” Arizona said, “the institute spy followed me home because he spotted me taking my routine sector surveillance photos. I cover the whole town right out to the boundaries three mornings a week, you know. Check up on the institute daily, of course. I must have caught something on film that they didn’t want anyone to see. When he saw his chance he knocked me out and stole my VPX 5000.”

“Don’t worry about it, A.Z.,” Gabe said. “You can replace the camera and get back to your daily recon work in no time.”

“Forget the camera,” Arizona said. “Now that we know for sure that we’re on to something, we’ve got to get inside.”

That sounded ominous, Lillian thought.

“Inside?” she repeated cautiously. “Inside what?”

“The new wing, of course. Listen up here.” Arizona’s voice lowered. “Got no choice now. We need to get a firsthand look at whatever is going on in there. My guess is they’ve made the big move.”

Dread settled on Lillian. “Oh, I really don’t think they’ve had time—”

“Probably brought ’em in with the HVAC equipment,” Arizona said.

“If that’s the case,” Photon murmured, “whoever goes inside will have to search for a large freezer compartment somewhere in the new wing.”

“Right.” Arizona adjusted her position on the pillows, checked the door and then lowered her voice again, this time to a raspy whisper. She motioned with one hand. “Move in as close as you can. The institute probably has spies out there in the hall. Be easy enough to disguise them as orderlies or janitors.”

Lillian suppressed a sigh and obediently leaned over the bed. Gabe and Photon followed suit.

“We all know that they’ll never let me or one of the Heralds step foot inside the institute.” Arizona gave Lillian and Gabe a meaningful look. “That leaves you two.”

Lillian gripped the bed rails. “Wait a second here, A.Z. We’re not, uh, trained in this kind of work.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll give you a few pointers before you go in.”

“How do you plan to get us inside?” Gabe asked, looking interested.

Lillian frantically tried to get his attention but he pretended not to see her.

“I figure the Leaders of Tomorrow open-house event will give you both the perfect opportunity,”

Arizona said. “Easy for you to get invites because one of you is a Harte and the other is a Madison.

Perry Decatur and the folks who run the institute will fall all over themselves to get you there. You’re both potential donors.”

Phonton nodded somberly. “An excellent plan.”

“Just might work, A.Z.,” Gabe said.

“But the new wing won’t be open yet.” Lillian struggled to bring some common sense to the situation.