Authors: Maria Elizabeth Romana
Ellie glanced back over her shoulder. They weren’t too far past the ladies room. Maybe she could say she felt sick and dash in there. Maybe she should just make a run for it back the way she had come. Was there any other way out of here? She turned her eyes forward again, and blam! A door opened suddenly out into the hallway, and Ellie walked right into it. “O-o-ow!”
“Oops, sorry!” A tall woman in a severe business suit and high heels, carrying an armload of files, tossed back her apology as she rushed on by and hurried down the hall.
Now everyone was definitely looking at them. The combination of the scrutiny, the fear, and the sting on her forehead brought tears to Ellie’s eyes. Sister Bertha took Ellie’s face by the chin and studied her. Her tone changed from anger to sympathy, “Oh, my dear, are you all right?” Bertha shook her head, looking after the busy woman in high heels. “Hmph. Couldn’t even stop to see if you were hurt.” Then she glanced up the hallway at the tour group, and gave them an exasperated wave. “Well, go on, stop gawking. Nothin’ to see here.”
The embarrassed onlookers turned back toward their tour guide, but Ellie was transfixed on Sister Bertha. Through her tears, she was seeing something—an odd glow. The woman’s face appeared to be beaming out a bright white light. There were streaks of pale pink and silvery shimmers, too. She looked almost like an angel. Wow, that whack on the head must’ve been harder than Ellie had thought.
But the whole thing gave her an idea. “Y-yes, Sister. I think I’m okay. But please forgive me. I must be honest with you. The real reason I fell behind…I just got caught up in the Rotunda, looking at that big painting on the ceiling.”
The nun brought her voice down to a whisper, “The Apotheosis?”
“Is that what it’s called? Isn’t it marvelous? All those beautiful images…I couldn’t take my eyes off it.” Ellie sighed, “It looks just like God in heaven with the angels, doesn’t it?”
Sister Bertha smiled like the angel she appeared to be. “Why, yes, child, I believe it does.” She laid a hand on Ellie’s shoulder then, and together, they slipped back into the tour group unnoticed.
# # #
Ellie understood that every day couldn’t be as exciting as the day before, when she’d gotten to help out Uncle Joe and Angel and two other Gifted Ones in their plan to expose a dirty politician, but did it have to be this bad? She could barely keep her eyes propped open at the painfully dull meeting Uncle Joe had dragged them to in some big fancy office building in downtown D.C. She shifted her focus from the presentation at the front of the room—some old geezer talking about that algae stuff again—to the world outside. Through the big windows on the side of the room, she could see several of Washington’s landmarks, including the glorious Capitol building where they’d carried out their little caper.
She could still hardly believe the whole thing had happened. Here, she’d been excited just to be visiting a new place and meeting new people, and just like that, it had turned into the biggest adventure of her life. Even Uncle Joe, who’d initially resisted the idea of letting Ellie join in, had been thrilled with the outcome. “Ellie,” he’d said, “you were so fast on your feet! You handled Sister Bertha like a pro. That bit about the painting was genius!” Ellie had felt so much pride at his reaction, she imagined
was beaming white and silver streaks herself. And, thanks to Ellie’s improvisational skills and her standing in for Nadia, the plan had come off perfectly. Nadia managed to find and photograph the incriminating papers, and Cooper had smuggled her out in the base of the armchair. Early this morning, in some newsroom somewhere in the city, some lucky reporter had opened an anonymous package that would make her famous.
It had all been so thrilling, so exciting—the kind of life she would fantasize about when watching those old movies with her dad. She wanted to tell her Aunt Grace all about it, every detail, but she knew she couldn’t. Grace would hit the roof if she knew Ellie had done something like that, and she would probably kill Uncle Joe for allowing it. Fortunately, Uncle Joe had used some kind of super healing products he carried in his bag to help the bump on Ellie’s head go down, so they wouldn’t have to explain it.
“Ow!” A quick, sharp jab in the rib cage brought Ellie back to the world of the living. She hadn’t even realized the meeting was breaking up until Angel’s elbow brought an abrupt end to her daydream. The speaker switched off his presentation, and folks started getting up and milling about. Angel grabbed Ellie by the elbow and pulled her up from her chair. “Vamos, chica. Let’s see if we can’t break you outta here.”
They worked their way towards the front of the conference room where Uncle Joe, the algae guy, and a couple of other people were conversing animatedly. Ellie glanced out across the room. It was filled with a hodge-podge of races and nationalities. It could’ve been the U.N. for all the different clothing styles, hair styles, sizes, shapes, and ages of people that were gathered. Her ears were picking up dozens of different languages and accents, some speaking earnestly and some angrily, but most were laughing and chattering like friends at a party. Nadia the Gymnast, Cooper the Builder, Angel the Defender, Uncle Joe the Healer, and all these other super-talented people. What could she, Elodie Eggleston, possibly do that could compare to what all these people had to offer?
As the group began migrating back toward their seats for the next presentation, Angel made a move toward Joe. She tapped on his shoulder to get his attention. “Hey, Joe, why don’t I take Ellie out and show her around a bit? You’ve got plenty of Defenders here. The kid’s really…uh, hungry. Aren’t you, El?”
Ellie brightened. “Oh, oh yeah, starving. Absolutely starving. You don’t mind, do you, Uncle Joe?”
He looked gloomy. “But Dr. Graber’s got these great artifacts from her last dig—” He stopped and grinned. “Never mind, you’ve earned it. Go ahead.” He pointed directly at Ellie. “But stay with Angel, got it? I mean, every minute.”
“Yes, Aunt Grace,” Ellie answered with a giggle.
Angel smiled and assured him, “Won’t let her out of my sight.”
Once outside, Ellie tried to sound cheerful, “So, where are we off to? The Washington Monument? The Jefferson Memorial?”
Angel looked at her oddly. “You really want to go to those places?” Ellie laughed and shook her head. “Good, me either. There’re a couple places I would like to go, though.”
“I’m all yours. Remember, I can’t leave your side for two seconds.”
They started down the busy street. People were rushing past in every direction on the crowded sidewalks. Meanwhile, cars clogged the roadway in between, and buses and bicycles wove in and out. Ellie had to walk double-time to keep up with Angel’s long-legged pace. As they stopped at the crosswalk on their third block, she asked breathlessly, “So, where are we going?”
“A couple more blocks, but first—” Angel came up short as a door swung out toward them from a shiny glass building. She grabbed Ellie’s arm to force her to stop, too, as a group of big, strapping men burst through the doorway almost as a unit. All of the men were dressed in dark suits with dark shades and short or slicked-back haircuts.
Ellie couldn’t help but think
Men in Black
, as the small crowd moved from the building to a long black limousine parked directly in front. The men on the outer rim of the pack were all turned outwards, scanning the surrounding area with grim looks on their faces. The limo door opened, and through the wall of darkness, Ellie caught glimpses of brighter colors and maybe even a flash of jewelry. When the limo door closed, there were fewer big men left standing on the sidewalk, and Angel walked boldly up to one of them, who had his back to them.
Although all the men were big, the one Angel approached was bigger still. He was a couple inches taller than the rest and broader, if that was even possible, across the back and shoulders. His hair was jet black in a layered, wavy cut touching the base of his collar, where it curled up in a disorganized pattern. Ellie grinned, thinking how this guy’s neck was probably wider than her waist.
“Rique. Riq.” Angel was attempting to get his attention, but he seemed thoroughly engrossed in his mission of scoping out every single person on the street. Angel tapped on his shoulder, and in a louder, more aggressive tone, repeated the request, “¡Hermanito!”
Hermanito? Oh, sure, Ellie knew what that meant—little brother. The big dude was Angel’s brother, Enrique.
The hulking form spun around in response to Angel’s call, and the grim look was immediately replaced with a dimpled smile. “Ange, honey, sorry. Didn’t know it was you.” He leaned in, slid an arm around her waist and kissed her on the cheek. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t tell you. We’ve been trying to keep the chatter down…”
“Oh, right. You mentioned that.” He looked past her suspiciously, down the street, and then back over his shoulder before leaning in even closer. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, fine. I just wanted to—”
One of the other MIB crew reached in and touched Rique on the arm. “Hey, man, gotta go.”
“Right there,” Rique responded. Then he turned back to Angel. “Sorry, Ange, duty calls. Maybe we can have dinner next time?” He touched her cheek affectionately, then stepped away.
“Rique, wait, there’s someone I want you to meet.” He stopped and looked back in their direction, his eyes darting about as if seeking the big, important person he expected to be introduced to. Angel took Ellie’s elbow and gave her a slight shove in his direction. “This is Ellie, my latest charge. Remember? The girl I told you about—Lucy Eggleston’s daughter.”
He looked down, finally focusing on Ellie’s face. “Oh, sure, I remember. Ellen, nice to meet you.” He extended his hand and quickly shook.
“Uh, Ellie, Elodie,” she mumbled in reply. Then she wondered if her cheeks had flushed enough to hide her freckles.
“Riq!” His MIB buddy sounded impatient. Rique gave the girls a quick wave and disappeared back into the building.
Angel shrugged. “Sorry, he’s really busy right now. Whole bunch of royal big shots from…Morocco, or Monaco, or was it Montevideo? Anyway, we caught him off guard. He’s usually a little friendlier than that.”
“Oh, that’s okay.” Ellie wouldn’t have had a clue what to say to him if he hadn’t been called away, so she was just as glad that the encounter had been brief. Besides, she wouldn’t want to be caught openly drooling at the guy. No doubt about it—Enrique Espinoza looked
like the skinny, awkward boys in her classes at school. But it was more than that. There was something, something she could see, feel around him. Kind of a warm glow.
Angel seemed oblivious to Ellie’s fugue state as she stepped to the curb to cross the street, and just kept chattering away, “It’s his first time working with such high-ranking officials, and he really wants to make a good impression.”
“Uh-huh,” mumbled Ellie, still lost in her thoughts of the big man. As they waited for a break in the traffic, Ellie felt the warm glow against her back and couldn’t help turning to look. Through the glass door of the building, Enrique could be seen standing there. His hand was pressed against his ear, and he appeared to be talking to someone, as though he had one of those spy-type earphones in. His eyes slowly rose to meet hers, and for just a moment, they locked. She had to squint as the bright sunlight around him was hurting her eyes.
“C’mon, chica. Now’s our chance.” With a sudden yank, Ellie was pulled off the curb and into the street by Angel’s firm grip. “Really gotta stay on your toes in D.C., Ellie, or someone will mow you down.”
Chapter Ten: Doo Drops
“Okay, it’s just a little further.”
Ellie was grateful to hear that they were finally nearing their destination on Angel’s little walking tour of Washington, D.C. They had already stopped at three different food stands to pick up hot sausages, soft pretzels, and handmade gelato, but eaten it all while moving at a pretty fast clip. Angel wasn’t kidding when she bragged about being in good shape.
As they waited at a stoplight, Angel pointed down the next block, to where a red and white striped awning overhung a few small tables on the sidewalk. Ellie read the sign on the awning, “Mama Luccini’s Ristorante. So we’re going to meet Mama?”
“Well, we might see her, or even Papa Luccini, but it’s actually their handsome son we’re after today.” Angel reached up to her neck and slid her fingers down inside her shirt. She pulled her hand out, letting something glittery fall against her chest. It took a moment before Ellie recognized it as the single, simple stone that Poppy Prentiss had drawn into her princess picture of Angel. Angel blushed a little at Ellie’s reaction. “I know, right? All sparkly and sweet—not really my style.”
Ellie motioned in the direction of Mama Luccini’s. “So the handsome son gave you that? He’s your boyfriend?”
Angel tilted her head just a bit, apparently not fully comfortable with the concept. “I guess you could call him that. Kind of a new thing for me. I never really had a boyfriend before. I mean, not a real one, like the kind who actually cares about you as a person and buys you nice gifts and shit.”
Ellie laughed at that. “Well, me either. I wasn’t exactly the head cheerleader at my school.”