Val had no idea how her scalp could hold as much tension as her lower back. It seemed unreasonable that a simple head massage could melt her body like butter and yet, as she lay on the table and felt her instructor’s hands carefully working up from the base of her neck to the top of her head, Val felt so much stress leaving her body that she was sure the only thing that would be left would be the most relaxed puddle in existence.
“Take you time,” Teresa, her instructor, said when she was done. “I’ll leave a bottle of water on the counter here. When you’re ready, you can get up, slowly like we talked about. Make sure to drink some water, and then get dressed. We’ll review the techniques I showed you afterwards.”
“Thank you,” Val mumbled through a haze of relaxation as Teresa left the room.
Part of any training regime was getting the care needed to recover from the stress the training placed on the body. Val had used massage therapy before when it was available, and was willing to give back rubs to friends and family whenever they asked, but it had taken more than a little prodding from Anna before Val considered the possibility of getting real training in putting her hands to gentle uses as well as the violent ones she normally specialized in.
Her first thought had been to seek private lessons, in case she turned out to be terrible at it, but Teresa had convinced her that only by working with a group of other students would she gain the diversity of experience she needed to understand people’s differing needs.
“So how was class?” Tam asked when Val got back to the Second Chance Club.
“Pretty good,” Val said, setting down her backpack and grabbing another bottle of water from the common room’s refrigerator. “I didn’t break anybody.”
“Was that a concern?” Anna asked, looking up from the letter she was reading.
“I guess not,” Val said. “I was just worried that my callouses would mess things up. My hands aren’t exactly lily soft.”
“And did anyone complain about that?” Anna asked.
“We haven’t started working on each other yet,” Val said. “That’ll be later. For now I’ve just got some anatomy and physiology homework to go over, plus the lesson notes.”
“How’s it feel being back in school?” Tam asked. She was tinkering with a wrist mounted device which sported a number of barrels that ringed her forearm. Val knew it wasn’t a firearm from a brief glance but what its actual purpose was she could only speculate. Probably something for Tam’s next stage show. Those took roughly a thousand times more work than Val would have imagined and, in Tam’s case, always seemed to involve dozens of new gadgets.
“You know, sitting in a class was a little weird,” Val said. “I remember being so bored most of the time, but this stuff was pretty interesting. Even the homework Teresa assigned doesn’t seem that bad. I mean I always hated homework, but this is stuff I kind of want to know more about. I’m just not used to the idea that school might be fun I guess.”
“If you need any help with your studies, let me know,” Anna said.
“You took Anatomy and Physiology as part of your finance degree?” Val asked, ready to believe that Anna had studied stellar physics and ancient Sumerian too if Anna said she had. The older woman’s breadth of knowledge seemed endless sometimes.
“No, but my daughter did and I acted as her study partner when she was preparing for her examines. That was several years back but I doubt the human body has evolved much since then,” Anna said.
“Oh yeah, how’s Darya doing?” Tam asked, looking up from her work.
“The usual trials and tribulations of medical work,” Anna said.
“Wait, you have a daughter?” Val asked, shaking her head to help the new information settle in properly.
“Two in fact,” Anna said. “Darya is the older.”
“Were you married?” Val asked, her curiosity momentarily eclipsing her normal reserve about prying into people’s lives.
“Yes, a few times, though not to Darya’s father,” Anna said, with a wistful smile.
“I can’t believe I didn’t know that,” Val said.
“This is the first that you’ve asked,” Anna said.
“I don’t think I knew it either,” Tam said. “Did you have to raise Darya on your own then?”
“No, Ishak has always been a part of her life,” Anna said. “He’s still a dear friend, but we were never interested in marriage. His life was in the air and I couldn’t imagine competing with that.”
“How about your other daughter?” Val asked.
“Sonya?” Anna said. “Hers was a different story. Miguel and I married after her birth and were together for a three whole months before I realized what as mistake I’d made. He left our lives shortly after the divorce but I believe Sonya has spoken to him a few times since his grand daughter was born.”
“You have grandchildren?” Val asked, visible stunned.
“Three so far,” Anna said. “Two girls and a boy. Darya’s daughter is older than her cousins. You seem surprised?”
“I guess I’ve never thought of you as old enough to have grandchildren,” Val said.
“I have earned each and every one of these,” Anna said, passing her hand through her silver grey hair.
“Wow,” Val said. “Do they know what you do with the Second Chance Club?”
“They’re familiar with the general details,” Anna said. “I leave out the most unusual aspects of our missions though.”
“It’s a little tough not being able to talk freely about all of this, isn’t it?” Tam asked.
“I thought Charlene didn’t care if we told people about magic and the rest?” Val asked.
“She doesn’t,” Anna said. “But for people who haven’t experienced it, some of the claims we might make can be a little hard to believe.”
“Especially when you factor in the need for discretion in terms of keeping people’s personal information private,” Tam said.
“Ok, I can see that,” Val said. “I can’t exactly tell my sister that the Queen of Unicorns is living in Vancouver as a nanny. I mean I could, but she wouldn’t believe me.”
“She might,” Anna said. “But it would be a disservice to Queen Amaltheia to share too much information about her. You have a good relationship with Elena, so you could probably give your sister enough details to convince her that unicorns were real. You could even tell her they are working to connect with young lives to regain the wonder they need. The question is whether it would be worth the effort. Especially if you couldn’t tell her more than the generalities about them.”
“Probably not,” Val said. “Just a blanket ‘I work with some weird stuff’ covers most of what she needs to know. Anything else would come off like bragging I think.”
“And if it turns out she does need a unicorn’s help then she’ll probably know to come to you anyways,” Tam said.
“Yeah, anything strange starts happening at home, she’s under orders to hit me up immediately with a red alert,” Val said.
“That’s why Darya writes letters,” Anna said. “She says if it can wait for a letter then it’s nothing I have to worry about. I think she worries that I will take on too many problems if she lets me.”
“So, she’s met you then?” Tam teased.
“I am much better than I used to be,” Anna said. “If you met me before I joined the club, you would have known a very different woman.”
“I’m trying to picture you with less chill,” Val said. “It’s kind of scary.”
“Oh I didn’t scare anyone in those days,” Anna said. “The work I did was all about building relationships. That only works when people trust you, and trust sustained can be an even more dangerous weapon than treachery.”
“So what changed then?” Tam asked.
“I was more focused and driven then,” Anna said. “That sounds like a good thing, but being laser focused on one objective after another? It’s not always a healthy way to live. We need to step back and see the world around us too. There were so many good things in my life that I never noticed, or didn’t appreciate enough until my illness made me slow down.”
“Was that the cancer that you mentioned fighting off?” Val asked. She knew that cancer treatments were lengthy, difficult affairs. She’d watched a grandmother and two uncles go through long battles with it. Somehow in Anna’s case though Val had always pictured Anna as simply growling at the tumor and it spontaneously going into remission because it was afraid of the attracting any more of Anna’s attention.
“Yes,” Anna said. “I had to change a lot of my habits and find a less stressful, and healthier way to live.”
“And now you stalk ghosts, and face down armed gunmen?” Val asked.
“Yes, like I said, healthier and less stressful,” Anna said with a smile that was both sincere and disturbingly honest.
Val had two amazing grandmothers, but adopting Anna as a third was more than a little tempting on occasion.
“So what kind of troubles is Darya having these days?” Tam asked. “She works for Doctors Without Borders now right? Is she in the field?”
“No, she did a stint in Cambodia but she’s back in France at the moment,” Anna said. “Apparently they’ve been having supply issues and she’s trying to work with the manufacturer to get to the root of the problem.”
“Who’s the company she’s talking to?” Tam asked, turning to her laptop.
“Kleinwell Medical,” Anna said, scanning through the letter. “Why do they sound familiar?”
“Because they showed up a report I passed around last week,” Tam said, her brow knitting together.
“The one on PrimaLux?” Val asked. “Were they one of Prima’s shell companies?”
“No, they’re a competitor,” Tam said. “I had them marked as someone who might have more inside information because they’d picked up a few of Prima’s ex-employees.”
“We could be jumping at shadows, but I am not inclined to assume the problems my daughter is facing are due to benign mistakes,” Anna said. “Charlene has asked us to allow her to pursue PrimaLux, but how would the two of you feel about investigating this before we receive an official request?”
“They literally cursed one of my best servers,” Tam said. “I am definitely in.”
“You don’t even have to ask,” Val said. They had her back, she had theirs. It was a simple relationship, and one Val intended to never lose if she could help it.
“Thank you,” Anna said. “We should begin by discovering what the supply problems Darya writes about entail.”
“Not a problem,” Tam said. “I think I’ve got the emails we need here. Also, tell Darya that your name and birthday are a terrible password.”
“You should change it for her,” Val suggested with a smile.
“Nah, no reason for her to have a hard day tomorrow,” Tam said. “I scrambled their IT admin’s password instead. His was even worse. Hopefully it’ll be a learning experience for him that he can share with the whole organization.”
“Clever,” Val said. “So what’s wrong with the supplies?”
“It says here that several shipments of antiretroviral drugs were misplaced,” Tam said.
“Misplaced?” Anna asked.
“Yeah, I’m checking what that means.” Tam read through several emails with a quick glance at each. “Okay. That’s….we definitely need to get ahead of this.”
“What did you find?” Anna asked, putting her letter down.
“Well, ‘misplaced’ is the euphemism they’re using because the actual reports say that the pills left the dock in the U.S. in fine shape but by the time they arrived in Cambodia they had been transformed into black rocks.”
“How does a drug change into rock?” Val asked.
“Magic,” Tam said.