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   Chapter 2 Brownie Oxford and the Barren Woods Blunder

Brownie Oxford and the Barren Woods Blunder: Brownie Bk 3 By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 14223

Updated: 2018-03-13 10:29

Chapter 2

I fastened the last of my coat's buttons, slung my purse over my shoulder, picked up my keys and opened my door. I nearly yelped when I saw two people standing there.

"Sorry about that, " Nicole, my building manager said as I tried to get my heart rate back to normal. "I was just doing a walk through with the new tenant." She gestured to the door to Noah's apartment and I nodded.

"Oh, " I said, looking at the man next to her. He appeared to be a few years older than me and was of medium height with brown hair and brown eyes. Nothing about him screamed serial killer, but then I thought that about my other neighbors, so I was fairly certain I wasn't an accurate gage for those sorts of things. Something about him looked vaguely familiar though. I just couldn't place it.

Nicole looked at me and pursed her lips while widening her eyes before returning to a generally pleasant expression. I wasn't quite sure if she was telling me I was staring too long at the new man or if she wanted me to keep my knowledge of the apartment's former tenant to myself. Thus far we had several conversations where she asked me to not say anything once management was allowed to put the apartments back on the market.

Given the extra information the trio managed to collect, officials sorted through every item in both apartments and then for good measure knocked a couple of holes in walls on the off chance things were hidden. The past few weeks saw new drywall and carpeting along with other assorted bits going into both Noah's and Matt and Crista's apartments.

From the presence of the new guy I was guessing they were now deemed rent worthy.

"Welcome to the building, " I said.

"I think you will be very happy here." Nicole added looking relieved at my generic statement.

"Thanks, I hope so, " He replied more or less answering both of us. "I'm Steve Wallace, " he said holding out a hand for me to shake. "I guess we're neighbors."

"Bonnie Brown, " I replied, shaking his hand and trying to sound friendly. There was something about the name that pinged on my radar, like I heard it before. But like his vaguely familiar appearance, I couldn't pin it down. "I guess you are moving in today?"

"Yup, moving van will be here in a bit. I'll try not to completely hog the elevator."

"No problem, I'll be out most of the day anyway, " I told him smiling politely as I let his hand go.

"Oh, and I rented the other apartment as well, " Nicole told me. Her wide and slightly sappy smile caused my gut to clench. There was only one other empty apartment in the building at the moment, Matt and Crista's, the one next door to me.

"Did you?" I asked trying not to sound strained.

"Yes, Mike, I mean Agent Johnson will be moving in next weekend, " Nicole said.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, but I managed to keep my smile. She turned to Steve.

"He's a retired federal agent, " she told Steve. "So you know you'll be perfectly safe here." She opened the door to Noah's old apartment, prepared to do a walk through before he moved in.

"Nice to meet you, Steve and good luck with the moving in part, " I told him. The nagging familiarity of the name and face was pushed completely aside by Nicole's news. He offered his own farewells and as I turned to head down the hall and out of the building, he followed Nicole into the apartment. I could feel my heart pounding in time to my footsteps as I walked to my car. Next weekend Swift was moving into the apartment next to mine.

Even though he hadn't called me on it, I knew there was a ninety-nine percent chance Swift knew Brownie Oxford and Bonnie Brown were the same person. I knew he would watch and wait until I broke cover though, pouncing only when he was one hundred percent sure.

"Unless something forces him to act, " I muttered to myself. "Until then it will probably be some sort of cat and mouse game."

While I knew the murders probably threw an unexpected kink into his plans and he did like to be certain before he acted, I was pretty sure he was playing a game. Given what I knew of him, I was betting that he would play until I did something that positively marked me as the Brownie he knew, something I couldn't cover up with a flat iron and brown contact lenses.

I got into the elevator, keeping my general smile in place until the doors slid closed, even though the hall was now empty. Once the doors clicked shut I let the smile fall. Swift was moving in. I blinked as the elevator reached the main floor and the doors slid open. I stepped out and crossed the atrium to the main doors, letting myself out of the building and into the parking lot.

"Relax, 'Nie, " I told myself as I reached my car. I unlocked my car door and slid behind the wheel, tossing my purse onto the passenger's seat. "Just because you were friends with your neighbors before, doesn't mean you have to be friendly with them all the time. You didn't even know the names of your previous neighbors, just their faces when they went to get mail, and you lived there seven years. And you've got friends at school so you can still look social."

I turned the key in the ignition and started the engine. I made certain my seat belt was fastened and I backed out of my parking space, driving towards the exit. Admittedly, my former apartment was just some place I went to recover from injuries between jobs with Swift.

"It's not like he is going to be stopping by to borrow a cup of sugar, " I added firmly. I tried picturing Swift in an apron and putting together a cake and couldn't. I shook the thought away. "I'm sure he'll come up with some other reason to say hello, " I decided. I snorted. "Of course, if he is dating Nicole it would look strange for him to spend a lot of time getting to know me."

The thought brought some relief. If Swift was living in the apartment next to me, he and I would be sharing a wall and a view. The shared wall bordered the living room, dining room and kitchen in my apartment and even if he drilled holes to spy, he would only see me making dinner and watching television. As the Brownie he knew didn't cook, seeing me cook wouldn't help his case. If he was watching for me to be taking Dr. Harding's pills or suffering from a reaction to not taking Dr. Harding's pills he would likewise be disappointed.

My hands tightened on the steering wheel and my teeth clenched in anger as I thought of the pills.

And of Dr. Harding.

Once, when I was still taking the pills regularly, I ran out of my supply. We were in the middle of nowhere and I suffered greatly until Swift could get me to Dr. Harding to get a dose. After things settled down and I was left to recuperate at home, I looked up the symptoms trying to find out more information. The only thing that came close to matching what I suffered was a description of an addict suffering withdrawals.

While the pills helped my liver and my stomach, I suspected Dr. Harding added a little something extra to make them addictive. I was fairly certain such behavior would be considered

unethical in medical circles, but I also saw the files the NCS kept on me. They didn't actually think of me as a person. It was clear Swift considered me an asset and Dr. Harding considered me to be nothing more than a lab experiment. Both appeared willing to use me up until I couldn't be patched any more.

Then of course Dr. Harding would put whatever remained of me in jars.

Swift picked up a large supply of the pills when dropping me off in Mayenfield. By my count if I was taking them regularly, then I would have run out of my supply about two months prior. Even if I was being miserly with the pills I would be getting close to the end. Smaller doses would not only have me suffering occasional bouts of stomach cramps, but my jaundice would have returned. Focusing on what I ate, cooking healthy foods, balancing my nutrient intake, and staying away from pre-packaged anything kept my bilirubin levels steady, the jaundice away and my tummy settled.

"Therefore leaving nothing for him to see, " I concluded forcing myself to relax my death grip on the steering wheel and smooth my facial expression into more pleasant lines. It didn't make the thought of Swift as my next door neighbor any more comforting, but it did help kill off some of the panic. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before reversing out of my parking spot, shifting into drive and leaving the parking lot.

"Flea market first, then fabric store for supplies, " I decided. "Worry and panic once home again." My Saturday schedule set, I piloted my car towards the interstate, repeatedly checking all of my mirrors.

I was a very careful driver, I always had been. Spending most of my time with the dead showed me exactly what could happen when a driver was distracted. As a consequence, I always buckled up, never went more than five miles over the speed limit, adjusted my speed for conditions, made certain I could see clearly through my mirrors and never touched my cell phone once the keys were in the ignition.

Swift told me I drove like a paranoid grannie.

Of course, he drove like he was trying to qualify for the Indy 500.

Now, besides not wanting to join my friends in the cemetery, I had a different reason for practicing safe driving. I needed to avoid any form of traffic foul up that could potentially land me in the hospital. Not only did I want to avoid a lengthy hospital stay due to injury, which didn't sound like a whole lot of fun, I didn't want to give anyone the opportunity to run tests or to create a new medical file on me. I could change my name, hair and clothing but Swift and Dr. Harding both knew of my past injuries and had not only my x-rays but many, many samples of my blood on file. Fake IDs didn't actually change those. As they no doubt expected me to go to the hospital once my pills ran out and withdrawal set in, I had the suspicion there was some sort of monitoring in place.

There was also the sedan.

I spotted it the week after Swift, or Agent Johnson rather, disappeared to finish up the last of the paperwork on this, his last case before he retired and took a job with a local consulting firm. I wasn't certain how that cover story worked as there was no way the case would be closed before his move in date, but that was the story he gave. Questioning it would make me look interested and I wanted to look anything but interested. Nicole seemed happy with it though.

The gray sedan followed me to campus, although it apparently didn't have a parking pass and circled past as I pulled into my assigned lot. I saw it a week later at the shopping center where my favorite fabric store was located and then again at the grocery store. Earlier this week, I spotted it at the farmer's market.

There I actually caught a glimpse of the people in the car. When I left my vehicle, I forgot my re-usable shopping bags and had to double back for them, catching two people, one male and one female, exiting the sedan. They froze when they saw me, and tried to play it off as I retrieved my bags and went back into the market. Later, I saw them wandering by the table of flowers brought in by a local hothouse to brighten up the winter bare market.

That someone was put in place to watch me while Swift was gone did not come as much of a surprise. I was hoping it was only these two and that once Swift arrived they would leave. Not only could I always spot Swift in a crowd, it would mark me as less of a priority. I knew when I left, the NCS would send someone to try and bring me back. I was, to their eyes, a very useful asset. However, if it was just Swift and not Swift and a team send to bring me back, I thought I stood a better chance of them eventually just letting me go.

I know, hope springs eternal.

What I would do if that hope proved fruitless I hadn't yet decided. I decided that worry fell into the category of 'for another day' and checked my mirrors as Swift taught me when looking for a tail. I smiled to myself, darkly amused that the methods of searching and identifying those watching me were lessons Swift taught me in our time together.

Officially, I didn't start work as an asset to the NCS until I turned eighteen. Swift found me at the age of sixteen. Bouncing in and out of the Riverdale Girl's home and various foster houses didn't let me create too many lasting relationships. Frequently leaving town with Swift, holing up to recover from injuries and losing one job after another due to too many unexplained absences didn't allow me to build any once I left the system. Once Swift found me at age sixteen though, I saw him nearly every day.

For nearly ten years, my relationship with Swift was the most stable aspect of my life. Whether driving to and from Dr. Harding's morgue or trekking into the middle of nowhere, Swift was rarely more than an a few steps from me. At some point the lessons started. I wasn't certain if Swift decided I'd be less of a liability if I knew a little about what was going on or if he was trying in his own odd way to make up for the host of nightmares his work inflicted on me.

Truthfully, I'm not certain he knew either.

He never really intended me to become an agent, I knew that much. I also knew for certain that he never intended for me to use those lessons when hiding from him. I don't think he was able to stop himself from giving the lessons though. He may have been the most stable feature of my world, but I had the feeling I was the person he saw the most as well.

"No wonder I made friends with serial killers, " I muttered, glancing in the rearview mirror. "And there we are, " I said spotting what I was looking for. Three cars back and in the right hand lane was the gray Honda sedan that kept popping into my life.

"I guess today, they get to see the flea market, " I said as I turned on my blinker. "And I'll get to see if it is the same two people as before." Confident the sedan was following, I stopped looking for them and mentally reviewed Swift's lessons.

"I suppose it's time to see how much Swift actually taught me."

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