Step 4: Confidence

The kitchen door swished shut, allowing the intruder to turn on a light. He spread the computer paper down on a counter top and smoothed it out.

“ ‘One Bowl Brownies’,” he murmured, smiling. “This sounds easy enough.” Glancing over at the pantry, he said aloud, “I guess I’d better get my ingredients together first.”

Pulling open the door, he stepped inside and frowned. Within, stacked snugly on a single shelf, were probably a dozen air-tight plastic containers, all looking much alike except for size, and all filled with what looked like the same thing: flour.

“How many kinds of flour are there?” he muttered as he looked for identifying labels. He ducked out of the pantry to glance again at his paper. “And what kind of flour do I use here, anyway? The recipe just says ‘flour’.” He peered once more at the containers before picking one at random. “Who cares? Flour is flour.” He put the chosen item on the counter, peeking at the recipe again. “Sugar. Where’s the sugar?”

Back into the pantry he went. Here there were fewer boxes to choose from. “At least I know the difference between brown sugar and white sugar,” he muttered as he pulled down a container. “This should do. What’s next?” He smiled widely. “Ah, chocolate. That’s not in here.”

He poked around in the spotless, well-organized cupboards. “Here’s some, but is it the right kind?” He sliced a little curl off the big chunk of dark chocolate he found, put it in his mouth, and then shuddered. The memory of raiding his mother’s supply of baking chocolate and discovering how bitter it was rose up. “Oh yeah, that’s the right stuff. Recipe says I need four squares of it. What the hell is a ‘square’ and how do I measure it out? I’m sure this sucker is a whole lot more than I need.” He stroked his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “Hm. This is more complex than I thought.”

He blew a frustrated breath out through his nose as he glanced around the kitchen. Spying a shelf at the far end, he went to investigate. “Hey! Cookbooks! Maybe one of them can define ‘square’ for me.”

The cookbooks were lined up neatly at what would be eye level — for Eleanor or Kyrano. He had to stoop a bit to read along the spines. “French, French, Malay, French, English — but it’s all entrées. Malay, French — ah hah!” He pulled a well-worn volume from the group. “Down Home Cooking: Recipes For All Seasons. This looks like a winner.

Laying the cookbook on the counter next to his recipe, he opened it carefully. “Man, this is old,” he muttered. “Published in 1984? Wow! It’s older than Dad!” He paused, then added, “Might even be older than Grandma!” Locating the index, he ran his finger down each page until he came to– “ ‘Measurements and Conversions’. Just what I need.” He gently turned the pages until he found the one he wanted. “Cup, teaspoon … uh oh.” His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “These are the old fashioned English measurements.” Staring at the list, he shook his head. “Maybe I can figure it out — if I can find out what that damned ‘square’ is.”

It took another fifteen minutes, but he finally discovered what he needed. “One ‘square’ of chocolate is the same as one ounce. Okay. Got it. Now let’s see if there’s a metric conversion table here somewhere.”

There was. “Yes!” he hissed, pumping his fist in the air. “One ounce is roughly equivalent to 30 cc. That’ll be 120 cc in all. Now we’re cooking!” He went back to his recipe. “What’s next? Oh, eggs. Those are easy. In the fridge.”

He found three eggs, and laid them on the counter, then checked his recipe again. “Oh no,” he groaned, running a hand through his hair. “Butter. Another big block of stuff,” he complained as he fetched it from the fridge. “Well, at least this time I have the proper measurements, and I think I know where the measuring cups are.”

The drawers beneath the counter top provided not only what he was searching for, but the measuring spoons and a variety of other helpful utensils. “Okay. Butter, and — hmm — vanilla. Wonder where she keeps the vanilla.”

The answer was a cupboard full of spices. “Whoa! That’s a big bottle. Have to be careful not to spill it.” He poked around a bit more. “Wonder if there are any walnuts in there.”

There weren’t, so he went back to check his paper once more, checking it once more against the items he had on the counter. “Looks like I have everything. Now what do I do? Hm. Measure and melt the butter and chocolate together. Good. Get the hard stuff out of the way first.”

For the next 45 minutes, he chopped, measured, melted, cracked, scooped, measured, poured and stirred. When all the ingredients were combined into a sticky, grainy, dark brown mixture, he put a finger in and tasted. “Mmmmm!” he said, smiling. “This is gonna be good!” He glanced at the clock. “Damn! It’ll be nearly time for Kyrano to make breakfast by the time it’s all baked and cooled.”

Back to the recipe he went. “Okay, bake at 165 degrees for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick poked in the middle comes out with fudgy crumbs — ooh, fudgy crumbs.” He glanced around, then smacked his forehead. “I knew I was forgetting something … a baking pan!” A quick look upward showed him the rack of shining pots. “Where do they keep the baking pans?”

He huffed out an exasperated breath and marched back into the pantry. “Ah, good. Here they are. Now, what size should I use?” Picking up each one, he examined it, looking for a size or some sort of identifying mark. He finally decided on a deep, battered, metal rectangle. “This one, I think. I seem to remember Grandma making brownies in this when I was a kid.”

He poured the batter into his chosen vessel, and then turned on the oven. “Good thing these models heat up so fast,” he muttered as he watched the temperature climb. “This has taken long enough as it is.”

When the oven’s indicator buzzed, he slid the pan onto the rack and closed the door. “0334 hours. It should come out just after 0400.” He leaned back against the counter, folding his arms across his chest, pleased with his accomplishment. Moments later, he unfolded his arms and lifted himself up to sit on the counter top. A squishy, crunching noise told him that he’d made a wrong move.

He swore and hopped down, wiping the eggshell from his shorts. Turning, he was suddenly reminded that “stealth” was a keyword of this operation. “Damn. I’d better get this stuff cleaned up or Grandma will know I’ve been here.”

If there was one thing he’d learned while in training, it was how to get things clean. He wiped down the counter, washed all the dishes, and put everything he’d used away properly. All the while, he sniffed appreciatively at the enticing chocolate aroma that filled the kitchen. His stomach rumbled in anticipation.

He was nearly finished with his task when he began to notice a decidedly acrid smell, as if something was burning. Maybe the oven needs cleaning, he thought as he put the container of flour away. But that’s not like Kyrano at all. A slight haze in the air greeted him as he left the pantry, closing the door behind him. Something’s wrong. I’d better take a look.

He cautiously opened the oven door, springing backwards as billows of smoke poured out, setting off the smoke detectors. The door fell open the rest of the way, making the situation worse. His eyes watering, he tried to grab at the overflowing pan, only to burn his fingers. He swore again, loudly, and hurried to the sink to run cold water over his wounds. The smoke detectors’ whine increased steadily; he hacked as his lungs protested their abuse. I am soooo dead! he thought, knowing what eventually would happen.

It did. The kitchen door slid open and Jeff came rushing in. “What the hell?” he cried before the smoke began its work on his eyes and lungs. “Kyrano! Where’s the damned fire extinguisher?!”

“Here it is!” The retainer coughed as he unerringly headed for the canister. He handed it off to Jeff and cried, “I will turn off the oven!”

“Be careful!” called Alan as he waved his way, coughing, into the smoke-filled kitchen. He grabbed an oven mitt and tossed it to the retainer. “Here!”

Kyrano nodded, hurrying forward to turn off the device, while Jeff aimed a stream of Brains’s dicetyline at the spots of flame that flared from the bottom of the oven. Within seconds, the green foam had covered the interior and the fire was out. Smoke continued to fill the kitchen, especially when Kyrano, both hands now protected, pulled out the overflowing pan.

“Virgil, get the medikit,” Jeff said as he made his way to the sink.

“Yes, sir!” Virgil coughed as he made his way to the first aid box that sat next to the empty extinguisher bracket. He brought it over to the sink, where his father was examining the burns that the would-be baker had sustained.

“What in tarnation happened in here?” Grandma’s voice, loud and clear, called from the doorway. She made her way inside, joining Kyrano as he examined the burnt remains of the brownie mixture. The two cooks glanced at each other before Eleanor turned and, hands on hips, cried, “What the hell did you think you were doing, Gordon Tracy?”

Scott arrived on the scene just in time to hear his younger brother, a bleak, half-hearted smile on his face, say, “Um … baking brownies?”

“Are you nervous?” Tin-Tin asked quietly as they sat together in the hotel’s restaurant.

“A l-little,” Brains admitted. “The idea of an intraocular l-lens being implanted is, uh, a bit unnerving.”

Tin-Tin nodded. “I suppose it would be much like any other implant. Something foreign and unnatural added to the body. I’m glad I don’t need or want any additions like that.”

“M-Me, too,” Brains said, glancing down as he pushed his poached egg around with a triangle of toast. “You’re, uh, perfect the way you are.”

Tin-Tin smiled a little. “That’s sweet of you to say so. Thank you.”

“It’s just the, uh, truth,” he replied, shrugging a little. He glanced at his watch. “T-Time to go.”

“Do you want me to wait for you? In the reception room?”

“If you l-like. The surgery won’t take very l-long. No more than, uh, a half hour.”

She gave him an encouraging smile. “Then I’ll wait. Perhaps I can read that book you bought and we can discuss it during lunch.”

He chuckled, surprising her. “You may, uh, regret that decision – at least the d-discussion part.”

“We’ll see,” she replied, challenge coloring her tone as she rose from her seat. “We’ll see.”

“How was I supposed to know it was self-rising flour?” Gordon groused as he tried to scrub out the pan he’d used. “All the boxes in there look the same! None of them have identification tags or anything!”

“That’s because Grandma, Kyrano, or even Tin-Tin are the ones who do the cooking, and they know which containers have what in them,” Virgil said, trying to reason with his brother while wiping down the cabinets. “If you’d asked to do this when one of them was handy–”

“Grandma would have shot me down in a cold minute. No sweets, remember?” Gordon scowled at the pan. “Why do I have to scrub this out? I’m injured!” He held up a dripping hand, wrapped securely with bandages and covered with a clear, waterproof work glove.

“By rights you should be scrubbing this out, burns or no burns,” Scott said, indicating the oven. “Lucky for you Dad asked us to help out, or we wouldn’t get a hot meal all day!” He wiped the back of his gloved hand across his brow. “I just hope it still works. We didn’t test the dicetyline here.” He shook his head and reached back inside. “How do you cook up–” He pulled back out when he heard Alan and Virgil snickering. “Let me rephrase that: how do you come up with stuff like this?”

“Hey, you were the one who made me think of it!” Gordon grumbled. “You and that ‘fleeting idea’ of yours.”

“Don’t blame me for your idiocy!” Scott shot back irritably. “I never said what my idea was and I did mention that it was impractical anyway.”

“You didn’t have to tell me what you were thinking, Scott. I could see it all in your face,” Gordon replied sourly. “And if I hadn’t come down here and been an idiot, you would have within a day or two.”

“I might have come down here. I might even have done what you thought I was thinking of, but I most certainly wouldn’t have been an idiot!” Scott gave a vicious rub to the stove door. “I should leave you here to finish this up!”

“Go ahead! I can’t seem to get this damned pan clean. I might as well change jobs and actually accomplish something.”

“Hey, guys, calm down!” Alan said, climbing down from the ladder where he’d been cleaning the ceiling tiles and lights. “Arguing is getting us nowhere.” He put aside his equipment and went to the sink. “Let me see that.” He took the pan from Gordon’s hands and frowned as he saw how caked-on the mess was. “Hm. This is one of Grandma’s antiques.” He shook his head. “This is bad, Gords, really stuck on. It’ll have to soak for a while.” He glanced up at his brother with a questioning look. “Did you even grease the pan?”

The ensuing silence made both Scott and Virgil look over to the sink. Gordon gazed down at the pan with a puzzled expression, and then back at Alan. “What do you mean, grease the pan?”

“Oh, God,” Virgil muttered, passing a gloved hand over his face, smearing it with grimy soot.

Scott snorted and shook his head again. “And I thought I was bad in the kitchen.”

Tin-Tin tried to immerse herself in the book she’d borrowed, but found that she couldn’t. She kept unconsciously glancing at her watch, waiting for the surgery to end. I wonder what he will look like without his glasses. I’ve only seen him like that a handful of times. She chuckled a little to herself. I remember how he looked at the Swinging Star. No glasses, a truly awful wig, and that odd beard. I hope he doesn’t end up looking like that again! Then she sobered. What if something goes wrong? Would this blind him? That would be horrible! Oh, please, let this work out right!

The minutes crept slowly by, and by the time forty-five minutes had passed, Tin-Tin felt ready to jump out of her seat. I must be calm. He said the surgery would only take thirty minutes. I’m sure he had to wait for the doctor to set things up, and for perhaps some examination and instruction afterwards. There is a good reason why he is late; there must be!

Nearly an hour had passed before the door to the reception area opened and Brains walked out. He was wearing dark glasses and had a small bag in his hand. As he stopped to speak with one of the receptionists, Tin-Tin went to him.

“Brains, are you all right?” The dark glasses frightened her a little and made her fear the worst.

“P-Perfectly okay,” he replied happily. “Let me make my, uh, follow-up appointment and we can l-leave.”

“I’ll get the car,” she told him, clutching her purse and the book tightly to her chest.

“R-Right,” he said stoutly, sounding much as he had at Lake Anasta. “I’ll be out s-soon.”

She nodded, a quick, nervous nod before hurrying out. As she reached the side of the car, she stopped to allow herself one deep, shaky breath. Calm down, now. He’s fine. He told you he’s fine. Now, get in the car and go pick him up.

They were on their way back to their hotel when Tin-Tin finally got the courage to ask, “The surgery went well?”

“V-Very well!” he told her, smiling widely. “Everything went, uh, smoothly, and I should be fully recovered in just a couple of weeks.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful news!” she gushed, her fears finally subdued.

He pointed at the glasses. “My eyes are still a little anesthetized and, uh, dilated; that’s why I have to wear the dark g-glasses.” He hefted the bag. “I also have drops to use for the next t-ten days; they’ll speed the h-healing along. But,” here he made a face, “I’m to t-take it easy and not do anything that would raise my, uh, blood p-pressure.”

“Like working on Braman?” she teased, feeling playful.

Especially working on, uh, Braman,” he said glumly.

“I’m sure Mr. Tracy will insist you take some time off,” she warned him. “He’ll want you fully recovered and fit for duty.”

“That’s what J-John said,” Brains admitted. He flipped down the sun visor. “H-He also suggested I do some, uh, reading. Perhaps out by the p-pool.”

John? I wonder what else John has suggested to him. Out of the corner of her eye, Tin-Tin could see Brains pull open the little flap covering the lighted mirror. He removed the dark shades, and squinted at himself, then ran his fingers through his hair, trying to move it around. I do believe he’s preening! she thought, smiling in merriment. She glanced at him, narrowly missing his own quick look in her direction. I would never have thought it!

“So, is the kitchen clean enough?” Jeff asked as he stepped inside and scanned the room.

“It is, Mr. Tracy. Your sons have done an admirable job,” Kyrano replied, a small smile on his face.

“But what that boy did to my mother’s old pan!” Eleanor said, coming out of the pantry with the item in question. She peered at it through her glasses. “I’m surprised he got it clean!”

“Maybe you’d better schedule some cooking lessons for the boys,” Jeff suggested. “Especially Gordon and Scott. John and Alan have had to do some cooking from time to time in Thunderbird Five, and Virgil learned a few things while at Denver. But the other two probably spent more time in the mess halls than in cooking for themselves — or anyone else.”

“I will see what can be arranged,” Kyrano said.

“All right.” Jeff turned to go, but before he reached the door, he said, “Let me know if the oven’s working properly. If it isn’t, Brains will have to take a look at it when he returns this evening.”

“We’ll let you know, Jeff,” Eleanor promised.

He nodded, and left. Eleanor and Kyrano glanced at each other, and Eleanor said, “I’ll try it out first. Since Gordon’s so eager to have some brownies, I’ll whip up a batch — with reduced fat and calories, of course.”

“And I shall prepare luncheon,” Kyrano told her. She nodded at him, and they both started their separate tasks.

“So, you don’t like this book, Brains?”

“It’s not that I d-don’t, uh, like it, so much as there’s t-too much wrong with it.” Brains and Tin-Tin were enjoying lunch at a small café not far from their hotel. “The writing is t-technically good, and the st-story draws you in, but there have been some advances in m-military technology that make the story unrealistic.” He took a bite of his chicken, chewed, then asked, “Have you had an opportunity to, uh, read any of it?”

She colored a little. “I tried to at the doctor’s office, but I was too wo–I mean, I was too distracted to really read it.”

“Ah.” He sipped his water. “Perhaps we should t-table our discussion until you c-can read it.” He smiled broadly. “I wouldn’t want to s-spoil the, uh, ending for you.”

“Have you finished it already?” she asked, surprised.

“Uh, yeah. I finished it l-last night.” He shrugged a little. “C-Couldn’t sleep.”

“You couldn’t sleep?” When he nodded, she asked, “Why? Were you concerned about the surgery?”

“A little.” How do I tell her that I was more worried about her last night? And that I was kicking myself for not telling her how I feel? He sighed heavily, a sound that gave Tin-Tin the wrong impression.

“You must be exhausted, Brains. Perhaps you should go back to the hotel for a nap before we leave.”

He shook his head. “I still n-need to see my orthodontist to get my first set of aligners fitted.”

“Then perhaps you can rest on the way home.”

“But Tin-Tin, you’ve d-done so much driving around. I was thinking I could, uh, pilot on the return trip.”

She shook her head adamantly. “No, Brains. I will fly us home. You’ve had surgery, and no matter how insignificant that seems, it is still important that you rest.” She reached across the table and put her hand on his. “Please. For me.”

He turned his hand over and squeezed hers gently. “If you, uh, insist.”

“When are they due in?” Virgil asked Gordon, who was staring moodily out to sea.

“At six,” Gordon said. He shook his head and turned to lean his back on the balcony rail. “I wonder what he’ll look like without his glasses.”

“You’ve seen him in the pool before,” Virgil said, leaning on the rail, his fingers knit loosely together.

“Yeah, but his face has always been sort of … squinty then.” Gordon folded his arms across his chest. “You know, because he couldn’t see very well. Then he got those prescription goggles, and it was like he’d never taken his glasses off.” He snorted a laugh. “Well, at least I can punch him out now if necessary.”

“And why would you punch him out?” Virgil asked, a challenge in his voice.

“If he ever hurt her, I’d … well, I’d let him know my displeasure.”

“You’ve got it bad, don’t you?”

Gordon shot his older brother a look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’ve gotten attached to Tin-Tin,” Virgil said, choosing his words carefully. “She’s become more than a friend.”

There was a long pause, then Gordon blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah, she has,” he admitted. “I mean, at first we were just friends and having a good time. I wasn’t even looking at her like that! But now, things have changed. On my side, at least. To her, I’m still just a good friend.”

Virgil thought about Gordon’s statement, then asked, “You think she’s attracted to Brains?”

“Think? I know she is. She’s told me so herself. She just wishes she knew if he felt the same.”

Virgil shook his head slowly. “That’s some predicament. Have you told her how you feel?”

Gordon was silent for a bit, then he turned around to mirror Virgil’s position. “No, I haven’t. I’m afraid of what might happen.” He picked a little at the bandage on his hand. “I guess things should come to a head soon. I’ll just have to be there to pick up the pieces.”

“If there are any pieces to be picked up.”

“Oh, there will be, Virge, mark my words. Because somewhere, sometime, someone’s heart is going to be broken.”

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