The sitting room hadn’t physically changed, but the atmosphere certainly had. The change reminded Eddie of Sam’s arrival on the aircraft carrier. Sarah was curled up, hugging her knees, when he and Melissa stopped in the doorway.
“Are you alright, Sarah?” he asked.
No! I’m bloody well not alright, you bloody little priest with your bloody questions and your religious bloody compassion. Can’t you see I’m not bloody well alright, you stupid little man. How do you think I bloody well feel, eh? Answer me that, you clever little priest!
“No, Eddie. I’m not alright.” She lifted her head from the tops of her knees, tracking him as he moved quietly to resettle himself in the same chair he’d used the day before. “I’m scared bloody spitless, thanks. How about you?” Melissa quietly closed the door behind her and took up the role of fly on the wall, but in her case the wall was a bench seat in the wide bay window.
If she’d had the time or the inclination to think about it, Sarah would have noticed that Eddie was being very cautious in his movements, trying not to be intrusive, but still very much there because she had wanted him to be. A strange and delicate balance. He carefully read the vibes before answering. His gentle grey eyes took in the changes from when they’d given each other cheek barely half an hour earlier. “I’m not sure, Sarah. Excited, delighted, curious—and many other things besides. I’m struggling to keep track of what’s happening here. First your father and now you. We’re seeing something I’ve never heard of before.”
She looked at him across the tops of her knees, taking aim at him through the small V between them. Then she unwound herself and opened fire.
“Well, whoopee for you, Eddie. That’s just lovely. You’re having a ball. I’m sorry to rain on your party, but there’s just one small problem here. What about me? What about what I think? Does anyone give a big rat’s tailpipe about me? What if I don’t want to join your crazy game? I never asked to join. I don’t want to mess with people’s lives. What if that poor woman is wrong, and she really is dying? What then, Father Nolan? What then? Tell me that!”
Nolan never so much as blinked. He neither retreated in the face of her venom, nor tried to counter it. He simply said, “I don’t know, Sarah.” Melissa had told him enough for him to expect a reaction. But he knew he couldn’t let her wallow in it. She needed to see the possibilities and not just the potential pitfalls. “But have you considered what if it’s true, and she is cured? Isn’t that something to be happy about?”
For her part, Sarah no longer wanted to cocoon herself in her misery and insecurity. At best that would only be temporary. She had barely heard him, let alone considered his question.
“Come on, Eddie. I’m a bloody journalist, for God’s sake. I don’t care two figs about your church and what you choose to believe. I don’t subscribe to Miracles Monthly or The Daily Deliverance. We’re living in 2005. What planet are you from?”
“The same one I saw your father on a few days ago,” he said quietly. “And you, Sarah Long, journalist, were there too. Remember?”
Tears welled in the corner of her eyes and then overflowed as a dam burst somewhere inside. Melissa quickly moved around to the end of the couch to comfort her cousin. The priest calmly watched her perch on the armrest and put her arm around her cousin’s shoulder, encouraging Sarah to lean against her. He remained silent and still until Sarah was ready to accept Mel’s offer of a handkerchief in a vain attempt to dry her eyes. That left Mel free to go searching for a box of tissues.
“Somehow, that doesn’t help,” Sarah finally managed to say. Eddie left her in peace, watching out the open door, hoping Melissa would discover some secret supply of soft paper squares. These arrived a few moments later, and Melissa settled on the armrest once more. Sarah smiled her thanks before saying, “And before you remind me, yes, I know I went off all over the world on a hunch and nothing more than a dream. And, yes, I knew my father would be in that village before we got there. I remember all that too. But that’s a whole lot different from some woman telling me that God is using me to heal her of cancer. Surely you can see that?”
Nolan let her accusation and challenge fall gently to the ground and lie there for a moment or two, much like the slowly increasing pile of used tissues, before he replied. “I wish I had an answer that would satisfy you. But I don’t. God doesn’t always do things the way we think He should. But from what I’ve seen, the god I’m beginning to see doesn’t force us to do anything. We still have what theologs call free will. He puts opportunities in front of us, and we can choose to run with them or not.”
Her shoulders drooped along with her decibels. “I don’t understand, Eddie. What choice do we have?” Her pent-up emotions had been strained through filters of surprise, confusion, fear, anger, frustration and now resignation. She sat there, not seeing either of them, one hand mechanically shifting tissues from box to eyes and nose and then onto the pile while she clutched Melissa’s outstretched hand with the other.
Eddie waited. Eventually, two sets of eyes focused on him, letting him know they did want an answer. “You might be surprised,” he said. “I suspect we have quite a lot of choice.”
“It doesn’t seem that way to me.” Sarah sniffed again and then let go of Melissa’s hand, so she could use both hands to blow her nose loudly. That released Mel to slip away to the kitchen again, this time to search for a plastic shopping bag to trash the used tissues.
“I can see that,” he acknowledged. “But I’m thinking of an example. I read somewhere of an evangelist who has a very powerful ministry in Africa. Apparently, when he felt God calling him to that ministry, he asked why God was asking him. Like many people, perhaps like you, Sarah, he felt completely inadequate for what God wanted of him. Apparently, he got an answer that was something like ‘I have asked 100 people already, and they all said no. You’re number 101’. If that story is true, then it tells me God doesn’t compel us to do anything. He merely invites us to join Him in what He wants to do. As I said before, we have free choice. We can accept the calling, or we can walk away.”
Melissa reappeared at the door with more than a shopping bag. She was also carrying a cup of tea, which she handed to Sarah. “Here, Sar. You look like you need it. And I doubt that will be of much use now,” she added as she pointed to the scrunched up tea bag lying on the floor beside Sarah’s chair.
“You are a marvel, Mel. Thank you.”
“That’s me,” Mel replied brightly. “I seem to have a calling too. Marvellous Melissa at your service, specialising in tea and tissues. Would you like one too, Eddie? Or perhaps both?”
They were both grateful for her attempt to lighten the mood.
“Thank you, but no,” he said issuing her another sample from his catalogue of smiles. Eddie turned back to watch Sarah as she took a mouthful of tea and replaced the cup on the table in front of her. Then Sarah looked up and across to the priest, meeting his gaze.
“What about you, Eddie?” she asked as she half-heartedly helped Melissa to fill the shopping bag with discarded tissues. “What happened to you? Did you have a ‘calling’?”
His smile wasn’t just from the pleasure he felt seeing her change. How many times had he asked himself the same question since meeting members of the Long family.
“Not in the way your father has or like you are getting at this moment. I always wanted to be a priest. I didn’t have a grand dramatic moment when I was put on the spot, like you’ve had. But I still believe it’s a calling. Being a priest isn’t easy, and I doubt people could stay if they didn’t believe God had called them.”
“So what if I say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks, God’? What happens then? I never get another chance and end up going somewhere terribly hot and uncomfortable because I said no to God?”
Nolan switched back to his compassionate smile again. “I doubt it; I really don’t know. It’s not something the Church has many doctrines about. I suspect, as in the case of the evangelist, God will simply find someone else. You’ll miss out on an amazing opportunity, and someone else may get it instead. But, please, don’t assume God loves you any less, or that He will punish you for disobeying Him. I don’t believe He’s like that. God tells us He’s our heavenly father, so maybe He’s like our fathers here on earth. How did Sam react when you didn’t accept every opportunity he offered you? Did he love you any less? Were you living in fear that he would punish you?”
“You know, that actually happened.” The twinkle was returning to her eyes as she reminisced. Her tears had either stopped voluntarily, or she had run dry, leaving Melissa free to scoop up and carry away the few remaining soggy remnants from the box of tissues. “Daddy wanted me to become a doctor, and he would have paid to put me through university. But I wanted to travel—you know, the whole Kiwi big OE thing.”
“Overseas Experience. It’s when young New Zealanders go off to explore the rest of the world. They usually do a working holiday to the UK or Europe. They used to always travel overland through Asia and the Middle East, but that’s a lot harder these days.” Her cousin returned and was about to perch on the window seat again when Sarah waved her over. Melissa returned to the armrest of Sarah’s chair, this time to receive a cuddle of thanks.
“So what happened?” Eddie asked.
“I asserted my independence and went on my OE. I lived it up, saw how the other half lived, made some great friends, and discovered journalism.”
“And your father?”
She was way ahead of him. “Daddy never stopped loving me or being supportive. He even dug me out of a few scrapes I got into. He never mentioned medical school again.”
“Then I rest my case.”
“Are you saying that’s what God’s like?” Melissa asked.
“If you’d asked me that question even six months ago, I wouldn’t have known how to answer you. But now?” Nolan paused to think about the next part. “Now my understanding of God has had what you might call a hell of a shakeup. And I have a feeling that shake up is nowhere near over yet. I don’t know the answer to your question, Melissa. Even a couple of weeks ago, I would have given you the official priest’s reply. And I would have quoted all manner of references to back it up. But what I’ve seen and heard since meeting you has challenged me in so many ways. This may sound strange coming from a priest, but if you want to really know what God is like, then you need to talk to your Uncle Sam. He seems to be in contact with God in a way I can only dream about. That’s why I’m here. I want to know all that Sam can tell me. I want to know God like he does.”
Sarah took time to digest Nolan’s answer. “Daddy certainly has changed,” she admitted, thinking back to how she remembered seeing him a few days earlier. “It’s not just what he’s doing, he looks—I don’t know—different.”
“I have met a lot of people in my time, Sarah. Many of them would qualify as godly, according to our typical definitions. But I have to confess I’ve never seen anyone with that look of peace and love like I saw on your father’s face. The Bible talks of Moses, you know, the ‘Prince of Egypt’ man, having to wear a veil over his face after he had met with God. His face shone so brightly that people couldn’t bear it. I think we saw something of that on your father. He’s seen things, he knows things I don’t, and I want to rectify that.”
Sarah managed two more mouthfuls of tea while Eddie spoke. As she replaced the cup on its saucer, she met his gaze once again. This time she was the dominant one. “And you’re suggesting that I should want to as well?”
His eyelids and crow’s feet creased a little more. “We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Back in your hotel in Ventura? I’m sorry, my dear, my answer hasn’t changed. It’s completely up to you. You have been given an opportunity that, to the best of my knowledge, is incredibly rare. Millions of people pray every day about wanting to be in your situation. I’m one of them. But I haven’t been asked. You have.”
Sarah was determined not to give up without an answer. “So you’re saying I should take it?”
“Don’t start playing reporter with me,” Eddie chided her gently. “I told you what I think.”
She had to accept it. “I’m sorry, Eddie. I’m not really doing this terribly well.” She picked up her cup again, then stood up and swallowed another dose before embarking on a slow circuit of the room, waving the nearly empty cup to emphasise her words. “I guess I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. Does your god pluck innocent people at random for this sort of thing?”
Eddie remained seated and said, “Again, I have to say that I don’t really know…”
Sarah whirled back to face him from the far side of the room. “You’re a great help, aren’t you? Why did we bring you along on this gig anyway?” But there was absolutely no trace of malice in the charge.
“…but, as I was saying, you’re hardly some innocent person at random, are you? You’re your father’s daughter, which eliminates the random part, and you have been responding to God in a variety of practical ways for quite a while now—unless, of course, you’re going to pretend it was a convenient series of coincidences.”
Sarah stopped behind her chair, looking intently across the divide between them. “What do you mean, responding to God?”
Eddie removed his glasses and followed an elaborate ritual out of pretending to clean them. “From what I hear and have seen for myself, you were quite happy to follow His leading.” he said as he held up his glasses, peering through them against the light drifting in from the bay window. “You could have simply ignored the whole thing and just come home with everyone else.”
“But I wasn’t…”
He continued to avoid her eyes by studiously focusing on some imaginary particle of dust on one lens. “You don’t have to convince me. I’m not the one who is calling.”
“Yeah, but I can’t…”
“Can’t what?” he asked as he took out a handkerchief, breathed on the inside of one glass and gently massaged it.
“You know, talk to…” she replied, raising a finger heavenward.
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He still refused to look at her, only seeing her actions out of the corner of his eye as he transferred his attention to the other lens. “Why not? It’s not as if He hasn’t been watching and listening to all this.”
The implications of what Eddie said began to strike home. What if he’s right? Have we no right to any privacy? She started to feel angry—angry at Eddie, angry at herself for buying into all this, but most of all angry at his god, who sounded like some sort of spiritual Peeping Tom who could invade her life without her consent. It’s just not… What? Fair? Decent? Cricket? The thought horrified her. “How can you live with Him watching over your shoulder all the time?”
Such a reaction wasn’t new to Eddie. He stopped playing spectacular games and turned to face her again. “I learned to accept Him. Most people don’t. But I doubt it makes much difference to Him—at least in one sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t think He stops watching just because we choose not to believe He’s watching. Wasn’t that how things were with Sam and you?”
“Yes. Right again,” she admitted after thinking about it.
Nolan nodded. “Eventually, I stopped seeing Him as a threat or a problem and began to see Him as a bonus. It’s like having your best friend with you all the time—someone to help you out and to guide you through all the stuff that life throws at us.”
Sarah was calming down after the initial shock of having to deal with some sort of cosmic, claustrophobic parent who interfered in every aspect of her world, and even read her mental mail. She dropped back into her chair and returned the now empty cup to its matching saucer. “I love my friends as much as the next girl,” she said. “But I wouldn’t want them with me every hour of every day. Surely we all need some time to ourselves—even from God?”
“Good point,” Eddie accepted. “But, I think the closer we get to God, the more we discover what He is really like and the less threatening He is. As we become more aware of the difference between God and our human friends, we start to see how it’s supposed to work.”
She sighed, but was still far from being convinced. “It all sounds good—or at least the theory does. How does it work in practice for you, Eddie?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Nowhere near as well as I would like it to, Sarah,” he said from behind closed eyes. “Like you, I struggle with the gap between what my head tells me and what I know deep down in my heart. My head—or should I say my training—tells me that we all should be able to do and see the sort of things your father is doing. But my heart tells me something very different.” He opened his eyes again and looked across at her with a flicker of panic in them. “I need to meet Sam again. I need to discover how he managed to make a connection that I don’t have the faith to believe in for myself.”
Sarah’s heart went out to the little priest. Something had just blown the light from his eyes. He looked a tired and almost beaten man, one who had struggled in some great battle only to come out the other side barely alive and with nothing to show for it. He’s asking if it was all worthwhile. He’s given so much of his life and himself, and still he doubts himself and what he’s done. What a legacy after so many years of service to others. And now he thinks Daddy has some sort of answer. That’s what he’s clinging to. God, that is so sad.
“I hope you find it, Eddie,” she said, mainly to herself, but loud enough for him to just catch. “If anyone deserves to, you do.”
The priest looked up at her—his vacant, far away eyes now filled with tears. “Oh, Sarah,” he murmured, “how can you possibly doubt that He wants to work with you? He’s doing it again right now. I’m not what people call a charismatic priest, but I know a few. They claim to see something of God in people. I can see something like the glow that I saw on your father. It’s all over you, Sarah. It must be something of the presence of God. Can you see it, Melissa?”
The question brought Melissa back from her world of being a spectator to the intense real-life drama being acted out in the sitting room. She stared mutely at her cousin, hoping to see something of what Eddie was talking about. After a moment or two, she slowly shook her head and turned away.
But Eddie wasn’t put off. “It’s like a fire,” he continued. “This is very new for me, Sarah. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I don’t know where you’re taking me or what God is showing me through you, but…”
“But what, Eddie?” Sarah didn’t know how to respond. You’re here to guide me, Eddie. You’re the one who knows about spiritual stuff. Who’s leading who here? Where’s all this going?
Eddie swallowed as the emotion of the moment grew more intense. Pleading replaced panic. “…but I need to go there, more than anything. And you, Sarah, hold the key to that journey—at least for me.” Then, very slowly, Nolan began to return to his more usual self and added, “That’s why I don’t want you to walk away. I know that’s a very selfish reason. But, please, it’s not about me trying to manipulate you. Only you can decide what you should do now.”
“Gee, thanks, Eddie,” she answered him with an almost frightened smile. “No pressure, eh?”
Eddie smiled as he admitted the charge. “That’s right, no pressure.”
They sat for what seemed like an age. Then Sarah brightened as if she’d just discovered a good idea.
“Eddie, I think we need to go for a drive. Are you in?”
“Of course. Is it just local or do I need to pack?”
“Pack, man. We’re going on a manhunt. We have one clue, and one is a whole lot better than none.”
“Can I come too?” asked Melissa, who had seen and heard everything while sitting there, quiet as a mouse.
Sarah and Eddie exchanged glances. “Sure, why not,” Sarah agreed with the almost imperceptible nod she received. “But you’d better talk to your mother first, Mel. We may not be back for a while.”
“I was planning to leave tomorrow anyway, so I don’t think she will mind. But I will ask.”
Sarah approved. “Thanks, Mel. Meanwhile, let’s get organised. We have bags to pack.”
“Do you think we should let Terry know?” Eddie asked.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she admitted. “If we’re back on the trail, perhaps we should include him again—if he wants to come. Let him decide. He could fly down and join us later today or tomorrow.”
* * * * * * *
Sarah, Terry, Eddie, and Melissa arrived in Wanaka much later than Sarah had hoped because they had to wait for Terry to fly down to join them. But at least the delay had given her time to book the four of them into the place she had always stayed as a kid—The Wanaka Heights Motel.
The drive down gave them an opportunity to show Eddie something of the scenery. They’d done the tourist things, visiting scenic spots and taking pictures in all the right places. The weather played the game and the sunset behind Mount Cook and the Southern Alps was magnificent.
Sarah wasn’t quite sure why the incident with Jenny Striker wasn’t mentioned by anyone in her group. It’s not as if the subject is taboo. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t mentioned it, and Eddie, being his normal sensitive self, doesn’t feel he can mention it either, especially with Terry in the car. Am I deliberately hiding it from Terry? He’s as close as any friend I’ve got right now. But he’s also a professional, blast him. Would he keep my secret, or would he want to expose me to the whole world?
“Let’s grab a burger or something before we go to the motel,” Terry suggested from the driver’s seat. “I’m still hungry, but I don’t fancy having to cook something out of tin.”
Sarah smiled to herself from the security of the back seat. Now there’s a surprise. Terry’s hungry? “Sure, why not,” she agreed. “Something’s bound to be open in a place like this. It’s not that late, especially during tourist season.”
Terry steered past the familiar motel and on into the village.
“This place has certainly changed,” she continued. “I remember when Wanaka only had a few shops and a lot less tourists—except for New Year’s Eve, of course. Look at all the new development. They’re not exactly country cottages.”
“Big money changes a place,” Terry added. “And a lot of people feel they can’t do anything about it, much as they might want to. Hey,” he interrupted his own commentary on social change for something clearly more pressing. “There’s a pizza place. Look at that, ‘Tuatara Pizza’. That sound alright with you guys?” Without waiting for their consent, he swung the car into an open parking space across the road from his preferred source of sustenance.
None of the others were particularly interested, but tried not to show it.
“Sounds fine to me, but aren’t tuataras protected?” Sarah muttered, not quietly enough.
“Come on, girl. Where’s your sense of adventure? Now, anything you don’t like on pizza?”
“Tuatara.” she answered.
“Too late,” he quipped as he opened the door and unwound his long frame before heading inside.
“What’s a tuatara?” Eddie wanted to know.
“It’s an ancient reptile, Eddie, a native to New Zealand and the longest living species we have. Apparently, they go back to the dinosaurs. Rare as a hen’s dentures. You can still see them in some wildlife sanctuaries—if you’re lucky. They’re always hiding when I go past.”
“Right,” he said. “It’s alright, you know. I just like to have some idea of when someone is pulling my leg. And talking of legs, if they aren’t being pulled by someone else, I’d better stretch them myself.” He opened the car door and extracted himself in much the same way Terry had. The girls decided that was a good idea and joined him, encouraging the return of blood to those body parts that seemed to have been avoided for the last hour or so.
“Sorry about that, Eddie,” Sarah said, trying to imitate a fitness instructor. “Terry and I have a language all our own sometimes. It comes from too many long days in too many far-away places. But he’s a saint—most of the time. I don’t know how I would have even stayed in the job without him. And now the angel thing—and Daddy… He really has been amazing.”
Eddie contemplated the moon’s reflection on the waters of Lake Wanaka, stretching out to the mountains beyond as he replied, almost too casually, “And yet you didn’t mention Mrs. Striker or this morning’s events.”
She was glad to stop the exercise and answer him. “Thanks for not saying anything. Somehow, it didn’t seem like the right time to get all deep and heavy. The time will come soon enough, but until then, I guess I’ll…Hello, what’s got into him?”
Eddie turned to follow her gaze, and saw Terry running across the road to where they were parked.
“What’s the matter, Tonto?” she taunted him. “Didn’t they approve of your sense of humour?”
“No, Kemosabe,” he said with a grunt as he reached the three of them. “I just thought you might like to know the main topic of discussion in that place.”
“Really?” He’s trying to wind me up or maybe it’s for Eddie again. “You mean it’s not all about ancient and rare New Zealand reptiles?”
Terry grinned at them like a big kid with a secret who wants you to beg him before he will share it with you. He’s onto something. What’s he heard?
Terry played it very cool. “No, not quite. It’s more about the male parent of some not quite so ancient, but still quite rare native of this land.”
What’s he on about? I’m too tired to be trying to keep up with…
Melissa got it first. “Uncle Sam? You mean Uncle Sam’s here?” Sarah suddenly lost all sense of tiredness. She grabbed Terry by the arm and blurted, “What’s he done? Is he still here somewhere?”
Terry continued being Mr. Cool. God, this man can be really irritating. And I was suggesting him for sainthood. “Yes, fair maiden, your male relative is, or was, here.” Terry waved his arm in the general direction of the main street as he continued. “And a whole lot of people saw him in action. They say he brought a girl back from the dead. That probably got their attention.”
“You mean right here, in Wanaka?” Sarah was almost speechless with disbelief.
Terry pointed along Ardmore Street. “Look. You can see the wreckage of the car where it happened. But you know your father, girl. He doesn’t do things by halves. He also repaired a crushed chest and a messed-up face. But they’re small beans if what they’re saying is true.”
“Do they know where he is now?” she demanded.
The three of them followed his index finger as Terry waved back in the direction of the pizzeria. “They think he’s still in town, but those guys don’t really know. They haven’t a clue. They’ve more than enough problems believing what they saw. Now would be a good time to track him down and pay for this little trip. But I’m not sure you want me to do that. Am I right?”
Sarah flushed and turned towards the priest. “It’s not fair, Eddie,” Sarah complained. “He knows me too well. What do you think?”
The little priest thought for a moment and then said, “Well, we did come here to find him.”
It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but she knew he was probably right. “You’re not much help, Eddie Nolan,” she said fiercely. “I might have known you men would stick together.” She gave the familiar shrug of acceptance. “I know. We’re probably the only crew within miles, and we need to do our thing, even if I’m officially on leave at the moment.”
Terry had already planned his next move. “We start with these guys and see where it leads. Then we check up on what happened to those who went off in the ambulances. Apparently, only two of them remained injured, one only minor. The two females are apparently as good as new, including the one whom a visiting doctor said must have been dead.”
As Terry headed back towards the driver’s side of the car, Sarah asked him, “But what happened to them all? They must have gone somewhere for observation.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find out. The local cops or the ambulance service will know. We can also get some pictures of the wreck while we’re here.”
“Won’t that put you off your pizza?” Eddie asked.
Sarah snorted before answering on Terry’s behalf, “You don’t know this man, Eddie. Nothing shakes his appetite.”
“Come on!” enthused Terry. “Let’s get these guys in the pizza place while they’re still full of it. They’re just local kids and the expressions and descriptions will be great.”
As Sarah walked along the other side of the car, she stooped to look at her reflection in the wing mirror. Not good. Not good at all. “Okay, Terry,” she said as she primped her hair. “Just let me tidy myself up a bit first, will you. It’s alright for you guys sneaking around behind the camera, but I need a moment to prepare.”
Eddie smiled to himself and wondered if Terry even noticed, or was he fully focused elsewhere. Not for the first time, Eddie could see what made them a good team.
“Sure,” Terry said as he leaned in through the driver’s door to release the boot catch. “Look, why don’t you do that while I get some shots of the wreckage. Who knows, one of the pizza-heads in there might come out and explain what happened once we’ve spoken to them.”
Terry picked up his camera and started legging it towards the car corpse a short distance away. Sarah climbed into the front seat to attempt radical cosmetic surgery using the car’s internal light and the mirror embedded in the sun visor. It was back to business as usual for the pair of them. Left on the sidelines of all the action, Eddie and Mel looked at each other, then at the pair of them, then back at each other again—and laughed.