Ezra looked at her for a moment before his face broke into a wide smile and he took her hand.
"Standish, yes, I know," she finished for him as they shook hands. "It was kind of hard to miss, with the way they were yelling it back there," she explained when he raised his eyebrows in question. "I took it you weren't too well liked."
Ezra released her hand and shook his head with a chuckle. "Not especially, I'm afraid."
Alex put her hands in the pockets of her jacket and leaned back against the wall while watching him keenly. "So, Mr. Standish, mind telling me exactly what I stumbled into the middle of back there?" she asked casually.
Ezra's smile dropped into a sigh and he ran a hand through his damp hair. He eyed her carefully, trying to decide how much he should trust her with.
"I'm not your enemy, sir," she said knowingly when she saw his hesitation, almost as though she had read his mind. "I wouldn't have saved your butt back there if I was. Now, I know you are definitely not one of the bad guys. So what were you doing there, besides almost getting killed?"
He crossed his arms and smirked at her. "What makes you think that I'm not one of the 'bad guys', as you put it?"
She laughed. "Well, hearing that guy yelling 'fed' might have tipped me off. So what are you, FBI? NSA? Or maybe FAA, seeing as how we were at an airport?"
"Why not an officer of the DPD?" Ezra asked curiously, surprised that she knew enough to distinguish among the different tribes of the law enforcement community.
"The guy yelled 'fed' not 'cop.' And besides, from what I can see that was a huge shipment, and those guys were big. Too big for the local heat to be handling on their own. So that means you're a government man." She crossed her ankles and cocked her head at him, waiting for an answer.
He raised an eyebrow, impressed. "You are quite observant."
She shrugged. "Survival instinct. Are you going to give me a straight answer, or are we going to play twenty questions? At least I know whether you're animal, vegetable, or mineral."
Ezra chuckled at the comment and crossed his arms while favoring her with a thoughtful look of his own. "Why don't we compromise?" he offered diplomatically, "I answer one of your questions, you answer one of mine. Do we have an agreement?"
"Fair enough," she nodded. "I've already asked the first question. What part of the alphabet soup are you?"
"ATF," he answered with a grin.
"I thought they were based out of Phoenix," she frowned.
"This is a special unit set up here in Denver. How do you know so much about federal bureaucracies?" He asked curiously.
She shrugged again. "Around. You can learn a lot from the internet now a-days."
Ezra shook his head in amusement. "Indeed. What were you doing there tonight?"
"Ah-a-ah," she chided and shook her finger at him. "It's my turn. You don't get two for the price of one."
"Ah, but I do believe you yourself made two inquiries in a row," he argued with a twinkle in his eye.
"No, I didn't. The first one was a question. The second was just a statement of what I perceived was fact. You opted to correct me," she reminded him with a hint of a smug smile while she slipped her hand back into the depths of her pocket.
His grin grew wider and he gave her a slight bow, holding his hand out to wave her on. "True. Carry on, then."
"Who was the suit and the lackey?" she asked pointedly.
His smile slipped into a sigh as he gingerly leaned against the edge of the entrance and ran a hand down his face. He glanced back out into the foggy night before turning back to meet her steady gaze with an answer. "The gentleman in the tuxedo is none other than Mr. Paul Randolph, CEO of Hansford Financial, Chairman of the Board of Denver's Economic Council, and close personal friend of the Honorable Orrin D. Travis, assistant director of the Special Forces Division of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and my present employer. The 'lackey', as you put it, was a man named Tony Vitalis. Now, what were you doing there?"
"Wrong place at the wrong time. I was just looking for a place to get out of the rain and dry off. I take it that Mr. Randolph showing up was a big surprise?"
"Very much so. I knew that Vitalis answered to someone, but I had no inkling that the mastermind of the whole organization would be such a public and esteemed figure. Mr. Randolph has done an excellent job of keeping his legal and not-so-legal operations completely separate. You were trying to get out of the rain? Then I can assume that you currently reside on the streets of Denver?" he asked quietly, keeping his tone carefully neutral. He knew that most homeless and runaways were shy of law enforcers at best and he didn't want to alarm her.
He didn't think he could find his way out of this part of town by himself if she stranded him here.
Alex's head dipped a little at the question and she crossed her arms as though to ward off the chill of the night air. Amusement settled on her expression but her eyes took on a guarded glint even as a faint smile touched her lips. "You're quite observant yourself. What tipped you off? The clothes, or the rain part? After all, I could just be a wild kid out looking for my supplier."
He snorted. "You are definitely no junkie. Your reflexes were much too sharp and your eyes are too clear. You also seem to be a bright young lady, so why are you in your current circumstances?"
She shrugged. "A lot of smart people are in my current circumstances. Sometimes life deals you a bum hand. You just gotta learn to roll with it."
"Indeed," he agreed, deciding not to push the point any further. "I will assume that I have you to thank for the initial distraction?" he raised an eyebrow in question to which she just grinned and nodded. "Then you have my deepest gratitude. Though may I ask why? You must have known that you could have used the situation in the office as the perfect opportunity to make your own escape, and you had no idea who I was or what my part was in the evening's activities. Surely you realized that it would be more judicious on your part to safeguard your own well-being?" He was curious as to why a complete stranger would risk her life for his.
She didn't answer immediately, but instead walked to the entrance of the tunnel and focused her gaze on the rain glistening in the yellowish glow of the streetlight outside. "Witnessing one murder was enough for one night." She turned to look up at him, her gaze piercing in the shadows of the tunnel.
He took in a sharp breath. "You witnessed the events in the office?"
"Yes," she said softly, turning her gaze down at her hands. "Like I said, I was looking for a dry place to spend the night and came across that old hangar on the edge of the airport property. I found a few loose boards in that back window and climbed in. I was there an hour, about enough time to dry off, when you guys arrived. I ducked into the office and hid in the cabinet in the back. I saw Vitalis drag a guy in, tie him to the chair and beat him. About an hour later, Randolph came in. They questioned the guy, then killed him." She closed her eyes briefly, trying to shove the vivid memory out of her mind. "When they went back out to talk to some guy named Walker-I take it that was you?-I slipped out the door. I turned back when I heard the shouts, and decided to come up with a distraction," she shrugged.
Ezra ran a hand through his hair as he assimilated this newest information. "Your 'distraction' was exactly what I needed to abscond from a very delicate position." He rubbed his forehead and sighed before looking back up at her. "However, that means that you are in grave danger. Mr. Randolph has taken great pains to keep his association with Vitalis concealed, and you have just become an endangerment to that. He will not rest until you have been eliminated." He looked back at her. "Did they suspect your presence in the room?"
She shook her head. "No, they had no idea I was there, and wouldn't have if I hadn't come back."
"A very risky and quite possibly foolhardy action on your part."
She looked up at him in confusion at his matter-of-fact comment, her eyes narrowing as the implications came clear. She returned to her position against the wall and again shoved her hands into her pockets. "Like I said, I wasn't going to witness another murder tonight, not when I could do something about it." She gave him a small smile. "And besides, there aren't many good guys left these days. I wasn't going to stand by and let another one be wiped out."
Ezra chuckled and ducked his head, a self-depreciating smile on his lips. "One of the good guys," he repeated wryly. He looked back at her. "And what makes you think that I am one of the 'good guys'?"
She didn't answer immediately-just stared at him intently, and again he got the unsettling feeling that she was looking into the very core of his person. She then smiled. "Call it a woman's intuition, a gut instinct-whatever you want, but it's telling me you're a good man, whether you want to admit it or not."
He snorted and shook his head in disbelief. "You've known me less than two hours, my dear. I much doubt that you are able to discern my character and true motivations in such a short time."
She just shrugged, the smile never leaving her face. "Maybe, maybe not. But my instincts tell me I can trust you, and I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts."
"Instincts can be wrong."
"That's true, but not this time, I think." She finally broke her disconcerting gaze as she again crossed her arms and cocked her head. "So who was the guy in the office that was killed, and what exactly was going on?" she asked, changing the subject as she saw that she was not going to get anywhere arguing with him over it. Besides-there was truth to his words. She hadn't known him all that long and couldn't be sure what he intended to do, but she found herself surprisingly comfortable in his company to an extent that she hadn't been with anyone else in a long time.
'Strange,' she mused before pulling her attention back to the words of her companion.
"Mr. Randolph, it seems, is the current director of a very large and lucrative organization involved in the acquisition and merchandising of illegal weaponry, among other things. The poor devil murdered tonight was a Mr. Chester Banning, the accountant for the operations. Vitalis suspected that one of his associates was exhorting funds from him, and he had me examine his financial records. I'm afraid the gentleman in question did a very poor job of concealing his activities," Ezra frowned.
"And they made sure he didn't do it again, permanently. So what do you plan to do now?"
He rubbed his face and sighed. "I'm not sure. I have no hard evidence other than my word that Randolph is indeed involved. And it will take much more than my dubitable pledge to convince my employer otherwise." He caught her confused frown from the corner of his eye and smiled in self-reproach. "As I said before, Paul Randolph is a man of impeccable character in the eyes of this community, not to mention a close, personal friend of Judge Orrin Travis while I am but a thorn in his side," he explained dismissively. "It will take nothing short of an act of a Divine Authority to convince the good judge and my teammates of the total veracity of my claims."
She scrutinized him for a moment at the tone of self-derision that she wasn't quite sure if she heard or not, but decided to let the statement go. "Well," she said casually, "I can't get you an act of God, but if it's hard evidence you need, then this could be a start." She reached down, picked up the briefcase at her feet, and held it out to him.
"What is this?" he asked in surprise as he took the case and proceeded to open it.
"That is a set of ledgers and other documents concerning Randolph's business for the last seven months," she explained as she bent over to rummage through the backpack she had left against the wall. "While I don't think there is anything in there that will point directly to Randolph, since I got the impression this guy Banning had no idea who the real boss was until tonight, it may give you a lead." She pulled a small flashlight out of a side pocket and handed it to him.
Ezra looked up at her sharply from the papers that he had just pulled from the case and quickly took the light to examine the documents in his hand. He nodded and mumbled to himself several times as he poured through the ledgers intently, pacing back and forth across the entrance of the tunnel. He finally looked back up at her with a stunned expression. "There is enough solid evidence here to imprison Mr. Vitalis for the rest of his life! Where did you get this?"
She shrugged. "It was lying on the desk in the office. Vitalis showed them to Randolph when they were questioning Banning. I grabbed it on my way out the door. Planned to drop it off at the local police station, but I figure you can make more use of it," she commented dryly, humor showing in her eyes.
"Indeed I can," Ezra agreed wholeheartedly, his sharp mind already blazing through ideas as he flipped back through the pages. "You are correct, there is no corroborating evidence here linking Vitalis to Randolph; however, it certainly gives me a good place to start."
"Us. It give us a place to start," Alex interrupted his train of thought.
He glanced up at her determined features and lowered the pages in his bid to placate her. "Now, my dear, this is a federal investigation. I can't possibly let-"
"Look. I'm already involved. And I'm the only witness to that murder. Like you said, I'm already in danger. I have some contacts here on the streets. I can help you." She crossed her arms defiantly.
Ezra looked at her, his lips pressed tightly together in disproval. "These men are not common street thugs. They are as powerful as they are ruthless, and they are not to be taken lightly."
"You think I don't know that?" she snorted in derision. "I'm not stupid, Agent Standish. I saw what they do to people who cross them. Up close and personal. Look, I've lived on my own for a long time, and I've seen a lot of things in my life, a lot of terrible, evil things. Man can be a really sick, deprived monster when he wants to be. A lot of people wash their hands of things like that, and just walk away. But I can't do that, not when it's in my power to do something to stop it."
"Why not?" Ezra shot back, curious at her determination. "It's not your problem, after all. Why get involved?"
"Because I couldn't live with myself," she answered decisively. "I've seen a lot of things that I couldn't stop, a lot of people hurt that I couldn't help. But I can do something here. It's the right thing to do, and I was raised to always do the right thing, no matter what the cost. Besides," she said quietly, a distance creeping into her eyes, "I would have some very important people very disappointed in me if I backed out now." A quick flare of grief flashed through those aquamarine depths and she turned her gaze to the slowly diminishing storm outside, but Ezra immediately picked up on it and wondered briefly what had happened to those people. She turned back toward him resolutely. "I can take care of myself. I know that these guys aren't to be messed with. I'm not going to do something stupid. And the way I figure it, you're going to need all the help you can get. So let me help you." She challenged, setting a fist on her hip and staring at him in defiance.
He looked at her intently as he considered his options, then let out the breath that he was holding. He knew that to resist that kind of determination would only be an uphill battle, and if he had learned anything from his mother, it was to pick his battles prudently. A smirk graced his lips. "I don't suppose I could stop you even if I wanted to."
She smiled back. "Nope. I've been told I can be one stubborn mule when I want to be."
He laughed. "I've been described much the same way, though in much less flattering terminology."
"So, what do we do now?" she leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms.
He leaned back beside her, looking at the ledger he held in his hand thoughtfully. "We need solid evidence that Randolph is involved for my employer to even listen to me. I know that the hangar tonight was supposed to be temporary storage. Vitalis had planned on moving the goods to another location later this morning."
"Do you have any idea where that is?" Alex asked.
"No, but I know where to start looking. This ledger mentions a corporation called Fieldman Contracting and Construction here in Denver. While I was examining Vitalis's records for Mr. Banning's indiscretions, I came across a reference to 'FCC' a few times, as well. I do believe it bears further examination." He rubbed his eyes wearily. "This ledger is only the tip of the iceberg, though. With the size of the organization, there must be more extensive records of all business transactions somewhere else. Mr. Randolph is a very meticulous man. We find those records, we find the evidence we need to link him to Vitalis."
"Oh!" Alex exclaimed as a sudden thought sprang from her memory, "when I was in the office, I overheard them talking about making a deal with a new supplier, someone from overseas. It sounded like this new guy was a very important person in Europe. Randolph definitely wanted this deal. They mentioned something about a meeting set up next week."
Ezra looked at her sharply. "A new supplier? That would be the perfect opportunity to bring the whole house of cards, if you will, down, provided we can find our evidence in time. Did they mention a name, by chance?"
She looked up at the ceiling and scratched her head, frowning as she searched her recollection for the elusive term. "Holland? Hamton?" she paused for a moment before her eyes lit up and she swung back to face him. "No! I got it! Hammings. The guy's name was Hammings."
Ezra smiled at her. "Excellent! I'm sure that my associates will be able to find what we need about Mr. Hammings."
"Your associates?" she questioned.
"My partners, teammates, if you will," he explained. "I am a member of Team Seven of the ATF. My supervisor is Mr. Christopher Larabee."
"Larabee, huh? You know, I think I've heard that name on the streets a time or two," she grinned at him teasingly.
"And I'm sure it was nothing good, either," he remarked off handedly with a shake of his head. His eyes suddenly widened. "Mr. Larabee! He's going to kill me!" he groaned miserably, running a hand down his face.
"Why?" Alex asked in sudden concern.
He rubbed his temple. "I have not been in contact with my teammates for the last six hours. They knew about the shipment tonight, but were not able to monitor my activities. Mr. Larabee was not pleased with the change in plans, to say the least. He never likes it when things don't go according to his plans." He glanced at his watched. "And I have now missed my last check-in. When he finds out what happened at the hangar tonight, he is going to be furious, to put it mildly."
"Are you going to contact him?"
Alex looked at him in surprise. "If he's going to be as mad as you say he is, then why aren't you going let him know you're alright?"
"Because right now, Mr. Randolph thinks I'm dead, or at least, has no cognition of my whereabouts. If I notify Mr. Larabee of my present health status, he will in turn notify his boss, Mr. Travis."
"And Randolph will find out through Travis. Why don't you tell Larabee what you know about Randolph?"
"Like I said, Randolph is a close, personal friend of Travis, and a greatly admired and respected individual in this municipality. Travis does not like me and barely tolerates my position on this team. He will not hesitate to call into question my honesty regarding this matter."
"You could still tell your teammates."
"I'm afraid they don't have much faith in my character as well. And besides, Randolph recognized me and knows of my placement on the team. He will be watching them very closely to find a link to me. I do not want to lose my present advantage."
"So you go it alone." The disapproval was clearly evident in Alex's voice.
"For now," He smiled at her wearily. "I assure you, my dear, it is nothing new. I've worked alone for almost my entire life. And it is only temporary. Once I have the link to Randolph, I'll notify my teammates forthwith. It will work out to the best advantage for everyone this way."
Her frown deepened, but she did not question the cryptic remark. "Well, you're not completely alone this time." She stated quietly.
He didn't understand her conviction regarding him, so he chose to ignore it for now. They lapsed into silence then, each to their own thoughts as they waited for the weather to clear a bit. He watched the falling rain for a moment before shaking off the melancholy that was creeping up on him.
He had always been alone. It was the way of his life. 'Never depend on anyone but yourself, son. Not even me,' was his mother's constant words to him. 'People are undependable. Everyone is selfish, and is always looking for a way to stab you in the back just as soon as it's turned. You can't trust them, and they sure are not going to trust you. Anyone who thinks differently is a fool.' He had tried to live his life by that creed and had thought that he was succeeding quite well, but had always secretly desired something else-a longing that always seem to bring him down in the end. His childhood had been lonely, his college years much the same, and his days with the FBI were better buried from conscious thought. He had never had a close friend to hang out with, to talk to, to dream with. No one cared about Ezra Standish. He was nothing, a burden and a nuisance at best, and at worse-well, he was that too. He was worthless, a commodity to be used and thrown away, a scapegoat when things went wrong. Few people ever tried to show him differently, and he had never been allowed to stay long enough to believe it.
He shivered in the cold of the night air around him, drawing Alex's attention to him. His poker face was firmly in place, but in the faint glow from the streetlight above, she could clearly see the sadness in his eyes, and it struck a cord with her. It was true she had only known him a short time, but there was something about him, something that she connected with, that made her feel safe.
And it had been so long since she had truly felt safe-she wanted to hold onto to it a little longer.
She pulled herself from her own musings and pushed away from the wall. "We can't do anything until tomorrow, so for now, we'd better get somewhere warm and dry before we catch pneumonia."
Ezra rubbed his arms and grinned ruefully, breaking himself from his thoughts as a shiver shot through him. "That would be most agreeable."
She grabbed her backpack and the briefcase and stepped toward the opening, leading the way out of the culvert to scramble up the slippery bank to the quiet street above. Ezra gamely followed but slipped halfway up the slope, landing hard on his knees and catching the elbow of his shirt on a small ground bush, tearing a hole in the material. He grimaced. "Ruined," he muttered, regaining his footing and climbing the rest of the way to the street without incident. He came to stand beside the amused young woman and pulled his shirt away from himself in disgust. "Another designer shirt completely ruined!"
Alex fingered the hole in the sleeve then patted him on the shoulder in sympathy. "Yeah, but I figure it's better the shirt than you," she quipped with a raised eyebrow and twinkling eyes. She hitched her backpack onto her shoulder and handed the briefcase to him. "Come on. I know a place where we can rest up, get something to eat, and plan our next move."
Ezra bowed slightly and motioned for her to move. "Then lead on, dear lady," he smiled blithely.
She rolled her eyes, but grinned back before setting off down the dark street. Ezra glanced over his shoulder in the direction they had come, staring into the gloom intently before slowly turning to follow her. They gradually disappeared into the night, the rain covering any signs of their presence.
* * * * * * *
An icy rain and sleet mixture pounded the windows of the large, comfortable ranch house.
Though Denver was only experiencing rain, here in the higher elevations, that rain was turning to ice. Chris Larabee stood leaning against the wall, staring out the living room window into the inky blackness beyond, trying to fight the uneasy feeling that had been steadily growing within him all day. He still had on the same clothes that he had worn to work that day; indeed, he still would have been in his office if the others hadn't forced him to go home. The hour was late, but he paid little attention to that. The grandfather clock that stood sentry in the hallway chimed two o'clock, and he glanced at his watch to confirm the time before glaring at the phone, willing it to ring.
His undercover agent was now two hours late in making his check in.
'Come on, you lazy, no-good son of a b***h. Call in!' he growled mentally. But the phone remained silent. He muttered a curse aloud and kicked the small shelf standing beside him before he resumed his pacing.
"Wearing a rut in your floor won't make the phone ring any faster," the tall, lanky sharpshooter observed nonchalantly from his sprawled position on the couch. He had been given the duty of escorting Larabee home and had been ordered to make sure the older man got something to eat and some rest. He had managed to get the agent to eat a roast beef sandwich, but had yet to get him to sit down, let alone go to bed. 'Don't know what they thought I could do. Ain't nobody gonna get Chris Larabee to do anything he don't wanta'. And he ain't gonna rest until this case is over,' he grimaced. He continued to absently flip through the channels on the muted big screen television, ignoring the glare boring into the side of his head.
"I hate this!" Chris slammed his fist against the wall, letting it rest there as he again turned his gaze out into the night. "We should have set up some kind of backup. Shouldn't have let him go in alone."
"Chris, you know there was no way ta avoid it. Ez didn't know where they were movin' the meeting, and we didn't have time ta set anything up if he did," Vin reminded him patiently.
"Then I should have pulled him in," Chris growled back.
Vin shook his head. "And thrown away the last month's worth of work, not to mention driving Carnelli's supplier underground, making it ten times as hard to bring him down. Come on, Chris, Ez's been at this job for years. He knows what he's doing."
"Someone should have went under with him."
"There was no way, pard. You know that," Vin sighed. He looked at Chris a little closer, his eyes narrowing. "What's with you, anyway? Ezra's been under alone before, and it ain't never stuck in your craw like this. I thought the investigation was going pretty good to this point."
Chris blew the air out of his cheeks and ran a hand through his hair before settling it on his hip. "I don't know, Vin. Something about this whole set up just don't feel right. There's something we don't know, something we're missing. And I'm afraid it's going to bite us in the a** before we figure out what it is."
Vin silently agreed with him. There was something about this case that hadn't set right with him either. "What did Ez have to say?" he asked.
Chris snorted. "The usual. Said he had things well under control and was perfectly capable of monitoring the situation. Monitoring the situation. Now there's a joke. That SOB is more likely to create a situation than to monitor it!"
Vin laughed. "Yeah, trouble does seem to follow Ol' Ez like flies to horse s**t."
Chris raised an eyebrow at his friend in disbelief. "Like you have any room to talk."
"Aw, now, I ain't that bad!" Vin protested indignantly.
"Sure you're not," Chris scoffed as he leaned his back against the window frame and crossed his arms while resting one steel-toed boot on top of the other. "And that's why you spent a night in the ER for a concussion after getting beaned by a softball back in October, limped around for 2 weeks on crutches for a badly bruised foot after that 'incident' with your horse in November, sported a black eye and a split lip, not to mention 2 bruised ribs and a sprained wrist after the Christmas party at the Saloon, and wrecked your jeep last month, on a straight stretch during the middle of the day on a completely clear road. You know, February's only half over. What do you have planned for this month?" he smirked.
"Hey! That wasn't my fault!" Vin sat up on the couch to defend himself. "We's just havin' fun at that ball game. Carlos hadn't hit a thing all day. Who knew he would send a line drive right at the pitcher's mound? And Peso was jes' being ornery that day, feeling his oats."
"Vin, that glue bait you call a horse is always ornery."
"Exactly! It wasn't my fault he stepped on my foot. And you can't blame that dust up in the Saloon on me. You're the one who threw the first punch. And I recollect that you didn't look any better than me!" the tracker shot back irritably.
Chris winced at that, remembering the bruises and wisecracks he had endured for that particular incident, not to mention the spectacular display of temper that Inez had directed at him.
That lady sure knew how to put a man in his place-and she hadn't let him near the place for two weeks!
"I didn't ask you to put your two cents worth into that," he grumbled bearishly. "I could have handled them just fine."
Vin snorted and settled back against the couch, picking up the remote control and reaching for a handful of chips from the bowl on the coffee table. "Oh believe me, next time you decide to pick a fight with the local heavy weight champ and his four buddies, I'll gladly let you 'handle 'em'."
"There's still the jeep," Chris pointed out, refusing to lose the argument.
"Aw, now come on!" Vin set the remote back down and again faced his best friend, "How was I to know that herd of elk was going to choose that moment to cross the road? And I walked away from that!"
Chris raised an eyebrow and snorted in derision. "Sure ya did-to my ranch, six miles away, in single digit weather, in nothing but your leather jacket, an old pair of jeans and no gloves. You nearly froze to death before you made it to the house. You're lucky you didn't lose your fingers to frost bite!"
"It wasn't that bad," Vin groused, reaching for the remote yet again.
"Vin, you were bluer than those weirdos on that computer commercial."
"I still say I was fine, just a little cold. My jeep suffered more than I did."
"Really? How can you tell?"
"Hey! Now don't go bad mouthing my ride!" Vin shot at the man in black, shaking the remote at him in warning.
"That jeep has so many dents and rust on it, it's a miracle it's still in one piece."
"That jeep's gotten me through a lot of years, and it'll still be going when your truck is occupying space at the nearest junk yard!" Vin declared as he once again changed the channel.
Chris just snorted and turned his attention to the blackness outside the window as silence filled the room once more, interrupted only by the rain on the roof and the sound of the heat pump kicking on. "I still think something's not right," he finally offered softly a few minutes later.
Vin looked back up at him with a troubled look of his own. "Has Ez said anything? The man may be a cocky little SOB, but he has got great instincts for reading situations like that."
Chris sighed. "He agreed that there was more here than what we could see right now, but didn't think it was something we couldn't handle," he answered as he turned back toward his friend.
"Well, then, what are you worrying for?" Vin asked. "You know Ez. If he thought things were too risky, he woulda told you."
"Yeah, but his definition of risky is definitely not the same as the rest of us," Chris snapped back. "We're talking about the man who broke cover in the middle of a fire fight with twelve guys with uzis to get to a live grenade. It was a d**n miracle that it didn't blow up in his face while he was throwing it into the river!" he shook his head in disgust.
Vin reached for another handful of chips. "And if he hadn'ta, JD would be pushing up daisies. Admit it, Chris. He saved the kid's life," he pointed out before shoving the food into his mouth.
"While risking his own!" Chris huffed irritably. "As if it would perfectly alright if he was blown to bits instead of JD!" He ran a hand down his face and sighed. "I tell ya, I just can't understand that man's warped sense of reason sometimes. Usually he's an arrogant, self-absorbed, cocky little s**t who won't lift a finger to help out anyone unless something's in it for him, but then, just when you think you've got him pegged, he goes and does something like that and blows your theory out of the water." He pushed himself away from the wall and ran a hand through his mussed hair. "I think he does it on purpose just to annoy the h**l out of me."
Vin laughed. "He does seem to get a kick out of watching that little vein on your forehead throb. I'd almost swear he had a death wish or something." He sobered then, a thoughtful look filling his face. "But to tell ya the truth, I'm beginning to get the feeling that the Ez we see is only a cover for something else entirely on the inside. And to tell the truth, I'm kinda curious as ta what's under all that fuss and feathers."
Chris snorted and reached down for his own handful of the chips. "That may be," he declared, "but I still can't figure him out." He bit into a chip.
Vin pierced him with a steady blue gaze, all levity gone as he tried to get his point home. "None of us do, pard. But you don't have to understand him-all you have to do is trust him."
Chris met the gaze with a clear green one of his own. 'Yeah, but he sure don't make that easy sometimes.' his eyes seemed to say.
'Don't matter, cowboy. Just means you gotta try harder.' Vin's confident look answered.
Their silent conversation was suddenly interrupted by the shrill ring of the telephone. Chris reached it in three long strides and all but jerked it out of its cradle. "Standish, you'd better have a good reason-" he started to growl.
Vin watched in concern as Chris cut off in mid-bark to listened to the speaker on the other end. A lead ball of dread formed in his stomach as his friend's features paled suddenly and a frown deepened the lines on his face. "You found it where? What happened? And you're sure there was no sign of- " Chris pinched the bridge of his nose. "Alright. Don't touch it. We're on our way."
He hung up without a goodbye and grabbed his coat off the chair he had thrown it across, pulling the keys out of his pocket. Vin was a step behind him, pulling his own leather jacket on as he rounded the couch to follow his boss out the door. "What's going on?" he asked tensely.
Chris met his concerned gaze with a fear-laced one of his own. "There was an explosion at the airport tonight. Some hangar got blown off the map. They found Ez's jag parked nearby. There was no sign of him," he explained grimly.
"S**t!" Vin's eyes widened in worry before he flipped the lights off and slammed the door behind them. They climbed into the cab of the Ram, and Chris fired it up as they pulled on their seatbelts. Vin pulled out his cell phone, intent on sending the emergency page to the others. "It'll take a good forty-five minutes to make it to the airport," he reminded the older man.
Chris slammed the truck into gear. "Yeah? Well I plan on being there in thirty."
They peeled out of the driveway in a shower of gravel.
Ezra followed Alex along the wooded path, alternately rubbing his arms and blowing on his hands, trying to warm them. Though a warm front was moving in, bringing the rain and slowly cutting the bitter temperatures that had enveloped the region earlier in the week, the night air was still freezing, and as he was without his coat and soaking wet at the moment, he felt the cold even more keenly than usual. 'Whatever possessed me to take up residence in a place called the 'mile high city'?' he wondered unhappily even as another shiver raced through him.
He could hear the traffic of the interstate in the distance and the noise of a river closer by though he couldn't actually see either one. They had left the city streets for the more open areas of the suburbs west of Denver and had followed a railroad track for the last two miles before splitting off onto the path they were presently traversing. He took a moment to appraise his surroundings, but all he saw were droopy conifers and gloomy, leafless aspens, with water dripping intermittently from their silver limbs. There didn't seem to be any semblance of available shelter anywhere close by. "You are sure you know our present location?" he called ahead dubiously.
Ally nodded without looking back. "I'm sure. We're almost there." She never broke her stride as she confidently made her way up the slippery path.
He glanced around once more, not quite sure that he believed her, but he followed behind anyway. He really had no place else he could go, and right now, all he wanted was to get out of the cold. He tried to find a bright side to his current situation.
He was still alive, which, considering the events of the evening, was a small miracle.
And at least it had stopped raining.
'And now I'm starting to sound like JD!' he chastised himself with a sarcastic laugh and quickly turned his attention back to the path and his efforts to keep himself aright despite the slick mud and his treadles loafers.
A few minutes later, he spied a long chain link fence looming out of the fog up ahead, separating the forest from what looked to be an open field. The path ended at the fence where two large trees stood with their branches shadowing a padlocked back gate. Ally reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and pulled a small file out before reaching for the lock. In seconds, she had it off and was pushing the gate open. "After you," she smiled and motioned him through the gap.
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Should I take it that you come here often?" he quipped as he stepped through the opening and waited while she shut and locked the gate after them.
"Occasionally," she shrugged, placing the file into its pocket then slinging her bag over her shoulder once again before leading the way across the grassy expanse.
He followed closely behind her, his instincts still on high alert as he surveyed the surrounding area for any signs of danger, trying to see past the fog that shrouded everything beyond a few feet. The poor visibility had his nerves on edge, and the muffled, lonely sound of the wind blowing through the trees, the rustle of the long grass that they were walking through, and the clacking of the tree limbs weren't helping him relax.
With all of this working against him, it was no wonder then that he didn't see the low stone hidden by the grass directly in front of him until he tripped over it and fell to the ground with a muffled grunt.
He pushed himself to a sitting position and gingerly rubbed the knee he had landed on while looking around for the offending rock in irritation as Alex came back to check on him. He pushed the grass away from the rectangular shape and leaned in to take a closer look. Rain water glistened on the smooth, shiny obsidian surface, marred only by what looked to be .praying hands?! He suddenly registered what he was seeing and quickly scrambled to his feet. "A tombstone?" he muttered, looking across at the girl in disbelief as he brushed himself off.
Alex readjusted the pack on her shoulder and snickered at the surprised and suddenly wary expression on his face. "Well, yeah. They're a given in a cemetery." Seeing that he was none the worse for wear, she turned to continue on her way.
He grimaced at the mud that now caked his fingers and stained his jeans, and he tried to clean some of it off of his hands on the wet grass before skirting the headstone and quickening his pace to catch up with her while casting another uneasy glance at his surroundings. "And what," he asked as he stepped around another, taller monument, "pray tell, are we doing here at night?"
"You're not afraid of ghosts, are you?" She glanced up at him with a twinkle in her eyes, her smirk growing larger at his obvious discomfort.
"Of course not," he declared firmly, "But I do not believe it to be the custom of normal people to go traipsing through necropolises in the middle of the night."
Her smirk blossomed into a full grin and her eyes sparkled with humor. "Then it's a good thing I'm not normal."
"Indeed. It does, however, give rise to the question as to just what kind of person I find myself in the company of," he remarked dryly.
She shrugged as they started up a small incline dotted with white aspens and stately spruces. "It's quiet and peaceful. No one to disturb me."
"Just you, the tombstones, and the bats, zombies, and occasional chainsaw murderer," Ezra quipped with a shake of his head. The whole scenario he found himself currently in brought to mind the movie fest Buck and JD had forced the team to endure the last Friday the thirteenth, and he shuddered involuntarily from revulsion of the memory of the tacky, gory, and just plain outright horrible films.
It was the last time he agreed to let them pick out the entertainment.
She eyed him oddly at the comment. "Chainsaw murderers? And you wonder if I'm normal."
He didn't get a chance to answer as they topped the knoll to find a small building looming in front of them out of the fog. She led him around the side to the narrow door in the front and again pulled her file out to unlock the door before leading the way inside into what looked like a small foyer.
As the door shut softly behind them, she finally withdrew her flashlight and flicked it on, training it on the dust-covered wooden floor as she pushed her way through a set of double doors into a much larger room. Ezra followed her into the building but paused in the doorway as he took a good look at his surroundings. Two rows of wooden pews lined the walls, and large stained glass windows rose from waist level to nearly twenty feet above his head. The cathedral ceiling was artfully painted with scenes of clouds and angels, and a prayer bench lined the front of the room. A large wooden cross adorned the white wall behind the bench, and a long table filled with unlit candles of all sizes stood beneath the carving. 'A chapel,' he realized.
She led the way down the center aisle, heading for a little door off to the side of the bench. He followed her through the door and entered into what appeared to be a small, windowless store room. The floor in here was concrete and covered in a thick layer of dust. Another door stood in one corner of the adjacent wall to their left. Boxes and crates were stacked haphazardly around while a few broken pews lined the back wall. She worked her way through some of the rubble, pushing her way into the corner diagonal to the entrance underneath a rickety ladder leading to what must have been an attic. She stooped down for a moment, disappearing in the darkness, before standing back up and throwing something at him.
He caught it out of reflex then glanced down to notice that he was holding a rolled up sleeping bag. She grunted as she pulled a long box back out into the middle of the room and pried the lid off. She lifted an old lantern out and shook it to check it contents before setting it on the floor beside her and reaching into her pocket for her book of matches. Soon, the room was lit with a soft glow.
She next pulled a thin towel out of the box and handed it to him, then rummaged around in the backpack for a small pouch which she gave to him as well. She nodded to the door in the corner. "That's a bathroom. Has a sink, a toilet, and a mirror. You can dry off in there." She handed him a large, worn blanket from the depths of the crate as well as the flashlight. "I don't have anything for you to change into, so you can wrap up in this until your clothes dry." He hesitated a moment, and she gently pushed him toward the room. "Go on. I want to change clothes myself, and I'm sure not doing it with you out here."
He entered the small room and shut the door behind himself, resting the light him on the back of the ancient toilet. He dubiously tried the faucet on the old porcelain sink and was pleasantly surprised to find running water, even if it was ice cold. He opened the pouch and pulled out a clean-looking rag and a ziplock bag containing half of a bar of soap and quickly began to clean himself up. When he finished, he wrapped the blanket snuggly around himself and reached for the door handle, but then hesitated. He rapped loudly on the door. "Are you finished dressing?" he called through the wood.
"Yes. You can come out now," was the muffled reply.
He opened the door and found her stretching a line across the room, dressed in another old pair of jeans and a faded navy sweatshirt with her hair hanging long and straight down her back. When she had the line secure, she proceeded to hang her wet clothing on it. She reached for his and hung them beside hers. "There, now," she said, satisfied with her work. "These will hopefully be dry by morning."
She again rummaged under the ladder to return with a battered, old fashioned washtub filled with odd scraps of wood and cardboard. She emptied the tub in the middle of the floor then set up the smaller pieces of wood in the center of the basin, along with some scrap newspaper she pulled from a pouch in the backpack. Soon, she had a cheery little blaze going, and motioned Ezra near it. "It's not much, but it should take some of the bite out of the air," she explained nonchalantly.
"It's quite adequate," Ezra assured her as he held a hand over the heat while firmly keeping the blanket together with the other. He watched as she set their wet shoes by the fire, then pulled a small grate out of the box and placed in over the tub. A saucepan soon followed, as well as an old teapot without its lid. She went to the bathroom and rinse them out, then returned with the teapot filled with water. She set this on the grate and reached into the box for a can opener and a can of generic chicken noodle soup. She emptied the contents into the sauce pan, added water from the kettle, and set it on the grate as well. "I was never as thankful as I was the day the dollar store started carrying foodstuff," she grinned at him. "Hope you don't mind. It's the best I have to offer."
"It's fine," he reassured her with a smile. "Just don't tell my associates. My reputation would be severely tarnished if word of this got out."
She laughed as she stood up and climbed the decrepit ladder. He watched her curiously and a little fearfully, for the old rungs didn't look steady enough to hold a bird, much less a person. A moment later, he felt a slight breeze as she propped the trapdoor leading to the attic open slightly. She returned to the floor safely and wiped her hands on her jeans before reaching for the sleeping bag and spreading it out on one of the steadier looking pews. "Don't want the smoke to build up in here," she answered his unspoken question. "The attic is vented to the outside, so opening the trap door gives me a sort of chimney."
"Ingenious," Ezra remarked as he watched her movements with interest. After she had the sleeping bag situated the way she wanted, she began to piddle around the room a bit-rearranging some of the boxes, dusting off a larger area of the floor, checking the contents of the pot-flitting from one corner to the other in constant, restless motion. It was obvious to him that she was nervous having him in what appeared to be her home and he sought to reassure her. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said softly.
She looked up at him from where she was stirring her soup and smiled shyly with a slightly guilty expression. "I didn't think you would, or I wouldn't have brought you here in the first place," she answered. "It's just that I don't get much company. I'm used to being alone."
"Perfectly understandable," he nodded, adjusting the blanket more securely. "So," he began casually, "You have made this house of prayer your humble abode?"
"For now," she answered over her shoulder as she checked the water in the kettle. "It's only temporary, though. I'll be moving on in the spring." She nodded, satisfied at the temperature, and turned back to lift a chipped coffee mug, a plastic bowl, and a disposable plastic spoon out of the box. She quickly rinsed them out in the bathroom before returning to her makeshift kitchen and setting the bowl and spoon down on another crate. She dug into her box once again, this time emerging with a tea bag which she set into the cup and poured hot water from the kettle over. "No sugar," she shrugged in apology as she handed the cup to him.
He took it gratefully, savoring the heat coming from the porcelain, and smiled. "Quite alright," he assured her as he took a small sip. The warm tea felt delightful going down to his stomach and served to warm him up from the inside, calming the chills that were still occasionally racking through him once and for all.
Ally next poured a bit of the soup into the bowl which she handed to him as well before settling back against a pew with a plastic spoon, the saucepan, and her own mug of hot tea. Ezra gingerly sat down on a sturdier looking crate and tentatively tested the soup, finding it surprisingly tasteful for a generic brand. It certainly wasn't a gourmet meal, but right now he was just happy to have something hot to eat period and wasn't about to complain.
They fell into silence for a few moments, content to consume their meager meal while listening to the crackle of their small fire and the mournful moan of the wind outside. Ezra finally broke the stillness with another question. "What made you decide to take up residence outside the city and in a cemetery, of all places? Why not take shelter in one of the missions?" he asked with a wave of his spoon.
Ally just shrugged without looking up. "I'm not a big fan of cities."
The face of a certain sharpshooter flashed across his memory, and Ezra smiled. "I know someone else who is of the same mind," he commented.
She glanced up at him and returned his smile. "It's safer out here," she explained after she swallowed a spoonful of soup. "I try to stay off the street whenever I can. And some of the missions and shelters aren't much better than the streets. Besides, they ask too many questions. And I don't like the company I'm forced to keep at those places."
He raised an eyebrow at her as he took another sip of his fare. "And just what kind of questions would you prefer not to answer?" he asked inquisitively.
"Ones like that one," she grinned. "Let's just say I'm a private person and have my reasons for keeping to myself."
He raised his spoon in acknowledgement. "I believe I can relate to that sentiment. But why the cemetery?"
She shrugged again. "It's peaceful here. It's small enough that it doesn't have a night watchman, and this chapel is rarely used, as most prefer the newer building up front. And it's secluded. It's far enough back in the trees that no one will notice movement around it. Of course, running water is always a plus."
"I was wondering about that," Ezra noted as he took a sip of his tea. "If the chapel is never used, why is the water on?"
She took a bite of soup before answering his question. "I think it comes from a well out back. There's an old septic tank out there, too."
He nodded and changed the subject. "So, if you live here, what were you doing in the city tonight?"
"I have to get supplies somewhere," she answered as she finished her remaining meal and set the pan on the floor beside the tub before reaching for her own mug. "And I don't stay here all the time. Sometimes, when it's really cold, like last month, I have to hunt for someplace warmer, like one of the shelters. And besides, it's safer to keep moving around, not to stay in one place too long. I really don't want anyone finding out where I'm sleeping at."
He took another drink and frowned at the second reference to her safety, wondering just what it was she was running from. It then struck him that she had said she didn't want anyone knowing where she lived, and yet, she had brought him here. He again marveled at the amount of trust she was showing him after only a few hours when it was obvious she didn't trust anyone easily. He didn't ask her about it, though. "You said this was temporary. Where are you headed, if you don't mind my asking?" he questioned as he took another bite of the broth.
She sipped her tea before answering. "East," she said with a mischievous grin.
He snorted and shook his head as he set his now empty bowl down on the floor beside the pan and resettled himself on the box closer to the fire. "Okay," he drawled out, "and where are you coming from?"
"West," she replied cheekily.
He rolled his eyes as he pulled the blanket tighter around himself. "Your answers are not the most informative," he complained lightly.
"Sure they are," she answered. "I could be going south to north, north to south, northwest to southeast, or a variety of directions."
He shook his head but smiled at her reasoning. "I'll concede your point. Why Denver?"
"Why not?" she shrugged. "I've never been here before, thought it would be a nice place to visit. Besides, it's not the best idea to be traveling in winter."
"A valid assumption, but why not stay in one place, preferably some place warmer, such as, oh, Palm Springs?" he asked dryly. As if in agreement, a strong gust of wind chose that moment to hit the building, causing it to creak under the force.
Alex smirked as she lifted her mug to her lips. "I like the snow. And I prefer to keep moving."
His eyes narrowed at the comment as he tried to decipher the hidden meaning buried in her jesting. "Because it's safer?" he asked softly.
She stared back guardedly at him over the rim of her cup, studying him intently for a moment before she smoothed her features back out into a neutral expression that was quite admirable in his estimation. "Yes," she answered carefully, "the streets aren't the safest places to live."
He frowned as he took another sip from his own mug and considered her words. She was clearly wary of something more dangerous than just street thugs and gangs. He again got the feeling that she was running from something but let the subject drop as it was obvious he wasn't going to get a straight answer. "So where are you from originally?" he asked, changing the subject.
The canniness in her eyes gave way to a mischievous twinkle and she crossed her ankles in an effort to find a more comfortable position. "East."
He lowered the mug that he had been about to take a drink from and groaned. "Don't start that again!"
She laughed at his expression before turning his question back onto himself. "And where are you from originally? It's obvious you're not from around here."
He snorted and took a sip from the cup. "And whatever gave you that idea?" he deadpanned.
She favored him with a merry smile and a cock of her head. "Oh, I don't know," she commented dryly, "maybe it was your aversion to the cold. Probably the thick southern accent. Georgia, I'm guessing? South Carolina? Alabama?"
He shook her head at her efforts and smiled in amusement. "I've spent time all over the east coast and south," he offered in answer to her question. "I would bore you with the tedious list. Suffice it to say, I've been around."
"Military?" she asked casually as she flipped a loose lock of hair back across her shoulder.
He smirked at her with raised eyebrows. "Now who is being intrusive?" She shrugged an apology but smiled at him unrepentantly. "No," he answered her question anyway. "My mother and I moved around often in the pursuit of, shall we say, financial gain."
His words were light, but she picked up on something that rang a bit off in his tone and her smile faltered a bit. "Sounds lonely," she observed sympathetically.
He averted his gaze to the fire and wrapped his hands around the cooling porcelain mug. "It had it moments," he admitted, wondering why he was being that honest. He decided to get off of that topic as quick as he could. "Now that I've answered your questions, perhaps you'd be kind enough to answer mine. Your voice has the faint undertones of a southern accent, and yet it is not as thick as my own, as you pointed out. Am I correct in surmising it to be an Appalachian lilt?" he raised a questioning eyebrow. "North Carolina, perhaps, or maybe eastern Tennessee or Kentucky?"
"Close enough," she laughed. "No one else ever picked up on the accent, though. You're either a pretty good linguist or a bad influence."
He laughed and favored her with a gold-toothed smile. "I'd much prefer to be considered a suitable linguist than an ill influence, if you don't mind," he asserted. "So how does a southern lady find herself so far from home?" he questioned, letting the fact that she didn't completely answer his question go.
The grin faded from her lips to be replaced with a small frown and a pained expression as she looked away from him. Grief haunted her eyes, and she turned her gaze into the fire with a sad little smile. "Life's funny that way, I guess," she answered a bit flippantly.
"Your parents?" he asked, suddenly wondering if they were what she was running from.
The sad look deepened into a wistful melancholy. "Dead," she whispered.
He felt a wave of compassion for her after seeing the old pain settle on her features. "And you have no other family?" he asked quietly.
"An uncle. And my grandfather," she smiled a little as the words brought to mind a few of her favorite memories.
"They're gone too." She answered vaguely, her gaze never leaving the flames.
He glanced over at her and then ducked his head, realizing that he had unwittingly trod upon something quite painful for the girl. However, though he was truly penitent at the intrusion, he felt a little satisfaction at the insight he had just gained into his companion, no matter how slight. He finished his tea and set the mug beside his bowl before shifting on his box into a more comfortable position. He too turned his gaze to the fire and licked his lips before delivering his next comment. "I have a fri-a teammate that found himself in much the same situation as yourself. He too decided that it was 'safer' to take to the streets," he remarked casually.
She finally looked back up at him in curiosity. "What's he doing now?"
He glanced over at her and smiled fondly. "He is the resident sharpshooter of my team. He lives in Purgatorio, and gives much of his free time to helping the other less fortunates around him."
"Sounds like a good man to know," she commented with a slight smile.
"That he is," Ezra agreed, "that he is."
They lapsed into silence, both staring into the fire, deep in their own private reflections. "What do you plan to do tomorrow?" she asked, finally breaking the quiet.
"I'll find a way to research Fieldman Construction, and pay them a visit, after hours, if need be. I also need to further examine Mr. Banning's private records. The ledgers are quite extensive, but I do believe he must have more somewhere else, possibly at work," he answered.
"And how do you plan to get in?"
He gave her a sly grin. "You're not the only person who can pick locks." That comment brought to mind something else he had been meaning to ask her about and he looked at her curiously. "Just how did you learn to pick locks?"
She laughed at the question and met his look with twinkling eyes and a bright smile of her own. "My grandfather was a remarkable man."
He raised an eyebrow at the mysterious comment but received no further explanation and made a mental note to further inquire into the topic at a future date. "Indeed," he remarked. "He does sound like a gentleman that I would have enjoyed meeting." He ended his observation in a yawn that he couldn't quite suppress.
Alex noticed this and stood to her feet in decision. "Well, you won't be doing much tomorrow if you don't get some rest." She motion toward the sleeping bag as she gathered up the used dishes to take to the bathroom. "You can sleep there tonight," she tossed over her shoulder. "It's not very soft, but it is warm."
He glanced at the pew and furrowed his eyebrows in dismay. "I can't take your bed," he protested.
"It's no big deal," she answered as she re-entered the room and used the towel to dry the utensils before returning them to the box. She pulled another blanket from the box and tossed it across another pew across the fire from him. "I can make do with this."
"It is most certainly a 'big deal.' I can sleep with the blankets," he argued.
"Look," she declared firmly, "I'm not the one who took a line drive into a wall, and I'm not the one who was beat up on tonight. That sleeping bag isn't the best, but it is softer than these benches. If you want to be moving tomorrow, you need something halfway comfortable." He made to protest again, and she held up her hand to cut him off. "Now, I'm not going to argue this. I told you before, I can be very stubborn when I want to be, and I'm putting my foot down on this. Besides, I've got a few things I want to do before I go to bed, and you'll just be underfoot over here."
Ezra opened his mouth to try another tactic, but shut it at the resolve shining in her eyes. He shook his head with a sigh, realizing that he was not going to win this battle. He waved a hand in acknowledgement of his defeat, too weary to argue with her. "Alright, alright, I'll sleep here. For tonight," he stated determinedly. "But we will argue this point further tomorrow."
She laughed. "Agreed. Good night, then," she offered good-naturedly and handed him a rolled up shirt. "To use as a pillow," she explained when he raised an eyebrow in question.
He took the shirt and settled himself, blanket and all, into the sleeping bag, turning his back to the seat, facing out into the room and leaving the zipper down for easy exit if needed and to ease the feeling of confinement that the bags usually resulted in. He situated the shirt so that he was comfortable and finally settled down. "Good night," he returned genially.
He watched her moving about for a while but soon closed his eyes as his exhaustion finally caught up with him, only opening them again briefly when he heard her begin to hum softly to herself. He recognized the melody to be an old hymn that his Aunt Faith had sung to him a lifetime ago, and a small smile graced his face as he settled more deeply into the bag. He soon drifted off to sleep without realizing it, dreaming of a small cottage deep in the heart of Georgia, and of peach pie, bed time stories, and his time spent with his beloved Aunt Faith and Uncle Henry.