ATF Universe

Chapter Six

JD had managed to get dinner at the mission, but the beds were full. He began to understand why Vin didn't want him here, as it became clear he would be sleeping on the street somewhere. Fear began to creep over him as darkness came. JD knew he could leave if he really wanted to, but that would just prove to everyone that he wasn't cut out for the job. He had his handgun but if he used it, his cover would be blown. No. His gun was for emergencies.

"Hey, kid? Need a place to sleep?" JD turned towards the grungy bum. "I'll share my box with ya," offered the stocky man.

"No, no thanks. That's all right," said JD nervously.

"Ain't polite to turn a man down," hissed another man from behind JD. JD spun toward the new voice wide eyed.

Vin watched the scene unfolding before him. He shivered as unwelcome memories of men pawing at him surfaced. He turned away, lost in the overwhelming pain in his heart.

Vin remembered searching for a job. After a morning of rejections, Vin had spied a beer can in the street. He picked it up, thinking maybe he could find enough to make a few cents. By mid-afternoon he had collected about a dozen cans. He eyed the dumpster behind the apartment building and shuddered. He didn't want to dig through trash. The whole idea was utterly repulsive, but desperation had given Vin a whole new perspective on life. Sometimes you had to do something you despised, just to survive.

He flipped open the lid to the dumpster and jumped back a couple of steps. The smell of rotting refuse was staggering. Vin swallowed the bile in his throat and began his search by picking up a plastic bag in the bin and dumping it out. He dumped his cans into the bag and began to pick through the trash.

"What the hell are you doin'?"

Vin looked up, startled, as a bum grabbed his plastic bag.

"This is my route, boy, and them are my cans. Find your own route," said the bum, tugging on the bag.

Vin held onto one part of the bag just as tightly as the man held onto the other. Vin was getting really tired of having everything taken from him. The man sighed. "How long you been on the street, boy? Not more 'n a week, I'd say. You wanna last, you best learn the rules."

After looking at the dull eyes of his adversary, Vin released his hold on the bag. The man took the bag and put it in his cart, starting down the alley. After a few steps, he stopped and looked back. "Well, are you comin' or not?" He turned and walked away without waiting for an answer. Vin didn't have anything better to do, so he followed at a safe distance.

He followed the man a dozen blocks to an area under a bridge. A homeless town. Vin had heard of them, but never really seen one. The man took Vin's cans and threw them in the pile in the middle of the circle of cardboard boxes. Four or five other homeless people looked at Vin warily. The man nodded toward him. "He brought these cans."

One of the men nodded his head at Vin, then nodded toward the fire barrel, indicating Vin should join them. Vin cautiously moved toward the beckoning warmth of the fire. "This one's new. He needs to learn the rules or they'll eat him alive," said the man who brought Vin to the camp. Vin was busy warming himself and missed the leering glances exchanged between the men.

They stood around the fire and began to impart their knowledge to the boy, each man offering thoughts.

"Ya gotta share information about shelter, food and where the police are cracking down," said one man, "unless, of course, it's a matter of the last bed or plate available." The others chuckled at his candor.

"Share the bounty with your buddies. That means, you bring the stuff you find back here and we all share what we find," offered a second man. The others nodded in agreement. "An' ya look out for your buddies. You might need their help some day."

The third man thought for a moment. "If you know someone else beds down in a certain spot, leave it alone. That's his place."

"Yeah, and if you know another person's canning route, leave it alone!" said the man who had found Vin swiping the cans on his route.

"An' don't rip off someone who has helped you."

"Don't make a move on another man's woman, no matter how bad he treats her." He winked at the other men.

"Don't mess with anyone's stuff."

"And never, ever, touch another person's shopping cart!"

Vin looked at the men.

"Ain't ya got nothin' to say, boy?"

Vin shook his head, 'No.'

"Do ya understand?" asked the man who seemed to be in charge of the group.

Vin nodded.

"Talkative brat, ain't ya? Ya got a place to sleep?"

"Got a bed at the mission on Fifth Street for tonight," Vin answered cautiously.

"You watch yourself there, boy. They'll rob ya blind," warned the leader.

Vin lowered his head. "Ain't got nothin' left worth takin'," he said, still mourning the loss of his mother's locket.

Vin instinctively leaned away as the leader stepped closer to him. He could feel the man's breath on the side of his face. "Ya always got somethin' worth takin', pretty boy," he leered.

As the man's hands pawed at him, Vin bolted. He could hear the men laughing at him as he ran. "What'cha say that fer? Ya chased him off. Now we can't have no fun."

+ + + + + + +

"No!" yelled JD.

Vin broke away from his memories at JD's cry. "JD!" He jogged the twenty yards and grabbed the man holding JD. "Leggo of him. The kid's mine!" He shoved the man roughly to the ground, grabbed JD by the arm, and started to drag him back towards his box. Two of the men came after Vin, but Vin's Ranger training came in handy and dropped both men with a slick martial arts move. "I said, he's mine. Back off!"

Vin turned back to JD who was staring at him wide-eyed. "Don't just stand there. Get back to my spot," Vin ordered. He nodded toward his box so JD could follow his lead. JD moved toward the crate, but stopped, turning back to Vin. Vin pushed him, knocking the younger man off his feet, then with his foot, rolled JD into the shelter of crates.

"Ow!" protested JD.  "Jeez, Vin!" Vin growled and crouched at the entrance to the four-foot by eight-foot area. He turned his back to JD and watched what the men were going to do, not relaxing even as they crawled back into their "boxes".


"Shut up and go to bed, JD."

JD grimaced. Vin was clearly unhappy with him. It wouldn't help to argue with him, so JD lay down on the cardboard and pulled up the blanket. He had just drifted to sleep when he felt a body against him. He woke with a pounding heart , and when a hand covered his mouth, in pure instinct, JD bit down hard. A colorful string of curses told him whose hand he had champed. "Jeez, Vin, I didn't know it was you. I'm sorry."

"Go to sleep," Vin growled as he snuggled closer against JD's body.

"What the hell are you doing?" JD's voice broke with a squeak as he protested the closeness.

"Take it easy," Vin breathed in his ear. "Eyes are watching. I claimed you're mine. It had best look like it. 'Sides, you got my blanket, and you're a helluva lot warmer than this newspaper."

JD was still tense. His body was tight with fear, a feeling far to familiar to Vin. "JD," whispered Vin, "relax. I ain't gonna hurt you," he assured, "and I won't let anyone else hurt you either." Vin could feel JD slowly letting go. He continued to speak low and quiet, soothing JD's jangled nerves. "That's it. Just relax. Get some sleep. You're gonna have some long nights ahead."

+ + + + + + +

JD woke in the middle of the night with a start. "You're okay," whispered Vin. JD relaxed at the sound of Vin's voice.

"Yeah, I am. Thanks to you. Why don't you sleep awhile? I'll keep watch," offered JD.

Vin was too tired to refuse. "My gun's in the box." Vin snuggled into the warm place where JD had been laying as the kid sat up. "Try not to use it," he said playfully. JD smiled, picked up the cigar box containing Vin's gun, and kept watch as Vin drifted to sleep.

It was a fitful sleep, filled with dreams. Vin tossed restlessly as the memories of his early days revisited him in his nightmares.

He remembered trying to stay awake during those early days on the street. He had been up for forty-eight hours, trying to stay away from the weirdoes that were loose in this area of town. He was exhausted. It was only his third day on the streets. Vin had managed to scrounge up another fifteen bucks doing odd jobs, but at this rate, he'd have enough for a room maybe once a week. 'Stupid, Vin, real stupid. You should'a stayed put in Texas and made someone listen.'

Fifteen year old Vin rubbed his eyes. He was so tired. He knew he was going to fall asleep soon, whether he wanted to or not. And when he fell asleep, he couldn't protect what was his. Looking through his pack, Vin decided what was most important to him. He would sleep on top of it to make it as hard as possible to steal. There was so little to choose from. He had a couple of t-shirts, a second pair of jeans and underwear. He was already wearing both pair of socks, and both of his shirts. There was his Rangers baseball cap, and the cigar box. That faded, worn, hollow cube contained everything that was priceless to Vin, simple mementos that held special memories. His grandfather's harmonica. His mother's locket. A couple of pictures. The patch from his grandpa's ranger jacket, and a few other items that were of no real value to anyone but Vin.

Vin carefully tucked his leftover cash into the box and settled down to sleep in the mid-afternoon sun. He hoped that the meager heat of the late fall sun would keep him warm since he had no blanket. "God, protect me," he whispered, and he closed his eyes while his heart pounded loudly in his chest.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rolled over and cried out in his sleep. JD pulled the blanket back over the Texan. "Shh, Vin. It's okay," he soothed, but Vin didn't hear. He was lost in his nightmares. Someone was grabbing him. The teen woke with a start, surprised by the darkness, and terrified by the scruffy man who was pawing through his pockets. Seeing the boy awake, the man shoved Vin onto his back and grabbed the cigar box.

"That's mine!" yelled Vin.

"Not anymore, boy," growled the bum.

Desperation pushed aside fear as Vin quickly got up and grabbed for the box. The large man backhanded the scrawny kid, sending him sprawling. Vin wasn't about to give up. That box was his life. He found his way to his feet and latched onto the box with both hands.

"Are you crazy, boy?"

Vin blinked. The man's breath was overwhelming. Vin tugged at the box in futility. He would never be able to dislodge it from the giant hands. Sharp pain lanced through Vin's mouth and nose as a meaty paw struck him again and knocked him to the pavement. Stars danced in his head and he fought to focus. The bum had his box open and was digging through it. "NO!" yelled Vin, rising again to his feet.

The bum pulled out the cash and the locket and flung the box away spewing the remaining contents across the alley. He grabbed Vin's backpack. Vin knew he couldn't do anything against the bigger man. "Please, the locket. It was my mom's. Please take the rest, but leave me the locket."

The man laughed. "You think I'm stupid, boy? This'll bring me enough to at least buy a bottle. You better get wise fast boy, or you'll be dead." He shoved Vin hard, knocking him over a crate, before he walked away.

Vin again climbed to his feet, absently wiping his bloody nose on the back of his hand as he watched the man stagger away from him. In that man's hand was a piece of his heart. Another fragment of his life was stolen away. Vin choked back the tears that were surfacing. "I'm sorry, Mama," he whispered. Vin turned back to the alley to try to reclaim the remaining pieces of his life scattered across the ground.

+ + + + + + +

"I'm sorry, Mama," Vin muttered in his sleep. The words pricked JD's heart. It was just a little over two years ago that the youngest agent had lost his mother. Vin mumbled something about a restroom and JD smiled. The bits and pieces of Vin's nightmare ramblings made no sense, but JD figured if he was out here very long, he'd be dreaming of bathrooms too. In fact, he needed one right now. Vin mumbled again. JD didn't know whether he should wake the Texan or just let him have much needed shut-eye. Restless or not, Vin needed to sleep.

Vin rolled over again as his dream took another turn. After the attack and theft of his precious locket, Vin spent the night on the move. His face hurt and he figured it was probably pretty bruised. He found himself outside the all night market. He slunk into the store as quietly as he could and made his way for the restrooms in the back.

"Hey you! Restrooms are for customers only," stated the night clerk.

Vin ignored him, slipped into the restroom, and locked the door. He relieved himself and washed his hands. Looking in the mirror, Vin groaned. His lip was swollen and he had a black eye. He absently reached for a paper towel making several swipes with his hand. He focused on the dispenser and growled. It was an air dryer. He went back into the stall and unrolled a bunch of toilet tissue, got it damp in the sink and gently wiped his face. It wouldn't fix the bruising, but at least it took off a layer of blood and grime.

He looked down at his blood stained shirt, then glanced at the door. 'Aw hell. The guy's going be fried at me anyway.' Vin slipped off the blood stained shirt and T-shirt and did a makeshift wash job in the sink. When he was finished he hung them over the air dryers and turned them on. 'What the heck?' he thought. 'Might as well do as much as I can.' It was tough to do in a short sink, but he did his best to wash his hair while constantly pushing the buttons restarting the air dryers.

The clerk was pounding on the restroom door. Vin was grateful that it was a slide lock, not a key lock. "Come out of there," ordered the clerk. He pounded some more, and then Vin heard him call to a customer that he would be right with him. He figured he didn't have much more time. His T-shirt was mostly dry, so he slipped it on and used that air dryer on his hair.

It wasn't long before the clerk was back, pounding on the door, threatening to call the police. Fortunately another customer came in and the clerk went to help him. Vin slipped on his jacket over his T-shirt and stuffed the damp shirt in his pocket. Cautiously, he slid open the lock and looked out. There was a customer at the check out and another in the beer aisle. Vin slunk down a side aisle headed for the door. The clerk would see him but, if he timed it right, the guy wouldn't make a big scene with other customers nearby.

He waited for the clerk to finish with the first customer. The second man was headed toward the check out with his beer. Vin's eyes drifted down to the shelf next to his hand. 'Beef Jerky!' His stomach growled. 'No,' thought Vin, 'I am not a thief.' He had not eaten in the last eighteen hours. His stomach won. He moved his hand the few inches and slipped a couple of packs off the hook.

"Hey! You!"

Vin did not hesitate. He ran out of the store and kept right on going even though the clerk wasn't following.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke with a start. Still in the fog of the dream, he saw a man holding his box. Vin dove on top of his assailant grabbing the box away. "It's mine!" Vin scrambled into a corner, clutching his box.

"Okay, Okay! It's yours. Jeez, Vin." JD softened as he realized Vin was still half-asleep. "It's okay Vin, it was just a dream."

Vin worked on slowing his breathing. He realized JD was with him as the younger man rubbed his sore jaw. "What did I do?" he asked softly.

"I think you thought I was stealing your box," said JD working his jaw back and forth.


JD thought Vin's brief answer finished the discussion. He sat watching the light of the rising sun slowly illuminate the area. He was startled when Vin spoke from the darkness behind him.

"I was fifteen. I ran away from a foster home where the guy was knocking me around. I wound up on the streets here." Vin paused and took a deep breath. "I had a box like this." He absently tapped the lid of the box. It had everything I had of value in it."

JD looked over his shoulder at the long pause. "What happened?"

"It's locked in the gun safe at my apartment," answered Vin, purposely avoiding JD's real question.

"I meant, what happened?"

Vin snorted at how silly JD's question sounded. "I had a nightmare. A guy was stealing my box. I woke up, you were holding it." Vin shrugged.

"Did that really happen?"

Vin nodded. "Knocked me around. Stole my money, my watch, and my mom's locket."

"Oh," JD grunted. He knew Vin had lost his mom when he was really little. It must have been awful to have her locket stolen. "I'm really sorry, Vin."

"Weren't yer, doin'."

"I mean about everything."

Vin smiled. "I know, JD. I thought I was tryin' to protect y'all, but I reckon I was tryin' more to protect m'self. I didn't want y'all ta know I was a street kid."

"Why?" asked JD.

Vin smiled at the innocence of the question and knew he was wrong to think his friends would feel any different about him because he had lived on the streets. "I was stupid kid. I guess I thought - ah hell."

"You know it doesn't make any difference?"

Vin nodded. "It's just, well, I did some things to survive that I ain't proud of, JD."

JD sat quietly for a few moments sorting out what he wanted to say. Finally, he forced the words out. "Vin, I didn't have to do stuff to survive, I mean other than working. But, I've done plenty of stupid stuff that I ain't proud of neither. Josiah told me all those things worked together to help make me who I am. And, and I like who you are Vin. I'm sad for what happened to you, but I'm really proud to be your friend." JD looked over at Vin to gauge his response, just in time to have a balled up newspaper bounce off his head. Vin chuckled and JD smiled.

"I'm proud to know you, JD Dunne. Now what d'ya say we find some breakfast and catch us an arsonist?"

Chapter Seven

As the two approached the line outside the Fifth Street Mission, Vin thought he spotted the man who had approached him after the blanket burning.

"JD, get in line. Get us beds for tonight," said Vin. His eyes were watching the bum down the alley. "Tell Josiah to give us an extra ticket."

"What are you going to do?" asked JD.

"I think the guy that just went down the alley is our suspect. I'm going to make myself available. See if I can't get close to him. Get yourself some breakfast. Let Josiah know what's goin' on."

"You haven't eaten."

"Those are the breaks, JD. I'll find something."

"How will I find you later?"

"Stick around here JD. You'll have to be back at six for your bed anyway. Keep on the alert. If you get in a bind, head for the mission. I'll try to make it for dinner." Vin turned and headed for the alley.

"Vin?" said JD uncertainly.

"You'll be fine, Kid."

JD grinned, "I was just going to tell you to be careful." Vin gave a wave of his hand and pushed his cart down the alley.

+ + + + + + +

Douglas Randall looked at himself in the mirror as he toweled his hair dry. Discarding the towel on the counter, the dark haired man trailed his fingers gently down the left side of his neck and chest tracing the ugly scars from the warehouse fire so many years ago. He was a helpless child at the time. His father had lost his job and eventually the family of three had wound up homeless. They had never belonged on the streets, and if just one person had cared to help, he would not have this permanent disfigurement. He would have been able to woo the women like that tall dark haired man with a mustache and sunny smile did last night, stealing the blonde from under his nose.

Douglas sighed as he pulled on the shirt and tucked it into the tattered jeans. He smiled. It was such a transformation from the three-piece suits he wore at the office. If it hadn't been for the fireman who saved him from the burning building and for the police officer who adopted him, Douglas would have ended up like the trash on the street. The trash who had caused him this great pain, the scarring, and the loss of both of his parents in that God-forsaken warehouse - the trash that had started the fire that ravaged his body, and nearly ruined his life.

He pulled on the old army jacket and then the stocking cap, satisfied that he looked the part. Douglas had made something of his life. He was a successful businessman. His overwhelming bitterness had made him cold and calculating which made the rise to the top easier. He didn't care if he hurt people along the way. Now that he was on the top, making a good living, he was free to settle old debts - to revenge the deaths of his parents, and to rid the world of the trash that had maimed him. He was doing society a favor by ridding them of dirt living on the streets. Douglas picked up his telephone and dialed.

"Randall Enterprises. May I help you?"

"Marla, I won't be coming in tomorrow. Clear my calendar for the day."

"Yes sir, Mr. Randall."

He hung up the telephone, slipped the remainder of his necessary supplies into the pockets of the coat, and headed out into the streets. Douglas wanted to find that kid who burned the blanket the other night. He liked that kid's spunk. He reminded Douglas of a much younger version of himself. Maybe the kid could be an ally in ridding society of the street trash. He was smart. Douglas figured he could set the kid up in business, make him his protégé, maybe even his heir.

+ + + + + + +

Vin again spent the day trying to find the bum that had approached him after the fire. It turned out the guy he had followed was the wrong man. Vin asked around, but no one seemed to recognize the bum, or maybe they just didn't care. Vin was beginning to think that this guy was a ghost. He was sure he had seen the mystery man several times, but it was always at night. In the daylight, the guy disappeared. 'Ooh, a vampire,' Vin laughed to himself. As it closed in on six o'clock, a disappointed Vin headed for the mission. He should have found something by now.

It had started to rain mid-afternoon and Vin was soaked. He brushed the saturated strands of his long hair from his face. As he walked, his shoes squished with the wetness. He was already drenched and shivering, and now it had started to snow. Vin was grateful he had a room in the mission tonight, but at the same time, he felt guilty that he was taking a bed that a real homeless person needed.

Vin got into the line outside the mission. He rubbed his hands together, then blew on them trying to warm them. He didn't know how cold it was, but he could see his breath in the chilly air. He saw JD about ten feet a head of him in the line. JD gave up his place and joined Vin at the rear of the line. "Looks like you stayed pretty dry, kid."

"Jeez, Vin! You must be freezing," said JD with concern.

Vin didn't respond. He rubbed his hands and blew on them again. He was focused on the man coming out of the shadows in the alley. "It's him." The words were barely whispered.

JD followed Vin's line of sight and saw the scruffy bum headed toward the line.

+ + + + + + +

Douglas smiled as he approached the line outside the mission. There was his kid. He looked at the snow coming down and cursed. He may have to change plans tonight. There was no way he was going to sleep in the snow. At least he could get a warm meal. He stepped into line behind the spunky kid. He had some little punk hanging on him.

"Sure is cold," said Douglas.

"Yeah," replied Vin.

"Sure could use one a those burnin' blankets to warm up."

Vin looked up and grinned. "He deserved it."

"I'm sure he did, son," said Douglas. "You get a bed?"

"Yep. You?"

"Nah. Not today," replied Douglas.

Vin reached in his pocket and pulled out a number. "Got this off a guy who didn't want it no more." He laughed and waved the number in front of Douglas. "It's for sale."

Douglas eyed the kid. He had potential. "Guy didn't want it, huh?" He smiled, knowing that the guy probably didn't have any say in the loss of his ticket. "How much?"

Vin nodded to Douglas's paper bag. "Your bottle."

"Steep. You got a deal kid. Name's Doug," he said as he passed Vin the bottle.

"Vin," replied the Texan, handing him the ticket.

"Next!" called the volunteer.

"Move it, Kid, or you'll miss out," said Vin, pushing JD forward.

It was déjà vu for Vin as they stepped inside the mission doors. He remembered the first time he had ever come to this place as if it were yesterday.

He had seen a long line of street people in front of a building and cautiously made his way over. He hesitantly got in line. Maybe he would get some food. Soon a man dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans came down the line and gave everyone a piece of paper. Vin looked at his and saw that it had a number on it. Soon, another man began to call out random numbers. Vin watched as people with those numbers moved to a table and signed on a paper. When they called his number, he started to move, only to have the man next to him try to snatch his paper. But, Vin had begun to develop street smarts and quickly wadded it up in his hand and trotted toward the table.

"Name?" asked the man at the table.

"Vin. Uh," Vin hesitated. It probably wasn't safe to give his real name. "Vin Donlan."

The man eyed him. "How old are you?" he asked suspiciously.

"Eighteen! I'm eighteen," Vin lied. He could tell that the man didn't believe him, but the man let it go.

"You will have bed thirty-two. Be here at six o'clock for the service or you won't get in. Dinner will be at seven, and you can have your bed after that."

"My bed?"

The man looked up. He smiled kindly. "We only have thirty-five beds. We hold a lottery every morning, the lucky number holders will get beds for that night. We'll feed you dinner tonight, give you a bed and a place to clean up, and you'll get breakfast in the morning. You can come here again tomorrow and try again."

"Okay. Six o'clock?"

"Six o'clock," the man confirmed.

He passed the day trying to find work and food without success. Vin stood across the street from the mission waiting. It had to be near six o'clock, but now he wasn't so sure he wanted a bed in this place. After his run in with the men in the homeless town, he didn't know who to trust or what was safe. He watched the line forming. An awful lot of folks were willing to take his bed if he didn't show up. Pushing off the brick wall, he walked across the street to the desk outside the mission entrance.


Vin panicked for a moment, trying to remember what name he had given them. "Vin. Vin Donlan." He wondered briefly what Officer Joe would think of him using his name. It didn't matter. The Donlans hadn't wanted him anymore anyway.

"Go on inside Mr. Donlan. They'll show you where to put your things."

'What things?' thought Vin, but he went inside anyway.

It was far from being the Ritz. The building was very old, in need of repairs, but it was fairly clean. Vin got in line and waited. It looked like they were giving out blankets and clothes. He watched as the first man handed them blankets and the second would go to a shelf and pick out clothes for the man in line.

"Here you are son. You must be Vin Donlan?"

Vin nodded. It would have been an easy guess. He was last in line, and his was the only name not checked off on the list.

"Josiah, looks like he could use a change of clothes. You have anything this small?"

The big man smiled kindly at Vin, and Vin felt a little of his terror slip away. "I'll see what I can find, John." Vin held his bedding tightly and watched as the man sorted through some clothes and found what he wanted.

"Here we are!" He handed Vin a complete change of clothing, but there was also a hooded sweatshirt in the pile. "Figured someone would come along who could wear that size. Come on, I'll show you the ropes." Josiah nodded toward the hallway.

He led Vin to the sleeping room. It was a big room filled with cots. "What bed were you assigned, son?"

"Thirty-two, sir," said Vin timidly.

Josiah smiled. Someone had taught the youngster respect. He wondered where that someone was now.

"Put your things on the bunk." Josiah bent over absently straightening the mattress on the cot. He looked up when Vin didn't move. The kid had his arms clutched tightly around the clothes and bedding. Any fool could see he was afraid someone would take them. He stood and put his hand on Vin's shoulder, keeping it there when the boy flinched. "Son, we have rules here, and one of them is, you don't touch anyone else's stuff."

"They said I'd get robbed blind in here," he said quietly.

Josiah smiled. "I think someone was trying to get your bed, son."

Vin looked around the room. Everyone's bedding was sitting on the beds. Vin took a deep breath and put down the bedding. At the big man's nod of encouragement, he set down the clothing as well.

"Come on, son. It's time for church. Then we'll have supper, and then you can really get cleaned up." He steered Vin gently toward the meeting room.

+ + + + + + +

JD bumped into Vin. "Move Vin." Vin looked up and saw a volunteer holding out bedding for him. He took the bedding and moved ahead, following Doug. He froze when he saw Josiah behind the counter handing out clothes. Vin was shocked. It was him. They had worked together on Team 7 for two years and it had never connected before that Josiah had been the one who had been so kind to him as a kid. Josiah was the one who steered him to the Youth Shelters.

Josiah handed him a change of clothes. Vin met Josiah's eyes. With a sincerity that Josiah didn't understand, Vin thanked Josiah from the bottom of his heart.

Josiah stared after him. "What was that all about?" he asked JD.

JD shrugged. "I don't know. Vin's been weird all day. He jumped me early this morning. Thought I was stealing his box."

"His box?" asked Josiah.

"Yeah. He's got this cigar box. Keeps it in a ziplock bag."

A cigar box. A ziplock bag. Scruffy long-haired teenager. It connected. "Dear Lord," said Josiah. "If I had only known," He sighed wondering just how much he could have saved young Vin from, if he had only taken his concern for a street kid just one step further.

He remembered the dirty kid coming into the mission claiming to be eighteen. Josiah had walked him through the first steps in the mission since it was so obvious that he had never been in a mission before. He remembered finding Vin at the end of mealtime. He had his arms framed protectively around his plate and was sopping up the last bit of gravy with a crust of bread. The kid wasn't wasting a speck of food. Josiah could tell the kid hadn't been on the street long, but already he was developing the survival mentality. He sat down across the table from the boy and waited quietly for the boy to acknowledge his presence.

Vin looked up warily and watched as Josiah reached in his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in a napkin, setting it by Vin's plate. The big man nodded to Vin to open it. Vin unrolled the napkin and found four carrot sticks and a cookie.

"The cook had some leftovers," explained the volunteer. Vin didn't hesitate. He wolfed down three of the carrot sticks, protecting the remainder with his free hand.

Josiah smiled when the boy forced himself to stop eating. "You want one?" Vin offered. Josiah refused and he nearly laughed at the relief in the boy's eyes as he ate the remaining carrot stick and the cookie. The kid had manners. The street hadn't sucked all the life out of him yet. Josiah pulled a card out of his pocket. "Son, tomorrow you should check out this place. It's a youth shelter."

"I'm eighteen," said Vin quickly.

"Well," said Josiah, knowingly, "if you weren't eighteen, you could get shelter here for two weeks before they are required to contact parents or the authorities. It'd be a roof over your head and food in your stomach for two weeks, but only if you weren't eighteen, of course."

Vin smiled shyly as he took the card. "Thank you."

"Come on, it will be your turn in the showers soon." Josiah smiled as Vin cleaned up around his tray and put his dishes on the counter in the kitchen.

+ + + + + + +

When it was Vin's turn in the shower, Josiah could see there was going to be a problem. He had convinced the scrawny boy to shed his filthy clothes and wrap up in the towel he had been handed earlier. He would put on his new clothes when he finished, but the boy wouldn't put down the cigar box. Josiah knew that it probably contained all of the kid's earthly treasures. When he gently took hold of the box, the kid gripped it tighter. "You can't shower with it, son. Can you trust me to hold it for you for three minutes?" The boy was shaking his head. "The water in the shower will only stay on for three minutes so you have to shower fast. I won't open it, and I'll give it back to you as soon as you are dressed." The kid's big blue eyes were so expressive. Fear shown brightly in them, but there was also a pleading look, begging Josiah not to betray him. He had been betrayed one too many times. Josiah could see he was asking too much. "Stay right here, I'll be back in a minute," said Josiah.

When he came back, he had a large zippered plastic bag from the kitchen. Vin was sitting on a bench, clad only in the towel, his thin shoulders shivering. Josiah held the plastic bag out to Vin and smiled as the kid lit up. Vin took the bag and slipped his treasure box into it. He zipped it closed, gave Josiah a big smile as he climbed into the shower, box and all, and closed the door.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin turned back, waiting for JD to get his clothes, Josiah met his gaze. The older man mouthed the words, "You're welcome." Vin smiled grimly. Josiah knew, but he trusted Josiah would not divulge his secret.

"I like red," Vin said as JD approached. His pile of clothes included a red flannel shirt. JD's pile had a red T-shirt. So red was the cop code color of the week. The various law enforcement groups had a code color and a code phrase that undercover operatives would use so other officers would recognize them during a bust. Red was obviously the color of the week.

They went through the routine. Attend church. Eat dinner. Shower and change. Vin needed a way to meet with Josiah. Doug's bed was on the other side of the room, giving him a little space to work. As he sat on his cot, he waited for Josiah to come by. "Hey preacher."

"Can I help you, brother?" asked Josiah.

"I got some questions about what the preacher talked about tonight. Me and this kid," he pointed to JD, "we was just talkin' about it."

"Well brothers, why don't you come with me and we'll talk some more."

JD and Vin followed Josiah into the "prayer" room. There, Vin briefed them on his plan with Doug. Hopefully Doug would tip his hand tomorrow and Vin would be able to catch him in the act.

+ + + + + + +

Douglas grew angrier as time passed. The big guy at the mission was being too nice to Vin and the little twerp that was following him. Guys like him perpetuated trash on the streets. They provided food and blankets so the street people could continue in their lifestyles. Bums would never get off the streets if they were pampered. It was obvious to Douglas that he needed to take greater measures to clean up the streets. As he settled down on his cot, he began to plot his next move.

After breakfast, they waited for the lottery for the beds, but neither Douglas nor Vin was successful. The dark haired leech that was following Vin everywhere was becoming a problem to Doug. If he hung around too much, Doug decided to take care of him. Seems Vin had the same thing on his mind.

"Where ya going?" asked JD.

"Get lost kid," said Vin shoving the pesky younger man away.

JD tried to figure what Vin was up to. He didn't want to leave Vin alone with the suspect. But he didn't want to risk Vin's cover either. He hoped the Texan knew what he was doing. JD stood and watched them as they headed down the snow-lined street. He turned his attention back toward the mission and headed for the front door. Josiah had found him a job cleaning up around the mission, to keep better tabs on him.

"Where's Vin?" asked Josiah. No one else was around.

"He went with that guy Doug," said JD worriedly.

Josiah sighed. "We'd better check in." They moved down the hallway to the small office and he dialed the designated number and listened to it ring over the speaker.

"Hello?" answered a distinctly southern voice.

"How's the ankle?" asked Josiah

"Ah, Mr. Sanchez. How is the benevolent world?"

"We're fine."

"Ah. Are Messrs. Tanner and Dunne with you?" asked Ezra.

"Just JD. Vin is with a suspect," answered Josiah.

"Speaking of suspects, we've ruled out four more potentials. Do you still think it is a public servant?"

"That's what the profile leans toward Ezra. Someone in a position to help others, perhaps having come from difficult circumstances. This person has taken their power to help to an extreme and now believes he must eliminate homelessness by getting rid of the street people."

"Vin still thinks it's a homeless guy," chimed in JD.

"A homeless person would have access to the places and would perhaps be able to win the trust of those he is eliminating, but where would he come up with the money to buy the supplies to fuel all these fires?"

"I agree with Mr. Sanchez. Money is involved here. I believe the suspects Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington are following are far more likely than Mr. Tanner's street bum. Now, if our arsonist holds true to form, he will strike tonight. The task force has extra officers and fire fighters lined up all over the warehouse district tonight. Watch your backs gentlemen. Check in at midnight."

+ + + + + + +

As the hours passed, Vin became increasingly convinced that Doug was the arsonist. If he wasn't, he was still a very dangerous man. They had spent most of the day holed up in a warehouse on Fourth Street, keeping out of the weather. Doug had tried to pry his new friend with all kinds of curious questions and comments throughout the day. It was as if he was trying to see if Vin really wanted to get off the streets or not. Then he'd make some comment about homeless trash. It was odd for a homeless man to be calling others "homeless trash."

Vin learned that Doug had lost his parents as a ten-year-old and that he had lived with a cop for awhile. The common circumstances of their backgrounds seem to make Doug latch on to him a little tighter. Vin had all kinds of warning alarms going off in his head.

Some things stood out as odd. Doug seemed to know about the streets, but his knowledge seemed "old school," as if he hadn't been on the streets for years. Some of his actions would have been old school when Vin was on the streets as a teen. Vin passed Doug the bottle again. Doug took only a small sip and handed it back. It seemed he was trying to stay sober. Then there were his hands. They were soft and smooth, not dried out and rough. Living on the streets took its toll on skin. The guy sitting next to him had a perfect manicure.

What really bothered Vin were the ramblings. Doug preached to Vin about the travesty that homelessness was and that it was their responsibility to help clean up the streets. Vin had pressed Doug a little to get him to say how they would clean up the streets, but Doug didn't let anything slip. He had told Vin no less than four times, that he would take care of the little bum that was hanging on him. Vin kept brushing it off, telling Doug that he fought his own battles. But then Doug would act possessive and protective of Vin, which really made Vin leery. He almost got the feeling Doug had picked him out for some special mission. The guy definitely was a few bricks short of a full load.

The two men found their way back to the street mission by six o'clock. Upon seeing JD in line, Doug once again threatened him. Vin unconsciously stepped between the two men, using his body as a barrier. He was a little relieved that Doug didn't have a ticket for a bed tonight. This way he could keep him away from JD. Vin had a winning ticket in his pocket, but he would not be using it. He had to stick close to Doug.

After the service and the meal, Doug and Vin were leaving the mission to head back to the streets when JD approached Vin again, intending to go with him. Vin grabbed him and shoved him against a wall with his forearm against JD's neck. The kid was blocked from Doug's view. "I told you to stay away from me," Vin said loudly.

JD started to protest.

"Shut up and listen," Vin hissed quietly. With his free hand he pulled a plastic bag containing the empty whiskey bottle that he and Doug had been sharing at the warehouse all afternoon. He quickly slid it into JD's jacket pocket. "Get his prints off this. Have Ezra run a make on him. There's something really weird about him. I'm sure he's our guy, JD. I'm going to try to stick with him tonight, catch him in the act. Tell the guys my best guess is that he's going to hit a warehouse on Fourth and Front." JD nodded and Vin let him slide to the floor and left the room.

Doug laughed eerily as the two men went out into the snowy darkness.


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