"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Ezra had dared to hope the boys had made peace with each other when Vin began to rummage frantically through the morass that the back seat had become.
"Whatsamatter, Vin?" JD asked, and seemed truly concerned.
Ezra was already slowing the car down, fearing the worst.
"My cat!" Vin cried. "Where is it!?"
"Oh no " JD said. "I think we left it at the restaurant."
Ezra looked back at Vin. The little boy looked horror-stricken, his lower lip quivering.
Ezra could offer him no comfort. JD had carried the cat into the restaurant, but, he distinctly remembered all three of them walking out with nothing but JD's wet clothing.
They were almost 40 miles from Pueblo by this time. It simply was not practical to return for a lost toy.
"I'll stop there on the way back," Ezra said. "I am sure they will save it for you." He wasn't sure of that at all. The restaurant would have no reason to assume they would be back, and it was possible some other child would spot the abandoned toy and claim it as his or her own.
"I hope they don't throw it in the trash," JD said. His concern was sincere, but it was the wrong thing to say.
There was no outburst from Vin, though. Ezra looked back at him and he was slumped in his seat, staring out the window, a picture of abject misery. Silent tears ran down his pale cheeks and his narrow shoulders shuddered with carefully controlled sobs.
It was only a toy, Ezra told himself. Vin would get over it.
He looked again at the forlorn little boy behind him. He wasn't demanding his cat back, or whining, or complaining. He wasnt making a sound at all, and that was perhaps more unnerving than any temper tantrum. How and why had this child learned to endure loss and grief in complete silence?
Ezra's mind was suddenly back to a time when he was 8 years old. He'd been living with his Auntie Grace, the one person he could single out as having been a real parent to him. She'd given him a wonderful magic set that Ezra had cherished more than anything he'd ever owned, and that was saying something since Maude had habitually shown her affection for him in the form of material things, usually expensive.
One day, Maude had shown up unexpectedly to drag him off to France and her latest husband. The magic set was too big to fit into their luggage, and she made him leave it behind.
Ezra had soon overcome the loss, given that astonishing resiliency children have about such matters, but, he had never forgotten it. It was as if he'd been forced to leave an important part of who he was behind that day.
Vin's cat was nothing but some plush and foam filler, but Chris had given it to him, on a day that a bond had formed that would change the course of both lives. Vin would keep that cat always, if he could, Ezra knew.
Which would not be possible if the restaurant got rid of it.
There were turn-arounds evenly spaced along the interstate for use by law enforcement vehicles. They were all marked "No Turn" for the general public, but as soon as Ezra saw one, he pulled off the road and reversed directions.
He saw Vin looking up at him with hopeful eyes, and then saw a wave of relief wash over his tormented young features when he realized they really were going back for his treasure.
So they'd lose another hour and a half. Ezra knew this was the right thing to do. He was smiling contentedly to himself when he noticed the flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror.
Ezra doubted he would be able to talk his way out of a ticket for making an illegal turn, so he decided not to even make an attempt.
He produced his driver's license, registration, and, for good measure, his ATF I.D., on the off chance the Colorado State Trooper who had pulled him over would render a courtesy to a fellow law-enforcement officer.
It was a warm afternoon, so Ezra rolled down the car windows before stepping out. Sitting in the sun, the car's interior would heat up quickly.
JD looked up through the rear window as the trooper walked up and took the documents from Ezra. "Are we going to jail?" he asked, his voice trembling.
"No, JD, of course not. Everything's okay. Don't be scared," Ezra soothed and then cast accusing glance at the trooper. It did no good. The heartless bastard continued to sort through the documents Ezra had just handed him.
His fear assuaged, JD unbuckled his seat belt and wiggled around until he had his upper body completely out of car, supporting his weight by holding onto the window jamb. Vin slid over and leaned over the front seat so that he could see out of the driver's window.
"My name is JD. What's your name?" the younger boy asked the officer.
The trooper glanced up quickly. "Tom."
JD pointed to the name tag on his uniform. "Is that your last name? Ro-mer-o?"
"Yeah Tom Romero."
JD leaned forward so that his face was almost directly over the trooper's note pad. "Whatcha writin'?"
"I'm giving your daddy a traffic citation."
JD giggled. "Mr. Ezra's not my daddy."
"Oh," the trooper said distractedly. "Thought he was."
"I don't have a daddy. And my mommy is with the angels."
That did get the trooper's attention, briefly. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"We live with Chris and Buck now," JD continued. Ezra looked on with a bemused expression. It was not possible to ignore JD. He wouldn't let you. "Mr. Chris is the boss of the whole ATF."
"Is that so?" the trooper acknowledged without looking up from his notebook.
"A-T-F. That means ackohol, 'bacco and firearms."
"I know that," the trooper muttered as he tried to concentrate on what he was doing.
"Ackohol is beer, 'bacco is cigarettes, and firearms is guns."
"I knew that, too," he said, crossing through an error.
"Did you ever shoot anybody with your gun?" JD asked, pointing to the trooper's sidearm.
"No I've never had to do that." He looked pointedly at Ezra. "Yet."
Ezra declined to intervene. Why show any mercy?
"Did anybody ever shoot you?"
"No," the trooper sighed, crossing through another mistake. "Never been shot."
"Trolls shot Vin," JD said, nodding his head towards the older boy.
The trooper looked up. "Trolls?"
"Yeah, they had big eyes, like this " When JD released his hold on the car door to demonstrate 'troll eyes' he lost his balance and almost fell out of the car.
Both Ezra and the trooper reacted instinctively to catch him, the trooper dropping his notebook in the process. Bending down to retrieve it, he said, "That's quite an imagination you have, son."
"I'm not imaginating!" JD huffed. "Vin, show him where you got shot."
The bullet that struck Vin had only grazed him, but the wound had gone untended and an infection had set in that had almost killed him. He had been left with a deep scar as a result. Vin was a modest and reserved little boy by nature, but Chris and Buck had encouraged him to be proud of that scar rather than self-conscious of it. Vin obligingly lifted his shirt.
"See?" JD pointed.
Curiosity got the better of the trooper and he peered into the car.
"Someone really shoot that little kid?" he asked Ezra.
Ezra nodded, seeing an opportunity in the sympathetic tone of the trooper's voice. "He's lucky to be alive."
"We gots to go get Vin's cat because he left it at the restaurant."
The trooper tapped his pen on his notepad. "Is that why you were turning around?"
"Uh huh Vin got his cat when he was in the hopsital because the trolls shot him and he has to sleep with it."
The trooper sighed, closed his notebook and handed Ezra his documents back. "Have a nice day, sir. Make sure those kids are strapped in before you start your vehicle."
The trooper didn't look back. "Don't push your luck, Mister."
An hour later, Vin's cat was safely back in the arms of its loving owner and they were leaving Pueblo for the second time that day when the alarm on Ezra's watch alerted him that it was time to give JD his medication. There was a gas station and convenience store up ahead and he decided to stop there and take care of JD and maybe grab a cup of coffee. He wasn't exactly exhausted, but, the day had already been a full one and it was far from over.
He now estimated their arrival time in Albuquerque at around 7 pm, so he called Chris's cell phone once he had pulled off the interstate.
Buck answered, and without giving Ezra a chance to explain why he was calling, he blurted out, "Ez! Glad you called. Hey, look, they had to postpone one of the panels a couple of hours, so, we won't be getting out of here until about 7. Do you mind entertaining the boys until then? I know we said we'd meet you by dinner time, but, doesn't look like that's gonna happen. Their bedtime is at 8:30, so if you wouldn't mind getting them some supper and we'll meet you later at the hotel "
Ezra grinned, grateful not to have to make excuses for being three hours behind schedule. "No problem, Buck. We'll just take our time, do a little sight-seeing. Don't worry about us."
Buck was in a hurry, so that ended their conversation. Ezra opened the cooler to get JD's medicine. The first thing he noticed was that the six-pack of apple juice now only contained four boxes. "Did you boys take some juice?" he asked.
"We weren't supposed to?" Vin asked timidly.
It was beyond Ezra's understanding how they had managed to grab the drinks without him seeing them, but, in fairness to the boys, he hadn't emphasized that he didn't want open containers of sticky apple juice anywhere in his car.
"Please tell me you drank it without spilling it."
"I didn't spill mine," Vin said softly.
JD's lower lip protruded in a pout. It was incredibly cute and effective, but Ezra was made of sterner stuff than that. "JD?"
"I didn't spill mine," he said, with an unspoken 'but ' at the end.
"He stepped on it," Vin offered. "When we were talking to the police man."
Ezra peered into the back seat. On the floor at JD's feet was the now-ruptured container, sitting atop a generously sized stain.
"Oh Lord!" he gasped, lifting the dripping juice box and moving it quickly to the trash receptacle beside the gas pumps.
"He's only little! He didn't mean to!" Vin said, coming to JD's defense.
The panic in the child's voice was evident, and Ezra modulated his tone carefully. "Okay, from now on there is a rule No eating or drinking in Mr. Ezra's car. Do you both understand?"
The two little heads nodded.
Ezra ducked into the store to pay for the gas and to purchase an overpriced roll of paper towels and a bottle of water to try to dilute and soak up as much of the offending spill as he could. Even dry, the sticky juice would attract particles of grime that would discolor the pale grey berber carpet.
While he worked, the boys asked permission to go into the store. Ezra saw no harm in that, so long as they promised to stay together.
Eventually, he had soaked up as much of the apple juice as he could and was about to go into the store for the boys when they came out with their little arms laden with cheap souvenirs. There was an Indian head dress, a tomahawk and a drum - all made in Taiwan - a tin sheriff's badge, a deck of cheap playing cards, a tarantula and a scorpion, both sealed in plastic bubbles, two rubber rattlesnakes and a snow globe depicting an unlikely desert scene. There was also an assortment of candy.
Ezra knew that the boys had probably had to steal to survive when they were living on the streets, but this blatant act of shoplifting could not be ignored.
"You boys take that stuff back in the store, right now," he commanded.
"Why?" Vin asked, honestly puzzled.
"Because you stole it, and we don't steal things."
"We didn't stoled it," JD said. "We gived the lady our money."
Ezra looked at the prices on the junk, all of which, like for everything else in the store, were exorbitant. He knew Chris sometimes gave Vin money for chores, but both boys were deemed too young for an allowance, and there was over forty dollars worth of merchandise.
"What money? Where did you get it?" With a pang of guilt, he checked his back pocket. His wallet was still there.
"From the restaurant," JD explained. "We found it."
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "It was on the tables. I guess people forgot it."
"A bunch of people," JD added.
Ezra closed his eyes and pushed his fingers through his hair. "Boys, that money was left there by people to pay for their food, and to thank the waitresses for bringing it," he explained patiently.
Vin hung his head. "Oh."
"Does that mean we can't keep our stuff?" JD asked disappointed.
Ezra was tempted to let the matter slide, but he didn't know what kind of message that would be sending to the boys, so he said, "Yes, that's exactly what it means." He placed a hand on each boy's shoulder and turned them around and marched them back into the store.
After listening to Ezra's story, the establishment's matronly tattooed clerk pulled a cigarette from her mouth and blew out a long stream of smoke as she squashed the butt into an ashtray near the cash register. She then pointed to a sign that proclaimed 'No Refunds. All Sales Final."
"Ain't no buts about it, mister. My boss would have my tail."
Ezra wasn't going to let this slide. "Madam, I should think that common sense would dictate that you not automatically indulge the whims of two small children without consulting the adult responsible for them."
"Ain't like I sold 'em beer an cigarettes, Mister 'sides, you're haulin' these youngun's around in a car that costs more than I make in five years. How'm I ta know?"
Ezra was speechless.
"Cute kids, though," the woman added.
Ezra sighed. "Well, can you at least tell me how much they spent?" He would reimburse the restaurant out of his own pocket, and maybe toss in an extra twenty bucks with a profound apology.
She handed him the receipt she had tossed in the trash, and he asked for a bag to put the junk in. He'd stash it in the trunk and let Chris and Buck deal with the matter later.
Arriving back at the car, he remembered that he still hadn't given JD his medicine yet. He pulled the bottle of thick, pink liquid from the cooler and then realized he didn't know, exactly, how he was supposed to do this.
Vin, with his usual inclination to take responsibility for JD, was quick to explain. He easily undid the child-proof cap, to which was attached a dropper, conveniently marked with various dosages. He pointed to the one mark that did, in fact, correspond to the dosage on the prescription label. "You fill the squirter up to here and then just squirt it in his mouth."
"And don't forget my gum balls," JD put in.
"Gum balls?" Ezra frowned.
"Mrs. Potter gives him two gum balls so the yucky taste will go away."
That sounded like a reasonably good idea to Ezra, but, they didn't have any gum balls. There was a dispenser in front of the store, though, so he sent Vin over with a two quarters and he returned with a fistful of them.
Vin divided them evenly when Ezra said he could have some, too, and JD took the medicine without protest.
Ezra checked his watch. They were still five hours from Albuquerque, and it was after 2 pm.
"How much longer 'til we get there, Mr. Ezra?" Vin asked.
A few miles down the road, Ezra noticed Vin nodding off, his cat clutched securely to his chest. JD continued to sing and prattle to himself for a few more minutes before he, too, fell asleep.
Ezra had to admit that he was joyously grateful for the respite. He let himself sink into the Jag's contoured bucket seat and inserted a classical music CD. The interstate was almost deserted, and the speed limit was 75 mph, so he figured he could push the envelop a bit and set the cruise control at 85 mph. That would make up a few minutes of the time they had lost.
Up until now, he had been too distracted by his young passengers to enjoy the scenic southwestern beauty of the landscape that surrounded them, so now he relaxed and soaked it all in as he enjoyed the peace and quiet.
As luck would have it, his serene moment was short-lived. He heard mysterious scratching noises that sounded like they were coming from the CD player. He had heard horror stories of children damaging VCRs and other electronic equipment by inserting dirty or damaged cassettes or CDs, and he lamented the fact that he hadn't inspected JD's CD more carefully before playing it on his state-of-the-art sound system.
<scratch> <scratch> <scratch>
There it was again. Blast it, anyhow! Perhaps it was a problem with this particular CD. He ejected it, and inserted another. It seemed to play normally for a few minutes and then
<scratch > <scratch> <scratch>
"Aw hell," he muttered to himself. But no sooner had he ejected the CD than he heard the sound again So, it wasn't coming from the CD player.
Perplexed, he checked his driver's console. All of the readings were normal. Vin and JD were still fast asleep, and the Jag was handling fine, so he was baffled.
But since he didn't hear the sound anymore, he shrugged his shoulders and decided it was probably trivial and not worthy of concern.
He felt something poking his thigh and reached down to brush the offending object way. His hand struck an obviously substantial object and he felt it drop into his lap.
Looking down, Ezra's first visual image was of a tangle of scaly, clawed appendages waving frantically in the air.
"Aaarrgghh!!!" The horrified screech escaped him before he could even think about holding it back.
Later, he would reflect upon how the primitive mind immediately goes into overload attempting to decipher a visual threat. The first image that came to Ezra was Scary Thing . Really, truly BIG Scary Thing. Spider, scorpion, snakes, thing-from-Stephen-King-novel all flashed through his mind in the horrifying split second before his conscience brain registered that there was an upside-down turtle in his lap.
But, even that fact still set off autonomic alarm bells. It was only the Jag's superior handling ability that prevented him from running it off the road in his initial panic to distance himself as quickly as possible from the ugly creature.
Swerving sharply to avoid driving off the shoulder, Ezra pulled the car to a stop as quickly as possible. His breath was completely gone from his lungs and his heart was pounding so hard he was certain he could actually hear it beating. A sudden rush of adrenaline had forced beads of sweat from every pore in his body.
He checked the backseat. Neither boy had awakened, which meant no one had witnessed his loss of aplomb and none would be the wiser.
He sat breathing heavily at the side of the road, trying to regain his composure as he lifted the wriggling creature away from certain important portions of his anatomy. Once it was right side up, the turtle - or maybe it actually was a 'torkus' - being unschooled in the science of taxonomy, Ezra hadn't the slightest clue how to tell the difference - drew its head, legs and tail back into its shell, its tiny reptilian eyes staring straight at him, unmindful of the fact that it had just taken a good ten years off of Ezra's life expectancy.
There would be no more of that he vowed.
With still-trembling hands, he placed the creature back into the shoebox from which it had escaped after poking some air holes in it with a ballpoint pen.
He studied the now-still creature before grabbing for the duct tape to seal the box.
It looked like a rock. Honestly, it did.
By the time they reached Las Vegas, New Mexico, the boys were ready to eat again. Ezra would have preferred to continue on to Albuquerque, which was just a bit over 2 hours away, but, by the time they arrived, found the hotel, found a restaurant, and ordered and ate a meal, it would be well past Vin and JD's bedtime, and the boys would have to get up early in the morning to see the balloons, which usually launched at sunrise.
Deciding to forgo another restaurant experience, Ezra took the easy way out and pulled into the Las Vegas McDonald's. The boys couldnt have been happier, much to his dismay.
Ezra had no experience with McDonald's - his mother would never have been caught dead in one. They were frightfully cheerful places which obviously catered to children. Vin and JD knew exactly what they wanted, so Ezra found himself dutifully placing orders for a cheeseburger Happy Meal and a big kids McNugget Happy Meal. Good Lord, what had come over him? They both wanted milkshakes to go along with their food, so Ezra ordered three, one for himself. It seemed like a safe choice. He'd get a real meal, alone, in a quiet restaurant, when he got to Albuquerque.
When he sat the boys down with the food, he couldn't help but note that a "big kid" Happy Meal contained far more food than Vin was likely to eat. It was obviously intended for an older - or at least, larger child than the tiny 7-year-old. Ezra decided against commenting on the fact, however, remembering how much he had disliked having it pointed out that he was smaller than average when he was younger.
The boys ate eagerly at first, and then JD wrapped up the remains of his hamburger to take with him.
"Just throw it away," Ezra told him.
JD answered him with a look that made Ezra cringe with guilt. The little boy still remembered eating from garbage cans - a fresh, warm hamburger, even a cheap one, was still something precious not to be wasted.
Ezra changed his tactics. "If we were going home and could put it in the refrigerator, we could take it," he explained. "But in the car, it might spoil and make you sick. You don't want that, do you?"
JD shook his head. With a last longing look at the remains of the burger, he headed for the trash can.
Vin was obviously full, but had even greater qualms about wasting food than JD did. Ezra could see he was forcing each bite.
"Vin, you don't have to eat it all," Ezra assured him.
Vin looked at him with a guilty expression.
"I tell you what " Ezra said. "We'll leave it outside Some little animals will eat it and be happy you left it for them."
That idea appealed to Vin. He wrapped up his leftover fries and chicken and then picked up his milkshake. He'd only taken a couple of sips from it and it was still nearly full.
Ezra shook his head. "Not the milkshake. That will just make a mess wherever you leave it."
"Can I take it with me?"
"No No food in Mr. Ezra's car, remember?" He patted Vin's head affectionately so the child would know he wasn't angry. "Either finish it, or leave it here."
Vin looked at the milkshake uncertainly, and then lifted the cup to his mouth. It took him a few minutes, because the ice cream was cold, but eventually, he swallowed the last mouthful and made a move to wipe his mouth on his arm. Ezra handed him a napkin instead.
"How much longer 'til we are there?" JD asked as he climbed into the car.
"Oh not very long now. A couple of hours."
JD sighed. "That's a long time."
"We'll be there before you know it buckle up now."
Vin was already sitting in his seat, but didn't make a move.
"Vin? Seatbelt?" Ezra reminded.
Vin fastened the buckle on his seat belt and then leaned against the side of the car, holding his cat and wishing he hadn't drank that milkshake so fast. It had made his tummy all squishy.
+ + + + + + +
JD developed a renewed interest in the boys' portable CD player, and Ezra noted with amusement that he was singing the "who-let-the-dogs-out" chorus much slower now that the batteries were wearing down.
Vin sat quietly staring out the window, and Ezra got a strange inkling that something was bothering the boy.
He checked his rear view mirror. "Are you okay Vin?" he asked.
Vin nodded but then leaned back and closed his eyes. Vin didn't have JD's energy. Most people didn't. JD would keep going at full steam until he dropped, whereas Vin would gradually wind down until he was ready to go to sleep. It wasn't yet 6 pm, though, so Ezra was reluctant to have him nap and then be wide awake when his bedtime rolled around.
He was trying to think of something to entertain him when he heard an ominous choking sound coming from the back seat. It was followed by a distinct splat! and Ezra uttered a silent prayer that it wasn't what it sounded like .
"Vin's frowing up!" JD announced, with far more enthusiasm for the subject than any adult would have been able to muster. "Oh YUCK!"
Once again, Ezra found himself pulling the Jag off the road. There was no way this was really happening .
"Ewwwwwwww!!! There's chicken nuggets in it!" JD reported. "And french fries, too! GROSS!" He punctuated his commentary with three hard kicks to the back of Ezra's seat.
Ezra really wasn't in a hurry to discover the extent of this new calamity, but he did have the thought that maybe he could get Vin out of the car before the worst of it.
No such luck. By the time he opened the passenger side door and pushed the front seat full of junk forward, Vin was quite done, and was sitting with his hands covering his face, a used Happy Meal puddled at his feet.
"Vin barfed lots!" JD pointed out. "Chocolate barf!"
"Hush, JD." As Ezra stood there trying to figure out what to do next, Vin started to cry. It occurred to Ezra that he had never actually heard the boy cry - not with the wretched sobs that wracked his small body now.
"Okay, Vin it's okay " he rubbed the boy's back. "C'mon, let's get you out of the car for a minute."
"You shouldn't'a' frowed up in the car, Vin," JD advised. "It's de-gusting."
"JD, please be quiet." Ezra could see that Vin felt bad enough as it was. He helped him through the door, mindful of the fact that he had vomit on his shirt. Some of it was splashed on his jeans, too. He grabbed for the roll of paper towels he'd bought earlier and tearing off a wad of them, wiped as much as he could off of Vin. Getting it up off the floor required scooping up several towels full of the mess and unceremoniously throwing them on the ground beside the car.
"I don't wanna sit back here with barf!" JD complained.
"That's enough, JD," Ezra said, even though he really didn't blame the little boy. Right then, he had all he could do to see to Vin.
The child was a mess, and he was still crying. "It's okay, Vin," Ezra assured him. "It's not your fault. I shouldn't have let you drink that big milkshake . Come now, let's get you some clean clothes " He popped open the trunk and grabbed a clean pair of jeans and the shirt Vin had been wearing earlier.
He carefully removed Vin's Rockies jersey and then told him to slip his jeans off.
Vin choked back a sob as he looked at him incredulously. "Out here?"
"It's okay no one will see you. You can't leave those pants on."
Vin complied, having to take his shoes off to get the pants off. By a miracle the mess had missed his feet almost entirely. When he was stripped down to his underwear, Ezra retrieved the wipes from the glove compartment and thoroughly wiped Vin down with them. He worked quickly, because there was already a chill in the air, and the boy was shivering.
He fished his golf towel out of the trunk and threw it over the stain on the floor of the Jag.
"It smells bad in here!" JD commented unnecessarily, holding his nose.
"JD, shut up," Ezra said tiredly.
"It's not nice to say 'shut up'," JD informed him indignantly.
"I'm sorry, JD, you're right I know it smells bad."
Vin still hadn't stopped crying. Ezra put his arms around him and hugged him. "Are you okay now?" he asked him.
Vin sniffed and nodded shyly. His tummy did feel much better. "What about my clothes?" He pointed to the soiled garments on the ground.
"I think we had just better leave them here, Vin. Unless they get washed right away, they aren't going to get clean."
"But it's my Rockies shirt," Vin said softly, although it was more a statement of regret than a protest. Vin had not had many special things in his life that he could call his own, and the little baseball jersey was a scaled-down replica of the ones the team wore. Buck had paid an exorbitant price for them, and Vin wore it proudly.
With a sigh, he fished another trash bag out of the trunk. Gingerly, he picked up Vin's clothes and dropped them into it. In 30 minutes, they'd be in Santa Fe. He'd find a laundromat and pay someone any amount they wanted to wash them.
He got Vin back into the car and searched through the boys' suitcase for their jackets. He'd have to roll the windows down so that someone else - possibly him - wouldn't end up getting sick from the smell. But, the cool evening breeze probably wasn't the best thing for the boys, especially JD who was still recovering from his ear infection.
As he slipped JD's arms into his jacket, he brushed across the back of the seat and felt something there, a sticky blob that gave under pressure from his finger tip.
JD turned to see what he was doing. "Oh, there's my gum," he said. "I guess it falled out when I was sleeping."
Ezra pulled on the blob, but all it did was stretch so that one end was between his fingertips and the other was affixed firmly to the suede upholstery.
There was no God.
"How much longer 'til we get there?" JD asked.
Santa Fe was unquestionably an upscale community, a large percentage of its population consisting of people from elsewhere who had brought their money hoping to live the trendy magazine version of the Southwestern lifestyle. It was also traffic hell, with buildings that had been there for two or three centuries lining streets that were originally intended to accommodate horses and small wagons. Most of them were one-way, usually, the one opposite from which you wanted to go.
Pocketed among the gated communities and 7-figure adobes were more modest neighborhoods inhabited by native New Mexicans who had lived there for generations. After leaving the interstate and becoming hopelessly lost, Ezra found himself in one of them.
While he was looking for a likely place to ask for directions, he spotted a small strip mall, covered in adobe-colored stucco, but with a design that just screamed "60's." At the far end of it was the Spar-kleen Laundry. The sign on the door said "Last load by 8 pm." Ezra looked at his watch. He had a good 45 minutes to spare.
He rang a bell to summon the owner, who emerged from what appeared to be furnished living room, with a couple of couches, carpet and a TV set. Apparently, the woman spent a lot of time here. The wall behind the counter was covered with photographs of children, and, judging from her age, perhaps grandchildren. Closing the door behind her, she approached the counter and asked if she could help them.
Ezra wasn't sure how much information to give her. He had two plastic bags, one with Vin's clothes and the other with the clothes JD had spilled milk on, along with the two pairs of socks that were caked with red dirt from the Great Torkus Expedition.
He was trying to find a tactful way to explain why the clothes needed washing when JD offered his assistance.
"Vin frowed up in the car." He pointed to the appropriate bag. "His clothes got barf on them."
"Aye pobrecito " she looked at Vin sympathetically. She took both bags from Ezra, and with a thick Spanish accent said, "No problem, sir. I'll just put some baking soda in the water and run them through the wash cycle twice. They will come clean."
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, then asked. "Ummm I don't suppose you know where I can get some carpet cleaner?"
She nodded towards the clothes. "Same thing on the carpet?"
"I'm afraid so."
She picked up her phone and punched in a number, then soon after was chattering in Spanish faster then Ezra could translate. She cupped her hand over the receiver. "It's my brother Arnulfo. He wants to know if the Jag outside is yours."
Ezra nodded uncertainly and she went back to Spanish. After a few words, she hung up and pointed out the window. Ezra saw a man at the far end of the mall waving a cell phone at them.
"That's my brother drive your car around the back of his shop and he will take care of it for you. By the time he is done, the laundry will be finished."
Ezra saw there was no polite way to refuse the offer, so he took the boys back to the car and drove the few yards to the other end of the mall. The sign on the shop said 'A.Godinez Accessories' and it didn't look like much more than a greasy garage. Ezra was not at all sure this was a good idea. He had already told the laundry owner he was just passing through town, and he feared that it might be seen as an opportunity to take advantage of him.
When he drove around to the back of the garage as Arnulfo instructed, he was even more certain of it. The place looked like a chop shop. There were two cars there already and both were undeniably lowriders.
But, Arnulfo greeted him with a friendly handshake and then slid his hands admiringly along the smooth contoured lines of the Jag.
"She's a beauty," he said as he opened the door and inspected the ruined carpet, apparently unaffected by the aroma emanating from it. He rubbed the stubble on his jaw. "I think the best thing to do is just replace the carpet."
Ezra had been thinking exactly that, but he was sure this guy was going to rip him off for some hefty bucks if he agreed to that. Then again, he couldn't think of a better alternative, and he was probably damn lucky to have found someone to do it at that late hour.
"Do what you have to do," he sighed, taking the boys by the hand. "Is there somewhere we should wait?"
"Be about an hour, ninety minutes," Arnulfo said. "Why don't you just walk around, check out the stores or something so the kids don't get bored?"
Ezra did not like the idea of leaving his precious vehicle in strange hands, so before he left, he removed his cell phone from the car and in Arnulfo's presence called Chris and Buck, making sure he identified himself as 'Agent Standish' just so the guy knew who he was dealing with.
Then, he proceeded to lie to Chris and Buck, telling him they'd had some minor car trouble and would be a couple of hours late. It wasn't entirely untrue, after all. The car was being 'repaired' in a sense.
The strip mall had a small pet store, and the boys were happy to look at the assortment of birds and other small pets. Ezra found a book, 'Caring for Your Tortoise' in which he found a picture that exactly matched the 'torkus' in the car. The narrative that went with it said they made good pets, often outliving their owners. He bought the book with instructions that Chris and Buck read it. It was the least he could do for his two good friends. He also bought some reptile food, a little feeding dish, a water bottle and a small pet carrier.
A couple of doors down, there was a video arcade. The boys were naturally attracted to the lights and games, but Ezra was loathe to enter the place. Still there wasn't much else for them to do to kill the time until the car and the laundry were ready, so he acquiesced and accompanied them inside.
The more exciting games were already being monopolized by older boys, and the only one left that was of any interest to either of the two little ones was a simple target game called Big Game Hunter. There were two rifles, which, Ezra's trained eye noted, were very similar to the real thing, although they 'shot' a beam of laser light rather than bullets. There were also risers so that smaller players could reach the guns more easily. Ezra gave Vin money for some tokens and then after providing some brief instruction on proper stance and aiming, he stood back to watch them play.
To his surprise, little JD was a pretty good shot. To his complete astonishment, Vin's aim was almost dead on. Once he'd gotten a feel for the rifle, he carefully lined up each shot, his little pink tongue poking from the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. He never missed.
Ezra would have expected JD to grow rapidly weary of the unfair advantage the older boy obviously had over him, but, as Vin continued to rack up points, JD gave up his interest in the game to cheer him on. Vin easily beat the first level of the game, so Ezra bought more tokens so he could try the intermediate level, where the targets were smaller and there was less time to aim.
Vin continued to shoot with an almost frightening accuracy. By the time he had worked his way to the advanced level, some of the older boys had gathered around to watch. Ezra at first was afraid they wanted a turn at the game and would try to bully the smaller boys aside. They looked like a tough crowd. But, they only watched, and Vin, who was usually so self-conscious and timid, seemed to block them out completely, his focus completely on what he was doing.
Eventually, the targets began to move so fast that no human alive could hope to hit them all, but by then, Vin had racked up enough points that a display screen popped up where he could enter his initials in the "Sharpshooter" ranks. When he looked confused, one of the older boys showed him what to do.
After Vin's initials were on the screen, the teen-ager held out his hand for Vin to 'give him five' and said, "You rock, little dude!"
Vin slapped his hand and grinned broadly. Ezra felt his throat tighten a bit. Vin had a stunning smile, and it was painful to think how seldom he did smile. It was almost as if the little boy was afraid to be happy.
As he walked over to Ezra, still smiling, Ezra tossled his hair. "Mister Tanner, I do believe you are a prodigy."
"I shoot good, huh?" Vin said, managing to sound not the least bit boastful. He was just stating a fact.
"Oh, you are more than good, Vin. You are amazing." And that was the truth. Ezra made a mental note to tell Chris about what he had just witnessed, and then remembered that Chris and Buck had taken every precaution to keep their weapons out of the boys' reach. "But, you do know that you are never to play with a real gun unless an adult is present, right?"
Vin nodded solemnly. "Guns can hurt you."
Ezra remembered that the little boy had first-hand experience. He put a protective hand on his shoulder. "Yes, they can."
"Can I be a progidy, too?" JD asked.
Ezra laughed. "Oh, you are, JD. You most certainly are."
They returned to the laundry where the owner, whose name they found out was Isabelle, told them it would be about 15 more minutes before the clothes were dry. They sat down in some plastic chairs to wait, and Ezra picked up an old People magazine. He was glancing through it when he noticed JD pulling something from his inside his shirt.
Looking up, he saw it was a half-eaten pretzel, and he was offering it to Vin.
Ezra reached out and took it before Vin could grab it. "Where did you get that?" he asked JD.
"There's no dirt on it," JD said uncertainly.
"Where did it come from?" Ezra asked.
Ezra rested his elbows on his knees, and looked at the boys patiently. "JD, did you get it out of the garbage?"
JD nodded. "Vin's hungry."
Ezra chastised himself for not realizing that Vin's stomach was empty again after he'd been sick. "JD if you want food either of you just ask. You don't have to eat things from the trash anymore. Understand?"
Isabelle was just a few feet away and overheard the conversation. "Aye, Dios mio!" she gasped. "Come with me, m'hijo. I will get you something good to eat."
Ezra smiled at the woman and nodded to Vin that it was okay to follow her.
"Me too!" JD said.
Isabelle pinched JD's cheek affectionately. "You too, chiquito."
She led them back to her 'office' which was more of a den. There was a sink, a refrigerator and a microwave, and she heated some home-made burritos gave each boy a small jug of orange juice. Ezra took the opportunity to give JD his last dose of medicine for the day, convincing him to forgo the gumballs since they would't mix well with his burrito. While they ate in front of the TV, Ezra briefly explained their background to Isabelle, so that she would understand why JD had taken food from the garbage.
She nodded sympathetically. "My kids," she pointed to the wall behind her. "They don't like this. They don't like that . They don't know what it is to be hungry." She shook her head and crossed herself. "Thank God."
Ezra could only agree with her.
+ + + + + + +
Forty-five minutes later, they were nearing the outskirts of Albuquerque. At Isabelle's suggestion, Ezra had the boys change into their pajamas at the laundromat. It was already their bed time, and Vin was fading fast.
Arnulfo had driven the Jag over, and when Ezra inspected the job, he was pleasantly surprised. The carpet was not quite the same shade as the old one had been, but, it was a good match, and it had been expertly cut and fitted. Not only that, but Arnulfo had managed to get the gum, scuffmarks, duct tape residue and all other evidence that two small boys had been there off of the suede upholstery. He had gathered up the toys, books, etc and placed them in a neat pile in the center of the seat. The man did quality work. The Jag was spotless and when he handed Ezra the invoice, the price was more than reasonable. Ezra was a bit ashamed of himself for assuming that he would be taken advantage of.
He had placed the clean laundry in the suitcase and settled the 'torkus' in its new pet carrier. Then he carried the boys out to the car, profusely thanking the Godinez siblings after getting directions back to the interstate.
At 9:45 pm, mere hours behind schedule, Ezra pulled the Jag into the parking lot of the Four Seasons hotel on North 2nd Street. Chris and Buck were both waiting and walked out to meet him.
"They give you any trouble, Ez?" Buck whispered as he and Chris gathered backpacks unbuckled seat belts.
Ezra looked at the two little boys sleeping peacefully in the back seat of what was, after all, just a car. He remembered the first time he'd seen them: Little JD holding a greasy paper sack containing God only knew what that was his 'lunch,' his thick black hair matted with dirt and the rest of him so grimy that one would never have guessed there was a truly beautiful child under it all. And Vin, so thin that you could have counted every bone in his body and near death from neglect and the violent maltreatment of the streets.
What he saw before him were two innocent souls who could now, at least, find refuge in sleep from their grown-up sized demons: Vin, with his delicate features framed by soft blond curls, skinny little arms draped lovingly over his toy cat, and JD with his long, dark lashes spreading across his chubby little cheeks, were the vision of everything children had a right to be - healthy, comfortable, safe and loved.
"No," Ezra sighed contentedly. "They were perfect angels. No trouble at all."
Dedicated to any parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or other innocent adult who has ever had the experience of a long road trip with small children, and to Michael and Cindy, who were once threatened with a long walk home somewhere along Interstate 10.
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