"Rosie's All-night Diner?" Ezra asked in disbelief.
He and Ally stood outside a truck stop on a street corner in the industrial part of town, not far from Interstate 25. Though it was nearly two o'clock in the morning, the parking lot was filled and the diner hopping with activity, as seen through the large picture windows lining the lower level of the two-story building. The parking lot was cracked and worn, the building desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint, and the windows needed cleaned, but despite its appearance, the small place did exude a sense of warmth, a friendliness.
That didn't mean he wanted to enter the place, though, especially considering the size and occupations of most of the current patrons.
"Yeah. Doesn't look like much, but they do have the best flapjacks in town. Besides, it's about the only place in town open at this time of night that I'm willing to visit," Alex explained as she pushed against the glass door. Pausing in the doorway, she looked back at him and motioned him to follow. "Come on in. I want out of the cold, and I'm starving."
Ezra raised an eyebrow skeptically, but shrugged and followed her inside.
It was cold out tonight, and if anything, he would welcome the chance to get warm.
The inside of the diner was laid out in classic style, with the door opening in the center of the room, a series of booths lining the outside wall underneath the windows and a long, tall bar opposite. At the end of the bar to the left was a swinging door leading back to the kitchen, and ninety degrees to it, at the end of the aisle, was a short hallway leading to the restrooms. A small table sat in the space between the back wall and the last booth opposite the kitchen door. The floor tiles, cracked and faded, were black and white checkered, the bar black edged in chrome, the stools likewise. The booths were a burnished red color, the vinyl split and torn in many places. The smell of cooking grease mingled with cigarettes lingered in the air, and a jukebox behind the door blasted classic rock and roll and old country, adding to the noise. Despite its well-worn and rundown appearance, though, the inside of the building was surprisingly clean. "Is this place always this busy at this time at night?" Ezra shouted above the noise as they paused a moment inside the entrance to adjust to the light and the atmosphere.
Alex turned back to him with an amused smile hovering at her lips. "Actually, yes. Rosie does her best business between ten and seven. She attracts the over-night haulers; has a reputation of being a great place to stop for a break, or to stay at while waiting on the next load to be finished." She pointed across the parking lot, back into the city. "The warehouse district is just down that way, well within walking distance. The truckers have been coming here for years. Believe it or not, this place is well-known all over the west. Rosie keeps it clean and friendly. And she don't mind the truckers parking their rigs in her parking lot for a quick nap, either. She won't stand for trouble and will kick out anybody who tries anything, no matter who they are. Even the street gangs won't mess with her."
Ezra looked at her, a half smile quirking his lips as he unbuttoned his coat. "Is that so?"
Alex grinned back. "You better believe it. Just wait until you meet her. You'll understand." She led him down the aisle toward the table across from the kitchen door. She was stopped several times by patrons' greetings.
"How ya doing?"
"Where 'ave you been, lately? Been a while since we seen you around these parts."
"Good to see ya, kid!"
Ezra followed behind, surprised at how well-known and well-liked his companion seemed to be. Alex smiled at them, answered their questions, and teased many of them right back, seemingly right at home. Some of the well wishers eyed him critically, a hint of warning in their gaze. It was quite obvious that they wouldn't stand for any harm to come to the girl.
One man in particular stood up from his booth as they passed and stepped between them to tower menacingly over him. The huge man stood nearly six foot five, with massive hands and bulging arms nearly splitting the rolled up sleeves of the red flannel shirt he had on. His unruly red hair peaked out from underneath a grease-stained red and white ball cap, nearly reaching the collar of his shirt to join with the abundance of chest hair sticking out from underneath the thin white t-shirt that showed above the open top two buttons of the shirt. Several days worth of beard stubbled his face and neck and his brown eyes flashed at the intruder warningly. Ezra looked the man up and down warily and took a small step backwards, getting the distinct impression that he was facing a grizzly bear.
L**d, the man made Josiah look like a child!
"He with you?" the man-mountain asked gruffly over his shoulder and pointed his chin at Ezra with a malevolent glare.
Ezra swallowed nervously and smiled wanly up at the man as he tried to compose his most pleasant, most non-aggressive expression on his face, holding his hands out from himself in a non-threatening pose.
Alex rolled her eyes and laughed at the look on Ezra's face as she patted the man on the arm. "Relax, Jake. He's a friend."
The man called Jake didn't back down, but stared at Ezra intently. Despite the day's worth of beard, the dirty hair, and the worn jeans and coat, the small man before him still bore an air of confidence despite the docile stance. He was obviously from the upper scale part of town; definitely no street bum. He looked as though he would be much more comfortable in a fancy suit, driving a fancy car, and drinking champagne in some fancy restaurant up town. A thought came to him suddenly, and he glanced back at the girl worriedly. "You haven't started doing that, have you, kid? You know if you needed the money, you could have asked me." He looked from one to the other of them in concern.
Ezra's eyes widened as he realized what the man was implying, and drew himself up in offense. "Good sir, I can assure you that I would never take advantage of a young lady in that capacity!"
"Jake!" Alex tilted her head and huffed in exasperation. "That was an insult! You know me better than that! You know I'd never resort to doing that, no matter how broke I was! I told you, Ezra here is a friend. A friend, not a client! Now sit down and let him by," she commanded, giving the trucker a little push on his arm.
The man looked at her and, seeing the truth of the statement in her eyes, reached a massive paw up to rub at the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry, Cat. I didn't mean nuthin' by it. I's just worried, that's all."
She smiled and patted him on the arm. "It's okay. But really, Ezra is a friend. Trust me. He's one of the good guys."
Jake took one last look at Ezra, then nodded and stuck out his hand in greeting. "Jake Terry. Sorry about that. I's jes' don't wanna see the Cat here in trouble, ya understand?"
Jake's hand completely engulfed his, and Ezra felt as though his hand were caught in a vice and that his arm was going to be pulled out of socket before he managed to free himself from the grip of the other. He rubbed his now bruised appendage carefully and smiled weakly at the man. "Quite alright, sir. But I promise you, I have no intentions of harming the girl."
"Alright, then," Jake nodded again before finally sitting down and turning back to his meal.
Ezra quickly scurried past the booth and followed Alex back to the small table, glancing over his shoulder at the large man in caution and a bit of amusement. "Interesting friends you have, my dear," he commented as he took a seat with his back to the wall, giving him a clear view of the room beyond and the parking lot outside the window.
"Who, Jake? Aw, he's harmless, really," Alex assured him as she sat down with her back to the kitchen door. "He wouldn't hurt a fly-unless, of course, you threaten his family."
"Family?" He cocked an eyebrow at her as he shrugged out of his coat and gloves.
She grinned back. "Yeah. A real pretty little slip of a wife, and five kids. He lives over in the eastern part of the state. I met his wife once back in the fall, when she accompanied him on a haul. She was in town to do a little Christmas shopping."
Ezra eyed her in disbelief as he leaned on his elbows on the table. "I suppose it takes all kinds," he muttered, shaking his head in amusement.
He was about to ask her another question but was interrupted when a short, chunky, older Negro woman in an old work shirt, jeans, and a stained, dingy gray apron burst out of the kitchen door, heading straight for their table. "Cat! Lloyd told me he saw ya come in. Land sakes, child, I haven't seen ya in a month of Sundays! Where've been?" She gushed, enveloping Alex in a smothering hug.
Alex gently freed herself and smiled up at the woman ruefully. "Ah, Rosie, it's only been a couple of weeks. I've been around." She nodded toward Ezra, who was watching the scene in enjoyment. "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine."
The older woman looked over at him, her eyes scrutinizing him for a moment before she smiled and held out a worn hand. "Rosie Blaine, owner of this here eatery."
Ezra stood up from his seat, giving her his most charming smile, and took the offered hand, kissing it gently. "Ezra. Delighted to meet you, my dear lady. Do I detect the flavor of Alabama in your speech?" he questioned. When she nodded, his smile grew wider. "What a pleasure to meet a fellow countryman in such distant environs!" he flattered as he sat back down.
Alex rolled her eyes while Rosie just blushed, patting back her steel gray hair in its bun in embarrassment. "Oh, my, but you are a charmer, and a southern gentleman to boot! Wherever did you find this one, girl?"
Alex met Ezra's eyes and smirked. "Oh, found him hanging around the airport the other night. Took pity on the poor thing. Couldn't let him freeze."
Ezra shot her a look of feigned annoyance across the table, but she just grinned back at him impudently.
"At the airport? Did you hear about what went on over there the other night?" the older woman questioned, completely missed the by-play in front of her.
Alex's head shot up and she exchanged an uneasy glance with Ezra before turning her attention back to her friend. "I heard something about it," she ventured vaguely.
"Wasn't it terrible?" Rosie went on. "I heard this evening that they found a body in the wreckage! Poor thing, what a horrible way to go," she clucked her tongue.
Ezra sat back in his seat with a neutral expression on his face, though his eyes showed his concern as he glanced at Alex. "Yes indeed, ma'am. Did they know the identity of the poor, unfortunate soul?" he asked.
Rosie shook her head. "No, they didn't release a name. The news only said that they'd taken the body down to the coroner's office for an autopsy."
"Ah, I see," Ezra nodded at her, glad that he still had a little time to finish his investigation and wondering what his teammates were doing about the events.
Were they even worried about him?
Rosie looked from one to the other a bit suspiciously, but let it go. "Well, enough about that. Cat, I'm really glad to see ya. Carla called in sick, and I'm short handed enough as it is without losing her too. You think you can give me hand here tonight? I'll just need ya until seven. Roy'll be in by then. I'll pay ya good," she asked anxiously.
Alex opened her mouth to agree but then looked back at Ezra and paused before answering. "I don't know, Rosie. Ezra here-" she started, but he cut her off.
"It's quite alright, my dear," he reassured her. "It won't be for that long, and I am a bit tired. I frankly would enjoy a moment of respite in such a warm, comfortable atmosphere, if it would not be any trouble?" he smiled questioningly at the older woman. He had caught the look of hope that flashed in the girl's eyes and realized that she probably desperately needed the money.
"Oh, heavens, no! You wouldn't be any bother! You can stay as long as you want!" She smiled warmly at him then looked back at the girl in hope. "So will you?"
Alex studied Ezra for a moment before smiling up at her softly. "Sure, Rosie, I'll be glad to help." She made to stand, but the older woman pushed her back down.
"I thank you kindly, girl, but not before you eat something first," she ordered firmly. "Look at you. A good gust of wind could blow you right over!"
Alex grinned at her in mischievousness. "Yeah, Rosie. They're called tornadoes. And they've been known to blow a few houses over as well, so I don't think they'd have any trouble with me."
The older woman smacked her lightly on the cheek, affection and a good deal of exasperation shining in her chocolate eyes at the girl's giggle. "Smart mouth. I won't be taking any sass from you tonight. You're gonna eat something first. It won't hurt Lloyd to wait a few more minutes." She pulled a small order pad out of the pocket of her apron and a stub of a pencil from behind her ear. "Now, what will you be having?" She looked from Alex to Ezra.
"How about a hot cup of tea and a chicken sandwich for me." Alex answered.
"Rabbit food!" Rosie exclaimed in protest. "Land sakes, child, you're a fence post now as it is! You need some meat on those bones! I'll bring you one of my specials, on the house, and I won't take no argument from you!" she stated firmly and wagged her finger in the girl's face as Alex opened her mouth to do just that. She put her hands on her hips. "You're doing me a favor tonight and have earned it."
Alex sat back and grinned with a shake of her head, knowing this was one argument she had lost before she even started. "Whatever you say, Rosie."
The woman looked over at Ezra, sizing him up, and frowned. "And I'll bring you one, too. I declare, but you are nothing but skin and bones, yourself. Do you ever eat?"
Ezra opened his mouth to defend himself, but she cut him off with a no-nonsense glare that dared him to defy her. "I won't be taking no back talk from you, neither. You just sit back and let old Rosie take care you. Now, how do you like your coffee?"
He looked at Alex, who just smiled at him ruefully, and lifted his shoulder in a defeated shrug, a contrite smile hovering at his lips. "Black, with a little sugar, if you please," he answered meekly.
Rosie nodded at them as she finished scribbling on her pad with a flourish. "Ya'all just sit tight. I'll be right back."
Ezra shook his head in amusement as she pushed through the door, yelling something at the cook all the way. "Delightful woman. I can take it you've known her for a while?" he asked his companion as he sat back in his chair.
She smiled at him and scooted her chair around a little so that she could lean her elbow on the table top and see the room more clearly. "Since about September." She didn't offer a more detailed explanation, though, and her face grew serious as she twisted to get a good look at him and changed the topic of conversation. "So, what do you think about the body in the hangar? How long will it take before they ID it as Banning's?"
Ezra sighed and rubbed his face wearily. "Probably not until someone notices that Banning is missing, which won't happen until Monday at the earliest. He lived alone. But it doesn't really matter-with the discovery of only one body, Randolph will certainly realize that we are not among the deceased."
"What do you think he'll do?"
His hand stopped at his chin, and he thought for a moment. "He'll definitely tighten his security and clear up any loose ends. Normally, I would conjecture that he would abandoned all current dealings and lay low for a while to evade his implication in the sordid events, but if this coming meeting with the European supplier is as important to him as it sounds, he won't be able to afford that. That meeting is our ace in the hole, so to speak."
"If you can find out where and when it is," Alex observed.
He nodded in agreement. "The exact location is the most important priority right now. You did say that the supplier, this Hammings, was coming next week to examine their operations before agreeing to enter a partnership of any kind?" She nodded and he crossed his arms thoughtfully. "That would mean that they will hold the meeting at their base, then, instead of at a predetermined location. That does make our jobs much easier."
"How's that?" she asked, looking up at him in confusion.
"Vitalis is a very paranoid individual. He never performed business transactions of any kind at their base of operations; instead, he always set up a separate neutral location to receive his goods, such as the hangar last night, and would later move them to the appropriate location. He had the tendency to change locations and times at the last minute, and always kept the merchandise in scattered, separate areas, making it extremely difficult to set up any kind of raid." He tapped his lips with his finger for a moment. "But if this new partner is insisting upon seeing the base, then it becomes much easier to plan an assault as we don't have to worry about a sudden change in location. And the opportunity to not only seize the goods but to actually raid this base of operations before anyone had a chance to destroy the records-it's simply priceless!"
"But you still don't know the time," Alex pointed out.
"No, but once I find the location, I will contact my teammates and set up surveillance," Ezra answered. "It will then just be a matter of having the men on standby."
Alex nodded. "Alright. But you still don't have any way to directly prove Randolph is involved except through our word. Why tip your hand and contact your boss now?" she asked.
Ezra pursed his lips in a frown. "Because time has become a rapidly depleting commodity. I had hoped that my remaining as the loose cannon, so to speak, would keep Randolph unsettled enough to provide me an edge, but this meeting with the European supplier may be the only vulnerability available to exploit. We may be forced to reveal what we have to my superiors and hope it is enough to convince them of his culpability in favor of netting the entire organization before Randolph has time to formulate an escape." His mien took on a foreboding shadow. "We must find a way to tie Randolph to this organization and to bring him down in this operation, or my life and yours are forfeit. Our word alone will not be enough to implicate someone in his position in society. If we fail and he escapes arrest, he will not allow us to continue on this plane of existence with the knowledge that we have against him."
She ran a hand down her face and grimaced. "Now isn't that cheery news. Just what I needed. Either bring the bad guy down, or have a mob boss on my tail. You know, Louisiana or maybe even Miami is looking pretty good right now."
He quirked an eyebrow at her statement. "So what is keeping you here?" he asked curiously. "As you pointed out, they have no way of finding out who you are. If you were to walk away right now, you would be free and clear."
She shook her head and sighed. "And I told you, I can't do that. My conscience would never let me have any peace," She smiled up at him with a shrug.
He returned the smile with a decidedly devilish gleam and stretched out his legs under the table to cross his ankles. "A conscience can be quite bothersome, indeed," he declared casually as he re-crossed his arms. "I am quite pleased that I don't suffer from that particular malady. The preservation of one's own comfort should always be foremost sought after. Really, there is no gain to be had in self-sacrifice except trouble."
Alex snorted at the comment and met his eyes with a shake of her head. "I know several people who would disagree with you." Her eyes twinkled, indicating that she didn't believe a word he said about that particular philosophy or his statement of belief in it. "There sure are a lot of religions out there that teach otherwise."
"Ah, the 'it's more blessed to give than to receive' genre? Personally, I would prefer to 'receive'. It is so much more lucrative and satisfying." he smirked.
"Oh, I don't know," she argued as she sat back and stretched out a bit herself, "giving can have its own rewards. And my way has great future benefits," she answered merrily.
Ezra's grin belied the innocent look he had pasted on his face. "So I've been told. But I seriously doubt that my future is quite that bright. I'll enjoy my benefits in the here and now, if you don't mind."
She shook her head again and laughed. "Sure you will. And you're working as a special agent for the government for the money, too."
"But of course!" he declared with raised eyebrows. "Why else does one seek employment of any kind?"
She sat back with a disbelieving smirk and crossed her own arms. "Uh-uh. So tell me, just how did you wind up in the ATF instead of on Wall Street?"
"That, my dear, is the million dollar question," he answered glibly. "And I would greatly appreciate it if you would explain it to me, if you happen upon the answer."
Their conversation was interrupted at that moment with Rosie's return through the kitchen door, and Ezra's eyes widened at the sight of the tray stacked high with food. "Good l***!" he exclaimed in disbelief.
The plate she set before him was piled high with waffles, flapjacks, sausage and bacon, eggs, potatoes, and ham. She set a large pitcher of syrup down between the plates, along with a small bowl of sweet butter and strawberry jam and a basket full of piping hot biscuits. She finished it off with a large bowl of sausage gravy and his coffee and Alex's tea. "Now, eat up!" she commanded.
He looked up at Alex, but she just shrugged and picked up her fork to dig into the mass in front of her. "You'd better get started. Rosie will stand here until you eat every bite," she motioned toward his plate with her fork, a smile on her lips.
He smiled wanly up at the older woman, then reached for his fork and attacked his own mound.
* * * * * * *
A few hours later, he sat back from the table where he had been studying the book he had taken from the bank and comparing it to the ledger, making careful notes on various discoveries. He was pleasantly stuffed and didn't think he would be able to eat another bite for at least a week.
But l**d, was it good! He had not eaten such a scrumptious home-cooked meal in ages.
Rosie definitely knew how to fill a man!
His gaze swept over the nearly empty diner as he finished off the cup of coffee beside him. The place had remained busy until nearly six o'clock that morning, keeping Rosie and Alex scurrying from table to table, filling orders and refreshing coffee mugs.
He had been impressed as he watched the girl deal with the customers. She always had a pleasant smile and a kind word for everyone, but let no one take advantage of her. It was obvious that she knew what she was doing and had a knack for putting those around her at ease. She always kept herself busy, never once sitting down for a break. When she wasn't waiting on customers she was washing down the counter or sweeping the floor, busing the empty tables, or helping out in the back.
He knew she must be tired-after all, it had been a long day, and she had little sleep the night before, but she continued to work hard. He found himself wondering about her. How did she end up on the streets? What was she running from? She was so different from many others in the same situation. How did she keep her faith in such trying circumstances?
He looked up when Rosie stepped through the kitchen door and headed for his table, two steaming cups of coffee held in her hands. She set one down in front of him as she fell into an empty chair, sighing in relief. "It has been a busy night!"
Ezra nodded in agreement as he took a sip of the fresh cup, relishing the robust flavor complimented with a hint of chicory-something he hadn't had in ages but enjoyed immensely.
Rosie knew how to make coffee, too!
The older woman took a drink from her own cup, watching as Alex finished wiping off the bar and headed for the back to start on the mountain of dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned. She smiled softly. "She sure is a hard worker, that Cat. And such a nice girl! She'll bend over backwards to help someone else. My customers just love her!"
Ezra leaned forward on the table on his elbows with his hands wrapped around his mug. "Then why don't you give her a job, instead of using her on standby?" he asked curiously.
Rosie turned to him with a sigh. "Oh, don't think I haven't tried! I've offered to put her on the payroll permanently several times, but she won't take it. Keeps saying she's only in the area temporarily. I tried to tell her that I'd use her until she decided to move on, but she just refused. Kept telling me to give the job to someone who really needs it, as if she don't!" she snorted before looking down at the mug in her hand with a suddenly troubled expression. "I think she's in a whole passel of trouble, if you ask me," she said softly.
"Do you think she's running from the law, maybe?" Ezra asked casually.
Rosie looked up sharply at that, her features decidedly fierce in her defense. "Never! That child don't have a crooked bone in her body. There's no way she'd be involved with nothing illegal. I simply won't believe it!" she declared firmly.
Ezra nodded but followed through in his role as a devil's advocate. "But sometimes people make mistakes. And you haven't known her for all that long. The girl you see before you now may very well have been a completely different person in the past."
She fixed him with an icy glare in response, challenging him to contradict her. "Mister, I've been in this world a long time, and I've met all kinds of people. And it don't matter how long I've known that girl, I know she would never do something like that. You take a good look at her. Criminals and crooks don't have that kind of peace about them, don't have that kind of innocence. She don't have a guilty look about her, neither, like she would if she'd done something she wasn't proud of. And she's got too much compassion to her to have done anything wrong. That child has a heart of gold, I'd stake my life on it!"
"Then why do you think she's here now? Why is she on the streets?" he asked.
She looked back down at her cup, fingering it while she tried to come up with a valid answer. "I-I don't know," she finally admitted. "I know without a doubt she's not running from the law, but she's running from something. She gets this look sometimes, you know? And she's always watching over her shoulder, like she's afraid someone's going to sneak up on her. She don't get overly friendly with anyone. Now I know, she talks to the customers, smiles a lot, and teases some of the regulars, but she don't get real close. My customers love her, and some of them would fight the devil himself for her, but she still don't seem to trust us. I tell ya, whatever it was that scared that poor child, it must have been something mighty evil."
She leaned forward on her crossed arms on the table and looked back up at him coolly, warning showing clearly in her eyes. "I really set store on that girl, mister. And I don't want to see any hurt come to her. Something sure hurt her in the past, something that's done her a lot of grief. You can see it in her eyes. I won't let anything or anybody else add to that grief if I can help it. You understand?"
Ezra met her gaze with a most sincere and serious look. "I won't hurt her, madam," he assured her softly.
She searched his face for a moment, trying to decide if he was being honest, before coming to a decision with a nod. "Alright, then." She sat back with a relieved grin and took a sip of her drink. "So, Mr. Ezra something-or-other. Just what is it you do, and how'd you hook up with Cat?"
"She saved my life," he answered quietly, the events of the previous evening coming to the forefront of his memory. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to decide how much to tell her.
He was not a trusting person in any definition, and had spent his entire life using words and sleight of hand to re-direct conversations away from himself, carefully cultivating a mask to shield the tender heart hidden inside. To trust meant to be betrayed, and he had already had one taste of that bitter poison. He did not care for another.
And yet, he found himself wanting to be honest with the woman. She had a no-nonsense bearing, was someone who looked at life with practical, honest eyes, un-jaded but un-idealistic. She saw the world for what it was and accepted it as it was, living her life to the best of her ability in spite of it. She took people for what they were and expected no more and no less, even from him.
There were so few people in this world like her, and he respected that.
'L**d, I'm getting soft. First, I find myself trusting a street kid I've barely known twenty-four hours, and now I find myself wanting to confide in this woman! What next? Confessional with Josiah?' He grimaced at the thought, but heard himself giving her an explanation anyway. "I was in that hangar last night, undercover, and was compromised. I would be dead now, if she had not chosen to interfere," he continued, focusing his intense green eyes on her dark, careworn ones, silently asking for her discretion.
She took in a sharp breath and slowly released it. "Undercover? Then you're a cop?"
He smiled at her as he slouched back in the chair a little and crossed his ankles under the table. "Something like that, though I would appreciate it if you wouldn't advertise that knowledge." He raised his mug to his lips for a sip.
She returned his smile slowly and nodded a bit smugly. "Well, I will surely do that. But to be honest, I didn't think you were one of the bad guys anyway,"
He raised a questioning brow, pausing in mid-drink. "Oh?"
"No sir. You were with Cat, and I know she wouldn't have anything to do with someone who wasn't on the right side of the law," she answered resolutely. She leaned forward and dropped her tone just a bit, as though she was about to share a cherished secret. "But you must understand, we was all surprised to see you come in here with her tonight."
He cocked his head at her, not understanding. "Why?" he asked in confusion.
She gave him a knowing look and sipped her coffee. "Because Cat never, ever brings anyone with her. She's always been alone, for as long as I've known her. She don't have no close friends at all. Now don't get me wrong, she's a real friendly girl, real likable, but like I said before, she keeps to herself. She don't hang out with anyone, she don't go to the usual places people in her circumstances do, and she don't ever talk about herself. So it was real surprising for her to bring you in here tonight."
Ezra nodded, having gotten the same impression from the looks of the patrons. "Why do you call her Cat?" he asked suddenly in curiousity.
The woman leaned back in her chair and laughed heartily. "The first time I saw her, she was out in my back ally, taking care of this mess of kittens whose mamma had gotten killed on the road. She took care of them for nigh on two weeks, before they's big enough to go without a mamma. My cook noticed her too, and started leaving little scraps out for her to feed them.
One night, Lloyd-that's my cook-was taking the garbage out to the dumpster and ran into some kid higher than a kite. I don't know what that kid was on, but he was pretty far gone, hallucinating and such. Thought Lloyd was a enemy or something, came at him with a 2 x 4, hit him on the arm, nearly breaking it, and getting a lick in on that thick skull of his. Would have beaten him to a pulp too, if Cat hadn't interfered.
She stepped between him and Lloyd and talked him down. I ain't never seen the like. Well, that kid, he ranted and raved for a while more, but he finally gave her the board and continued on his way. She helped Lloyd to the back door and knocked to get my attention. When I let them in, Ol' Lloyd smiled at her and said 'Rosie, our mamma cat's done picked up another stray.'" She smiled fondly at the memory. "We sat him down and got him fixed up. I wanted him to go home, but he was worried about me, since I was short-handed that night, too. I took a good look at Cat, seen how skinny she was, and offered her a meal as payment, but she wouldn't take it. Then Lloyd got the bright idea of letting her work in the kitchen that night for dinner. She agreed to that, so I put her to work cleaning floors, busing tables, and washing dishes.
That girl worked harder than I'd ever seen! She was such a help that night! I fed her up the next morning and then asked her to come back the next night, since Lloyd was going to be laid up for a while with that arm. She agreed, and it just started from there. Lloyd started calling her the Mamma Cat, and the customers shortened it to Cat. It just stuck."
Ezra chuckled at the story, having no trouble believing it from what little he had learned about the girl. "She does has an affinity for picking up strays, doesn't she? Though the moniker 'Cat' is quite ironic," he observed humorously.
She looked at him in confusion. "Why's that?"
"Because she told me her name was Alex, or Ally for short," he answered before sipping at his coffee again.
The old woman caught the joke and laughed. "An Ally Cat!" she exclaimed with a clap of her hands. "It's perfect!"
"It does fit her quite nicely, doesn't it," Ezra agreed with a wide smile. He cocked his head in inquisitiveness as a question come to mind. "By the way," he ventured, "what happened to the kittens?"
Rosie chortled. "She set them up in a box at my front door, pretty as you please and told their sad story to every customer I had. She gave every single one of them away within a week! All eight of 'em! Even talked 'Ol Jake Terry into taking one."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at that. "Yes, I've met Mr. Terry," he commented wryly.
She waved a hand in the air in dismissal. "Now Jake can come across a mean something or other, being all big and gruff like he is, but he's really a sweet boy. It was quite a sight seeing him with that tiny kitten balanced in the palm of his hand. He took it home to his little girl. Said she loved it." She chuckled to herself quietly. "So, her name is Ally. I'd never have guessed it in a million years."
Ezra shook his head in amusement, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he sipped his coffee. "How much do you know about Cat?" he asked as he set the nearly empty mug back down on the table.
Rosie frowned a little at the question. "Not a whole lot. Like I said, she don't talk about herself much. Shoot, I didn't even get her real name until you just told me. I don't know where she comes from or what her story is. She's a fair hand at the cash register, real good with numbers and letters, and reads real good, too. I've seen her with a book many a time, some of them school books, but I don't know if she's in school or not, or even how old she is."
"She's an orphan, from somewhere in the south, North Carolina or Kentucky, from what I could gather from a previous conversation," Ezra observed. "She has the right accent for it."
Rosie thought for a moment, then nodded. "You know, you're right. I hadn't noticed it before, but she does have a soft southern drawl to her, don't she? And an orphan, you say? Oh, the poor child! I wonder how she got way out here?"
"I don't know, madam, but I would like to find out. Can you tell me anything else? I'd like to help her if I can." Ezra was a bit surprised at that sudden desire, but then nodded to himself.
He did want to help her, and not just because he owed her for saving his life.
It was true, he had only known her for a day or so, but he was really beginning to like the girl. There was something about her-it was as though he had known her for years instead of mere hours. Maybe it was the old, wise eyes that seemed to read his very soul, eyes deep and knowing, yet with a touch of kindness showing from their depths. He enjoyed her company and the banter between them. She had a quick mind and a perception that most people never achieve and a sense of purpose and a maturity well beyond her years.
"I'm afraid you know more than I do," Rosie answered with a regretful sigh. She then looked at him seriously, her larges eyes focused intently on his face. "Mister, you do what you can to help her. Something evil's after that girl, and I'm scared she's going to have to face it alone. Don't let her face it alone. That child is something special and I don't want to see anything happen to her. Please, sir, she needs someone in her corner."
Ezra reached across the table to gently take her calloused hands between his and met her concerned expression with a confident one of his own. "I'll do all that I can to help her, Ms. Blaine," he promised, his eyes reflecting his determination.
She held his gaze for a moment, then nodded once, patting his hand gently. "Thank you. I've taken a real shine to that child. She's a good girl, and deserves a break."
The object of their discussion came through the kitchen doors that minute, breaking the tension. "Rosie? We're done back there. Roy and Betty will be here in a few minutes, and Lloyd's agreed to stay here until they get in."
Rosie looked up at her with a smile and stood up from her chair. "Then let me get your payment, dear," she said over her shoulder as she pushed through the kitchen door, reappearing a second later behind the bar. "Thank you so much! I don't know what I would have done without your help!" She opened the cash register drawer and pulled some bills from it, folded them up, and handed them to her. "Now, you take this, and let me have Lloyd make you up a doggy bag to take with ya."
"Now, Rosie, you don't have to do that," Alex protested as she slipped the bills into an inner pocket of her jacket.
"Hush now, child! It won't take but a minute. It's food that would just be thrown out anyway. No sense in letting it go to waste. You wait right there."
True to her word, she returned a few minutes later with a huge brown bag and a thermos. "Now you take this with you. You can bring the thermos back to me later." She patted Alex on the cheek, smiling fondly at her and Ezra. "You two take care, ya hear? And keep safe! That goes for both of you." She reached out to shake Ezra's hand and held it a moment in her warm grasp. "Thank you for the conversation, Ezra. It's so nice to talk to a fellow southerner once in a while."
Alex raised an inquiring brow at him, but didn't say anything as he lifted the older woman's hand to his lips and kissed it gently. "I assure you, dear lady," he replied with a smile and patted the hand, "the pleasure truly was mine."
Rosie took her hand back with a bright smile, blushing again as she absently swiped at a loose strand of hair. "Oh go on, you charmer," she scolded him.
Ezra stood back with a large grin on his face, while Alex just rolled her eyes in good-humor. "Thank you for the great meal, Rosie, and the food here," she lifted the brown bag up slightly as she turned to the older woman. "You really didn't have to go to all that trouble, though."
Rosie waved a hand in the air dismissingly. "It tweren't no trouble at all. Now. You two get on out of here. And come back soon, ya hear? Don't be waiting no three weeks again!" She shook her finger at the girl in warning.
Alex grinned at her as she backed down the aisle toward the entrance. "No, ma'am, I won't. And thanks again." She waved as she pushed through the door with a jangle of the bells hanging from the enclosure and stopped to hold it open for her companion.
Ezra turned to follow her, but paused as Rosie called his name. "You are welcome here anytime, Ezra," she said firmly with a knowing look. "And if you ever find yourself in trouble, you can come here. I'll do all I can to help ya. I mean it, now. You come here directly. You ever need any help, you just ask for 'Ol Rosie Blaine, and you'll get it. You remember that."
Ezra smiled at her and nodded in gratitude. "yes, ma'am, I will. Thank you, kindly, my dear."
Alex eyed him as he stepped out into the cold, faint light of coming dawn and they started down the street. "I noticed you and Rosie were having a pretty good conversation going. What were you guys talking about?" she asked casually, slipping her hands into her pockets as her breath crystallized in the frigid air in front of her.
Ezra adjusted the collar of his coat up a little higher and pushed his hands deep into his own pockets as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye in amusement. "Ally cats. We had a delightful conversation about ally cats."
She paused for a moment in confusion, not able to figure out why on earth they would be talking about that topic. "Ally cats?" she mumbled to herself softly. She looked up to see him getting ahead of her and ran to catch up with him. "Hey, wait up! What about ally cats?"
Her only answer was a brief laugh as they disappeared into the shadows.
Vin was stepping from his jeep just as Josiah and Nathan pulled into an empty space a few cars down in the ATF parking garage late that evening. He had spent the day in Purgatorio talking to contacts and trying to find anything he could about Carnelli's mysterious supplier, the explosion at the airport, or their missing agent.
He'd had no luck.
Josiah and Nathan had taken another trip to Fieldman Contracting while JD had again talked to the airport personnel and Buck had accompanied Chris to a meeting with Dawson and Lewis, hoping to keep the blond from committing murder.
Vin did not envy Buck his job.
He leaned back against the tailgate of the jeep and waited a moment for the others to catch up. "Find anything?" he asked, falling in step with them as they headed for the elevator.
Josiah shook his head. "Nope. We talked to several people at that construction company from the janitor up to the chairman of the board, and got the same story as yesterday. No one heard anything."
"Any chance they're covering something up?"
"If they are, then they're doing one h**l of a job," Nathan spoke up. "What about you? Did you learn anything?"
Vin shook his head as he pushed the elevator button. "Nothing. Either this guy's real good at hiding his trail, or he's got everybody down there spooked."
Josiah sighed, stepped onto the carriage when it arrived, and held the door back for his companions. "Then let's go see if the others have had better luck."
They entered the bullpen a few minutes later to find JD hard at work on the computer and Buck leaning against Vin's desk behind him with his arms crossed, staring intently at the screen over the boy's shoulder. Chris was nowhere to be seen.
"Buck," Vin greeted with a nod as he passed the duo heading for his desk. He draped his jacket across the back of his chair and moved up to sit on the corner of JD's desk facing the larger man. "How'd it go?"
Buck grimaced and shook his head in distaste. "About as well as you'd expect. Lewis was being his usual charming self, and Chris was being Chris. Me and Wade had us a time keeping them two apart." He shifted his stance and crossed one booted foot over the other. "Lewis is botching the investigation-no news there. I tell ya, that man couldn't find his a** if someone took his hands and put them there!"
"What about Dawson's people? What have they come up with?" Josiah asked as he took his seat at his own workspace.
"Not much," Buck answered with a shrug. "They identified some of the weapons-this was definitely our meet-and verified that a gas fire is definitely what started it all. No more bodies've been found, though."
"So we're still at square one, then" Nathan sighed as he hung his jacket neatly on the rack behind the door and walked to his desk.
"I guess that means you guys didn't have much luck today, either, then." Buck observed.
"Nope," Nathan shook his head as he pulled his chair out and sat down heavily, turning so that he faced the other agent. "The people at Fieldman's confirmed that they had a shipment that night, but no one who was there noticed anything out of the ordinary until after the explosions."
"I got the same thing from the airport people. I'm guessing they've got someone paid off," JD spoke up, finally turning his attention to the conversation going on around him.
"I agree. Someone had to have noticed that shipment coming in," Josiah nodded sagely. He propped his feet up on his trashcan and absently twirled a pen through his fingers. "Whoever this supplier is, he had to have had someone looking the other way."
JD pushed his chair back from his keyboard and rolled his shoulders forward, trying to loosen the kinks in his neck. "I've spent all afternoon pulling up info on the staff on duty that night, but haven't come across anything out of the ordinary yet," he shook his head as he reached into a desk drawer for a package of fun-size Twix® candy bars he kept hidden there. With his attention no longer completely focused on the computer, he finally took notice of his stomach's loud complaints at missing lunch. He was starved! "I don't know if we're on the wrong trail, they haven't been paid yet, or they've got their tracks covered pretty well, but I'll keep looking. If it's there, I'll find it!" He frowned as he dumped only about twelve small candy pieces out onto his blotter. He hadn't realized his stash was getting that low-he'd have to remember to restock it soon. He unwrapped a bar and popped it into his mouth.
"We know ya will, kid," Vin patted his shoulder with a smirk before he deftly swiped a handful of the little chocolate bars from off the desk and quickly scooted out of JD's reach as the boy let out an indignant yelp and swiped at him. He unwrapped a bar and stuck it into his mouth as he resettled himself in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk, grinning cheekily at the angry young man.
"What about you, Vin? You find out anything?" Buck asked, silently laughing at the two. He took advantage of JD's distraction and reached over the boy's shoulder to grab his own handful of the candy before he too retreated to the safety of his own work area.
Vin shook his head as he bit into another of his pilfered chocolate bars. "If anyone down there knows anything, they're not talking."
"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I still think this Fieldman's is still involved somehow," Nathan declared, ignoring the antics of the three.
Children-the whole lot of them! He sighed wearily to himself.
"But we've been over their accounts and everything. There's nothing there to go on," JD protested with a glare at the thieves. He stared morosely down at the two remaining bars, and his stomach rumbled grouchily.
He was still hungry, dang it!
"There was nothing we could see. But you have to admit, all those accounting errors seem mighty suspicious. And I just don't buy the inexperienced staff excuse," Nathan crossed his arms. "And why do they keep their accounts at that bank in Purgatorio, anyway? Yeah, they may have started out there when they first began the company, but they've been pretty successful lately. Why not move the accounts to a better bank, instead of one that keeps threatening to go under? I think we need to look at them a little more closely."
Josiah rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You do have a point, brother. Which is why I put in a call to the bank manager yesterday."
"What did he say?" JD asked as he stuck the wrappers into the now-empty bag and balled it up. He started to toss it into his wastebasket, but caught sight of his three-hole punch sitting beside his monitor and got an idea. He quickly grabbed the punch and emptied the contents into the bag before rolling it up once more. With an evil grin, he threw it at his roommate, scoring a direct hit on the side of the man's face, causing him to drop the chocolate bar that he was raising to his lips on the floor and showering the man with the little bits of confetti.
Buck looked up at him with a growl, but JD just sat back in his chair and intertwined his fingers behind his head with a triumphant smirk.
"He wasn't there. His secretary said he wouldn't be in that day, that I should try back Monday. Wouldn't tell me where he was, either. I tried his home number several times too. Always got the machine," Josiah continued, watching the by-play in amusement.
"Does look awful suspicious, don't it," Buck observed as he dusted himself off and bent down to pick the chocolate up off the floor. He popped it into his mouth and chewed it slowly with plenty of noises of pleasure, trying to get a rise out of the young man but failing.
Your time's a-coming, he glared at the kid.
Just try it, Old Man, JD grinned back.
Nathan cringed and almost gagged as he watched Buck eat the candy from the floor.
Chris's office door suddenly banged open, and they all looked up at their leader as he stopped in the doorway. He noticed the white bits of paper caught in Buck's hair as well as the look of promised revenge on his old friend's face and the dare gleaming in the young man's eyes, but chose to ignore it all.
If he didn't see it happen, then he wasn't cleaning it up.
"Just got a call from forensics about that body," he announced gruffly.
Fear filled the others at the news, and they glanced at each other uneasily. "And?" Vin asked quietly as he studied the troubled expression on the blond's face, dreading the answer but hoping for a miracle.
Chris ran a hand through his hair and let out a long sigh as he finally looked up to meet their eyes. "It wasn't him. They don't know who it was yet, but it definitely wasn't Ezra."
The tension in the room suddenly lightened and several 'Thank G**'s' and one 'I told you so!' punctuated the air as they all went limp with relief, the melancholy and sense of forebode rolling off their shoulders at the news.
When the noise died down, JD's voice rang out across the room in confusion as he asked the now-obvious next question. "So, if that wasn't Ez, then where is he?"
Chris's eyes narrowed and his face took on an expression of cool determination and not a little anger as he leaned against the door facing. "That," he said as he folded his arms across his chest, "is what I'd like to know."
* * * * * * *
Tony Vitalis shifted uneasily as he stood in front of his employer's desk, watching the man casually sort through the papers he had taken from the bank and from Banning's home office Friday night. He glanced out the window for a moment, studying the open fields, the tall pines beyond, and the mountain peaks rising in the distance-anything but the unreadable expression on Randolph's face.
Randolph had come to the small ranch house they used as the base for their illegal operations that afternoon after Sunday morning church services and lunch with one of his business partners to receive an update from Tony personally. He had not been pleased with his overseer's performance of late, and had made it abundantly clear that Tony was to clean this mess up and fast or he would do it himself-starting with his foreman. He finally tapped the pages back together and laid them neatly on the desk before looking up at the man before him. "And this is all of it?" he asked mildly.
Tony's attention snapped back to his boss and he nodded. "Yes sir. That's everything that Banning had in his home office and in the safety deposit box except for the ledgers lost in the hangar."
Randolph fixed him with a cool, calculating stare. "Are you sure?"
Tony swallowed. "Yes sir."
Randolph continued to look at him for a moment before tapping the pages with his forefinger and nodding once. "How far back does the other night's loss set us?" he changed the subject.
"It was just the preliminary shipment, so while the lost goods are going to cost us, it doesn't put a strain on our contracts at the moment. I'm using what we have stored right now to fill contracts and am already setting up a deal to replace that. The damage was minimal," Tony answered confidently.
"Will this incident affect the meeting with Hammings next week?"
"No sir," Tony shook his head. "While Hammings was concerned, I assured him that we have this under control and that it was a one-time occurrence and wouldn't happen again. He has made arrangements to be in Denver Thursday evening. I will meet him at the airport and get him settled in that night and bring him out here Friday morning. He wants to see our account history, our stores, and our distribution network before the meeting with the board that afternoon. And he wants you to give the tour personally."
Randolph nodded and sat back in his chair. "Yes, that was already expected. I will meet you here Friday morning. The rest of the board members will arrive that afternoon, and if all goes well, we will be celebrating our new partnership that evening." He paused. "I want nothing to interfere with this deal, Tony, especially the ongoing investigation into the events of Thursday night."
"You have nothing to worry about, sir. They haven't found anything to lead back to us," Tony assured him.
"What about the questions into Fieldman's? I am very concerned about that. They may be guessing at this point, but that is getting a little too close to home," Randolph pointed out.
"They've found nothing. There is nothing in the Fieldman's accounts to point to us. They were only interested in the company because of the shipment we had come in next door that same night."
Randolph's eyes narrowed and he fixed the man before him with a stern expression. "And that is also a point of concern. What were you thinking, having an arms shipment come in at the same place next door to a legitimate shipment for the contracting company? Fieldman's must be kept above reproach. You know that," he chastised his man.
"I had no choice," Tony quickly defended himself. "Donnell called for the change in time and location at the last minute. It was the only place I could set up in the given time. The shipment for Fieldman's was supposed to have come in earlier and completed long before the deal with Donnell. It was a fluke that they both arrived so close to each other."
Randolph folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Yes, but that 'fluke' has garnered us Larabee's attention."
"I told you, sir, don't worry about Larabee or his team. They have nothing," Tony protested.
"That may well be, but don't underestimate them either. Whatever else they may be, they are good at what they do. Very good. They don't give up easily, and with one of their agents missing, they will be more tenacious then ever. I do not want Larabee breathing down my neck, especially not now." Randolph's gaze turned decidedly icy with the clear warning in his words.
Tony had to fight to keep from flinching at the deadly glare. "I can handle Larabee," he promised. "He's not in charge of the investigation at the hangar-special agent Martin Lewis is, and I can promise you that you will have no problems with him. He's an incompetent fool and won't find anything. And as for Larabee's visit to Fieldman's, I handled that personally, and I promise that he found nothing and will find nothing. Everything that could possibly lead back to us is there in front of you. Larabee's team is nothing more than a minor annoyance."
Randolph sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him thoughtfully. "And what of Standish and that child? Only one body was found, so they must have escaped somehow. They can identify me, Tony, and I cannot have that," he warned.
Vitalis rubbed his eyes and shifted his stance before focusing his gaze on his employer's tie, refusing to meet his eyes. "I'm working on that, sir. As you know yourself, he hasn't been in contact with Larabee. But we'll find him sir, don't worry. He's out there, and he'll have to surface sometime. We'll get him."
Randolph raised an eyebrow and stood up to move around the desk and reach for his coat hanging on the hook beside the door. "Yes, but time is a luxury we do not have," he stressed as he slipped into the designer winter wear. "Those ledgers went missing before the fire. I can only assume that either Standish or the child has them. I cannot stress to you enough how damaging those documents can be. They must be found and destroyed, and Standish and his accomplice must be taken care of before this meeting with Hammings. They could jeopardize everything, and I want them neutralized."
Tony nodded in agreement. "They will be, I promise you. I will see to it personally," he assured the man.
"You do that," Randolph commanded as he straightened his collar and scarf and placed his black fedora onto his head firmly. He pulled his car keys from his pocket and moved to pass the other man, but stopped and looked at him with a thoughtful expression. "Something tells me that if we find Standish, we will find those ledgers and the child. You have a week, Tony. I want results soon, or I will take matters into my own hands. And you do not want me to do that," his eyes turned icy and his expression malicious.
Tony flinched and looked away quickly, focusing his gaze on anything but the deadly glare of his boss. "No, sir," he mumbled. "I'll take care of it."
Randolph studied him intently for a moment but made no further comment as he turned to exit the house. Tony followed him out the door and they paused on the small porch. "Do not fail me again, Tony," he stated quietly without turning around as he pulled his smooth, calfskin leather gloves on. "I will not be offering a third chance."
Tony shivered in the slight breeze that blew across the porch from the open fields to the left of the house and from the implied warning. "I understand, sir. I'll get this straightened out," he promised.
Randolph pulled the driver's side door of his Mercedes Benz open and gave the man on the porch one more look of warning before sliding into the leather seat and starting the vehicle. Tony shivered again and rubbed his arm as he watched the car disappear over the rise in the distance. After a few minutes, he shook his head and re-entered the house, slamming the door behind him.
* * * * * * *
Ezra snapped one last picture of the departing vehicle, making sure to get a clear shot of the license plate, before lowering the camera and grinning at the girl beside him. "And thus we have our link from Randolph to Vitalis," he stated smugly.
Ally removed the headphones from her ears and popped the small tape out of the recorder in her lap, holding it up for his inspection and returning his smile. "Hook, line, and sinker, as the saying goes," she returned.
They had spent the previous day poring over the ledgers and book from Banning's office as well as the documents on Fieldmans Construction and a map of the area, narrowing down the list of possible locations for Randolph's base of operations until they came to the warehouse outside of Golden. The warehouse occupied a lot adjacent to a small ranch on the outskirts of the town in a very rural and secluded area. The records they found indicated that while the warehouse was directly off the main road, an abandoned ranch house and outbuildings sat on the opposite side of the property, separated from the main highway and the warehouse by a few miles of forest. Ezra realized immediately that the ranch was a perfect location for the headquarters of the illegal operations and began making plans for a surprise visit.
A quick stop at a pawn shop provided him with the rudiments of what he needed for surveillance, including a camera with a telephoto lens, a parabolic microphone, and recording equipment. A visit to a pharmacy nearby provided the blank tapes and film. At the drugstore counter, Ezra added a pack of playing cards to their purchase on impulse. "What are those for?" Alex asked curiously.
"It has been my experience that stake outs are impossibly long and dreary. We must have some way to alleviate the boredom," he grinned at her.
Another stop at Rosie's diner that evening provided them with a vehicle. Rosie had readily agreed to let them borrow her kaki-green, 1979 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with no questions asked, provided that they return "Ol' Bessie" in top condition. Ezra grimaced as he slid into the driver's seat of the huge vehicle, muttering a multitude of complaints to himself about the car, the things he had to endure for the sake of his job, and life in general, even as he smiled his most charming smile through gritted teeth at the short woman standing in the diner's doorway.
Alex grinned at him cheekily as she tossed the blankets that she had retrieved from the chapel along with her black bag into the large back seat and climbed into the front beside him, settling the sack of sandwiches and two thermoses filled with hot coffee and soup that Rosie had insisted they take with them on the floor between her feet. "It's better than the city bus," she teased.
He shot her a glare worthy of Larabee as he put the car into gear and pulled out of the parking lot, but she just laughed at him.
They arrived at the warehouse a few hours before dawn, hid the car a couple of miles further away along a service road off the main thoroughfare, and hiked onto the ranch. Ezra was a little leery of a "jaunt through the dark," being no outdoorsman in any sense of the word, but Alex assured him that she could get them there. When he asked her how she was so sure that she wouldn't get them lost, she answered "Grandpa was a woodsman," and started off through the trees.
Ezra followed reluctantly, making a note to himself to ask her more about her fascinating paternal relative later.
True to her word, she got them within sight of the old ranch house before they encountered the first of the security measures, which Ezra disabled easily. A quick peak in the window of the old barn standing behind the house proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were in the right place, and they slipped inside to get a closer look at the various illegal paraphernalia that filled the building.
Just as they were ready to leave, they heard a car pull up outside and quickly made sure that all signs of their presence were gone before they exited the building through a back door. They hid in the shadows of the barn and watched as Vitalis slammed shut the door of a small pickup truck and gave some orders to the man who greeted him before stomping into the house. A few minutes later, a light came on in the front room and Vitalis could be seen through a dirty side window, leaning on an old desk with a cell phone held to his ear. They waited a few moments until the guard left and quickly moved to the house, taking up a position outside the window. Ezra focused on listening to what was going on inside while Alex stood at the corner of the house a little further away but still well within ear-shot, keeping alert for any sign of trouble.
From this location, they were able to hear every word of the phone conversation Tony had with Randolph arranging the meeting for later in the afternoon. Though he had originally planned to return to the city after their brief scout of the ranch, Ezra realized that this was an opportunity he could not afford to pass up and decided to wait until that meeting before returning to Denver. He and Alex moved back into the cover of the trees and searched around a bit until they found a perfect hiding spot with a clear view of the front of the house and the side window before she returned to the car for the blankets and the thermoses and he set up the recording equipment and prepared the camera for long distance shots. The first faint rays of dawn were creeping over the mountains as they settled down to await Randolph's arrival.
It was well after three in the afternoon before their quarry made his appearance, pulling up to the house in a shiny silver luxury SUV. Tony met him on the porch, and, after a few words of greeting, the two men entered the building. Alex manned the parabolic mike and the recorder after a few instructions on its use from Ezra, while he settled down beside her on the small grassy knoll with the camera in hand, ready to take plenty of photos of the meeting.
As Randolph's vehicle dropped out of sight, Ezra removed the film from the camera and pocketed it with the other two rolls he had taken and the cassette tape while Alex packed up the blankets and the recording equipment before they began the trek back to their vehicle. They arrived at their destination forty-five minutes later, dumped their equipment into the back seat, and quickly climbed into the car, pointing it in the direction of the city. "So, what now?" Alex asked.
Ezra removed a roll of film from his pocket with his left hand and fingered it absently as he steered the vehicle one-handed down the empty road. "We return this behemoth to Ms. Blaine then make our way to my townhouse. I have the equipment needed to develop these photographs there. And then," he placed the film back into his pocket and gave her a conspiring grin, "we call in the reinforcements."