Guarded

Chapter 11 - Guarded

Thursday morning arrived and Corbin woke to his alarm.  He was groggy and tired. He had trouble sleeping and he grumbled as he stood.  'Paul has ruined me. After a grand total of 2 nights, I miss his furry body in bed against me.'

Now that he was a partner at the shop he would work 5 days a week again.  Which is the reason he was up at 5 AM. He staggered through the house and started a pot of water on the stove.  He planned to wait until he got to the coffee shop to get his dose of caffeine, but plans change.

Additionally, he was scheduled to start working full time, 8 hrs a day.  That will start next week because he had plans for his afternoons both today and tomorrow.

With Paul's assistance, he managed to get the coop and the chicken run finished.  Now he had a nice big coop, with 4 laying boxes, and a 6' tall, 8' wide, 16' long wired in and safe run.  That was putting the cart a bit before the horse, as he still needed to raise the chicks.

Speaking of which, today after work he planned to go pick up his batch of chicks.  He already had some waiting for him at a local supplier. He planned to start with 20 chicks, and they were sexed with 90% guaranteed to be female.

That was thanks to Paul.  He suggested Corbin request female chicks.  Corbin knew only hens laid eggs, but it never occurred to him to ask specifically for them.  Without Paul's help, 50% would have been roosters, and he'd have to cull or give away up to half of his flock.  It was definitely a head-slapping moment for the blonde man.

Currently his thoughts centered around how slowly water boiled.  He stood and glared down at the pot of water on the stove. Once it began to steam in earnest he cut the heat and poured it into his French Press.  "Fuck it. Almost boiling will do today."

About 40 minutes later he left home, showered, dressed, and moderately more awake.  He arrived at work in Hailey, and he entered the shop.

Karen was back to her bubbly self.  "Hi, Partner!" Her smile was welcome to the blonde man.

He smiled back at her.  "Hi, Karen. Glad to see you're feeling better."  He picked up his apron and tied the brown and tan clothing into place.

She slapped him on the back.  "Well, you're the reason for that!"  She took a satisfied breath. "Okay. Let's get out there!"

Karen strode through their office space and entered the shop.  Corbin followed behind her with a smile.

Business was brisk, and the first hour passed.  Corbin was busy steaming the milk for a latte when a couple stepped up to the counter.

"Hey."  Bruce stood beside Jenoah.  Bruce looked at Corbin with a concerned frown.

"Uh, hi guys."  Corbin nodded at them and poured the hot milk into the drink he prepared.  He handed it off to Karen. "What's going on?"

Bruce shrugged and looked defeated.  "He … he wanted to see you?" He motioned at Jenoah and his voice had a note of uncertainty.

Jenoah licked his lips and looked Corbin in the eye - his expression nervous.  "È vero che non ti approvi? (Is it true you don't approve of us?)" He glanced at Bruce, then back to Corbin.  Jenoah was obviously dispirited. "Se lo desideri, smetterò di vedere Bruce. (If you wish it then I will stop seeing Bruce.)"

Corbin frowned.  "Che cosa? No! Dove hai preso quell'idea? (What?  No! Where did you get that idea?)" His hands started waving in that very Italian way.  "E perché dovrebbe importare? Anche se non l'avessi approvato? (And why would that matter?  Even if I didn't approve?)"

Bruce looked despondent and confused, all at once.  His lack of ability with Jenoah's native tongue obviously bothered him.  He didn't know exactly why Jenoah wanted to see Corbin, but he didn't think it would turn out well.  Particularly because he had just told Jenoah about Corbin's prying yesterday.

Jenoah frowned.  "Luca ti ha mostrato rispetto. E non dobbiamo causarti problemi. (Luca showed you respect.  And we are not to cause you trouble.)"

Corbin stared at him.  Then he shook his head.  "No, Jenoah, non ho alcun problema con te che incontri Bruce (No, Jenoah, I don't have a problem with you dating Bruce.)"

Jenoah looked at Bruce, and he sighed, relieved.  Bruce's eyes flicked back and forth between Corbin and Jenoah.  "Can someone tell me what's going on? Please?"

Corbin rubbed his forehead.  He was well aware of his role in this mess.  "Just a misunderstanding, Bruce." This Family treated him like a respected capo.  Not quite one of their own, but someone respected from another Family. But he never even had that sort of standing in his own.  'I think Luca is very confused about who I am.' It was all Corbin could imagine.

Bruce looked hopefully at Jenoah.  "Everything okay?"

The young man smiled broadly.  "Yes. Okay."

Bruce looked back at Corbin, his face conflicted.  He seemed to realize Corbin had helped him, but he didn't like being in the dark.  "Well, thanks for talking to Jenoah."

"Sure."  Corbin could only think of one thing to do.  "Stick around. I'll make your mocha. On the house today.  His eyes flicked to Jenoah. "Espresso?" The handsome man grinned and nodded.

"Oh.  Okay."  Bruce smiled a little.  "Thanks, Corbin."

A couple of minutes later the two young men left.  Both looked much happier than they did when they entered.

Karen wiped her hands on a towel and leaned over.  "Soooo … what's going on?" It was impossible for her to miss that SOMETHING had transpired.

Corbin sighed.  "For some reason, Jenoah thought I had a problem with him and Bruce."  He waved his hand dismissively. "It was a miscommunication. I cleared it up."

Karen pursed her lips and frowned slightly.  "He cares what you think. You can tell. It was almost like he was asking you for permission!"

Corbin flinched at her close guess.  "Yeah. I have no idea what was up with that."

She smiled at him.  "Maybe Jenoah thought you wanted Bruce?"

Corbin groaned.  "I don't want Bruce.  I have Pa …" His eyes widened.  She baited him! He looked at her, and she smiled, the expression worthy of a supervillain.

"I knew it!  That day Paul came in!  I knew it! I saw how you guys looked at each other!"  She laughed. "Ah, that's so cool! Paul's a great guy."

Corbin put his face in his hands.  Now Karen knew he was both gay, and dating Paul.  'Great.' He sighed then looked back up at her. She only grinned, then greeted the next set of patrons who had walked in.  He shrugged. 'Well, I guess it was bound to happen. I'll just have to deal with word getting out.'

Corbin was much more relaxed about the fact that he was gay being known. He wasn't sure why, but it didn't seem to be the world ending event it once was.  He knew Stefano was still out there. He knew he would be easier to find if word got out of Hailey about his recent move, his name, and sexuality.  But as time went on he began to worry less about it. Maybe it was fatigue or a byproduct of his settling into life in Hailey. Regardless, his fears about it diminished.

Something that DID worry him was Luca.  As he worked making coffee he struggled to come up with a plan to deal with the capo.  And by the time his shift ended he had come up with a few ideas. As he folded his apron he winced from the effort of tying them into some sort of acceptable plan.

He said goodbye to Karen then he exited the shop.  He got into his truck and sat behind the wheel, thinking.  'Okay. First I need to find out who he thinks I am. Second, if that serves to keep him out of my business then I will encourage him to continue to believe it.  Third, I try to find out what he's doing in Hailey.'

He grimaced.  He was planning to try and play a capo.  He shrugged. "Well, let's see how this goes."

He drove over to 101 Main st and parked. Again, the place was a hive of activity with construction workers and various family directing them.  He got out of his truck and a few of the family nodded and smiled at him. The ones close by greeted him, and even bobbed their heads in deference.

Corbin kept the incredulous emotion he felt off of his face.  Instead, he graciously accepted the careful and respectful treatment from the outfit.  'Wow. They definitely think I'm someone I'm not.'

He asked one of them if Luca were free, and the man took Corbin upstairs.  The two of them stopped at a closed door, and the man knocked.

"Accedere."

He nodded at Corbin with a smile, opened the door then left.  Again, respectful treatment.

Corbin entered the room.  Luca sat behind an antique desk, his back to a window which spilled natural light into the space.  He looked at Corbin and smiled.

"Ah, salve ancora Corbin. A cosa devo il piacere della tua visita? (Ah, hello again Corbin.  To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?)" He motioned at the chair in front of the desk, and Corbin moved to sit.

The blonde man cleared his throat, well aware he played for very high stakes.  "Ciao Luca. Grazie per l'invito nei tuoi affari e a casa. (Hello Luca. Thank you for the invitation into your business and home)."  He straightened and held his head up. "Visito per determinare quale tipo di relazione desideri tra me e la tua famiglia. (I visit to determine what sort of relationship you wish between myself and your family)."

Luca's smile grew, and he nodded.  He seemed to appreciate the directness.  "Non sei un uomo dedito all'assunzione. Buona. (You are not a man given to assumption.  Good)." Luca rested his elbows on the desk in front of him, his fingers steepled. "La mia famiglia è nuova qui. E vorrei solo essere in buoni rapporti con ... degni locali.(My family is new here.  And I wish only to be on good terms with … worthy locals)." The pause was very deliberate. And Luca's eyes focused on him intensely when he said that last bit.

'Shit.  He's not playing.  I'm gonna get nothing from him.'  Corbin nodded slightly, as he accepted the compliment.  "Grazie, Luca." He looked back up at the raven haired man.  Luca still looked at him with deadly intensity. "Mi scuso per aver dedicato tempo. (Apologies for taking up your time)."  He licked his lips. Protocol trapped him into what he said next. "Se c'è qualcosa che posso fare per te, faccelo sapere. (If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know)."

At this Luca smiled, the expression almost predatory.  "Grazie Corbin." He continued to smile, then he nodded.  It was Corbin's permission to leave, and so the blonde man stood.

Without another word he turned and left the room.  He got into his truck and started the drive to his chick supplier.  He shook his head, angry at himself. "Fuck!" Disappointment marred his face.  "Fuck … me." He licked his lips. He had just offered his services to a capo. It's true, Luca had sort of trapped him into it.  Corbin acknowledged the favor Luca had shown him, and in return, he was expected to offer one of his own.

"No, you trapped your damn self."  He gritted his teeth. Playing games with a capo was not a good plan.  He knew better. And now he would be expected to fulfill a favor of some sort down the line.

His Family politics game was rusty.  And he needed to sharpen up before seeing Luca again.  He mulled over what Luca could possibly want from him. Then he turned into the lot of the farm supply store just outside of Hailey.  But he had to push the worry aside and get on with the business of becoming a farmer.

He parked and went inside the cavernous building.  His chicks were set aside, and a young man in Carhartts and a beat up denim shirt greeted him. Soon he had a crate of 20 cheeping little balls of fluff, an incubation light to keep them warm, some bedding, and some food.  He paid up, and loaded everything into his truck. The chicks, he buckled in on the passenger seat beside him.

He smiled down at them.  They were so cute! "Okay babies.  Hang on." He pulled back onto the road, and carefully drove home.  They would chirp excitedly as he took the turns, and he could see them fall over from the corner of his eye.  Once he saw they were okay he couldn't help but laugh at their plight.

He took the crate of chickens into the house.  He knew they would need the heat lamp, pretty much all the time for the first week or two.  He set up the box with the lamp in the second bedroom, made sure they had food and water and stood back to watch them.

They scratched, moved around their new home, and peeped away.  He knew the box would only hold them for the first couple of weeks.  Paul offered to let him use a corner of his building once they became too big for the box.  He'd frame up a temporary little structure for them, and they'd have a safe place to be while they matured.

Now that this particular task was done he started a list for the grocery store.  The Saturday get-together up at Paul's place was coming up, and he volunteered to make the food.  Paul would be getting off work that morning, and he didn't want him to worry about that.

Chad and Mia were due to come over around 2 PM on Saturday.  They'd hang out, play games, hot tub, and otherwise be social.  Corbin assumed they'd have an early dinner, maybe a couple of hours after things got started.  And he planned to make something fun, cheap, and easily personalized.

"Baked Potato Bar."  He grinned and wrote it at the top of his list.  He'd have the potatoes baked and ready to go for toppings.  And he'd provide a wide variety of those to go along with the potatoes.  It'll be simple, good and easy.

He still wasn't totally sold on meeting Chad, but he knew he needed to - for Paul.  So he was going to suck it up and be as worthy a boyfriend as he could possibly be in the eyes of Paul's best friend.

But before he could do that he needed to go shopping.  He finished up his list, checked on his chicks one last time, and walked to his truck.  'I hope things go well.' He drove down his road and pulled onto the highway toward Hailey.  'As long as Chad doesn't get too nosey, it'll probably be fine.'

With that thought, he drove back into town.

____________________________________

It was late, Thursday night, and Harris was not having a good moment.  His hand flopped down on his couch and clutched his phone.

SOMEHOW, Stefano stayed a step ahead of his agents  No, he stayed a dozen steps ahead. A few minutes ago he received a notice that Stefano had been sighted in Atlanta.  Harris remembered that safe house. He remembered it because it was only about six months ago they had been there. Stefano skipped a huge number of safe houses

'How?  HOW?' He frowned in concentration, his brow furrowed, and his hand rubbed his bald head.

'Either someone on my team gave him the information, or Stefano found clues we didn't know we had left at one of the other safehouses.'  He shook his head. He didn't have enough information to formulate any sort of theory. That was upsetting. 'If I don't do something, he WILL find Corbin.'

He closed his eyes at the nausea he felt when he thought about it.  'I've come way too far. I can't … I CAN'T fail.'

There were six safehouses remaining.  At most, he had five chances to catch Stefano before he found the last one.  And if the pattern held, Corbin shortly after.

Harris was dumbfounded by Stefano's ability.  He was reported as a low-level operative hired by the Reina family - Corbin himself used those exact words to describe him.  But he did not act the part. From what Harris saw, Stefano was easily on a similar level as some career foreign agent spies he had tangled with.

He unlocked his phone and punched in a number.  It picked up quickly. "Pull all but two agents from Hailey.  I want them reassigned to the following locations." Harris stationed an agent at each remaining safehouse Stefano had yet to discover.  "Stay ready and mobile. Orders and objective remain the same."

His resources were finite. Yes, the FBI wanted to capture Stefano, but there were only so many agents approved for the entire operation.  So he was forced to reassign the agents he had.

He hung up and dialed again.  Harris called the agents in Boston and Philly.  They were paired up with the agents he had just redirected to his remaining safehouses.

He finished with the call and he rubbed his face.

Harris stood and slowly paced back and forth across his living room.  "I'm missing something." He frowned. "What am I missing?" He simply couldn't figure out how Stefano was now in Atlanta.

Then he jerked to a stop, eyes wide.  "Is he there? Is he really?" He whispered.

He pulled his phone from his pocket again and reread the notice. Stefano had been spotted through security footage at the Atlanta hotel they used for their safehouse.  He was spotted again talking to front desk staff, and reportedly there was a clear picture of him. The ID was certain.

He frowned in thought.  Harris sent a quick message.  'Send security footage from Atlanta.'

He stood in the middle of his living room and stared down at his phone.  Only about 30 seconds later he had an email. Harris opened it. Attached were two pictures.

He looked at the initial photo.  It was a bit grainy, and he couldn't quite make out detail.  But … yeah, it appeared to be Stefano. He grimaced. A bit disappointed he opened the second photo.

Slowly the hair on his neck rose.  "That's not Stefano." He stared at the photo.  It LOOKED like him, but it wasn't Stefano.

"Fuck.  FUCK. They all had stock photos of Stefano.  How could they get this wrong?"

'Send reference photo of Stefano Moretti to me immediately.'  He sent the group text to all his agents, and he waited.

One by one they responded.  Every single one had the wrong man - the man in the picture.  Harris felt as if his stomach turned somersaults in his body. "Fuck me.  Fuck me." Someone had replaced Stefano's stock photo with this guy. Someone on his team was compromised.

Harris immediately made a call.

"Dunning here."

He licked his lips.  "Sir. It's Harris. I have two requests."

"Go ahead, Harris."  The deep voice of his superior replied.

"First, I need to transfer to Boise, immediately.  Tonight. Second, I need to dissolve the Reina team.  All need to be re-vetted for connections to the Reina family."

"You're going to have to spell out why."  There was a dubious tone in Dunning's voice.  Harris went through what he had discovered.

Dunning whistled.  "Okay. Granted. But I can't assign more agents to you.  I can't reassign the ones on your team until we investigate who switched the photos and why.  Which leaves me ten agents down."

Harris pursed his lips.  "I'll use our local connections instead.  I would prefer to not enter Hailey unless it can't be helped.  But I will be in Boise, in case I'm needed."

"Understood."  Dunning paused.  "Harris, do you think Stefano knows where Corbin is?"

"I don't know sir,"  Harris answered. "Though if he does, I don't understand why he hasn't gone straight there."

"Should we relocate Corbin?  Your honest opinion."

He thought a moment before replying and came to a conclusion.  "Stefano would have already killed him if he knew where Corbin was.  And until we know exactly who switched those photos, then we won't know if even a new location will help.  Our problem could be with someone who helps set up the relocation."

"Paranoid of you.  Good." Dunning grunted.  "Okay. He stays - for now."  He blew out a breath. "Get your ass to Boise.  I'll get Carol to set you up with an apartment, and to have the regular service take care of your place there in New York."

"Yes, sir.  Thank you."  Harris hung up, and he turned his phone over and over in his hand.  He debated telling Corbin, then shook his head. 'No. He would want to run.  And right now he could run straight into Stefano.' He sighed. 'He stays in the dark.'

Harris went to his bedroom and began to pack.  He booked a flight online and called a cab. A quick trip to the airport and he  was through security and in his terminal far faster than the average traveler.  It was a nice perk for an on-duty agent to have.

He was seated in first class, and soon he was airborne.  He brought some homework with him for the flight, and he required the privacy first class offered.  Harris pulled a sheaf of papers from his carry-on, and he set them on the tray table in front of him.

'Okay, Stefano Moretti.  Let's find out who you REALLY are. Because 'low-level operator' you are NOT.'  The plane cut through the air headed west, and Harris studied his information. A few hours later he landed in Boise.

Harris gathered his things, and after the plane taxied to the gate he got off and headed to the baggage claim.

He had already received the address of his new apartment, and he caught a taxi.  After a short ride, he paid the fare and then walked up the stairs to what would be his home for a while.  It would be home until he completed this mission.

He found the key behind the apartment number plate, right where Carol said it would be.  He let himself in, and looked around the furnished apartment. It was well appointed. Carol had done nicely, and he reminded himself to send her flowers in thanks.  He put his papers down on the coffee table, and he sat on the nice couch. He stared at the sheaf of documents.

His research had revealed little, only information they already knew.  It was almost as if Stefano's past was constructed to present a clear and boring picture of the man.  He certainly looked like a basic, run of the mill goon. On paper at least.

But Harris knew better.

At first, he was content merely to bring Stefano in.  At least, that was before the latest revelations concerning his team.  But now, Harris found himself wondering if that was enough. He had to wonder, would Stefano ever be convicted?  Would he somehow get off the hook for Liam's murder?

He leaned back and rubbed his head.  He narrowed his eyes, as he struggled with a question.

"Who would mourn Stefano Moretti … if I put a bullet in him?"


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts on the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

And thank you for reading! 

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