Guarded

Chapter 13 - Guarded

It was early Sunday morning.  Neither Paul nor Corbin had to be anywhere.  Their guests, Mia and Chad lay asleep on Paul's futon in the living room.  The house was still warm, thanks to the massive insulative value of Paul's strawbale walls.  And ever so slowly Paul woke.

He lay curled around Corbin.  Their bare skin pressed together, and Paul's arm draped over the smaller man.  Corbin lay and breathed the quiet, peaceful rhythm of sleep.

He smelled the hair at the nape of Corbin's neck.  The blonde man made a small noise but didn't wake. Paul breathed, inhaled his scent, and lay with him.

He watched the room slowly lighten as the sun struck the window on his eastern wall.  The earthen plaster on the opposite wall lit up, as flecks of mica in the clay reflected the sun like tiny prisms.

He was warm and comfortable, and a deep contentment settled over him.  'I don't want anything else.' He frowned to himself as he thought it. 'I don't want anybody else.'  He squeezed a little tighter and put his forehead against Corbin's neck.

A small moment, but to Paul, it was filled with beauty.  He wet his lips. "Corbin?" Paul whispered. Corbin didn't move and slept on.  Paul took another breath. "I think ... I'm falling in love with you."

No movement.  Corbin slept. His confession apparently went unheard.  Paul smiled to himself.

He gently put his lips on Corbin's neck and kissed him.  Paul knew it was too soon to say it. So it would be his secret.  And also, at that moment he knew that he would do anything to keep the smaller man happy.  To keep him safe.

Deep in a dream, Corbin heard a deep, bass voice, a sweet whisper.  It was filled with yearning, emotion, and intent. And before the evanescent moment passed a sleeping Corbin smiled.

____________________________________

Chad stirred.  Mia lay next to him in a tangle of her long blonde hair and the green, plaid flannel sheets.  He blinked and looked at her. She slept. One arm over her face, and her mouth open. He couldn't help but smile.  He thought she was beautiful, always. But especially at moments like this. Before the make-up. Before she struggled to lose weight she didn't need to lose.  Before the careful way she presented herself. Before all the bullshit society forced women into. He told her how he felt, all the time. After two years she had only just started to believe him.

He'd keep trying.

Careful not to wake her he sat up on the futon.  Paul was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. He stood in his kitchen, and he concentrated on pouring boiling water into a french press.  Once the water went in he looked at Chad.

Chad gave him a 'thumbs-up' and got up.  He stretched as he stood beside the futon, and his body cracked multiple times.  Then he bent and pulled on his jeans over his boxers, and put on his t-shirt.

He scratched his belly under his shirt and wandered into the kitchen.  The scent of fresh coffee hit his nose as he sat at the table, and he made a small appreciative noise.  "Smells good." His voice was low, and gravelly from the morning.

Paul smiled and nodded.  "You feeling alright? Not too much wine I hope?"  He spoke quietly and pulled up a chair across from his friend.

Chad shook his head.  "Nah. I'm fine." He looked into the living room and smiled at Mia's unmoving form under the covers on the futon.  "Though I think Mia will need the coffee when she wakes up."

"She's sort of a grizzly till she gets it,"  Paul said. Chad nodded, and both men chuckled.

Chad looked at Paul.  He seemed thoughtful. "You like Corbin, huh?"

Paul looked down at his hands.  He swallowed then he nodded. "Yeah."  Chad had always been his confidante. There were things about Corbin he couldn't tell him, and that was hard.  But to Chad, how he felt was something Paul couldn't hide.

The brown-haired man cocked his head.  "You REALLY like him." That wasn't a question, and there was a note of wonder in his voice.  "Are … you in love with this guy?"

Paul got up and went to the french press where it sat on the counter.  He plunged it, and he frowned. He attempted a lie. "I don't know."

Chad stared at him, and he looked a little shocked.  "You ARE." He leaned forward. "Wow. You're in love with him."

Paul felt a moment of panic.  "Shut up!" He hissed. He rubbed his face and glanced back toward the hallway that led to the bedroom.  "Look, I'm just figuring stuff out, okay? Till I do, I'm not gonna say anything. You know I've never done this before.  Not like this." He glared at Chad. "And I sure as shit don't want him to hear it from you first!"

Chad sat back.  "Okay. Sorry."

Paul blew out a breath, relieved.  "Good. Thanks."

He walked back over to the table and took his seat.  The two men quietly sipped their coffee.

While on the futon a recently-awake Mia smiled to herself.

____________________________________

An hour later saw all of them up and caffeinated.  Chad and Mia bid the guys goodbye and headed to their own home.  It was 8 AM, and they still had the whole day ahead of them.

Corbin wanted to do a little scouting on his property.  He hadn't quite seen all of it, and he needed to fix that.  Paul had his own chores he needed to finish, namely completion of his building.  So after a bit of breakfast and a few kisses for his fireman, Corbin drove down to his place.

It was still chilly. Corbin bundled against the lingering cold and he carefully made his way through the brush and trees on his property.  His goal was his fence line. He knew the farthest point from the house was the northern fence line. So he walked as close to true north as he could, and after about a ¼ of a mile, he finally came to the fence.

He stopped to catch his breath and stared at the fence which marked his property line.  It was constructed of barbed wire and sturdy posts and extended off into the distance to the east and west.  Here and there he found animal fur attached to the lower string of wire, caught as critters scooted under it.  It seemed to be no real impediment to the wildlife. He was glad. He didn't want his property to be a dead place, free of animals and life.  Though, he'd rather the bears stayed away.

He could see the western fence from his house, which meant his home sat on the very southwestern corner of the parcel.  So he turned east and started walking along the fence. He knew it would lead him back to the cabin.

The going was a little tough thanks to all the underbrush.  But the day was clear, and the sun was beginning to bathe the land in warmth and light.  Though there was frost on the ground, the day promised to be a beautiful one. His spirits were high as he came to a corner post after about 200 paces.  The fence continued at a little more than 90 degrees to the northern portion and he turned to follow along.

That's when he heard it.  A small, sort of breathy screech.  He stopped immediately and cocked his head.  It came again. It sounded almost like a bird.  And it also sounded close. He looked down at his feet and stepped carefully.  There it was again. He was getting closer.

He stepped over the downed trunk of a large tree and he caught movement.  He whirled around and a small spotted kitten screeched. The origin of the sound looked at him and shivered in the early morning cold.  It stood in front of a den that had been dug under the tree trunk.

"Ohhh … oh, you poor thing."  He moved toward it, but then stopped himself.  He realized this was some sort of wildcat, and he bit his lip.  "Where's your momma kitty?" He looked around with a worried expression on his face.  He certainly didn't want to meet an angry wildcat mother.

The kitten mewed again, though it sounded nothing like any kitten he had ever encountered.  He felt torn between trying to help the wild little thing and staying safely away. He wavered.

The baby cat cried out again.

"Shit."  He decided, then he walked over.  "Okay. Okay." He gently moved the kitten to the side and clicked on his flashlight.  He looked into the den.

"Awww … fuck."  Two more kittens were in the den, and they were obviously dead.  He reached in and touched them to be sure. Their little bodies were stiff.  Looked to him like they starved or froze to death. This last little one was on the way down with them.

As gentle as he could he picked up the baby.  It was so weak it didn't resist him or try to get away.  Instead, it tried to suckle on his coat as he held it against himself.  "Hang on baby. Hang on." He unzipped his coat and he put it into a large internal pocket against his flank.  He felt it squirm a bit, then it settled down. He was afraid of smothering the kitten, so he left his coat open to the air.

The expedition was over.  He headed in a straight line toward the woodsmoke that marked the location of his cabin.  Soon he entered. He took a cardboard box, then carefully peeled off his coat. The kitten was still in his pocket.  He reached in, and he felt the little furry body squirm when he touched it. He pulled it out as gently as he could and it screeched again.

He went and got a couple of towels and lined his box with one.  He put the kitten down and put the other towel around it. Again it tried to suckle on the towel.

'It's starving.'  He pulled out his phone.  'Kitten Formula' went into the search engine.  "Hang on kitty."

He found a formula for homemade kitten formula.  It warned him that this would only work for a little while.  He'd need real kitten formula with vitamins, and the right nutrient mix in the long term.  But this would do for now. He mixed 8 oz of whole milk, 2 egg yolks, and a teaspoon of olive oil in a small pot.  He whisked the mixture until it was well combined. The kitten continued to screech from its box in the living room.  "I'm trying. Hang on." He then heated the concoction very slowly on the stove, careful not to cook the eggs. After a couple of minutes, he tested it with his finger and found it warm.  "Okay. Good enough."

He turned off the heat. He went and found an extra, clean dropper from his medicine cabinet, and gathered the kitten wrapped with one of the towels.  He came back to the kitchen with his little patient.

"Okay baby.  I hope this works."  He placed the dropper against the cat's mouth and it immediately attempted to suckle on the tip.  He squeezed the bulb and the liquid disappeared down the cat's throat. It screeched for more. He grinned.  "Okay. I'm doing it." Corbin spent the next ten minutes sitting on a chair with his ward wrapped in a towel.  He fed a couple of ounces of the stuff to the suddenly animated kitten.

Finally, it seemed satisfied.  It settled down on his lap and went to sleep.  He walked it over to the box in front of the fireplace and put it back inside.  He didn't think the kitty could get out of the high sides of the box, but he wasn't sure.  He would be so upset if it got out and hurt itself somehow, so he'd have to make sure it was going to be safe.

He knew he needed to go get some real kitten formula.  Another phone search later and he had his destination - a pet store called 'Paws N Claws' on Main Street in Hailey.  He looked at the hours and cursed. It didn't open till 11 AM. He had over 2 hours to go. "My emergency formula will have to do till then."  He put the pot in the fridge. He would heat it up again when kitty cried for more.

He looked in on the kitten.  It shivered in the box amongst the towels, even next to the fireplace.  He frowned down at the little form. 'It's cold.' He thought, and his eyes slid over to the hallway, toward the second bedroom.

"Hrmmm."  He picked it up and went to the box filled with chicks.  He stood and looked at them as they basked under the warming lamp.  Carefully he lay the kitten in among the growing balls of fluff.

After some initial alarm, both the cat and the chicks settled down.  The shivering stopped, and it was soon surrounded by the chicks. He put his hand over his mouth and grinned.  "Oh god, that's so fucking cute." He took a picture on his phone, chicks, and cat all snuggled up in a big warm pile.

'Looks like we're both starting over, huh?'  He reached in and very gently ran his hand over the little furry body.  It moved a tiny amount, and the chicks around it cheeped a little, but it seemed to sleep through his touch.

He thought a moment then went to the kitchen.  'Baby Monitor' made it onto his list.

He went to town.  By 1 PM he was back home and had what he needed.  He fed the kitten once more, this time with actual formula.  It already acted stronger and was much livelier while he fed it the second time.  Currently, it curled up in its home with the chicks. A baby monitor was attached to the box, and it worked well to alert him when the kitten woke up and needed food.

He sat at his kitchen table and ate a late lunch.  He picked up a sandwich in town while he was there, to keep things easy while he dealt with his new little tenant.  As he ate he researched what sort of critter the kitten could be. Soon he figured out he had a baby lynx or bobcat in his living room.

Judging from pictures he estimated the kitten was about six weeks old.  It was almost time to wean it. Another week or two. Then it would be on to solid food.  Meat, in other words. He pursed his lips. 'I wonder if it will eat my chickens?' It didn't seem interested right now.  He'd have to keep an eye on things.

He spent the next hour or so reading about bobcats on his phone.

The screech of his kitten crackled over the monitor and tore him from his reverie.  He stood. "I'm coming." He turned on the stove so he could warm the formula. The kitten continued to meow its screeching little song.  "I know. You're hungry." He went and picked up the kitten, and he couldn't help but smile at the little wiggly ball of fur. As he carried it into the kitchen he noticed the kitten had huge paws, at least for its size.

"Zampa."  He held up the baby lynx and grinned.  He thought he was very clever - naming the big footed critter the Italian word for "paw".  He also noticed that she was a girl.

He sat with Zampa and began to feed her.  The kitten made hungry little sounds as he did.  "You're gonna be okay, Zampa."

Her feeding complete he put Zampa back to bed.  She still seemed to be recovering, because though she had more energy all she wanted to do was eat and sleep.  And that was okay with him for now. Made things easy.

Around 5 PM he relaxed on his couch, and read a bit more about bobcats.  His research was interrupted when he got a text from Paul. 'Hey. Done with the workshop!  Hurray!'

He smiled and tapped out a reply.  'Nice job!' He sent the text then looked down the hallway and grimaced a little.  He started another message. 'Hey, TOTALLY theoretical question … do you think a baby bobcat will eat chickens?'

He stared at his phone, and a reply came.  'What did you do?'

He tried to think of a response, and apparently, he took too long.  A few minutes passed and he heard the sound of a diesel engine as Paul's truck pulled up in front of his house.

He couldn't help but laugh.

__________________________________

Monday morning struck, and Corbin woke to his 5 AM alarm.  Paul lay behind him in his regular spot, and the fireman groaned as Corbin moved.  Their night was interrupted twice by Zampa. Each time Corbin got up to feed her, but Paul still woke when he had to perform the duty.  As Corbin got to his feet the underslept fireman grumbled.

"What are you gonna do with her?"  He blinked up at Corbin. "She'll need food throughout the day."

Corbin smiled, the expression strained.  "Ah, take her to work?"

Paul laughed and shook his head.  "Yeah, Karen will LOVE that." He frowned and thought a moment.  "Actually, she probably will. That cat is pretty cute." He narrowed his eyes at Corbin.  "Though you should NOT try to keep her. She's a wildcat. Letting her sleep in a pile of chicks won't change that."

"Yeah, I know."  Corbin bent and kissed Paul.  "I couldn't leave her out there.  She would have died." Before Paul could protest he added, "And again, I know.  There are people who rehabilitate wild animals." He waved his hand. "I can do it.  I want to do it."

Paul set his jaw and glared up at him from the bed.  "Just … be careful with her. She isn't a pet. And don't let Chad find out!  It's probably against the law to keep one."

Corbin kissed him again.  "I know. She's gonna be fine.  And I won't tell Chad."

Paul sighed.  He could tell Corbin was dead set on keeping the cute but potentially dangerous bobcat.  He rolled over and pulled the blankets over his head. He didn't have to get up for another hour, and he definitely wanted to take advantage of that.

Corbin went through his AM routine.  He also made coffee and left it hot in the french press on the counter for Paul.  Then he gathered Zampa, her formula and a box with towels for her bedding.

She screeched at him as he carried her outside, and Paul grunted in irritation from the bedroom.  Corbin stifled a giggle and left his cabin.

Corbin realized Zampa did not like being away from the heat lamp and the chicks.  She cried, unhappy in her box as he drove to work. "You're fine." He pulled into the parking lot with 5 minutes to spare.  "You'll go back in the box with the chicks when we get home."

He awkwardly opened the door while holding the box.  He noticed that she wasn't shaking, so it wasn't that she was cold.  'You just miss the chicks.' He frowned and shook his head.

Karen was there, and he smiled at her.  "Hi, partner!" His exaggerated smile made Karen laugh.

"Hi, partner!"  She walked over and looked into the box as Corbin held it.  Her eyes went wide. "Oh my god! Is … is that a bobcat?" Unfazed she reached in and picked up the wiggly cat and loved on her.  Corbin went through the story with her and asked if he could keep the box in the back so he could feed her.

She agreed, and Zampa 'the coffee house cat' went under her desk.  Then the day started.

They had a busy Monday morning.  Then, around 10 AM when there was a bit of a lull Luca walked in.  Flanked by two of the Family, they all approached the counter. Karen motioned at Corbin when they entered.  He swallowed, and he stepped up to greet them.

"Ciao Corbin! Vorrei estendere un invito a un'apertura soffice del nostro ristorante, Mattoni e Fuoco (Hello Corbin! I would like to extend an invitation to a soft opening of our restaurant, Brick and Fire)."  He smiled broadly. "Apriamo venerdì sera. Per favore, sentiti libero di portare il tuo amico, Paul (We open Friday night. Please, feel free to bring your friend, Paul)."

Corbin covered his surprise at hearing Paul's name come out of Luca's mouth, but only barely.  "Ah, grazie molte per l'invito, Luca (Ah, thank you very much for the invitation, Luca)." He straightened, dipped his head slightly and smiled.  "Naturalmente, saremo onorati di partecipare (Of course, we would be honored to attend)."

Luca acknowledged the acceptance with a nod.  He smiled at Karen, then he and his entourage swept from the shop in a flap of their long dark coats.

Corbin stared after them.  Karen cleared her throat, and he shook himself.  "Everything all right Corbin?" She jerked her chin at the door.  "What was that about?"

"Ah, he invited me … uh, actually, he invited both Paul and me to the soft opening of his new restaurant, 'Brick and Fire'."

"You AND Paul?"  She frowned. "I got the impression you wanted that to sorta stay low key?"

"Yeah.  I do." His eyes shifted as he thought.  "I have no idea how he found out." He didn't want Karen thinking too hard about it.  "Eh, probably Paul told someone, and it got around that way." He shrugged as if it weren't that big of a deal.  "It was bound to get out. No problem."

She nodded then smiled.  "Cool. Then I'll tell Bruce!"  She went back to wiping the counters and hummed a happy little tune.

Corbin frowned to himself, then he surrendered with a sigh.  'Well shit. It is going to be all over town soon.' Before he could start down the rabbit hole of obsession over what happened, the door opened again.  Patrons entered, and he and Karen were busy and distracted by customers for the next few hours.

5 PM finally arrived.  Zampa slept most of the day, and Corbin only had to take three breaks to feed her.  None of the patrons noticed her, and he was relieved that he made it through work with no incidents.  After they closed up he waved goodbye to Karen, loaded Zampa into his truck, and started on the drive home.

He took a deep breath as he drove.  "Luca … what are you up to? And why drag Paul into this?"  His hands flexed on the steering wheel. His face was worried.  When it was only him then he could abide the potential risk of dealing with Luca.

He turned off the highway onto his road.  He couldn't think of a way to keep Paul insulated from the Family.  "Fuck." He pulled up to his cabin and parked. He rubbed his face, and his eyes shifted as he struggled to find clarity in a murky situation.

He didn't have a choice.  Even if he did something drastic, and totally cut himself off from Paul, it was too late.  Luca knew his name. In truth, Corbin found relief knowing he couldn't insulate Paul by dumping him.

"I don't think I CAN dump him.  Not now." He whispered.

He forced himself to get out of the truck and take Zampa inside.  She went back under the lamp with the chicks, and they chirped excitedly when she joined them.  For her part, she curled up almost immediately and went to sleep amongst her flock.

Corbin went back out to the living room and sat on the couch.

His hands rested on his knees, and he stared at them.  His face frowned with emotion. "You were wrong Harris."  He said softly. He shook his head. "I never should have let him in.  It was fucking selfish. And now it's too late."

He wallowed for a bit.

'This is doing no good.'  He forced a shift in his thoughts.  'You need to focus on what you can do, what you can control.'

His eyes narrowed.  'You know these people, Corbin.  You know their kind. How they think.  How they work. What they value.' He actually smiled a little.  He felt a cool flood of self-control, as he slipped back into his Family way of thought.

'You know what you need to do.'  The smile grew. 'È tempo di essere di nuovo un Reina (It's time to be a Reina again).'

____________________________________

It was Wednesday before Stefano had the necessary equipment for the next part of his plan.  That Wednesday evening he sat in a motel room and opened the netbook he purchased. A small compact printer sat on the flimsy desk in the room.  Everything connected to his encrypted MiFi card, and he was ready to go.

He also had his bus ticket for tomorrow.  He would board for Des Moines at 6 AM. Though he was already sick of busses after only one long trip it was still his only option.

He connected his phone to the netbook and loaded all the pictures taken by the Family operative in New York onto the hard drive.

One by one he printed the pictures.  As they finished he taped them to the wall of his room.

After almost 45 minutes he had 24 pages hanging before him.  He first examined the obituaries. He expected these. They were of Harris' family.  His wife, young daughter, and his son were all in the newspaper entry. Stefano's fingers ran over the faces of the children, and he swallowed.  He had not seen his own child for over two years. He felt the sting of tears, but then he shook his head. There wasn't time for self-pity.

He sniffed loudly, then refocused.  The date of the obituary was a little over 5 years ago.  Harris had never remarried or, from what the Family knew, even dated since. Stefano's brown eyes moved over to the picture of Harris' approved request to be assigned as Corbin's handler.  Harris all but pleaded for the assignment to protect Corbin Reina. It meant he would give up his whole personal life for the duration. In his letter, Harris admitted he knew that span of time could be significant.

"Two years."  Stefano murmured.  "Why give up two years of your life to protect a mafioso, Agent Harris?"  Maybe to fill the emptiness his family's loss left, three years earlier?

He started on the handwritten notes.  The earliest was only a week after his family was killed.  The notes along with the police report of the incident painted a grisly and terrible scene.  His family was gunned down while his wife drove the children to school. It was precise, professional. There were three men on motorcycles who split the lanes of traffic while the cars were stopped, and they shot all of them.  All died instantly. All the assailants escaped.

The police report detailed that Harris had received threats for his work against organized crime. Though his family had been threatened before, a fresh and credible threat was made over the phone only two weeks before the killing.

Where the police report left off the notes continued.  Harris investigated on his own and ran down countless leads.

Stefano's eyes shifted to a newspaper article about a man who was found floating in the East River.  After fishing him out it was revealed he was shot multiple times and dumped there. He was known to be on the wrong side of the law and was suspected of violent crimes, though nothing could be proven.  A small, neat check mark written in pencil was on the article.

He moved over to another couple of articles.  Only a few weeks apart two more bodies showed up in the East River.  The same situation for both. This time, both appeared to be tortured.  The last one found was missing six fingernails.

Stefano went back to the notes.  He read, then his eyes widened and he put his finger on the photo of the notes to follow along.  "Confirmed under advanced interrogation, hit was hired by Reina family."

Most of the notes after that were sporadic entries, until two years ago.  Stefano read the entry. "Godsend in form of a mole in Reina ranks. He's supposed to be the real deal.  If so I will volunteer for handler duty."

He moved down another entry.  "Corbin Reina IS the real deal.  He will enable the destruction of this blight on New York."  Stefano took the next entry in line. "Liam Walsh killed. Corbin pulled into protective custody.  Stefano Moretti suspected of Liam's murder."

Then there was a long string of entries detailing the safehouses they used.  There were notes on some of the legal proceedings against the Reina family. And even entries about Corbin himself.  Over time his entries about Corbin became less clinical. It seemed Harris gained some affection for him.

Stefano looked at the last page of handwriting.  He frowned. Dead center in the middle of an otherwise blank page, all it said was:  "Fear the man who has nothing to lose."

He had heard the quote before of course.  Most people had. And that's not what perplexed him.

He ran his fingers over the carefully hand-written sentence.

Written in ink a slightly different width was a modification to the quote.  This would suggest it was done with a different pen. The addition was a heavy black line that ran straight through the quote and lined it out.

Stefano picked up his phone.  He stared at the quote then he dialed.  The line quickly picked up.

"Stefano Moretti qui.  Devo parlare al Don (Stefano Moretti here.  I need to speak to the Don)."


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

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