Chapter 16 - Guarded

"Are you sure they'll be okay?" Corbin frowned in worry. It was just after he got off work, Thursday evening. He and Paul stood at the door to his chicken run. They had put the newly-feathered chicks into the enclosure. And they quickly scattered to explore their new, bigger space.

"They'll be fine. They don't need the heat lamp anymore. They're big enough to be out here. And they'll keep each other warm in the coop at night." Paul held a content Zampa over his shoulder, and he looked in at the chicks.

Corbin glanced at him. He reached and took Zampa, and she immediately began to squirm. "Man, why is she never good for me like she is with you?" After only a minute he had to return her to Paul. She started purring as soon as Paul put her back up over his shoulder.

Paul shrugged. "She's a cat. She's never going to do what you expect or want."

Corbin frowned at them. Zampa was supposed to be his. He was the one who found and rescued her. But the little thing seemed to like Paul a lot more than Corbin. She would let the fireman carry her around, and she even followed him when he put her down.

They now let her roam around on the ground, even when they were outside. Earlier in the week she disappeared. She wouldn't come when Corbin called, but as soon as Paul called for her she came bounding to him from the edge of the brush up on his property.

They turned to go inside the cabin. It was obvious that Zampa had chosen Paul as her human. Which also meant Paul now seemed to be okay with keeping the little lynx. Corbin eyed them, obvious irritation on his face as Paul walked in front of him. Zampa hung over his back, and her eyes were half-closed in contentment. Her oversized paws flexed against his Carhartt jacket, and she poked holes with her needle-sharp claws through the thick material. He couldn't hear her but Corbin was sure her little body thrummed with a purr.

As they entered Paul put her on the floor. She scampered away and ran down the hall like a crazed ball of furry energy. Paul laughed, and despite his earlier ire Corbin couldn't help but join him.

Paul fished a plastic bag out of his pocket and craned his neck down the hall. Zampa peeked out from around the bedroom door frame, and he saw her eyes widen as they locked gazes. Corbin frowned at the bag, and then made a face as Paul reached in to remove a small mouse body.

"Ugh. This is gross." Corbin cringed and turned away.

Paul chuckled and tied a piece of twine to the dead little creature's tail. "We've already been over this. Zampa is a wild critter. And she doesn't have a mom to teach her to hunt. So the best thing we can do is try to be a substitute." Paul looked at Corbin. "Because eventually, she won't come back when I call her. And she'll have to survive out there on her own."

Paul went to the pet store earlier in the day and purchased a number of frozen mice. Usually intended for snakes, they would make a fine meal for a growing bobcat. Now they were thawed, and ready to be eaten by a hungry kitten.

Corbin sighed, then he nodded. "Yeah. Okay." He grimaced at the mouse as it dangled on the end of the twine. "It's still gross."

Paul nodded. "Yeah, I know." The fireman looked down the hallway. Zampa hadn't been fed her evening meal. So he knew she was hungry. He tossed the mouse underhanded down the hall. It landed with a 'plop' a few feet from the hungry lynx. She sniffed the air and looked at it.

She stepped cautiously around the corner and walked to the mouse. Paul let her sniff it, and she licked her chops. She made to take it into her mouth and he pulled it away. She looked at it, surprised. Then she walked to it again.

Paul repeated this multiple times. Eventually, she chased the mouse around as he pulled on the string. He finally let her catch it, and she crunched it up - little bones and all. Corbin made a disgusted face and frowned at her.

Zampa swallowed and looked up at Paul. The fireman grinned. "Okay, if you stalk it you'll catch it easier." He tied another mouse to his twine, and he walked to the bedroom. Zampa sat in the living room and watched him from the hallway.

This time Paul poked the head of the mouse around the corner of the doorframe. Zampa's pupils blew up and her shoulder blades moved up and down. But she sprinted from her position and didn't try stalking. Needless to say, this too resulted in a lot of running around before she got her meal.

Paul continued. By the end of his bag of mice, Zampa attempted to stalk. It was obvious and needed work, but it was an improvement. Paul was satisfied with her progress, and he picked her up. The kitten purred as he scratched her growing body.

Corbin shook his head. "Is 'Murder 101' out of session, professor?"

Paul smiled at him. "For now."

Corbin grinned at him. He stepped over and petted Zampa, but only for a couple of strokes. She only tolerated him touching her a little now. She was well and truly Paul's wild little child.

Paul now took her to the fire station when he went to work. The firemen loved the little bobcat, and she ran free through the station when the doors were closed. When they had to go out on calls she got to sit in with their dispatcher. Though, she cried for Paul until he returned.

Neither of them knew why she was so attached to Paul. But Corbin could tell, the tall man loved it.

He put her down, and after a few rubs on his legs, she jumped onto the back of the couch and lay down. She pointed herself toward him and her deep amber eyes tracked Paul's movements. He walked into the kitchen and washed his hands.

Paul had to work Friday through Sunday. Corbin dreaded the weekends without him. He always slept poorly and often dreamed unsettling things while alone. They planned to stay at the cabin tonight and Paul would leave from there to work in the morning.

Corbin planned to get as much Paul-time as he could. The men decided on a pizza for dinner. Corbin had already made the dough, and now they stood shoulder to shoulder at the kitchen counter. Paul sliced mushrooms and peppers and he smiled as Corbin stretched up for a kiss. The two prepared the ingredients and interspersed their prep with kisses, touches, and little shared moments.

They finally finished assembling, and it looked a bit like a deep-dish pizza. Toppings of pepperoni, mushrooms, pepperoncini, and chunks of goat cheese lay in a bed of mozzarella. They grinned at one another, and into the oven it went.

Corbin prepared a green salad and Paul went to the living room. Zampa stood up when he did and she stretched on the back of the couch. He reached and scratched her back and smiled down at her. Corbin watched from the kitchen and shook his head. "Man, she really loves you. I wonder if it's because you have been feeding and training her?"

Paul shrugged and felt the little feline purr against his hand. "I don't know." He grinned when she flopped over on her side and presented her fuzzy belly. "But she trusts me." He rubbed her and to Corbin's surprise, she let him. The smaller man had already fallen into that trap and suffered a bite and rabbit kicks from her clawed back feet. But apparently, Paul was permitted to rub her cute little belly.

"Soooo not fair." Corbin laughed. "But I'm glad she likes you."

"Yeah." Paul let his hand slide to a stop on her warm body, and she looked up at him with an utterly content expression. "Me too. She's a weird little girl, but I really like her."

By now the smell of cooking pizza permeated the cabin. Corbin prepared their plates and gave each of them a pile of salad. Then the pizza came out of the oven. It was bubbly, hot, and smelled amazing.

He let it cool a bit, then he cut the pizza into wedges. Soon the two of them were at the table with their food. Paul sat and smiled at Corbin. "Looks great. Thanks for cooking."

"Thanks for helping." Corbin leaned and stole another kiss from the tall man. He really liked sharing these moments with Paul. But when he pulled back Paul's smile slipped. Corbin reached up and rubbed his face. "What is it?"

Paul swallowed. "Well, I was thinking. You were in a pretty emotional place when you … when you said you loved me. And, I wanted to sort of give you a chance to back out." He bit his lip. "I know how I feel. I know I love you. But … I don't want to assume anything. And, I don't want to get my hopes up too much higher." Paul's expression was almost one of resignation, and he stared down at his knees. He looked as if he expected Corbin to yank his affection away any second.

Corbin's heart felt like someone squeezed it in a tight fist. He didn't know why but for Paul this was a difficult road. And at least he now had an awareness of it.

"Paul." Corbin put his hand on the back of Paul's neck. "I know what love is." He leaned forward and kissed Paul's forehead. He left his lips against the skin there. "And this is it." He whispered, and he felt chill bumps rise on Paul's neck under his hand.

The fireman swallowed and he brought his face up. The two men kissed - gentle and searching. Corbin pulled back and looked him in the eye. "If I ever do anything to make you doubt it, then tell me." His hand on Paul's neck squeezed a little. "Okay?"

Paul frowned as he pushed back on his emotion. He nodded. "Okay." Then he smiled. "I really do love you."

"I know." Corbin smiled back and moved his hand up to push Paul's black hair back from his forehead. "And I love you."

They slowly ate. Their food was good, but the shared time was better. There were many small touches, looks, and smiles.

And Corbin found he really looked forward to crawling into bed with his fireman.
Friday morning saw both of them out of the house and at their respective places of work. Paul took Zampa to the firehouse, and Corbin went to the coffee shop. The chickens were left to fend for themselves in their new, secure pen.

Corbin entered to find Karen already there. "Hi, partner!" She was her normal bubbly self, and she smiled broadly at him. She restocked their coffee beans in the hopper attached to the espresso machine. Today she wore a pair of beautiful silver hoops through her ears, and a necklace of silver wire and blue sea glass. She also wore a new black blouse and good slacks. She looked nice.

"Hey, Karen." Corbin narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "So, what's going on?" He motioned to her. "You look a little nicer today than typical."

Karen laughed. "Ah, well I'm supposed to meet someone here for lunch." She blushed a little. "Uh, not really dated anybody in a while, or even tried to. My loan issues sort of took up most of my time." She grinned. "But you handled that. So I'm getting back out there!"

Corbin smiled. "Good! You really should, Karen." He waggled his eyebrows. "Anybody I know?"

She pursed her lips in thought. "Not sure. He's someone Bruce met through his work. A patron at Power House. He recently moved to town. He was transferred to a National Park job in Sawtooth Forest. His name is Timothy." She shrugged. "Bruce knows my tastes, so it should be all right."

Corbin walked to the door and flipped the lock to open it. "Well, best of luck." Corbin snapped his fingers. "Oh, before I forget. Can you watch Zampa next weekend? Paul and I are going to Trinity Hot Springs." He frowned a little. "Though I'm just going to warn you, she's sort of a handful for anybody but Paul."

Her eyes lit up. He knew she was bummed when he stopped bringing her to work. "Yeah! That'd be awesome!" She laughed. "Oh, I've missed that little monster!"

Corbin smiled at her. "That'd be so great. Thanks, Karen."

She nodded and smiled. And their day started.

Noon rolled around and a tall, lanky fellow entered the shop. He had strawberry blonde hair, pale skin, freckles, and he looked to be in his early 20s. Corbin smiled as the young man approached the counter and was about to greet him when Karen appeared at Corbin's elbow.

"Hi! Timothy, right?" She smiled at the man, and Corbin stepped aside so she could take the spot at the counter.

"Hey. Yeah." He licked his lips and rubbed his hands nervously on his black jeans. "And you're Karen." He smiled, a little shy. "I … ah, I know who you are. I've been here a few times."

Timothy and Karen went to one of the corner tables, and Corbin brought an order of paninis to them. Timothy seemed to loosen up a little as they ate, and as he chatted with Karen. For her part, Karen's eyes sparkled while they talked.

Corbin was busy with orders so he wasn't able to be as nosy as he would have liked. But every time he looked over things seemed to be going well. Soon though the hour was up, and Timothy stood to leave. Karen stood, and the lanky man didn't seem sure of what he should do. Karen leaned forward and hugged him. Corbin could see him grin over her shoulder.

Timothy left with a wave, and Karen joined Corbin back behind the counter. Corbin's eyes slid over and he looked expectantly at her. She noticed.

"What?" As soon as she said it she laughed. Then she waggled a finger at him. "It was just lunch."

"Looked like lunch was going pretty well." Corbin grinned at her.

She sighed and nodded. "Fine, yes. Lunch went pretty well." She smirked. "Happy?"

"Hrmmm. Almost." Corbin took off his apron, as it was his turn for lunch. "You meeting him again?"

She nodded again. "Yes. We're actually gonna try Mattone e Fuoco. It'll be open next week for the public. It was his suggestion." She grimaced. "I think it'll be expensive! I can tell that he's trying to impress me."

Corbin kept the smile on his face, but it lost a little of its shine when he heard where they were going. "Ah, well they definitely do great food."

Corbin took his leftover pizza and an apple from their employee fridge. Then he found a seat in the far corner of the shop. He slowly ate his food and thought back to the night he and Paul went to Mattone e Fuoco. He didn't remember Timothy there at all. 'Probably not part of Luca's group.' He sighed. 'Probably just a coincidence.'

He frowned. Attributing things to coincidence when Luca was involved wasn't smart. He looked over and watched his sweet, bubbly partner as she made drinks and served food to the lunch crowd. And as he ate he resolved to watch out for her.
Corbin spent a lonely Friday night at home. As is now typical for him on the nights without Paul, he slept poorly. He still got up at 7, just so he could stay on a schedule. And there were chickens to check.

He dressed in sweats and a fuzzy sweater. After he slipped on a pair of shoes he went out to the coop with the attached chicken run.

The day was misty and cool. It wasn't cloudy though, so it was going to eventually be a beautiful day. Corbin breathed in and smiled at the cool sensation of the air as it entered his lungs.

The chickens were all already up and active. They scratched and kicked the leaves and dirt around. He grinned at them. They knew him well, and they didn't run even when he approached the cage.

He had a bag of corn. It was frozen, but he let it thaw and it was now ready to be a nice snack. He took a handful of it and threw it into the run. The yellow dots hit the dark ground, and the little chickens scrambled over one another to eat the morsels. Corbin laughed at their antics, and they gobbled the corn quickly.

He threw a couple more handfuls to them, then he closed up the bag. They'd get the rest later in the week. He checked their pellets in the feeder, and their water. Both were fine. Then he wandered back inside.

He heated water for his french press, and he stood at his kitchen counter to look over his project list. He still needed to nail down exactly where he wanted to install his hydropower generator. He knew he would likely need to create a narrow point in the stream for the best generation. But he promised Paul he wouldn't mess with the stream without him around. He sighed. That one was off the list for the weekend. He tapped the pencil eraser on his pad. "Hrmm. Tesla Powerwall, and satellite internet."

He was now accustomed to dealing with the inverter and the battery bank for the power generation. So he drew a line through the Powerwall. Though he was a little tired of doing all of his internet searches on his phone, which is why he looked into other options.

Satellite was really the only way to go out here. And he settled on HughesNet for the provider. Their plan wasn't terrible, and the price not bad.

Corbin called their appointment line, and he soon had one set up the Wednesday after he and Paul returned from their trip to Trinity Hot Springs. He hung up and wrote the date next to the entry on his project list.

"Okay. One more thing down." He frowned and rubbed his head. He had a low-grade headache, which reminded him to plunge his french press. He smirked at his addiction to caffeine and poured himself a mug.

Soon he was a few sips in, and happy with his mug of sweetened and creamy coffee. Corbin sat on the couch and pulled up his contacts. He pulled up Harris' name, and he selected the agent from the list.

After only a single ring the line picked up. "Hello, Corbin." The blonde man couldn't help but smile. He missed Harris. They spent a lot of time together, and he had come to care about the man.

"Hi, Harris." He took another sip of coffee. "I wanted to call and let you know that Paul and I are heading out of town this coming Friday, through Sunday morning." Corbin looked at the brochure of the hot springs as he spoke. "Trinity Hot Springs is where we'll be. I just wanted to let you know."

"Okay." Harris paused a moment. "Taking a little vacation with your friend, Paul? Things must be going well."

Corbin's smile grew. "Yeah. I guess they are." He wasn't about to tell Harris they were pressured to go by Luca. And Corbin had actually warmed to the idea. He didn't have a choice, so he might as well enjoy the trip.

"Well, that's great, Corbin. I hope you guys enjoy it."

Harris genuinely sounded happy for him, and Corbin felt a twinge of loneliness for the agent.

"Harris, I wanted to thank you. For everything you've done." Corbin took a breath. "I don't know what I would have done without you." He took a shaky breath. "So, again, thanks."

The agent was quiet for a little. "You're welcome. I'm going to make sure you live the life you deserve, Corbin. That's a promise I made when we first met. And it's still true."

Corbin smiled and nodded. "Thanks."

The two of them went over the basic "away" security protocols Harris drilled into him over their time together. He was to ensure his .38 was with him as much as possible, and he would be required to check in daily with Harris while he was away from the cabin.

Corbin hung up, and he smiled at his phone. With a guy like Harris looking out for him, he really felt that nothing too bad was going to happen. With that thought in mind, he got up to head into town for more supplies.
Harris hung up with Corbin, and he immediately pulled up Trinity Hot Springs on the internet. The agent looked at the resort and all the presented information carefully. He didn't really expect too much in terms of intel on the space, but he had other avenues for that.

He called the office in New York. And after a little justification, he had a list of the employees Trinity Hot Springs had filed on their tax return last year. It wasn't a perfect way to see the current employee roster, but it was pretty good. One by one the names were compared against the FBI database of criminals, and suspects.

Two hits. He leaned forward and read the entries. One was a felony conviction for grand theft auto, over a decade old. No record of wrongdoing since. Not even a parking ticket. He closed the entry and moved to the next.

His eyes narrowed. "Harlan Fleming." He read the entry. "Suspected association with organized crime. Associated with various criminal elements, but particular affiliation remains unknown. No prosecuted crimes, though associated with others guilty of espionage, theft, and bribery." Harris looked at his employment history. "Employed by Trinity Hot Springs for five years."

This had the hallmarks of a long-term Giovanni plant. Someone subtle, smart enough to avoid getting dirty himself, and with enough money/support to pull strings. Harris saw signs of this sort before in other Witness Protection locations.

The FBI utilizes certain locations for Witness Protection resettlement. Such a thing requires partnerships with local authorities, and agreements. And so the organization uses the same locations repeatedly, over the span of a few years. This is to avoid the expense of infrastructure creation everytime a new witness needs to be settled. Eventually, the crime Families and other very capable players in the game of intrigue caught wind of these sites. And since these witnesses often had VERY interesting stories to tell, they placed members of the Family or those loyal in these locations.

Harris checked his records on Corbin's resettlement. Sure enough, Hailey and the surrounding area had been used for the last eight years to settle witnesses. They would have to stop using Hailey. He set a reminder to speak to Dunning about it soon.

If he warned Corbin about Harlan then he would have to tip him off about the Giovanni Family as well. Corbin was smart, but if he knew a Sicilian crime family set up shop in Hailey, he might run. Which could be disastrous.

He shook his head. Harlan was a complication. But there have been no unexplained deaths, disappearances or other violent crime during his employment at the resort. He would trust that Corbin would go, be safe, and return the same way.

Harris rubbed his face. Right now he couldn't do anything about it. His single, on the ground agent in Hailey, was already tied up with another task - namely integrating himself into the daily life of the town. Harris was lucky to get him. Dunning pulled the young man from his slotted assignment and sent him straight to Harris instead. He was brand new out of the Academy, but clever and quick on his feet.

Speaking of which, Harris needed to check in with him. He called and waited. A couple of rings later the young man's voice answered. "Hello. Timothy here." From his greeting, Harris knew he was around others and would have to speak in a way that didn't arouse suspicion.

"Hello, Timothy. Have you made contact?" Harris could hear voices in the background. He knew Timothy was probably in the forestry office.

"Well, yes. That does sound like it'll work."

"Good. Continue to observe. And report back your findings on that restaurant the Family opened."

"Okay. Yes, next Friday sounds great. Let's make it happen."

Harris smiled. Timothy was good. "Be safe. Report back after your dinner."

"Yup. Have a good day."

Harris hung up and nodded in approval. Dunning wasn't joking when he said this kid had promise. He had already gotten close to the woman Corbin worked with without arousing suspicion.

Perhaps things would work out for the best after all. Harris sat back and pulled the small picture of his family he carried with him.

"Soon, my loves." He stroked the abused and faded surface of the photo. "We'll have him soon."

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

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