As the two men and their dogs meandered toward an old strip mall, they both fell into a comfortable silence. When they drew closer, the older man directed them to make a right which led them toward a few vacant store fronts where there were several people setting up long tables, placing small bags and boxes along them.
As they neared the closest one on the corner, Deeks reduced his pace and Monty slowed with him. Gunny took one more step before stopping himself to peer over at his new companion. “Stretch?”
“What is this place?” There was a look of apprehension on the man’s dirty face.
“No worries… these are good people.” He held out a hand, gesturing that they should move on and smiled when Deeks and Monty hesitated only a moment before stepping up beside them.
On the sidewalk in front of a large set of windows, there was a row of white tables and several people standing behind them opening up an array of coolers and boxes. When the wind shifted, an array of aromas assaulted the men and the closer that they came, the stronger the smells became.
“Morning Gunny, sleep well?” A younger man with dark hair stepped around the end of the tables, his expression kind and gentle. He and Gunny exchanged a firm handshake then the man’s eyes shifted to Deeks. “And I see you and Short Round brought some guests. My name’s Robby, nice to meet you.” His hand came up and hung there, waiting.
Gunny stepped slightly to the side, allowing the other man to make a greeting or not. He smiled to himself when his new friend shook the hand of the man who stood before him.
“Stretch…” He stumbled a little as a mutt brushed against his legs. “…and this is Monty.”
Robby knelt to give the scruffy dog a friendly greeting, the animal allowing the stranger to scratch him briefly behind his ears. When they were finished, he stood and inclined his head toward the tables behind him where the others were piling wax paper-wrapped sausage biscuits and hash browns. “You guys look hungry… come on, help yourselves.”
Deeks stepped up first, his eyes wide and his mouth watering. “Wow, quite a spread.”
“Every Saturday morning, without fail.” Gunny moved in behind the blonde as a young woman with a beautiful smile handed them both a bundle of the still warm food.
Robby walked with them through the line that was quickly filling with more street people, some not as polite as others. When two very large men shoved their way toward the front, almost knocking over an elderly female, the former Marine had seen enough. He moved effortlessly through the line with Short Round at his side, the animal’s tail rigid behind him and his ears low. Just as the two behemoths snatched more than their share from a pair of startled teenagers behind the table, Gunny cleared his throat.
“Guys… no need to forget your manners.”
When the men turned, their shoulders were already rolling up in a defiant stance… that is, until they saw who was addressing them. And the dog, with the slightly bared teeth, close by his side.
Even though the older man was smaller in height and mass, he stood his ground, confident and sure. “Yeah, Franklin… you and Titus need to wait your turns, just like the rest of us.” His arms were relaxed at his sides and his feet were spread shoulder width apart, but Deeks could sense the restrained power in the man’s body. While he appeared calm, his stance was more like a coiled cobra preparing to strike. Titus and his partner noticed this as well.
“Uh… yeah… sorry Gunny, didn’t mean to cut.”
“I’m not the one to whom you need to apologize.” He titled his head to the older woman who had shuffled off to the side, her head hung low. “Sometimes, we’re all we have out here boys… we have to stick together.”
The shamed men bowed their heads, each offering their meals to the woman they had been rude to. Franklin’s voice was soft and gentle when he spoke. “Sorry, Stella… here, take ours.”
Stella’s head came up and she shot a soft grin over to Gunny as she took the proffered food. “Thank’s boys… and thank you Gunny.” He tipped his head toward her as she moved on down the line while the two big men stepped around the Marine and his dog as they moved toward the back.
Deeks let out a heavy sigh. “Wow, that was impressive.”
“He’s kinda the peacekeeper around here.” Robby had moved up beside the blonde, his demeanor kind and friendly. “Makes it better for everyone out here when he’s around.”
Deeks nodded. “Why are you guys doing this for us?”
The warm chuckle that came from the younger man seemed out of place with all the homeless and destitute that were milling around them. “We just come out here to help you guys out… angels in disguise and all.”
“You’re angels in disguise?”
The man’s smile was infectious. “Not us silly… you guys.” When Robby saw the confused look on the man’s face, he explained as they moved down the line toward the bottled drinks. “We believe that when we help the least that this world has to offer… we are making a difference.”
“You guys aren’t religious nuts or kooks are you?”
Robby’s chuckle was genuine and Deeks found himself smiling at the other man. “Just loving our neighbors like we’re supposed to.”
“That… that’s pretty cool, bro.” Deeks took a bite of the breakfast biscuit, the sausage and egg overwhelming his taste buds and a soft moan escaped his lips. He caught the pleased look on Robby’s face, but something over the man’s shoulder caught his attention. Inclining his head, he nodded toward the end of the tables where Gunny was in a conversation with a tall woman with long, auburn hair. “Who’s Gunny talking to?”
Robby turned to look. “Oh, that’s Carmen.”
Deeks, maintaining his cool and detached demeanor, let his eyes drift over the female, taking note from how close the two of them were standing to each other, that this probably wasn’t their first meeting. She was only a few inches shorter than the former Marine and she seemed to have a strong presence about her. Gunny was listening to what Carmen was saying, nodding at times and shaking his head in the negative on occasion.
“Is she a part of your group?” Deeks turned back to his host.
“Not officially, she works down at the local VA hospital… she’s one of their counselors.” At the mention of the Veteran’s Administration, Deeks’ shoulders tensed but it was so slight, Robby didn’t notice. “She comes down here almost every Saturday with us, asking the vets that show up if there’s anything that she and the people that she works with can do for them. Sometimes she gets some bites… most of the time, she doesn’t.”
“We’re not the most trusting lot.” Deeks broke off part of his sandwich and handed it down to a patient Monty who had surprisingly kept his whining to a minimum.
“Can’t say I blame any of you. Most people won’t even give you the time of day, much less stand around and talk to you on a cool Saturday morning.”
Deeks shot the other man an affectionate grin, not knowing him from Adam, but immediately aware that he’d made another friend that morning. Turning slightly, he noticed that Gunny was working his way back down the line in front of the tables, Carmen a few steps behind him. Off to their right, two middle-aged members of Robby’s group were waving at the younger man, trying to get his attention.
“Stretch, looks like they need me for a moment.” He clapped his new friend on the back of his shoulder, before stepping away. “Oh yeah, at the end of the tables, they’ve got some things for your dogs as well… some Alpo or Kennel Ration… something like that. Stop by and pick up one of the care packages on your way out.”
Deeks was stunned. “You guys even brought stuff for the dogs?”
Robby smile was as bright as the morning sun. “They live out here too, you know.” He waved his good-bye as one of the women from earlier pulled him around toward the stack of coolers.
Turning away, Deeks felt a surge of appreciation for the men, women, and teenagers that had sacrificed their morning to come out and serve them breakfast, hand out bags of supplies, clothes and essentials. But the point that stood out the most was that they had remembered that there were other residents out on the streets besides the humans that dwelled there. In all of his travels, he’d never seen a group handing out small bags of dog food and even flea collars; whoever these people were, they were unlike anyone else he’d ever encountered. Before he could come up with the right words, Gunny was stepping up beside him, a concerned expression on his sun-wrinkled face.
“Something wrong Gunny?”
A dark look flittered across the older man’s eyes, but he schooled it quickly, turning back to neutral. “Oh, yeah, Stretch… nah, it’s nothing.”
Deeks let the moment slide, turning to look at the beauty that stood close by the Gunny’s side. On first look, Carmen was indeed a beautiful woman, with deep brown eyes and tanned skin, but on closer inspection, the lines around her eyes betrayed her age as closer to Gunny’s, probably in her late thirties, maybe even early forties. But life and her genetics treated her well and for her age, she was stunning.
“Sorry, forgot my manners for a bit… Stretch, this lovely lady is Carmen… Carmen, Stretch.” Gunny gestured awkwardly with his hand, like he was some shy teenager introducing a friend to the cutest girl in school. Deeks caught Carmen’s cheeks coloring at the Marine’s stumbling introduction, but she made no other indication she noticed.
“Pleased to meet you, Stretch.”
That got her attention but her soft laugh kept the moment light. “Oh please, call me Carmen… ma’am makes me sound like my mother.”
Deeks ducked his head, his smirk obvious. “Sorry ma’am… I mean… Carmen… that’s just how I was raised.”
If he thought she was beautiful before, when she smiled he felt his chest constrict around his lungs. “You sound like Gunny. He still uses ‘ma’am’, no matter how many times I tell him it’s unnecessary.”
“My ancestors would come out of their graves and hunt me down if I didn’t pay respect to a lady.” Gunny stood tall, proud of his southern heritage that was evident in his slight drawl. When Carmen glanced over at the Marine, Deeks saw a flash of affection hidden in her brown eyes and he wondered just how long these two had known each other. She dropped her head, allowing her long tresses to hide the slight blush that was creeping across her cheeks.
“A true gentleman.” Her compliment was sincere.
Gunny just smirked. “Proud of it… just don’t tell everyone, I’ve got my bad boy reputation to uphold.”
The woman actually giggled, her hand coming up to cover her mouth, and in that instant, Deeks knew that she actually was enjoying the time she was spending with two grimy men who hadn’t had a real bath in far too long. It spoke of her empathy for those who struggled in maintaining the type of lifestyle dictated by society and the standards set by those who had never been in need of a simple helping hand. In the brief few moments that he’d known her, this woman had impressed him and he was happy to have met her this fine morning.
“Don’t worry, Gunny… you’re secret is safe with me.” She emphasized her statement by placing her hand on the man’s upper arm, curling her fingers around the sleeve of his tattered and dirty jacket. When she didn’t remove it right away, Deeks’ mind flew to any number of snarky comments about the physicality that she was displaying, but Gunny’s mood shifted suddenly, stopping any quips the blonde man could come up with.
Carmen noticed as well, but her hand remained where it was. “Gunny…”
“How many this time?”
Deeks had an idea what that question could mean, and the rigidity of the Marine’s posture indicated that it whatever it was, it was serious.
“Gunny… don’t do this.”
When the veteran looked up at her, Deeks could see the pleading look in the blue of his eyes. “Carmen… please…”
The woman dropped her gaze to the pavement at their feet, her voice low and sad when she finally answered. “Two… two more this morning.”
“Dammit.” The word came out of Gunny’s mouth in a quick sigh and Carmen’s hand squeezed his arm gently. “Dammit!” The second time he said it, Deeks could have sworn that there were tears in the syllables.
“What… what are you two talking about?” Deeks had a bad feeling that the reason he was here had touched these nice people in a way that would leave scars behind.
It was all Gunny could say for the moment, but he turned to look intently over at Carmen. A silent conversation commenced between the man and the woman, the only changes in their facial expressions were the movements of their eyes. It was over in a few moments, the message clear that this wasn’t something to be discussed any further in public, with listening ears all around.
Carmen let her hand finally fall away from where she’d been holding onto Gunny, but they stayed close as she turned her eyes to Deeks. She looked nervous but she swallowed it down, giving him another one of those beautiful smiles. “Sorry to run, but there are some folks here this morning that I’ve been wanting to speak with and I’d like to catch them before they slip away… so if you two will excuse me…”
She turned to move away, but stopped herself at the last moment, her hand coming back up to latch onto Gunny’s forearm. “Hey, Gunny… you know… if you want to…” Now she was the one sounding all nervous and shy. “… come down and see us at the VA… maybe talk to someone and get some help…”
Gunny raised a dirty hand to cover the one on his arm, giving her a soft squeeze to cut her off gently. “I don’t know… I just… I’m not sure if I’m ready, okay?”
Carmen nodded, schooling her disappointment behind another friendly smile. “Okay… it’s okay…” Her hand slipped from his forearm after giving another firm squeeze before she stepped back. “…just keep it in mind, alright?”
His response was a warm smile and a soft, “Okay.”
Carmen gave him a gentle but sad nod of her head and Deeks could swear that her eyes glistened slightly when she gave the man’s arm a soft pat before moving away. “In any case, whatever you decide… just know that we’ll always be there if you need us.”
She gave Gunny one final nod as she stepped back toward the still moving line. “Pleasure to meet you, Stretch.”
The smirk on his face should have told her what was coming. “Likewise… ma’am.”
The two finally parted, Gunny nodding his head as he dropped his eyes back to the ground. Carmen smiled once more back at Deeks before turning back to the line that was still trudging past the tables and the people busy handing out bags of necessities. She wasn’t too far away when Gunny’s head snapped back up to watch her weave through the crowd, stopping every so often to speak to someone, her long dark hair cascading across her shoulders and down her back. Just before she disappeared from sight, she turned to look back at the two men with a huge smile on her face and she gave them a quick wave of her hand, then she was gone.
Gunny paused for a few seconds before collecting the bags he’d received from the little group of Samaritans, Short Round’s tail thumping against the backs of his legs. Without a word, he turned and headed back the way that they had come, leaving Deeks to snatch up his own supplies and quickly follow. He caught up to the other man just as he rounded a corner into a dingy alleyway that ran down the length of one of the abandoned buildings. Deeks was about to ask where they were going when the Marine suddenly stopped and spun to rest his back against the red brick wall behind him.
When his friend dropped his bags to the ground, Deeks moved to stand beside him, mirroring his position against the wall. The two of them stayed that way for several moments, Short Round sitting just to Gunny’s left side and Monty doing his best to look interested in what the humans were doing, which appeared to be nothing other than breathing. Letting out a long sigh, Gunny let his knees bend, slowly lowering himself until he was sitting on the dirty asphalt, Deeks dropping down beside him soon after.
When he still didn’t speak, Deeks rummaged around in one of the plastic bags that held the supplies that Gunny had collected for him, pulling out a piece of blue rope tied in the rough shape of a bone. Monty saw what it was and immediately began to wrestle with his friend over the new toy. They played like that for a few minutes, Short Round’s head cocking from side to side as if he was thinking What in the world are those two doing! It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to play, it just seemed to shock him that another dog knew how too as well.
Gunny finally snapped out of whatever funk he’d been in, noticing the antics of his friends as they continued to play. He dropped his hand to Short Round’s back, running his hand up until it rested between the animal’s ears and ruffling the fur under his fingers. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper and Deeks had to strain to hear him above the shuffling of Monty’s claws on the ground.
“You know, a lot of the people are out here because they’ve got something weighing them down… something that takes away their willingness to live by the rules that this world cooks up.” He paused but Deeks knew that he was far from finished. After taking a couple of deep breaths, the former Marine continued.
“Sometimes they have a demon on their back… whether it’s booze, grass, coke, crack, meth… it controls them, drives them out onto the streets and away from everybody and anybody that could help them work it out.” He absentmindedly reached into his own bag and pulled out a piece of red rope shaped just like Monty’s and in an instant, he too was playing tug-of-war with the dog at his side. “But a few weeks ago, some new nightmare showed up out here… some new, cheap drug that popped up and it’s been wreaking havoc ever since. It hooks you almost as fast as it kills you.”
The detective’s hands stilled for a moment as those words sank in. “Do you know what it is or where it’s coming from?”
Gunny just shook his head. “No… no, I don’t… but I’ve seen it.” At his friend’s curious and fearful expression, he explained. “I was the one who found the third body… he still had some of it in a baggy with his things.”
“Did you give it to the cops?”
Gunny’s face turned down for a second, but after a brief moment of hesitation, he looked back up, his eyes slightly clouded but his voice was clear. “Nothing against our boys in blue, but city hall doesn’t put a priority in a spike of homeless overdoses out here.”
Deeks swallowed whatever he was about to say, instead he spoke the words that he dreaded to utter. “How many?”
There was a long sigh as Gunny ran his hand through his long hair, letting it wrap around the back of his neck. “Six… as of this morning… and that’s not counting the ones Carmen mentioned.”
“Yeah… pretty much.”
They sat in relative silence for several minutes, the only movements made by the dogs playing around their legs. Finally, Deeks let out a soft moan, stretching his long legs out in front on his body. He rolled quickly to his feet, extending his arms over his head, elongating his body to extraordinary lengths before glancing back down at Gunny.
“I’ve got to visit the little boys’ room, watch Monty for me?”
Gunny reached over to tug on the rope in the animal’s mouth. “You got it. Just around the corner, there are some dumpsters, good place for taking care of your business.”
The tall man nodded. “Be right back.” He was a few steps away when he called over his shoulder. “Monty, be good.”
The dog huffed out a soft bark, seemingly content to wrestle around with Gunny and Short Round while his friend was away. Deeks walked around the corner, finding the metal dumpsters right where Gunny said that they would be and, after glancing around to make sure there was no one anywhere nearby, he stepped into the soft shadows. He fiddled with the front of his pants, making it look like he was actually relieving himself, while the truth was, he was tugging a cell phone from the inner waistband. He tapped out his access code with one hand while pretending to hold himself with the other, whistling to add to the cover of the homeless bum urinating against the brick building.
Deeks’ right hand held his phone as his thumb punched out a quick text, punching SEND when he finished. He stuffed the phone back into his pants and brushed his hands over his legs, stepping back out into the alley to make his way back over to where he could hear Gunny laughing at something the dogs were doing.
Several blocks away, in a silver SRX parked against the edge of the street, Deeks’ partner’s phone chirped, alerting her to an incoming message. Special Agent Kensi Blye tapped her phone’s UNLOCK button and saw that the message that she’d been waiting anxiously had finally arrived. She tapped the screen, a soft smile formed on her pretty face as she read the short text, thankful that it wasn’t an ‘Agent in Distress’ or something even worse. When she’d read it twice to make sure there were no secret codes hidden within the letters, she activated the ear bud transmitter in her right ear and was immediately connected to the rest of the team back in operations.
Eric Beale’s voice squeaked softly in her ear. “Go ahead, Kensi… everyone’s listening.”
Kensi kept her words brief, residual concern for her absent partner hanging in her mind.
“Deeks is in.”
To be continued…
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