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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Phoenix from the Ashes Part 13

Written by Snarks, Rosemarie and PJ
During the day, Roman watched the boy closely but furtively, and was impressed with the kid's work ethic. He did every job he'd been asked without complaint, even cleaning the unisex bathroom.  When one o'clock came around he nearly had to pry the boy's hands off the books he'd been stocking.

"It's time for you to leave, Keeno," he smiled.

At first Joaquin thought he was being fired after only one day on the job and his eyes widened a little in surprise and fear, until Roman, seeing the kid's expression explained, "You have to pick your brothers up from their buses, right?"

With a sigh of relief, he smiled and nodded, then turned preparing to leave.

"Hey, Keeno, call me when you’re ready to come home, I'll pick you up as soon as I close the store, alright? Then we’ll get your things in the house and get you settled."

"Thanks, Roman," 'Keen said gratefully.

"Don't forget. Call. Or else," the man replied with a twinkle in his eyes.

'Keen stood at attention and saluted crisply, "Sir, Yes Sir!"

"Get oudda here wit' the sir," Roman said with a wide grin. "See you later."

"Thanks again, Roman," 'Keen managed to say before he ran out the door to get to the bus stop. As he stood and waited, he thought about how things had changed for him in only a few months’ time, and he began to think of ways to show his friends what they meant to him.


That evening Roman picked 'Keen up from his mother's house in his 1969 cherry red Impala and brought him home where after unloading his things, he took special pleasure in showing Joaquin the best room in the house that had belonged to his youngest boy. A round room with three evenly spaced windows which allowed the room to be flooded with light during the day and dark and serene at night.

That evening he and Roman with Gideon and the others sat down to a meal the likes of which Joaquin had never seen in his life. Knowing that his brother and friends would be leaving in a few days, Gideon had pulled out all the stops and had produced a seven-course meal. 'Keen felt full just looking at it.

After a few days, when it seemed Joaquin was settling into a routine with his work, caring for his brothers and getting his schoolwork in. The men, having been taken for a tour of Seattle and enjoying this short respite from the resort reluctantly admitted that it was time for them to return to Maine.

Joaquin was still a little nervous at the thought that Gideon, Ken, and James would be gone. He'd gotten close to Ken and promised to email and call him whenever he wasn't working or babysitting. 

"Or doing my homework," 'Keen added, wrinkling his nose.

"This too shall pass," Ken joked. "You're almost there, kiddo, just keep up the good work."

"I will," the boy said, hugging each man in turn as they got ready to leave. 

"So, where're my hugs?" Roman demanded, scowling. Gideon rolled his eyes and went to give his brother a bear hug. Roman picked his brother up and swung him around before putting him back on his feet.

Pretending to groan in pain, Gideon said, "Just don't do that to the other guys, you might break them," he laughed. Roman gave each man a heartfelt hug before letting them go. 

James squeezed the boy's shoulder and said, "Roman and Mark will be here to look after you. Be sure to call or e-mail us as often as possible. Mutt wants you to keep in contact. You have everyone's number, don't be afraid to use them. Keep up the good work young man and we'll be looking forward to you being able to visit us as well," he told the youngster.

"I'll do that, James. Thanks for everything. I'm happy to be here with my brothers, but I'm going to miss home. Tell everyone I said hello when you get back, ok?" 

The older man smiled at the teen. "I'll be sure to do that."

Gideon hugged the boy one last time, "I'll even give Killer a big hug from you. It'll make up for being in the kennel for the past few days. And 'Keen," Gideon said quietly, "I can guarantee you that my brother will never do anything to harm you, but if you act up, well, he did have three kids of his own and knows the value of the occasional swat to the backside, so promise you'll behave yourself, alright?"

The boy's eyes widened in surprise, and Gideon saw the sudden fear and uncertainty there because he hugged him again and whispered reassuringly. "We're all of us family, Hon. Real family, and we take care of each other, whether it's to correct bad behavior or just making a special dinner to show your appreciation, ok?"

The teen calmed considerably, vowing to himself to make sure he didn't do anything that would cause the big man to resort to that. He hugged Gideon twice as hard. "Thank you," he whispered before letting him go.

Standing outside the house that would be his home for a little while, 'Keen waved them off until he couldn't see the car anymore. Once they were out of sight, Roman put a gentle arm around the boy's shoulders and led him back inside.


Joaquin worked hard and enjoyed every minute of it. The first few times he'd stopped to appreciate a particular book while he was cleaning or stocking, he would find a copy of that book lying on his bed when he went to his room that evening. He learned very quickly not to argue with his new friend who had even gone so far as to build new shelves in the boy's room to accommodate them all.

"It's rare to find a teenager these days who loves to read let alone knows what a book that doesn't come from the school is," Roman guffawed, "and they don't read those most of the time either. Believe me, kiddo, you deserve it. Now, that's the end of that conversation, isn't it?"

When his first payday arrived and 'Keen received his check his eyes widened in shock and he approached the other man cautiously.

"Ro?" he asked tentatively.

Roman turned to look at his new helper and smiled. "What's on your mind, 'Keeno? Is everything alright?"

"Yeah, but...," the boy stammered, trying to hand the check back, "I think you paid me too much. I mean, I appreciate it and all, but..."

Roman took the check and studied it closely before handing it back. "Nope, no mistake, that's what you earned, fair and square."

"But... I hardly do anything here," he'd protested.

Roman pinned the boy with a look. "Who unpacks the boxes and puts the books on the shelves alphabetically by author?"

At first 'Keen thought it was a trick question. "We do," he said finally.

"I guess you hadn't noticed that you do most of it, did you?"

Joaquin thought about it and shrugged his shoulders.  "But that's my job, isn't it? And you do it too."

"You do the lion's share," Ro maintained.  "Now let me ask you another question, who helps people find things and runs the register when I'm busy making the customer's sandwiches? Who makes sure the coffee urns are full?"

"But that's just part of my job...," the boy continued to protest.

"Look kiddo," Roman finally said kindly, "I'm not playing favorites here, you're earning minimum wage same as every other new kid on the block. What's on that check isn't even everything you earned because you had to pay taxes on it, remember when we went over the paperwork?"

'Keen vaguely remembered all the papers he'd had to sign. He'd been grateful that Roman had been willing to help because nothing had made sense to him.

"Now, 'Keeno," he said, looking at his watch, "it's time for you to go and pick up your brothers. If you want to leave your check with me we can deposit it at the ATM on our way home. Sound good?"

Joaquin, still a little stunned that all of that money, it seemed like a fortune to him, was actually his, that he'd actually worked for it and earned it, just nodded his head, handed the check over and left quickly so that he wouldn't miss the bus. He couldn't help but to feel a little proud of himself, and the feeling of accomplishment made him smile. That smile was still on his face as he disembarked and walked the block and a half to Callie's apartment house to wait for his brothers to get home.

Mikey, being the youngest, was home first. After 'Keen gathered the little boy from the bus, the child ran into the apartment, took something out of his backpack and showed it eagerly to his big brother who sat down at the kitchen table, pulled his little brother up onto his lap and looked at the paper which had a bright red A on the top.  On the bottom of the sheet the teacher had written, 'Mikael did this himself! Good job!'

It was a work sheet set up like a tic tac toe board, and each square had a different requirement on how to fill it out, such as writing the words in rainbow letters, or all capital letters, or in a color pattern. 'Keen's eyebrows shot up as he looked down at his little brother and smiled. "You did great, Mikey!" he praised, giving the boy a hug and kiss on the forehead. He'd been working with his brothers on colors, letters, and printing, and had been reading to them until Callie got home in the evenings, and apparently it was paying off.

Sam arrived next, as usual, and 'Keen brought him inside, listening with happiness as his younger brother happily droned on in his flat, nearly monotone voice about what he'd done that day. He also proudly took something out of his backpack and showed it to Joaquin. Sammy had drawn a portrait of his big brother.  Joaquin was amazed at the detail, even if the perspective was a little off.

"Sammy, this is... great! Thank you!" 'Keen said, pleased and flattered, "Can I give you a hug?" he asked.

"Hug. Ok. Hugging is good, 'Keen. I like to hug you," Sam said as he approached his big brother to give him a brief embrace. Joaquin made sure not to hold onto his brother for too long, and not to kiss him as he would have done with Mikey. 

After his stay at the home, Sam had been skittish at first, and had refused all contact. He had even refused to speak for over a week, but now that he was back with his brothers and in a routine, he seemed happier, and his outbursts had all but stopped, at least while 'Keen was there. The only time they threatened was when Callie arrived home, and Sam and Mikey both would withdraw into themselves somewhat, knowing that Joaquin would be leaving soon.

Callie, not having seen her two younger boys so animated while with their older brother, just took it in stride, paid her oldest as agreed upon and sent him on his way without a thank you for taking care of the boys, doing some minor cleaning and laundry and getting dinner started.  She did her best to pretend he was already gone even when he was standing right in front of her. Today she nearly hit him with the door in her eagerness to be rid of him.

Thankfully he only had to wait a few minutes for Roman to pick him up. His stomach was knotted with frustration, as it always was after being with his brothers, knowing that he couldn't be there all the time to watch over them. He had seen that the housework was being maintained for the most part, and that there was always food in the refrigerator, but he still hated to leave them behind. Maybe Callie didn't notice the difference in her younger sons when she was present, but 'Keen did, and it made him uneasy. 

He knew that most of the positive results in the household itself were due to the possibility of unannounced visits by CPS to check on the children and their home environment, but he and their assigned social worker couldn't be there 24/7, and he worried about how Callie was with the boys when no one was around.  He didn't trust this seemingly complete change in a woman who had spent five years neglecting her children. A few months of intensive rehabilitation, in his opinion, didn't make up for that, and he still wondered how any judge could have returned his brothers to her after so short a time.

Roman honked the horn to get the boy's attention, and noticed the frown on his assistant's face as he got into the car.

"Want to talk about it?" the man offered.

'Keen shrugged. "Same stuff as usual," he replied quietly, staring out of the window at nothing in particular.

The older man patted his young friend on the shoulder and proceeded to drive home. He knew that if 'Keen wanted to talk, he'd do so when he was ready.

"What do you say we pick up a bucket of chicken for dinner tonight?" he asked. "I don't know about you but I'm not really in the mood to cook."

Joaquin couldn't stop a smile at the man's question. They rarely cooked at home since they didn't get there until seven most nights. It was only on Sundays and Mondays that they took the time to make homemade meals, since the store was closed on those days. 

Roman was however, careful to be sure that the boy ate the healthy items on Heath's list as well, which had earned him an eyeroll and a grin.

"With biscuits and gravy?" the boy asked, already knowing the answer but following their established tradition.

"Of course, with biscuits and gravy!" Roman replied, sounding offended. "What do you take me for, an uncultured lout?"

"Well," Joaquin replied, following the script to the letter, "you're the one who orders a side of cole slaw. With chicken? Ewww."

"Well, let me tell you a thing or two about the virtues of cole slaw, young man...," Roman began. They argued good naturedly all the way to the restaurant and then home where they talked, joked and laughed between mouthfuls of food. They watched television for a while after they'd finished cleaning up until Roman announced that he was ready for bed.

"I'm just gonna finish watching this episode, ok Ro?" 'Keen asked.

"On your head be it," the older man warned with a grin, knowing full well that the kid was most likely going to fall asleep on the couch before the show ended.  "Good night, Keeno," he said as he went up the stairs to his own room.

" 'G'night," the boy answered absently as he settled back down. He needed the distraction until he was well and truly tired enough to sleep, otherwise he knew he'd be awake all night worrying about his brothers. Finally, barely able to stay awake long enough to turn off the TV, he climbed up the stairs and collapsed onto his own bed.


For the next several months things seemed to be going well, and Joaquin grew not to care about what Callie said or did, or didn't say or do for that matter, whenever he and she crossed paths. Callie's probation period was over and she had no problem ignoring him now that there was no longer a court injuncture forcing her to put up with him.

One day shortly after her last visit from CPS, he arrived in front of the apartment building to find her leaning against a phone pole apparently waiting for Mikey to get home, boredom and irritation plain on her face.

When she saw her oldest son, her eyes narrowed.  Before he could ask why she was home she explained somewhat angrily, "It takes forever to get those two ready for school in the mornings. I ended up bein' late to work too many times and it's all their fault. My boss was nice enough about it," she continued grudgingly.  "I still got a job, but he cut my hours 'cause of them!  I'll be going in later and getting out earlier, so I won't need you anymore."

At first 'Keen only stood there with his heart pounding and feeling as though it were about to jump out of his mouth, not sure whether to be angry or scared. Finally, he said, "I can still come and get them off the bus. I can still help with their homework and..."

"I don't need you," Callie replied viciously.  "You been nothin' but a pain in my ass from the day you were born. Then on top of it, you take off and get me in trouble an' jus' think everything is gunna be hunky dory and jus' waltz back in like you didn't fuck everything up for me!" she shouted, her fists clenched, her face a mottled red.

"But they'll be looking for me...," he tried to argue.

"They'll live," Callie snarled.

"Sammy... he won't understand..."

"Sammy," she said sarcastically, "is just gunna have to learn to get over himself. So's Mike for that matter. They ain't stupid. I know what they're doing! There's nothin' wrong with them, it's all just an act. It's always been just an act, and you knew it, you were in on it all along!  For all I know you put 'em up to it," she maintained, taking several steps closer so that she was inches away from his face. 

'Keen took a breath to argue when he caught the familiar scent of whiskey. "You went for a drink?" he asked, astounded. One of the conditions of her being awarded custody of his brothers was that she stay clean and sober.

Callie's eyes went wide and a little wild as she pinned Joaquin with the ugliest look he'd ever seen on her face. "Oh! Oh, I see what you're doing you little shit! You think you're gunna run to those friends of yours an' make trouble for me again?" she hissed.  "You get the fuck outta here, and don't you dare try any crap with me or you'll never see Sam and Mike again, you got me? You're nothin' but a bad influence anyway, ya little shit. You think I don't know who robbed us blind the night you ran off?"

"Mo...," he began, trying to reason with the woman.

"Don't you dare!" she interrupted loudly. "Don't you dare! If the word 'mom' was gunna come outta your mouth you better think twice about it. You don't got the right to call me mom, not anymore. Not after the shit you pulled. Now get the fuck outta here," she ordered, pointing back up the street toward the public bus stop.

Just then Mikey's bus pulled up.  As if someone had flipped a switch, Callie was smiling, and welcoming the confused looking little boy as he got out. She even went so far as to smile and wave at the bus driver. "Hiya Tessa!" she called to the driver. "I'll be getting Mikey off the bus from now on, hours changed," she explained.  "So, I get to spend more time with my boys," she fairly cooed as she wrapped her youngest son in a hug, not noticing his rigid stance or the fact that he wasn't hugging back.

Tessa looked between the mother and her oldest son, confused.

Seeing the expression on the driver's face Callie continued, "Oh, don't worry about him."  She laughed like her old self, a light and happy sound.  "He'll probably be here sometimes if I'm running errands or something, but it'll mostly be me. See you tomorrow, Tessa!" 

"Sure, Mrs. Striker," Tessa replied with a grin, completely taken in as Callie had intended.  "See you tomorrow." The driver closed the doors and continued on her way.

When the bus was out of sight, the woman gave her youngest son a rough shove that nearly caused the little boy to trip and fall before ordering him into the house. She turned her attentions back on Joaquin and smiled. In a very friendly voice she said, "Oh, don't worry, like I told Tessa, I might let you take care of the kids if I can't find anyone else. That is if you behave yourself and do what you're told for once in your miserable life. Shut up and don't make any more trouble for me, cuz if they get taken away again you'll never, ever see them again... an' it's gunna be your fault, not mine. Got me?"

Leaving a stunned Joaquin on the sidewalk she followed her youngest into the apartment and slammed the door.

He knew his other little brother wasn't due to be dropped off for at least another fifteen minutes, and he wanted to make sure that Sammy got off his bus and inside alright. If Callie pushed Sam as she'd done to Mike, he would definitely fall and most likely, as had happened many times in the past, she would yell at the child for tearing the knees of his jeans.

The sound of the door opening and slamming closed again drew him quickly out of his thoughts. An angry Callie strode down the sidewalk and advanced on the young man like a panther about to strike.

"What're you still doin' here, shithead?" she demanded.  "I told you to take off!"

'Keen drew himself to his full height and squared his shoulders. He'd grown an inch and a half according to Heath and had put on some healthy weight, but he still felt like that trembling child faced with his mother's ire.

"My ride won't be here for a couple of hours, and I thought that since I was here anyway I could help get Sammy off his bus..."

His mother gave him an almost feral grin, "You can't call your Daddy to pick you up early? You tryin'a tell me you don't have any of those cell phones you stole," she asked nastily, "or that you didn't steal any others afterward? Pull the other one why don'tcha? You can just call your Daddy and tell him to come get you. Now. I don't need you. The boys don't need you. Got me?" she demanded.

Before Joaquin had a chance to take a breath to answer, Callie continued.  "Oh, little boy, if they knew even half about you what I know, they wouldn't be so eager to help you. You got 'em all fooled but good. I'm gunna tell you again, get goin' and don't come back 'less I tell you to. Otherwise, I'll tell people a few stories about you, and instead of a foster home I'll make sure you end up in prison, and you know what happens to sweet lookin' little things like you in there. You're an adult now," she reminded him with a sneer, "so you'll go to a real prison and not one of those kid places.  So just you remember, turd, you open your mouth to your friends, I tell all on you, then you'll never see Sam and Mike again. Ever." She gave a short, mirthless laugh. "I wonder how many years they give people like you in prison."

'Keen's heart knotted in fear. Could any of what she'd said be true? Could he go to prison, and for how long? Was she just being cruel again or was there anything to back up her words? Was it possible that he'd never see his brothers again? Could he take the chance?

Suddenly the fear turned to frustration and the frustration turned to anger. He rounded on his mother... Callie... his own face now red with anger and shouted, "If you didn't go to prison for the hell you put us all through then I sure as hell ain't goin' anywhere! You go ahead and 'tell on me', you won't be sayin' anything everyone doesn't already know! And if anyone won't see Sam and Mike again it's gonna be you, you ugly bitch!"

As quickly as his face had turned red, it was now white as a sheet, his eyes wide with shock and pain. Callie had always known ways to punish her oldest without leaving many marks. This time she hit him with a quick, hard punch to the sternum, stunning him and knocking the air out of his lungs. He went down on one knee, struggling for breath that didn't seem to want to come back.

Callie sneered, "I'm tellin' you one last time. Get outta here. Now. Or I call the cops and have them arrest you for trespassing and threatening, and anything else I can think of. Hell, I'll make stuff up if it'll get you in trouble and thrown in jail!"

He struggled to get back on his feet but she put a foot on his hand, preventing him from pushing himself up. "Don't fuck with me," she hissed. "I got friends who can do worse than that to you. Now fuck off!"

With that she turned and marched back into the apartment with a flip of her hair.

'Keen knew that Sammy would be arriving home any minute and that he couldn't let his brothers see him in this condition, so he stood unsteadily and staggered back down the street a ways, leaning on buildings to prevent himself from falling over. Finally, coming to a bench, he sat down and put his head between his knees as he tried to get his breath back.

Most of the people who saw him passed him by, thinking he was drunk or high and chose to ignore him. Two stopped to ask if he needed help.  He was afraid that if he told anyone what had actually happened that they would either they would laugh at him, or they would call the police and make trouble for Callie, and he couldn't take the chance that she'd have him arrested or that he might not see his brothers again, so he told them that he'd fallen and had gotten the wind knocked out of him. He figured at least that was part of the truth. Convinced, the concerned passers by continued on their way.

He was sitting slouched over with his elbows on his knees, hands supporting his head, when he heard a horn honk. He looked up quickly, making himself dizzy in the process. "I'm ok," he said automatically. "I just got the wind knocked outta me."

"You don't look ok to me," came a gruff voice. It took a moment to realize that it was a concerned looking Roman staring at him.

'Keen looked at his watch and was surprised to see that he'd been sitting there for quite a while. "How did you find me?"

"I have to pass this way to pick you up at Callie's. What happened? Why are you here and not at the apartment?"

The boy took a breath and winced. "Oh... she was already there. She said her hours had been changed so that she could be home for the kids, so, um... she doesn't need me to take care of them anymore."

"Just like that?" Roman asked, surprised.  "Did she call you to let you know?"

"No, um, I think it happened kinda fast just today. There probably wasn't time," Joaquin hedged.

"Did she tell you the next time you could go over to see them?"

"No, it was a little hectic with the kids getting home at the time. She said she'd call." It wasn't exactly what she'd said but it was close enough to the truth that 'Keen didn't feel too guilty about the obfuscation.

"Well, that's unacceptable," Ro replied, scowling. "I'm going to stop in there and..."

"No! Don't," 'Keen said quickly, trying to breathe against the pain in his chest and only seeming to make it worse. "It's not worth it. Besides, I'm worn out and just really want to go home. Please?" He tried to breathe again but it was too painful so he took short, shallow breaths instead.

When the boy had gotten into the car Roman took a long look at the kid. His face was flushed and he was sweating. His breathing sounded off.  "So, what happened that you got the breath knocked out of you?"

"I fell," 'Keen said unconvincingly, "just fell wrong and got winded. I'm ok."

"Let me take a look," the older man said, reaching out for the hem of the boy's shirt.

"I'm ok, Ro," Joaquin said quickly, pushing the hand away. "I just... really wanna go home. Please," he panted. He settled down into the front seat and pulled the seatbelt across his chest, wincing as he did so. He was unaware that his face was pale and that he'd begun to sweat anew. He was also unaware that his breathing had become labored, but Ro noticed everything.

Making a mental note to contact James, as well as his brother, he drove away from the curb.

"So, what's for dinner tonight?" Roman asked as though everything were fine. "How about we stop and get pizza at Skulkie's*?" 

"Sure," 'Keen replied quietly, his forehead leaning against the cool glass of the side window.

"Now I know something's wrong, Keeno," the older man said. "You hate their food. So, tell me what's going on."

The teen kept his eyes closed as he enjoyed the coolness of the glass on his face. "I changed my mind. They're cheap and fast. Maybe we can get some dessert for later."

Roman pulled over and turned the engine off. "Spill, kid," he ordered.

"Nothin'," 'Keen maintained, " 'nothing to tell." Finally, he looked at his friend, his eyes weary. "I'm just real tired, Ro. Worn out. All I wanna do is go home unless there's something you want. As far as me though, I'll just have a nectarine and maybe take a nap, ok?"

"It's dinner time, kiddo," Roman maintained, "and I promised Heath that you wouldn't miss any meals. You'll need more than a piece of fruit. How about we go to that health food restaurant, get some take out and eat at home?"

"Sure," 'Keen answered tiredly as he closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the window once again. He was asleep by the time they reached the restaurant so Ro ordered for the both of them and woke the kid once they'd arrived back home.

Even though his stomach rumbled slightly, 'Keen only picked at his food, finally asking Roman if he could please go to bed.

The man looked with concern at his young friend and said, "Go on ahead, kiddo. Talk to you whenever you wake up"

That was sort of what the boy was worried about so he dragged himself up into his room and flopped onto his bed, wincing at the pain in his chest.  Unable to sleep, he got up to go to the bathroom. He pulled up his shirt, looking at the hairless, skinny chest of a boy. He wasn't surprised to see a vague red mark where he'd been hit. He pulled his shoulders back and felt the pain across his chest so he took a couple of ibuprofen, then, instead of going straight to sleep as he'd intended, he took a long, hot shower. He felt a little better afterward and finally climbed onto his bed where he fell quickly asleep.

Roman checked in on the boy several times but the kid never moved though his breathing sounded a bit off, and he'd groan now and again in his sleep.  He had finally called James and told the other man his concerns.

"He just wasn't himself. I know something is bothering him but he won't talk to me about it," Ro said sadly. "I thought we'd gotten to the point where we could talk about anything but this time...," he let the thought trail off.

"I have an idea," James said thoughtfully. "Text me if he wakes up tonight and let me know how he's doing. I'll have Shorty call him. Or Mutt. They seem to be the only ones on the resort he's ever felt comfortable enough to open up fully to. I’ll also let Gideon and Ken know."

Roman sighed, "What can I do in the meantime? I know something is wrong at that place but I don't have any solid evidence." 

The older man tapped on his desk for a moment and then said, “Don’t worry about that…I have some connections I can get with who can help us out with that. I’ll let you know.”

“What do you have in mind?” Roman asked.

The older man said, “I’m considering having her followed by a private investigator and I know someone who would be more than willing to do the job.”

“Won’t that cost quite a bit?” Roman asked.

James said, “No worries there, the man owes me some favors.” 

"If there’re any fees, I can't let you foot the whole bill, James. We'll split the cost," Roman said firmly, daring the man to argue. "I feel like he's as much one of my sons as any of the others, and I take care of my own." 

The resort owner smiled although Roman couldn’t see it. “We’ll settle up once we get together. In the meantime, he’ll be able to check things out discreetly and give us a report.  He’s very good at what he does. If there’s anything going on to be concerned about he’ll ferret it out, don’t worry.” 

If the boy woke up at any time during the night, Roman wasn't aware of it. He finally went to bed himself, worrying about this young man who had come to mean so much to him in a short time.

Punch to the sternum:

Pain is the first indication of a sternum contusion. Its intensity depends on the severity of the injury. A mild contusion can cause pain on the injured area. It also brings pain to stretch the arms or lift even the lightest objects. It can also cause difficulty in breathing. A mild contusion is usually tolerable. 

*To the best of my knowledge there is no such place named Skulkies that sells pizza or anything else. Any similarity to an existing restaurant, other establishment or person is purely coincidental.

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