I start to cry silently into her body and she just caresses my back and shoulders and lays her head down on the top of mine.
“My God you’re frozen,” she says her voice trembling. “Come on, we need to get you inside.” She instructs me as she tries to help me off my knees and into the house. I can feel Kida lick my hands and it hurts. “Oh God your hands,” Ruby exclaims and I look down at the red raw and bloody messes where my hands used to be. She sits me down on the chairs closest to the fireplace and throws a blanket around my shoulders.
She kneels on the floor in front of me taking both of my hands in hers, she carefully starts blowing her warm breath onto them. I stare down at the action mesmerized by the movement of her lips. She jumps up suddenly and runs from the room, returning a few moments later with a basin of hot water and some rubbing alcohol and bandages. She resumes her position on the floor in front of me and dabs a rag into the basin of water and raises it to my hands.
I can feel the stinging pain of the warmth in my frozen bloody hands but it hardly registers. I feel conflicted being this close to her knowing I shouldn’t be imagining kissing her right now, after hearing about the loss of a friend. I clench my fists reflexively at her touch and I hear my teeth start to chatter.
“This is going to have to wait,” she tells me pulling me up from the couch. “I’m going to run you a warm bath okay, just come with me.” I let her pull me towards the bathroom.
In the bathroom I stand frozen like at statue as she begins to pull my jacket off my shoulders, then my over shirt. I hold my breath as her smooth hands glide underneath the base of my shirt and start gathering it up slowly as I try to raise my arms to allow her to pull it over my head. The trembling throughout my entire body feels like an earthquake that only I can feel, seeming to rise up from the ground rattling me to my core. I don’t think for one moment that believe that her presence isn’t contributing to this feeling.
She carefully starts to unbuckle my belt, I reach my hands to stop her but she just looks at me as she continues. My hands are too cold to unfasten my pants and she understands as she leaves them unfastened over my involuntary hardness, then turns and leaves the room. I push my pants to the ground with the heels of my hands and step into the tub. The shock of the water temperature causes me to inhale loudly through gritted teeth.
“Just take it slowly, and soak in the water for at least fifteen minutes. There are towels below the sink.” Ruby coaches me through the closed door. I sink into the tub slowly grimacing every inch of the way. Once in the tub I know there is only one more step as I slowly pull both of my arms into the hot water howling in pain as my hands submerge.
“Mason, are you alright?” I hear Ruby call anxiously through the door.
“My hands,” I hiss excruciatingly.
“Let them soak, I’ll clean them properly when you’re done.” Her tone sounding as though she felt ineffectual.
“Thank you,” I utter gratefully as I lay back into the tub. Trickles of blood creeping and staining the waters around my body. I look down to fully observe my hands, the larger bleeding blisters are on the inside of my hands while lighter raw skin blistered into open wounds over my knuckles on the tops of my hands. I hear scratching and whimpering at the base of the bathroom door as I try to move my fingers individually on my hands. Serves you right chopping firewood without gloves during snow fall I scowl at my own stupidity as my brain starts to function again.
I hear a knock at the door as I stand in front of the mirror wearing a towel around my waist. I open the door a crack and see both Ruby and Kida’s worried looks through the gap in the doorway.
“Here, put these on they’re warm.” She thrusts an armful of clothing through the door at me and I take them obediently and close the door. Once I’m dressed in baggy sweatpants and long sleeve shirt and knitted sweater, I put on the warm socks and I think she must’ve had these clothes laying on a heater to warm them this way.
I emerge from the bathroom barely aware of how ridiculous I look until I see her hide her smile from me. I start walking back to the fireside in the living room and I sit on the couch, Kida jumps up lays her body across my lap. I feel Ruby’s hands before I see her as she drapes a large blanket over my shoulders then disappears. When she comes back she’s holding a mug.
Ruby hands me the mug but the hold on the handle hurts my hand. She takes the mug from me and carefully place the mug to my lips and I take a sip of that rich warm hot cocoa. After a few more sips Ruby puts the mug aside as she takes a hold of my hand.
“This is going to hurt,” She says ruefully. I brace myself for the pain of the rubbing alcohol against my wounds and I focus on the touch of Ruby’s hand on mine.
My body is exuding warmth now and I let it run through me like liquid fire. I inhale and exhale deeply as Ruby disinfects my cuts and checks to make sure they’re clean. I maintain my manhood by not making a sound other than my exaggerated breathing. After a little while Ruby seems satisfied that the wounds are cleaned and she starts to bandage them. Her touch is so tender and caring that I fall back in a heap on the couch. I let my head fall backwards as she finishes bandaging me up.
Her hand tries to release mine but I hold onto it and lock eyes with her, and all the caring concern is now replaced by fear and suspicion.
“What happened?” She asks barely in a whisper. I drop my hold of her hand and look down to focus on Kida as she still lays across my lap. I try to word this but I don’t want any part of it to be a lie, I will not let his death be dishonoured in anyway.
Ruby gets to her feet about to leave the room in response to my silence.
“He’s dead,” I whisper in a bid to make her stay with me.
“Kida move,” She commands as she gently pushes the dog off the couch and sits next to me with her thigh pressed up against mine. Ruby rest her hand on my shoulder as I hang my head in my hands over my knees. “Who’s dead?” She enquires soothingly as she caresses my shoulder.
“This is hard for me,” I try to explain barely able to form words. She doesn’t make a move or say anything, she just waits patiently still with her hand supportively on my shoulder. “Do you remember me saying I used to work for the government?” I ask her quietly and I see her nod out of the corner of my eye. I stare intently at the floor, if I’m going to tell her this part of the story I can’t be staring into her unrecognizing eyes at the same time or I’ll break down.
“I was actually with the FBI, I was an undercover agent one of their best. A friend of mine who was still with the Bureau was killed during an undercover assignment and I just found out tonight.” I reveal. Her arm stretches across my back and tightens its grip as she leans her head against my shoulder and winds her other arm around my chest. I can hear her sob lightly at the revelation, not because she remembers him but because she knows me and can feel the pain.
“Actually it wasn’t that simple,” I say not feeling the need to spare her, “he was tortured at length before his violated body was displayed for the entire world to see like an animal in the street.”
Ruby clasps a hand over her mouth to stop the gasp from coming out.
“That’s barbaric,” she sobs, “I’m so sorry for you Mason.” I finally turn to look in her eyes and she leans in a plants a soft kiss on my cheek. The feel of her lips would normally send a rush through my entire body, but now they emphasize the lack of connection between us and it hits me like a train.
We sit for the longest time in silence with her arms around me in a sideways hug. My sorrow is being replaced by something more cunning and my brain starts to connive and plan. Her pity for me is so great it feels like she may be on the verge of remembering, and I make a decision to take advantage of her pity.
“His funeral is going to be in Fort Collins, Colorado in a couple of days. Would you come with me?” I plead pathetically.
“Of course I will, I’ll let Leon know I need a few days off.” She agrees and I start to feel guilty about possibly using her as bait in a trap for Viktor Nolikov, but I’ll be with her every minute of it. Ruby gets up from the couch and picks up my mug, “I’ll get you some more cocoa this one has gone cold.” I look at Kida as Ruby leaves the room and I’m overcome with heaviness that tips me over on the couch.
Kida lays down on the floor next to me and I stare at the hypnotic flames of the fireplace as I lay along the couch feeling warm and utterly exhausted on every level, I can’t even remember the last time I slept.
I’m woken by a strange sound, is that snoring? I look around to see I’m in Ruby’s living room with a pile of blankets over me as I lay on her couch. I see the morning light bouncing off the snow packed windows and I squint harder to find the source of the sound. I roll over slightly and my hand brushes thick fur as it hangs over the couch, I must’ve dropped a blanket.
No it’s Kida I understand as I feel the fur moving up and down beneath my hand. She must’ve slept by my side all night, and thankfully I can only now hear her snoring. I feel terrible about falling asleep at Ruby’s but I don’t regret coming here last night. I needed her more than I ever have before, and even though she may not remember me, her presence was exactly what I needed.
I rub my eyes as I sit up. I can’t hear anything, so either Ruby isn’t awake yet or she’s left already. I glance at the clock above the fireplace, ten thirty am. I’ve been asleep for a while. I get to my feet and make my way as quietly as I can to Ruby’s bedroom to see if she’s still asleep. I’m just about at Ruby’s bedroom when I hear her singing voice coming from the bathroom.
I quickly jet back into the kitchen not wanting to be caught creeping around her home but she doesn’t come out of the bathroom. I hear the pipes groan in agitation as she starts the shower and I resolve to make her breakfast. I quietly start exploring the kitchen for tools and supplies and I open the fridge to find the last ingredients I need.
Kida must’ve woken to the smell of food as she joins me in the kitchen. I toss a piece of bacon to her and she snaps it up appreciatively. I probably shouldn’t feed her bacon, she was a former sled race dog and probably has a specific diet. I hear the shower stop and I time it perfectly, as I plate up the breakfast as Ruby finds her way into the kitchen. Her hair still dripping over her shoulder in generous bathrobe.
“Oh thank God, I thought Kida had tried to cook again,” she jokes with a heartfelt smile.
I return as much of a smile as I can and I put her plate down on the table.
“Aren’t you having some?” She asks eyeing the one plate.
“No, I’ve imposed on you enough,” I tell her as I finish washing up after my cooking.
“How are you feeling today?” She asks soothingly while taking a bite of her breakfast.
“It’s going to take a while I think,” I confess, “He was my best, if not only friend.”
“Not your only friend,” she smiles as she takes another bite of her eggs. “Oh my God, if you can cook like this why do you come into the diner at all?” She asks in between bites of her breakfast as I lean against the table next to her.
“For the great service,” I say as I lean down and kiss the top of her head. I head towards the door grabbing my jacket along the way.
“Wait your clothes are in the wash,” she calls out to me running to catch me at the door.
“I’ll get them from you later,” I tell her, “Thank you for everything last night.”
“Thank you for breakfast.”
I leave the cabin before I no longer have the will power to walk away from her. In my truck I stop and take in the bandages on my hands as they rest on the steering wheel. I figure they are an excuse for me to go and see Doctor Connors, it’s been a while since we had a chat about things.
In Doctor Connors office I begin to fill him in about the events of the past couple of days.
“I can’t believe that monster is lose,” doc says in revolt. The doc pulls out both of Ruby’s files and pulls one of the photos from her older file out and flings it onto the table. “If someone can do that to a kind and beautiful woman like her, he deserves the death penalty.”
I agree wholeheartedly then I move on to my next topic.
“Is it safe for her to travel by plane a short distance? I asked her to come with me to Joshua’s funeral in Colorado the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, she is far enough into the pregnancy and her last test results show both her and the baby to be in perfect health.” Doc raises an eyebrow at me, “I am curious that she is allowed to go, wouldn’t it be a dangerous risk to her new identity?” He asks and I confess that I’m hoping to draw Viktor out into the open with her presence.
“Are you mad? Using a woman in her condition as bait.” He booms loud enough that an orderly knocks on the door to check on him. He dismisses the orderly and returns to his reaction to my plan with full hostility.
“It’s been months doc, maybe seeing his photo plastered everywhere might help her remember.” I offer and he glares at me.
“Don’t give me that, you’re basically using her like a squealing rabbit to trap a wolf.” He shoots.
“No, a fox.” I declare firmly. “It’s not just that, I know how much she loves him—even though she doesn’t—and when her memory comes back the loss of him will hit her hard. She would never forgive herself, even in her condition if she didn’t take a chance to pay her last respects. I know my Ruby, she would risk everything to be free of Viktor once and for all. Even if that means offering herself up as bait.”
The doc seems to be processing this information.
“You’re right as well about the possible memory trigger, being alone with you and away from this town may help her. I’m surprised she agreed to go to the funeral of someone she’s never met?”
“I may have manipulated her a bit using her pity about my suffering.” I confess guiltily.
“Well extreme measures and all that I suppose,” he allows. I sit back in my chair and run my fingers through my hair in frustration.
“I just wish I was able to openly grieve for my friend, and avenge him without questioning what kind of man that makes me. Instead I’m manipulating the mother of my child into being bait for a potential trap to catch the man who killed him and terrorized her for so long. I can’t even tell her about any of it because I’m not supposed to know who she is.” I exhale in frustration.
“If this trap doesn’t come to fruition then she’ll need to be told about him being free. I’m astounded the Marshalls haven’t informed her already.” Doc tells me.
“They’ve never even told her what her real name is, let alone any details about the man who tried to kill her. I doubt they will tell her, they’ll figure if she doesn’t remember then she won’t panic and do anything stupid.” I explain to him.
“That cannot be legal, she has a right to know who she is and more importantly that she is in danger.” He says repulsed.
“That’s why when we come back, if Viktor Nolikov is not dead or behind bars, then I’m going to need you to tell her.” I inform him.
“What do you mean tell her? Everything?” He exclaims.
“No, just her real name maybe and definitely about her medical history and the threat from Viktor.” I clarify, “even if her memory rejects it she won’t be able to deny that’s her in those photos.”
“Are you sure that’s the best course of action?”
“Yes, if it comes to that. I can’t be with her all the time and if she’s in danger she needs to know.” I reassure him. Our conversation draws to an end and there is one more thing I want to know before I go. “Has she asked for the sex of the baby yet?”
Doc just shakes his head at me and I make my way to the door.
“You know yesterday was her six month scan, we’re running out of time.” He says ominously as I reach the door.
Back at home I book our plane to Colorado, I charter a private plan to make the trip direct. I make the trip to be just for the day, I don’t want Ruby to feel uncomfortable. The early flight will give us enough time to arrive before the funeral set for noon on the January twenty eighth. Our return flight will bring us in a bit late but it will have to do. Before I call Ruby to discuss our travel plans I call Agent Greenberg.
“Are you certain of a substantial FBI presence at Agent Denton’s funeral?” I ask firmly.
“Absolutely, you have my word. I will also be there in person, are you worried about your safety?” His voice sounds more curious than concerned. He knows my reputation, why would I be afraid of anything.
“Well one can never be too safe,” I lie, “besides if he found Denton in his deep cover assignment location within twelve hours from break out of custody what chance do I have in a public funeral?” I let him think I’m concerned for my own safety, but I know that my presence may not be enough to make him show himself. However the sight of me with a clearly pregnant Ruby on my arm just might be the trigger I need.
“I assure you Agent Harris, if Viktor Nolikov even steps inside the state of Colorado that day then he is ours.” Greenberg affirms. I let him know of my travel plans and that I will not be alone and he lets me know he’ll organize an armed escort to and from the airport in a motorcade as well as letting the Bureau fit the bill for the plane.
“Perfect,” I tell him, “see you in two days.”
I call Ruby but there is no answer so I drive around to her house, her car is gone. I head for the diner and see her car in the lot as I pull up. I get into the diner and find Ruby working but she isn’t in her uniform. I look at her enquiringly and she smiles at me. “I stopped in to tell Leon I needed a couple of days off and I got roped into working, apparently Charlotte is sick.” She tells me with disbelief shading any concern for Charlotte.
“So you mean she broke up with another boyfriend?” I ask unhelpfully as I take a seat in a booth.
“Yes,” she says as she sits down with me for a moment. I tell about our itinerary and she tries hard to hide her relief when I tell her we’re doing it in one day.
“So I’ll pick you up early and head straight to the airport. Our flight leaves from Ashland and we go straight to Fort Collins.” I tell her.
“Wow, how did you find a direct flight between those places?”
“I chartered a plane,” I tell her honestly and her jaw falls opens a little. I let her sit intimidated for another moment. “Do you have to work tomorrow night?” I ask her hoping that she won’t be kept late.
“No but I do have a date,” she confesses guiltily, “I’m sorry, he doesn’t live nearby and he’s coming here specifically for me, but I didn’t get his number so I can’t even call to cancel. He was just passing through the other night and we got talking and he said he’d be back through this way tomorrow night and I agreed to have dinner with him. He seemed so nice, and I didn’t know….” I hold up my hand to cut off her rant.
“Please, my friend died. That shouldn’t make you stop your life.” I sound assuring even though my heart is in my boot, I was sure we shared a moment last night.
“So…..you want me to go on a date?” She asks baffled. Oh this is a trap I’m going to have to chew my own arm off any second now. “Sorry, it’s fine. I’m fine. I’ll see you later.” She says and it all sounds like one long word. She jumps up from the booth and flees the diner after handing Leon her apron. I’m too gobsmacked to do anything to stop her.
“What just happened?” I ask Leon as he comes towards me.
“Oh boy, you are in trouble,” he laughs. I’m glad he’s warmed up to me and it’s proven as he sits down opposite me.
“So are you ever going to tell me who you are?” He asks me impatiently and I think back to his Christmas party where he called me on my feelings for Ruby. I sigh defeated, may as well get this over with.
“What do you want to know?” I ask him.
“Are you the father?” He ask quietly and I nod at him wearing a proud smile. Then he sits in rapture as I tell him the whole tale, swearing him not to tell her, under doc’s orders. We manage to eat an entire pizza pie between us as I talk giving him the cliff notes version of the events that led me here. I elaborate on things he asks but generally he just takes it all in his stride. Obviously he knows about the witness protection and I was pleased he didn’t acknowledge its existence even after I told him I knew.
Leon loves Ruby like an adopted daughter and he’s protective of her so when I get to the part about Viktor’s escape and Joshua’s death he gets up from the booth furious and gestures for me to follow him to the counter. He pulls out a shotgun from behind the counter, then he reaches his arm through the kitchen pass window upwards pulling a rifle off the inside wall.
“That bastard shows up here, you take him out. Don’t call the police.” He tells me decidedly. I admit to being in the same frame of mind as I reveal my 9mm handgun tucked into the back of my pants and the .22 I have strapped in an ankle holster.
“It’s also a reason I chartered the plane to Colorado, so I can remain armed at all times.” I assure him.
“This friend of yours, he loved our girl too?” Leon asks me and I nod sadly.
“And she loves him, even if she can’t remember, she was a sister to him.”
Leon reaches under the counter again stowing the guns and he pulls out a bottle of whisky, two shot glasses and ushers me back to the booth. We sit and drink into the early hours of the morning, honouring a fallen friend. I’m grateful to Leon for this I think as I stumble to my truck. I manage to make it home without running the truck off the road or wrapping it around a tree.
I crawl into my cold lonely bed kick my boots off and wait to pass out.