Keeper Ch. 02byArdella©
International Network of Defense and Intelligence Operations
John looked up from the file folder laid open on his desk, raising a brow at the man leaning casually in his office doorway. "So are you."
"Ive been back." David 'Blackie' De Haven sauntered with a fluid grace into the room. "Got in a couple nights ago." White teeth flashed in an easy, familiar grin. "Where were you?"
"Home for a funeral. Neighbor passed."
Blackie paused halfway down into the corner chair, his smirk fading. "Neighbor? Which one?"
"Jean." John sighed. "She'd been seriously ill, so it wasn't totally unexpected, but still..." He shook his head.
"Aw, sorry, Keep. That's rough, man."
Subdued, Blackie settled into the chair and let the silence stretch respectfully. He, out of all the the people John worked with, was the only one that knew anything about John's life outside of INDIGO. Just as it was frowned upon, for safety concerns, to reveal the nature of their work to 'outsiders', family included, John also took it a step further and normally did not discuss his personal life with co-workers.
Blackie was the exception, and John knew the reverse was true with him too. Over time they had discovered that not only did they work together well as a team, but gradually a deep, mutual respect had turned into friendship. Add in being stuck together for a few long, boring stake-outs during assignments and they were bound to get to know one another at least a little bit.
"Jean was a nice lady." Blackie reminisced. "Made a mean pie."
John leaned back in his chair, making it creak, and eyed his friend. "That's right. When you needed to stay at my place a couple years ago. You said you had to have some time for yourself and you were hell bent against meeting Jean or Orley... next thing I know there you are sitting on Jean's porch and she's stuffing you with lemonade and pie." Pie.
Sitting bolt upright and clearing his throat, John began shuffling the papers strewn before him with renewed importance, ignoring De Haven's curious expression.
"I've got nothing but piles and piles of paperwork to finish out the Michigan project, and then I'll be done with that."
"Sol wanted that yesterday." Blackie interrupted, playing along with the lightening quick change of subject. "He told me to tell you." His classically handsome face lit up with it's usual grin. "And he said 'Merry Christmas'."
John huffed out a quick breath as his only response. Both he and Blackie knew that working over holidays was par for the course for them, each being bachelors with no family ties. Still, it would have been nice for once. A nice quiet Christmas Eve in front of a cozy fire with a pretty woman. But not just any woman.
What is she doing right now? Is she spending the evening with Orley? By herself? She shouldn't be alone on Christmas, especially this one. Alone and lonely...
He flipped one folder closed and shoved it to the side, and opened another one stuffed full of documents.
"With Michigan out of the way and I'll start in more closely with Sophia this week, getting her prepped." John glanced up while he talked, knowing the mere mention of Sophia McKinney always made Blackie sit up and take notice. David De Haven had the biggest school-boy crush on the woman. Not that he would admit it. "We've got Dimitri Belicoff out of prison. Thank you for that." Blackie's nod was the only acknowledgment of the many strings he had pulled to get Belicoff released from the Russian hell-hole he'd been stuck in. "And he is showing all signs of co-operating."
"He'd damn well better co-operate." Blackie snorted. "Or he's going right back where he was. I'll see to that personally."
"He will." John glanced up when there was no response. "You don't trust Belicoff."
Blackie shrugged one shoulder. "Do you? You've had more to do with recruiting him than I have."
John considered his answer for a long moment. "I believe he was set up by someone that wanted him out of the way, and I believe that before he was set up he was being looked at as an important asset by more than one impressive organization. I believe four years locked away and forgotten in a Russian prison has been more than enough to ensure his loyalty to whoever gets him out- that being us." It was John's turn to grin, a quickly fleeting expression. "He'll be watched closely, of course. But the fact is, because of Dimitri Belicoff's family ties he's our best bet right now for getting Sophia in where we need her. This is the plan and I've gone too far with it already to back out and start at square one. So, trust him or not... and for the moment I do... Belicoff is 'it'."
Blackie said nothing, and John took his silence as reluctant agreement. John knew that his partner's real issues with this assignment wasn't working with Dimitri Belicoff. It was using the Russian to get to his cousin Udre- a known weapons dealer- but not to take Udre down. No, this assignment, contracted through the CIA, was only using Udre as a stepping stone. A necessary evil. An evil that, for whatever reasons (politics... undoubtedly), the CIA had forbidden anyone to touch.
This 'hands off' directive set John's teeth on edge, and he knew that Blackie felt the same way. So much so that he'd had thoughts of defying orders and going after the bad bad Russian anyway... to hell with the fall-out... but the straw that was stopping him was the fact that there was no way Dimitri would cooperate if he thought Udre would be harmed in any way. And John knew that as close as he would be watching Dimitri, Dimitri would be watching right back for any breach of promise.
He just had to keep telling himself that nailing much bigger fish than Udre Belicoff would be worth it in the end. Besides that, it was orders. And if there was one thing John was known for, it was following orders. John 'By The Book' Keeper, always reliably sticking to the Plan.
So he'd do what he had to do, get done, and then he'd be through with the back-to-back assignments that had landed in his lap and then he could go home for a much needed break. And maybe, just maybe, Blue would have made up her mind to ditch her California life and move home... where she belonged... and then he could...
What? He could what?
"What?" John jerked his head up to find Blackie watching him, not even trying to hide his amusement and curiosity.
"What the hell are you thinking about so hard?"
"Dinner. You hungry?" He was. Damn straight.
"Thought you'd never ask." De Haven stood and stretched. "Now if we can find a good place that stays open Christmas Eve..." he ambled out the door.
John grabbed his coat and followed. "As long as they have dessert."
Blue's feet slid on the ice at the end of Orley Green's drive, her free arm flailing to help her keep balance. Laughing, she turned and waved at the old man silhouetted in his doorway. When he lifted his cane in salute she hoisted the foil covered pan of half-eaten lasagna to show that there had been no casualties.
Orley had made a fairly edible lasagna for their Christmas Eve dinner together, and though she'd insisted that she was fuller than a tick, he'd pushed the leftovers into her hands as she was on her way out the door.
She would come by tomorrow to see about de-icing Orley's driveway and porch steps, she decided. She wouldn't take no for an answer. Orley had said that he'd been meaning to spread a layer of kitty litter from a stash he kept for that purpose, but he hadn't 'gotten to it' yet. Though the old man didn't say it out loud, Blue deduced that John was the one who normally did this small but important chore for their neighbor. When he could. When he was around.
Head down against the sharp wind as she and Abe walked home, Blue wondered what John was doing. If he was getting something to eat. If he was by himself. If he had someone to keep him company. When he was coming back.
Abe 'wuffed' and Blue looked up from her musings. They had just rounded the bend in the road that allowed her to see her own driveway and the SUV with it's Fire Marshall logo parked there. As she neared, a lean man with sandy blond hair opened the driver's side door and climbed out, an expectant look on his face.
"Lee! Hi." Blue greeted. Always happy to see her longtime friend, she was nevertheless wondering why he had stopped by. The closest city, Chaplin, where he lived and worked was twenty minutes away, and she had already agreed to have dinner with him on the 27th.
Lee Henry pursed his lips for a moment as Blue neared, his brows raised in question. "Where were you? I've been calling." He stopped at that, but the look in his eyes said 'I've been calling and there was no answer so I decided to drive all the way over to see if you were all right.'
Blue shrugged off any feeling of irritation, little as it was. Lee was a good friend, had been since high school. They had kept in touch since then, and she always got together with him whenever she was in the area.
"I spent the day with Orley." She looked down the road in the direction she had come. "I thought he was probably lonely... you know, Christmas Eve and all, living all by himself." Her heart skipped a beat as the light went out of Lee's eyes. She didn't think he knew his thoughts showed but she suddenly felt guilty, irrationally or not.
Of course, Lee would be lonely too, at this time of year especially. With his wife having passed away close to Christmas several years ago, and as far as Blue knew he hadn't found anyone who was more than just a fling since then, it had to be difficult for him still.
"Come on in." She chattered and burst into motion to hide the sympathy she didn't think he would want. "I have lasagna. I've already eaten, but there is plenty left and I'll warm it up for you if you like." She turned after unlocking the front door to find he had stopped short of her porch steps, examining the lights twined around the length of the wooden rail.
"Blue..." He looked up at her with a frown, and she felt like she was being scolded. She knew this tone of voice from him. "Jesus, how old are these lights anyway? Are they even up to code?" He touched a burned out bulb with the tip of his finger. Yep... she was being scolded all right.
"I doubt there was a code when these were made." She quipped back with her tongue firmly poking against her cheek. She tried not to laugh when he looked so alarmed before realizing she was teasing. "Come on in, Lee." She urged softly, holding the door open. "I've got a real live Christmas tree in there that is dying for a good watering before it dries up and poofs into flames, and you're just the man to do it."
John felt his gut tighten at the sound of her voice. It sounded like she was smiling as she spoke, holding back some laughter even. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding as he'd waited for her to answer her phone.
"Blue. John Keeper here." He leaned back in his desk chair, the familiar creak giving sound to his relaxation. He also hadn't realized how stiff he'd kept himself until she had picked up. Really, he needed to stop this...
"Oh, John! Merry Christmas! I was just thinking about you."
Oh good lord, there was no stopping now, not after hearing her soft, feminine voice in his ear. So what if it was coming through his cell phone, and she wasn't actually here... not here, where she would be snuggled on his lap, her hair down loose and brushing his hands as she nuzzled his neck before tickling his ear with her lips with a whispered 'Ohhhh, John... I was just thinking about you.'
Sitting bolt upright in a hurry gave the chair a raucous squeak rather than it's comfortable creak. What the hell was he thinking?
"John? Are you there?"
John resisted the urge to clear his throat. Clearing his mind was enough.
"Still here. Sorry, bad connection I think. Sounds fine now, I think it's cleared." John rolled his eyes.
"Oh good. How are you? Traveling went well?"
He could still hear a slight smile in her voice. Comfortable. That's what it made him feel. Warm and comfortable. "I'm fine, thank you. Got here in record time. Looks like everyone is staying home for the holiday instead of traveling."
She made a small puff of noise. "I can't believe you have to work on Christmas. It must be some pretty important business you do."
"It is... believe me." Not exactly what you think it is, but it's damned important. "How are the lights holding up?" How are you? Are you thinking about me as much as I am about you even though you barely know me from Adam? Will you go out to dinner with me when I get home? Will you be there when I get home?
"There was a couple burned out bulbs this evening, but my friend Lee helped me change them out. He held the ladder for me for the high up one, anyway. He's a little bit leery of heights, I'm afraid."
Her laughter tinkled softly through the cell phone. He wished he could think of something witty to say so she would laugh like that again... wait... her friend Lee?
"Hey, Blue?" A masculine voice came over the line, sounding like it was coming from another room, but strong enough to hear. "Got any rum? Eggnog is supposed to have rum in it, right?"
A shuffling sound, and then Blue responded to the voice, her own muffled as if she had put her hand over the receiver. "Sorry Lee. All I've got is beer." Another shuffle and she came back on the line. "I'm sorry, John." She sighed a little. "Where were we?"
I'm here and you are there. Way too far away. That's where we are. John shook his head and looked down at his file strewn desk. Well, what did he really expect? That Blue would be sitting beside her Christmas tree, twiddling her thumbs and waiting for his call with no one but Abe to keep her company?
"No problem. I won't keep you away from your company, but I called about Abe, actually." That wasn't a lie. Just not the total truth. "It occurred to me... Abe was mighty attached to Jean, and now that she's gone I was wondering if you have noticed anything in his behavior? How is he?"
"Well, now that you mention it, he did seem a little sulky today. I do think he's missing Aunt Jean. But he ate well. I think he's mostly okay, but I'll keep an eye on him and let you know if he gets worse. I don't want you to worry." Her voice was kind, and John let that warmth wash over him again.
"Thank you, Blue. I'll let you get back to your friend. Have a good Christmas."
"You too, John." She said softly.
John pushed the 'end' button to disconnect.
"Merry Christmas." he said to his empty office.
Blue stood at the small, paned window, looking out at the night. From her third story vantage point she could see the front yard with it's holiday lights, the seldom used road that wound past the house, and because of the lay of the land, the way the road dropped downhill, she could even see John Keeper's house through the trees.
Because he wasn't home, there were no lights on at his place, and so she couldn't see much beyond a vague moonlit outline, but she knew the house was there. She had looked out this window so many times she knew the view by heart. It was a familiar spot to look out from for her, from the time she was a scared, angry young girl, on through her teenage years, and up to adulthood for each time she came back for a visit.
She sat listening to the total silence until the faint melody of the grandfather clock on the first floor carried to the third as it played it's midnight tune.
Blue turned from the solitary window to say something about the time to Abe, but the dog was sound asleep, curled up in a corner on his blanket. Looking around the large loft room, she tried to let the ambiance of her favorite, unique corner of the world wash over and comfort her. Usually it worked to settle whatever mood she was in. This time it didn't.
She was restless. That wasn't so unusual. It was the loneliness that was unfamiliar. Without even a glance at her easel- something also unusual for her- Blue climbed onto her bed and slid under the heavy blankets. Burrowing to chase away the chill of the room she stared up at one of the skylights overhead. Aunt Jean had them put in several years ago, much to Blue's pleasure. With only the one little window at the end of the room there hadn't been much light let in. But with the skylights set into the steeply slanted roof, it had made for a much nicer place for Blue to do her painting, the reason Aunt Jean had had it done. The glass was covered in falling snow now, but as Blue lay in bed she looked up as if she could see the winter night sky through the white.
Lee had left for home an hour earlier. She enjoyed his company, but he had stayed long enough. She had found herself wishing that she'd had more time with John on the phone, even that Lee hadn't come over at all, but that felt like an awful, ungrateful thing to think. Lee was her friend. Someone who had always been there for her despite the distance, and she certainly didn't want to lose that. If she did move back here they would most likely see a lot of each other. As just friends, of course. Nothing more. Besides, this feeling of loneliness was more a result of missing Aunt Jean, she mused. Blue turned over onto her side and came nose to nose with Abe, who was resting his head on the edge of the bed. Staring. Pitifully.
"You sneak." Blue chided, but smiled. "Oh, fine. Come on up. Keep me company." She shifted across the bed enough to make room for the big dog, and Abe jumped up and settled with what could only be described as a dog-like sigh. "Just don't tell John. I don't know if he lets you get away with stuff like this."
Closing her eyes, she tried not to think, tried to settle her mind enough to fall asleep, but the mention of John had his image popping up, not necessarily unwanted, into her head. Tall... so tall... and handsome, really. Maybe not so much the type she usually was attracted to, although she couldn't pinpoint what about him wasn't something that she found attractive. Maybe it was his hair, the way it was cut short and no-nonsense. Blue preferred a little 'nonsense' in a man's hair. She chuckled softly at the thought, making Abe's ears twitch.
But he was definitely good looking. And big. My oh my, he was big. Not overweight big, but... manly big. Solid. Yes, that's it. John is solid. She wondered what he looked like without his shirt. Was all that 'solid' a result of bulky, bumpy muscle? Too much muscle wasn't something Blue was attracted to either, but somehow she didn't think that was the case with John. Why are you thinking about John half naked? Blue rolled over, found that wasn't comfortable, rolled back again. Why not? Why not think about John totally naked?
Abe's ears twitched again in the darkness.
"Go to sleep, Abe."
Blue let the door slam behind her, almost catching Abe's tail. "Sorry." she muttered breathlessly. She thought of shaking off the snow that covered both she and the dog from their romp outdoors, but her cell phone was trilling from the kitchen table and she didn't know how long it had been ringing, and besides, it might be...
"We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas..." Lee's voice sang over the airwaves, charmingly off key.
Blue laughed and worked on pulling off her hat and coat with the phone to her ear. "We wish you the same. What's up?"
"Come to my place today." Lee insisted without preamble. "I've got a turkey for dinner, you can bring the sides. We'll stuff our bellies and sing more bad carols."