It was the dead of night in the middle of the coldest winter ever and he was stuck in the same place – freezing his ass off just to get that next fix. First Lieutenant Darien Alan was not a quitter. When he set out to do something, it got done. After five years and countless deployments, he’d earned the respect of over one hundred brave men and women. Fifty-two of them even owed him their lives. Fifty-two might seem like a big number, but every night he chewed on it and every night he went to bed hungry. One hundred and fifty people crossed the big blue ocean with him but only fifty-two came home. Darien told himself that what mattered was that they completed their mission. Nobody in his company was a quitter. Nobody.
His breath rushed out his mouth to warm his bare ashy hands, but just as quickly turned cold. What he wouldn’t have given for a decent coat right about then. And maybe a hat. His short dreadlocks could only do so much. He fingered the last two buttons holding his coat together. At some point the brown trench coat probably looked good. Its original owner must have been a stylish person … way back in the seventies. The merciless Chicago wind kicked up a storm, as if to deter the ‘has been’ from his one and only vice. He shivered and quickly crossed the street. He had ten bucks and it was burning a hole in his pocket.
“If it ain’t toy solider!” The well dressed boy half Darien’s age taunted. “What you doin’ out here? We ain’t seen you in like … days.”
Darien stared at the teenagers’ shoes. He never knew what to say to them. And he never looked them in the eye. They may have been children but they had his number.
“What you want solider?”
“What you got?” Was his customary retort.
“Aww come on man, we got whatever you want. What you need? A little oxy? Vicadin? Or you gonna keep it simple and stick to them rocks?” He nodded his head in a brisk motion up and down, handing the boy a rumpled up ten-dollar bill. “Don’t shoot it up all in one place!” They shouted after him.
Darien Alan clutched the prize in his pocket and turned his collar up. Pride was a luxury that he didn’t have. The young’uns knew just as well as he did, that if they sold crack in one dollar increments, he’d be back in the next hour and the one after that. Once he was far enough away that the sound of their laughter had faded, he fell into the nearest doorway, unable to wait any longer for the sweet bliss that he’d paid so handsomely for.
St. Ann’s Church was famous for two things. It’s soup kitchen and the fifty or so cots that went to a lucky few every night. Darien stumbled up her steps later on that night, blissfully happy for the first time in days.
“Alan.” Sister Mary Pat took him by both arms, trying to steady his gaze. “Look at me. You can’t come in here high.”
“I’m not sister. I promise.” He smiled big, as if that was the proof she was looking for. “I’m just hungry. I won’t be any trouble.”
“Alright.” She sighed and stepped aside.
He settled into one of the blue plastic chairs surrounding a big round table and slurped down one spoonful after another. Darien was usually a quiet soul, more poetic than anything. But in his current state of mind he talked a lot. He couldn’t help it. Or at least that’s what it looked like.
“Hey, did you … did you know that the human head weighs eight pounds? It sounds like a lot, but I was that big when I was born. How about you?” He asked, submerging his plastic spoon into the sea of tomato soup. “I bet you was like … what? Six pounds?”
The little girl just giggles and waves at the funny man across the table from her. Her black waves are pulled into messy pony tails around her head. She obviously has no idea what she looks like, but she’s just the happiest one-year old he’s ever seen.
“So, like I was saying … did you know it’s possible to fall from two hundred yards and not kill yourself? All you need is the right gear.” He swallowed the last of his soup, watching as the tiny girl did the same. “Some padding, a helmet, oh … and a parachute doesn’t hurt.”
“That’s good to know.”
Darien blinked erratically, trying to figure out where the voice came from. The baby girl had yet to make a sound that even remotely sounded like words. That was why he liked talking to her. If she started talking back all of a sudden, then he might have to rethink the whole scenario.
“Who said that? Did you say that?”
“Yeah, she said that. What are you crazy?”
He whipped around to look behind him, suddenly paranoid. It was definitely a female voice and it was definitely coming from somewhere nearby. “Who ever said that better show themselves!” His eyes darted nervously around the room. “What you looking at? Huh?”
“Alan!” Sister Pat called everybody by their last name. She stood at the front of the room glaring at him with both hands on her waist.
“Oh boy.” He muttered to himself, choosing to look elsewhere. “I think I’m in trouble.”
The little angel smiled at him, proudly revealing two very prominent teeth, then proceeded to give him advice in a language that only she could understand.
“You’re gonna be in even more trouble if you don’t at least pretend to be on the straight and narrow.” The mystery voice added. “Don’t! Look around.”
Darien fought the urge by focusing really hard on the middle of the table. The church basement was warm. Outside cold. It was just that simple. “I’ve known rivers. Ancient dusky rivers.” He mumbled the line of his favorite poem. The words held some power over him that seemed to calm his irrational tendencies.
“He’s okay sister, really.” The kind stranger addressed the nun, before she could pull out a ruler. “We’re just … talking. Right Mia?” The strange girl squeezed the toddler closer in her lap. “Just talking, no big deal.”
“Thank you.” Darien said as the nun backed away. For the first time that night, his gaze traveled up from the innocent face of the baby girl she called Mia, to a stronger but older face. She couldn’t be more than eighteen. How could he not have seen her before? The resemblance was uncanny, right down to the spark in their eyes.
“Don’t worry about it. She likes it when people talk to her. And there’s not much of that happening here.”
“How old are you?” The words fall out of his mouth before he can catch them. “Sorry.”
“Why?” She shifted Mia from one side to the other, to give her leg a break. “How old do I look?”
“Really?” She perked up and bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Umm … okay. I guess that’s close enough. How much do you weigh?”
“What?” He frowns, mulling the question over in his head. “Why?”
She shrugged and went back to feeding herself and little Mia. “Just making conversation. Is it a secret or something? Cause that would be kinda weird.”
“I don’t know.” Darien suddenly felt self-conscious in his rags. He fidgeted with the collar of his t-shirt. He’d been planning to wash it for weeks now.
“I weigh about a buck twenty, if it makes you feel any better.” She admitted just as Mia began fussing, her tiny hands rubbing her eyes. No matter what her mother did, she kept right on fussing. Darien’s gaze shifted around the room as they drew attention from every corner. It wasn’t exactly a family friendly crowd. “I’m sorry.” She apologized to no one in particular. “She’s just tired. She won’t stay asleep unless I’m sleeping too and I haven’t done much of that.”
A rumbling among the others coursed through the crowd and predictably somebody shouted, “CAN’T YOU SHUT HER UP?”
“Oh, just buzz off!” The suddenly unapologetic girl snapped back. “Asshole.”
Sister Pat reappeared and tried to quiet the crowd but it was too late. They were up and they were mad. No one wanted to sleep next to a screaming baby. To add fuel to the fire, all the yelling and reprimanding just made the toddler’s anxiety worse.
“I’M SORRY BUT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO LEAVE.” Sister Agnes shouted to the young mother just to be heard over the ruckus. “I’m sorry.”
“Where am I supposed to go? It’s freezing out there! Look, she’ll quiet down. She will.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t have all this going on. We have to do what’s best for the greatest number of people. You’re going to have to leave before it gets worse.”
“Now wait a minute, that’s not fair.” In seconds, Darien was on his feet and gesturing in the direction of the mob. “Put them out!”
“No, it’s fine.” Mia’s mother responded with thinly veiled anger. “Fine.”
He watched in awe as the tiny girl was carried through the crowd by a bundle of shopping bags. Served him right. Just when he met someone that he could have a real conversation with, she disappeared. Darien scooped up his own belongings and swam through the crowd. He didn’t have a plan, just wanted to make sure they were okay. But once he finally made it outside the doors of St. Ann’s, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be that simple. The ground was lightly dusted with a layer of snow and this was just the beginning. He followed the only set of foot prints until they stopped in the middle of the block.
“What are you doing?” She asked from her position, kneeling on the stoop of a barbershop. “You really are crazy, aren’t you?”
Doubt was written all over her face as she hugged the now quiet Mia inside her own coat. “Then why you following me? Nobody sane gives up a warm bed in the middle of December.”
“Come on, I got an idea.” He reached for her arm but she jerked back, studying his face with enough intensity to melt the snow around them.
“You know I’m not going to hurt you,” his brow wrinkled in confusion – the first indication that he remembered their history together. “I wouldn’t do that.”
In fact, he’d done just the opposite – saving the then pregnant girl from a future in a juvenile detention center. She didn’t appear to have forgotten but her hesitance came from experience. After living on the street, young, pretty, and with a baby even an angel decked out in white with sparkling wings would appear suspicious to her. “I don’t know you,” was her stoic reply. And before he could object she added, “even if I did know you … promises don’t mean anything to me. Just let me be. We’ll be fine.”
“Oh yeah?” Darien sucked his tongue and stepped back on the sidewalk, letting the night fall down on him. “You don’t remember me, huh?” She didn’t answer, at least not with words, but the ex-soldier understood anyway and quickly accepted the terms of their current interaction. “How long you think it’ll take before I’m completely covered in snow? How long you think she’s gonna last out here? Come on, give me your hand.”
The young mother didn’t need long to think it over. Mia yawned and looked from the funny looking stranger to her mother.
“Fine. But if you even think about doing anything to me or her I swear I’ll kill you.”
The threesome hurried down the block with the Chicago winds at their backs. They hustled across the street and into the Quick Mart. All the seven-elevens packed their bags and left a few years ago. Most of them turned into something similar like a Quick Stop or a Quick Mart. The only business in the hood open past nine o’clock. The bells chimed against the cold as the door closed behind them. While she unzipped her jacket to free the sleepy angel, he made his way to the counter.
“Hi, umm …” Darien stretched his fingers across the counter and leaned in to get the owner’s attention. “How late are you open?”
“We close at one o’clock.” Came the wary reply wrapped in an Eastern accent.
“Okay … umm … you see that girl, over my shoulder?”
“Well, how much would it take for you to let her sleep … here, like in the store room or something please?”
“Oh come on. Have a heart!”
“There is a church a few blocks away-”
“They kicked her out cause the kid was screaming. Look, I don’t have any money, but I’m good at … stuff. I’ll do whatever work you need to have done around here.” Darien held his breath while the robust store owner looked the young mother up and down. He exhaled slowly, considering whether or not it was a good idea in the first place. If the young mother didn’t trust him and he’d already saved her life once before, she was not going to trust some big guy she just met.
“Okay. Just until we open!”
“What time is that?”
“That’s only five hours-not that I’m complaining.” Darien backed away from the counter slowly, so as not to disturb the sensitive deal.
“What did you do?” She asked him pointedly with the pretty toddler drifting off on her shoulder.
“He’s gonna let you stay here. In the store-room until they open tomorrow.”
“What! I don’t know him!”
Darien groaned and stubbed his toe into the floor. “Well, it’s either him … or sleeping outside. Which one?”
She took a long look at her benefactor and lifted her baby higher on her hip. “Are you gonna be here?”
“Do you want me to be?”
She tapped her fingers nervously against her wrist and weighed who might be the greater danger. To his credit, Darien waited patiently for her to decide, not sure if he was entirely comfortable with leaving them there and trusting the big guy to begin with. Then suddenly she marched past Darien, leaving her belongings in the middle of the store. “Show me.” She instructed the overweight owner.
The storage room was a little bigger than the average closet. There was a step-ladder and a few extra shelves, but other than that … nothing.
“Okay.” She agreed with a quick nod. “My name’s Mya by the way, Mya Morrow. And this is Mia.”
“I am pleased to meet you.” He nodded and offered his rotund hand in friendship. “I am Ahmad Alidad.”
“You got that?” Mya called over her shoulder to Darien. “See, my friend here is really good at remembering names. And if anything happens to me he’s gonna run and tell the police. Ain’t that right friend?”
The ex-soldier nodded, clearing his throat at the same time. “Yeah-Yeah, that’s right.”
“Alright.” The owner stepped into the store-room for a moment then returned wheeling a mop and a bucket. “Here.” He handed the tools to Darien. “You can start paying me now. And if anything is missing, I will call the cops!”
*SPECIAL NOTE* – Mya Morrow is a major character in the Morrow Girls Series but she is only a minor character here. Also, Gray News makes some mention of a Quick Mart Murder but Gray News and Chasing the Devil are two completely separate stories.