Common Grounds
By Katheryn Sandoval (FanFiction.net’s hearthandhomeauthor)

 


Part 1


A bit of wind kicked up a pile of dust that sat in the corner of C.D.'s Bar and Grill as the door opened wide and shut swiftly as two or three patrons filed in, shivering under the abnormally cold temperatures of this Texas autumn. Lively country tunes filed the atmosphere, and many guests ate and drank and were having a good time. Among them sat Trent Malloy. Off to himself at a side table he stared…not rudely mind you…just perceptively at the one who had accompanied him for lunch this day. Or at least she said she would. For the look on her face said otherwise. It seemed she was miles and miles away from the little restaurant with her thoughts engaged and her brow furrowed deeply.

Trent continued to look onward at her, stifling a smile of amusement while unsure if he should awaken her from her daydream. He cleared his throat softly and slid down into his seat slightly as if he were attempting to ignore her and relax. He then outstretched his hand upon the table and began to steadily tap his index finger on the hard surface.

The slight tapping noise did stir the girl slightly…but not enough.

Trent sighed and smiled. "Katheryn, I thought you were joining me for lunch."

"What?" the young woman jerked her head quickly to face Trent.

Trent only laughed it off.

"What? What did I say?" she stumbled over her words before she began to realize what had happened. "It's not funny."

Trent attempted to tone down his laughter.

"I was just thinking." She feigned a pout.

"That was quite obvious." Trent snickered, reaching a hand into his coat pocket.

C.D. then emerged from the kitchen, his smile broadening by the minute, with two plates of food. "Well, here we are, folks. Two house specials for two incredibly special people." He grinned as he set the plates down in front of Trent and Katheryn.

"Now, where's Carlos? He seems to always be in here eating me out of house and home." C.D. feigned an aggravated sigh.

Katheryn smiled. "He had to tend to a pressing case. It seems the criminals won't let up for him to have a meal with his friends."

"Oh, darling, he's the best out there, and he's helping to protect the good people of Dallas. We need more officers like that boy. He sure is a good man."

"I second that." Trent chimed in.

"You two enjoy your lunch." C.D. bid the twosome farewell and returned to his post behind the bar a ways off.

"You know," Trent began, "If you'd like, we can go by the Ranger's headquarters later for you to finish filling out your application."

"My application for what?" She glared at Trent. "Has Carlos been talking to you? Besides, there is no application process. It takes position and status in the police force to make the Rangers. I have none of the above."

"You have good defense skills," Trent defended. "I've never seen a student of mine learn faster than you have in the past two months. And after that shooting lesson you had with Carlos, I doubt if I should call you a novice." He paused to take a drink of water.

Katheryn sighed. "I know. I—I just don't know if it's what I should do. I love having the skills. I really do. But it takes dedication to be a Ranger. And…I don't know if I can give it my all. I'm a writer and charity worker."

"You seemed to have handled that undercover job well. Ranger Walker even told me that word of that reached Captain Briscoe. He was impressed by how well a beginner fared. You've got the goods. I'm sure you would excel."

Katheryn nodded. "The trouble is…I think I have enough confidence to say that I could do well. But…I just don't think it's for me." She finally let the words tumble with a sigh before she forked in another bite of food.

"Then I commend you," Trent smiled. "It's not often a person with talent is able to make a decision like that with a clear head."

"Thanks." Katheryn smiled and glanced up at the wall clock. "Oh no!" She called out although she remained calm at the moment.

"What? What is it?" Trent focused on her as she sighed and buried her face in her hands.

"I was supposed to be at the center thirty minutes ago," she managed to say although her voice was slightly muffled by her hands against her face.

Trent reached his hand upward and gently eased her hands from her face. "I'll give you a lift." He smiled, easing her tensed nerves somewhat as the twosome rose and started for the door.

Trent's cell phone vibrated at his side. He stopped midstride and indicated to Katheryn that he had to take the call. "What's up?" The other voice spoke. Katheryn could not detect whom it could be. "Alright. Stay safe, bud. Be careful." And he pressed the phones off button and started forward again. The young woman followed closely, getting into Trent's Stingray Corvette as he opened the passenger door for her.

"Who was on the phone?"

"Carlos." Trent rounded the car in front to the other side. "Seems they've got a serial killer on the loose. Broke out of prison a week ago and swears to avenge his brother's death. Carlos was forced to kill his kid brother a year ago when he opened fire on them in the capturing of this man. He wasn't too happy about it and must have fumed over it while in prison."

Katheryn's brow furrowed with concern. "Will Carlos be all right? That sounds rather dangerous."

Trent put the car in drive and aimed for the H.O.P.E. center as he spoke. "He'll be fine, I'm sure. He's gotten out of many tough scrapes." Trent paused shortly as a memory entered his mind. "Did he ever tell you about the day he conquered his fear of heights?"

Katheryn shook her head. "No, I don't think so." She smiled. "He's afraid of heights?"

"Some," Trent chuckled. "But I sure am glad he decided to fight his fears that day."

"Oh?"

"Yep." Trent focused his eyes on the road. "There was this serial killer that had made it his goal to kill a bunch of cops. Carlos was the last one on his list. After a few thwarted attempts, he almost succeeded by trying a drive-by just as he was about to leave my family's home. Thanks to Ranger Walker, his efforts were ruined again.

"I hopped into his patrol car and we commenced a chase through the metroplex for this guy. He finally stopped at this dank warehouse not far from downtown. He proceeded to climb the many flights of metal stairwell that surrounding the building. This place had many levels and walkways of metal bridges and stairs. It was crazy.

"Carlos tried to chase him along with Ranger Walker and myself, but he couldn't go but a short way before the anxiety hit him. I left him to continue the chase with Walker only to come face to face with the bad guy after Walker was shot in the shoulder.

"We fought on that narrow bridge that was quite high in the air for a little while until we both went over the bridge. The bad guy fell to the ground, but I was left hanging…literally."

Katheryn's eyes were wide with surprise at this point.

"Thankfully, Walker had managed his way there by some divine intervention and was now gripping me by the ankle as I dangled in the air. I still can't believe he was able to hold on for as long as he did. Especially with his shoulder being hurt and all. I tried to convince him to let me go or else we would both go over. He wouldn't hear of it of course. And moments later, I felt another hand grab my leg and start to help me up and back over.

"Before I knew it, the three of us had collapsed onto the bridge and sat there leaning against the metal fence, catching our breath and thanking God for helping us. Granted, Carlos was breathing a little harder than the rest of us." Trent directed a smile Katheryn's way.

She lightly chuckled as the magnitude of the even sunk into her mind. "That—that's incredible."

"Indeed!"

Katheryn relaxed into her seat, baffled by Trent's story. "Really?" Her voice rose slightly.

Trent nodded, a smile following his satisfied return.

"That's amazing," she stated once more, crossing her arms as she tried to picture in her mind everything that Trent had said. Then as more thoughts came in and out of her mind, she bowed her head a bit with a sigh. "Trent?"

"Yeah?" He kept his eyes on the road.

"Are you sure Carlos will be okay?"

"Yes…I am sure." Trent smiled.

"I hope you don't think me too forward…." Katheryn halted her words.

"Of course not."

Katheryn fastened her lips together as she struggled with whether or not to ask the next question that came into her mind. She shifted gears and decided upon the next question that came to her. "Would you be willing to teach me more martial arts?"

Trent looked her way, his eyebrows raised sarcastically. "Katheryn, I'm a karate teacher. Of course I'd be willing to teach you more." He finished with a smile.

Katheryn's awkward smile in return gently relaxed into relief as the H.O.P.E. center began to come into view.
There on the lawn were most of the center's volunteers and Miss Cahill also who were hard at work raking the wayward fall leaves, sweeping the vast veranda, and preparing for some sort of event by the looks of it.

"What's going on here?" Trent inquired, coming to a stop on the curb behind two other cars on the street.

Katheryn smiled and flashed a grin Trent's way. "It's a surprise."

Trent held a wary smile as he looked the scene over and began his attempt at deducing the situation sarcastically. "Let's see…My birthday is not for a few months…."

Katheryn sighed and surrendered. "It's a fundraiser for center. We are getting it all set up for Saturday afternoon. We even have a famous singer coming and everything." She beamed the news one last time before emerging from the sports car and breathing a satisfied breath as she stood there overlooking this most treasured place. She turned back to Trent. "Are you coming?"

"I'm afraid not. Got a class in less than an hour. But you have fun."

"I will." Katheryn waved as Trent put the car in reverse and eased back before turning slightly and accelerating forward and past the other cars that were in front of them.

In a brief moment she prayed silently that God would watch over Trent and Carlos. Something told her inside that something dangerous awaited them. And she could not bear the thought of losing her best friends. The commotion around her stirred her reverie as Miss Cahill descended a ladder from securing yet another small banner and caught a glimpse of Katheryn approaching them.

Miss Cahill greeted her with a warm smile. "Thank you so much for getting here as quick as you could. We have so much to do in so little time."

Katheryn cringed slightly, ashamed of her tardiness. "I would have been here sooner. I was having lunch with Trent Malloy and forgot all about the decorating today."

Miss Cahill raised a hand as to say no more should be said regarding the topic. "Nonsense. That is quite alright. Now…I've got a bit of baking inside that has your name written all over it."

Katheryn grinned. "Great! Show me the way."

As they walked, Miss Cahill commended her on a job well done over the past couple of months and praised her work. She also brought up a rather tender subject. "So…I hear you've become quite the fighter these days."

The coolness of the center smoothed over Katheryn's face as if a breeze, causing what heat that rose to her cheeks to dissipate as quickly as it had come. She sighed. "Yes. And I've enjoyed Trent's lessons."

"That's good. You could not have a better teacher than Trent or Walker. They are simply the best. Do you think you'd ever consider a job in law enforcement in the future?"

Katheryn sighed again. "I—I really don't know. You—you're the second person to ask me that today."

"Oh," Miss Cahill chuckled softly. "My apologies."

"Oh, that's quite alright. I suppose it's only a natural response. I mean…I love the skills. I really do. But like I told Trent…I just don't think it's for me."

"I understand." Miss Cahill placed her hand on Katheryn's shoulder to reassure her of her understanding. "Now…I suppose I should let you get to work."

The twosome exchanged fond smiles before Miss Cahill proceeded back outside into the Texas sunshine to supervise the work there.

Katheryn fastened her hair back into a quick ponytail and secured an apron about herself before crossing to the kitchen sink to wash her hands. There next to the sink was a piece of paper outlining what dishes needed to be made for the event.

She mumbled the list aloud as she dried her hands on the towel provided. "Muffins, cake, cookies…." A sigh of surprise crossed her lips. "That's a lot," she whispered. "Best get to work." Katheryn clapped her hands together intently and proceeded to gather her ingredients to begin her rather long afternoon of baking.

The kitchen timer vibrated fiercely upon the kitchen counter about an hour and a half later, causing Katheryn a fright as she prepped the chocolate icing for one of the cakes. Reaching her sleeved arm to wipe at her brow, she blew a puff of air into her face cause a wayward lock of hair or two to sway. But it did no good as it settle back into her eyes. She surrendered with a sigh and put on the oven mitts to retrieve the three round cakes which sat in the hot oven. The intense heat beat upon her face as she opened the door, causing a brief moment of discomfort as she reached for the rather hot pans. The heat stung at her eyes for just a brief moment as she quickly moved the three cakes from their cozy homes to the open air atop the stove.

Katheryn issued a satisfied smile as she set the last one down. "One cake down, one hundred more baked goods to go."

She sighed and set back to work when the side door leading out to the wrap-around veranda eased open gently. A smiling face eased in and beamed a welcome. "Call for reinforcements?"

Katheryn could nearly not contain herself as she let the mixing spoon fall out of her hand and into the icing and ran to embrace Mrs. Katie Malloy as she entered. "Oh, it's so good of you to come! How did you know?"

Mrs. Malloy gave her a sarcastic grin. "Trent called from the karate school and told me about your fundraiser."

Katheryn's lips pursed together as the answer was made evident in her mind. She smiled to herself. "I should have known."

Just then two more faces appeared led by their older brother Tommy. Tandy surrounded Katheryn, looked up at her, and grinned. "Can I help?"

Katheryn bent down to look the little girl in the eyes with a sincere smile. "Of course you can help." And she gently touched the girl's nose as the twosome giggled.

Mrs. Malloy smiled broadly and directed the little girl to the sink to help her wash up. "Up we go!" She hoisted Tandy into her arms and held her little frame over the kitchen sink from her to reach the soap and water.

Tommy and little Ty made their ways across the kitchen to where the cakes were cooling on the stove.

Mrs. Malloy never turned her head from helping Tandy as she issued a soft reprimand. "Uh-uh, you two."

Tommy's eyes sank in disappointment as he sighed. "Just a little taste, Katheryn?"

Katheryn firmly shook her head with her lips tightened together as she ambled towards the two boys. She looked Tommy straight in the eyes. "Nope." She smiled. "But you can help me make some cookies for the bake sale. The sooner all the baking is done, the sooner I may be convinced to spare some of this sweet goodness for a few needy persons."

Mrs. Malloy laughed softly at the exchange as she set Tandy down and handed the towel to her. The little girl took it and dried her hands like a pro before handing it back to her mother as she giggled. "You are funny." She glared at Tommy.

"Hehehe." Tommy issued a sarcastic breathy laugh.

Tandy marched over to Katheryn and stood at attention. "Ready to help!"

Katheryn grinned an approval. "Alright. First, we need to get our dry ingredients mixed for the muffin batter. Can you measure six cups of flour for me, Tandy?"
"Of course!" The little girl exclaimed and then creased her forehead as if she were confused. "Where's the flour?" Tandy stretched to look around each mixing bowl and ingredient that remained.

A snicker emanated from the corner of the room.

Mrs. Malloy turned off the sink faucet as she finished washing her own hands and looked towards the sound. In no time at all, she knew what was going on. "Thomas Malloy, you give me that flour right now."

Tommy turned around to show the item he held and then crossed penitently over to his little sister, outstretching his hand with the bag of flour in it.

Tandy glared at him with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. "That was mean, Tommy. And you didn't even say you're sorry." She took the bag from her brother and struggled to place the heavy item on the counter before her.

Tommy by near reflex almost jumped in to help for fear the white powder would cascade and cover the floor. But it was safe. He sighed…relieved…before turning back to Tandy. "I'm sorry. I really am. Can you ever forgive me?"

The little girl went about her measuring without turning back to her brother. "I suppose."

Tommy smiled.

"Doesn't mean I'll let Miss Katheryn give you any cake though."

Tommy frowned.

Tandy giggled under her breath where it was barely detectable. Katheryn caught a glimpse of the girl's smile and stifled one herself.

Miss Cahill then appeared, two baseballs and two bats in hand. "Hey, guys. The kids just arrived from school and are getting ready to have a ball game. You two care to join in and keep an eye on things?"

Tommy and Ty smiled broadly and were relieved for the opportunity to escape kitchen duty as they followed closely behind Miss Cahill.

"So," Mrs. Malloy cut in, crossing beside Katheryn on her other side to aid in the preparation of the muffin batter, "I hear you've been working a lot with Trent lately, Katheryn. How do you like it?"

Katheryn's smile evened out as she spoke. "Oh, I enjoy it greatly." She measured the salt then baking powder before stirring the dry mixture together well. "Trent's a good teacher."

"That he is." Trent's proud mother beamed with pride. "I'm so glad Trent found his calling. I know he loved the military. But I think he loves helping people personally even more. Even though my husband passed, it opened a journey for Trent I don't think even he saw coming. But he likes it."

"I can tell," Katheryn smiled.

Mrs. Malloy winked Katheryn's way. "And he's still single."

Katheryn nearly blushed and refused to let it show as she covered the statement with a soft chuckle. "I can't see why."

"Oh, Trent just wanted to focus on the more important things in life. He had opportunities in high school. But he set his mind on greater things."

"That's the best way."

"Indeed!" Mrs. Malloy smiled.

"You know," Katheryn took a lick of the icing and nodded her approval before continuing. "I was an only child growing up. And I don't mind it one bit at all. But after getting to know Trent, he almost seems like a brother to me. And I like that…very much."

"That's good." Mrs. Malloy chuckled. "Oh, you wouldn't believe how many times Carlos has tried to get him to go out with a young lady he knew. Trent's just not that kind of young man. And I'm glad. I'm glad you're in our lives now too." Mrs. Malloy showed Katheryn a sincere smile.

"Thanks." Katheryn smiled in return, unable to truly express how much the Malloy family had and would always meant to her.

##

"What we need is a sure plan." Detective Carlos Sandoval sat on the corner of Ranger Trivette's desks, facing Ranger Walker as they worked to devise a solid way to take down the serial killer that had been plaguing Dallas for months now. "Gutierrez is smart. Too smart, in fact. One wrong move on our part and it could cost us."

Ranger Walker sighed. "Yeah, you're right." Walker took a sip of coffee and then returned it to the coaster on his desk. "Do you feel up to some undercover work again, Carlos?"

Carlos nodded. "Sure. Always ready. What do you got?"

"Well…There's a small organization of drug cartels that is headed up by Gutierrez's uncle."

Trivette eased from behind his desk, reading from a file. "Yup. He's been on the most-wanted listed for three years now. No police force has been able to get hold of him yet."

"Where does that leave me?" Carlos raised an eyebrow. "Serial killers work alone. How could I get anywhere close to him through a relative?"

"Well," Ranger Walker sighed. "Rumor has it that Gutierrez's uncle smuggles illegal weapons from his supply in Mexico as strictly business."

"And if our snitch is right," Trivette continued the thought, "Gutierrez comes out of hiding about once a month to get his guns and ammo from his good uncle."

Carlos nodded in understanding. "So you want to take both of them out at one time when Gutierrez shows himself."

"Not quite. Gutierrez won't be that easy to get."

"So?" the Detective crossed his arms as he listened.

"So we need you, Carlos, to go undercover and try to get close to his uncle. See if you can find out what Gutierrez's next move may be."

"Gotcha." Carlos stood erect off of Trivette's desk. "So what's my cover?"

Trivette handed Carlos a file. Carlos read over the writing listed inside. "My, my. Looks like I'm one bad hombre. Says here I did seven years at Huntsville for theft and false bookkeeping before escaping with my partner and heading across the border. According to this, I am a former arms dealer looking to help cook the books for an unfortunate gun runner. Nice." Sandoval stated the latter with a flat note of sarcasm. He lifted his eyes above the paper. "You should have added attempted murder and racketeering to make the page even prettier."

Trivette slapped Sandoval on the back with a smile. "No problem there. I'm sure we'll book you on that charge before the next week is out."

Sandoval's breathy and apprehensive chuckle faded into shady confidence. "So…Who's my partner?"

"Well, good afternoon, everyone." A voice neared Carlos from behind. "You called, Walker?"

"Yep, I sure did, Trent." Walker smiled and glanced at Carlos. "To answer your question…."

The Detective raised a hand, nodding. "I think I understand."

"Understand what?" Trent smiled.

Trivette filled in Trent on the details of the case and the assignment to come.

"Well, what do you know?" Trent smiled. "When do we get started?"

"Right now." Trivette stood and led the way. "We gotta get you both suited up."

"Suited up?" Sandoval creased his forehead in confusion as he followed behind.

"Yep!" Trivette grinned as he exited the room. "For the gala."

Trent and Carlos exchanged confused glances as they slowly made their way out of the Ranger Headquarters office.


Part 2


A collective cheer was lifted up from the little kitchen at the H.O.P.E. center as the very last baked good was placed securely in its designated container and set aside for the fundraising bake sale the next day. Tandy's voice was filled with the most victory as she was rather pleased with a job well done…even if she had only helped. But no one could convince her that she was not irreplaceable.

"Can I have a small taste, Mommy?" Tandy leaned against the counter, gazing at the muffins that would not fit into the sale containers.

"I suppose so." Katie Malloy grinned, pushing a wayward lock of the little girl's hair behind her ear as Tandy reached for a muffin and settled back onto the stool she had sat on for the past hour. "Why don't you take two out to your brothers?"

Tandy frowned.

Katie widened her eyes with a knowing glance that communicated everything the little girl needed to know in that brief moment.

"Yes, ma'am." Tandy scooted off of the barstool and reached for two more muffins.

"You got it, sweetheart?" Mrs. Malloy issued with a soft chuckle.

"Yes, mama. I got it." Tandy held the three muffins securely. The sides of the muffins gently caved to the little girl's grip but remained secure.

"Here, let me get the door for you." Katheryn hurried in front of Tandy and smiled her way as she turned the knob and opened the door halfway.

"Thank you." Tandy beamed a smile in return as she hurried towards her brothers who remained engrossed in a baseball game with the other children that could have rivaled the big league sensations.

"Tommy! Ty!" she called out. "I got something for you!"

Tommy stopped short and called out to the little team. "Alright! That's a timeout!"

Tommy and Tyler hurried over to their little sister. They were out of breath but more than happy to see their sister.

"That looks yummy, Tandy!" Ty blurted out, reaching for a muffin from Tandy.

Tandy jerked away slightly. "You didn't say please."

Katheryn continued to watch the children's banter from her place by the veranda entrance into the kitchen. "You have the sweetest children, Mrs. Malloy." Katheryn eased the door shut and returned into the kitchen.

"Thank you." Mrs. Malloy took a taste of a muffin herself. "My, these are delicious. You have a gift, Katheryn."

Katheryn stifled a chuckle. "Oh, I don't know about that. I just follow instructions and go with the flow of what feels right." She cringed slightly. "Somehow that just sounded so odd."

Katie laughed lightly. "That's how you learn, darling. That's how you learn. Experience is the best teacher."

A stifled scream from the front yard caused the two women to jerk their gazes toward the door in fright. They simultaneously hurried outside.

"Tandy?! Ty?!" Mrs. Malloy called in panic as she flew away and down the veranda steps into where the fundraiser decorations were now up and ready with only two or three volunteers remaining at work. Katie hurried to a young woman who was cleaning up. "My little girl and boys were just here. Where are they?"

The woman was confused and slightly in a panic herself. "I—I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know? I heard a scream. I swear to God it was Tandy. Where is my little girl?!"

Katheryn had since caught up with Mrs. Malloy and now stood by her side, awaiting the volunteer's response

"He said he was a relative."

"Who said that?"

"The man…."

"What man?"

"The man who just drove away with your little boy and little girl. He took some of the other children too."

"Oh, God!" Mrs. Malloy sobbed. "Where's Tommy?"

A groan came from the ground at the edge of the woods away off. Katheryn hurried towards the sound by near reflex. "Tommy!" She reached down to help him up. "What happened?"

Tommy sat on the curb for a second, gaining his composure. "A man walked up claiming to be a relative of ours. Said he was going to take us home. I've never seen him before in my life. I tried to stop him, but…." He then buried his face in his hands as he was overcome with regret that he could not have stopped him.

Mrs. Malloy embraced her older son. "It's okay." She stifled another sob. "You did what you could son. You did what you could."

Katheryn laid a hand softly on Mrs. Malloy's shoulder. "I'm going to go call Trent and Carlos."

Katie nodded and continued to embrace her son as Katheryn rose to her full height and hurried back towards the center to make the call. She quickly dialed Trent's cell number and paced the kitchen floor. "Come on," she said under her breath, causing the seconds to seem like minutes as the time slowed to a standstill it seemed.

##

"Well…I never thought I'd need a tux fitting for an undercover job." Carlos sighed as an employee measured him up for a brand new tuxedo.

Trent stood to the side, gazing in the mirror at the tux that he now wore. "Me neither, buddy." He stifled a cringe.

Trent's cell phone sounded from his leather jacket which was draped on a nearby sofa.

"Hand that to me, will you, Trivette?"

Trivette was busy stifling a few grins as he crossed the short space and retrieved the cellular device. "Here ya go."

"Thanks." Trent flipped open the phone and placed it on his ear. "Trent Malloy."

From the other end, Katheryn remained as calm as possible. "Trent?"

"Katheryn?" Trent creased his forehead as he focused. The short silence that followed put him on edge. "What is it?"

Carlos by impulse turned quickly towards Trent as soon as he had heard Katheryn's name and saw the concern on Trent's face.

"Something horrible has happened. Tandy and Ty…they were kidnapped just now." Katheryn finally let out, still holding her breath inside from the tension that welled up.

The color left Trent's face for a second and then returned in the form of a subdued anger.

"Stay put. I'll be there soon." Trent hung up quickly and crossed to the sofa where Trivette and Carlos were.

"What's up?" Carlos posed with concern.

"That was Katheryn. Tandy and Tyler were just kidnapped."

"Kidnapped?!" Trivette stated with surprise. "Where were they at?"
"The H.O.P.E. center." Trent sighed. "I've got to get over there. I hope you can do without me, Carlos."

"Whoa there, Trent. You're not going without me."

"But what about the undercover mission?"

"It'll wait, you two." Trivette cut in. "I'll take these tuxes to the Ranger headquarters. You can pick them up when you get the chance before that gala on Monday."

Trent and Carlos nodded, moving quickly to change into their street attire as they hurried out to Trent's Stingray and sped away towards the H.O.P.E. center.

"Was anyone hurt?" Carlos queried as they rode.

Trent shook his head. "No. I don't think so. Katheryn seemed to be fairly calm over the phone."

"That's good." Carlos sighed aloud and turned to view the quickly-passing scenery. He couldn't help but worry about Katheryn and urged himself to dismiss the feeling. It seemed so selfish considering that the littlest Malloy children were in danger.

The black, silver-rimmed shiny tires came to a slow but screeching halt on the street alongside the sidewalk in front of the H.O.P.E. center. Trent exited the car quickly and hurried to where Mrs. Malloy stood, wiping yet another tear from her already tear-stained face.

"What happened?" Trent embraced his mother.

Tommy sat to the side on the veranda steps and raised his head from having buried it in his hands. "A man…he kidnapped them and three other little kids. Gave me a black eye for all the trouble." He lethargically returned his gaze to the concrete steps.

"Carlos!" Katheryn called out softly, moving towards him as he stepped away from the car. "I'm glad you came too." She issued a selfish smile and quickly dismissed it as quick as it had come.

"I wouldn't be anywhere else when a friend needs my help." Carlos nodded once firmly. "Are you hurt?" He placed a hand on Katheryn's shoulder.

The young woman shook her head, lowering her gaze to the grasses below.

"That's great. If you'll excuse me…" Carlos awaited her answer.

Katheryn nodded eagerly. "Of course. Go ahead." She turned around in sequence to follow as Carlos moved passed her to join the others.

Trent embraced his mother a moment longer before crossing the short distance to Tommy. "What else can you tell me? Why didn't he take you? Are you alright, Tommy?"

"Alright! Alright!" Tommy raised a hand. His aggravation toward the criminal came out towards his brother. Tommy realized this quickly and sighed, turning away. "Sorry."

"That's okay." Trent replied evenly. "What can you tell me?"

Tommy didn't move, but did begin to replay the rapid event again in his mind. "Me, Ty, and Tandy were just sitting off to ourselves eating some of Katheryn's baking when a man appeared around the corner. He was all nice and everything. He told Tandy how pretty she was and how her hair is just like her aunt's." Tommy paused and sniffed hard, not moving a muscle.

"Go on, son," Mrs. Malloy moved closer to Trent and Tommy. By now, everyone there listened to the details closely.

"Well, he bent down low and began telling Ty and Tandy that he was a cousin or something. I started getting the feel that he was being too nice for a stranger…relative or not. So I asked him if he had seen my father today. He said that he had seen him not one hour ago just down the street. I had him for sure then. I asked him politely to leave us alone. He then insisted that he was sent to take us kids home. I knew that wasn't worth the ground he stood on and I firmly asked him to leave. He shoved me once, and I tried shoving him back. It didn't work. He took Tandy and Ty by the arm harshly…and that made me mad. I threw a punch…but…but he threw one back as you can see. It knocked me out cold into those bushes over there. By the time mom came and roused me…he was gone."

"That's sick." Carlos inserted.

Mrs. Malloy fought back the tears as she covered her mouth with one hand and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. "Did you get a good look at the man, Tommy?"

Trent nodded in agreement.

"Yeah," Tommy turned to face his family with a new-found confidence. "Yeah, I think I did." Tommy paused. A thought had come to him. "And you know…I think I remember the first three digits in his license plate number."

Mrs. Malloy smiled for the first time. "Then that's a start."

Trent grinned. "Atta boy."

Tommy forced a smile. "I think it was 'T4J'."

Trent turned to Miss Cahill. "Call Walker. I think we're going to need his help."

"Sure thing." Miss Cahill hurried indoors and called Ranger Cordell Walker as fast as she could.

Katheryn loosened her tightened lips and sighed. "Why would someone do such a thing?"

Carlos neared her. "Because they don't have any regard for the law or for decency."

"Indeed," Katheryn sighed and glanced toward the detective who gave her a solid nod.

A quarter of an hour passed before Rangers Walker and Trivette came to a stop on the street behind Trent's Stingray. They exited the large truck and crossed the lawn to where the small group remained.

"Trent." Walker greeted and looked towards Tommy. "I hear you had quite the ordeal, Tommy."

Tommy scoffed. "Yeah."

"I ran that part of the license plate number before heading this way," Trivette began. "Seems it matched the first three digits of a car currently on the watch list and belonging to none other than Johnny Gutierrez."

"Really?" Carlos raised an eyebrow in surprise. "What would he be doing here?"

"That's what I'd like to find out." Trent stood to his full height, patting his brother solidly on the shoulder to reassure him as he spoke.

"Well," Miss Cahill exhaled deeply, "I sure wish I could postpone the fundraiser in light of this."

"Oh, no, Miss Cahill." Mrs. Malloy insisted. "Do let it go on."

"Are you sure?" Miss Cahill looked on with concern.

Mrs. Malloy nodded firmly, keeping her emotions at bay.

"Alright." Miss Cahill embraced Mrs. Malloy. Drawing away, she attempted a smile. "If you guys need anything, don't hesitate to call. Katheryn, Josie, and I would be more than happy to be there for you."

Katie nodded through the impending tears and took in deep breath. "And you can count on us to be here to help you tomorrow. Right, Tommy?"

Tommy nodded firmly, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth as he stood.

"Oh, you shouldn't." Miss Cahill argued with reason.

"No…We'll be here. I ain't staying at home and moping. It won't do my little ones any good. Besides, the Good Book says I reap what I sow. I can't think of a better way to help bring my children back alive than by helping give life to the young ones who depend on this place."

Miss Cahill smiled. "Okay."

Katheryn's brow furrowed as she neared Carlos. "Do you think someone should stay here the night…just in case?"

"Hmm…you're right. That would be a good idea."

"I would suggest Trent. But he'll need to go home for sure. And the Rangers will be quite busy tonight, I'm sure." Katheryn rocked on her heels with an expression of hidden request.

Carlos raised one eyebrow sarcastically. "You look as if you already picked out your victim."

Katheryn slapped at Carlos' arm with a breathy sigh.

Carlos smiled broadly. "I was already planning on volunteering."

Katheryn smiled softly in return. "Good. Um, I was planning to stay the night too."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Miss Cahill needs rest and Josie is treating our guest of honor to dinner tonight. All the other volunteers helped decorate today, and I'd feel just awful asking them to stay."

"Haven't you been here all day too?" Carlos wondered.

"Yes," Katheryn nodded. "But I've been inside baking. It's a bit of cooler job." She smiled.

"I see." Carlos inhaled and then exhaled. "Then I guess I'll see you in a little while." He smiled and tipped his head forward cordially as he took a step back before turning completely and heading back to Trent's Stingray.

Trent was already there and gave his friend a friendly teasing. "What took you so long?"

"Just drive." Carlos narrowed his eyes in thought.

Trent laughed the moment off and sped forward back to Ranger headquarters.

"Katheryn is a good gal." Trent broke the silence halfway there.

Carlos faced the oncoming road ahead and didn't shift his view. "Yep."

Trent stole a quick glance of his friend, keeping his eyes secured on the road as he drove. "What's on your mind, buddy?"
"Nothing." Carlos interjected rather quickly.

Trent didn't take no for an answer and pressed onward. "No, really. What's up?"

"I don't know." Carlos gave in with a sigh.

"What do you mean?" Trent chuckled softly.

"I—I don't really want to talk about it." Carlos fastened his view on the road ahead, clearing his throat as if he considered the subject to be over and done with.

"Alright." Trent surrendered and accelerated a bit faster, revving the engine to his delight as then pressed onward to their destination.

##

The deep darkness of the cool and crisp Texas autumn night settled gently over the H.O.P.E. center as the crickets could be heard a mile away, chirping their sweet songs. A light wind drifted over the veranda, swaying the curtains of the opened window that was situated at the kitchen beyond. There Katheryn stood, mug in hand, letting the hot liquid warm her hands and face as she cupped it securely to herself, leaning against the white porch column.

Shutting her eyes to the world around her, she took in a deep, satisfying breath. Katheryn truly loved the little place. The passion she held for the people who passed through those doors was ever-increasing as the days passed by.

Her reverie was short-lived as a car engine sounded in the distant dark. She opened her eyes to see Detective Sandoval's familiar unmarked police car nearing the center and turning into the driveway. Katheryn smiled softly.

Carlos shut the engine off and exited the vehicle. He made his way up the rest of the drive on foot and crossed the short distance of grass to the steps leading up to the veranda. A loud thud proceeded as he set his duffle bag on the porch. "Good evening," he greeted Katheryn with a nervous smile.

"Good evening yourself, Detective." She returned cordially.

"Now…You can dispense with the formalities." Carlos raised an eyebrow with a playful smile.

Katheryn nodded and took a sip of her hot tea to stifle an oncoming chuckle. "Would you like a cup?"

Carlos took a deep breath. "Mm…Sounds good." He smiled.

"I'll be right back then," Katheryn beamed and hurried inside, returning a short minute later with a steaming cup of tea in the other hand. Handing the hot beverage to the detective, she moved back to her place by the edge of the porch and took a deep breath. "It's such a beautiful night, isn't it?"

Carlos nearly burned his mouth as he prematurely decided to take a quick swallow of the cup's contents. Regretting his dire mistake, he clasped his lips together firmly and turned away, awaiting the sensation to pass as the young woman spoke. He sighed as relief came and turned back to Katheryn who had not seen a thing. "Uh, um, yeah. Very pretty." He shook his head. "The evening…that is."

Katheryn was unmoved as her thoughts raged onward about her life and purpose here at the center and what would become of the days ahead. She was a thinker like that. There was never a dull moment in the girl's mind.

A few fleeting moments of quiet fell between the two as they sipped on their drinks and thought silently to themselves the words of a million conversations.

Carlos remained in his deep-seated thoughts of the days past and the days ahead. He then remembered the thoughts he had when he and Katheryn had been held captive all on their own in that dank warehouse storage room not two short months ago. Wow. It had seemed longer to him…for some reason.

"I, um, I was just thinking about that night." Katheryn's words interrupted his thoughts but seemed to flow parallel to them. "We could have died. That chance was there. But we didn't. God protected us. And…and I never had one fear. Well maybe one or two." Katheryn smiled. "But overall…I wasn't afraid." She paused and looked up to meet the detective's gaze. "I sound ridiculous don't I?"

"No," Sandoval quickly inserted. "No…not at all. I'm…glad…that you felt that way."

Katheryn's soft smiled eased away and softened and then returned again…a little bit broader this time. "Trent was just trying to convince me to join the Rangers today."

Carlos smiled. "Oh?"

"Yeah." Katheryn sighed. "But I, uh, don't think it's for me right now. But boy would I love it I think."

"The Rangers are amazing. I've never been more honored to work with them than I am now. It's a riveting experience."

Katheryn absorbed his words with a gentle smile. "I hear you're afraid of heights."

Carlos laughed aloud as he nodded. "Unfortunately, yes."

"But you overcame it." She playfully pointed her finger his way as she attempted to cheer him up.

"For one fleeting moment maybe." His smile diminished. "But I couldn't let a friend down. I couldn't have lived with myself if…." He sniffed hard as his words trailed off.

Katheryn focused on his words…and his now silent meaning as he looked off towards the yard in thought. She nervously shifted her own gaze to the yard also. "I—I sure do hope Tandy and Ty are alright."

Carlos nodded in agreement. "It's sick that someone would just steal children off of the street like that."

"Yep. In broad daylight too." The young woman bowed her head and sniffled. A small tear slipped down her face.

Somehow Carlos saw the tear and stood softly crossing to her side. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Katheryn laughed it off, sniffed again, and wiped at the tear with her free hand. "It's silly."

"C'mon. Try me." Carlos dared.

A short moment of silence passed. "I—I just love you all so much. I've only known the Malloy family, the Rangers, and you for two months, yet…yet you all feel like family to me." She sniffed again. "Trent…he…he seems like a brother to me. And so does Tommy. I just don't know what life would be like without you all in my life." She chuckled softly under her breath. "Told you it would sound silly."

Carlos listened closely and understood everything she said perfectly well. "No…It's not silly at all. I've felt much the same way over the years about the Malloy family. I think they would say the same about you. And…." He paused, glanced downward and back up again. "…I think of you as family too." He smiled softly as she now looked towards him with a soft glimmer in her eyes.

"Really?" she stifled a soft laugh.

"Really." Carlos nodded firmly. "Now…What can I do to convince you to call me Carlos? After all…That's what family does."

She smiled. "I suppose there's part of me that wanted to call you that for weeks now. So…you don't have to convince me any…Carlos." The twosome stifled a laugh each. "So much for my tea." Katheryn sniffed one last time. "It's cold….And so am I come to think of it." She shivered slightly. "I'm gonna head inside. You coming?"

Carlos nodded. "Sure. You go on ahead. I'll be there shortly."

"Okay." Katheryn started towards the door but stopped short, turning halfway to look at Carlos although his back was turned to her as he looked out over the yard as if keeping watch. What seemed like the hundredth smile eased its way from the corner of her mouth. Reaching for the door, it made a slight moan as she opened it. Stepping inside, Katheryn took in deep breath, shutting her eyes once more against her surroundings to relive the moment. What may could have seemed silly to the rest of the world now meant all the world to her. And Carlos had understood her more than she ever had dreamed possible.

##

A cool, crisp breeze accompanied the midday as the crowd began to grow larger and larger on the lawn of the H.O.P.E. center. The entire community seemed to be there chatting and learning more about the people that make the place so special.

Miss Cahill weaved in between the guests, greeting some and shaking the hands of others with a warm inviting smile. They would need plenty of warm smiles to counter the rather cool wind that kicked up around them incessantly. Mrs. Malloy was there too along with Tommy.

Katheryn stood watch at her post behind the baked goods table with pride for her work and even more pride for the people around her.

Mrs. Malloy neared her table. "How are things going with the bake sale?" She smiled.

"Very well!" Katheryn beamed, lifting the money bag which was already bulging a bit.

"Oh, that's wonderful!" Mrs. Malloy clapped her hands together in a prayer of thanks.

Tommy eased up behind the table. "Any leftovers?"

Katheryn flashed him a sarcastic look.

"Alright. Alright." Tommy took a step back, lifting his hands in surrender.

"Attention, ladies and gentlemen!" Miss Cahill spoke into the microphone as she stood at the entrance of the center.

The many voices tapered to silence as the winds shifted and replaced them. All eyes turned to Miss Cahill.

"I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming today. We appreciate it greatly. And I know all those who will benefit from your generous donations will also thank you. Now…We have a special treat for you all. Without further ado, please welcome our special guest singer Heather Compton to sing a wonderful song for you all."

Applause from the crowd followed as a young woman in her twenties emerged from the center's entrance and took her place at the mic. She strummed a beautiful song on her guitar and sang with a melody that captured everyone's heart. Her talent was definitely apparent to all there. And they rewarded her with quite the standing ovation.

Once the crowd had returned to mingling and spending money at the various booths, Katheryn approached Miss Cahill. "Have you hear from the Rangers?"

"I haven't." She returned solemnly. "I was thinking about calling just now."

"Let me," Katheryn sprung to the chance.

"Alright." Miss Cahill nodded and offered a weak smile before returning to the crowds.

Katheryn hurried inside and dialed Trent's cell number as quickly as possible.

"Trent Malloy."

"Trent? It's Katheryn. Is there any update?"

On the other end, Trent and Carlos cruised down the Dallas freeway, the crisp winds blowing around them.

"Afraid not. Ranger Walker and Trivette have us checking out some possible locations. Nothing's turned up yet."

Katheryn frowned. "I see."

"How are things there?" Trent shifted the subject.

"Pretty good. We've exceeded the amount of donations we anticipated."

"That's great." Trent beamed. "I've gotta go. I'll see you all later."

"Alright." Katheryn gently hung up the phone with a sigh and returned to the fundraiser empty-handed.

"Well, things seem to be going smoothly at the fundraiser." Trent broke the silence once he had hung up his phone.

"That's good." Carlos nodded.

"I was somewhat concerned that Gutierrez may have tried to return and harm Tommy. He is a witness."

"Yeah," Carlos creased his forehead in thought. "Perhaps you should have stayed behind, buddy."

Trent nodded. "Yeah. I should have. But it's my little sister and brother out there, Carlos. How could I have stayed behind knowing that? Tommy is safe with the others for now. But Tandy and Ty….It could be only a matter of time."

Carlos only nodded and surrendered to the impending silence with a sigh as the vast Dallas metro flashed before them.

##

Foot traffic, ringing phones, and passing cars filled the silence between the Rangers back at Ranger headquarters that same afternoon. Trivette pecked a few keys on his keyboard with an exasperated sigh. Ranger Walker glanced his way, shook his head, took a sip of coffee, and returned to the pile of papers on his desk.

Trivette's phone rang suddenly, causing the Ranger to be startled slightly. He immediately removed the device from the phone and placed it to his ear. "Ranger Trivette." He listened intently, his gaze unmoved. He gave a silent nod towards Walker as he stood to his feet rather quickly. "Alright. Thank you!" He hung up the phone and reached for his coat and Stetson. "The APB paid off, Walker. The car Tommy saw was just spotted leaving Hillsboro and heading south on 35."

Ranger Walker rose also, nodding as he processed the information. "Better call Trent and Carlos. Tell them to meet us there."

"Alright." Trivette paused and turned back to his desk to make the call before catching back up with Ranger Walker in the hall.


Part 3


Trent put his Corvette in neutral as he came to a stop beside Walker's rather large pickup which was already parked in the diagonal parking space along the street side. Hillsboro's simple downtown streets greeted them with its quiet pedestrian footsteps and short, shadowing buildings around them. Each square block showed something new. There was a restaurant on one corner, a roadhouse on another, a barbershop, a post office, and of course the sheriff's office they currently were parked in front of.

"Quite the quaint little town, eh?" Carlos inhaled as he stood up and out of the Corvette, shutting the sky blue door behind him as he neared the sidewalk.

"Yup." Trent followed close behind.

Carlos pulled back on the handle of the large single door. A rather warm gust blew back on them both as they entered the little building. Voices could be heard nearby as the twosome walked the narrow hall and rounded the corner into a rather minute office just a few feet ahead and to their right.

"Here they are now sir." Trivette nodded towards Trent and Carlos as they entered.

A stream of sunlight bared down through the window, highlighting the sheriff's less desirable features before finding its place at the feet of the two young men who had barely had time for their eyes to adjust to the little hole of a place before the sheriff glared down at them with his narrowing eyes. His slow Texas drawl left much to be desired of the man who considered himself to be the town's protection. "Which one of you boys is Trent?"

"Uh, I am sir." Trent took a small step forward and cleared his throat.

"The Rangers here tell me you got yourself into a peck of trouble back home."

"Yes, sir." Trent nodded, unsure of exactly where the sheriff's comments were heading.

"And somehow you four dipsticks think that a quiet town like mine could have played host to a thug kidnapper. That it?" The man raised his voice on the last note.

Ranger Walker stepped forward. "Yes. That's what I told you."

The sheriff released an aggravated sigh as he pushed back from his desk and stood erect. He pointed his finger at the Rangers. "Let me tell you something. Ain't never gonna be no one saying that Sheriff Higgins let a kidnapper through his town on his watch. Ya hear me?! So you four can march yourselves on back to Dallas or wherever it is ya come from and stay there!"

Trent and Carlos stood dumbfounded. Carlos raised one eyebrow slightly as Trent stifled his anger. He tried his best to let Ranger Walker lead.

"Listen here," Walker began, taking yet another step closer to the sheriff. "Gutierrez is a dangerous man. Those children could be in great danger if you don't let us in on what you may know. And whether or not you did let him get out of your town, it isn't those kids' fault. And they shouldn't suffer for it just because of your selfish pride." Walker sighed. His boots sounded hard against the rubbish of a floor as he made his way past his comrades and out into the cool air. The other three followed with pleasure.

Trent sighed harshly once they were out of earshot. "How could that man be so rude?"

"Tell me about it." Carlos retorted humorously as he stood next to Trent.

Trivette was the last to join them as the door closed behind him. "What now, Walker?"

"Let's ask around and see if anyone might have seen them."

"Sure thing." Trivette nodded.

"We should split up. Cover more ground." Carlos inserted.

"Good thinking." Walker agreed. "Trent and Carlos…Why don't you two cover the north side and Trivette and I will check out the south side. We'll meet back here in half an hour."

Trent and Carlos nodded their agreements and started off towards the northern area of town. There first stop was a little diner.

"Looks like as good a place as any to start." Trent led the way into the little place. Patsy Cline tunes filled their ears as a poodle skirt-clad young woman raced past them with a coffee pot in hand.

Trent and Carlos ducked back in time and sighed with relief before making their ways to the counter and being seated. In a flash, the poodle skirt darling had returned with bright eyes and a sprightly attitude to match her intense red lip rouge. If the boys weren't careful, they would have thought the girl had stepped right out of the fifties.

Then she spoke. "What can I do for you handsome boys? Maybe a house special or a cup of steaming hot joe?" Her Texas drawl added even more delight to the rather awkward conversation.

"Um," Trent smiled. "No…Afraid not. We have a few questions."

"I see." The girl's lower lip sagged slightly. "What are you guys? Police or something?"

Carlos lifted his badge from his hip and raised it into view.

"Yep. Figured as much." She smacked once on her chewing gum.

Trent reached into his leather jacket's inside pocket and drew out a recent family photo. "Have you seen this little girl or this little boy?" He indicated Tandy and Ty in the photo with his finger as he spoke.

The gal squinted hard and focused on the picture. "Nope…Wait…Um…Sure…I think."

Carlos was a hair away from rolling his eyes but listened carefully instead with a sarcastic expression.

Trent continued. "We have reason to believe that they would have left this town earlier today."

"Ya know," the girl propped her hand onto her hip as a thought suddenly entered her head, "I didn't think nothing of it, but a little girl did come in here this morning. Pretty little thing. She sort of takes after that girl in the photo. Anyways…"

Trent and Carlos exchanged wary glances.

"…She came in here very slow like she was—was scared or something. She asked for dozen donuts and just stood there by the door as if she was being watched or something. When I brought the order out, she took it, said thanks, handed me a bill, said keep the change, and scurried away."

Trent nodded eagerly. "Is that all you remember?"

"Just about, handsome." She smiled.

"Thank you," Trent responded sincerely. "You've been a great help to us, miss."

"Anytime." She smacked on her gum yet again as she watched the two young men leave the little restaurant.

Trent and Carlos returned to the sheriff's office just as the Rangers were also.

"Any luck?" Trivette queried.

"Yep." Carlos began. "Sounds like the gal at the diner may have seen Tandy."

Trivette nodded. "That's good. We also got a tip from the barber that a man fitting Gutierrez's description was seen getting into a car that matches the one we've been tracking. He said he saw it head south."

"So what now, Walker?" Trent eagerly pressed.

"We follow Gutierrez."

##

"And did you find them?" Katheryn paced the veranda of the H.O.P.E. center as Trent spoke to her from the other end. She sighed as Trent explained that they had not even seen them yet.

Miss Cahill, Josie, Mrs. Malloy, and Tommy stood nearby, awaiting any news as the last of the fundraiser attendees were taking their leave.

A gentle evening sunset was upon them as the atmosphere grew cooler by the minute. Katheryn rubbed at her arm that held the phone to her ear as she listened closely. "I see. Thanks for keeping us updated, Trent. Be safe." She hung up and turned towards the steps, descending them as she approached her friends. "Nothing yet."

Mrs. Malloy sighed. Tommy rolled his eyes.

"But," Katheryn raised her voice slightly then lowered it, "They did find out they were indeed in Hillsboro. A waitress saw Tandy."

Mrs. Malloy breathed a prayer of thanks.

Tommy clasped his lips together, trying hard not to say something he'd soon regret.

Katheryn noticed his agitation and looked his way. "They'll find them, Tommy. I know it."

Tommy didn't face her but turned the other way and began walking. He had to let it out some way. He paced back to her. "What if it's too late?"

"Have faith, Tommy. Your brother is just as angry at that man as you are right now. If not even more."

"Yeah. I suppose you're right."

"Say, what about we head over to the karate school and go a couple rounds?" Katheryn attempted a smile.

Tommy exhaled. "Sure. It won't hurt nothing I suppose."

"We'll all go." Mrs. Malloy inserted moving towards their car to unlock it.

"Great!" Katheryn moved forward with Tommy as they piled into the Malloy's car. Katheryn stopped short just before shutting the door. "Are you coming, Miss Cahill?"

"You all go ahead!" Miss Cahill shouted from the veranda steps with a smile. "We'll take care of clean-up."

"Alright!" Katheryn beamed before shutting the door as Mrs. Malloy cranked the engine and accelerated forward towards Thunder Karate.

Arriving at the school, dusk had settled in quite deeply and had eradicated what little warmth the sun had given during the day. The threesome exited the car and headed inside.

"My, it's brisk tonight!" Katheryn hugged herself, rubbing her arms as the wind played at her long hair.

"Yep." Tommy agreed scurrying into the vast building as quick as possible after his mother and Katheryn had entered.

Mrs. Malloy turned the lights on. "I'll just go up to Trent's little office area while you two are at it."

"K," Tommy reached the platform and reached for the bag of equipment on in one corner. "I'll go easy on you." He teased.

Katheryn chuckled as she set aside her handbag and coat. "Why would you do that? You afraid?"

Tommy guffawed.

"Alright…You asked for it."

The little exchange was all Tommy needed to let it out and release the anger that had built up within him all day. After an hour, he had completely forgotten his troubles. No…not forgotten. Just was relieved of its grip on his mind.

Mrs. Malloy smiled on the two young people as she gazed upon them from the loft office. Tommy and Katheryn had since collapsed onto the mat and was busy catching their breath. "Have you two had enough?"

Tommy breathed hard a couple times as he laughed aloud. "Yep. Yeah…I think so."

"I think I'm beat." Katheryn smiled as she sat upright.

Mrs. Malloy closed Trent's Bible which used to belong to her late husband and took up her handbag, heading for the stairs that led down to the main floor. "Katheryn, why don't you head home with us tonight? It's much too dark for you to be alone. You're more than welcome to stay the night."

"I'd like that." Katheryn smiled, standing to her feet.

Tommy also manage to find his footing as he stood. It was a fairly quiet ride back to the Malloy home as most present were tired and exhausted. Arriving home, Mrs. Malloy went ahead of Katheryn and Tommy.

Tommy exited the car first, followed by Katheryn. His sad expression returned for the first time since earlier that evening. "It feels weird coming home without them."

Katheryn walked alongside Tommy as they aimed for the front entrance. "Yeah. I can imagine. But the Rangers and Trent and Carlos will find them…alive and well. They'll be back nosing around in your business before you know it."

Tommy smiled from the corner of his mouth. "Somehow I know you're right."

"I am right." Katheryn quickly inserted putting her arm around the young man in a sisterly fashion as the two found their way inside for the night.

Katheryn had just settled into her temporary bed in the Malloy's guest room at just half-past ten when a small noise jostled her thoughts away and drew her attention to its source. Her forehead wrinkled in confusion as she eased from the covers…and slowly eased toward the window. Nothing. Shrugging it off, Katheryn hopped back under the warmth of the bedding and sighed, concluding that her nerves were simply tensed from being concerned about Trent, Carlos, and the children. She situated herself in bed just so…it was a bit of ritual to get it just right.

Ten minutes swiftly came and went. And with them came a deep sleep for Katheryn as she had nearly drifted away. Three creaks sent her wide awake…yet she remained unmoved. Only her eyes opened wide…not for shock….She simply was now quite a bit more alert than she was moments ago. Another creak of the floorboards led to another and another. They seemed to get louder and louder…but still far away. Something wasn't right.

Katheryn eased ever so carefully from the warmth of the covers. The nighttime cold nipped at her bare skin as she prepared her mind and body subconsciously for what might lie ahead. She placed one hand on the doorknob…and turned it, trying her best not to cause a sound as a cringe eased its way onto her face.

The latch was loosened…thankfully. Letting go of the knob, she gently placed her hand on the door itself and eased it open. It moaned slightly, causing her a small fright as she quickly ceased from moving the door and rested her forehead on its wooden frame, breathing a silent prayer. Just a few more inches, she reminded herself and began easing it open some more. Success followed as she eased her body through the narrow opening that she made and looked into the hall. No one. Nothing except the darkness that her eyes had by now become well adjusted to.

Then it appeared…A shadow across the floor just beyond the hall. Katheryn ducked back into her room, leaning her back against the wall inside and taking a deep, nerving breath. A silent one at that. Footsteps then sounded upon the floor. They were coming closer by the second. Katheryn braced herself. She knew exactly what she should do. But could she do it? Did she have the courage? Sure she did. Of course she did! She hoped….

The footsteps stopped…and turned. A gloved hand rested upon the doorknob and eased it open. The darkness shaded Katheryn from view…for at least a moment. The tall figure eased into the room, approaching the center of the room as if in silent search for some unseen person. Then he turned. But before he could, Katheryn hoisted a grand roundhouse kick to his lower back, landing back on her feet, fists in front of her face while in a stationary stance. She was ready for whatever was to come.

Bellowing forward with the wind knocked out of him, the tall, leather-clad creature picked himself up and hurled his fists toward Katheryn's face. She ducked in time…and also ducked three more times. She also managed to duck away from his rather professional roundhouse kick…but she didn't do so well on the second one and was nearly thrown onto to the bed from the force. She was determined now. With no holds barred, Katheryn threw three solid single punches and kicked the man up high in the face. But this was no ordinary man…He would not be beat.

He growled, snarled, and reached forward for Katheryn's throat, bringing her to the wall and holding her captive against his grip. She fought back but to no avail and tried to cough, gasping for every ounce of air she could find. Yet she was helpless as the man breathed curses in her face and showed great displeasure.

But as quick as it had begun, it began to dissipate. Air returned to her lungs as she gasped for every drop and leaned forward, heaving slightly. The man had fallen helplessly to the ground in one swift movement. As he fell, Katheryn lifted her eyes to see Tommy standing in the doorway…unmoved…emotionless to what he had done.

"Is he dead?" It was all Tommy could say.

"Oh, my Lord!" Mrs. Malloy had found her way to her son's side. Her hand was against her mouth as she remained stunned. She entered the room and rushed to Katheryn's side. "Are you alright, darling?"

Katheryn only nodded although her jaw hurt some. "Just sore. But I think he's even worse off." She pointed to the criminal.

"Who is this man?" Mrs. Malloy gently eased back over to her son's side.

"It's him." Tommy stated with a straight face.

"Who?"

"The one who kidnapped Tandy and Ty."

"Then…then where are they?" Mrs. Malloy nearly sobbed.

Katheryn stood upright and sighed. "We shouldn't assume that until the authorities get here."

"I suppose your right. Oh…" Mrs. Malloy sighed once more and covered her face with both of her hands and took a few deep breaths as she turned to leave the room.

Katheryn walked the short distance to where Tommy still stood. "Are you alright?"

Tommy nodded. "I did what had to be done."

Katheryn nodded. "And for that I'm grateful, Tommy."

The police squads arrived to the Malloy home in just minutes, crowding the little driveway with flashing blue lights and loud dispatch radios. The perpetrator was carried out by medical technicians and pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner.

Mrs. Malloy and Tommy stood with Katheryn off to the side in the grass at the edge of the driveway as they tried to gather their thoughts back from the horrific evening.

"Ma'am," an officer approached the threesome. "We are going to need statements from each of you."

"Of course, officer." Mrs. Malloy was the first to step forward. She knew she had to set an example.

Katheryn sighed and turned to Tommy as the officer went to the side with Katie. "Oh, I wish the Rangers could have come…and Trent and Carlos."

"Yeah." Tommy sighed.

"Could it really have been him?" Katheryn queried, knowing well that Tommy did not know the answer.

"Maybe." Tommy shook his head. "I can't believe I killed him." Terror stung at his eyes.

"Oh, Tommy, don't apologize. You saved my life."

"I know. I know. Just what if I wouldn't have had that throwing star? Trent's gonna kill me if he finds out I took them."

"No, he won't. He'll understand." Katheryn sighed.

"Sure." Tommy pushed forward as the officer motioned for him.

Mrs. Malloy returned to Katheryn. "He's shaken up quite a bit."

"Yeah. I sure hope the others can get back soon. There are so many missing pieces to this weird puzzle."

"Indeed." Mrs. Malloy put her arm around Katheryn. "Thank you for trying your best to help."

Katheryn nodded firmly. "I wouldn't have thought of doing anything different."

Mrs. Malloy managed a smile of thanks.

It would be a long night to be sure. Katheryn needed to hear a comforting voice. Many voices could be heard around her, but the only one she heard was a still small voice that told her within that everything was going to be alright. Then the next voice she heard was Carlos' voice two months ago when they were faced with unknown danger ahead. Katheryn shook away her reverie just as the officer called her forward. For some reason, the long night didn't seem quite as long anymore.


Part 4 (final part)


One room with a squeaking roll-out sofa bed, two narrow queens, and a humming air conditioning unit was all the small town of Belton, Texas, could offer the Rangers, Trent, and Detective Sandoval as ten o'clock called them to a stop on their journey to find the ruthless Gutierrez. What they had hoped to be a one-day trip had quickly proven to be more than that. They would have to stay the night in this town that had very little to offer. Very little…to none. One room to be exact.

The four men entered the small space with sighs, cringes, and glances of dismay. But they had no choice. It was this…or sleeping in their respective vehicles. The foursome went to various corners, inspecting the little place for a second as they dispensed of what few belongings they had brought onto the beds and the little table that was narrowed in between the two rather small queen beds.

Trent sighed as he slipped off his leather jacket and tossed it over the only chair in the room. "Well, I suppose I shall try and get some shut-eye. Who's taking the roll-out?" He glanced at Carlos.

"Nuh-uh." Carlos shook his head. "Those things give me the creeps."

Trent rolled his eyes with a chuckle. "Don't worry…It's low to the ground."

"Very funny." Carlos sarcastically retorted as he too began removing his leather coat and tossing it over Trent's.

Ranger Walker removed his Stetson and pistol, setting them on the bed. "You guys can take the beds. I'll take the roll-out."

"Hey," Trivette's breathy chuckle broke into the imminent silence that followed Walker's solution. "That means….Hey that's not fair." Trivette tossed his Stetson onto the other bed and followed Walker as he neared the sofa. "Really? The floor? Do you know what kind of—of things live in the floor?" Trivette cringed on that last note.

Trent and Carlos stifled their laughter as they traded places with the Rangers, crossing to where the beds were to attempt to get some sleep. Trent fell onto the bed, his hands interlocked and cupped behind his head as it hit the pillow. Carlos watched him as he shut his eyes and feigned a peaceful rest. Carlos simply shook his head, rolled his eyes, and turned to his own bed, pausing to notice Trent's legs hanging off the bed by a good amount.

"I see the bed measuring is up to par here." He stated under his breath, turning full-circle back to his own resting area. Letting his own weight relax onto the thin bedding and letting his head fall onto the rather weak pillow, Carlos stared up at the low, cottage cheese ceiling, reflecting on the situation at hand. "This is quite uncomfortable."

Trent only smiled…his eyes still closed.

Carlos sighed.

A grunt could be heard from across the room as Trivette attempted to settle onto the hard carpet below at the foot of the roll-out sofa. "What's it take to get a little appreciation around here?" He muttered under his breath.

Trent opened his eyes long enough to lean towards the nightstand and turn the dusty lamp off, sending a deep darkness throughout the room. A bit of moonlight peaked through the dust-filled curtains but wasn't enough to amount for much.

Carlos took heed to his friend's signal and turned to his side, closing his eyes in an effort to sleep. It was rather difficult as he could not stop thinking about the task at hand. Not to mention being longer than the bed afforded him some more discomfort.

Yet even with Carlos' debacle, it was even harder for Trent to sleep. His eyes fluttered open and quickly adjusted, letting in what little light came from the window to his left. The now quiet room now had been replaced by Trent's racing thoughts as images of Tandy and Ty raced through his mind. The little girl's smile. Ty's gentleness and caring. Many memories passed through his mind. He had little desire to sleep although his body craved for it as more and more thoughts went into and out of his mind. It would be a long night.

Glancing over at Carlos, he was now fully asleep he assumed. For a moment Trent was tempted to leave the room and get some air. But he fought back the thought and forced himself to focus on sleep instead…ever how hard it may seem.

Thirty minutes passed before Trent's reverie was awoken by the piercing sound of Trivette's cellular phone.

Trivette stirred, grunted, and reached for the device as he sat up against the stucco wall. "Yes? This is Ranger Trivette." His drowsy voice alerted his comrades. Carlos stirred some and so did Ranger Walker.

Trent strained to hear what could be going on. Yet silence remained as the Ranger only listened to the other party. He slowly sat up and onto the side of the hard bed. Sleep would be almost impossible now.

"I see." Trivette spoke. "Alright. We'll be right there." The device sounded off as Trivette hung up. He yawned broadly in an attempt to awaken himself. "Hey guys." He raised his voice a bit louder.

Trent turned on the lamp. Carlos turned over and squinted from the light. "What are you doing, Trent?"

"Trivette just got a call." Trent turned to the Rangers. "What's up?"

Trivette guided himself onto his feet and neared the two beds. Ranger Walker was close behind. "That was DPD. A man was just killed at your house, Trent."

Trent's eyes grew a bit wider. "What happened?"

"According to your family and Katheryn, a man broke in and was caught off guard by Katheryn. She managed to fight back, but it was a young man who dealt the deathly blow. Said we would find out more once we arrived."

Carlos was now fully alert to the conversation. "Was everyone okay?"

"I think so." Trivette nodded. "They only spoke of one fatality."

"Let's go." Trent pushed passed the others, grabbing ahold of his coat on his way. Carlos quickly followed. And the Rangers were not too far behind.

It was well into the middle of the night when Trent's Corvette came to a stop in his own driveway. He quickly turned the engine off and rushed forward into his home not waiting for the others. He pushed through the door forcefully and stopped short. "Mom? Tommy?"

Mrs. Malloy appeared from the kitchen and embraced her son….Tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Trent!"

"Shh…It's alright." Trent took a moment to bring comfort to a situation that he had little knowledge of.

Carlos and the Rangers had made their way into the house by now. Katheryn was descending the stairs swiftly as the others entered. She hurried forward, a feeling a relief settling within her as she caught a glimpse of Trent and Carlos. "Trent! Carlos!" She called out before she had even reached them.

Carlos looked onward and past Trent. "Are you okay?"

Katheryn nodded eagerly, attempting a weak smile to assure him of the fact.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes…I'm sure. A bit sore. But I am okay."

Mrs. Malloy pulled away softly and wiped at her tears, taking a deep breath as if to say she would no longer cry. "Tommy's taking it pretty hard."

"What happened?" Trent looked into his mom's eyes.

Mrs. Malloy nodded towards Katheryn.

Katheryn turned to Trent and began to relive the ordeal in her mind not leaving out a single detail as she told them what had happened.

"And Tommy thinks it was the man who kidnapped Tandy and Ty?" Trent returned once Katheryn had finished.

Katheryn nodded.

"This makes no sense." Carlos chimed in. "How could he have been here when we were following him two hours down the road from here?"

"That's a good question." Trent sighed. "I think I speak for us all when I say we need some shut-eye."

"I second that." Mrs. Malloy fought off a yawn.

"You two go on up. Where's Tommy?"

Katheryn looked towards the stairs. There sat Tommy at the foot of them, his head buried in his hands.

"You two go on ahead. I'd like to speak with Tommy first."

Katheryn and Mrs. Malloy nodded in agreement before heading to the stairs and easing past Tommy and up the stairs. Mrs. Malloy rested her hand on her younger son's shoulder for a brief moment as she passed him by. Yet he remained unmoved.

Carlos' eyes followed Katheryn's ascent in earnest as he truly hoped she was telling the truth. That she really was okay. He trusted her. And he told himself that she would be okay. "Well, I'll see you all later." Carlos bid farewell.

"We'll give you a lift." Trivette offered before bidding farewell along with Ranger Walker before returning to their vehicles.

Trent slowly eased towards the stairs, taking each step slowly as the sound of Ranger Walker's truck faded from earshot and into the distance. "Tommy?"

Tommy didn't move.

"I hear you saved a life."

Tommy stirred just a little. "Yeah."

"I'm proud of you, little brother." Trent neared the steps and sat next to Tommy, putting his arm around him. "They told me you used a throwing star. Is that true?"

Tommy nodded, staring off into space.

"Last I checked, I kept them in a safe place. How did they get here?"

"I—I moved them." Tommy began reluctantly, trying not to make eye contact with his older brother.

"I may be upset with you for taking them. But don't think for a minute I'm not proud of you for being brave and defending yourself. You did what you had to. Don't feel guilty for even a second. You hear me?"

Tommy nodded firmly. He clasped his lips together as if trying to keep his emotions at bay. He sighed. "What about Ty and Tandy? Where are they?"

"We don't know. But we will know soon. Trust me."

Tommy scoffed. "How?"

"Through a little faith in God perhaps, Tommy. We have to have patience."

Tommy did agree with his brother more than he would have let on. He did have faith. He would just give anything to have his brother and sister back…safe and sound.

"I'm gonna hit the sack." Tommy sighed and rose to his feet.

"Good idea." Trent remained seated as he spoke. "You go on ahead."

Tommy hurried up the steps and into his room, shutting the door tight.

There remaining at the foot of the steps, Trent sat erect and leaned forward slightly…his hands folded and resting against his face. He took a deep, cleansing breath and pictured his siblings in his mind as he closed his eyes for just a brief moment. He opened his eyes once more as he spoke into the dead of night. "God, I don't know what to do. But you know where Tandy and Ty are. Dad always preached about having faith in tough times. And I knew he was always right. Help me, God. Help me to bring them home safely."

Another brief tenure of silence covered the atmosphere as Trent concluded his prayer. He stood to his feet a few moments later and paused at the family picture hanging nearby. He smiled. "Thank you, sir." And he then proceeded to get some sleep…some well-needed sleep. The day ahead was sure to be long and come far sooner than anyone that night had wished. But with the new day would hopefully come the much-needed answers they all hoped to find.

##

Ranger Headquarters buzzed with activity the following morning once it had been confirmed that the man who invaded the Malloy's home during the night had indeed been Johnny Gutierrez…the gun-runner and killer feared by many. Phones rang off of their hooks as reporters bombarded the Rangers with questions and requests to speak to the Malloy family. The Rangers tried with all their might to turn away their calls and protect what safety and privacy the Malloy family and Katheryn still had. Even Carlos had to defend himself from a barrage of reporters when he entered the DPD office early that morning. Yet no one seemed to care that five children still had yet to be found.

Rangers Walker and Trivette along with Detective Sandoval and Trent gathered around a map of the Dallas metro area and recalled the facts that they already had.

"There's got to be a connection we are missing here." Carlos sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I mean…They couldn't have just disappeared into thin air."

Trent shook his head and settled into deep thought. Silence ensued as ringing phones and various activities continued around them. He glanced upward at the map…and stepped forward one pace. He seemed to be lost in reverie as he gazed upon the page. A haze of memories swept over him. In his mind he stepped back five years when he was an Army Ranger and had been sent on a dangerous reconnaissance mission. Five men including himself had been called upon for this dangerous mission. They were to near enemy lines, ascertain their location, and report back to base. Simply enough in words. Difficult enough to question if they would make it back. Yet they did make it back with only a few scratches and bruises caused by nature. But while they were away, the base camp was attacked. Three fatalities occurred including one young man who was the younger brother of one of the men in Trent's group. The young man took it hard and blamed Trent for the entire ordeal, claiming the reconnaissance mission was simply a set up. That Trent intended to have his brother killed.

Trent tried in earnest to shake some sense into the young man who was only a year younger than him and could have gone to greater heights like Trent had this event not shaken his emotional state to its very core. Trent didn't want to see him go. He had much faith in his fellow soldier. But the Army saw him as a threat to the other's well-being and discharged him.

When the man issued his farewell to Trent, all he managed to say amid his clenched fist at his side and his tightened lips was, "I'll be seeing you again, Malloy."

Malloy had taken that statement only lightly…until now.

"Manuel Gutierrez." Trent spoke aloud as his reverie ended.

"What?" Carlos turned to his friend. "Who is that?"

"Johnny Gutierrez's brother. He was killed overseas when I was an Army Ranger."

"What does that have to do with finding your brother and sister?" Carlos' eyes narrowed.

"Everything." Trent's demeanor focused intently on the picture in his mind of Johnny Gutierrez's parting words five years ago. Trent searched for a place on the map and planted his forefinger on a location not far from Hillsboro. "He doubled back. Gutierrez wanted us to think he was heading below the border. And while we were busy chasing his ghost, he would drop off the kids somewhere in his home town and go back to my place…to kill Tommy." Trent stated the latter as he took a step back from the map.

"How do you know for sure?" Trivette queried.

Trent sighed. "Because he always blamed me for the death of his brother five years ago."

Walker sensed Trent was right and took up his coat and Stetson. "Let's go."

Parting ways as they left Ranger Headquarters, Trent took his Corvette while Carlos volunteered to stop by the Malloy home and fill the family in on the lead Trent had uncovered. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Trent sped forward towards Red Oak to hopefully confirm that what Trent had uncovered was indeed true.

##

Tommy had just returned home from a Sunday afternoon basketball game with his best friend…sullen…and still shaken by the events at hand. Katheryn greeted him at the door. "How was your day?"

"It was alright." He tossed a small slip of paper onto the narrow table near the entry way.

Katheryn stretched to steal a glance at the slip of paper as Tommy continued forward and upstairs. A line of cursive read, "Mrs. Malloy." Katheryn sighed. She surely hoped it wasn't what she feared.

She turned towards the stairs also when three knocks sounded against the front door and stopped her short. She turned back with a sigh. Who could be paying a visit at this time? Opening the door lethargically, she raised her eyes to meet with the person before her. A smile slipped onto her face and she immediately regretted her previous thought. "Carlos. What brings you by here?"

He smiled in return. "Business rather than pleasure unfortunately."

His statement piqued her interest. "You have a lead?"

Carlos nodded. "Maybe."

"Do come in." Katheryn shook away her thoughts and stood to the side, leaving the door open for Carlos.

Mrs. Malloy emerged from the kitchen and rounded the corner into the foyer, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She beamed a smile. "Carlos! What brings you here?"

"Trent remembered something. It gave us a lead on where Tandy and Ty might be. Trent and the Rangers are headed to Red Oak now."

"Red Oak?" Mrs. Malloy wrinkled her forehead. "Why Red Oak?"

"That's the hometown of Gutierrez. Trent thinks Gutierrez double crossed us and went there instead before heading back here. Trent says he thinks he was after Tommy in the first place to get revenge."

Mrs. Malloy suddenly remembered something and nodded. "That's right. I remember that name now. Gutierrez. He had a little brother named Manuel, right?"

Carlos nodded.

Katie shook her head with a sigh. "I should have known that young man was trouble after he threatened Trent."

"What's done is done." Carlos encouraged. "They'll find the kids."

Katheryn nodded.

Tommy eased down from the stairs. "Carlos?" He slowly eased his way into their conversation as the others turned toward him.

Mrs. Malloy turned around. "What it is, son?"

Tommy nodded towards the foyer. "There's a note for you, mom…on the table over there. It was in the mailbox."

Mrs. Malloy crossed the room and reached for the note. The grandfather clock ticked away at the silence as Katheryn and Carlos exchanged a glance of intrigue.

Seconds later, Mrs. Malloy reach a hand, covering her mouth in surprise. "Oh, no." She could say no more and handed the note to Carlos.

Carlos read aloud, "'It's all over now. No need to grieve. I've had my revenge. I hope your son can sleep at night knowing what he did. For we are even now.'" He raised his eyes over the page. "This was written before he broke in here. What does he mean by, 'I've had by revenge.'?"

Katheryn thought quickly. "How did his brother die again?"

"A bomb. Why?" Carlos answered.

Katheryn's eyes widened with the revelation. "Gutierrez arranged for Trent to be the one to hurt the kids!"

Carlos thought through Katheryn's words and instantly knew what she meant. A thought suddenly triggered in his mind as he aimed for the door. "Try to get Trent on his cell. I'll call when I can." With that his figure disappeared beyond the front door and soon she heard the wheels of his unmarked police car squeal into the street and speed away.

Katheryn hurried to the phone and dialed Trent's number. "Come on!" She urged as Tommy and Mrs. Malloy stood nearby. The cellular phone rang but no one answered. "Nothing." She sighed and hung up the phone, hoping Carlos could reach them in time. She felt helpless and wished she would have gone with Carlos. She set to praying for them all instead. It was truly the only thing she could do.

Trent's Corvette struck seventy miles per hour as he put his foot to the gas even harder. Red Oak was still ten miles out. The Rangers were in front of him, sirens wailing as each mile clocked away slowly. Eight miles to go. The long open highway was fairly clear of all traffic thankfully as the two vehicles cruised along the asphalt surface in search of their destination. Six miles to go. Trent's eyes followed the road sign that heralding their approach into the city limits of Red Oak as it whizzed by. Two miles to go.

Red Oak greeted them wearily. It wasn't much of a city. A motel and several restaurants and gas stations greeted them as they coasted along the street. The Rangers pulled to a stop in front of the first convenience store. Trent followed closely, parking beside Ranger Walker's truck.

A small bell jangled as Ranger Walker pushed open the single door. A warm air encompassed the three men as they entered from the cool outdoors. Trent eased up the counter.

The older gentlemen issued a smile. "What can I do fer ya, sonny?"

Trent drew the ever familiar family photo from his inside coat pocket and showed it to the kind man. He pointed to Tandy and Ty in the picture. "Have you seen these two children?"

"Fraid not, young man."

Trent sighed. "Thank you for your help." Trent turned and nearly rushed away had not Ranger Walker spoke up as a thought entered his mind. "Can you tell us if anything is missing from your store?"

The older gentleman gave Walker a befuddled look as he wrinkled his forehead. "Whatever for?"

"Trust me. Can you tell?" Walker pressed.

"Um, maybe." The elder gentlemen eased from behind the counter and stopped in front, raising a finger as he gave the rather slim inventory a head count. His voice was strained as he counted in a rather low but raspy whisper. "Ah!" He stopped. "Got me some paint missing. Got a notepad missing. And some…and some rope come to think of it."

Walker tipped his Stetson and smiled. "Thank you. You've been a great help."

"Anytime, Ranger." The man smiled back as the three men exited his little store.

"What was that about?" Trent questioned as they returned to their vehicles.

"I'm not sure…." Ranger Walker sighed. "But I have a feeling we are about to find out."

Just then Trent caught a glimpse of a car coming towards the town rather swiftly. He squinted softly as the car neared.

"What is it?" Trivette eyed the car and turned to Trent.

The car screeched to a stop by Trent's Stingray. Carlos emerged, answering all their questions. Hurrying over to the Rangers and Trent, Carlos exhaled. "You gotta be careful, Trent."

"What do you mean, Carlos? What's up?"

Carlos took a deep breath. "Your mom got a note from Gutierrez. He must have put it in the mailbox before he entered the house. Anyways, Katheryn thinks it means that he's rigged whatever building the children are in so that when you enter the building it would be your fault that they died."

Trent sighed gruffly, turning away as he tried to hold back his anger. How could a dead man still cause him so much anger? He turned to Carlos once he felt he had control. "Any idea where that may be?"

Carlos shook his head.

Trent sorted through his thoughts silently. "I think I remember him talking about a place he used to go to a lot. Maybe that could be it."

"Could be." Carlos urged Trent to go on.

"He always was talking about the painted place. I didn't have a clue what he was saying. He'd always say how back home, he and his friends would go to the painted place to hang out."

Ranger Walker said nothing but walked back inside the convenience store. Moments later the doorbell jangled and he emerged. He headed straight for his truck. "Follow me, guys."

"You're the boss." Trent nodded and aimed for his Corvette as Carlos returned to his car.

The three vehicles arrived at the cemetery a short drive later. There was a tree nearby…Its trunk was slain with all sorts of paint colors.

Ranger Walker approached the trunk as the others stood nearby. He gently dragged his finger along one of the sloppy stripes. It was wet. "Fresh paint." He spoke aloud to the others. "And this rope was tied not too long ago."

Trent stepped forward to confirm what Walker had relayed. "You're right." Trent turned around and surveyed the vast cemetery before them. His blonde hair shifted in the cool breeze. Where could they be? Trent repeated this several times to himself silently before spotting a small path through a grove of trees. "There." He pointed to the place and started forward.

"Careful, Trent." Carlos forewarned as he followed. The Rangers were not far behind.

Trent led the way up the small path as it wound through small layers of thicket and brush. He shoved the falling foliage away from his face as he walked. Suddenly the brushed faded and opened to a clearing. He stopped short. A rather large shed with a garage door and a side door greet them. It three story height and withering paint job left much to be desired of the run-down old place.

Trent began walking again only to be stopped by Carlos. "Wait a minute. The place could be rigged, Trent."

Trent sighed and pushed passed Carlos. "I'll be careful." Trent put each foot in front of the other slowly…and carefully…as he approached the dingy building. If this place was indeed rigged, the fatal blows were very well-hidden.

Feeling his heart pounding, Trent reached for the shaky knob on the door. He shut his eyes, turned the knob, pushed the door open a few inches, and sighed briefly, relieved that he had gotten this far. Opening the door even farther, he eased one foot inside then the other, pausing once to gain his composure. Ranger Walker eased behind Trent followed closely by Carlos and then Trivette.

Letting go of the door, Trent walked three paces very slowly before coming to a complete halt and nearly losing his balance. For the room's darkness had hid a tightrope beneath its cover. Trent backed up slowly to where Ranger Walker was and reached for a small piece of trash from nearby. He tossed it at the rope, hoping to hit it and trigger whatever fate remained hidden to be revealed. Just as the small piece of piping hit the rope, a magazine unloaded into the space where Trent had just stood. Once silence had returned, Trent glanced back at his comrades with a relieved expression and a deep exhale before continuing forward.

Once over the tightened rope, Trent hurried forward, spotting another door that led into another room. He tugged on the handle to no avail. "It's locked." He shouted to the others from across the room. Backing away, he aimed a fierce sidekick to the door's weak spot, causing it to quickly collapse into the other room. A floodlight from above shown down on them with its orange light and flickered a couple of times. The whole thing emitted an annoying buzz. The closet-like space led through a hall to another door. This one was not locked.

Yet Trent was a fraction of a second away from turning the handle when he stopped abruptly. "Stop!" A shrill voice from the other side froze Trent in his tracks. He instantly knew the voice.

"Tandy?" Trent shouted back.

A sniffle and cry followed. "Trent! Don't open the door. You just can't!"

"Why can't I, sweetheart?"

"Because…There's—there's a bomb. It'll go off." Tandy whimpered.

Ty spoke up. "When you open the door, the timer will count from one minute. You won't make it, Trent!"

Carlos whispered to Trent. "Hopefully that's the only thing that's rigged in there."

"Good point." Trent whispered back.

Ranger Walker moved up to where Trent was and took out his pocket knife. Bending slightly, he quickly carved out a small hole just above the doorknob.

Bending low also, Trent gazed through the small space to see the five children each tied very securely to a chair. Their little ankles were also strapped together and tied to the chair. There was no way they could rescue all five children in one minute. Trent sighed. It seemed impossible. Yet from what he could see through the narrow space, the area between them and the children was wide open…no ropes or lasers or any booby traps. At least Trent assumed this from what he saw.

Trent took a step back, raising himself back up to his full height. He ran his hand through his blonde hair as he thought through the situation thoroughly. The others did the same.

"Is there another way in?" Carlos offered, raising his gaze to the rather low-hanging ceiling and the walls next to them.

Trent shook his head. "No. There can't be. Gutierrez wasn't stupid enough to make it easy for me."

Trent heard Tandy's soft cries once again. The sound tore at his heart and he wanted with all his might to break through the measly door and rush to their sides. He fought the urgency hard while the others could clearly see the struggle written on his face. What made it hard was the way the urge blinded his usually level-headed thinking. How could he ever come up with a way to rescue the little ones while his mind was in such a state of disarray? He had to get his emotions together.

Ranger Walker glanced the door over once more and sighed. "There's only one option, Trent."

"What's that?" Trent scoffed.

"When I open the door, you and Trivette will rush inside. Trivette, go for the bomb try to detach it and pass it onto me. I'll make it outside with it while Trent get the children. Carlos, you can help Trent."

It seemed like a solid plan if nothing else came up along the way.

Trent nodded, thinking through Walker's words carefully. "You think you can make it?"

"No," Walker answered with a sly smile. "I don't think I can. I know I can."

Trent understood and slowly turned the doorknob, pushing the door forward and open.

"Look out!" Carlos shouted as Trent just barely dodged a falling object from the ceiling as he sprang forward and into the brightly-lit room. He squinted as the change of light hit him.

Carlos took a deep breath and sighed. Walker stood by…ready. Trivette surged forward and passed Trent, searching for the bomb.

"Where is it?" Trent glanced around the room.

Tandy whimpered. Her bottom lip pointed outward as she stifled another cry. "It's on the roof."

Trent tried in earnest to subdue his anger, wheeling around as he nearly darted for the door but was too late. Walker had already sprang into action…dodging the trash of this darkened warehouse as he hurried to the outside of the building. Trivette wasn't far behind.

Carlos immediately rushed into the room and aided his best friend in freeing the children. The clock had begun to count down. 40 seconds

Tandy was the first one freed by Trent. She nearly leapt into Trent's arms as he wrapped his muscular arms around the little girl. She let the tears flow onto Trent's jacket as she wouldn't let go.

Carlos had already freed two other kids. "Trent. We gotta get out here, bud!" 23 seconds

Trent tried pulling away from Tandy's grasp as he comforted the little girl and spoke little encouragements to her softly. She finally consented, allowing Trent to free Tyler as Carlos helped the third and last child from the ties that held them captive.

Carlos hoisted the youngest child, a five year old girl, into his arms and called out to the other older children. "Alright…This way, kids." 15 seconds

Carlos was the first out the door with the other two in tow as Trent with Tandy and Ty followed very closely. Their lightened steps brought them in and out of the many crevices of the dark place as they maneuvered to freedom. Yet it remained pressed on both of the men's minds if they would find that freedom in time. 8 seconds

Reaching the first room was a victorious sight as the men hurried the children forward. Trent hoisted a tired Tandy into his arms as they rushed forward, aiming for the door that was now only feet away from them. Carlos reached it first, slamming the right side of his body into the door sending it swinging wide open as he held a tight grip upon the child on his other side.

Grit and determination overcame their demeanor as they rushed the children forward as fast as they could. The Rangers were close behind. 3-2-1 second

Smoke and flames a mile high imploded from within the shed-like warehouse as the blast shook the group to the ground. The flickering flames of the inferno gushed about them. The intense heat blared against them. Yet…they were safe.

Moments later, Trent raised his body from off of the ground, uncovering little Tandy who coughed some, much to Trent's relief. Ty pushed himself up and off of the ground. Carlos still held the quaking little girl as he struggled back onto his feet the two other children also managed to stand unscathed save a bit of smut and dirt on their rosy cheeks and now tattered clothes. The Rangers stood last, catching up with the group that was a few feet ahead of them when the blast finally descended.

A mourning dove called from a nearby tree and a gust of autumn wind blew against their faces as the silence took ahold of them all. None of them could speak for awe of what they had just escaped from.

"That was a close one." Carlos glanced at the little girl in his arms. She glared at him as if she didn't quite trust him yet. "It's okay." Carlos smiled. The girl said nothing but a gentle smile began to creep onto her face. Carlos chuckled. "I think she likes me."

The Rangers and Trent smiled.

Yet Tandy tugged on Trent's shirt with a sagging lip. "I want mommy." She reached her arms around Trent's waist and refused to let go.

Trent caressed the little girl's soft brown hair and bent down to her level. "Guess what? Why don't we go see her now?" He smiled.

Tandy smiled for the first time and threw her arms around Trent's neck in an embrace. Trent accepted Tandy's embrace, squeezing the little girl gently in return. They were finally homeward bound.

Returning to the men's vehicles, the children were divided amongst them. Tandy and Ty rode in the back seat of Ranger Walker's truck while the other three piled into the back of Carlos's unmarked police car. Home awaited them not far away.

As Trent cruised along the highway alone in his Stingray, he drew up his cell phone and dialed home.

At the Malloy home, the phone rang vigorously. Katheryn leapt towards the phone, leaving her game of Dominoes with Tommy in quite an upheaval of disarray as she took the receiver and placed it to her ear. "Trent?" She spoke by near reflex.

Trent smiled. "We are headed back."

Katheryn stifled a squeal of delight, hoping her reaction wasn't too premature. "Did you find them?" Tommy and Mrs. Malloy was now fully alert to the conversation.

"Well…Do this…Why don't you, mom, and Tommy meet us over at the H.O.P.E. center in about fifteen minutes. We will fill you all in once you get there." Trent tried hard to hide his joy. It was rather hard to do so.

Katheryn nodded. "Okay. We can do that." She issued her goodbyes and hung up the phone, turning to Katie and Tommy. "That was Trent. He said to meet them at the H.O.P.E. center in fifteen minutes."

Mrs. Malloy stood swiftly and sighed. "Well, let's go."

Trent, Carlos, and the Rangers had already arrived at the H.O.P.E. center by the time they reached the place. Trent and Carlos stood at the edge of the stairs and descended them slowly as Mrs. Malloy put the car in park at the sidewalk curb. The two young men tried their best to keep straight, emotionless faces. It was hard…really hard.

Mrs. Malloy was the first out of the car as Katheryn and Tommy trailed her closely, approaching Trent and Carlos with piqued interests.

"What is it, Trent?" Tommy spoke up first.

"Well," Trent sighed, a begrudged look taking over his demeanor as he struggled to make eye contact with his little brother.

"Well?" Mrs. Malloy urge her son to continue.

Katheryn stood to the side and glanced at Carlos, catching a sparkle in his eye as he looked her way for a brief moment, stifling a smile.

Just then, Tandy's face appeared from around Trent and beamed a beautiful smile. Her eyes sparkled with delight at the sight of her momma as she sprang forward into her mother's embrace. Tears flowed freely from Mrs. Malloy as she called out many prayers of thanks to God for bringing her children back to her safely. "Oh, my Lord, how I missed you!" She pressed her forehead against Tandy's with a shaky smile and breathy laugh of thankfulness. Another tear streaked her face as she wrapped her free arm around Tommy, bringing her other children into one big embrace. These had been the longest two days of her life. No mere words could have described what Katie Malloy felt that day as she held her four children close.

Katheryn's face was not without a tear or two as she smiled with delight and satisfaction at the scene before her. She considered the Malloys family. And it was a joy to see such happiness on the faces of them all.

Carlos eased by them and neared Katheryn, standing upright beside her as they watched. He folded his arms in front of him. "All in a day's work, eh?"

Katheryn smiled and nodded. Unable to speak, she slipped her hand through Carlos' arm and rested it there.

Carlos didn't know what to do as he glanced at his arm, back at Katheryn, back down at his arm again, and then back at the Malloy family with a nerving smile. Finally relaxing, he let her hand stay. It wasn't so bad after all as the seconds ticked by. He smiled broadly, unsure if it was from the joyous reunion or the friend by his side.

Finding her voice, Katheryn spoke. "This is what life is really about, isn't it? Bringing families back together…Bringing joy back to people's lives."

Carlos smiled and looked towards Katheryn. "Yeah…" He turned back to the Malloys. "…It sure is."

Trivette walked up to Carlos and slapped him on the back in a friendly sort of way. "You ready for the gala tomorrow night?"

"What?" Carlos shook away his reverie. "What gala? You mean that's still on?"

"Yup." Trivette grinned. "Gutierrez's uncle will be making an appearance there. Of course it's still on. We'll be able to take him down for good."

Carlos nodded apprehensively. "I'm guessing our tuxes are safe and sound. Probably laying on your desk right now." He nearly rolled his eyes.

"Yup." Trivette echoed.

Katheryn stifled a chuckle as she was amused by the discourse.

"Alright…alright. I'll do it. But on one condition."

"Name it." Trivette jumped on his words.

"That I bring a date." Carlos raised his face upward as if ready to do serious bargaining.

"A date?" Trivette laughed. "Whoever would be so silly as to go on a date with you, Carlos?" He proceeded to tease.

Carlos glared at Trivette as if to say he was by no means impressed.

"I would." Katheryn spoke up, dipping her head slightly forward.

Carlos beamed a victorious yet sarcastic smile towards Trivette.

Trivette lifted his hands in a feigned surrender. "Alright…Have it your way."

The rest of the gang made their way over to them slowly, still radiating with joy.

"What's this I hear?" Trent broke into the conversation.

Carlos half-smiled. "Oh, Trivette was just reminding me about the undercover job we still have tomorrow night."

Trent nodded. "Yep. Tuxes and all." He feigned a pout, looking towards his little sister. She only laughed and smiled onward.

"But…" Carlos smiled. "At least I have a date."

"Who?" Trent creased his forehead.

Trivette shook his head at Carlos. "See?"

"Me." Katheryn raised her voice softly with confidence.

"Ah, I should have known." Mrs. Malloy winked softly towards Katheryn.

"Hey, guys!" Miss Cahill stepped onto the veranda from inside, a broad smile and twinkle formed in her eyes as she looked towards Ranger Walker and then shifted her gaze to the Malloys. "There's some leftover cookies and muffins inside courtesy of Miss Katheryn if you all would care to come inside out of the cold." She chuckled softly.

"We'd love to." Trent spoke for his younger siblings as their eyes lit up.

The youngest members of the group hurried forward and politely past Miss Cahill into the center. The Rangers, Trent, and Mrs. Malloy followed.

"You mean you can actually cook?" Carlos teased as he and Katheryn neared the center's steps walking side-by-side.

Katheryn nodded with a smile following. "I like to think so."

"So you're saying you took down a ruthless killer and made a slew of baked goods all within a two-day time frame?" Carlos teased.

Katheryn nodded yet again, a smile playing at her lips.

Carlos shook his head, a broad smile also highlighting his features. "That—that's quite impressive. Have you considered entering the police force?"

Katheryn dipped her head to one side, sarcasm lacing her demeanor as she raised her eyebrows.

Carlos surrendered the subject with a nod. "Alright. I won't mention it again. Although I think you'd be great out there." He smiled.

For a moment, Katheryn actually wished she could enter the force but quickly dismissed the notion from her mind. "I do like the idea, Carlos. I really do. But there has to be a way I could be apart without actually being in law enforcement."

"Come again?" Carlos raised an eyebrow.

Katheryn shook her head with a chuckle. "Never mind. I don't know what I'm saying."

Carlos thought for a moment as they ascended the few steps onto the porch. "I think you might have something in common with Trent. He felt much the same way when he came home from being in the Army. That's why he started his own personal protection service."

"So he's sort of like a private investigator?" Katheryn lit up.

Carlos nodded. "Sort of. But not quite. Although I wouldn't be surprised if he pursued something like that eventually." Carlos opened the door for the young woman.

Katheryn entered with a smile. For a brief moment she could not deny how comfortable she felt as she talked with Carlos. She felt at home whenever they spoke. Pausing at the coat pegs, she eased from her coat and hung it on the peg.

Carlos followed with his. He paused, turning to face her. "Um…I know we were just kidding around outside…but seriously…." He seemed a bit nervous but hid it well. "Would you be my undercover date tomorrow night?"

"Of course." Katheryn swiftly answered, not needing to put a moment of thought into the question asked of her.

Carlos smiled broadly and nodded satisfactorily, moving away and into the little gathering in the living room having obviously struggled with whether or not to say anything further. He was clearly pleased.

Katheryn chuckled to herself as he walked off. Her smile eased away and settled into admiration as she looked towards the room ahead with joy in her heart. She then put one foot in front of the other and made her way back into her circle of friends…her family…the people she still held dear. Nothing could change her mind. And perhaps something…someone else…urged her heart to stay put. Her heart was here…and there too was her home. Not even a would-be killer could have changed her mind for the days and years to come.