Original story and characters belong to the writers etc. of Sunset Beach. With added thanks to Anja as the idea grew while reading one of her stories.

As usual facts and fiction have been mixed together; all new characters are mine as are the errors, omissions and black holes. Oh yeah this is done for fun and feedback is very welcome but most of all I hope you enjoy the ride.

Idea of history well … generally based on the soap opera until Christmas Eve/Morning 1999 … any changes the in history to make this tale, come out during the story.

Stranger

31 August 2000.

A gentle breeze whipped round Father Antonio as he stood on the sands wondering if the stranger sitting on the rocks jutting out into the sea was just enjoying watching the red and gold rays amongst the clouds as the sun set, or was a suicide about to happen. Either way, he knew he had to get the person's attention because the waves would start crashing over the rocks instead of against them as the tide was coming in fast.

Realising the jumper and bag lying on the sands near him probably belonged to the person on the rocks Antonio knew he would have to be careful how he got the person's attention. The last thing he wanted was to scare them into the water or be thought a thief and got attacked. Coming to a decision he made sure his hands were in view, took a deep breath and kept his voice casual as he called out. "Excuse me!"

The seated stranger jumped slightly at the sound then staying silent and eased round to face him.

Having confirmed the person was a male and he'd got his attention Antonio decided it would be better if he got a bit closer ... be easier to speak rather than shout. So, still keeping his hands in view he walked round the man's possessions and then stopped to see if there was any adverse reaction.

The man stayed seated and silent.

Antonio guessed the man was weighing him up now he was closer, and hoped he would be recognised as a man of a church or faith because of his white collar and dark suit and was therefore a friend rather than a threat. Seeing him better he realised the man was a 'traveller' rather than a tourist and was likely to be a newcomer as a local one would never sit on the rocks. Also he didn't look like a 'suicide about to happen' which made Antonio relax a little and run through what he could see.

The man was wearing a check lumberjack shirt and jeans, which seemed to be in good condition and was unshaven with dark hair tied back in a short pony tail under a wide brimmed baseball cap. Antonio suppressed a smile while wondering just how much of the sunset the man could have seen as the brim seemed to hide his eyes completely. He then pondered the fact - if the man wasn't there for the sunset then maybe he'd just got tired and sat on the rocks for a rest before seeking refuge in the town or to sleep on the beach for the night...

That thought brought him back to the reason he was there so speaking slowly just in case American English was not the man's first language he explained. "The tide is coming in and this area will be covered very quickly … you and your bag will get wet." There was no reaction to his words so he carried on. "The waves could pull you off the rocks into the sea. So you need to move now. … If you want a bed and food for the night we have a shelter in the town. … It's free."

Antonio watched as the man still staying silent got up slowly and started clambering over the rocks towards him. He saw the man was tall possibly six footish but immediately hunched over so looked slight shorter. Reckoned that was to make sure he did not fall off the rock, which made sense. As for age well possibly 30's upwards rather than downwards to 20s and medium to thin build … and gave a very quiet huff of disappointment as his thoughts ran on to the obvious conclusion. … This was not the young runaway he had hoped for, which was a pity, as the lad had been missing for four days now and because no body had been found meant he was likely to have left the area. That would mean a long wait before any contact or reconciliation, which reminded him of his fellow brother who he sorely missed... Shutting down these thoughts he moved to one side so the man could get to his things, and he could indicate which way they would walk into town … that is if the man wanted to come.

As the traveller silently walked past Antonio to get his things he noticed the man stayed hunched over and looked down rather than ahead or to the side at him and wondered if he needed to keep a barrier between him and the world. … Hence the cap over his eyes, which might mean he had been hurt in someway … possibly rejected by family and or friends, even an ex-serviceman too troubled to stay in one place for long. Then of course he might be unable to speak … hence the silence and that was why he took to the road. Whatever it was he knew the man needed to know there were people here he could trust as well as places he should not go.

Understanding this was likely to be a one sided conversation he started to explain. "I'm here as a friend not a converter to my faith. …The shelter is run by a local charity for the homeless and travellers. … It used to be a warehouse so it's quite large … they have single rooms as well as dormitory areas and a large area for food and sitting around in if the weather's bad or you need to rest. … If you don't want to give your name or speak that will be all right, though they will ask you to sign or make a mark in a book when you arrive or leave. … That's in case they have to get everyone out in a hurry it's not happened yet and unlikely to. … They don't allow drugs, drink or smoking in the rooms, but you can smoke in the yard if you wish … each room or each bed in the sleeping area has a locker and you have the key to it."

While he was talking he watched amazed because the man had managed to put the jumper on without taking off or dislodging his cap, it was as though the thing was part of him. He winced slightly at the coloured strips on the jumper even slightly faded they clashed … and guessed it had been knitted by helpers who had picked any old colour from odds and ends handed in. That being the case it was most likely first chosen for warmth and was now possibly a friend, something he knew he could rely on in all weathers. From what he could see of the man's hands they had a 'weather beaten' tan so he had been on the road for a while and was not someone just out of jail or hospital, which might have been a problem. … …

The man's coughing fit brought Antonio out of his thoughts especially as it carried on for a minute or two, as it eased to a stop he said casually, "We can get that looked at and treated for free if you like."

The man stayed silent as he recovered from the fit then shook his head and faced Antonio for a moment, making him wonder if the traveller was slightly slow in thinking and he was going to have to repeat his offer of a shelter. But there came a sigh and a very crackly husky soft voice which disappeared into nothing at the end. "D … D… Doorway fine."

Although Antonio could not see the man's eyes because of the cap he sensed the traveller was surprised, possibly even shocked by his own voice, which could mean he had not spoken for a long time, as in weeks or months rather than days. If so his slowness could be due to lack of contact with people, which in turn could mean he had a people problem in that case he would have to tread carefully not to scare the man off.

Still speaking slowly giving the man time to understand but hoping not to sound patronizing he said. "It might be a chilly night with rain early morning … the police will move you on … they check doorways and the beach regularly. … If there's no room in the shelter they will put you in jail till morning."

Again there was a long pause then a crackly soft husky response "E … Eat … move ...o" disappearing into another coughing fit.

Antonio sighed. Yep definitely a people problem and that cough really needed attention, even without a soaking if it rained in the morning. So, he really needed to get him into some kind of shelter and would not fail him as he had with his fellow brother who he hoped would return soon in spite of the passing months….

He squashed the thought as he suddenly realised if the traveller did not like people he would not like the shelter or jail if he got caught, which was quite likely … so he had to think of something else fast.

The coughing fit died into the odd splutter as the man put his bag over his shoulder and walked towards Antonio and as he got level with him, he turned slightly towards town and carried on walking.

Though the man hadn't said anything Antonio could almost hear the 'come on then what are you waiting for' sigh in the man's body language, which nearly made him chuckle out loud. He now knew the man was content in himself and had a language all his own which he would have to learn if he was to persuade him to stay so that cough would get better and started to catch the stranger up.

After a few paces Father Antonio knew what to do and knowing there might only be a nod or shake of the head, or if really lucky a short "yes" or "no" outlined his idea. "The Mission where I work is on the edge of town … backs onto fields so there are hedges … there is a cemetery of course but that makes it open and peaceful, … … has a nice view across the town and out over the bay. … There's an old entrance at the rear with a covered porch, which will give you shelter from the rain and a yard area for you to use when it is dry and sunny. … There's also a washhouse, which is clean and usable. … You can be on your own if you wish or wander around … we will give you food and bedding and you will be safe. … The gate is locked at night so no one can get in without a key … but you can get out by releasing the latch I'll show you how. Also there's a bell on the side door to the kitchen, which will get you help if you need it day or night.

There are several Nuns and Priests including myself who live in … one of us is always on call so you don't need to think you are disturbing us unduly if you need help or company. You can use it as a base till your cough gets better if you like."

For a moment Antonio wondered if he'd been talking to himself because the man did a slow turn to look back at the sea. Almost as though he was checking it was still there and then turned back towards the town and walked on with his head down watching where he was walking. Antonio just caught a very husky "Thanks" nothing more not even a look in his direction either to check he'd been heard. He couldn't help smiling as he walked, relieved he got his man for tonight at least, which meant there was hope for tomorrow and the next.

A moment later the husky whispered "Place called?" so surprised Antonio he had to think before he answered. "Town's called Sunset Beach." and decided to explain the route. "We go through the passageway between the houses … across the main road and into the shopping area … it will be quiet as most of the shops are closed. … Then we go along a couple of alleyways and along some more roads … not too far really." Realising he'd not introduced himself and hoping he'd get some name back he added. "I'm Father Antonio Torres though most people call me Antonio."

The "Thank you Father" disappeared into another coughing fit.

Antonio realised he was not going to get a name back and that the man's voice though husky was a bit clearer and the cough sounded a little bit easier and smiled at the use of Father rather than Antonio. It was a tiny step in trust perhaps, but by using the Father he was showing him that the barriers would not come down unless he really, really trusted him and that from past experience with other travellers that might take a long time. He thought over the man's few words and noted he did not detect a strong American accent as some states had, but there could be a softer one hidden by the cough. Also English seemed to be his mother tongue so was not Mexican or one of Mediterranean groups definitely not one of the Asian groups due to his built but could be Canadian or even mixed state though...

Letting those thoughts go he noticed that the silence they walked in was comfortable and the man was not edgy either, didn't keep checking to make sure he was there or which direction they were going in. He just kept on walking and looking down in front as though making sure he knew where his feet were being placed. Antonio just about managed to hide and stop the smile that threatening to come as he thought about trees, lamp or sign posts in town and whether he ought to warn the man about them before he bumped into them.

By the time they entered the shopping area he knew the traveller had a sixth sense about things in his way and avoided them easily. He also noticed the man never looked up or gave hint he heard people's greetings of "Good Evening Father" as they walked on by, he knew people were unlikely to stop and talk as he had a traveller in tow but if the need arose they would say they would call later and carry on.

Having just past another couple and seeing no one ahead Antonio decided it was time for another gentle push for information and asked. "How long have you been on the road?"

The man did not look up as he answered. "D Don't know. … c cold getting warm."

Antonio thought he sensed and heard a warning 'not to push with questions' in the man's soft husky voice before it disappeared into a whisper. So he would not. He needed the man's trust more than answers they could come later if they had time together. So, instead as they walked he silently pondered about 'cold getting warm' which seemed a strange thing to say … and as they were coming out of summer … that would be warm getting cold surely. Though he knew even summer nights could be cold for someone without shelter. … Then again he might have come from the north. No that would mean flying … that would mean money …well he could be a con job have a suit squashed in his bag …no, possibly not.

Well could be spring into summer or even winter into spring? … Weather beaten tan so months or years certainly not days or weeks on the road ...but surely he would have said years. … He said 'he did not know' … perhaps he didn't, after all what did time mean to the traveller … all he would need to know is that daylight means you are awake, get food and darkness you sleep preferably in shelter of some kind. … Days would need counting and who could remember numbers without a calendar and travellers don't worry about calendars or watches … he had not seen a watch on the man's wrist, unless it was hidden by his shirt …

He stopped those thoughts because his attention was caught by two ladies up ahead who had just come out of a shop and were locking it up for the night. Smiling he slowed down slightly hoping for a quick word.

The ladies were sisters and close friends of his, both in their twenties, pretty with long hair, one brown haired who took after their father and other black haired after their mother, both with independent ideas and could be stubborn at times, which lead to a very interesting business partnership.

The dark haired one turned and smiled as she spoke. "Hi Antonio, we've been held up by the dreaded stocktaking, everything all right?" she gave a polite nod towards the traveller not expecting any acknowledgement and turned her attention back to Antonio.

True to form the traveller stayed silent with his head down but had moved slightly away from the group as though understanding they wanted and he was giving them privacy.

Antonio saw this move read the body language and knew the man was happy with them stopping so smiled as he answered, "Yes thanks Meg, and you?" Meg nodded as he carried on. "I can see your still blooming Sara not too long now is it?"

Sara laughed brushing her hand over her bump, "About two months if he does not kick his way out before hand!"

Antonio smiled as he replied. "That's the kind of thing Gabi was saying and she gave birth early, must be the sea air. She's fine and would like some intelligent gossip if you have time?"

Meg laughed and Sara answered with a tease. "So… she's had enough of Ricardo then."

Antonio chuckled and said, "You could say that... but don't tell … well not in his hearing anyway" remembering the light-hearted banter between his brother and Gabi seemed to carry a bit of an edge to it recently.

Two very loud sharp bangs from the end of the passageway, where Antonio and the stranger had come from, had the group turning in shock and trying to protect each other. As Antonio steadied Sara when another louder one came he realised they were not gunshots but firecrackers and exclaimed heatedly. "Hell! Not again. I wish kids would stop playing with those things making everyone jump." And took a breath then added. "All right Sara?"

Reassured there was no real danger Sara grateful for his support gasped for air and put her hand on her stomach. After a moment she felt she could answer his question though breathlessly. "Yes ... fine thanks... I suppose I could ask them to do that a couple more times then he'll definitely come early. … Keep up the trend. … If you're seeing Gabi tell her I'll be over tomorrow about 2 o'clock and we can compare notes and chat about the shop. … … Cathy's well I take it."

Antonio stepped back now Sara was recovering and answered. "Yes last I heard she's fine I'm seeing her later this evening, they are going to start taking her out now she is stronger." He looked around to check on the stranger and exclaimed. "Where's he gone?!"

Meg looked round now she knew her sister was okay and saw the man was nowhere in sight and said. "Oh, perhaps he does not like bangs either; I expect he'll wait at the top of the arcade for you. Do you know a good gardener mine's done his back in?"

Giving the passageway ahead a quick second look hoping the man would appear as the last thing he needed tonight was to hunt for him, smiled at her question and answered. "You're not alone; your parents, Tyus and others have asked … as if I could I would magic one up … if I could would because he was ours as well. I must go I promised the man a bed for the night and as he didn't know the name of the town he's not likely to know where the Mission is from my earlier directions either."

"Known him long?" Meg asked slightly curious as they all knew Antonio's recent habit of taking care travellers.

Antonio smiled reasoning it could not hurt to stop just a moment longer. Might even help as the man would most probably come back to a known spot after getting over the shock of the bangs, which had stopped mostly likely due to the burst of a distant police car sirens, and then answered. "No, just found him on the beach watching the sun setting … did wonder if he was going to jump off the rocks but I think he just got tired. Definitely the silent type … did hope it was our young runaway at first. Thinking about gardeners how did your meeting about Ben's idea for the garden centre go?"

Meg smiled at the memory of the meeting. "Good, we've got a few new suppliers who are willing to take the risk and we can get the funds to buy without going into the other accounts. So, all we need now is to convince the owners to sell to us as a going concern rather than to the big organisation which is offering a fortune to shut it down and build on it. Tall order but you never know."

"Quite true and hav ..."

Meg interrupted him gently. "Go and find your traveller but don't forget ring here or at home if you find a gardener."

He smiled at her concern, "Yes and I'll give you a ring sometime anyway. Goodnight to you both then." As he walked away from them he remembered other news so turned and called back. "Oh yes, you should know Maria and husband are back in town."

"Thanks Antonio." Meg called back not bothering to stop for more information.

For a while the sisters walked on in silence and as they came to the car park Meg said quietly but heatedly. "Sara! I don't want any trouble from you, do you understand!"

Sara slightly cross that her sister could read her mind hissed back "If I see her I will say what I think … she should be in jail not just paid a stupid fine, with Ben's money no doubt! Why come back now … she knows she's not wanted here!"

"Sara shut it! Getting through the past months has been bad enough the next are worse and for goodness sake don't say anything to Dad."

Sara immediately regretted her words and apologised. "Sorry Sis, He's bound to find out and it's not as though he's got a thing against Ben anymore." She sighed as she carried on. "You know I reckon Benjy got the best deal, a new home and mum and dad." Then she remembered. "Oh! I found a computer programme that can alter people's appearances … make them look younger or older months as well as years, sketches into photos or 3D things should be fun. Don't suppose Ricardo's had any luck?"

Meg was pleased her sister jumped subjects; she really did not want a fight on her hands. "No the site's quiet … I suppose we could age the photo and put it up … Ben said he would come back when he was ready … but it's been a while since the last email. … I miss him … I wish I never asked for that night alone … what the hell was I thinking of … I should have." She broke off knowing words would only open the wounds she had tried so hard to close.

Sara put her arm on Meg's shoulder trying to give her some comfort and said gently. "I know Sis but it wasn't you … he said he needed to sort himself out as well … it's just taken longer than we thought. Come on it will give Ricardo something to do; he is always saying the security job is too quiet. Mind you I heard Jude is going to ask him to work on a couple of cases. Are you coming over for tea or going to Mum and Dad's?"

Meg put her hand on her sister's as acceptance of her sympathy then gently pushed it away so they could walk together and remembered what she'd heard and commented. "Jude said it was office side not street work, which will no doubt please Gabi. I'll come over if you've got food and behave sensibly, and then face Mum and Dad tomorrow, hopefully be able to give them some more news about the project. You sure you will fit in the car?" Meg teased with a smile.

Sara looked at her and exclaimed, "That is so unfair of you Meg Cummings! For that you can do the clearing up after tea. And of course we have food!" The sparkle in her eyes and grin confirmed she was teasing even if her voice sounded otherwise.

Meg smiled they were back on track and said. "That's what worries me your fads are soo way out! Hang on I'll push the seat back I had a long thing in back earlier."

As Sara eased herself in she said casually, "Okay I'll forgo the chilli and banana ice cream for pudding then."

Getting in the car Meg's mock horror sigh was joined by Sara's laugh then as Meg started the engine Sara added innocently "I'll serve the curry chocolate cake instead."

The car did a kangaroo hop judder as Meg moved off making the sisters laugh.