The next package was sent off to IAD. They had started the first investigation, which had caused immediately repercussions throughout the department. A second investigation was going to be like a small nuclear detonation. Charlie was driving back to his house, which was now feeling more and more like a home. It was filled with women and him and Ted.
His smartphone rang and he answered it.
"Hey, kiddo, I have to tell you that you are doing a bang up job. We have to talk," said the voice of Mikey Rayborn.
"What do you want?" asked Charlie.
"I want us to visit, to talk, to catch up. You have been a busy boy, kiddo," said Rayborn.
"Where?" he asked.
"My boat. Now," Rayborn said. "I even have your favorite SWAT captain here with me. I'll expect you in a half hour."
Rayborn hung up. Charlie tried not to get upset. He took three calming breaths then changed the direction his car was headed in. Mickey Rayborn was playing a game with him, just like he did when he ended up killing Roman Nevikov for him. He didn't like having games played with himself as a pawn.
"When you want to climb a mountain then begin at the top," Charlie quoted a Zen saying to himself.
This time was Charlie walked up the gangplank, it was pulled and the ropes tying the boat to the dock were cast off. Standing at the bow in white pants, a blue dress short, and holding a drink was Mikey Rayborn. Beside him was a dour Jack Reese looking uncomfortable in clothes not meant for boating. Charlie walking over to them as the boat made its way out of the marina. Rayborn smiled at him.
"I thought we could take a short trip, you know, to talk, kiddo," said Rayborn.
Charlie debated whether he should shoot him or tell him to stop calling him kiddo. He realized it didn't matter because Rayborn would do what he wanted just as Charlie would. What it is that I really want? Charlie asked himself.
"Hey, Jack, Crews here has all your women living with him," said. "How does that make you feel?"
"He knows how I feel about that," said Jack.
"I sense tension between you two. Enjoy the boat ride. It's beautiful on the sea," said Rayborn.
"Where are we going?" asked Crews.
"Nowhere," smiled Rayborn. "That's Zen, isn't it?"
Charlie smiled back at him.
"You've been a busy bee, kiddo," said Rayborn. "There were six then there were five and now there are three. I know what you have done to two of my associates."
"Does it hurt your syndicate, Mikey?" asked Charlie.
Much to Crews' surprise Rayborn smiled.
"To stay strong and healthy you have to prune the dead branches away from a tree. You do a good job of pruning, kiddo," said Rayborn.
Charlie went cold and dead inside. Just as he had him prune away Roman, Rayborn manipulated him into pruning away some of his associates. Was he here now so that Rayborn could gloat or was there more?
"Kiddo here got rid of two branches that needed pruning. If I let him, he'd get rid of the final one and think he was doing it as a man seeking revenge, but I can't do that to him. He needs to know the real reason he's pruning the tree, Jack. He's pruning because I need it prune."
"You're a real asshole, Mikey, and you've always been one," said Jack Reese.
"But we were partners at one time, Jack. You chose redemption over wealthy, though. Yet, you're not happy, Jack. Why? Guilt?" asked Rayborn.
"Shut the fuck up, Mikey. I'm tired of your games," said Jack, who turned away from the conversation and stared out at the water.
"Sensitive, isn't he?" smiled Rayborn.
"What do you want?" Charlie asked.
"I still want you, kiddo," said Rayborn. "You'd be the perfect candidate to hand the leadership of this syndicate over to," said Rayborn.
"I don't want to be you, Rayborn," said Charlie.
"To be me," he laughed. "You are far worse than me, Charlie. You killed a prison guard while at Pelican Bay. We only killed criminals and the occasionally corrupt cop become too greedy."
Jack turned and stared at Crews. He wanted to see how this man reacted his crime.
"I protected someone," said Charlie.
"Yeah, Ted Earley. The guard didn't like him and made life difficult for him. Did you have to crush his Adam's apple?" chuckle Rayborn.
"Did you have to become a bad guy?" asked Jack.
Charlie stared at Jack Reese and realized now why Jack hated him: Charlie was a bad guy in his eyes. He killed a guard. No one could prove it, but everyone knew about it. Jack Reese deep down was still just a cop.
"There are no good guys and bad guys in prison, Jack. There are only us and them," said Charlie.
"Really," he said.
"Really," nodded Charlie. "It's how you survive. You see for the longest time I was a them to everyone. I was a cop in prison. In time, I became a us. I ended up protecting those who couldn't protect themselves and I became feared a little. It's how I survived."
"I thought it was Zen," said Mikey Rayborn.
"Zen taught me to let me go of the past, to let go of bitterness and hate," smiled Charlie.
"Did it really, kiddo?" asked Rayborn.
Charlie started to reach for his gun to shoot and kill Rayborn, but he stopped himself. He had a home waiting for him.
"Jack, Daria still loves you. Let go of your bitterness and hate. You know where to find her when you do," Charlie said to him.
"Don't lecture me, Crews," growled Reese, like father like daughter.
"That's all nice and good, but we have finished with business," said Rayborn. "You have freed up some new openings in my little syndicate, Charlie. Your buy in price is a handshake. You've already earned it with all we put you through and all you've done for me. Join me, kiddo."
Rayborn offered Charlie his right hand. Charlie stared at it for a few moments. In an odd way, the only one who had ever treated him like he wasn't a con was Rayborn. Hate the man or not, he respected Crews. He actually honored him for what he could do. Charlie laughed to himself. He didn't want that, though. All he wanted was a home and he had that waiting for him. Why was he here?
"I want to go home," said Charlie.
"Okay, kiddo, you don't want to join yet, I can understand that," said Rayborn. "You'll join me eventually."
"I'll kill him if he does," said Jack.
Charlie looked at Jack and smiled, "You won't have to."
"I hope so," said Jack.
Charlie then looked at Mikey, "I'm done doing your dirty work."
"We'll see about that," smiled Rayborn.
"I still have people to protect," said Charlie.
"I guess I better have the captain turn us around. This boat trip is going to be a short one," Rayborn chuckled. "They'll be others."
Charlie pulled up to his home. He got out of the car, walked over to the front door, opened it, and entered. He saw Ted standing in the main hallway smiling.
"What's wrong, Ted?" he asked.
"Nothing, Charlie. Everything is right," Ted said.
They both heard the laughter of four women coming from the dining room. Charlie tilted his head and stared at Ted waiting for an explanation.
"Olivia, Daria, Rachel, and Dani are sitting around drinking coffee and wine and talking," said Ted then there was more laughter. "Isn't that a beautiful sound?"
"Yeah, it is," said Charlie.
"When did it happen, Charlie?" asked Ted.
"Huh?" Charlie looked at him.
"When did we become one big family?" asked Ted.
Charlie smiled, "I don't know."
"We are a family now, Charlie, thanks to you," said Ted.
Charlie didn't respond to his comment but just listened to the background noise of conversation and laughter. His home sounded like a family lived there. It was a far cry from the hollow mansion without furniture he lived in for so long.
"We are lucky, Charlie," said Ted.
"Yeah, Ted, we are," said Charlie.
"Did you send off the package?" he heard Dani's voice ask him.
Charlie turned to see Dani standing there in jeans and one of his shirts. Her hair was pulled back and she had no makeup on, yet she looked like the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
"Did you send it off, Charlie?" she asked.
"Yeah, I did," he smiled.
"I promised to go get us Chinese food for tonight," said Ted.
Charlie tossed him his car keys, "Take my care. I won't need it."
Ted went out the front door with a smile on his face. Dani walked up to Charlie until she was almost standing on his feet.
"Who's next?" she asked.
"We are," he said.
"What?" she said. "Charlie, I mean who do we go after next?"
"No one, Dani," he said. "We work on us and forget about the rest. Let IAD do their job and see where it leads."
Her nostrils flared and her eyes seemed to become fire. He wanted her and her alone. There was no one else for him but Dani.
"How do we work on us, Charlie?" she asked.
He picked her and she wrapped her legs around his waist. They kissed. It was hot, passionate, but more. They were two halves become a whole.
"I love you, Dani," he said in a husky, out of breath voice once their kiss broke up.
"Prove it, Charlie," she goaded him.
With her wrapped around his waist, he started walking up the stairs to their bedroom. For now, he no longer cared about Rayborn and all that he had been put through. All he wanted was Dani, a home, and a family. It seemed that the journey of a thousand steps that he had started in prison might have finally come to an end.
"Dani, you ever think about having children," he asked her between kisses.
"Shut up, Crews," she groaned. "Less talk, more using that mouth to make me happy."
Charlie laughed and it felt good.