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Tom stood in the ankle-deep mud and stared in disbelief. The scene he beheld was right out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Dark brown mud, streaked with black from the fires further up the mountainside stretched up above him on the slope as far as the eye could see. The occasional rooftop or street sign broke the monotonous plain of mud. For the fifth time, he stared at the street sign to his left, then at the keychain in his palm. Willow Road on the sign matched up to 1655 Willow Road on the keychain. Unbidden, tears formed in the corners of his eyes, rolling down his cheeks. The tears were at odds with the grin forming on his mouth, as he chuckled in disbelief.

“You have got to be shitting me,” he mumbled aloud. The chuckle became laughter, building to a scary, hysterical level.

“Sir? Do you need some help?” Tom hadn’t even heard the police car pull up behind him. He managed to curtail his insane laughter, running his right hand down his face as he turned to face the police officer.

“Sorry, officer. I…I just bought this house and moved here from Indiana,” he indicated the ruined structure with an outstretched arm.

“Ouch,” the officer winced, “Do you have any place to stay? Any family or…”

Tom shook his head. “Can you recommend a decent hotel?” he asked.

As Tom drove his SUV to the hotel he reflected, “Seriously, could this be any worse?”

His life had already been a complete shambles. This move to beautiful Southern California was supposed to be a chance to start over. He had gotten an excellent deal on a recently built home in a nice neighborhood, with a beautiful view of the San Jacinto Mountains from the back porch. Worse, he had the unfortunate foresight to have professional movers deliver his furniture, dishes, and most of his clothes to the house a week earlier. The mudslide had buried not only his new home, but most of his possessions as well. All he had now was a travel bag with a couple of outfits, and a suit hanging in the backseat. At least he had the weekend to try to sort some things out before starting his new job on Monday.

He pulled his grimy vehicle into the parking lot of the Best Western the officer had recommended. He was so busy wracking his brain that he failed to notice the “No Vacancy” sign was illuminated. He walked in the double doors and up to the uncomfortable-looking young man behind the counter. He read the name tag.

“Justin,” Tom said in as calm a voice as he could muster, “I’m going to need a room for at least the weekend. What have you got for me?”

Justin had watched this grime-coated man walking from his vehicle. There had been too many ugly scenes already the past week, with a stream of suddenly displaced families all fighting for a place to stay. The hotel had been mostly full with a pair of conventions in town before the recent fires and subsequent mud slides. Tom was not a physically imposing man; he was just short of six feet tall with an average build. Covered in dust, and with a grim look on his face, though, he made Justin very nervous.

“I—I’m sorry, sir,” Justin stuttered, ‘We’re already full.”

Tom turned, finally seeing the “No Vacancy” sign. He let out a deep sigh. “Of course you are,” he said softly. Once again, he ran his hand over his face. He detected signs of panic in Justin’s face, so he continued with, “It’s alright, Justin. I totally understand, it isn’t your fault at all. I think you can help me out, though. Give me just a second.”

Tom pulled out his smart phone and brought up a map. He keyed in the address of his new employer and presented the phone to Justin. “Can you see if you guys have a hotel closer to this address, and get me a room there for the weekend?”

“Yes, sir!” Justin went to work on his computer console, happy to be in a position to use his training. He was relieved that the man across the counter was so calm.

As bad as this was, Tom had seen much worse. Although it now seemed like a lifetime ago, he had served in a forward unit in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. His unit often deployed in remote areas, using sophisticated electronic surveillance to find and eliminate hostile operations centers. Indirectly, his military training had led to his current career. He had been an electrical switchboard operator at a power distribution station in Indiana, and was taking a similar position here.

Justin grinned as he turned the monitor around for Tom to see. There was another branch hotel less than a block from the power station, and Justin had gotten him a room at a substantial discount. Tom carefully wiped his hand clean on the leg of his pants and then shook the young clerk’s hand.

“Thank you so much, Justin. You are a lifesaver.”

Tom reflected, climbing into his SUV, that this really was a break. There was no sense in him staying this far from work. Clearly nothing in the house was salvageable. He started the car up, fueled up at the next gas station, and proceeded through the evening traffic to the hotel. On the bright side he was going the right direction, he thought. The traffic bahis siteleri coming out to the suburbs was bumper-to-bumper. It took him less than an hour to reach his hotel and check in.

Tom stood in the warm water of the shower and let the mud and stress of the day wash off of him. Emerging cleaner in body and soul, he sat at the table wrapped in a towel and brought up his Facebook page. “Help! Suddenly Homeless In SoCal!” he posted. Below that, he posted a picture of his mud-embalmed house. He checked his clothes as he hung them up. Fortunately they were spared the dirt and mud that now coated his sneakers and socks. He threw those in the trash, then took the bag out and tied it securely. No sense getting that all over the place. He would need to buy some new clothes, though.

Tom lay back on the bed, relaxing in boxers and a white t-shirt. He turned on the TV, figuring he would relax after driving all day. He wasn’t in a big hurry to find a place to eat or go shopping. “His” neighborhood was on the news. The reporter on the scene was standing less than a mile from where he had been standing just over an hour ago. Tom just shook his head as he watched. Then it occurred to him that he needed to call his insurance company, pronto. He reached for the phone with a sigh. This probably wouldn’t be pleasant.

Surprisingly, the insurance company was just fantastic. As a veteran, he was insured with USAA, and the nice lady on the other end of the line in San Antonio handled his situation with aplomb. A claims agent would be dispatched within a day, and he was immediately granted a line of credit to replace his household goods. When he hung up the phone, he felt genuinely good.

Naturally, Tom had to ruin it by thinking, “Man, when is the last time I actually felt this good?” His mood darkened. It had been a long time.

After nearly getting killed in Iraq—more than once—Tom had decided not to reenlist. He used his G. I. Bill to go to college. As an older college student, and finally finding himself “back in the world,” he had really enjoyed his classes. He made friends easily, and was attractive enough that he dated several women. Then he met Virginia, his now-ex wife. She had been completely charming, and amazing in the bedroom. They were together for seven months, when she announced that she was pregnant.

Tom was enchanted with her, and looked forward to starting a family together. They made plans to get married, back in her hometown in Indiana. Then, she insisted that they move to her hometown, so that she could have her family around her during her pregnancy. Virginia’s father basically got Tom his job there. It was a good job, and paid well. It did require him to work long shifts, but the work itself was not demanding. Unlike most of his coworkers, Tom made sure that he exercised and kept in shape.

Despite his best efforts, Virginia drifted away from him. Tom was always an outsider there, and she renewed ties with all of her old friends. They did have a second child, but even that did not stop Virginia from becoming ever more distant and caustic toward him. Finally, Tom was completely blown away when Virginia’s family lawyers served him with divorce papers at work. He was kicked out of his own home.

It took two months for Tom to find a decent lawyer to represent him. Virginia’s family was a big deal locally. Tom had to find a law firm in Indianapolis that would take his side in the divorce. His ex-wife was being vindictive, planning to bleed him dry in the divorce…until the paternity test results revealed that neither of the children was his.

That bombshell had hit Tom hard. This woman had lied to him from the beginning. He was just numb for three weeks after his lawyers had informed him of the test results. He had never been a vindictive man, so when Virginia’s asshole lawyers suddenly wanted some sort of deal, wanted to shield her from being labeled a lying whore in a court of law, he told his lawyers to take the deal. He was suddenly off the hook for a pile of legal fees, but he was a pariah at work. The only person at work who truly valued Tom was his boss, Mike. He was the one who had suggested this change of scenery.

Tom was snapped out of this dark reflection when his phone rang, vibrating around on the small bedside nightstand. He picked it up and saw an incoming call from a number he didn’t recognize. It was a Chula Vista number. He didn’t know anybody that lived there, but he took the call. Then his face lit up.

“Tom, my brother! What’s this mess about you being homeless?” the familiar voice boomed. It was Jeremiah Sanchez, one of his closest buddies from his unit. It had been a running joke with the guys, Tom and Jerry running around in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would have made for one crazy-ass cartoon; Tom and Jerry standing back-to-back unleashing hell with their M-2s while covering the recovery of their comrades from the wreckage of a Hummvee.

“Oh hell, Jerry! When did you move to Chula Vista?” He reflected that Chula Vista was only a three or four hour drive south, certainly a weekend canlı bahis siteleri visit was possible.

“We’ve been here six years, now. Are Virginia and the kids with you? You know you guys are welcome to stay with us as long as you need.”

Jerry had been the best man at Tom’s wedding, and had brought his wife and three kids all the way to Indiana with him. Tom could still envision those happy wedding photos. He had to think carefully before answering, though. There were those pesky non-disclosure agreements he had to sign in the divorce settlement.

“Is this a secure line, Jerry?” Tom said softly. On the other end of the line, his friend was suddenly deadly serious. “As far as I know,” came the reply.

Tom then mentioned a tiny town in Afghanistan. If you had not been there, it would mean nothing. To Jerry, it spelled out, “This is top secret.” “Understood,” Jerry said.

Tom then went on tersely, “Virginia’s kids are not my kids, it turns out. So she is not my wife anymore. But there were non-disclosure agreements I had to sign.”

“Seriously?!? That bitch!” Jerry could absolutely not believe what he was hearing. Tom was not only a great guy to have at your back in a firefight, but he was the best man Jerry knew in the world. He was pissed. He was going to suggest something violent when Tom cut him off.

“Hey, brother, I left all that mess two thousand miles behind me. I was only letting you know the how and the why. Juanita doesn’t need to have that burden dropped on her. We had our differences, and now we’re divorced, okay?”

There was a long delay before Jerry could calm down enough to say, “You’re a better man that I am, brother.”

“You saw the lovely pictures of my new house, I take it?” Tom went on.

Jerry had to laugh out loud at that. “Man, you just can’t buy a break these days.”

“It gets even better. I had the movers deliver all my stuff three days before the mudslide hit.” Jerry’s laughter was bordering on the hysterical tone Tom had heard coming from his own throat when he was confronted with the carnage. They both understood that Jerry wasn’t laughing at him, it was entirely with him. Tom found he was laughing along. It was just too ridiculous not to laugh.

Finally recovering, Jerry almost sobbed out, “Sorry man. Maybe I do have something for you, though. You remember my oldest, Cecilia?”

Tom vaguely recalled the gangly girl from his wedding. He couldn’t recall actually talking to her, but he did respond, “Yeah. How is she doing?”

“Well, she’s going to school at UC there, not too far from you. She’s got a decent apartment off campus, and one of her roomies bailed on her. If you need a place to crash for a while until you get on your feet, I can front you for the rent.”

Tom was surprised to realize that much time had gone by. Jerry’s oldest…he could remember seeing pictures of this two-year-old in her mother’s arms from back in Afghanistan. He shook his head. “Wow. She’s in college already? Damn, man. Way to make me feel old!” Jerry laughed for a bit at that one, and Tom continued.

“I wouldn’t need you to front me on the rent, but I really appreciate the offer. I do already have a job lined up here starting on Monday. Also, the insurance people have already got my back, so I won’t be out any money on that house. I just won’t be able to get another place until all that mess gets sorted out. But…do you really think it’s cool to have me cramping your kid’s social life? I mean, if she’s dating, not exactly ideal to have to explain having with an old dude like me hanging around.”

“Hey, man, I wouldn’t have brought it up if I thought it would be a problem. Actually, you’d be saving them from losing their place if you can pick up the extra rent for them. And Tom…I would be one happy dad knowing I have you looking out for my daughter.”

“I would be honored to have that watch.” Tom said sincerely.

“Let me give her a call, then. Should I have her call you?”

“Sounds great. You always have my back, brother.”

Tom set the phone back down. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. After the shit storm of the past three months, he felt genuinely warmed to have someone on his side. Jerry had always been his good luck charm. Jerry had always had his back. When he got the news that his parents had died, while they were in Iraq, it was Jerry who hugged him through it. It was Jerry who cried along with him, and then pummeled the hell out of a young jarhead who said something stupid when he saw them. Tom didn’t have any siblings by blood, but he couldn’t pick a better older brother than the one he had in Jerry.

Almost an hour went by before Tom’s phone rang again. He was starting to get really hungry, and was getting dressed to go out when he picked it up. “Hello?”

The woman’s voice on the other end of the line was a little shaky, “Is this Tom?”

“Yes. Cecilia?”

“Yes, look I hate to bother you, but can you get over here? Like, right away?”

Without hesitation Tom said, “What’s the address?”

The apartment complex canlı bahis was only two miles from his hotel. Tom was there within five minutes of getting the phone call. He kept Cecilia on the phone, and she explained that her roommate’s boyfriend was at their apartment, with two of his friends, and they were drunk and getting belligerent. Tom parked his car and hung up his phone when the yelling he heard coming out of the phone synced up with the yelling coming from the doorway of an upstairs apartment in front of him.

Tom took the stairs two at a time, reaching the doorway just in time to see one of three young men slap a woman so hard that she fell to the apartment floor. From the girl’s blonde hair and light complexion, he assumed that this was Cecilia’s roommate. He had enough self control that he stopped behind the other two guys and said in a level tone, “You gentlemen need to leave. Now.”

Everyone turned to him. One of the drunk cohorts of the slapper, a couple inches taller than Tom, made the foolish mistake. “What are you going to do, call the cops on us?” and he shoved Tom in the chest with both hands.

After the day he had been through, Tom just grinned. “Oh, you should not have done that.”

What followed was a brutally efficient beating. Tom was completely in control the entire time. His three assailants looked like they were trying to tackle a shadow as he dismantled them. He was careful not to cause any long-term damage, but the slapper’s two friends were unconscious and bleeding from their noses and mouths less than a minute later. Tom held the last in an arm-bar in front of the two women.

His voice was eerily calm as he looked at the young women, “Are you two okay?”

They nodded, eyes wide in disbelief. All three of the younger men Tom had just dominated were taller than he was. They looked more muscular. That hadn’t mattered in the least. Turning to look down at the young man in his grip, Tom said, “What’s your name?”

“Chris,” came the anguished reply.

“Now, Chris, you need to apologize to these ladies. Or I will break your arm, and then you can apologize to these ladies. Your call.”

“I’m sorry!” The young man managed to get out the strangled apology.

“Good. Now you need to get your friends, and you need to leave. If you come back, I won’t be so nice next time. Do you understand me, Chris?” Chris gritted his teeth and nodded. Tom tightened his grip and applied upward pressure, causing Chris to gasp in pain. In a deadly, calm voice, Tom said,

“I don’t think you do. I have held back from the moment I walked in that door. If I had wanted to, none of you would ever walk again. Get your friends and get out of here before you make me mad. Now, do you understand me?”

“Yes sir!” Chris gasped out.

Tom released him, and one of his friends groggily helped him carry their unconscious friend to their car. As he watched the car swerve out of the parking lot, Tom muttered, “I probably should have made them walk.”

Suddenly, he found himself in the arms of a beautiful young woman. “Oh my God! You were amazing!”

Tom found the adrenalin draining from his body, and finally looked at Cecilia. She was beautiful, just stunning by any standards. Her dark, slightly curly hair framed a face that belonged in movies. Her dark eyes were lit up with excitement and relief. He forced himself not to stare at her generous cleavage in the low top that she wore.

“Cecilia,” he said, “I’m so sorry we had to meet like this.” He held her upper arms and looked into her eyes, “Honestly, I am not a violent man. I would have handled that better if I hadn’t had such a bad day.”

Both young women looked at him for a long moment before they burst into laughter.

“Are you kidding me?” the blonde said, “That was so awesome! Those guys totally had that coming.”

Tom smiled slightly and held out his hand. “I’m Tom.”

The blonde took his hand. “So glad to meet you, Tom. I’m Angela.”

Tom’s stomach gurgled loudly enough to be heard by both girls. He put a hand over his abdomen and apologized. “Pardon me! I was just about to get something to eat. Can I take you ladies out for dinner?”

Angela drove the three of them in her Land Rover. They stopped at a nearby restaurant. It was a local place, rather like a Chili’s but it was smaller and quieter. While Tom acquainted himself with the menu, Cecilia looked him over. When her father had called an hour earlier, she honestly could not remember Tom. She had seen lots of pictures of him with her father, back when they had been in the service together. As she looked at the handsome man sitting across from her, he didn’t look like he had aged at all from the rugged young man in those photos. She had been shocked at her reaction to him earlier; she was turned on, watching him come to her rescue. Seriously turned on, she thought, as she felt how damp her panties had become.

After they had ordered drinks, Tom showed them the pictures on his phone of the house he had bought. He explained that he was recently divorced, and told them a little bit about his job. They laid out the rent and other bills that had to be paid for their place. Tom realized that all of the bills for the apartment amounted to less than half what his mortgage payment would have been.

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