RATING: PG-13 - some language
CATEGORY: Challenge - PQL AU (Project Quantum Leap) – for those of you familiar with the show Quantum Leap, my AU diverges a bit from the canon of that universe.
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.  Elements of this story also reflect the television series "Quantum Leap".  No infringements on their copyrights are intended either.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
NOTE:  The March 2005 Challenge: offered by ShipsCat:  Write a story revolving around ½ pound (225 grams) of chocolate.  Extra brownie points if the color blue is used and the word 'Fazer'.  Any universe, any characters - though I am more fond of ATF 
SUMMARY:  Vin leaps into a sweet situation, but soon has to deal with a kidnapping.
DATE:  March 16, 2005, some housekeeping done November 29, 2009

PQL: The Slow Season
By NotTasha...slowly working on this AU

It always started with the familiar, discombobulating, bewitching blue light.  It overpowered him.  Then came the staggering, swirling sensation of ‘leaping in.’ He blinked, trying to orient himself as some new situation formed around him, trying to figure out the who and the what… the where… trying to figure out anything in those first few disconcerting seconds.  Trying to remember even who he was – what was he just doing?  Gone… all swirled into the blue… he saw blue.

Blinking again, he made out shining glass and fixtures, blue-painted walls.  Blue – blue all around him.   He worked to center himself. There was always that first moment of panic, before his mind straightened out – before his shattered memories started to come together again.  Glass, chrome, counter, walls.  Clear, shiny, white, blue.  Where?

A store of some kind… a little shop, all blue and white, with glass cases and shelves.

The air was comfortably cool.  It was quiet.  He breathed in – two scents assailed him:  Chocolate first, and beneath that, unmistakably, sea air.  He blinked again to clear his eyes, to bring it all into focus.  There… there it is….

Vin Tanner found himself standing behind the counter in a chocolate shop.  He scanned the room quickly, finding no one else there.  He was alone.  Against one wall, windows and a door opened up to a street, and beyond that – dunes -- and further off the ocean rolled under a gray sky.   Opposite him, a long wall sported shelves stocked with bagged candies and flimsy barrels of bulk treats – the kind of barrels meant to display bulk treats and little else.  He spotted himself in the mirrors that reflected the shelves, and took a moment – checking out the man he’d leaped into.

He was tall and thin, an older gentleman with a lined but kind face, thin white hair and a narrow nose. He ran his fingers along the nose as he quickly studied himself.  He wore a white shirt, dark slacks and a bright blue apron that matched the walls of the shop.  Vin cocked his head, regarding his image, not happy about the apron, but glad that he was – at least – a man.  That was always something to be grateful for.  He didn’t know how Buck dealt with leaping into a woman so often.

In front of him, trapping him, was a counter – shiny and clean – a long glass enclosed space.  And within the counter, beneath the glass?  Bliss!  Ah, heaven! Vin smiled as he looked down at tray upon tray of chocolate delights – on display for customers but open and easily accessible to anyone behind the counter.

Taking in another deep breath, Vin smiled and released a contented, “Oh, boy,” as he regarded the bounty set before him.  It was a temptation beyond any he’d ever faced before.

Reaching out one hand, he let it hover over a little stack of chocolate treats, helpfully labeled “Rocky Road”.  Wait!  No, there’s peanut clusters!  Turtles!  Caramels!  English Toffee!  Wait!  A, nougat!  Mint patties… seafoam…cashew clusters…dark chocolate, milk chocolate, even the dreaded white chocolate.  Excitedly, he moved down counter, not letting himself choose yet.  Oh, he had everything he could possibly want right here! 

He paused long enough to send a “Thank you!” up to whoever controlled his leaps -- finally, a reward for all his hard work.  He felt like a… kid in a candy shop.

Chocolate-covered strawberries, haystacks, cherry cordials, almond bark, orange and raspberry sticks, almond clusters, peanut brittle, buttercreams, marzipan, lemon cream, divinity… then he found the truffles.


He glanced about to ensure that he was still alone, and then shoved his head into the display case, grabbed a chocolate cream truffle, and … slammed his head into the top of the case when a voice coolly spoke in his ear, “You’ll eat up all your profits.”

Sputtering and swearing, Vin extracted his head, stepped back, and ran  into the wall as he squeezed one hand to his whacked head.  “Damn it, Ezra!” he growled.  “Warn a guy!”

The observer smiled his Cheshire grin.  “You were rather focused,” he proclaimed. “It was liking watching a bloodhound on a scent.”

Scowling, Vin popped the treat into his mouth.  His expression changed radically to a serene smile as he chomped down on it.  “Mmmmmmm,” he voiced.  “Damn good.  Too bad you can’t have a taste.  Ya know, holograms can’t eat.”  And he showed his chocolate teeth.

If Ezra was annoyed, he didn’t show it – much.  Raising his eyebrows, he punched at his handlink as he wandered straight through the chocolate counter and onto the floor of the shop.

Vin grinned at his friend’s aloof behavior and reached in for a dark chocolate mint truffle.  “Why’my here?” he asked, before jamming the mint truffle in after the first.  Muffled, he continued, “‘Side from puttin’ me in heaven?”

“You are one Gregory Thorpe, owner of the Sea Shanty Chocolate House.”  Ezra paused, watching as Vin licked his fingers.  “In Fazer, Oregon.”  He wandered about the shop, moving past the little displays.  “It’s March 15, 1975 – the slow season in this little coastal town.  They survive mostly on tourists here.  Mr. Thorpe keeps this place in the black during the summer months, and opens only on the weekends during the winter.  Can hardly afford to, but he enjoys the work.”

Ezra paused at the big pane in front, and leaned through it to see the street.  After a moment, he retracted his head and shrugged at Tanner.  “Not much happening in town.  It appears rather quiet.”

Vin grabbed a raspberry cream truffle and held it between his forefinger and thumb.  “So… why am I here?” he asked again.  He leaned against the counter, his head inside with the chocolates, breathing in the life-giving scent.

Ezra shook his head, and uttered, “Still searching out scenarios.”  He poked at the handlink, looking up occasionally as Vin perused the display, chewing on his raspberry cream.  “You did hear me when I said that he barely keeps this place running during the slow season.”

Vin nodded.  “I’m just helpin’ out.  Would be a waste for this stuff to go bad on him, wouldn’t it?”  Still, he stopped reaching for more goodies and just took his time gazing at them.

Ezra leaned one elbow against the wall of the Observation Room, but to Vin he seemed to be tilted in space, precariously tipped over the barrel of chocolates wrapped in blue.  Standish kept poking at the handlink, and Vin watched as two people walked by the shop, arm in arm, huddled in their jackets against the late winter chill.  They smiled as they looked through the window, but kept walking.

A few more people wandered by, but there seemed to be little interest in chocolates on that day.  Tanner stifled a laugh at their attire.  God, the seventies had some poor fashion choices.  The hair, the colors – Lord A’mighty it was a sight.  Vin fiddled about at the display cases while Ezra poked and whacked at the handklink.

Three teenage girls came in, all giggly and silly, wearing ridiculous-looking shirts.  Vin smiled patiently at them as they went through the store.  They goggled at the goodies, talking in shrill voices and mostly ignored him. After about ten minutes, they turned and left, without a word to the proprietor.  Lookie-Lous, Vin decided.

He was thankful.  He really didn’t want to bother with the task of ‘ringing them up’.

“You got anything yet?” Vin asked the observer once the girls had gone.

Ezra, who still leaned against nothing, looking annoyed.  “Hmph,” was all he got out, as he jabbed away at the keypad.

Vin examined the mint meltaways.

Suddenly, Ezra straightened, pointing at the display.  “This is it.  This must be it.”

“What?  What you got?” 

“May 22, 1976, the remains of a girl was found 250 miles to the south from here.  Her arms were bound.  They were unable to determine exactly how she died,” Ezra said darkly. 

“That’s a long way from here,” Vin commented.  “And a long time – over a year from now.”

“Her name was Cathy Dwyer, 12 years old.  She was found with her handbag – a library card identified her.  Also, she had a paper bag,” Ezra stated, “With the name of this shop printed on it.”

Vin looked down, seeing a stack of small bags, all marked with “Sea Shanty Chocolate House – Fazer, Oregon”.

Ezra continued pacing about the small area, pressing one finger to his lips.  “She’d been reported missing on March 11, 1975, four days ago, from Schuyler, Nebraska.  Her whole family will be devastated. They’re never really the same after this.  Conner Williams, a local man, is believed to have kidnapped her.  He disappeared at the same time.  It’s believed that they drove west to Fazer, and then traveled south down the coast.”

“Nobody saw her?  I didn’t see her?” Vin asked, incredulously, pressing a hand to his chest.

Understanding, Ezra responded, “Gregory Thorpe’s memory for faces isn’t the best, and it will be over a year before her body is found.”  He continued to poke at the handlink, his face somber.  “It destroyed Mr. Thorpe.  He was haunted for the rest of his days with the knowledge that this girl had been in his shop and he’d been unable to help her.  He dies in 1977, after a year of declining health.”

“Those girls that were just in here…” Vin considered.

“Too old,” Ezra returned.  “I’d place their ages at around 15 or 16.”

“Well, what about this Conner Williams?”

Ezra continued to work at the link, his face a mask.  “He’s going to attempt to rob a convenience store in four months and will be shot for his efforts.”


“Dead,” Ezra confirmed.

“Damn,” Vin commented, leaning against the counter.  He brightened with the realization.  “But I get to save the kid?  Keep her from getting killed?”

“Yes, yes WE do.”

“What she look like?” Tanner asked.  “This Cathy Dwyer.”

Poking about for answers, Ezra hesitated a moment, “Average… average height, average weight.  Long brown hair, brown eyes… average,” and he grumbled at the lack of better information.

“And Williams?”

After searching a bit through the database, Ezra declared, “Five foot eleven, 180 pounds, brown hair, beard, blue eyes… not much more.”

“Damn,” Vin cursed just as the front door swung open.  A man stood at the opening, and gave him a startled look.  Vin smiled an apology about his outburst, and nodded encouragingly.  The man, a blond, ushered in three children and, for the next fifteen minutes, Tanner was busy, trying to keep the kids from sampling their way through the barrels of loose candy.  Vin kept an eye on the oldest girl – probably no more than ten, but it gave him pause – wondering.

The youngest of the three – a boy of four or five, tried to strike up a conversation with Ezra, asking him how he managed to lean so far without falling over.  Ezra regarded the boy with a raised eyebrow, straightened and replied that he was ‘gifted’.  The father didn’t appear to be too concerned about the boy’s behavior, apparently used to ‘imaginary’ friends.

They left with only a box of salt-water taffy and a length of red licorice.  Still, it took Tanner several panicked minutes to ring up the purchase, but the ‘low-tech’ cash register was easy enough to figure out, and the man paid cash.

Ah, for the simpler days, Tanner thought as he pushed the buttons on the register.  No ATM cards, no Credit Cards, no Gift Cards – just good old-fashioned cash.  Still, it was too bad that the register didn’t tell how much change to give out.

“That wasn’t them, I take it?” Vin asked the hologram once the family was gone.

Ezra shook his head, and started to speak, when the door opened again.  Both men narrowed their eyes at the new visitors: a man with brown hair, blue eyes and a beard – accompanied by a girl of average size with average brown hair of an average long length.  She wore a crocheted poncho, the color of the rainbow.

Vin felt the hair on the base of his neck stand up on end.  “That them?” he hissed between his teeth.

Ezra busied himself with the handlink, and shook his head miserably.  “I can’t tell,” he muttered.

“Hey-ya!” The man greeted as he came in, all smiles.  The girl moved easily beside him, looking happy and content.  “You got good chocolates here?” he asked.

Cautious, Vin responded, “Only the best.”

The girl eagerly hurried to the cabinet and gazed down in rapture at the chocolate treats.  Vin approached her from the opposite side of the display, asking softly, “Everything okay, miss?”

She looked up at him, her eyes bright, as she responded, “It’s cool.”

Vin regarded her expression, seeing not a care, not a worry.  The girl looked totally happy.  How could she be a victim of kidnapping?

The man moved about the room, looking in the barrels and examining the bags.  Ezra followed him.  Vin stayed near the girl whose eyes stayed on the chocolates.  “What’s your name?” Vin asked.  “I’m Greg.”

She smiled slyly at him.  “Tammy,” she said, crinkling her nose.  She looked over her shoulder at the man.  “That’s my Uncle Bill.”

Vin watched as the two exchanged a look.  He traded one of his own with Ezra, who shadowed the man.  “He good to you?” Vin asked her.

Tammy nodded enthusiastically.  “The best,” she responded brightly.  “He’s taking me on an adventure!”

“Really?” Vin continued.  “What have you been up to?”

“Now,” the uncle cut in.  “Don’t bore this guy.”  He picked up a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts.

“Oh,” Tammy replied.  “We’re just talkin’.”

Uncle Bill made a soft sound in his throat, and then stated, “Sometimes talkin’ too much isn’t the best idea.”  Tammy gave him an odd look.

“Come from a long way?” Vin kept on.

“Other side of the world,” Tammy responded, flouncing her poncho a bit.  “I come from the dullest town in the world. The middle of Nowhere.” And she laid her arms along the top of the counter and pressed her forehead to the clear cool glass to gaze at the chocolates below.  “Everything there is slow…slow…slow.  I’m ready for some excitement.”  And she glanced up at Vin, only to puzzle at his somber expression.

“Sometimes,” Vin said, “life doesn’t need to be so exciting.”

“I want excitement,” Tammy said.  “I need excitement.  I’ve been livin’ a life in slow speed.  Nothing but cows and corn.”  Her eyes shone with delight. “We’re going places now.”

The man came up behind her, tailed still by Ezra.  When the man settled a hand on her shoulder, Ezra looked as if he wanted to kick the man in the knees.   There was something a bit too friendly about the way he caressed her neck.   “Me and Tammy are on vacation,” he explained.  “Havin’ a good time.”  He dropped the bag of chocolate-covered peanuts on the counter.  “Look, Tammy, they have seafoam!”  He jabbed a finger against the glass.  “Give me a quarter pound of that, would you?”

Vin looked to Ezra who said quietly, “Do it, Vin.” And he messed with the handlink as he stepped through the counter to Vin’s side.  “Don’t know for certain if these are the right people, yet.”

Vin reached into the display and grabbed a handful of the chocolate-covered molasses chunks.  He turned to the scale on the back counter.  Through his teeth he whispered.  “It’s them.  It’s got to be.”

Ezra leaned close, stating, “There plenty of locales that have cows and corn, Vin.  Plenty of places where life is slow.  And maybe you should use that wax paper to pick up the candy?”

Vin grunted in response.

“And gimmie some of that rock candy while you’re at it!”  Uncle Bill asked, speaking over the top of Ezra’s words.  “A good handful.”

Without really paying any attention to the weight of the seafoam, Vin dumped the collected chunks into a sack and turned to face the man again.  Bill was pointing to the bowl of pebble-like candies in the display case.  “A good handful.” The man said again with a grin.  “I love sweet things.”  And his uneven looking teeth and sticky-looking beard seemed to support that statement.

“Where you all from?” Vin asked, as he snatched up a piece of wax paper.  Keeping his eye on the man, he clumsily scooped into the bin of rock candy.  Sure would be easier without having to use this paper thing, he thought.

Tammy started to speak, but the man cut in, saying, “Michigan.  Up near Sault Ste. Marie.”  And he smiled, as if proud.

For that, Ezra gave a disgusted sound.  “Hardly,” he muttered.  “Their accent is definitely not Upper Great Lake.  He's fooling no one.”

“That’s a long drive,” Vin commented.

“Sure is,” the girl returned.  “Seems like we were in that car forever.”

“Well then, how about a treat?” Bill asked. “You can have anything you want, Tammy.”  And he made a magnanimous gesture over the chocolate counter.

The girl smiled, looking as if she’d just been given a key to the kingdom.  “I like coconut,” she said, looking at the chocolates with new appreciation.  “Coconut is so exotic, isn’t it?  We’re going to go see palm trees, aren’t we, Uncle Bill?”

“Sure, palm trees,” Bill returned.  “Down in California.”

“Everything is so beautiful down there,” Tammy decided.

“Dunno,” Vin responded.  “It’s pretty nice here.”

Tammy shrugged.  “It’s gray… and it’s so quiet.  I want to go where the excitement is.  I want to see movie stars.”

“Quiet is nice,” Vin responded.  “I kinda like it when it’s slow and calm like this.”

Tammy made a face in response.

Vin glanced about at the choices in the chocolate case, looking for coconut, then pointed to a haystack.  “How about these, then?  Chocolate covered coconut.” 

The girl nodded.  “Could I have two please?” she said softly.  “Please, Uncle Bill?”  And she smiled so sweetly.

“Heck,” Uncle Bill declared.  “Give her a half-pound if it makes her that happy.”

And Tammy hugged the man.  He returned the hug, perhaps a little too long, his hands wrapped a little too tightly around her waist.

Vin grabbed a double handful of the haystacks and tossed them on the scale, not bothering to grab the wax paper.  “Bill is short for Williams,” he said quietly to the hologram once his back was turned.

Ezra nodded, not taking his eyes from the pair.  “Indeed, Conner Williams had been known to use the delightfully unsuspicious alias ‘Bill Conner’.”

“It’s them, ain’t it?” Vin whispered.

“So it would appear,” Ezra replied.

“But the girl… she likes him.  Is this that … Geneva Syndrome?” Tanner hissed through his teeth.

“What?” Ezra turned to Vin for a moment, not sure he’d heard right.  “Oh, Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnapped victim begins to relate to their captors?”

Vin tossed a candy or two off the scale, watching the needle until it pointed to ½.  “Yeah, that’s it,” he murmured.

“I don’t think she knows she’s been kidnapped,” Ezra figured.  “I believe she sees Mr. Williams as her savior, rescuing her from a life of boredom.”

“You all right, Mister?” the man asked, craning his neck to see what Vin was doing.

Vin plastered on a tight smile as he dumped the coconut chocolates into the bag that was stamped with the shop’s name.  “Just fine, son,” he responded.  “Old fellas sometimes talk to themselves.”  His eyes were steely as they fixed on the man, who stepped back, suddenly apprehensive.

“Come on, Tammy, you ready to go?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet. He took in Vin’s sharp expression, looking ready to bolt.   “Let’s get this paid for and go.”

“Do something, Vin,” Ezra demanded.  “This must be our man.” 

Dumping the bags of sweets, Vin skirted around the counter, envying Ezra who stepped right through it.  “Honey,” he called to the girl, “if you like coconut, you got to try some of these here.”

Putting a hand on Tammy, the man pulled her back. 

“You’ll like this…” Vin started, and stared at the bins and barrels, seeking out coconut.  Where the hell was some coconut?  Amongst a row of candy bars, he spotted Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Payday… “Zagnut!” he shouted, grasping hold of the red wrapped candy bar.  “You ever have a Zagnut?  They’re pretty tasty.”  He hoped they were tasty.

“Looks old fashioned,” the girl said, crinkling her nose again.

Old fashioned, Vin thought, realizing the irony that he was speaking to someone 30 years in the past. Hell, I haven't even been born yet!   “It’s good, you’ll like it.”  He held out the candy, enticing her.

“Careful, Vin,” he heard Ezra say beside him.  “Don’t just grab the girl. She’s happy with him.  She likes him.”

Tanner glanced to Ezra, wanting to tell him – what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.

But Ezra kept poking away at the handlink.  “Don’t!” he declared again, giving Vin a narrow look.  “I mean it, Vin.  He’s got a gun.”

Damn it… damn it… damn it…Vin thought, watching as Tammy made her way toward him, looking skeptically at the coconut candy.  Why does everyone have to have a gun?

“If you do ANYTHING with her… damn it!  You’re changing history!”  Ezra growled, messing with the link, looking disgusted with what he was seeing on the display.  “This is definitely him, Connor Williams.  He’s going to go crazy when you grab her.  He’ll blow you both away, right here in this store.”

I bet we could make it out of here, Vin thought, glancing to the back door.

“Vin!” Ezra shouted, obviously reading the results of the attempt on his link. “She doesn’t want to go with you!  She’ll fight you!”

Tammy had reached him, and was smiling as she took the candy bar.  Vin resisted the urge to just grasp her by the wrist and yank her away.

“Thank you…” Ezra breathed out, still clutching the link so tightly he might crush it.

She turned, and gave her ‘Uncle’ doe-eyes.  “Can I try one, Uncle Bill?” she asked plaintively.  “I’ve never tasted a Zagnut before.”

How do I do this, Vin thought.  How do I get her away from him?   “You know,” he said, trying to sound casual, “Maybe you two should just stay in town for a bit,” he tried.  “If you’re just out driving around on an adventure, a few hours of rest might be nice.  I know a great place to have lunch.”  And he hoped there was a great place to have lunch somewhere in this little town.  “In fact, you two should stay in town for a few days.  I’m sure they got vacancy at one of the hotels; it is the slow season after all.  It’s a great place. Restful.  We may not have movie stars, but we have the ocean.”  And he gestured through the window to the sea beyond.

Tammy seemed to think it over, looking out at the ocean beyond the dunes.  Seagulls played, and in the distance a dory made its way across the water.  After contemplating, she said softly, “Can we, Uncle Bill?  Can we?  This is my first time at the ocean!  It would be kinda cool!”

“Dunno if it’s our scene, Tammy,” Conner said dubiously.  “Seems pretty dull.”

Still clutching the candy bar, Tammy dipped her head, “But it’s different than back home,” she decided.

Feeling better, Vin encouraged, “You’ll love it. A person needs to spend some time at the ocean.”  He met Williams’ dark eyes.  “Might be good for the girl.  It would be better than driving all over hell with her.  How far to you aim to go?”  The last question was piercing.  He added, “Where do you aim to take her?”

An uncomfortable look came over Conner as he gazed at Vin.    “I think we ought to go,” Bill stated.  “Come on, baby.”  And he held out a hand.  “Let’s get out of here.”

“But…” Tammy started, her lip quivering, thinking of the chocolate haystacks with exotic coconut inside.

“Tammy!” the man growled.  “You’re coming… now.”

The girl looked surprised at hearing his raised voice, and stepped back.

”You shouldn’t take her anywhere she doesn’t want to go,” Vin stated, thinking that if he could just delay them in town, he could get the girl away from him somehow.

Ezra had moved beside Williams, shaking his head.  “History’s changing again,” he muttered.  “Damn it, Vin!  He gets her out of here.  They’re going to find her body on the beach now – just a few miles down.  You must have spooked him.”

Petulantly, the girl gazed toward where her bag of chocolates still rested on the back counter.  She pointed to it, saying, “But you got to buy our stuff.”

“We’re going, now,” Williams insisted.  “Come on.”

The girl looked confused.  “But you said…” she started, and he gave her a look that seemed to leach a shade or two from her complexion.  She dropped the Zagnut into a barrel of taffy.

Ezra let out a growl.  “Her body will be… He’s going to… aw hell, Vin.”  The Observer looked up at the Leaper, his eyes bleak after reading what the man had done to a child. “Don’t let him leave with her.”

“Tammy!” Williams barked out, and the girl cringed.  “Don’t be such a drag.  Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Vin moved, getting himself in between the two.  “Now, why don’t you just calm down a minute and…”

“Shut up, old man,” Williams ordered.  “Get over here, you stupid little bitch.  We got to go.” And he moved to grab the girl.

“Stop him, Vin!” Ezra shouted.  But Vin really didn’t really need the encouragement.

The girl had skittered back, alarmed at her uncle’s behavior. Williams reached, his face furious.  Tanner dove in between them, shoving a hand against his chest, slamming Conner back against the row of flimsy barrels.  A barrel caught Williams behind the knees and his arms wind-milled as he tried to catch his balance.

He came down hard between two of the containers, sending salt-water taffy and cinnamon disks flying.  He swore thickly, and reached behind his back.  “You son-of-a-bitch,” he growled as he got to his feet, pulling a gun into view.   “I’m taking that little whore and I’m gettin’ out of here.  I’ll kill you, old man!”

Vin shoved the girl back as Conner came at them.  The man brought the gun up, but he didn’t have a chance to aim as Vin slammed into him again, shoving him bodily into licorice-filled shelves, clattering the whole display to the floor.

Somewhere behind him, Tammy was screaming.  Conner had lost his hold on the weapon and it disappeared into the muddle.  Williams seemed shocked that an old, frail-looking man could put up such a fight.  Struggling upward again, he took a swing at Vin, but the Leaper ably eluded the punch, and came back with one of his own, slamming a fist into Conner’s stomach and sending him to his knees.

A gasp in the doorway drew Vin’s attention for a second, and he found a woman’s round face staring through the window at him.  “Greg?” she cried at the doorway, “are you okay?”

Conner made a motion to rush at the plump woman and the doorway to escape, but Vin leapt at him again, driving him back into the containers of candy, sending peppermint lozenges, root beer barrels, butterscotches disks, and foil wrapped chocolates flying everywhere.  “Call 911!” Tanner shouted at her as he flung himself on the man.

“What?” the woman returned, obviously as confused as she was alarmed.  “I’ll get Jimmy!” she declared, and went dashing down the street.

Frantic now, Conner made another attempt to escape.  He swung, delivering a solid blow across Vin’s jaw.  Tanner saw stars as he fell back, colliding with more of the barrels, tipping their contents in with the rest.  He heard Ezra shouting his name as the world dimmed.

Tammy was wailing in one corner.  Conner was on his feet again, trying to make his way to the door, but the floor was thick with candies, crunching and rolling everywhere.  The man fell and shoved himself up again, struggling past, the wide-eyed girl.

“Vin!” he heard Ezra’s voice filtering through a haze.  “You must stop him!  Vin!  Cathy is going to be safe now, but this won’t end here!  Son of a bitch!  There’ll be others…”

Blinking, Vin focused on the Observer who bent over him, anxiously calling, “Vin!”

And so Vin fought his way to his feet, feeling the blood running from his cut and numb bottom lip.  He dove at Conner’s feet, barely catching him around the ankles as he headed to the door.  The bastard kicked as he went down again, knocking over yet another display – sending shell-shaped chocolates into the mess on the floor.

The heel of his shoe caught Vin above the eye and his head snapped back at the violence.  Oh Gawd, Vin thought, I won’t be able to hang onto him – this is all going to hell.

Incensed, Williams kicked again, but Vin was ready for him, twisting out of the way, and using the momentum to twist Conner’s legs around with him.  The man cried out in pain, as Vin shoved him forward, slamming him headfirst into the doorjamb.

Suddenly, the struggle ended.  Conner went limp.  Behind him, Vin could hear Tammy…or was it Cathy… sobbing.  He turned to see that Ezra had moved.  He was standing protectively near the child, as he might be able to comfort her.  Standish pointed beneath one of the tables.  “His gun’s over there,” he observed.

His head swimming, Vin slid over to the place where Ezra indicated, and spotted the weapon.  His hand was nearly on it when the woman returned, along with a stocky man in a sheriff’s uniform.  “Greg?” the man asked, leaning though the doorway.  “Omigawd, Greg?  Are you okay?”

Panting, Vin nodded.

Jimmy the cop looked horrified, and gestured to the woman.  “Dana, can you check on the girl?  Make sure she’s okay?”

Immediately, Dana nodded and came in, crunching carefully over the spilled candy.  She spoke softly, soothingly to Cathy, calming her. Through her sobs, the only words Vin could make out the words, “I want my Mom!”

Jimmy checked out the unconscious man as Tanner snagged the gun.  “What the heck happened here?” the officer asked incredulously.

Vin slogged through the disorder and handed over the weapon.  “He was running off with that girl.  I wasn’t going to let him out of my store.”

“Damn,” Jimmy said, and then added, “Damn!”  He started talking about how he was going to handle the situation.  Dana still held Cathy, assuring her in a motherly voice.

Things were getting a bit blurry, so Vin sat down heavily in the jumble that filled the blue-painted shop.  Hard bits of candy tried to bury themselves into his hind-end.  He really felt as if he needed a good lie-down.  Ezra squatted down beside him, looking him in the eye, “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked worriedly.

“Got kicked in the head,” Vin replied, licking at his split lip, and tenderly touching his head.

Jimmy looked up at him, saying, “Damn, Greg.  We got to get you to a doctor!”

Vin sighed, asking his Observer, “How does it end?”  Ezra poked at the handlink as Vin fished around for a shell-shaped chocolate.

Jimmy, thinking Greg was talking to him, said, “I’m trying to figure that out right now.  Damn, this is a mess.”

Vin squinted against his aching head, watching Cathy as he unwrapped the candy.  “Well?” he questioned Ezra, and popped the treat into his mouth.

Jimmy was talking again, but Vin wasn’t listening.  Ezra spoke, “She’s safe.” He turned to see the girl.  “Cathy goes home to her mother and father.  She lives. She grows up.  She has a family.  She’s happy.  Runs a little store in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Sells knick-knacks to college kids.”  He kept poking.  “Conner goes away for a few years.  Is killed in prison.”  Ezra shrugged as if this was no problem with him.

Vin nodded, happy with that conclusion as well.

“Gregory Thorpe keeps running this shop.”  Ezra glanced around at the damage, and then gazed toward the woman who comforted the child.  “He has good neighbors.  They all pitch in, and the place is good as new in a couple weeks.”  He cocked his head at Vin and said, “It’s the slow season after all.”  He gestured to the stuff all around them.  “So, there’s little harm with being closed for a while.  He just has to have all this is accounted for.”  A scowl struck him as Vin picked up another piece of candy, unwrapped it and jammed it into his mouth.

“You can’t tell me I’m messing with his profits now,” Vin hissed, then glanced up to see if anyone cared that he was talking to no one – but Jimmy was busily checking out the suspect, and Dana was taking care of Cathy.  “Everything’s going to be okay,” he sighed.

“Sure,” Jimmy answered, suddenly listening to him.  The cop glanced around at the chaos.   “We’ll get this all fixed up, you’ll see.  I’ll get Ted and Irma and the boys out there.  It’ll be ship-shape in no time.”  The cop kept talking.  “Looks like most of this stuff is wrapped.  Won’t hurt if we scoop it up and put it back in the barrels, right?” Jimmy stated, sounding hopeful.

“So, we did it?” Vin asked.

“Yes, Vin, you did,” Ezra responded.

It was coming.  Vin could feel it happening.  Frantically, he reached out.  Down by his feet, he found a piece of chocolate wrapped in blue-foil.  Tearing through it, he knew he was racing the clock.  Ezra was shaking his head as the last of the wrapper came off and the chocolate was free.

“See you later,” Ezra said with a sigh, jamming the handlink into his pocket and knowing whose turn it was next.

Desperate, Vin shoved the candy into his mouth, delighting in the momentary taste of the finest chocolate Finland had to offer, as the blue light took him once again.



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