Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.
Author's Notes: Special thanks to Beth for a wonderful beta of the first parts of this story.
It was one of those mornings that made Jim Ellison long for a bit of military discipline around Cascade. He was running late anyway, and pedestrians and delivery vehiclesall where they shouldn't beseemed to block him at every turn. To say nothing of the drivers who tried to barge in front of him, and the drivers who made a ridiculous fuss when he did the same to them. It wasn't as if he even wanted to attend these debriefing sessions, except to get his own views on the record: the CIA owed Sandburg and Tannera fact they were extremely reluctant to acknowledgeHaines and Henshaw should pay for their part in the mess, and if anyone found a trace of Miller, Cascade PD was entitled to him. He didn't fool himself that anyone was really listening to his stubborn reiteration of all this, but it gave him some satisfaction saying it.
He was well behind schedule when he arrived at the airport, and was not surprised to see Chris Larabee already disembarked and waiting for him. What was unexpected, and didn't improve his mood, was the fact that Larabee was accompanied by another man, someone Jim didn't know. An escort to their latest meeting with the CIA? The man had that look, and there was a grim expression on Chris's face, as if he was even less happy than usual with the fallout from the Josephs affair. Chris was mouthing something, obviously hoping Jim would use his sentinel abilities to extend his hearing and pick up the slightest whisper, but in this melee of people and vehicles and nearby airplanes Jim had no intention of doing so. Chris glared at him more eloquently than whatever he'd been trying to say.
"Sorry I'm late," Jim apologised as he came up to them. "Traffic was bad. Looks like you've already got an escort though?"
He expected an introduction. Instead Chris said with quiet intensity, "This bastard has a gun in my back and swears he has a colleague with one trained on Sandburg right now. Is Sandburg at school this morning?"
For a moment Jim thought this must be some bizarre attempt at a joke, but there was nothing humorous about the expression on Chris's face. He sought for the scent of a gun, and found it. And simultaneously he thought of Blair. He knew Blair was at Rainier: Blair had explained to him at length over breakfast the points of similarity between tribal brotherhoods and sports teamsthis was apparently his morning's lecture topic. Jim had learned several things he didn't want to know about the sex lives of British soccer players as charted by Desmond Morris. The amusement the memory would have brought faded to something sour and tasting of fear. Blair's lecture schedule was published; Rainier was not a secure site. It would be easy enough for someone to be in the back of class with a silenced firearm...
The man standing at Chris's elbow smiled. "I see you get the idea, Detective Ellison. Now perhaps we could take this conversation somewhere quieter."
Jim glanced at Chris, got the ghost of a shrug in reply. It wasn't the personal risk; they'd have taken that gladly to take this asshole down. But the threat to Blair was just too plausible.
"Walk back towards your truck, Ellison," the man said, just a hint of relieved tension in his voice as they cleared the crowds. "I do know where it is, so don't try to mess with me."
There was a large grey van parked next to the truck now, a colourful logo on its side proclaiming it belonged to the CleenBriteWindow Company. "In the back of there," the man said, waving them in after a hasty glance around.
The back door of the van opened a little, barely enough to let them in one at a time. Jim stepped in and realised at once the full extent of what they had landed in. This was no ordinary set up. The van was lined with expensive electronic equipment, the whole thing gleaming with a daunting professional expertise. But that was nothing compared to the fact that sitting enjoying the expression on his face as he took in his surroundings, were ex-agent Miller, on the run from the CIA, and even more appallingly, a cheerful and unimprisoned Lee Brackett.
Jim stopped dead and Chris bumped into his back. "Sit down," Miller said as the van door closed firmly behind them. "Alldred, who you just had the pleasure of meeting, is about to take us on a short trip. Don't worry about your truck. BottingI'm sure you remember Bottingwill bring that along."
Brackett leaned over and flipped a switch on one of the monitors. "And just in case you allow your natural tendency to non-cooperation to get the better of you, may I draw your attention to the screen."
Jim sat down when he saw the sharply-focussed image on the monitor: Blair in full lecturing mode. The fact there was a camera on him didn't prove that there was also a gun, but it was a risk he couldn't take. He wanted to push Brackett's smug grin through to the other side of his head, but instead he slowly uncurled his fists and held his anger in check.
Chris sat beside him, stiff and reluctant. Miller smiled genially. "You, of course, Mr Larabee, have plenty of hostages to fortune. They're not quite so easy to film during the working day, but there will come a time when they have to return to their vehicles"a composite shot came up of Team 7's assortment of cars and motorcycles"or return home. If friends of ours don't receive the right word at the right time, who's to say what could happen. And if you need a less serious warning there's always the livestock." Jim recognised the horses, and the ranch. Miller and Brackett had been thorough. And clever. They might have no extensive organisation at all, just some well-placed surveillance cameras. But the chance that they could be telling the truth was enough to keep their prisoners impotent.
Jim could feel Larabee's suppressed fury, and how his muscles, too, were tensed up for a violent move he dared not make. They sat and choked on their frustration, and Jim's mind began to circle the questions he wouldn't give Miller and Brackett the satisfaction of hearing him ask. The biggest question of all was what the hell the two of them wanted. He could see it wasn't going to be anything as simple as revenge.
Blair had wound up his lecture with one of his favourite stories, of the soccer players climbing acrobatically on one another's shoulders to look in the window of the youngest team member who they'd set up with a hot date. They found him going vigorously up and downdoing push ups. It had finished the session on a lively note.
On his way from there to coffee he thought briefly of Jim. Would it cheer the sentinel up or ruin his day completely if Blair set up a double date? The man certainly needed something to get his mind off the CIA, but would it be Bea's friend Lizzy, who did exotic dancing with pythons, or her roommate Amelia, who was tall and blonde but tended to gush? Or maybe Jim would just prefer a good steak and a sport's game on TV.
The scent of coffee distracted him. He sat down with a large latte and a new journal and found a reference in the journal so fascinating it sent him straight to the library to follow it up and displaced even the exotic dancer from his mind.
Chris briefly readied himself as the van slowed and stopped, but he knew it was pointless. It wasn't the situation here that decided their actions; it was the possible situations in Rainier and Denver. An escape attempt might well have been unsuccessful anyway: Miller's competence was proved by the fact he had completely evaded the frantic searches of his old colleagues. He didn't know who the other man wasthough he could see Ellison didbut he looked both capable and unscrupulous.
Beside him Ellison shifted slightly, focussing his attention on the screen nearest Miller. Chris realised that it was probably showing the view outside the van. It seemed to be an empty stretch of road framed on both sides by thick woods. "The route you'd have travelled if you'd kept your appointment with my previous employers," Miller said.
Chris could believe it. It was one of the more annoying aspects of the series of debriefings they'd had with the CIA that they all took place at remote locations; the organisation's habitual paranoia seemed to have been driven to frenzy by recent events and the unwelcome attention of the press.
"We're waiting for the sales pitch," Jim said. "Nice equipment. When do we get to the point."
"I think Botting is about to show you," Miller said, keying a command so that the picture on the screen zoomed out and they could see Jim's truck.
Brackett said quickly, "Road clear for a mile in both directions, except for Helene, who is exactly where she should be. Do it now, Botting."
Jim shouted with dismay as the truck turned abruptly off the road and crunched heavily into a sturdy tree trunk. Botting jumped out. He and Alldred could be seen propping up somethingdummies?in the front, then they ran back, Alldred fired a rifle shot needlessly into the front tyre, Brackett pressed a remote, and the truck exploded in flames.
"What the hell...!"
Chris grabbed Ellison's arm before he could do something that might be fatal to Blair or any of Team 7. Miller, anyway, had a gun in his hand, though its configuration was unusual.
"Brackett!" Jim said angrily.
Miller's companion nodded. "I know, Jim. Believe me, it added a great deal of pleasure to this scenario knowing how you'd feel when your truck went up. Now, we'll be on our way, leaving Helene... yes, there she issweet-looking girl, nice car, perfect eyewitness. She'll tell everyone how she got this clear view of you two coming along, the front tyre suddenly exploded, truck swerved off the road into a tree, and hence the sad demise of two highly respected law enforcement officers."
Botting and Alldred had jumped into the front of the van as he was speaking, and they were already moving fast away from the scene. Chris began to realise just what was being set up here. On the monitors they could still see the blazing truck. The girl had pulled over on the other side of the road and stood there beside her car.
"A fatal accident?" he said. "You don't think they'll fall for dummies, do you."
"Oh no," the man who Jim had called Brackett said. "We wouldn't think that."
"You killed someone," Ellison said, his voice somewhere near the edge of losing the battle with his anger. "Just to have two bodies to put in the truck."
"Nothing so melodramatic," Brackett said. "It wasn't necessary. We simply sent Botting to a morgue. There always seem to be plenty of bodies around Cascade."
"But DNA," Chris said. "Dental records, even after a fire like that..."
"You're not thinking this through," Brackett said reproachfully. "There won't be any urgent need to identify the bodies. We have two victims of broadly similar appearanceand I assure you we arranged for a fire that would remove any finer detailsand an eyewitness of impeccable character who saw you both at the moment of contact. In addition, this press release is about to go out to all the local media and appropriate ones beyond."
The words rolled up the screen and Chris numbly read thema brief release about the deaths of two law officers in a car crash; it appeared to be an accident, but the authorities suspected the involvement of an escaped criminal, Lee Brackett, who was known to have vowed revenge on Detective Ellison. A picture of Brackett, one of Jim at some police function and Chris's ID photo were attached.
"I rather like myself in that shot," Brackett said. "You, on the other hand, are glaring at the camera, Mr Larabee. The whole thing makes a good press release. Miller here has managed to send it out so that it appears to originate from a CIA press office, so that should provide a temporary distraction for your organisationsand of course a certain amount of confusion about who is responsible for the bodies. Then there's the bullet in the tyrefrom a rifle I carefully bought under the full view of a security camera. It all works very well. They'll be so busy following that up and looking for me that they won't be suspecting subtleties. By the time routine throws up any question about your identities, we'll have finished our business and the trail will be very cold indeed. Your friends will be upset, of course, but..."
Jim broke free of the hold Chris had on his arm and went for Brackett's neck. Miller's gun coughed quietly. The force of Jim's jump carried him into Brackett and they both went over, but it was Jim who was left lying unmoving on the floor.
Chris, who had begun to follow him, aborted the move and instead dropped to his knees beside him. He turned him gently over. He'd hoped, he'd been fairly sure, what the gun wasand Brackett and Miller evidently needed them alivebut it was still a stomach-wrenching relief to see the small dart embedded in Ellison's chest, and that his face was only slack in unconsciousness.
"No self control," Brackett said. "How about you, Larabee? Feel the need for some sort of futile gesture?"
Chris ignored him and did what he could to make Jim comfortable on the cold floor of the van.
"I allowed for any hypersensitive reactions," Brackett said. "I've been explaining to Miller just how very acute Detective Ellison's senses are."
But Chris noticed that he stooped to check Ellison himself; that, from a man like Brackett, was tantamount to nervousness in anyone else. He knows Ellison's a sentinel, but he's not completely confident about handling him. Not much of a weakness, but it's the only one he's showed.
Jim was deeply out of it; Chris thought his breathing and pulse were even slower than they ought to be from the sedative, and settled down to keep watch for any hint of either being dangerously compromised. He found it a lifeline to have something as simple and basic as that to concentrate on, because otherwise the thought of his team seeing that newscast was a hell of a lot too vivid. He didn't know if it was the same thought about Sandburg that had pushed Jim into the action he had taken, or whether he'd been considering it for a while, gambling on the fact that Brackett needed him and wouldn't want to shoot his investment. It was clearly Ellison they had special plans for; Chris just seemed to be along for the ride. Unless they thought he had a better grasp of the sentinel stuff than they did.
"Why me and not Sandburg?" he asked.
"Oh, several reasons," Brackett said lightly, tacitly acknowledging he'd worked this out right. "The place we're planning to get into will be easier for people with Special Forces training, and it was more practical to set up the abduction this way. Miller feels that you and Ellison managed to work together only too successfully before. And of course, in his case there was petty revenge to consider. I'm glad you appreciate that your only value is in how efficiently you can support Ellison in using his senses."
"Assuming he can use them at all when you've finished with him," Chris said. "I hope you knew what you were doing when you shot him full of sedative."
To his satisfaction this struck home. Brackett, for the briefest time, looked uneasy, and Miller began a question which he hastily cut off, to say instead, "If you've got any helpful suggestions we'll hear them. Otherwise, shut up."
"I suggest you get him a blanket," Chris said. "How long are we going to be in this van, anyway?"
They were not driving very fast, just cruising, and he suspected half the turns they were making were simply to confuse his sense of direction. Brackett said shortly, "Take your jacket and put it over him if he's cold." But he leaned through to the front of the van and gave a quiet order, and Alldred's driving seemed to Chris to change to something slightly more purposeful.
His sense of satisfaction at having gained this very minor victory was short-lived, though. He couldn't avoid observing that the monitors in the van were beginning to change, some showing one channel, some another as news networks began to pick up the 'breaking' story. He refused to allow himself to think of his team's reactions when they saw it; if he did, he wouldn't be able to fight back, he'd go under.
Clichés get to be clichés because they say something undeniable. Bad news travels fast. The approach adopted by Miller and Brackett made sure it travelled even faster than usual this time. It also meant there was no private, considerate informing of friends, that they faced the breaking story completely unprepared.
Jim's truck had exploded at 11:53. The first cameras and reporters were at the scene well before 12:30, just barely behind the rescue services, to whom Brackett's 'witness' had deliberately given a rather confused account of the location.
Mary Travis was the first to hear, seeing the press release. She spent her lunch hour desperately trying to get ahold of her father-in-law or anyone else who would tell her it wasn't true. The only place she didn't call was the Team 7 office; she couldn't face speaking to them until she knew one way or the other.
JD saw a news flash on the internet as he went to read his mail. He was sure it couldn't be right, because the announcement would have come first to themto the Team, or to Buck and Vin as legal next of kin. He was so shocked though that he called Buck over anyway.
A reporter called on Simon Banks for confirmation of the news, as Banks left the courtroom where he had been giving evidence. Ignoring the man, Simon stepped into the nearest empty room and began a frantic series of calls from his cell phone. He began to get more and more ominous answers.
Josiah and Nathan were returning from their lunch break when they heard the news mentioned on the channel they were listening to on the car radio. The report was tantalisingly short, only picking up on the Denver connection, and, like JD, could not understand how if it was even partly true it could be happening in this way. It had to be wrong... But even if it was, the report should have come first through other channels. They hurried back to the office, to find Buck shouting at someone on the phone and a white faced, shaken JD getting more and more supporting details online.
Blair, happily tucked away in one of the remotest corners of the library, was deep in researching the account he'd found of skills the Roman army had observed in tribal watchmen hostile to their occupation. Struggling with some of the original sources, he wasn't aware of the time, or the frantic messages being left on his switched-off phone. He drifted out for a hasty sandwich, but was back at work before Cascade PD's search for him reached Rainier. It didn't reach the obscure desk where he was writing notes.
Ezrameeting 'clients' in his persona of Ezra Simpson, in an expensive hotel suitewas sipping a whisky when one of them flipped on the TV to catch the sports results. It was only the fact that they had all heard of Chris Larabee, and were looking at the screen, not at him, that prevented him from blowing his cover completely. Not that he felt just then as if he could care less, but there was a core of professionalism that made him finish the meetingfastbefore he fled to his own apartment to come to grips with this alone.
As soon as he was inside he switched on the TV. By now, Helene was giving a tearful account of how she'd seen the men's faces as they went off the road, and how she couldn't get close to the truck as the flames went up. Ezra walked numbly to the bathroom, and was sick. He heard his phone ring, but didn't move. The answering machine picked up, and there was Josiah's voice, telling him to call, telling him there was bad news, telling him no one could get in touch with Vin. Oh God, Vin. He was sick again, and sank down on the floor, unable to think of a single thing he could do.
Vin hadn't let anyone know where he was because he was way across town having lunch with Sadie in a very cheap pizza place they would once have thought of as paradise. He hadn't told anyone, not even Chris, that he'd made contact with her; he was aware of all the reasons why maybe he shouldn't have gone near her; but he'd felt that if anyone deserved to know the truth about what happened to Josephs it was Sadie. This was the third time they'd met up, and he knew a bit more about her now: she had a steady boyfriend, he'd moved in a year or so back, and he was good to her and the boy. "Mike's kind," she told Vin. "Ain't clever, maybe, or a go-getter, but he's real kind. I got enough push for two. Mike's handy, he can fix anything that's broke, but he never charged right or knew how to organise it as a job. I can do all that stuff. We're getting money put away now. Maybe, not too long, we might try for a baby. I could be a good mom this time."
They'd eaten early, and been onto coffee by the time the small screen over the counter began to show the story, and the name Larabee galvanised their attention. Vin didn't notice his cup drop until pooling coffee trickled onto him, and even then it was a distant thing, barely real. The scene, the reporter's words, unfolded in front of him and he couldn't move or react, or even feel anything. He sat, frozen, and all he could think was, it's a lie, I know it's a lie, ain't nothing to feel because it just ain't true. But he must have looked bad anyway, because Sadie took his arm and dragged him out, made him walk to her nearby home. "Ain't true," he said to her. "It's a lie, Sadie."
Mike was there, several years older than both of them, kind as Sadie had said. They sat Vin down in their living room, and he realised he must have been wobbling on his feet, which didn't make sense when he knew the story wasn't true. "Turn the TV on," he said and his voice echoed back at him from far off.
There was a woman on TV then. Pretty. Looked sweet and innocent, but she wasn't. Vin watched her eyes. She wasn't someone he had to believe. Mike put a small glass in his hand: cheap whisky, which burned its way down. The words and pictures on the screen came and went, but he didn't let them in.
"She's lying," he said aloud, as if his own words would have more power when they were spoken.
"Could be," Sadie said. "I met her sort. Not as nice as she looks, I bet. You can see how she's working them reporters."
Vin blinked; the whisky was warm in his stomach and this agreement was so unexpected that it cut through the numbness in his mind. Life seemed to seep back in very slowly, as painfully as blood returning to a dead limb. His attention sharpened; denial became not just a defence against being overwhelmed. He watched now. At any rate, he watched the woman; he couldn't look at the truck. And slowly, as if he was coming back to the surface from somewhere very dark and smothering, he realised he really didn't believe her.
Sadie gave him an awkward pat. "You want me to call anyone?"
The team! The thought took his own pain and magnified it back fivefold. And Blair... It was too much too think of for a moment; he seemed to be looking down a tunnel, only able to stare at the unfolding news on the screen, and not to look outside it at all the other needs about to pour in on him. He had to call them all; would do soon, but for all their sakes he had to figure out what he was thinking. He had to grasp this feeling and be certain it wasn't just a refusal to accept the facts, had to get this right, for Chris as well as the rest of them. Look after the team for Chris, if... He faced it, briefly, knew he could if he had to. But his instinctive denial grew rather than lessened. He listened now, to what the reporters were saying, to what the girl witness was saying. Gut feeling clarified into something more like reason. There was something wrong about the woman, something subtly false, that Sadie had seen as well as him, perhaps because they'd both learned long ago! , as a survival skill, to judge people from the tiny signs. And it had been a bullet in a tyre, not a bullet in the head, and Ellison wouldn't have lost control so completely he'd hit the tree head on like that. And his heart was shouting that it was a false trail and Chris just hadn't died like that. But how the hell was he going to start making people listen to him when it all seemed so cut and dried?
He was worrying Sadie. "I don't believe it, Sadie," he said urgently. "Nothing's right about it. All over the news like this, so quick, and that girl... It's all wrong. I know it sounds like I just can't handle it, but it ain't thatain't just thatit's all wrong in other ways too. I know he's living. Sounds dumb, but I know it as sure as I know who I am."
He expected common sense. Sadie always had lots of that. But she looked at him and said. "You got to go with that then. I know I shouldn't that, but I do, because that's the way I felt about Joey. I knew. And I was right. And I'm thankful every day I went with what I believed then."
It took Vin a moment to realise she was talking about her son, but he did understand he was getting some very unexpected support. "Thanks," he breathed when he took it in. "Thanks Sadie. You don't know how much I needed that."
He got unsteadily to his feet, and Mick held his arm while he fought off the sense of weakness. No time for that. He had to get his act together. Had to make decisions.
He fumbled for his phone, dropped it, and when Sadie put it back into his hand he couldn't think what number to punch first. Blair. They'd all be hurting but Blair might be on his own.
Blair wasn't in the loft, and his cell phone was off. Frustrated, the need to be doing something itching at him, he left that one for now, and rang the office. Busy. Buck's cell phone then. At last someone answered his call.
"Vin! Vin, we've been trying to get you. We need you back here. Where are you?"
Vin could hear the hesitation in Buck's voiceuncertainty as to who he might be with and whether he'd heard, so he answered quickly, "I seen the news. Buck, listen t' me. I don't believe it. It just ain't true, and if you..."
"Dammit, Vin!" That was anguish in Buck's yell as much as anger. "Don't start that, Vin. D'you think I don't feel like you do. Get back here so we're all together."
"Ain't denying what anyone feels," Vin said painfully, wishing that for once he could put his thoughts into fluent speech. "But I don't believe it, and if you'll listen t' me explain..."
"You talk to him, Nate," he heard Buck saying. "I can't handle this right now. JD, has Travis called back yet? Call him again."
Nathan came on, grief and concern for Vin in his voicehe let Vin talk, but he wasn't taking in what he was saying any more than Buck had done. "Get Ezra," Vin said, trying not to sound desperate. "Let me talk t' Ez."
"We don't know where he is either," Nathan said, the worry for both of them echoing in his voice. "He had a meet set up for lunch time. We've no way of contacting him, and he hasn't checked in."
Vin glanced at his watch. Still early, but if Ez had heard... maybe heard while he was in company... that would have been rough. And he wouldn't head for the others, not if it had hit him hard and unexpected; lick his wounds in private, that was Ez's way to cope.
"I'm heading back t' you through town," he said. "I'll check his place on my way in."
"We've called there."
"I'll check anyway. Is JD there?"
"He's here. He's doing okay."
"Tell him to run all the checks he can on that girl and the way the story broke."
"Vin, come on in," Nate said gently. "Let's talk about it here."
Lee Brackett watched in satisfaction from an anonymous house just beyond the outskirts of Cascade, as events unfolded exactly according to his plans, all the puppets dancing to his manipulation. Seeing his control of everything was almost as pleasant as thinking of the profit they'd make when Ellison got them through security to the prototype computer defence system he planned to obtain.
He'd enjoyed watching Larabee's face as the story became more and more definite, harder for his team to disbelieve. He'd also noted the iron will that kept the man from any overt gesture. He hadn't seen much of him, and only had Miller's rather paranoid assessment to go on, but he thought Larabee might quite possibly be even more dangerous than Ellison. Luckily he was also more expendable, and knew it. And, like Ellison, he had the fatal weakness of hostages he cared about. Brackett's general amusement was increased by the fact that in fact he and Miller had only a very impressive electronic set up, and no waiting snipers at all. It was going to be quite piquant watching Ellison and Larabee jump to his orders all because they didn't dare take the risk of assuming that.
His general sense of self approval might have been somewhat muted if he had realised that the limits he had defined for the game were being breached. Since Miller had managed to extricate him from custody, they'd been preoccupied with setting up this affair, and their intelligence was not so perfect as he assumed. Certainly Miller's information as to the whereabouts of all their own agents was up-to-date, and between them they could account for most of the legitimate ones of other countries. But the US was not the only place to have rogues. The news, now being broadcast widely, was attracting some interest from a variety of people who knew the game only too well.
"That Brackett, he is not a man to be filmed buying a gun, not unless he intends to be," Victor Suvarov said to fellow ex-agent Igor Yudin, as they watched the story further developing that afternoon. He knew Brackett well; had known him before their respective sides of the Iron curtain had got so reprehensibly cosy, back when their talents had been employed rather more legitimately. "There is more to this than a melodrama of revenge. Where Brackett is there is good profit to be had. Who do we know in Cascade? We can be there by this evening. Let us go and see if we can buy a stake in this game."
Pierre Ducos, Hans Kreiber and Kabil al Shenawi were in Cascade for their own purposes. Operating for their respective governments but unacknowledged and under the tightest secrecy, they were handling a delicate negotiation designed to further French and German interests in the Middle East and at the same time were cooperating in what cruder people might have called a blackmail trap on a senior executive in Cyclops Oil. Civility was becoming somewhat frayed, as Shenawi scented traces of old imperialist ambitions from the French and Kreiber jibbed at what he saw as irrelevant anti Semitism from both the others. The appearance of Lee Brackett on the news was something of a welcome distraction. All of them knew him by reputation. They watched the story from the beginning.
"I know that girl," Kreiber said with surprise, when the interview with Helene came on. "We hired her once. She is very good. Very expensive."
"The good girls always are," Ducos said regretfully. "You think she is lying?"
"I'm sure she is lying. I wonder what it is for."
"She is there to describe the men in the truck," Shenawi said. "Why lie, unless that is what must be concealed? But it is true that the man Ellison was involved in Brackett's arrest. It was an odd affair."
"Yes. What do we know about Ellison and Larabee? Could they be going to join forces with Brackett? And why did we not know 'til now that Brackett was loose?"
That was the question being asked by CIA, FBI, and the police as well. Until the broadcast went out, 'escaped criminal' Brackett was not officially escaped at all. The prison service thought the CIA had him. The CIA found that their supposed officials, who had taken him from the prison for debriefing, had used cars whose plates were registered to the FBI. The FBI knew nothing about Brackett, and were denying all knowledge of everything, but had traced the press release to the CIA. Neither organisation was telling the regular police force anything in case it turned out to be incriminating.
Simon Banks, struggling with the grief he didn't have time to feel, was more angry and frustrated than he had ever been. And they still hadn't found Sandburg. In desperation, he rang Denver, in case Blair had turned to Vin when he heard the news. Neither he nor anyone else considered the possibility that Blair might be in the depths of the library, so lost in his research he had no idea what time it was, let alone what was going on in the world outside.
Jim heard his name through suffocating layers of darkness. Even if he'd wanted to respond he couldn't have managed it, but he was aware enough to know it was the voice of an enemy. He made no attempt to move or show he'd heard.
"I told you, you gave him too much." That was... Larabee. The name came to him through the pounding confusion in his head. A friend. An ally. It was Larabee's hand around his wrist, he realised, and the fingers pressed slightly as if in warning.
"Then do something for him." It was evidently annoying Brackett that Jim lay there like a log. Good. Since the prospect of closing his fingers round Brackett's neck seemed remote right now, he'd settle for annoying him. He lay inert.
"We'll just have to wait it out." That was Miller. "Leave Botting at the door. He can get us when Ellison's conscious."
Jim listened to their footsteps, distracting himself from the nausea and the growing pain in his head by trying to follow where they went. Very soft and close at hand he heard Larabee, speaking so quietly that no one without the most acute hearing could have heard him. "Botting's watching just now. Play dead, and see if you can pick anything up that might be useful to us. I've only seen the four men, and you should be able to locate them all. I don't know where we are; they brought the van into a garage before they let me out, but it should still be Cascade if I judged the distances right. You've been out for about three hours. That's a lot longer than Brackett expected and he's getting edgy."
There was a long pause. Jim guessed that was because Chris was worried about attracting Botting's attention. The light grip on his wrist remained; it must have been his pulse rate that cued Larabee in to the fact he was more or less conscious again. He worked past the throbbing headache to get a rough idea of where everyone was in the building, but it was too much effort to go beyond that. He needed Blair's quiet assurance, and the stability of his voice. Instead when he thought of him, he was nearly submerged by concern and alarmabout Brackett's threats, but even more about how Blair would react to the supposed accident.
"Easy," Chris breathed. Jim's pulse rate must have jumped. The hand on his wrist shifted slightly, sliding to his palm. "Are you coping? One grip for yes, two for no."
Jim managed to grip his hand once, without, he hoped, moving noticeably.
"Bad enough to be worth alerting Brackett and Miller?"
"Okay. We'll bluff them for a while. Anything that takes the initiative from that smug son of a bitch. When you've got what you can, you could 'wake up' very dramaticallyput on a five-star performance like you did that time to get Sandburg's attention. If you make it sound bad enough, that'll buy us some more time."
It really wouldn't take much effort to make it sound bad. Jim was hard put to it not to groan aloud at the moment. But he was picking up some of the conversation between Brackett and Miller. He concentrated on that. A couple of times he involuntarily gripped Larabee's hand as a spike of pain shot through his head, but his endurance was rewarded eventually.
"We've lost Sandburg," Brackett said, turning from other details of his plans which hadn't yet made complete sense to Jim. "Banks is looking for him too. The camera in his office gives us the time he left there, but he hasn't used his phone or shown up anywhere else we've got monitored."
"It's not really a problem, is it?" Miller said, bored. "So long as Ellison thinks we've got him in someone's sights, that's all we need."
"I don't like any unknowns," Brackett said. "I'm going out to the van to check on Larabee's men."
After that, Jim lost him; he followed the footsteps towards the garage, but his concentration slipped, and he didn't have the control to get it back again. He risked opening his eyes a little. Botting was sitting opposite the open door, but his attention was on something down the hallway. Chris saw him look, and moved very slightly so that if Botting looked in he couldn't see Jim's face. "Anything?" he breathed.
Jim gave his hand a grip, then decided the 'yes/no' method was going to be too slow. Chris might not have sentinel hearing, but he was a lot closer than Botting. "They've lost Sandburg," Jim breathed. "Sounds to me like they might just have cameras, not men."
"What about my team?" Chris asked, slightly too loudly.
Botting stood up and strolled in. Jim closed his eyes hastily and tried to look slack-faced.
"Is he waking up?" Botting demanded. "No, never mind, I wouldn't take your word for the time of day." He pulled out a radio transmitter. "Miller? I think we might have a flicker at last."
No point in pretending any more, then. Jim decided to wake up with a bang.
Ezra was still sitting on the bathroom floor, not because he still felt nauseous, but because a miserable sort of apathy seemed to make moving pointless. He couldn't go to the team's headquarters while news cameras were converging on the building, not without risking his current assignment and possibly jeopardising future ones. He knew he ought to pick up the phone and call in, but every time he thought of getting up and doing it, the conversations he would have to have began to circle in his mind. It would be worse on the phone than face to face.
Very few things could have cut through his numbed immobility. Vin's voice was one.
"Ez? I know yer here."
He could not fail to answer Vin. Indeed, he felt relieved that Vinthe only person he'd ever trusted with both key and codehad come here.
"Coming, Mr Tanner," he called, but Vin had already tracked him down. The door opened before he was on his feet. Vin looked at him with unnerving understanding, and offered him a hand.
"Y' need a drink," he said.
Ezra should not be receiving this support; it had been his full intention to give it. Nevertheless, he found himself being walked to the couch, and his best French brandyin a whisky glassbeing pressed into his hand. He took a gulp of it and wondered why his mind insisted on thinking about something so incredibly pointless as glasses.
"Want y' t' drink that real slow and listen t' me," Vin said, sitting on the coffee table so that Ezra had no choice but to look at him. And then he started. He talked with a force and his own sort of eloquence that had Ezra gripped from the start; he'd never heard Vin say so much at once.
"They think I'm losing it," Vin finished at last. "Can't say I blame 'em. But it ain't that. I c'n see what's wrong in th' story. And if that girl's lying, there's only one reason. Everything she's said comes down to the fact she claims t' have seen their faces."
Ezra could only look at him blankly. The concept of 'measure' as applied to spirits eluded Vin. The generous helping of cognac on an extremely empty stomach was making it quite difficult for Ezra to focus his thoughts.
"Someone wants us t' think they're dead," Vin said. "Gone t' a lot of trouble, too."
"But..." Ezra managed.
Vin simply carried on. "I bin thinkin' on th' way here. There's things that need t' be done, but it's not easy t' get anyone t' listen. I can't just..."
The ringing of his cellphone cut him off, and just for a minute as he was distracted from his argument, he looked lost. Ezra suddenly realised how much tension and pain there was under Vin's surface confidence in what he was saying. He must have required formidable strength of will to hold onto his belief in Chris's survival, against the tide of evidence and the shock of first hearing the news.
Vin, listening to his caller, glanced over. "Banks," he said softly. It was a moment before Ezra could place the name. Of course, Detective Ellison's captain in the Cascade PD. Vin looked surprised too; like Ezra he must have assumed it was one of the team.
"No," Vin was saying. "No, don't worry. I'm okay t' talk. Buck give you my number? Yeah. Did he tell... What? Blair? No. Tried t' call him, but I couldn't get through. I'll keep trying. Cap'n Banks, did Buck tell you what I... Yeah, I know. Thanks. But there's things that just don't add up and... Yeah, okay. Yeah."
If Ezra had deduced the other side of the conversation correctly, and he believed he had, Vin was once more in receipt of kind words, but making no headway in convincing anyone that there was a possibility the tragedy hadn't happened.
No headway except with Ezra himself. Rather to his surprise, he was well on the way to accepting Vin's ideas. Perhaps it was simply that he longed to escape from the sense of insupportable loss that had crushed him, but he did not believe so. The points Vin had made were valid. Something, subtly, was off-key.
"Banks isn't officially on th' case yet," Vin said. "Don't know a lot more than was on th' news broadcast. And he's like Buck, hurtin' too much t' think straight. Right now he's real worried about Blair, too. They can't find him. Banks thinks he might not even know... Anyway, makes things a bit clearer t' me. I was wonderin' how much I could do from here. JD's the best fer this endhe c'n trace that news broadcast. I'm going t' call Travis, ask him t' see that all the tests are done on thebodieslike they weren't identified."
The slightest shake in his voice made Ezra say hastily, "I'll call Travis. I will assure him I think your judgement about elements of this news story is correct, and perhaps he will listen to me more readily because he sees me as less personally involved."
"Thanks," Vin said quietly. "Then, well, I think I'm goin' t' Cascade."
Ezra should really have seen that coming. He thought of all the objections that should be made, of what Buck and the others would say, of the practical difficulties they would have when they got there.
"I'll come with you," he said.
Vin looked at him for a long slow pause, then held out his hand. "Y' really do believe me," he said, almost wondering at it. "Be glad t' have y'." His grip was painfully hard, a testament to the difficulty with which he was holding it all together.
Ezra returned the clasp, and wondered why, out of all the words at his disposal, he could not find the ones he wanted to share with Vin. Perhaps Vin understood anyway. They stood in silence a moment, then Vin said hastily, "Better get going."
Ezra picked up the bag he always had packed ready for sudden changes of plan. "I could put in a change of clothes for you," he suggested diffidently.
It was clear that the thought of clothes or accommodation or plane tickets had never entered Vin's mind. He nodded and waited, shifting restlessly as Ezra hastily raided the closet for acceptable garments. The fidgety movement was so uncharacteristic that Ezra felt enormously relieved Vin had not objected to his company.
"Let's go," Vin said, as soon as Ezra had refastened the bag.
"We should call the others and let them know."
"From the airport."
In the end, Ezra called Travis while they were on their way. He wished he found the judge easier to predict. He made both his report and his request as plain and professional as he could, recommending the immediate identity checks as a precaution based on anomalies in the news reports, but he expected an irritated reaction. Instead, Travis said, "I take the point; I'll see it's done. You boys follow up what you can."
"Maybe he'll talk t' Buck," Vin said as Ezra ended the call. "Buck c'd maybe listen t' it from him."
Ezra only called the team after their flight was booked. Cravenly, he called Josiah's cellphone rather than one of the office numbers. Equally cravenly, he managed to imply that Simon Banks actually wanted their presence. Josiah, who already knew that Blair could not be found, was sympathetic, and although he was clearly struggling with his own distress, his voice was still remarkably reassuring.
"Be in touch. I'll tell Buck when the right opportunity presents itself. Take care of Vin, and yourself."
"I will call again, as soon as we arrive," Ezra promised.
Vin, who'd been listening, said, "I know it don't seem right leaving them to it, but we need to get ahold of that girl, and I wouldn't give it too long 'fore she disappears."
Ezra hadn't known this was the plan, although it made sense. "She appeared to enjoy the attention of the media," he mused. "Perhaps I had better be Ezra Simpson, correspondent for some notable publication."
Vin nodded. "Leave it t' you." He sounded briefly completely exhausted, then he seemed to draw on some reserve of strength. "Tell y' one thing," he said. "Chris is goin' t' be pissed enough t' make someone's life hell if he gets half a chance."
Chris was as startled as Botting when Jim suddenly went from outwardly comatose to raving, but he had one great advantage: he knew the manic fit wasn't real.
Ellison's hands fastened around Botting's throat He began to shout incoherently about the lights burning him, and the sheets scraping his skin. Chris made a point of calling in simulated panic down the hallway for Brackett and Miller. It was important that they didn't see this as an escape attempt. Escape would have to wait until he and Jim were a hundred percent certain there would be no repercussions for their friends. Causing chaos and upsetting their captors' plans, though, could start right away.
Ellison's acting ability had more volume than finesse, but he was doing a good job on Botting's neck. Chris saw with interest that Botting was turning puce, and the noises he was making were choked squeaks of terror. He supposed he'd better be seen trying to pry Jim's fingers awayhe could hear the others coming. He didn't try too hard, but as he reached around Botting to get at Jim's hands he noted the position of the man's gun and the fact he had a lighter in his jacket pocket. The gun had probably better be off limits for now, but the lighter was potentially useful and much less likely to be missed. He palmed it deftly just before Miller and Brackett came running in. Botting was concentrating entirely on sucking in air.
It took three of them to hold Jim down, and if you didn't know he was faking it, the impression of a man tortured by his environment was pretty convincing. Chris would never have imagined how much of a normal room could plausibly grate on hyperactive senses. He realised with a slight shock that Jim must have actually experienced something like itbefore Sandburg, maybe. The things he'd heard him say about heading for the asylum if Blair hadn't shown up suddenly made a lot more sense.
While they were pinning Jim to the mattress, Chris took the opportunity to slip the lighter between the head of the bed and the wall. If it was missed and found before he could use it, no one could prove it hadn't got there while Botting was struggling. Now that they'd made the point, Jim didn't continue too long before he began to calm downhe obviously didn't want to push things to the point where Brackett shot him with another dose of sedative.
Chris hastily began to do the Sandburg thing, as though he was helping the process. "All right. Take it easy," he said, aiming for the soothing note, but perhaps not quite hitting it. "You can handle this." What the hell was that thing Sandburg told Jim to do?
"I can't find the dials," Jim shouted, evidently realising he needed a cue.
Dials. That was it. "Yes you can," Chris said firmly. "Let's start with sight..."
Hoping Brackett had never really heard Blair in action, he went slowly through each sense. Botting was sitting gasping on the floor, his attention solely on his reddening throat, but Chris thought Brackett and Miller were beginning to look convinced.
It was a start. The first tiny shift of initiative away from their captors. As he talked, his mind was busy. Brackett and Miller were going to regret ever interfering in his life and threatening his team.
The team would have heard of the crash by now.
He wouldn't think about that.
Blair had finally tracked down on the internet the Latin source that seemed to be the key text he wanted. Since it had been scanned in rather badly, and the only translation he could find was in German, deciphering it was not a quick process.
It was worth it, though. The writer, named only as Curtius in the document, was a contemporary of the elder Pliny, and had served with him in the Germanic wars. His text, though basically a mix of history and comment, was set out as a letter to Plinywho, the writer said, was always interested in 'the wonderful variety in nature and in the different peoples of the world." The fascinating thing for Blair was that it really seemed to be a case of a tribal sentinel. Curtius described in detail the strange improvement in the man's natural abilities, and its use to the barbarians in their ordinary lives as well as in war. He even mentionedtantalisinglythat such individuals were rare, and highly valued by their people. They were trained from an early age, and often accompanied by an elder or blood brother whose role Curtius did not fully understand.
Eventually, a headache, the awareness of silence around him, and the suddenly realisation it was dark outside, brought Blair back to present day Cascade. Dark? He had vaguely realised a long time had passed since lunch, in fact he'd wondered how far across the library his rumbling stomach could be heard, but... A glance at his watch confirmed his sudden realisation. It was well into the evening; he'd be lucky to be home before midnight.
How could the time have passed so quickly? He'd been planning to feed Jim; to listen, well, look like he was listening, to Jim's frank and forthright views on the CIA; hopefully to distract him with the attractive Liddy or the Jags. At any rate, he'd certainly intended to be there when Jim came in. That would have been hours ago.
Hurrying through a lighted part of the grounds he switched on his cellphone, ignored the ludicrous number of messages that seemed to have accumulated, and dialled home. No Jim. He quelled a twinge of unease; it wasn't as if Jim couldn't arrange his own evening. Maybe Larabee had decided to stay over. All the same, he decided to work through the voicemail as he walked. Before he could start, though, the phone rang anyway.
It wasn't Jim. It was Vin. Vin who was for some reason unexpectedly in Cascade, and sounded... odd.
"Is everything okay?" Blair asked. "Did you come up to meet Chris or something?"
Vin's laugh sounded even odder. "Yeah, that's exactly what I've come for. Listen, Blair, I been trying to get y' fer a while. Where are y'?"
"Rainier. I was in the library, and I lost track of the time, so..."
"Can you stay put, and I'll come to meet you there? I'm with Ez, and we're on the road not too far away. Y' can give us directions to where y'are."
"I could go and wait out the front, if you want. I'll stand near the visitor's lot."
"No! Wait somewhere no one'll see y' 'til we get there. I know it sounds weird, but trust me. And don't talk to anyone. Don't listen t' yer messages, don't call anyone. We'll be with y' soon enough and I'll explain then."
"But I need to call Jim," Blair said, though the feeling of unease was beginning to be very strong now, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't get through to him. When the pause before Vin's reply was slightly too long, he knew it. "Something's happened to Jim, hasn't it? And Chris?"
"No," Vin said forcefully. "I don't believe it has, and neither will you once y've heard me and Ez tell y' 'bout it. So don't listen to anyone else or go looking fer news. Just wait where you are."
Even as Blair began to protest, another voice came on. Ezra. "Actually, it would be helpful if you stayed on the line. I'm not particularly familiar with Cascade, and your directions to Rainier would expedite our arrival."
Blair checked out their current location and suggested the quickest route that would be reasonably easy to follow, and was talking them in before the thought crossed his mind that he had just been very successfully manipulated into doing exactly what Vin had said. If he hadn't been talking he would certainly have checked his voicemail; he felt too edgy to have resisted the temptation.
His sense of something really wrong sharpened painfully when Vin jumped out of the car. He looked awful, the dim light exaggerating scored lines of tension on his face, and a hollowness in his eyes totally at odds with his businesslike manner.
"What's happened," Blair asked, urgently now.
"We don't know. Just know it ain't what they say," Vin said obscurely. "Get in."
"I've got my car."
"We c'n come back fer it later."
Blair caught a slight shake of the head from Ezra, and understood its meaning. He got into the back seat. It wasn't a time to argue with Vin. Ezra looked rather white as well, and although his face gave little away he was glancing at Vin too often to be anything but seriously worried about him.
It was the only thing that kept Blair from being angry. "What's happened?" he said again, his voice getting harsher with fear for Jim.
"There's been an accident," Vin said. "There's s'posed t' have been an accident. Looks like it was faked."
Fear turned to a hot tide of panic. His heart pounded to contain it, and his chest started straining.
"Jim?" He couldn't get more than the one word out.
"Needs yer help."
Something deeper and stronger than panic stilled him a little.
"It's why that matters. That's what we gotta find out. Accident was set up around noon, so the trail's half a day old already. Ez has just got a tip on where t' find a girl we want t' talk to. I'll tell y' what happened on th' way."
Completely bewildered, still half choked on his fear about what had happened, Blair could only sit and listen and wait for things to make some sort of sense. Vin told him, in a terse narrative interrupted by hasty clarifications from Ezra, the convoluted and appalling story of what seemed to have happened and the abduction he believed had really taken place. Very slowly, out of the confusion, he managed to put aside the images of Jim's truck in flames and concentrate on the factor that made him certain Vin was at least partly correct.
"It's Brackett's style," he said, trying to use his mind and ignore the fist clenched round his heart. "That was his characteristiccomplicated game plans, deception, manipulating everyone and everything. He would set up something like this. And he'd have a reason. He knows what Jim can do. He came after him before because of his heightened senses. He'll want people to think it's just revenge, but he'll have some twisted job he wants Jim to do..."
Next to him, Vin had gone even more taut than before. "So this set up'd be t' get Jim," he said.
"It would explain it," Blair said.
"Accident'd be t' give him time to use Jim, without anyone knowin' he's missin'." Blair could feel him shaking.
"It doesn't mean he failed to take Chris," Ezra said quickly.
Blair hadn't seen the possible implications of what he'd said. But thinking of it now, he agreed with Ezra. Brackett knew Jim's limitations as well as his abilities.
"He would have taken Chris too," he said. "He knew Jim needed a guidesomeone to work with him. And he must have known they'd been working together recently. If he hadn't wanted them both, he wouldn't have waited for today."
Vin didn't answer and he was turned away so that Blair couldn't see his face.
"Blair's right," Ezra said. "The timing of the incident was designed so that Brackett could take Chris as well."
A slight noise, a barely audible sigh, suggested that between them they were getting through to Vin. Blair was beginning to realise just how bad it must have been for his friend to have heard the news the way he did; he was more than thankful he'd not had to endure that. Suddenly, though, it occurred to him how many other people would have done.
"Simon!" he said, thinking of the many messages on his phone. "I have to call him. He's got to be trying to find me."
Vin's hand stopped him as he pulled out his phone, though, gripping his arm painfully hard.
"Ez'll get a message t' him that we've found you," he said.
"I need to talk to him. I need to know how they're getting on searching..."
"Unfortunately," Ezra said, "it has proved very difficult to convince anyone of the need for a search. We are operating without official sanction at the moment."
"And we've gone t' a lot of trouble t' get a place where we might find this girl," Vin said. "We're doing that first."
The pain in his wrist told Blair that Vin was very close to the edge; would probably be over it by now if it wasn't for Ezra. He let go of the phone, and said quietly, "I'm on your side, you know; I'm not the enemy."
Vin let go of him abruptly as if he'd only just realised what he was doing. "Shit, I'm sorry, Blair. Just can't face another argument. Our team thinks I'm losin' it; Banks thinks so too; apart from Ez th' only person who's listened at all is Travis, and y' can't tell what he's thinkin'. They all think we're lookin' fer you right now, and that's given us a bit of space."
A vague idea of how bad a day Vin and Ezra had had began to filter though to Blair. Hearing the story from Vin's perspective had rather blunted his sense of how everyone else would see it.
"Simon would listen," he said. "It may not have sunk in yet, but it will. And there are other people who know Brackett, like Jack Kelso. I could call Kelso."
"Don't know how long we've got though," Vin said. "This girlshe was their 'witness'she won't want to stay around longer 'n she has to. Ez's friend with th' colourful jackets called in some favours and found out where she'd be t'night. A reporter's buyin' her dinner and payin' her well fer an exclusive, and we want t' be at the restaurant b'fore she leaves."
Blair gave in to the roller coaster and hoped it was carrying him closer to Jim.
"At least get a message to Simon," he said.
The car had hands-free technology for the phone, so they could let Ezra do the talking, and could hear both sides of the conversation. Ezra called Josiah Sanchez, and Blair felt relieved. He couldn't imagine anyone better to talk to Simon. Ezra, an obfuscator even more talented than Blair, gave the impression they were just breaking the story to him, and would be in touch again once that was done.
"I'll be here," Josiah promised. "And I'll make sure that Captain Banks knows Blair's in good hands. We'll be glad when you and Vin can come back, though, son. Be a good time to be together."
"Ask him if Travis has got anything," Vin said.
Ezra shook his head and ended the call. "Travis may not have informed them yet of what he is doing. Anyway, if any news had come to Josiah, he would have told me at once," he said. "Until we have irrefutable evidence, we will only make it worse if we keep trying to convince them. Blair, is it practicable to turn down here?"
The details of finding the restaurant distracted Vin, and the conversation was limited to navigation until they pulled up on the street within sight of the exit. It gave Blair time to think.
"What are we going to do?" he said. "You can't just walk in and call her a liar."
"We're going to follow her," Ezra said. "We need to interview her somewhere more private. I suspect she will head from here to some location unknown to either the press or the authorities, which will be a more suitable venue for us to question her veracity."
"Will you recognise her?"
Blair realised as he asked it that perhaps it wasn't the best question.
"Given the circumstances of her testimony, I think it's safe to say we can picture her exactly," Ezra said, and Blair caught the note of remembered horror in his voice.
"We'll know th' bitch," Vin said softly, and the shock of hearing that from Vin, who spoke of every woman with respect, silenced Blair completely.
They waited, and watched the lighted doors of the restaurant. It was late, and only one or two people went in, while several couples or groups came out. Then a rather pretty blonde came out with a middle aged man, and at Blair's side Vin stiffened.
She looked absolutely nothing like a woman who could lie about two officers' deaths.
"Are you sure that's her?" he whispered.
"I'm certain," Ezra said quietly, getting ready to pull out as the couple walked to a car a little way off. "I would suggest we follow relatively closely."
"Ram 'em rather than lose 'em," Vin agreed flatly. "She's th' one person who c'n lead us t' Chris. We ain't lettin' her go."
Jim lay face down on carpet which felt coarse and wiry to his skin, though it would probably be soft to anyone else. He was trying to work in complete silence, while Chris Larabee sat on the side of the bed nearer the door as though he was keeping watchover the hastily humped pillows they'd thrust down the bed. They were not intended to pass any sort of close inspection, just to give a sense of a shape if Botting opened the door.
So far so good. He'd performed his little tantrum successfully enough; it had shaken Miller, and even Brackett had lost some of his smugness. And Jim certainly didn't regret the fright he'd given Botting. None of them was eager to come near him now. That had given him and Larabee the space to devise something that couldgenerouslybe called a plan.
First of all, Larabee had insisted on a silenced, darkened room. Although Jim was not suffering to the extent he pretended, he was grateful for this. But more important, it had given them the chance to share some information. In a mixture of very low whispers and the hand grips they'd used earlier, he'd given Chris an idea of the layout of the house, and Chris had told him about the lighter.
Fire. A fire would draw attention Brackett and Miller couldn't afford. Jim had the impression from the low level of sound outside that the house was isolated, maybe in an area along the coast, but fire could be seen a long way off at night. The problem was that the cause of the fire must not be traceable. Jim was beginning to feel less afraid for Blair's physical safety, but he wasn't taking any risks, and Larabee had a whole team to worry about.
Brackett, who was depressingly thorough, had reacted to Chris's insistence on more isolation for Jim by fixing alarms on the shuttered windows and door and setting up a couple of listening devices and small cameras in the main room and bathroom. Chris had dealt with the camera problem by insisting that Jim could only recover in complete darkness. They decided to risk the assumption that the bugs were adequate to pick up speech or sudden movement, but not the barely breathed whispers Jim could so easily hear. It was more of a problem for him to communicate with Chris, but they'd managed.
A couple of times earlier in the night, while Jim was still lying on the bed, Brackett had come in without warning to check on them. They'd expected this. Jim had been careful to react badly to the sudden influx of light from the hallway. Chris had put on a convincing show of reluctant and irritable cooperation.
"Damn it, Brackett," he'd said the last time. "I'm doing my best for you. Why don't you just let me get on with it? If you want him fit by morning, stop disturbing him."
Brackett checked each of his monitoring devices. "You've got no idea what your team are doing at the moment, have you Larabee," he said conversationally. "Where they are, how they're feeling after your sad demise? Maybe you'd like to know Wilmington went out to the ranch and took care of your horses. Thoughtful of him, really. Of course, maybe it was just to take his mind off everything else. Then there's Dunne. I'm amazed he's survived so long if he always rides his motorcycle the way he did when he left work today. Jackson and Sanchez haven't even left the office yet." he laughed. "But none of them would be our first target. I assume you've guessed that."
Chris had been leaning ostentatiously over the bed with his hands on Jim's arms when Brackett started speaking. Jim tried not to wince as those hands clenched and the fingers dug painfully into his arms. He could only imagine what Chris must be feeling, and was relieved at his controlled voice as he only said, "We're playing your game, Brackett. The only person screwing up the situation is you."
Brackett had left, and since then they'd been undisturbed; around midnight they'd decided to risk going into action. At least with Jim's hearing they'd always have some warning of anyone coming.
For two hours now, Jim had been painstakingly working a hole through the carpet and floorboards and into the room below. Since he only had a bedspring and a nail Chris had extricated from the chair, it was slow going, but they didn't need much of a hole.
While he worked, he kept track of the four men. Botting remained outside the door. His breathing was still slightly noisier than anyone else's; Jim hoped his throat hurt. Alldred was outside, presumably watching their window as an extra precaution. Miller and Brackett were in the kitchen. From their conversation and the sounds of paper, they were engrossed in blueprints of the place they wanted Jim to break into for them. Jim was beginning to feel more hopeful that it might not come to that.
The room beneath, now that he had cautiously made a hole through its ceiling, turned out to be as dark and silent as their own. Even better, its door was closed and its windows too were covered with blinds and shutters. He slowly extended his sight until he could see as clearly as if it was dim daylight. Perfect. Brackett had obviously rented the place furnished. The furniture was old and looked as if it wouldn't have passed many fire checks even when it was new. The couches had thick cushions, there were bookcases on one of the walls and he was fairly certain the walls were wood. Unless he dropped the lighter, he ought to be able to start a good blaze. After that, how effective it might be would depend on how quickly their captors noticed it. The shutters should hide it from Alldred for a while; the shut door would slow down how quickly the smoke was noticed inside. Neither of them had been able to remember whether there were smoke alarms in the house.
Once the fire was started, it would be a question of timing. If an alarm sounded, or Jim could reasonably claim to smell smoke, they'd be justified in smashing the window, even in jumping out. And that was as far as the plan went. Jim didn't particularly care. Better to be doing something than nothing, and even if they didn't get the opportunity to get safely away, it should delay Brackett's plans.
Chris had spent the time using another of the bed springs to shred their handkerchiefs into thin ribbons and knot them into one long rope. After two hours, he too was ready. He leaned silently over the bed, and dropped this, with the lighter attached, into Jim's hand.
Jim waited until his arm was at full stretch downwards, beneath the floorboards, before flipping the lighter on. At that angle, Brackett's camera shouldn't pick anything up. They were lucky Botting had had a tacky, expensive lighter; jamming the button down wasn't necessary. With the flame at its fullest extent, he slowly lowered the lighter to the upholstery of the couch. He couldn't reach the seat even by swinging it a little, but he could rest it against the arm.
He'd expected a slow wait while the material began to smoulder and smoke, but in seconds thick black fumes were rising and he could see the start of a flame. Hastily he swung the lighter in as wide an arc as he could manage, and caught the folded newspaper on the coffee table and the base of one of the blinds. He couldn't reach the bookshelves, but by now the couch was definitely burning on its own, and the acrid smell was starting to hurt his lungs. He pulled the lighter up and extinguished it, and leaving the lighter in the floor space, replaced the piece of floorboard he'd gouged out and the strip of carpet.
The reek of smoke was heavy now. He heard Larabee sniff, and knew it was time to slide back into the bed. From outside, they heard Alldred's sudden shout of alarm. The smell of smoke was so thick to sentinel senses that Jim began to cough involuntarily, and he realised he could hear the slight sound of fire.
"Shit," Larabee muttered. "It's going up fast."
He went to the door and shouted to Botting, "Hey! What's happening? Open up! We can smell smoke."
"Stay where you are!" Botting shouted back. Then Jim could hear him further down the hallway, and downstairs more shouting, resolving into Brackett's voice yelling to Alldred to get the van out of the garage.
The room below was next to the garage. They hadn't seriously thought it would go burn so rapidly, but...
"There were all sorts of canisters and drums stacked in there," Chris said urgently.
Jim extended his hearing and his sense of smell, and decided that note in Chris's voice was justified. Something was smelling of hot metal and gas, and he could hear the hunger of the flames eating into the walls of the room. He pulled all his senses back, to see Chris was soaking the towels in the bathroom.
"It won't be enough," Jim said. Something that could only be a gas canister exploded and shook the building. This fire had already gone way beyond what they'd planned. He started to haul the mattress off the bed. "Here, give me a hand. Get our backs to that far wall and the mattress over us. Everything's going to blow."
"What about the Window?" Chris asked quickly.
"We're not going to get through the shutters fast enough."
The exertion was making him cough violently, and the room was getting hot. He was grateful for the soaked towel that dropped over his head and Larabee's added strength to pull the mattress.
Desperately nowthere was no sign of Botting or anyone else coming to let them outthey got themselves back and protected against the safer wall. It was barely in time. Jim could hear more explosions, and the raging of a fire completely out of control.
Somewhere on the other side of the burning, he thought he heard the sound of the van's engines, then nearer at hand running footsteps on the stairs. Then the whole world blew up with an all-consuming roar which devoured all his senses and sent him plunging into the dark.
As Ezra had expected, the blonde woman was not dropped off at a hotel or apartment, but at her car; she waited until the reporter had left before she drove off. Little corroborating details, that he noted automatically. The car was not the one he'd seen on the news, either. He could imagine her reaction if anyone pointed it out. "I was so upset after this morning. I just wanted to put everything to do with it out of my mind. I borrowed this from..." He could almost write the script.
She was not really professional, though. Pretty, unscrupulous and a good actress, he estimated. Any subtleties in her presentation would have come from Brackett. She was not expecting to be followed, and took none of the precautions Ezra himself would have taken as a matter of course. Nevertheless, he drove after her as cautiously as was compatible with keeping her in sight.
"Do we know anything about her?" Blair said. "What address did she give the PD?"
"A hotel in the centre of town," Ezra said briefly. "That's certainly not where she's heading. She probably has a room there and will call in a couple of times a day to deal with correspondence. As far as the authorities are concerned she's not a suspect, just a helpful witness."
He tried to keep voice as even and professional as he could, in spite of the urgent churning of his stomach and the almost physical need to make some sort of progress. He was painfully aware of Vin poised like an unstable explosive; Vin was with them bodily, but in every way that mattered somewhere else entirely. He glanced at him unobtrusively, then at Blair who raised his hands in a slight gesture of helplessness. He didn't know how to reach Vin either.
Ezra had seldom felt so inadequate. Wherever Chris Larabee was, whatever was happening to him, he would be hoping someone was there for Vin. Ezra accepted the charge, gladly, but he feared he was being a miserable failure.
"She's slowin'," Vin said, his mind evidently focused on the hunt.
"Looks promising," Blair said softly.
Ezra agreed. They were on the edge of town now, a pleasant area, rather prosperous, but the sort of place where you wouldn't need to know your neighbours unless you chose to do so. Ezra would wager that the people here had only seen her with this car, and with clothes and hairstyle entirely unlike the ones she had used today. No one would have looked at their screens and recognised someone who lived in their street.
He drove on past as she turned into a driveway, and stopped a discreet distance further on. Vin was out of the car before it had even stopped moving, managing somehow to become a shadow even in the well-lit street.
"What's he planning to do?" Blair asked Ezra, as they followed him.
Ezra wished he knew. Whatever it was though, they had better be there for it. Opting for his own way of being unobtrusive, he strolled along the sidewalk with Blair, chatting casuallyat least, if anyone looked from a window, that would be what they thought. He hoped no one would pay them even that much attention.
"Where's Vin?" Blair asked.
"Ahead somewhere." Ezra, too, could find no sign of him, and they were almost at the house. He glanced round. This would be the worst time to attract attention.
"Let's keep an extremely low profile," he murmured to Blair.
Before he'd even finished the sentence, there was an outburst of gunfire followed by screaming from the house in front of them. The blonde came out at a long-legged run that would have graced an athletics track, followed by three men, and finally Vin, and in every house in the street the lights came on, the doors were flung open, and an outraged audience appearedwith some cautionto see what had disturbed the peace.
Even Ezra, who liked to think ahead to all possibilities, hadn't been prepared for this.
"Out of the way, you fool," one of the men said in an accent that certainly wasn't American. The gun ready in his hand added bite to the order, and one of his companions fired at Vin. Vin, timing it right, dived sideways, rolling across the grass.
The third, from the Middle East, Ezra thought, grabbed the screaming girl around the waist. Firing not quite indiscriminatelyEzra realised with surprise they were aiming to frighten rather than to hitthe three men bolted for a car parked a little way along the road. Ezra pushed Blair into the cover of a tub of plants and fired after them. The car engine started as the men tumbled into it, still dragging the girl with them. Vin hurled himself across the grass and made a suicidal dive for the hood, but the driver swerved widely, caught him a glancing blow, and the car took off.
Vin picked himself up, limping. "Get after them," he yelled at Ezra, but Ezra knew it was already hopeless. All that was left now was damage control, and seeing what they could find out about the men. He made a slight move to offer a hand to Vin, but Vin shied sideways and the locals, seeing the shooting was over, began to move from their homes towards them.
Ezra pulled out his cell phone and one of the IDs that were a permanent component of his travel bag. He held out the 'Eric Stonner FBI' one to the first indignant householder to arrive, and tossed the phone to Vin. "Get that license plate run."
Ezra fended off inquiries and gave assurances that the matter was being taken care of; Vin made a hasty and uncommunicative demand to Denver headquarters for information on the car; Blair in the background called and left a message for someone elseKelso, Ezra guessedand then helped smooth the situation over. The trail grew cold before their eyes as they talked. They began to move towards their car, and were hindered by a succession of people telling Ezra about the complaints they were going to make to influential acquaintances; if there really had been an Eric Stonner his life would probably have been made a misery for weeks. Ezra couldn't appreciate the irony though. Their best lead to Chris had just been snatched from in front of them, and he wanted to get Vin off the street and to somewhere peaceful where he could check that he wasn't seriously hurt.
In the distance he heard sirens. Someone must have called the police before he produced his credentials.
Blair, with commendable presence of mind, said loudly to him, "We have orders to move on, sir. The regular police will deal with this now."
The bystanders finally parted, and they drove off just as the police car arrived.
Charlotte Duncan seldom thought about her age, and although, as the decades passed, she was aware of being a little stiffer, a little less vigorous, she rarely thought of herself as old.
She felt old tonight.
Of course, she was no stranger to bad news, for herself or for other people, but sometimes it just seemed that bit more shocking. The news today of the crash outside Cascade had been like that. It was only a short time since she had first met Jim Ellison and Chris Larabee, but somehow she had felt they were people who would be friends.
She lay awake thinking of them, and even more of Vin and Blair. They had looked so lost when she first met them; she had been so pleased to see them back with their friends...
She decided to get up and make herself a cup of tea. It was no help to anyone to lie there brooding. She had spent the afternoon at the church, and tried to pray, but she had never felt further from an answer. Ridiculously, she just did not seem to be able to accept the fact the young men were dead. She moved rather stiffly to the kitchen and put the kettle on.
Tomorrow she would have to talk to little Jodie Reilly, and that would not be easy. Jodie was away today on an overnight trip with her school, but her mother had called to ask Miss Duncan if she would be the one to break the news to her. Miss Duncan had, of course, agreed. It was no good shirking a daunting task. But that, too, was one of the reasons sleep eluded her. Her telephone rang just as she'd swallowed her first mouthful of tea, and she was glad of the interruption to her thoughts.
"Charlotte? Oh, I'm so glad you're awake, dear. I really felt I needed to talk to you, but it was so late..."
Emily Buckram, wittering. Still, it must be urgent if she was calling after midnight.
"What did you need to talk to me about?" Charlotte asked sharply, cutting through it.
"Well, you know I was to spend the day with my niece. Myra's daughter, the one who married a bricklayer," Emily began. She never could get to the point of a story. "Of course, I told you all about it, Lottie, but the point is, I probably didn't mention to you we were also going to the airport to pick up her oldest girl. She's back for a short vacation. We went to collect her, but you know how tired I get when I walk too far..."
Charlotte just managed to stop herself from pointing out tartly that sensible shoes were much more appropriate than high heels when you were over sixty and overweight.
"... so I waited in the car. And you see, I didn't think anything of it at the time, and then I didn't see the news all day, we were so busy, but I just put the TV on for a little while when I got home. And then I thought I really must tell someone..."
"Tell someone what?" Charlotte asked, her patience strained, and feeling more like 'Miss Duncan' and less like 'Lottie' with every irritating moment that passed.
Emily perhaps recognised the exasperation in her voice; they had known each other for many years. At any rate, she did come more or less to the point. "I saw that nice Detective Ellison and the other man, the rather abrupt one. And the really important thing is, dear, they didn't get into Detective Ellison's truck at all. They were with another man, and they got into a van with him. I thought it was so odd at the time. A sort of workmen's van. And someone else entirely got into Detective Ellison's truck and drove it away. And, you know, you always say I watch too much TV, but I couldn't help thinking it looked just a little as if they were being forced to get into the van."
Charlotte found her voice. "You're quite sure of this, Emily? You do realise the implications of what you're saying?"
"Now, Lottie, I wouldn't have called you at this time of night if I wasn't sure. And so you see, I really don't think the crash could have happened the way it said on the news. And that girl..."
"Exactly," Charlotte said grimly. "No better than she should be. You can always see it in the way they stand. I noticed that."
"So, whatever else happened, I don't think she was telling the truth. What should I do, dear?"
Charlotte found that somewhere in the course of this conversation she had begun to feel much more like her normal vigorous self. Emily was not a particularly deep thinker, but she had sharp enough eyes and had obviously seen what she described. It didn't, of course, mean that Jim Ellison and Chris Larabee were safe; quite the contrary. But surely the logical deduction was that they had been abducted rather than killed; why else the elaborate deception?
"You were quite right to call me," she said to Emily. "This is very important. Fortunately I know how to contact Captain Banks of the Major Crimes department. I'll call him immediately. You'd better stay near your telephone. I'm sure he'll want to speak to you."
Emily dithered a little more, but in the end, as always, agreed to do as she was told. Charlotte ended the call firmly. As it happened, she had both Captain Banks' home number and his office one, but she thought it unlikely he would be at home. She could not imagine him sleeping tonight.
She dialled the number. He would know the best way to follow this up, and would see that Vin and Blair were told sensibly. It would be wrong to raise their hopes too much, but it did seem that now there was reason to hope. Perhaps Jim and Chris did not need to be mourned yet. Perhaps they just needed to be found.
Let them be found, Lord.
Before I have to talk to Jodie.
The echo of an enormous ringing hammered in Chris's ears. He felt hot and smothered and a sharp pain ran along his left arm. There was a weight against his other shoulder, a dead weight, which he slowly realised was Jim Ellison, definitely out of it. He shook his head to try and clear some of his confusion, and realised that it could only have been a minute or two since the explosion.
The lumpy mattress was heavy against his face and blocking his view of the room. The smoke seemed to have gone. The air felt clearer, even cold... He pushed himself up a little, painfully, so he could see, and gaped.
Whatever he'd expected, it wasn't this. In front of him was only a fringe of floorboards, the jagged remains of a couple of walls, and the open air. The rest was a gaping hole to the floor below, the night lit by flames that were now dying down. Not much left to burn, he thought, dazedly. They'd blown it all to smithereens.
His mind was clearing a little from his first stunned shock, and he looked around for Miller or Brackett, and the van. Next to him, Jim groaned and then hunched over, his hands clutching at his eyes and ears. There was no visible damage; Chris guessed it must be to do with his senses. Hell, even his own ears were still reacting uncomfortably to the blast. He didn't like to think what it would have felt like with heightened hearing. Jim was almost doubled up now though, and he reached out to him as he heard him groan.
He gripped Jim's arm, worried that if they moved about too much their piece of floor might collapse. Jim wrenched away. Chris knew he couldn't do the Sandburg thing, but he needed to do something. He didn't even try for a soothing voice.
"Dial it down!" he ordered, in the tone he might have used back in the Seals.
Jim, trained in the military, obeyed instinctively. His hands came away from his face, and he grew still, gasping.
Chris heaved the mattress away from them and let it fall. The less weight on the floorboards the better. Below them he saw someone stagger out of the remains of the building. Brackett. He must have been on his way back up to them. Protecting his investment, Chris thought cynically, but at least Brackett didn't lack courage.
Miller, who wouldn't have risked his neck, came from behind the bombsite that had been the garage. "Alldred has the van safe," he called. "Botting has a few burns, but nothing serious. We need to get away from here. That must have been heard miles away."
Brackett looked up and saw Chris and Jim flattened against the one remaining solid wall of the room.
"Are you hurt?"
"Nothing serious," Chris said shortly. His arm was scorched and throbbing, and blood from some cut was trickling slowly into his eye, but it felt superficial. He was fairly sure Ellison was okay: he still looked dazed, and his face was tight with pain, but he didn't seem to be badly burned or bleeding.
"Jump down!" Brackett ordered.
Chris didn't move. It would be only minutes, surely, and there would be an audience here that Brackett couldn't afford. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one who realised that. Brackett waved angrily at Miller. "I want the van right here and ready to go. Larabee, jump! Or I swear one of your men is going to regret it."
Bitterly Chris faced the fact that Brackett still had the upper hand. He assessed the drop into the room below, where debris was smouldering. Brackett called Miller over, and they hauled the mattress roughly into place on top of the mess.
"Lucky it was king-size," Brackett said. "Now jump."
Chris touched Jim on the arm. "You okay?"
"My senses keep going in and out," Jim muttered. "One minute every sound's like thunder, the next I can hardly hear."
Great. That was well beyond Chris's expertise. "You okay to jump?" he said, ignoring the rest.
Jim rubbed a hand over his eyes, smearing some drying blood, squinted down, then jumped. Chris followed him as the van drew up. Where the hell were any concerned neighbours, the police or fire department? How far out was this house?
As Brackett reached for the back doors of the van, the unmistakable sound of semi-automatic gunfire startled them all into diving for cover.
"What the fuck...?" That was Botting. Miller and Brackett were silent, searching the darkness.
A thickly accented voice called out, "You make a mess here, Brackett? You want a good quiet base now? You cut us in, we help you out."
Brackett said something so obscene it even made Chris blink, then called back, "Yudin?"
"Who else would it be? You cannot fool your old friends, Brackett. What game do you have on?"
"A private one."
Yudin laughed. "Come now. It would be very inconvenient for you to have to stay here much longer. We may have been close when you blew up your house, but we would still have seen it from far off. Five minutes, Brackett, and you will need to be gone."
Chris took advantage of the general distraction to pick up a sharp fragment of metal, probably from an exploded gas canister, and start to work it into the van's tyre. He didn't get very long. Brackett made his decision fast.
"All right. Is your car here? Just follow me then. We'll discuss this somewhere quieter."
Chris straightened up hastily, not sure how much damage he'd done to the thick wall of the tyre. The metal had been sharp, though. He left it loosely embedded. Then he and Ellison were being bundled once more into the van. Chris's head was still pounding from the explosion, and his arm throbbed in time with it. Ellison looked white and battered. They'd cramped Brackett's style, all right, but it had been rather a costly effort. And now they had another two goons on their backs.
"Thieves fall out, Brackett," Jim said dryly, stumbling and slumping on the floor of the van.
Brackett ignored him.
Chris, dropping down beside Jim as the van bumped off, noted with interest that Jim's fist was closed around something in a way that gave the lie to his general appearance of being out of the fight. He'd have to wait to find out whatBrackett was watching them, and the more harmless they looked, the better. He took a deep breath and tried to shift his position so his arm didn't touch anything. He still had no idea where they were, and he wasn't sure what they could try now.
It wasn't difficult to slump forward, head down, looking as defeated as he could.
"Any ideas?" he breathed, hoping Jim had got a grip on his hearing now.
Jim flopped against his shoulder so his mouth was near Chris's ear. "I tried for a tire," he muttered.
"So did I," Chris whispered back. "Not much luck though."
Just then the van turned sharply around a corner. There was a bang, and Jim grabbed him, bracing them both, as the van gave a sickening lurch. Then there was another bang, and a chaos of pitching and rolling. He fell on his burned arm, and the pain was so sharp he almost lost sight of what else was happening. He rolled helplessly, hitting the sides of the van. SomeoneMilleryelled in alarm. Whoever was driving was wrestling to get back some sort of control. There was a scraping of metal, then they were all pitched across the floor as the van came to a crashing halt.
The doors had fallen open with the impact. Jim whispered urgently, "Now!"
Chris blinked back the giddiness of pain and shock, rolled towards the door, and he and Jim tumbled out into the open.
Into the glare of the headlights of the car that had been following.
He couldn't pull himself up to get out of the light; he wasn't sure he could move at all. Jim, arm flung across his eyes, muttered something that sounded like, "Well, shit," which just about summed it up.
Two men, one of whom was presumably Brackett's friend Yudin, got out of the car, SIGs in hand.
"American drivers," the first said, looking into the back of the van. Brackett was stirring feebly. Miller wasn't even managing that. Botting came around from the crushed front and stopped abruptly as he saw the guns.
"We've decided this is not a good partnership," Yudin said. "It looks too expensive. I have a better idea. I will look after these two for you, and when you are ready to use them you can pay me for their keep. Brackett knows how to get in touch."
He gestured with the gun. "Climb into the back of the car, gentlemen. I am not so patient as Brackett, so do not annoy me." He might not be as patient as Brackett, but he didn't hold any of their friends' lives in his hand either. Chris rolled over towards Jim; neither of them was close to being able to stand up alone, but it also gave him a chance to see what Jim thought. Jim nodded slightly as they staggered up together. They had a better chance of escape from these two.
Yudin stepped back warily to give them room. Clumsily, favouring a wrenched leg now as well as his burned arm, Chris got into the back seat and slid over to make room. Ellison dropped beside him, smothering a grunt of pain. The car moved smoothly off into the night, leaving Brackett and the wrecked van behind.
Josiah Sanchez looked up wearily from his computer screen. The question took a moment to make sense to him. Nathan Jackson stood patiently waiting for an answer. His face looked strained with tiredness, grief, worrying about the team.
Josiah gathered his thoughts. "Coffee would be good. Thanks."
Maybe the caffeine would clear the muddle in his mind. It was nearly two in the morning, and although he felt no desire to go home and try to sleep, his thoughts kept wandering and replaying the day's events. As Nathan handed him the mug, he glanced across at JD, who was asleep with his head on his keyboard. Eyes red with more than tiredness, the kid had stubbornly stayed with them in the office, waiting for any trace of Brackett to be picked up, but sometime after midnight the day had caught up with him. Better for him to sleep than keep going over and over the stark facts of the news.
Josiah wished he could get them out of his own mind, the reports and the devastated reactions of the men he thought of as brothers. But every conversation, every expression, ran sharp through his memory. Most of all, the few words he'd heard from Vin. But somehow, as they repeated themselves again and again through the night, a new line of thought had slowly been forming. As he took a gulp of the steaming coffee, it clarified a little.
"Can't help thinking how much Vin's endured in his life," he said slowly.
"No one's blaming him," Nathan said, easing JD into a more comfortable position. "He'll deal with it in his own way. Maybe going to help Blair is the best thing he could have done."
"I don't think he's gone to help Blair," Josiah said. "Don't get me wrong, I'm sure he's with Blair, and they'll be good for each other, but I don't think that's why he went to Cascade."
Nathan finished his coffee before he answered. His eyes were, if anything, even more troubled. "You think he went to see the crash? Come to terms with it that way?"
"I think he went to look for Chris," Josiah said, only realising that was what he did think as he said the words aloud. "He really doesn't believe Chris is dead, so what else could he do? I think he's half convinced Ezra, too. Ezra had that sound in his voice when he calledyou know, when he's conning you in what he thinks is a good cause..."
"But what about Blair? And where would they look?"
"If he's got Ezra following his lead, Blair will be easy. And if you think about it as an investigation, there are places to start."
He was tapping at the keyboard as he spoke.
"With the bodies?" Nathan asked, sadly. "If he wanted... surely he would have asked us..."
"He could get the identity checks run from here," Josiah agreed. "Maybe we just didn't listen enough for him to ask, or... well, I'll be damned."
Nathan looked over his shoulder as he found the access he wantedand the request for an urgent full identity check on the bodies that had been burned in the vehicle. "Travis? He's ordered it? Do we know why?"
"Maybe he did listen," Josiah said, feeling another weight settling on shoulders that were already bending. Had they let Vin down? "Nate, what if Vin's not wrong? No, hear me out. That's what I was getting at when I said how much Vin has endured in his life. That boy knows how to accept pain. He understands loss too well."
"He's barely recovered from what Josephs did to him," Nathan protested. "He was in no shape to handle anything happening to Chris."
"Maybe, but he's not one to run away from what's happening. Even when he was confused and hurting in Cascade, he met it all head on and dealt with the reality he thought he was living. Vin's no escapist. He wouldn't lie to himself, or us, however much the truth hurt. For Vin to say what he did, and stick to it, he had to have a reason. You know, I told him and Ezra we all need to be together, but maybe it's us who are in the wrong place."
Nathan looked confused now, as well as worried. "You think we should go to Cascade?"
"Ezra's with him. I know he don't show it, but he's close to Vin. He's probably the best of us to be with him right now."
"Ez'll support him all right," Josiah agreed. "But he won't say no to him on anything, not over this. If they are investigating the crash and there's any substance to what Vin thinks, they could get themselves into a lot of trouble. They've got their phones turned offI've tried to get them a few times since Ezra calledand they're not at Ellison's loft. I'd like to know where they are."
Nathan looked as if that, at least, made complete sense to him. "Not sure either of them'd be thinking straight," he said.
"That's for sure. Vin'll think any risk's worth taking if it seems to lead towards Chris, and Ez'll follow himfor Vin or for Chris, doubt if he knows which. And Blair, I don't know him well enough to call it, but I'd say whatever it is that makes two men into brothers, he and Ellison have got that."
"Yeah." Soft. Heartfelt. Josiah knew Nathan was thinking of their own scattered team.
Right or wrong, Josiah's decision was made.
"I'll get us on the first available flight to Cascade," he said. "Wake JD up. See if you can get Buck; he might have stayed at the ranch."
He saw Nathan straighten a little, a spark of life come back into his eyes.
The phone rang, and Josiah snatched it up.
"It's Simon Banks," the caller identified himself. "I don't want to get your hopes up, but we're getting some reports that don't add up with the supposed facts of the accident this morning. I'll set out the details for you, and you might want to consider coming to Cascade."
Banks stopped short at the laugh Josiah couldn't quite stop from rumbling down the line.
"I'm sorry, Captain," Josiah said hastily. "Just thinking the Lord sometimes has to shout to get my attention, but he's surely got it now. Tell me the details."
It was a long time 'til dawn, but in Denver it seemed as though the light was returning.
Pierre Ducos was tired of Helene's wailing, and rather annoyed at the complications that had developed. It should have been a simple enough operation to find out from her what Brackett's current game was. It would have been, if they hadn't been interrupted by some players he'd failed to recognise. They really hadn't looked like any part of US law enforcement, but it was an unpredictable country and his last impression as he sped off had been that one of them was producing ID. His government wanted a low profile; he couldn't afford to tangle with the authorities.
"I don't know any more than I told you!" Helene screamed. "Hans! Don't let him hurt me. I never let you down, did I?
"He's not going to hurt you," Kreiber said shortly. "And I know you well enough to know you'd have found out what you could."
"And do you think Brackett's that stupid?" she retorted. "Of course not. He did take me to a house when he was planning this, but not so I could see the way. All I know is what I already told you. It was isolated, and it was up along the coast road somewhere. I could hear the sea when I got out of his van, and the trees and everything were right for that area. But I don't know how farthey could have driven me round to make it seem like it was further than it was."
At least she was no longer screaming at full volume, Ducos thought. She probably really didn't know very much. Coming to an abrupt decision, he stopped the car. "All right, get out," he said.
She looked at him suspiciously, then edged out, watching as if she expected some sort of violence. Kreiber gave her backside a hefty pat to send her on her way, and she stumbled off, trying to gather her dignity.
"Will she talk?" al Shenawi asked, disapproving.
"Not about us," Kreiber said. "She wouldn't want to risk anyone finding out about the work she's done for my government. No, she will have taken frightfirst us then those young men. She will go somewhere quiet for a while. I think she told us everything she knew, so even if someone else picks her up they will get no more. What do you think, Ducos? Is it worth a drive along the coast?"
"Why not?" Ducos shrugged. "For an hour or so, we will not waste more time than that. We might pick up profit or information; both are worth a little effort."
"We will not find anything," al Shenawi said. "There are too many isolated properties along there."
"But perhaps we will get lucky," Kreiber told him. "Even Brackett may make mistakes."
Ducos was not sure whether he agreed with this assessment, but in fact they had only been driving along the road for a few miles before the dull thud of an explosion echoed even through the car's closed windows. That got their whole-hearted attention. Ducos realised that there was also the glow of a fire, though even as he accelerated towards it, it was dying down.
"Other people will have heard that explosion," Kreiber said.
"Yes, but not people who will do anything themselves. The people who live up here pay others to sort such things out, and it will be a little while before emergency services can get here."
He was right. The only other vehicles they saw in the next few minutes were two sets of tail lights turning sharply off onto a road leading inland.
Shortly after that, they came across a scene that made even al Shenawi murmur in surprise. Ducos stopped sharply at the edge of the debris, so they could look at the shattered remains of what must once have been rather a nice house.
"Nasty," Kreiber said.
"But no bodies. Not that we can see, anyway." Ducos leaned out to assess the scene. "I am becoming more interested. It is the right area, and although the house may have been empty the rooms look as if it was not. If this was Brackett's place, he would have reason to hurry away. You can hear the sirens now."
"You think Brackett had bombs?" al Shenawi asked.
"I would have thought if he had, he was more competent than to blow himself up. Perhaps it was an attack. Anyway, we do not want to stay here. Go back to that turn before the American police come. Let us go and see where those two cars were going."
The road they turned onto was unlit, narrow and wound through woodland back in the general direction of Cascade. They had to drive slowly, but even going fast they could not have missed the wrecked van at the side of the road.
Ducos braked sharply, and stared at the expensive electronic equipment revealed by the van's gaping doors. A man was trying, too late, to push them shut. A man he recognised.
"Brackett!" he said, getting out cautiously and making sure he didn't give him a clear shot. "You seem to be having a difficult evening."
Brackett made no move towards a weapon. He looked more as if he was calculating whether they could be useful.
"Ducos," he acknowledged. "I'm not sure why everyone is so interested in my business at the moment. However, my recollection is that you and Igor Yudin are not good friends. Maybe you'd like to consider a business proposition that could include Igor in your share of the take."
Ducos smiled. Profit and information. Things were looking distinctly interesting now. He gestured to Kreiber and al Shenawi to get out and help with the retrieval of Brackett's companions and their equipment.
"Explain your proposition to us while we work," he said.
Vin was vaguely aware that he was bruised and stiffening where the car had struck him, but compared to the painful sense of urgency that clawed at his stomach the damage was trivial. He ought to have felt relief. The presence of these other men, the few words he'd heard the girl scream about not knowing anything definite about where Brackett was, these things were proof if he needed it that his first judgement had been correct. The girl had not been an innocent witness. The accident had been set up.
But somehow all he could feel was a desperate need to move faster. The shock he'd first felt when he heard the words of the news at lunchtime had transmuted now into a fear of the future. His first denial of Chris's death might have been right. The story might have been as crooked as he claimed. But instead of feeling more confident, all he could think was that the worst could still happen. If he wasn't fast enough, if he made the wrong moves, that hollow numbing sense of loss could be for real.
Now as they hastily drove off before the first police cars pulled up, he brushed off the concerned questions from Blair, and was grateful for Ezra's silence. Ez knew he was hurting, but he knew when not to push it.
"Where are we going?" Ezra asked briefly, turning out of the residential area on to a busy street.
"Coast road," Vin said. "She was yelling at 'em that she didn't know where Brackett was, but she thought he had a place along there."
"We need more information," Blair said. "And I must call Simon soon."
"Not yet," Vin told him. "Wait 'til we're there. Leave your phone off 'til then. There's too many people could call us offTravis, Banksif they can't reach us they can't tell us to leave it."
Blair switched off his phone, but he looked uneasy. Vin knew Banks was his friend. Ellison's friend too. But Ellison wasn't the expendable one in Brackett's plan; Vin had a sick feeling Chris might be. Would Cascade PD understand the risk to Chris? Right or wrong, Vin felt the need to be the one in control.
Ezra said quietly, "Don't underestimate Chris. He and Detective Ellison are a formidable force in their own right."
Vin took a deep breath which hurt his ribs, and nodded. He caught the surreptitious glance from Ezra and said quickly, "It's just bruising. Don't think they were trying t' hurt me."
"That was my assessment of their shooting," Ezra agreed. "Not key players, perhaps; just someone in Brackett's line of work taking an interest."
"So the license plates may not be any help?" Blair said.
"Not t' finding Chris and Jim. Could be a big help in proving our point t' the PD if we have to."
In the passing lights, he couldn't avoid seeing how white and tired Blair looked, or the tense grip Ezra had on the steering wheel, but they were both with him. He warmed a bit when he saw that. He wasn't having to drag them on with the strength of his will; they were beside him all the way.
It took a while to get across town to the coast road, but Ezra was driving as fast as Vin would have done himself. Not long after they'd turned onto it, a police car with lights and siren going overtook them.
"That's unusual up here," Blair said quickly.
"It could simply be a coincidence," Ezra said, but followed the car closely.
Vin leaned forward, peering into the darkness. Now, for the first time, he felt the disadvantage of being out of touch. He was just about to tell Blair to go ahead and call Major Crimes, when he realised that whatever was happening was only a little further ahead. They saw more cars, a fire engine, the whole well-lit emergency scene. Ezra pulled up sharply behind the last car.
"It's a fire," Blair said as they got out.
"Worse'n that," Vin said, catching sight of the devastation to the building. "Looks like the place blew up." He stumbled as his bruised leg briefly refused to support him, and felt them catch him on each side. "I'm fine," he said, shaking them off. "Just stiffened up a bit." He stood and flexed the muscles for a moment as they moved ahead.
Ezra was getting out his real ID this time, he noticed, and by the time he'd limped fast enough to catch up with him, the officer who seemed to be in charge of the scene was saying, "No casualties. No one here at all."
"That's not what we were expecting," Ezra said. "We had information there was an illicit meeting here tonight."
"Our first impression was that the site might have been abandoned after the explosion. There are three distinct sets of tire tracks over some of the ash."
The tension and hope rose in Vin, half choking him, and he was grateful for Ezra asking the questions. The wreckage of the house was appalling, but now he knew there were no bodies in it, he could look at it and think, yep, Chris would've been this mad.
"The investigation is only in its early stages," the officer was saying, "but we think there may also have been some shooting after the fire. I can show you the mark on... All right, Goulden, what have you got?"
A young, uniformed police man was hesitating in front of them but obviously needing to speak.
"We found something I think you should take a look at, sir. Might have been used to start the fire."
They all followed him to where the gaping shell of the building was being examined. Attention was focused on something snagged on a jagged edge of the destroyed room. They were evidently waiting for its position to be photographed before it was taken as evidence.
Vin stared. It was a thin line of knotted strips of cloth, scorched now and tangled, but still holding a lighter fastened to its end. And it said to him Chris had been here as clearly as if his friend had left a signature across the ruins. The grip on his arm told him Ezra knew it as well as he did.
"What is it?" Blair whispered, looking from one to the other of them.
With one accord, Vin and Ezra drew back to the edge of the crowd, leaving the officer to continue.
"See that rope they made?" Vin said. "That was strips of handkerchief, and half of 'em were black. Only one man I know carries a black handkerchief. Buck got 'em fer him fer a joke once."
"It is extremely unlikely to have been anyone but Chris," Ezra said, sounding like Vin felt, caught between a fierce satisfaction that Chris was fighting back, and apprehension at what damage he could have done himself in a blast that wrecked a building.
"Jim and Chris did this?" Blair asked, horrified. "They could have been killed. And the noiseand smoke; oh man, it must have been a nightmare for Jim."
"Put a hitch in Brackett's plans though," Vin said.
"We have the proof that Chris was here, alive, and active," Ezra said quietly.
Vin nodded. He'd already known, the moment he saw those black strips of material, it was time to call the others.
"I'll do it," he said. "You find out what you can about the tyre tracks and if they've got any leads to where the cars went."
He touched Blair's arm lightly.
"Let's go where it's quiet."
Blair, who'd been holding it together well before, looked dazed and shaky now. He didn't move.
"Blair?" Vin said softly, nodding to Ezra to go back to the officer.
"Sorry," Blair muttered. "It's just... seeing that..." he waved vaguely at the crowd round the smoking building, "It makes me wonder just how bad a situation Jim was in, for that to be a better risk. Damn it, they could have killed themselves, Vin. What were they thinking?"
"Thinking it was time Brackett didn't have it all his own way," Vin said. "I don't suppose they guessed it'd go up like that. But t' me that sight's good news. Shows they weren't just alive but fightin' back. Let's get back t' th' car and let some people know."
Blair drew a deep breath. "Yeah." He slid a hand under Vin's arm to steady his limping stride, and Vin didn't shake him off this time. When they were at the fringe of the noise and activity, he dialled the Denver office, expecting someone to be next to the phone. When no one picked up, he tried Buck and JD's place, then Buck's cell phone.
Blair had evidently had no trouble getting Banks. Vin could hear the captain's voicenot individual words, but clearly enough to make out the tone. Banks was forceful, worried, maybe annoyed, but there was none of the strained patience Vin had got from everyone earlier in the day. Blair wasn't having to argue a case for Jim having been here and alive, only for why he hadn't been in touch. There had to have been developments.
He'd tried JD's cell phone without success while he was listening to Blair; now he called Josiah's number. At last someone picked up.
"Josiah. It's Vin. Got somethin' important t' tell you. We just found the place where we reckon Chris and Jim Ellison were bein' held t'day..."
"Any sign Chris was hurt?" Josiah interrupted quickly.
Yep. There had definitely been developments. That wasn't the question Vin had been expecting.
"No sign, but it ain't that easy t' tell. Place is like a bomb site. Looks like Chris 'n Jim tried t' start a firemebbe a diversionand it got out of hand. Gas cylinders or fuel or whatever blew up and half th' house is gone. No casualties here, though. Ez is getting more details."
He had half an eye on Ezra while he was talking. Ez was examining the ground and talking to a couple of young uniformed police officers. Looked like he might be getting something. Vin hurried up his account to Josiah, giving him a terse summary of their efforts to find the girl witness, and what was happening at their present location.
"We've got one lead at this end," Josiah said, surprising him. "But it came from Captain Banks, so you're probably up to date."
"Blair's talking t' Banks," Vin said, leaving Josiah to assume what he liked from that about their current status in Cascade. He wasn't ready to put himself under anyone else's authority just yet. Chris was still out there, ahead, somewhere. Vin was going to be free to do whatever was needed to get him back. "But y' can give me the details. Save us some time."
"A light-coloured van, with an ad on the side for some kind of windows. No plates. An eyewitness says she saw Chris and Jim Ellison getting into that, not the truck, at the airport. Simon Banks is following it up. And we're booked on the first flight to Cascade, so we should all be with you by noon or soon after. VinI'm sorry, more sorry than..."
"Hell, Josiah, no need t' be sorry," Vin broke in quickly. "I didn't make much of a hand at explainin' what I thought. So long as we're all on th' same trail now."
"We're getting there. JD's gone to the ranch to get Buck, and they'll meet us at the airport."
"Be glad t' have y'all here," Vin said, his heart lightened by the fact his team were back on the same wavelength. But tomorrow noon seemed a long way off, and Chris might be needing help now. "J'siah, I got to go. Looks like Ezra has somethin' t' tell me."
Ezra was walking back towards him and gesturing to the car. Blair, who also saw him, opened the door, still talking to Banks. "Stay at the scene? But... Yes, I know, but... Yes, of course I do..."
Ezra reached over, gave a perfect imitation of the battery warning sound and switched off the phone for him.
"I think it would be advisable for us to be on the move again," he said. "Those gentlemen informed me that they passed no vehicles as they approached the house, and a cursory study of the tracks indicates they terminate here, or, rather, that at least one car arrived here after the fire and went straight back towards Cascade." They were all in the car by now. Vin fought not to show how much it hurt every time he changed position. He probably didn't fool Ezra, but Ezra shared his sense of priorities, and was already turning back down the road. "I have ascertained that there is only one place to turn off this road in the next four miles. It seems to me that anyone leaving here and wishing to avoid the police, might well have followed that route."
"Simon's not going to be thrilled about this," Blair said, not sounding very worried about it. "He has this kind of protective thing when any of his people are in troublehe likes everyone else where he can see them. He's annoyed he fell for Brackett's setup, too."
Ezra saw the turn slightly late, and swerved into it sharply. Vin clenched his hands on his seat to keep from groaning as he tried to brace himself and his ribs protested.
"Apologies," Ezra said softly. "This is evidently the road. I suggest we follow it noting any further turnings, and keep alert."
Vin stared into the area lit by the car's headlights. He wasn't sure what he hoped to see; the other cars must have passed some time ago. The road was narrow and might have been scenic by daylight. By night it wasn't suited to fast driving. They had to slow as they came up to a series of bends.
"Over there!" Blair said urgently.
"Ez!" Vin said at the same time, seeing the pale outline under the trees.
Ezra was already braking. He must have seen it as they did. It was hard to miss: a light coloured van, completely off the road and unlikely to go anywhere without the help of a tow truck. As Ezra parked, they briefly glimpsed in their headlights a man doing something to the side of it, though he instantly disappeared.
"In the bushes," Vin breathed to Ezra as they all got cautiously out. "Left. Maybe twenty yards in. I'll work around. You distract him."
He went to the far side of the van from the man he'd marked, and dropped lowwincingto move unseen. He slid a small but lethally sharp knife from its sheath.
Blair and Ezra began an examination of the truck, keeping enough cover to avoid a shot from the darkness, but talking loudly about what they could see.
Vin wasn't in the best of shape, but he realised as he approached his quarry that the other man was worse. He was crouching in the dark, breathing harshly as though he'd hurt his throat, and he had one arm clamped round his ribs in a way Vin could recognise. The last thing he seemed to be thinking about was an unexpected attack from behind.
Vin caught him by the hair, yanking his head back and putting a knife to his throat all in one swift movement. The man gave a gurgle of fear and didn't try to struggle as Vin hauled him out to the other and threw him up against the side of the van, where the glare of the headlights made him try to turn away.
"No fight left in him," Vin said.
"I know him," Ezra said in surprise. "He was one of Miller's agents. Miserable specimen called Bottom or something equally ridiculous."
"Miller?" Blair said. "Could Miller have somehow got involved with Brackettrogues together?"
Vin frankly didn't care. The man shaking against the van was one of those who'd taken Chris. He'd evidently been trying to paint over the van's logo, but the "Kleen Brite Window Company" was still readable. Besides, Vin had seen the remains of all sorts of technological equipment in the van. The man knew something, and the quicker they got it out of him the better.
Vin stepped forward and slid the point of his knife under the man's chin, adding a pinpoint of blood to the bruises already on his neck.
"Where's Chris Larabee?" he asked quietly. "Y' want t' be able t' talk ever again, you'd best start talkin' now."
Simon Banks was tired, harassed, worried and frustrated. He'd run through too many emotions in the past day, and the relief he felt at knowing Jim was alive was tempered by fears for how long he'd stay that way. Now he went through the bullpen like a natural disaster, collecting Joel and Henri Brown and leaving a wake of shouted instructions for the rest.
"Captain," Joel said slowly on their way down to the garage, "I know you're worried about where Jim is..."
"Damn right I am," Simon said, rattling a door back on its hinges. "But he's not the only one. I would very much like to know where our police observer is, and those two men of Larabee's. I'd bet you half my pension they're not where I just told them to be, at the site of this fire or explosion or whatever. I don't aim to find Jim and then have to tell him we mislaid Sandburg while he was gone."
"I remember Ellison and Larabee when Hairboy and his friend were missing before," Henri offered as they reached the car.
"The whole department remembers them," Simon said forcefully. "I'm still smoothing the egos they upset, and there's a secretary on the fourth floor claims she gets palpitations when she sees Ellison now. I suppose we're lucky they didn't cause any premature labours or heart attacks. When we find Jim and Chris Larabee I want to know exactly where Tanner and Sandburg and that undercover agent of Larabee's are."
"I'm sure if you actually told Blair to stay put he'll be there," Joel offered peaceably.
"I got cut off before I made it an order. Anyway, you know Sandburg. He doesn't consider them orders, he considers them debate topics."
"Tanner and Standish are used to taking orders," Henri tried. Like Joel, he clearly didn't want to be driving for many miles with his captain in this mood.
"I didn't speak to Tanner or Standish," Simon said. "In fact, they've taken great care not to speak to me directly since they've been in Cascade." Probably didn't help that I choked Tanner off earlier in the day especially as the kid was right. "Anyway, from what I've heard of Team 7 the only person whose orders they take is Larabee, and he has to work hard at it."
"Did you see him when we busted Josephs?" Henri said. "I swear he cuffed Tanner to Standish."
The thought of cuffing all three of them if he caught up with them appealed to Simon, but he dismissed it regretfully. Not an option for him.
"They're only doing what we're doing," Joel said. "If they get any lead, they'll call in with it."
Simon wasn't so sure. He'd been fooled by Brackett and lost half a day in starting this search, and he had a feeling that might be more than enough to undermine his standing with the Denver men. He didn't know Tanner or Standish that well, but he'd guess that nothing would stop them now until they found their missing leader, and as Blair's idea of acceptable risk when Jim was in trouble included jumping out of as plane without knowing how to use the parachute, it wasn't any good expecting him to be the voice of reason.
He sighed. The whole problem would be solved by finding Ellison and Larabee. He'd better concentrate on that.
"Think we're there, sir," Henri said, as half the emergency vehicles of Cascade seem to loom up before them.
Simon got out of the car and looked at the chaos. Blair had said there was about half the house still standing. Most of that seemed to have now fallen downthe dust was still risingand he was relieved to gather it had done so with enough warning for everyone to be out in time, but the clear up was going to be a nightmare for someone.
Joel and Henri looked on, impressed.
"Ellison doesn't do things by halves, does he?" Joel said. " Simonlooks like the press have arrived as well."
"Captain Banks," said the familiar voice of Don Haas. "Maybe you could tell us the truth of these rumours we're hearing."
Simon Banks was tired, harassed, worried and frustrated, and it just looked like getting worse.
Jim and Chris were completely unaware of the escalating search going on for them. To the best of their knowledge, Brackett's plan had worked. They assumed they were on their own, and their friends thought they were dead.
If they went on like this they'd be lucky not to be, Jim thought.
He was sliding in a half-controlled drop down the steep side of a rocky gorge. Just behind him, Larabee followed. Above, he didn't need sentinel hearing to catch Yudin's cursing or the scrape of metal as he finally forced the door open in the front of his carthe second vehicle Jim and Chris had wrecked in the space of half an hour.
If they could only get the knack of doing it without adding to their rising toll of cuts, bruises and sprains they'd be onto a winner.
"Maybe Brackett will catch up with Yudin and they'll kill each other," Chris muttered, sliding to a halt beside him as they reached the bottom of the cleft and the bank of the swift-running stream. "Breather?"
"Breather," Jim agreed. They squatted down on a rock at the water's edge propping each other up, because Chris had wrenched his leg in the first crash, and Jim had done something painful to his knee in this one. After a moment of catching his breath, Chris eased down to his stomach and gasped as he lowered his scorched arm into the cold water.
"What was it you used up there, anyway?" he asked.
He'd found it in the debris by the househad knelt on it in fact as they took cover from Yudin's friendly greeting with the semi automatic. It must have been blown clear from a desk or tool box. Not much of a weapon, but small enough to be concealed in his hand against a casual glance, and he'd found a use for it.
He and Chris had sprawled against each other in the back of Yudin's car. It hadn't been difficult to look as if they were too injured to be much of a threat. He'd tried to show Chris what he held, but the road was unlit, and without sentinel sight Chris hadn't been able to make it out in the quick glimpse Jim could risk.
Jim had managed to lie half across the seat, where he could see between Yudin and his companion. He'd fought past the blinding headache that was now his constant companion to extend his sight much further along the narrow, twisting road than the driver could possibly see, until he saw the sort of stretch he wanted. The road descended quite sharply, and on a bend, towards a bridge crossing what he thought was a narrow gorge. He wasn't likely to get a better possibility. Yudin, already driving rather too fast for the conditions would have to brake sharply here.
He slumped down now, as though he was on the edge of passing out, and let his arm dangle. With his other elbow he nudged Larabee in the hope he'd guess something was about to happen. Chris did. Unobtrusively he braced himself and Jim.
With his sight still dialled up, Jim watched the road and then Yudin's legs for the first sign he was braking. The front seat passenger looked over at him but saw no threat; he made a scornful-sounding comment to Yudin in Russian.
Yudin was late braking as if he was slow to realise the steepness of the slope. As his foot pressed down, Jim fired the staple gun repeatedly into the back of his leg. Yudin jumped, cursed and swiped downwards as though he thought he'd been stung and completely lost the chance to brake. For good measure Jim fired again, this time at his hands on the wheel. Again, Yudin reacted instinctively to the pain.
Too fast and too uncontrolled to take the bend, the car swerved up on to the side of the road and towards the drop. Yudin found the brake again, his partner grabbed the handbrake, but the car went crunching to a halt on the boulders. Jim and Chris were ready, and there was no following vehicle this time. Chris kept them both from the worst of the impact, though they hit painfully enough against the seats in front. Jim had forced open the side door before the Russians could recover.
Adrenaline temporarily masking pain enough for them to move quickly, they'd begun a frantic sideways descent of the gorge, and were now probably thirty or forty feet below the road and rather more than that downstream. Jim could hear that the Russians were still up by the car, more concerned at the moment about the damage to itand themselvesthan about starting to search for their prisoners.
It should be safe to take a few more minutes. He wondered if there was any part of him that didn't ache. His control of his senses was costing him what little energy he had left, but he managed to focus on the scent of the water by ignoring hearing and sight. It was cold, clear and fast moving. Not what the doctor would have ordered for burns, but Larabee knew that, and it was clean enough to make the risk worth it for the relief it must be bringing. Jim joined him, scooping cold handfuls over the cuts on his face, and drinking gratefully.
"Yeah. Better not stop here too long though. Do you have any idea where we are?"
Jim had made some guesses over the course of the night. "Not too far inland, I'd say. If we go downstream, we might cross the coast road, or at worst we should get to the sea. I can probably work out where I am from there."
"Down works for me," Chris agreed. "Not sure either of us is up to climbing. I can't see much though. Can you use your sight?"
"For now. It's giving me a hell of a headache."
"You could get us further away from here, anyway."
The cold water had helped a little. Jim got slowly to his feet and allowed his sight to open up until the night was grey and shadowy rather than impenetrably dark. It wasn't just a question of how long he could see the way, he wasn't sure that they could go much longer without a proper rest. They were both unsteady enough to be at risk of a fall, and a broken ankle would just about finish things. When he'd tested the scent of the water, he'd caught the smell of the scorched skin and blisters on Chris's armnot deep but extensive; for himself, the effect of whatever Brackett had used had never completely worn off. They were cut and bruised everywhere, and hadn't eaten since the morning.
He shrugged the thought off, and started to walk, making sure he gave Chris plenty of warning of the obstacles that were clear to Jim but virtually invisible to him.
"What time do you think it is?" Chris muttered. Brackett, of course, had taken their watches.
"Not more than a couple of hours to dawn, at a guess."
"Be easier when it's light."
His sight was beginning to cut in and out, making him feel slightly sick. Behind him, Chris stumbled over a boulder. They were making some sort of progress though, and there was no sound of pursuit.
They went on like this for perhaps half an hour, then Jim had to stop. His vision was seesawing, and he was getting close to leading them both into disaster. Chris put a hand on his arm, his harsh breathing testifying to the fact he, too, was pretty much at the end of his strength. With his eyes closed, Jim listened. He'd already noticed something different about the sound of the water up ahead. Now he managed to concentrate on it for a moment.
"I think the stream goes through a tunnel or conduit," he said, recognising the sound. "It echoes. Maybe fifty, a hundred yards ahead. Might be a place we could rest up."
They picked their way there much more slowly than they had been going when Jim had been able to use his sight, but he'd judged it right. Some seventy yards ahead they came to the concrete opening. It was bigger than Jim had expected, though they'd have to crawl to get into it. Of course, at some times of year the stream would be much fuller. He checked it out. It was about twenty feet long and seemed to have been built to carry the stream under a double fence. They'd come to the edge of someone's estate.
The tunnel was clean enough, and had a slight ledge along each side, perhaps where a gardener could crawl along to clear any rubbish that came down when there were floods.
"This'll do," Jim said, satisfied. With the high fences above, no one following them was going to get around easily to the far end, so there was only one hole to watch, and anyone crawling into that after them was going to be at a severe disadvantage. They collected up a few hand-sized rocks, and enjoyed the thought of bouncing them off Brackett's head.
At the far end, they stopped and settled on the ledge just at the opening. They were hidden here from sight, sheltered from the wind and it was easier to rest with your back covered. Rest. Jim let all his senses fall where they would and closed his eyes. Beside him he could feel Chris shivering slightly. They both were, but from exhaustion and a trace of shock, not the night; it wasn't really that cold.
He drew a deep breath, and a cut on his side twinged. The throbbing in his head was matched by that in his knee and there were plenty of more minor aches clamouring to make themselves noticed. He could shut those out though. The thing that was really painful now that he was no longer on the move, was the thought of Blair.
"Brackett won't move against them," Chris said, smothering a groan as he tried to get into a more comfortable position. "He'll blame Yudin for this, not us."
Jim shifted so that Chris could lean more heavily to the right against him and could cradle his burned arm across his chest. "I know. It's the fact they don't know we're alive. Blair's hardly over Josephs. He wasn't ready for this."
"Who would be?" Chris said bitterly, his voice raspy with tiredness and the long struggle against pain. "It's not enough just to get ourselves out of danger. I want to take Brackett and Miller down."
"I want to get to a phone."
"Yeah, that first. I keep thinking, though, we don't know the crash fooled them. One of them might've caught some wrong touch about it, enough maybe to start an investigation quicker than Brackett reckoned."
"It's not been twenty four hours," Jim said. "You imagine anyone will have started asking questions yet?"
"Vin might. Or Ezra."
"Thought they'd have taken it too badly to do much thinking at all."
"They're not easily fooled. Vin sees to the truth of things, and Ezra'll recognise any con. The rest of my team, I don't know. Buck'll take it very hard. We go back a long way, share a lot of history. He's got a big heart, Buck, but he'll let it break before he uses his head on this. Josiah and Nathan, they'll be too busy worrying over Vin and the others to start questioning the evidence yet. Not that they couldn't work it out, but they'll be looking the wrong way. JD's a kidand after losing his mom, maybe he's got that feeling you can't hope to have people stay in your life."
"That's what worries me about Blair," Jim agreed softly. It was the most he'd ever heard Chris say, and it made him find words for his own concern. "Blair sounds confident, optimistic even, but when it comes to himself he's got this gut acceptance of losing out. Like he doesn't think he deserves anything good to last."
Chris was silent for a while, and Jim was beginning to wonder if he was dozing, when he said quietly, "I think Vin'd come to Cascade. Whatever he thought. He'd come to Blair. My team've got each other. He doesn't know Banks, not enough to be sure of, and he knows Blair'd be on his own otherwise. Reckon he'd want to be with Blair."
Jim hadn't even thought of that. He'd known Simon would try to be there for Blair, but Simon would have the whole mess to deal with. When Jim thought of Blair, he saw him in the loft, alone, pushing away the people who wanted to help him, using whatever obfuscation would work.
Vin wouldn't be pushed away.
The knot of tension inside him relaxed just a little. The gentle noise of the water had softened the discomfort in his hearing that had been there since the explosion. He realised he was almost dozing. Chris's breathing had slowed a little too. Maybe they ought to set a watch.
"No chance we'll sleep too deep to hear someone coming," Chris said softly. "Get some rest. Can't be that long before it's light."
Jim opened his eyes briefly, and thought he could already detect a hint of lesser dark over where the sea must be. Remembering something Blair had once taught him, he drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, deliberately relaxing to a point just above sleep.
"If you find a higher plane, share it," Chris said. "This concrete's hard, and I landed on my butt when we bust Brackett's van."
Jim grinned. Larabee wasn't a bad person to have with you in a tough place. The thought of Blair not alone but with Vin was less sharply painful, too. He closed his eyes again, and let his strength slowly begin to come back.
Agent Rigby, still of the CIA though even lower in its rankings than he had been before Miller screwed up all their careers, sat and stared at his computer screen. He knew why he was still here in the early hours of the morning when everyone else on the same assignment had long since gone. Guilt. Maybe it wasn't logical, but that was what had kept him at the keyboard for the last twelve hours.
He'd never stopped feeling he owed Tanner and Sandburg somethingthough this view was severely discouraged by his employers. He couldn't get the two of them out of his mind when he saw the shocking news of the Ellison / Larabee killings.
Along with several other dogs' bodies, he'd been allocated the task during the afternoon of trying to ascertain when and how Brackett had made his final escape from custody. Had the FBI ever really had him and if so why? If they hadn't, finding who'd falsified the records and set the whole thing up was an urgent concern.
But not so urgent he needed to be working on it at three in the morning. He just felt that doing something towards catching Brackett and whoever had helped him, was one small part of his payback, even if Tanner and Sandburg had no idea about it.
He'd waded along digital trail after digital trail now, and his eyes were blurring the letters on the screen. He'd long since proved to his own satisfaction that the FBI connection was a red herring. His immediate supervisor had accepted that with resignation; they'd all known it was odds on that was the case. He'd been less enthusiastic about Rigby's insistence that all the evidence was suggesting one of their own had been involved.
"If you find anything else, come to me with it first. And make sure you don't leave a trail anyone else can follow. We want to keep this to ourselvesif you're right. You haven't convinced me yet."
That had been before midnight. Rigby hadn't actually found anything else, but he toiled on. His latest idea was to access the security records and images for the full month before Brackett's disappearance. There were a lot of them, they were very repetitive and his eyes were starting to go out of focus when he peered at them. He'd give it another hour, then he'd go and snatch a bit of sleep before tomorrow'stoday'swork began.
He almost missed it when it came up on the screen. He'd carried on past before his brain registered what his eyes had seen, and he had to search back, struggling to find the place. It wasn't a clear image, and the man looked very different from the last time he'd seen him, but he had no doubt at all that he was looking at a disguised Miller. Miller and Brackett? That possibility was really going to push the panic button.
He saved the image and reached out for the phone. And paused. There was going to be a lot of very frantic activity on this when he made his call, but most of it would be motivated to keeping themselves squeaky clean. It certainly wouldn't be with the priority of justice for Ellison and Larabee.
He stepped briefly out into the street, heading for an all night cafe, but as soon as he was clear he took out his cell phone.
"Cascade PD? Can you put me through to Captain Banks of Major Crimes?"
Buck leaned on the rough wood of the corral at Chris's ranch, and stared at nothing in the dark. Maybe now the first hints of light were beginning to creep into the sky, but he didn't care to see them. His grief was a stone weight in his chest, an ache that hurt more than a physical wound. His anger had faded as he tended to the horse then stood out here thinking and letting the memories come randomly; his awareness of his loss had increased 'til he leaned heavily under the weight of it.
He'd felt a burning need to be on his own tonight, to recall things none of the others had shared in. Close as they all were, no one else went back over the years with Chris like he did. Losing Chris was like losing half his roots, and losing Sarah and Adam all over again. And it was all the bitterer because this last couple of years he'd seen Chris start to live again after the meltdown that had followed his family's death.
Spent all those months keeping you alive when you'd rather have joined them, and now that you'd choose to live, some bastard takes you out over a grudge against another man.
He'd come close this last few months to talking to Chris about Sarah and Adam, sharing some of the good memories, but he hadn't risked it. That hurt now, too. He wished they'd had that chance.
He couldn't any longer ignore the fact that it was getting light; the corral took grey shape in front of him and behind, in the trees, he started to hear the birds. He needed to shoulder the weight that was dragging him down, and go and do what needed to be done.
As he straightened up, he heard a car down the drive, and by the time it crunched to a halt on the gravel he'd got himself ready. Nathan, he thought, recognising the car. Damn it, why couldn't he just leave well alone.
But it was JD, not Nathan, who jumped from the car, found the house locked up and looked for him in the wrong direction, not seeing him in the shadows where he was standing.
"Buck? Where are you? Buck!"
If it had been any of the others, Buck would just have walked away, but even in the worst part of the night JD had never been that far from his mind. He'd tried to be there for the kid when they'd first heard the news, but his own grief and shock had loomed too big. He couldn't find the words; couldn't do anything but make things worse, because JD had never seen him this upset before. Buck had seen that Josiah and Nathan were taking care of JD, and doing it fine, and he'd fled up here. But if the kid had come all this way to find him, and Nathan had thought it important enough to give him the car...
He walked out slowly into the open and towards JD.
"Buck," JD said with relief. He ran towards him, scattering gravel, and the words started to pour out. "Buck, it's good news. We couldn't get an answer when we called you, but it's great news. Vin was right all along. Chris wasn't in that crash. We know for sure now, because Orrin Travis had called for an ID to be done tonight and it just came in while I was driving here and Josiah called me to let me know before I got to you. It wasn't Chris. Or Jim Ellison. They were taken at the airport and weren't ever in the truck. When we couldn't get your phone, I was going to come up here on the bike, but Nathan said no, take the car, and..."
"Slow down!" Buck said, louder than he meant to. It was too much, and too fast, and he couldn't quite take it in. "What are you telling me, kid?"
"I'm telling you Chris is alive," JD said, not slowing down at all. "As far as we know. Anyway, he wasn't in that crash. Get in the car, Buck. I can tell you all the rest while I drive. We're going to Cascade. We're only just going to make it to the airport in time now, only Nathan and Josiah will already be there so I expect they'll fix everything. Come on, Buck. You did hear me, didn't you? It wasn't Chris in that crash."
Buck walked blankly to the car and opened the door, without really knowing what he was doing.
"No, and Vin and Ezra are in Cascade, and they think they know where he and Jim Ellison were being held, only he's not there now, and we don't know where Vin and Ezra are now either. Nor does that Cascade police captain. He keeps calling Josiah about it."
"Chris ain't dead," Buck said slowly as the car turned back down the drive. It was finally sinking in. He repeated it with a whoop that made JD swerve wildly. "Watch it, kid," Buck warned kindly. "Can't think why Nathan trusted you with his car."
"That was your fault!" JD said indignantly. "You made a noise like a pig having its throat cut. I can drive just fine if I have normal passengers."
"Pig having its throat cut? When did you ever hear a pig have its throat cut? Now that sounds like..."
"Don't do it!" JD interrupted hastily.
Buck settled back in his seat, although he felt more like running and shouting his relief to the brightening skies. Chris was alive!
"Now how about you let me drive, kid," he suggested. "Seeing we're in a hurry to get to the airport and all."
"I'm doing fine, Buck. Why don't you ring Josiah and tell him I found you."
"Found me? Hell, you were staring in the opposite direction making a noise like a calf that's lost its momma."
"And what does that make you?" JD said promptly, accelerating past an early commuter.
Wrangling, they almost missed a turn, but the roads weren't busy yet. Buck gave advice and JD ignored it, and they made it to the airport just in time.
Botting, Ezra thought; the man babbling cravenly under the threat of Vin's knife was called Botting. He must have left the CIA legitimately, or perhaps been dismissed. Now, if anything he said was to be believed, he'd returned to Miller's employment, and they'd teamed up with Lee Brackettproviding another plausible reason why Chris had been abducted along with Jim Ellison.
Vin had withdrawn the knife a little. Botting certainly wasn't refusing to talk. It had to be sifted, but Ezra inclined to the view that he was babbling out everything he knew.
"... and Brackett thought it was all under control, but Ellison was like a raving lunatic when he came round. He nearly strangled me. Look..."
No one wanted to look at Botting's neck. Ezra was more concerned about Blair, who looked horrified, and more so when Botting went on to describe Jim's manic yelling and the way they had to lock him in a darkened room.
"You should consider the use he and Chris made of that darkness," Ezra said softly to Blair. "They evidently wanted the privacy to devise a way of starting that fire. Jim can't have been nearly as incapacitated as our informant here believes."
"It could be a weird reaction to the drugs. Brackett should have known..."
"Exactly. And therefore would probably have been at least as careful as a medical practitioner. I suspect your partner saw an opportunity for some creative exaggerationthe excuse to throttle Botting wouldn't have been unwelcome, and they were also able to create a situation where they were left to their own devices."
"Drugs then an explosion won't have done Jim's senses any good," Blair said, but he no longer looked so alarmed.
"... we don't know why the tires blew," Botting was saying. "Especially both at once like that. They must have been damaged back at the house. But when the van crashed your friends recovered more quickly. They got away from us, and the other lot took them."
"Other lot?" Vin asked, drawing the knife tip closer again.
"The Russians. I don't know any more about them than I just told you. Brackett knew them. It's been crazy. Seems like every spook in Cascade realised Brackett was onto something and wanted to find out what. These twoone of them was called Yudin, I thinktook Ellison and Larabee, and then while we were still trying to clear up this mess and Miller and Brackett were bickering about who was to blame, another lot came up. Three of them, a Frenchman in charge. Brackett did some sort of deal with them and they all went off together to put one over on the Reds and get your friends back. I was just left here to finish cleaning up. I don't know where any of them are now."
"You've got a phone."
"Brackett said only to call if there was an emergency."
Vin drew the knife very lightly across his throat, leaving a thin scratch. "Believe me, you got an emergency."
"What do I say?" Botting squeaked.
"Tell him you've heard police and fire engines on the main road and you want to know what to do if they come up here."
Botting fumbled with the phone. Vin gestured to Ezra and Blair to come closer, and made Botting hold the phone where they could all hear.
"You idiot!" Brackett said irritably when Botting got through. "Of course you expect to hear sirens. If you've done what I said, you should be finished before they get as far as looking down side roads. But we've got a... situation here. Our KGB rejects have lost Ellison and Larabee..." There was another voice audible in the background, heavily accented and annoyed. "Seems they'd some weaponaccording to Yudin; personally I can't see how they could have doneand managed to make him crash his car. When he went off the road, they got away. We've decided to combine forces for now to retrieve them and argue later about how we share the profits. It looks like they've headed towards the coast, and we're splitting up to follow them by the road and overland. Have you finished the van?"
Vin nodded to Botting.
"Leave it then, and make your way towards us on foot."
"On foot?" Botting demanded unprompted. The thought of it must have temporarily made him forget he wouldn't be going anywhere. "How far is it?"
"No more than ten miles. At the first bridge on the road. Alldred will be here watching the bridge and trying to fix Yudin's car. We're sending two men along the route we think Larabee and Ellison took, and the rest of us are going on to try to intercept them when they come out. Don't call me again unless you've something important to say. I'll tell Alldred to expect you within two hours."
He terminated the call without waiting for an answer. Vin took the phone. "Got anything t' tie him up with?" he asked briefly. He'd slid the knife back into the sheath, but Botting was past caring. He stood and waited for whatever Vin decided to do with him.
Ezra regretfully took off his tie. He was still in the clothes he had worn to impress his 'buyers' at the lunch which now seemed a lifetime ago. It was an expensive and tasteful tie, and it pained him to see it fasten Botting's rather ham-like hands.
Blair produced a string object which looked like an infantile attempt at a cat's cradle, but which he also seemed to feel was too good to waste on Botting. "It's an exact replica of a Masabi chastity belt," he complained, and when Ezra raised an eyebrow at its flimsy structure began an explanation of its symbolic nature.
"It'll do," Vin said. He didn't even appear to have heard Blair's words, let alone to share Ezra's brief amusement. Ezra was feeling distinctly relieved, as he suspected Blair was; Chris and Jim Ellison had to be in a better situation than they had been enduring earlier. But Vin's restless urgency only seemed to increase.
Vin fastened Botting's ankles as efficiently as he had tied his hands, and pushed him into the van. "Close th' door."
"Are we going to let someone know he's there?" Blair asked.
"Cascade PD will undoubtedly cover this route sooner or later," Ezra said.
Abandoning Botting, they headed on down the road.
"How far d'you reckon the headlights c'n be seen?" Vin asked.
Ezra was driving with them dipped. "Not from this distance," he said firmly. He understood the need to approach the next obstacle unseen, but he had no intention of driving further than he had to without lights. Fortunately he had hired a car which offered a smooth and very quiet drive. When he judged the distance to be close enough to offer a risk of their being seen, he switched off the headlights and crept along. To his surprise, it was no longer impenetrably dark. The night was nearly over.
Vin touched his arm, but he was already aware that the road was dipping downwards towards what might well be a bridge. They had come almost exactly ten miles. He pulled up onto an open patch at the side of the road.
"I'll scout ahead," Vin said quietly.
"You can hardly walk," Ezra protested equally softly. "I'll go."
"Didn't have any problem taking Botting down."
"It took it out of you though," Blair put in. Like Ezra, he'd been watching Vin with increasing concern. "And it's a long open stretch before you even get down there. Let Ezra go."
"I'm not planning to allow anything to come between us and finding Chris," Ezra said as Vin hesitated.
"I know. Ain't that, Ez. Know y'll do what's needed. Just can't seem t'let go of any of it." He clapped Ezra lightly on the arm. "'m sorry. Blair's right. Makes sense fer you t' go. We'll be ready t' back you up."
Ezra moved silently through the darker shadows at the side of the road, and quickly realised that he was in the right place. A large black car had done some expensive damage to its front end on boulders at the top of a gorge, and there was one man leaning over it, tinkering with something under the hood.
He was not the pushover Botting had beenwhich made Ezra even more relieved he'd persuaded Vin to allow him to take this one. However, Ezra had the advantage of having taken him by surprise. There was a brief flurry of action, but his only problem was to incapacitate the man without rendering him incapable of speech. He'd achieved it by the time Vin and Blair reached them.
"Nice," Vin said, approving. He squatted down beside the man. Alldred, Ezra thought. Brackett had mentioned it on the phone.
"Where's Brackett?" Vin asked.
Alldred stared at him in silence. He was not going to be easy. Vin's actEzra was reasonably convinced it had been an actwith the knife might need a little enhancement.
"Don't cut him up too fast for him to talk," he said as Vin once more took the knife out.
Blair glanced at them both, and must have understood, because he said promptly, "Oh man, I don't want to watch that again. I can still hear the noise the other guy made."
"He won't come t' any harm if he answers a few questions," Vin said, opening Alldred's shirt with the blade.
Alldred would have looked quite calm if he hadn't given a tell tale nervous lick to his lips. "You won't use that" he said. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
"Friends of the men you took."
Vin slowly drew the knife across, then down, marking a thinly scratched square on Alldred's chest. Ezra watched the man's body language rather than his face, and saw his barely perceptible flinch.
"Don't worry," Vin said. "Man c'n lose a lot o' skin afore it stops him talking."
"Well, restrain yourself to the torso," Ezra said. "No scalp. And nothing lower yet."
"Look, I think I'll take a walk," Blair put in hastily, sounding convincingly squeamish. "You two are a couple of psychopaths."
"On the contrary," Ezra said. "I am a professional. And my friend here may be something of a savage, but I assure you he knows his work. This gentlemen will remain capable of telling us the whereabouts of his victims; how long he suffers before he does so is simply a matter for speculation. In fact, if you would care to place a wager..."
"Fuck it," Alldred said, breaking quite suddenly. "I'm not paid for this. Keep him off and I'll tell you what I know. But I've no idea where Ellison and Larabee are right now."
"I think if you tell us everything you do know, I can guarantee to keep my colleague here from committing bodily harm," Ezra said kindly. "I suggest you start with the whereabouts of Brackett and Miller." He could see from Alldred's face that their knowledge of Miller's involvement was another blow.
"Sounds like you know what's going on anyway," Alldred said sullenly. "It was supposed to be a pushover. Brackett had it all worked out. Well, it's all gone to hell now. The Russian guy says Ellison and Larabee caused this wreck and took themselves off down the gorge, though I don't see how they could have been moving very fast; they could hardly stand up last time I saw them." He saw their reaction to that and hurried on. "Anyway, they must have been okay, because they were clean away by the time we got here. Then Brackett did some kind of deal, only none of the others trust each other, so they've split in two groups. Yudin, Brackett, Miller and a couple of Frenchmenor maybe one was Germanhave driven round to the place on the coast that this stream runs into. The other Red and some Arab who was with the Europeans have gone on down the gorge. I'm supposed to be watching the road."
"For which I'm afraid you get a fail grade," Ezra commented. He glanced at the other two. "Is there anything else you'd like to ask our friend here?"
"Did Brackett know where he was goingwhere the stream runs to I mean?" Blair said. "Had they got a map?"
Vin pricked Alldred's skin to encourage an answer.
"They all had maps," he said. "It was like a bloody UN convention, everyone jabbering and wanting to do it their own way."
Blair leaned over to look in the front of the car, and found Yudin's map still lying on the seat. He unfolded it and tried to read it in the thin light that was now promising an imminent sunrise.
"Think we've finished with this one then," Vin said. He moved swiftly to slash with the knife near Alldred's crotch. Alldred yelped involuntarily, but Vin was only removing the leg of his pants to use on his wrists. "Might 's well get him tied up."
By the time they had immobilised Alldred, retrieved their own car and looked at the map, it was light enough to call it day.
"No good going down there," Vin said, gesturing vaguely at the gorge. "You see the way t' go by car, Ez?"
"In outline, yes. I suspect we need to take a private road or drive, but it should be apparent when we approach." He reached out a steadying hand to help Vin ease himself into the car again. "I think we've a good chance of catching up with Chris this time."
He genuinely believed the situation now warranted some hope, but Vin looked up at him with unguarded eyes, and Ezra saw only a desperate sense of urgency there.
"We got t' get t' them in time," Vin said.
"We know Brackett and Miller want them alive and unharmed."
"They could ha' been dead three times over. They don't know we're coming, they don't think anyone's coming. They're goin' t' do whatever it takes to keep themselves from bein' caught againand they don't seem t' be countin' much cost when they do it."
"They've been okay so far," Blair said, a slight tremor in his voice as if he was trying to convince himself rather than Vin.
"They're resourceful and I think the appropriate word would be 'tough'," Ezra said as confidently as he could. "And we have every opportunity now of taking Brackett and Miller in the rear. We could, of course, call for reinforcements as well. I'm sure Captain Banks would provide them."
"When we know what's happening," Vin said. "Call in too many people too early and Brackett or Miller might just shoot Chris for th' sake of it, however bad they want Jim."
Ezra had some time ago made the decision to follow Vin's lead on this; if it wasn't for Vin he might still be sitting on his bathroom floor, unsure how to mourn a man whose importance to him he had only fully realised with the report of his death. Vin's instincts had led them correctly so far. Even if Vin's fear for Chris was distorting his judgement now, Ezra was still going to back him all the way.
He turned towards the coast.
He wished Chris knew they were coming.
Chris had rested a little but he hadn't slept; their situation was too dangerous and uncomfortable, and he was sore in too many places. Now, as the light seeped into the sky and outlined black shapes of trees and bushes, he flexed his stiff muscles and nudged Jim.
Ellison stirred. Chris doubted if he'd really slept either, but the break had allowed them to recover enough to go on.
"How's the arm?" Jim asked quietly.
"Sore. Not a problem though."
It was hot and smarting and painful enough to make him feel slightly sick if he moved it incautiously, but it wasn't incapacitating. Jim nodded. He evidently felt the same: well under par, but able to keep going. Now Chris could see, he realised what a mess they both looked. At least his own clothes were black; neither blood nor smoke showed up too much on them. Ellison's were ripped, sooty and bloodstained, and where his shirt gaped open it showed an angry scrape across his chest.
"Caught it on Yudin's door," Jim said, looking down. "You look worse."
But he guessed they both looked as if they'd just survived an explosion, a couple of car wrecks and a long, muddy trek without food or sleep.
Chris stood up slowly. He felt no worse once he was on his feet, maybe slightly better. Jim followed, steadying himself on the top of the tunnel while he looked around. Chris saw his face twist a little, and guessed he was trying to listenand failing. He put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"Okay, don't push it. We're a match for Brackett and Miller without your senses, hell, we're a match for them with one arm tied behind our backs."
"I'm getting brief flasheslike not being able to tune a radio in," Jim said, still struggling to hear. "I'd say there's two or three men well back on our trail, probably moving faster than we did."
Chris's mind was on what lay ahead. "Looks like a big estate."
"Four or five miles still to the sea I'd guess, and most of that will be rough underfoot. The grounds won't be much changed from this until we get near the gardens and the house, and I imagine that will be at the coast. We'd better get moving."
Chris could see his way now along the bank of the stream, but being able to see the boulders didn't make it any more comfortable to scramble across them. Whatever he'd done to his leg had stiffened up while they rested, and it was sharply painful if he had to stretch. Jim was limping too; after a while he ripped off most of the remains of his shirt and tied it firmly round his knee, showing an extensive mottled pattern of bruises and some reddening cuts where he was bare to the waist.
The sun came up. They went on, stumbling too much for speed. Jim tried twice to listen for any pursuit but had to give up with a growl of frustrated discomfort. After a while they came into a more open, perhaps slightly cultivated area. Soon after that, there was a path of sorts along the side of the stream.
"Getting closer," Chris said.
"Yeah." Jim peered into a distance that just looked like more of the same to Chris. "There are some buildings up ahead."
Reaching them took another half an hour, and they were nothing to shout about then, but at least it showed they were fast approaching civilisation. One was a wooden store with gardening equipment in it; the other was made of concrete blocks and had a security lock on the door.
"At least that means the house can't be much further," Chris said, wondering in which direction.
Jim had more urgent concerns. "I just got a flash of voices," he said. "I can't judge distance very well; I've had this ringing, buzzing, ever since the explosion and it's hard to hear past it. But I can get us in here." He gestured to the concrete store. "Cover our tracks while I do it. If we hide up and let them go past, we'll have the advantage. They won't be checking behind."
Chris didn't question his judgement. He left him to do some sort of sentinel thing on the locklucky he wasn't criminally inclined because it seemed all too easyand tried a few tricks Vin had taught him to disguise the traces of where they'd walked.
"Come on," Jim hissed, the door open now. Chris wondered if Blair knew the statistics on sentinel safebreakers. Leaving a couple of conspicuous footprints, on the path that he'd been thinking looked like the best choice for the house, he followed Jim hastily in and they closed the door. That ought to be enough to reset the lock.
He looked around with interest. Stacks of garden chairs, there must be two or three hundred, and not poor quality. Tables. Lights. Four very large barbecues, very expensive.
"Someone throws a good party," Jim muttered.
"Pity he doesn't store any of the food or drink in here," Chris said, stooping to examine the bases of the barbecues for anything that might make a weapon. Kebabbing Miller was an appealing thought, but he found only charcoal, lighters and a few books of matches.
Jim was sniffing, presumably at something other than the general slight odour of stale air. He walked over to the side of the room where several large crates were stacked, and opened one from the centre. "Take a look at this!"
Curious, Chris limped over.
Carefully packaged against the damp, neatly arranged according to their size and nature, were some of the largest fireworks he'd ever seen.
"Stored for the next holiday," Jim said. "The estate is probably only used for some millionaire's vacations. Everything ready here for him to turn up and throw an expensive bash. All that's needed is the caterers."
Chris could see an immediate consequence if he was right. "It's not holiday time. That means the house may be shut up and empty."
Jim shrugged. "I expect we can get in. If we set off some alarms, all the better. I wouldn't mind seeing a uniformed cop any time now."
Chris saw that there was a large assortment of rockets, all the usual smaller fireworks, and one or two massive cylinders with Chinese writing on. Were those even legal? They were practically weapons.
Of course, they could do with some weapons.
Jim grinned. "We didn't quite succeed in blowing Brackett up before. How many of these do you think we could carry?"
They began to lift out some of the more impressive rockets, but before they had much of a pile, Jim stopped. Chris, almost without thinking now, put a hand on his arm to anchor him as he saw him try to listen. "Someone's close," Jim said softly. "I should have heard them before."
Chris couldn't hear them even now, but he didn't doubt that Jim had got it right. There were no windows to the store, and the lock ought to be secure against anyone without sentinel talents, but he felt an increasing tension as he waited. For several minutes there was still nothing, then he jumped slightly as a voice sounded very close to the door.
"This is a good lock. They'll not be in here." That was one of the Russians.
"There is no sign of anyone near the... shed? I think they went straight on." Chris couldn't place the second voice. Foreign, certainly, but not a Russian accent. This wasn't Yudin, nor one of Brackett's men. Where had a new player come from? He glanced at Ellison, who shook his head to show he had no idea either.
The voices sounded again further away. This time he couldn't make out the words.
"Can you tell what they're doing?" he whispered to Jim.
Jim frowned and rubbed his ear irritably. "The ringing just about drowns it out, and I can't focus. I think they've gone onquite fastbut I didn't get anything useful. Stupid. I ought to be able to handle this."
"We know we can get out unseen, anyway. After that, we can use the skills and training we've got. You did this sort of thing before you had the senses."
"I've got kind of used to them now," Jim admitted. "But you're right. We'll take whatever we can find in here that might make a weapon, and move out. Let's go for something to hit them from a distance though; hand to hand doesn't seem a great idea just now."
"Couldn't take on an old lady," Chris agreed. Not that he didn't know some old ladies who were as tough as boots and definitely shouldn't be annoyed even on a good day. "We'll take the rockets. That'll be a start."
He took off his shirt, ripped it down the tear which was already parting it, and made two rough carriers, which they filled with some of the larger rockets. Chris slung his over his shoulder then used the last strip of the material to fasten one of the big cylinders to his waist.
Jim grimaced. "That thing's practically a bomb."
"No worse than carrying grenades."
"Well, take it off before we start lighting anything. And don't stand too near me."
Chris tossed him a book of matches and put one in his own pocketthe side furthest from his explosive burden. The other crates didn't seem so promising. One held quantities of wine glasses. Another contained the only personal items they'd found: discarded sports and games equipment that looked as if it might have been used by teenagers a decade or more ago. The croquet mallets were appealing, but a bit heavy to carry. Jim found a bow, small but still in good condition. He tinkered with it a while, found three or four arrows, and decided to take it.
"Better than nothing," he said.
"I don't think there's anything else."
"Except that we might show up a bit too easily as we are." Jim ripped open one of the bags of charcoal and began a hasty camouflaging of his face and bare torso. The cut across his ribs bled again as he rubbed across it, and the blood smeared with the blackening soot to give an oddly savage appearance. Chris copied him, except that he didn't touch his arm. Without his shirt, he was forced to notice the mess of blisters and weeping, reddened skin. The rest of him, though, blackened nicely over the cuts and bruises.
They looked at each other and began to laugh.
"We'd better hope the house is empty," Jim said.
"We don't look much like law officers," Chris agreed.
They probably looked like any law-abiding householder's worst nightmare: wild, dishevelled, half-naked and coated in blood soot and bruises. Their quivers of rockets were slung on their backs, and they were unsteady enough on their feet to suggest they were on drugs or alcohol. They'd better hope they didn't run into a gardener with a shotgun.
They slipped quietly out into the shadows under the trees, and blended in with them easily. They had a rough idea where the house was, and their first aim was to get to that, but Chris was aware of other motives creeping in as well.
The two men ahead of them had no idea that they were no longer the ones in pursuit. Chris and Jim ought to be able to take them by surprise. Maybe if they were lucky, they'd even have a chance of hitting Brackett and Miller as well.
He glanced at Jim and saw a mood which exactly mirrored his own. It was time they took charge of this game.
"Let's go hunting," Jim agreed.
Brackett was finding it increasingly difficult to give an order and have it obeyed. If there was anything he hated it was an operation run by committee. However, the car belonged to Ducos, and he and Miller might temporarily need the Frenchman and the others, so he controlled his irritation and made it a suggestion instead.
"There's no advantage in taking the car up the drive. If we hide it here we can go on just as well on foot."
"But when we get Ellison and Larabee we'll have to struggle all the way back here with them."
Brackett shrugged. "If we try to get through the main gates we're likely to set off some sort of alarm."
"The gates don't look very secure," Ducos said. He had made it clear he wanted to start making the decisions. "They're more of a statement that it's private property than a serious attempt to keep people out."
Brackett was inclined to agree with that opinion, but even if the security was basic, breaking their way in through the gates could be almost guaranteed to set something off. In the end, though, he had to compromise. Miller went in over the fence, grumbling about the possibility of dogs or outside workers, and they waited for him to come back with a more accurate assessment. As Suvarov and al Shenawi had already reported that the place seemed to be deserted, it didn't seem too much of a risk.
"We'd be better on foot," Miller said when he returned. "There's less cover for the car inside and we don't want to scare Larabee and Ellison off. The drive slopes steeply down to the house, and I went far enough to get a good view. The place is definitely emptyno sign of any staff, no cars. If Ellison and Larabee make for it, and I expect they will, because they've no other means of communicating with anyone, then we should be able to take them before they get in. Unlike the grounds, the house itself seems to be covered in alarms, though, so we don't want them to get too close to it."
"If they have really come this way," Yudin said. "Call Suvarov. They should have seen something by now surely."
Brackett tried Suvarov, but his report was the same as before. Al Shenawi had tracked the men into the grounds and onto the path to the house, but they hadn't sighted them. He wondered if the two could somehow have already broken in to the main building, though it seemed unlikely.
"We'd better move," Brackett said shortly. He was beginning to feel uneasy. The odds which had seemed stacked so heavily against Larabee and Ellison just kept shifting. He couldn't really understand how they were still on their feet, let alone as troublesome as this.
As Miller had said, the place was absolutely deserted. Quite a lot of the coastal properties were empty at this time of year. The grounds were well kept, so a gardener must come in fairly regularly, but they'd hear the gates and the vehicle if he arrived while they were here.
The house, at the bottom of the steep descent, was large and expensive. To one side of the patio there was an ornamental pool with a silent fountain and centrally there was a complex glass sculpture which had probably cost a small fortune. From Brackett's point of view the lines of approach were more interesting than the view. He and his temporary allies split up to cover all the ways the house could be reached on foot. He reserved the high ground for himself, and tried to impress on everyone that they needed Ellison relatively undamaged, and while Larabee was more expendable it would be much more convenient to have him alive. He had a rifle that fired tranquilliser darts, and Miller had the hand version he had used earlier. The others were to pin them down, or use some non-fatal means of immobilising them.
He hoped that they'd still remember this if Larabee and Ellison showed signs of fighting back.
Brackett settled in a good vantage point which looked down on the lawns on the inland side of the building, and scanned the area through his field glasses. He could pick out the furtive movements that were Suvarov and al Shenawi making a slow and careful circuit of the house looking for any signs of a forced entry. Apart from those two, nothing and no one seemed to be moving. He knew where his other people were placed, but they were professional enough to be invisible to him.
He watched and waited.
When he saw something, it was so slight at first as to be almost imperceptible, but he was alert to the slightest hint of a movement. In the shadows of the trees and shrubs, where the lawn ran into the beginning of woodland, something more than a shadow shifted. Even through the glasses it was hard to be sure of anything, but there seemed to be a sort of shimmering in the darker parts where the sun didn't quite reach yet; he felt a pulse of anticipation. It would be like Larabee and Ellison to be tracking the men who were supposed to be following them.
He waited until the shadows shifted again and became recognisably human.
No good trying to alert the others. Ellison could hear too well. Instead he readied the rifle. He ought to be able to take one of them out; with any luck it would be Ellison, but anyway, whoever wasn't hit would probably be too stupid to abandon the other.
He took careful aim.
The blur in his sights became a filthy mottled torso.
His finger tightened on the trigger.
Vin was moving through a strange, detached world, where he could see himself taking action and hear all that went on, but none of it was quite real compared to the gnawing, draining fear that they wouldn't be in time.
He knew it wasn't sense to feel like that now. Ezra was right when he said Brackett wouldn't be planning to kill them. Anyway, Jim and Chris weren't easy to take down; if anyone could look after himself, they could. His head told him the situation had to be better than it had been a few hours ago. But his heart thudded with the unbearable memory of how it had felt for those few seconds when he'd first heard that Chris had died in the truck crash. He kept seeing Chris in his imagination now, dead for real because they hadn't got to him in time.
"Not far," Ezra said softly. In the early light, Vin saw he looked pale and tired, his eyes red-rimmed. Blair was even paler, a ghost under the shadows of his untidy hair. None of them had eaten, slept or even had a drink since midday the previous day. It didn't matter though, not to him and not to Blair or Ezra, who had backed him all the way. All that mattered was to be in time.
Ezra stopped so sharply that they were all jerked forward. Vin gasped as the belt cut into his bruised ribs, and for a moment the pain blinded him.
"There's a car concealed on the left," Ezra said. "There can only be one group of people who would feel the need to hide their vehicle at this point on the road."
Blair was already out of the car, jogging ahead to look around the next bend. "I can see the estate," he said. "The fence comes up to the road here, and I can see the gates to the drive."
"See t' th' car," Vin said briefly to Ezra, and followed Blair along the road. They had seen from the map that a private road led towards the sea where the stream came out. Now he realised it was actually the drive to this large property. He looked carefully along the fence, and easily found the tell-tale signs of where people had gone over.
"Reckon Brackett's inside," he told Blair. "I'm going in. Wait and tell Ez. If Jim's in there, how far away could he hear us?"
"I don't think he'll be able to use his hearing much," Blair said, his voice sounding strained as he thought about it. "That explosion must really have hurt him. Think what it would do to someone with even normally sensitive hearing."
Vin looked at the fence, which he would usually have found a trivial obstacle, and braced himself for a painful effort.
"Ezra's coming," Blair said quickly. "I don't think it's such a good idea to split up and... we can give you a hand over."
Vin nodded. Nothing mattered except speed. He let them boost him up and smothered any sound of pain as he landed on the other side. Ezra and Blair followed him quietly, to blend into what cover there was.
Vin led them obliquely down as soon as he saw the house. The stream ran towards it, decorative here, and then on to the sea. Surely Jim and Chris would make for the building in the hope of getting help or getting in contact with Cascade PD.
He saw them at the same time as Blair's urgent whisper. Two men, moving cautiously, close to the house, checking the patio doors. He didn't recognise them, but he guessed they had to be the two men who had followed Jim and Chris down through the gorge. They hadn't found them yet, then. They were obviously checking to see if anyone could have got into the house, which he now saw was closed up and empty.
Had Jim and Chris not got here yet, or had they diverged from the gorge somewhere way back?
Ezra's fingers bit into his arm with a sudden sharp grip. He turned and Ezra gestured to the far side of the huge lawn. "I thought I saw something, under the trees," he breathed.
Vin stared, but whatever movement there had been must have stopped. He looked up and around for a better vantage point, and now he saw something unmistakable, something which sent his heart back into thudding overdrive, and brought his own gun into his hand before he had time to think.
The distinctive barrel of a rifle showed at the edge of a bush higher up on the slopeand it was pointing in the direction Ezra had just indicated.
Simultaneous thoughts spilled through his mind. No good shouting a warning. It was too far for normal hearing, and Blair thought Jim wouldn't be picking much up. Besides, it'd give his own position away. No good taking a shot at the rifleman; he was too well covered from them by the bush. He needed something to startle everyone and send out a warning no one could miss.
Even while he was thinking, he'd been taking aim.
He fired, and the glass sculpture on the patio burst loudly and destructively into a thousand fragments, and the stillness of the estate shattered into activity.
The two men by the house bolted for cover. Someone else showed briefly, by the dock that ran out into the sea a short distance behind the house. The rifle swung vaguely in Vin's direction, failed to find him and swung back towards the trees.
Then there was a strange flare in the shadows under the branches, and he stared in bewilderment at a trail of light which was just visible across the sky. It ended before he'd had time to realise what it was, terminating in an explosion down near the house where the men had taken cover. Someone there screamed, a sound hastily cut off. A second missilea rocket?followed the first, and this time both the men burst from cover, only to swerve wildly from a third which exploded almost on top of them. One man went rolling over and over, beating at his clothes and finally rolling himself into the fishpond.
"Now that," Ezra whispered with satisfaction, his breath tickling Vin's ear, "has all the hallmarks of Chris in an explosive mood. it's evidently his day for blowing things up."
"It'll take them a long time to do any damage as expensive as Vin just did," Blair said, still looking in awe at the splintered remains of what had once been a work of art. "That glass sculpture must have cost thousands of dollars."
"At a conservative estimate," Ezra agreed. "But I wouldn't underestimate Chris or your partner. They've already demolished a house, so they are some way ahead."
Vin realised there must be more people below he couldn't seeat any rate, the rockets seemed to be carefully aimed in other directions besides at the men on the patio.
"Blair, you stay here and call in that back up now," he ordered. "Ez, c'n you get around to th' sea without being seen?" He knew Ezra would also have marked the man by the dock. "I'm goin' after that bastard with the rifle."
Ezra was gone almost before he finished speaking. Blair was dialling, with his eyes fixed not on the phone but on the fringe of woodland where they knew Jim and Chris must be. Vin pushed Botting's gun towards Blair, gave him a quick pat on the back and turned to where he'd seen the rifleman. At last the impelling urgency which had been building in him for hours looked like finding an outlet.
"What the hell are they playing at?" Simon Banks demanded, as he came to the second wrecked car holding a prisoner expertlynot to say ruthlesslytied up by Tanner and Standish. He exonerated Blair from that at least. Blair would have worried about cutting off their circulation, although the other two had in fact judged it exactly right. This one, like Botting, was immobilised and in some pain, but in no danger of lasting harm.
He was also, like Botting, complaining about being threatened at knife point by vigilantes. Luckily this one didn't seem to know that the man with the knife was the agent of a federal organisation. Botting of course had been well aware of this. He'd used it to persuade Simon to forget the CIA had first claim on him and to give him the protection of custody by the PD.
"When do Sanchez and Wilmington get here?" Simon added irritably. "Maybe they have some control over them. I'm damned if I'm letting this go on."
"Tanner did come to you yesterday morning," Joel pointed out mildly.
"I know. I know. And I'm cutting him some slack because I didn't give him a hearing. But that's no excuse for not calling us in when they found these two wrecks."
Henri was looking with interest at the crushed car, and evidently adding it to the wrecked van and the sad remains of the house. "One thing, Captain, Jim's left you quite a trail to follow."
That didn't comfort Simon. he couldn't help wondering what Jim was going to demolish next. Hopefully not himself.
"Where did Ellison and Larabee go?" he demanded of the man he'd just dragged from the trunk of the wrecked car.
The man shrugged and said he wanted a lawyer.
Simon slammed his fist on the roof of the car in frustration. Tanner's methods must have worked on the man, but he couldn't use those. He needed to knownowwhere Jim and Chris Larabee had gone, and he'd bet that would lead him to the others as well.
His cell phone rang. He answered it irritably; he'd had seven calls in the last half hour, and the most recent had been from a CIA liaison with the unwelcome newsconfirmed by Bottingthat Miller was in this business with Brackett and that the CIA wanted to be kept fully informed. He had a feeling they hadn't believed him when he said he had no idea where Brackett, Ellison or anyone else was.
He almost jumped. It wasn't the CIA. It was Blair at last. Blair demanding squads of cars to be sent instantly to some ill-defined location.
"Slow down, Sandburg," he ordered. "Where are you and what's happening?"
"We're in the grounds of some tycoon's holiday property, or that's what it looks like, right on the coast, a bit south of that house that Jim blew up. Are you there?"
"I'm collecting prisoners from car wrecks," Simon said pointedly.
"You're at the gorge? Great! You only need to look on the map to where the stream comes out and you can see where I mean. Everyone's here, at least we think so. I can't actually see Jim or Chris but someone's firing rockets at Brackett's people. Vin and Ezra have gone to take Brackett and Miller and the others from behind while they're distracted."
Simon had gestured to Joel to spread out a map while Blair was talking. There was only one estate it could be. He vaguely knew it. Owned by a short-tempered retired businessman, who was acquainted with both the police chief and the mayor. he complained regularly when he was in Cascade about every aspect of public life, including the standards of policing.
"What do you mean rockets?" he asked Blair, getting into the car with a hasty aside to Henri and Joel to call back-up to the house.
"I think they might be fireworks," Blair said. "Mega fireworks. Anyway, they're effective. They've really pinned Brackett's men down. Whoa. One just went off course a bit and blasted into a window. It's set off some sort of alarm. Simon! I can see Jim... and Chris. they're coming out into the open now. I have to go down!"
"Stay put!" Simon bellowed. Joel, already speeding towards the coast, put his foot down a little bit harder. "Sandburg! Can you hear me? Damn! Joel, you'd better get us there before anyone gets killedand before Ellison does so much damage it blows a hole in our pension fund!"
Ezra looked with satisfaction at the prone form stretched out at his feet. Who the man was, he had no idea, but he wasn't Jim or Chris and gardeners were not usually armed, so it had seemed advisable to remove him from the fight. He'd hit him hard enough to make tying him up an unnecessary waste of time. He looked round quickly now, assessing the situation.
One man lay groaning beside the fish pond. Whoever he was, he seemed to be out of the fight. Another made a sudden bolt for the driveway to try to escape, as all the house alarms started to go off. This one made it about half way up the slope before Vin appeared and hurtled into him. Ezra winced. He hoped Vin really was right about his ribs only being bruised, not broken. Vin got up and the man stayed down, so Ezra aborted his instinctive move to Vin's assistance. That was three out of action. How many men could Brackett have?
Vin came at a staggering run down the drive towards him, waving at something. Ezra moved to catch him and to look.
Coming across the lawn, at a run no steadier than Vin's, were two figures who looked like throwbacks to a more savage age. Bloodstained, half-naked, their skin somehow blackened in camouflaging patches, Chris Larabee and Jim Ellison didn't seem to be looking for rescue so much as to finish the fight.
"Brackett and Miller are getting away!" Chris yelled, pointing towards the sea.
"Nice t' see you too," Vin muttered, finally coming to a halt by bumping into Ezra. They both spun round, hearing the man by the fish pond making a last effort. He got to his feet, aiming his gun shakily at Chris who was ahead. Before either Vin or Ezra could do anything they realised Jim had acquired a bow from somewhere. He had already paused in his run when the man moved, and now he dropped to one knee to steady himself and loosed the arrow. It took the man in the shoulder, and with a high-pitched scream he dropped and stayed down.
"C'mon," Vin said, "Let's get t' th' dock afore they hog all th'fun."
There were four men on the dock, and they were all firing. Jim and Chris skidded into cover on one side of the house, and Vin and Ezra dropped behind some large pots holding bay trees. Another arrow clipped one of the men, slowing him down. Ezra fired and saw the man drop, clutching his leg.
"There's a boat!" Vin said suddenly. "They're trying t' get away in a boat."
He broke cover, swerving and ducking, followed by Jim and Chris. Ezra laid down covering fire then followed, as Vin reached the man sprawled on the dock and kicked his gun awaythough the man showed no inclination to carry on the fight. Jim snatched the gun up and fired at the two men dropping into the boat. Vin was reloading, and Ezra needed to. Before that though, he wanted to know why there were only two men. There had been three. He stooped to check no one was clinging on underneath the dock to fire at them, found it empty and straightened up. There was a wild yell from Chris, who hurled a large, smoking cylinder into the boat as it began to pull away.
Blair, jumping onto the dock to join them, paused in his dash to Jim's side. "That's a firework? It looks more like a bomb!"
The men in the boat must have thought so too. As the missile curved down on them they both jumped out. The firework landed in the boatwhich, impelled by the force of their jump, spun round through one hundred and eighty degrees and headed straight back under the dock.
"Look out!" Ezra shouted, but entirely too late.
The boat hadn't been very far out and it came back fast. Before they'd properly begun their dash along the walkway back to land it hit a stanchion, the firework went offvery like a small bombthe boat's tank exploded and a large section of the dock blew up into the air just behind them.
Dazed and horrified, Ezra saw Jim Ellison go head over heels backwards into the water and burning debris, and Blair jump after him without a moment's pause.
Vin had almost gone over as well, but Chris had managed to catch him as he fell and was holding him with difficulty; both of them were sprawled over the broken edge of the dock. Ezra moved hastily to help them, and was startled when Chris glanced round, froze and said sharply, "Ezrastand still and don't look down!"
Knee-jerk obedience was one of those qualities Ezra had never really cultivated. He could manage it in the middle of action, but the action was over and this order seemed by any standards bizarre. Whyever not, was the thought that came into his mind.
His eyes had been fixed on Vin and Chris but he looked down now.
He really wished he hadn't.
Sticking out from the top of his leg, with a nasty stain spreading round it and ruining his pants, was what looked like a large stake. He hadn't even felt the pain until he saw it, but it rushed in now.
He found himself sitting down quite suddenly, and all the noise around him, even Chris's voice, was drowned by the roaring in his ears.
"Impaled," he thought, staring with horrible fascination at the piece of wood. "Good Lord, I've been impaled."
Simon Banks heard the explosion and saw rising smoke as he arrived at the large gates of the estate.
"Get these open!" he snapped to the two uniformed men who had just beaten him to the place. "Don't worry about how you do it."
He could hear more cars in the distance. His own men were on the way, the rest of team 7 were heading here directly from the airport, and he'd reluctantly informed the CIA. There ought to be more than enough manpower to deal with Brackettif everything wasn't already over.
He could see a body sprawled at the top of the driveway. He was sure he'd heard shouting just before the explosion.
Everything was ominously quiet now.
Jim was blind and deaf, and acid raked his skin. He flailed wildly against it, and some sort of recollection returned. Sea. He was in the sea. It was the salt which burned and corroded every graze on his skin, the seawater which pressed him down and threatened to fill his lungs.
He broke the surface and gasped painfully for air. He tried to find dials, to find anything other than painful confusion. Pieces of wood bumped against him. He tried again to see, and was blinded by the light on the water. He could hear nothing at all except a jangling, endless ringing.
Coughing and spluttering, he foundered under it all. But before he could sink again, a hand caught him under the chin. It was a warm hand, and where it touched him the sea's burn faded. He gasped another lungful of air and managed to let himself float, supported by the hold.
Slowly, through that painful ringing in his ears, another sound became audible, a welcome sound that drove the chaos back a little.
"Okay, Jim, you're doing great. Just relax, we're not far from the shore. I bet the dials are all haywire right? They're not designed to handle two explosions in a few hours. It'll pass though. You just hang in there, man. We're okay, we'll be touching the bottom soon."
Survival instincts kicking in, Jim began to get a grip. He let his feet drop, and found that he could already just touch solid ground. He could take some of his own weight now. Blair had done enough.
Some of the scrambled pieces of his mind fell back into place. He'd been amazed and relieved to see Blair come running along the dock just before Chris hurled that damned Chinese firework at the boat. What happened after that he didn't know, but Blair was here in the water with him, unharmed and sounding as if his only worry was Jim.
"I'm okay, Chief," he managed, coughing out a mouthful of water. "I can't hear too well but I'm all right."
He'd found his footing properly now, and they stumbled out onto the small beach. Blair brushed aside the draggled hair which was falling over his face, and looked at Jim with a mixture of concern and disbelief. "Oh man, we have got to get you to the hospital, Jim."
"It's superficial," Jim said. The charcoal had mostly come off in the water, and some old cuts were seeping a bit of fresh blood. Maybe some new ones toosome was running down the side of his face into his mouth. But nothing was broken and he wasn't concussed, and he wasn't Brackett's prisoner either.
"Did Chris get those bastards?"
"I've no idea. They jumped out of the boat when they saw that thing coming. He got the rest of us, though!"
Jim flopped down on the sand. He remembered now. The boat had come hurtling back towards them and the world had blown up. He just about recalled a glimpse of Blair's horrified alarm.
"You jumped in after me," he said, realising. "Thanks."
"Hey, how often do I get to be the one to the rescue? I guess you'd normally just pull yourself out, but I thought with all the stuff in the last twenty four hours your senses might be playing up."
"They were. They're not so bad now you're here."
Blair, squatting there dripping, intent on Jim, brightened as if he'd been given some major award. Jim went on hastily, "How did you get here, anyway? Brackett said he had someone with a gun trained on you at Rainier. He gloated over the prospect of you watching his piece on the news."
"I never saw it at all," Blair said. "I think he must have lied about the gun, too, because I was in the library almost all day. I lost track of the time. I found this really cool piece of Roman history about the Germanic tribes, and it was describing a sentinel, definitely, but my Latin's a bit rusty so it was quite a while..."
"So how did you get here in the nick of time?"
Blair grinned. "It was mostly Vin. He picked me up at Rainier and told me the story backwards, so I knew you were alive before I knew you might not have been, if you see what I mean."
Jim did. He owed Vin.
"Vin and Ezra had already decided to follow up some girl witness from the news, and then, well, you left us one hell of a trail to follow. Must be a real insurance risk messing with you, man. Houses, vehicles, private estates." He paused. "I was just kind of worried what you might have done to yourself while you were wrecking cars and so on."
Jim used him as a prop to get to his feet, and then kept his arm around Blair's shoulders. "I was kind of worried about you, too, Chief."
He realised the ringing in his ears really had muted, and the noise he was now hearing was the sirens of police cars coming down the drive. "Looks like Simon got here just in time to do the clearing up."
Blair stepped slightly back, partly supporting him, partly avoiding catching the eye of Simon Banks who had jumped hastily from his car and was staring, stunned, around the scene of devastation.
"Actually, that's something else I was worried about," Blair said uneasily. "We didn't exactly put Simon in the picture until the last minute, and then he told me to stay put. Though I don't think he knows I heard."
Jim grinned. "So we go with "Captain, Sandburg just saved my neck" as my opening remark, do we?"
"It might save mine, but I'm not sure about Vin and Ezra. They had to cut some corners to persuade Brackett's men to tell us where you were. And I think Simon blames them for not keeping him informed, though it was all of us really." He paused, looking over towards Vin and Ezra on the dock and realising they and Chris were all either sitting or down on their knees. "I hope they're okay," he said.
"Probably had enough rushing about," Jim said; he felt that way himself. "Anyway, we'll go and take a look. Give me a hand." He wasn't going to get very far in any direction without some help, and Blair was a deceptively sturdy support. "If nothing else, we might as well present Simon with a united front."
Chris held firmly onto Vin with his good arm, and shouted at Ezra, "Close your eyes!"
It was the only thing he could think of until he had Vin safely back up on the slats of the dock. Whatever damage the wood had done, looking at it was clearly making Ezra feel worse.
To his amazement, Ezra actually obeyed. Chris turned his attention back to Vin. When he and Jim had finally had the chance to go after Brackett and Miller he'd been startled and spurred on by the sight Vin and Ezra joining the fight. Now he was barely able to keep himself from falling flat on his face as the adrenaline wore off, but he was still gladdened by the sight of them. He made a final effort, and Vin slid up and hauled himself back onto the dock gasping. It looked as if it had hurt him as much as it hurt Chris, but even so he wasn't as white as Ezra.
Chris tried to get to his feet to go to the undercover agent and found he actually couldn't do it. The world rocked round him when he tried and his twisted leg refused to cooperate. He crawled the yard or two instead, and realised Vin was doing the same. In spite of everything, it amused him in a warped sort of way, and he caught a weak grin from Vin that suggested he saw the funny side of it as well. Just now, though, Ezra had to come first.
"Don't think it's as bad as it looks," Vin said, while Chris was still trying to blink away the spots that danced in front of his eyes from the effort of the last few minutes. "Keep yer eyes shut while I check, Ez. Y'll just make y'self feel worse looking at it."
He produced a lethal-looking knife, one that was new to Chris, and deftly slit away some of the fabric of the pants.
"What are you doing?" Ezra asked suspiciously. His eyes were still crunched shut, but Chris was relieved to see a trace of colour creeping back into his face.
"Desp'rate situations," Vin said, sounding very relieved now that he could see the injury clearly. Instead of sticking directly into Ezra's leg, the piece of wood was an irregular shape, and had gone in at an angle, embedding itself more shallowly under the skin. Painful, but a lot less serious than it might have been.
"Not much more'n a really big splinter," Vin said. He glanced at Chris and mimed pulling it out. Chris saw that it wasn't going to cause too much bleeding. It wasn't the recommended action, but he thought in this case it was worth doing, especially if they ever wanted Ezra to open his eyes again. He nodded and offered the last remaining piece of black rag from his shirt.
"Hold still now, Ez," Vin said. "Let's get this splinter out."
"Splinter?" Ezra said indignantly. "It was a stake. A huge, barbaric... yeeeow."
His eyes opened abruptly, but Vin had already tossed the piece of wood into the sea and pressed the rag against the wound. The cut would need cleaning up, Chris thought, but at least there wouldn't be more damage if Ezra moved. The undercover agent seemed to be recovering something of his normal verve. He held the piece of black rag with distaste, and started to pay attention to the damage to his pants.
"Did you have to slit these to the knee?" he complained to Vin. "Do you have any idea how much I paid for them?"
"Hell, they were no good with a damn great piece of wood stuck through 'em."
"Ah ha! Not just a splinter then," Ezra said smugly.
"It weren't all stuck in. Damn it, Ez, anyone'd think you was afraid of beingwhat they call it?dusted."
"For that, my ignorant friend, it would have to go through the heart."
"Ah well, y'r safe then."
Chris couldn't imagine a better sound than listening to them score off one another. He'd told Jim that he thought these two might see a flaw in Brackett's story; he hadn't said that they were also the ones he worried most about. He'd left Ez undercover and Vin still not quite back to the balance he'd had before Josephs came along, and neither of them likely to do anything but close themselves off from their friends if something hit them hard. Without flattering himself, he knew that Brackett's story would have hit very hard indeed. But somehow they'd not only handled it, they'd got themselves on the trail fast enough to get here at just the right time and make a big difference to that final fight.
The only downside was that now they both looked nearly as bad as he felt.
Sirens told him that at least they weren't going to have to make any more effort. Just as well, since he was having trouble even staying on his knees. He wondered how Jim was doinghe'd seen him in the water with Blair beside him just before he'd been distracted by the sight of Ezra with a large piece of the dock sticking from his leg, but the sea was empty now of everything but pieces of boat.
"Jim and Blair 're on the beach over there," Vin said. "Didn't see what happened to th' two in th' boat, except they had the sense t' get out before it blew. You want t' work on doing more damage t' the other guys than to us, cowboy."
"Don't see any of the other guys on their feet," Chris said. "Anyway, we'd already done most of the damage, before you got here!"
"Typical ingratitude," Ezra murmured, peering cautiously under the rag and pressing it hastily back on his leg again.
"Told you there'd be no "thanks boys fer rescuin' us", " Vin agreed.
"Complete disregard of our detective endeavours."
"And of taking out two gunmen and a glass thing."
"Might as well have stayed at... home."
Chris caught the very slight hesitation in Ezra's voice, though he wasn't sure what caused it. He'd already heard something in Vin's tone that told him however much Vin could joke now, there had been some fraught hours while they were getting here. They were both white and tired and battered, and he guessed they'd neither eaten nor slept.
He wouldn't usually do this, but...
"Thanks, boys, for rescuing me," he said, quite seriously.
Ezra glanced up at him, taken aback, and for a moment Chris saw the vulnerability that was usually so well hidden. He held out his good hand, gripping Ezra's, trying to let him know he didn't always have to be wary, then turned to reach out to Vin in the full-arm grip that meant more than a whole lot of words.
That was movement too far though. As he turned, the leg he'd twisted earlier spasmed painfully, and he lost his balance completely, tumbling against Vin. Vin, not braced for it, managed to support Chris but went over backwards, so that they both tumbled in a heap against Ezra.
At least it was Ezra's chest not his injured leg, Chris thought. It was just as well. He definitely felt too tired to move.
"We are not going to make a very professional impression on Cascade PD," Ezra pointed out, but he slid his arm round to prop Vin's shoulders up.
"Ain't Cascade PD who's comin'," Vin said cheerfully. He'd somehow managed to hold Chris in such a way that his burned arm was protected and he was quite comfortably supported. "I saw 'em before Chris played skittles with us. Team 7 finally got here."
Chris couldn't turn his head to look, but he heard the feet on the slats, and Buck's familiar voice, the concern in it fading into amusement as he saw that they were none of them seriously hurt. "There's an ambulance on the way... or is this just some new kinda team building? Group hugs after a bust? I could go for that, but we've got to get some women on the team."
"Get out of the way, Buck, let me see them." That was Nathan, worried that his skills were required.
Josiah, instead of words, offered a strong arm to help Chris and Vin sit up, while Nathan started with Ezra.
"Captain Banks is collecting up the bodies," Buck told Chris. "And costing up the damage you and Jim Ellison have done. Seems like the clear-up is a bit more extensive than he expected, so it's left to us to help you get off your asses and along to ER."
"How did you do it all, Chris?" JD sounded as though Chris had notched up a few more hero points. "Captain Banks says that this house looks as though a war's been fought around it, and that the first place you were in was blown up completely. And that you wrecked a couple of cars and caught Botting and some other guy and..."
"Hey, that was us," Vin interrupted. He was still holding Chris, but it was Josiah's supporting arm behind them both that kept them from hitting the deck again. "Jim and Chris just demolished things. The constructive work was me 'n Ez 'n Blair."
"What did I do?" Blair asked, coming up with Jim, who was leaning very heavily on his shoulder. "Whatever it was, don't tell Simon."
The two of them dropped down beside the ATF agents.
"We've come to save you from him," Jim told Vin. "Simon Banks, that is. Blair thinks he may feel he missed all the fun."
"We called him," Vin said slightly defensively. "Wanted t' be sure before we asked fer back up."
"He might not be very happy about Botting and Alldred," Blair said, glancing up the slope. "Not if they make a fuss about the knife business, anyway."
"Did what we had to do t' get here in time."
"And if I was not being poked and prodded, I could be marshalling the arguments to justify our activities," Ezra added.
Chris was going to have to find out what all this was about, but it would do later. He thought it would, anyway.
"You didn't actually kill anyone?" he asked.
"Certainly not; in fact we used the minimum force compatible with achieving our goals."
"Just had t' persuade them t' tell us where you 'n Brackett's lot had gone."
They must have followed all the way, Chris thought. The house, and that side road, and finally here. One hell of a night.
"It'll be okay," Jim said, perhaps thinking the same thing. "Lucky you found out and got here in time. You saved our necks when you shot that statue. I didn't see Brackett until he moved.
"Certainly got our attention," Chris agreed. "Never realised glass could shatter like that."
"Vin was obviously following your destructive example," Ezra agreed. "But since it was probably an extremely expensive, as well as artistic, creation, perhaps we should let Brackett and Miller take the blame for its demise."
The talk turned again to the amount of damage the unfortunate owner of the estate had incurred. Chris let it drift over him. The sun was warm overhead now, and he was even more tired than sore. Josiah had shifted a little so that Chris was propped against him and still leaned against Vin. It was surprising how many of his aches and pains that eased. He let the two of them take his weight and didn't try to stop his eyes drifting shut.
Lee Brackett was wet, tired and angry, but at least he was free. His last-minute decision not to get into the boat with Miller and Ducos had paid off, though he wasn't sure yet whether they'd actually been arrested.
He'd not avoided the boat in the expectation of Larabee's Armageddon manoeuvre, but simply because he didn't trust Ducos. There was no time to discuss it with Miller, and anyway, Miller knew Ducos as well as he did. Maybe he had more leverage with him. Brackett had made his own decision as the others cut the boat's mooring rope, and instead of jumping in with them he'd dropped into the water and swum, well beneath the surface, for the farther edge of the estate.
He'd surfaced once, to see Miller and Ducos apparently succeeding in their escape, and a second time to witness them in the water and the spectacular explosion of the boat. After that he'd concentrated on getting the hell out of the immediate area. He'd heard the sirens as he pulled himself ashore through some undergrowth that ran right down to the water.
Time for a decision. Without knowing the police numbers, or how many of his allies had been taken, he decided that trying to make a getaway on foot was not his best option just now. He doubted they'd have dogs, and anyway, he'd only come a yard or two onshore. There were huge trees planted here. He chose the closest, covered his tracks and climbed way up into the highest branches. He could be found, but he didn't think he would be, unless he made a stupid move. This was a huge estate, and they didn't know where to start looking for him. With any luck, even if the CIA were involved, they'd be too busy with the ones they'd got. Suvarov and Yudin would be quite a catch; Kreiber they'd probably have to throw back; it would be nice to think of someone interrogating Ducos...
He still had the field glasses, and he watched the distant arrival of Simon Banks and his men. It looked a fairly routine cleanup. He could picture where everyone had been when he took to the water. Apart from Miller and Ducos, they'd been casualtieshe'd underestimated Ellison and Larabee; they seemed to find weapons out of thin air. And maybe he'd relied too much on his news story. He'd glimpsed Sandburg on the dock, and he'd heard Larabee shout orders to the other two, so he guessed those were his men. If Helene had been the weak link, she was going to be very sorry.
Two ambulances arrived. He saw paramedics by the fish pond. That would be for al Shenawi. You hand to hand it to Ellison, he was as accurate with a bow as with a gun.
Well, it was over, and he'd lost this round, but at least this time he wasn't heading for some maximum security imprisonment. He'd stay where he was for as long as it took, and unless Banks had a lot more manpower at his disposal than most police captains, it would be possible in the end to get away. He had no intention at all of going near Ellison again for a while. He didn't like losing, but he knew when he had and revenge for the sake of it didn't interest him. Hell, a part of him even wanted to respect those two, though he knew anything but total cynicism was a mug's game.
He settled on his branch to wait it out.
Jim was okay. Simon had to secure the site before he could do more than just reassure himself with a glance, but at least that glance showed him Jim was among the survivors of whatever mini war had been fought here. For some reason Jim was dripping wet, and using Blair as a crutch, but he was on his feet and moving. Simon wasn't so sure about Larabee and his men, but Jim was limping towards them without any sign of alarm. They couldn't be too badly hurt.
That was more than you could say for the men Jim and Chris seemed to have strewn about the grounds. The one in the drive had just been stirring when the police reached him, though he didn't seem to know much about being put under arrest. Ambulances were on their way, for him and for a second unconscious man they'd found between the dock and the house.
Joel came up now to report they'd found yet another casualty by the fishpond, this one with an arrow in him. Had to be Jim's work, Simon thought. You could take the man out of the jungle, but...
He blenched as he saw the disaster area that had once been a patio, and the groaning man trying to refuse the help of the uniformed police. This one looked as if he was Arabic in origin. Botting had said something about Russians and a Frenchman, hadn't he?
"Sir!" A very young uniformed officer came running. "There's another man with an arrow in him down at the edge of the dock, and he says he'll only talk to the CIA."
"Looks like the rest of Team 7 are arriving, Captain," Henri called from further back towards the drive.
"The mayor's calling," someone else shouted. "Wants to know if there's been any damage to the house."
Simon took a deep breath. "Brown, send the Denver boys down to the dock to check on Jim and the others, then tell the guy at the dock..."
"He's a Russian."
"The Russian at the dock that there'll be an ambulance here for him in a minute, but if he'd rather wait for the CIA than get treatment I won't force him into it. Joel, you get back to the Mayor, and whatever else you do, put him off coming here."
He looked again at the mess in front of him. Someone was going to be very unhappy about this. One of the windows had been blown in, the patio doors had come open, there were blast marks on the outside walls and a blackened mess in the centre of the room inside. The patio was a wreck of destroyed plants and for some reason was covered in thousands of pieces of shattered glass.
At least the alarms had finally gone quiet.
The men who'd been checking the house returned to him, and others were reporting in from the grounds. There was no sign of Brackett or Miller. Simon decided that was as good a reason as any for heading straight down to Jim. There was no hint of any remaining threat, the immediate casualties were being dealt with, and he could see the first ambulance arriving. Time to find out what the hell had been going on here, and to see for himself that Jim was okay. Even now, his mind kept reminding him of the picture from yesterday's news; he needed to see the live and irritating version of his detective.
There was quite a crowd on the dock by now, and Team 7 weren't a quiet bunch, but it still surprised Simon that Jim didn't hearor sense in any other waythat he was coming. It was Blair who looked up and noticed him, just as he came to a halt staring at the hole blasted in the dock, and the wood and oil on the water.
Blair looked as if he had the night's non-communication on his conscience. Simon hadn't time for more than brief satisfaction at this, though, because he was too busy trying not to be shocked at the sight of Jim's bare, battered torso. Had Brackett been torturing them?
Jim caught his look and managed a rather tired grin. "It's superficial, Simon. We had rather a busy night."
"I noticed. I see you've been busy here, too."
"We had to improvise a bit. Brackett brought some friends along."
"We've picked up four of them. No sign of Brackett and Miller though. How many more do you think there might be?"
"Just Brackett, Miller and a Frenchman." Chris Larabee answered that without opening his eyes. He looked even worse than Jim, since he was filthy as well as cut and bruised. "Two of them tried to get away in a boat. Anyone see what happened to them after they jumped out?"
"What happened to the boat?" Simon asked, then realised it had to be a stupid question, especially given the oil glistening below him. "No, never mind. We're still looking for three men, then, including Brackett and Miller."
"Brackett dropped into the water when the others got into the boat," Ezra Standish said. He was fidgeting ungratefully under the attentions of their medic, but like the others, he seemed to have escaped serious harm. "I think the Frenchman may have swum ashore beyond the beach where Detective Ellison landedwhere the small headland juts out."
Simon called Joel and had some men despatched to search that area more closely. Joel gave him the unwelcome news that the CIA had arrived and the Mayor was being persistent.
Tanner, who'd looked almost harmless when Simon arrivedlike Dunne, he sometimes gave the impression Larabee must have recruited him from kindergartensat up now, looking suddenly alert and about ten lethal years older.
"You got no line on Miller and Brackett?"
"No sign of them when we got here," Simon said. He could have added that maybe if they'd been called in a bit sooner, they'd have picked them up, but he didn't. After all, maybe if they'd arrived in force too soon, they would have panicked Brackett into a more deadly use of his force. Anyway, he knew where and how he'd forfeited Tanner's trust.
"I think they'd had enough," Blair chipped in. "They were trying to escape, not keep on fighting. You should have seen Jim and Chris, Simon. It was kind of Rambo on the fourth of July."
Vin tried to get to his feet, causing a concerted movement of prevention from the able-bodied half of Team 7, and a single growl from Larabee that had more effect.
"If Brackett 'n Miller 're loose, I ain't sitting on my backside waitin' fer Nate t' get around t' me," Vin protested.
"If they're anywhere near here, we'll get them," Simon said. He had quantities of men already securing the grounds, and from what Joel said, the CIA had turned up in numbers as well. None of the other men in front of him seemed too concerned about a remaining threat from Brackett, but Vin was now as edgy and alert as if he was expecting sniper fire any minute.
Simon had been wrong when he didn't listen to him the day before. He didn't believe he was wrong now in thinking Brackett and Miller would cut their losses and make their personal safety a priority, but he called Joel again anyway, and got some extra uniformed men sent down to put protection around the group on the dock.
"They won't shoot at us," Jim said.
"Nothing to gain from it," Chris agreed. One of his arms looked angrily red and blistered, but the other was slung round Vin's shoulders, keeping him where he was.
"Y' don't know what they might do," Vin said, frustrated. "Let me take a look. There'll be tracks if they come ashore."
He pulled away from Chris and tried to get to his feet. Chris's glare warned his team against helping, and Jim stopped Blair's instinctive move. Vin wobbled, got his balance, wavered again and sat down hard.
"Let Cascade PD do their job," Chris said, somewhere between reassurance and an order.
Simon could see the real fear in the kid, fear that even now Jim and Chris were not safe.
He squatted down, so he could look Vin in the eyes. "I know I didn't listen to you yesterday when you told me Jim and Chris weren't in that wreck, and I'm sorry. I'm also not going to let anything happen to them now, okay?"
Vin flushed slightly. "Weren't meant as a criticism. Just don't seem sense t'take any risks now we got them back."
"Brackett wanted me to do a specific job for him," Jim said. "Believe me, I'm as keen as anyone else to see him picked up, but I don't think he's any interest in revenge. He might be a danger again, but not today."
"He didn't want us dead," Chris agreed. "If anything, he was trying to keep us alive when his foreign friends were getting trigger happy. I heard him yelling at the Frenchman that he'd shoot him if he hit us anywhere vital."
"We've got Botting, Alldred, and four others," Simon said. "We should be able to get enough from some of themBotting especiallyto make life difficult for Brackett and Miller in the near future." He looked up at a sudden flurry of activity in the drive. The first ambulances had been loading up the more seriously injured men, and at first he thought it was just the paramedics, but then he realised that pulling past to the front of the house was a vehicle that was neither a squad car nor anything from the emergency services. It was large, sleek limousine.
"Damn!" he said.
Joel was already hurrying to meet the two men who were getting out of the rear seat. The young uniformed officer, who'd been running messages before, came sprinting down to Simon now.
"I can see. The Mayor's arrived."
"With the owner of the house, sir."
Jim said bracinglyand without a trace of regret"It's only surface damage."
"Opportunity for a quality makeover," Blair agreed loyally.
"Tell him the ATF are going to investigate where he got those fireworks from," Larabee offered.
Simon decided that, bad as the coming discussion with the Mayor and his friend was going to be, it would be infinitely worse with contributions from Jim or Chris.
"Mr Jackson, how would you feel about these men going to ER in squad cars rather than waiting for an ambulance?" he asked.
Nathan Jackson managed not to grin, but he could evidently see where Simon was coming from. "It wouldn't be a problem," he said helpfully. "They're none of them seriously hurt. Jim and Chris look worse than they are. Apart from needing some stitches and treatment for Chris's arm, most of what's wrong with them is exhaustion and a bit of dehydration. Vin needs his ribs checking out, but the rest's just bad bruising. I doubt they'll even keep Ezra in."
"I doubt it too," Ezra said firmly. "In fact, the main prescription I need is coffee and a chance to get some sleep."
"Goes for all of them," Nathan told Simon.
The young officer went off, still at a run, to send the cars down, and Simon turned reluctantly towards the house. He couldn't leave Joel to handle this one. Maybe the CIA would like to share the flak. After all, if they hadn't lost Miller and let him break Brackett out, you could argue none of this would have happened.
Well before he got there, he heard a man, a large, prosperous, expensively-dressed man, who was obviously the owner of the house, expressing his horror at the sight in front of him. He seemed to be particularly lamenting the destruction of some work of art that had been on the patio. Simon looked surreptitiously for its remains, but he couldn't see anything. All there was on the patio was dirt, debris and an amazing amount of glass.
"Look, I just want out of here!"
Jim had had enough. Blair could see that. He sympathised. But he couldn't wave a magic wand and get them out of ER any more quickly. It was already clear that no one was going to suggest keeping Jim in overnight. It would have to be a very masochistic medic even to think of it. Release was coming, and all Jim had to do was be patient.
Blair was eager to get home himself, of course. He knew that the only thing really bothering Jim was the lingering effects on his senses of the various crashes and explosions he and Chris had engineered, and that would settle much more readily in the familiar surroundings of the loft, with Blair more freely able to talk him through the exercises that would help. Blair was prepared to be grateful, though, for the thorough and caring ministrations of the emergency room staff.
It was proving almost impossible to sell either patience or gratitude to Jim.
Blair had tried to tell Jim, tactfully, several times, that Nathan couldn't wave a magic wand either. If he could, he would definitely have done so by now. The grumbles Blair was getting from Jim, Nathan was getting four times over. Larabee was taciturn, Ezra eloquent, and Vin shyly polite around the nurses, but they'd all made it as clear as Jim that they'd like to be out of here an hour or two ago.
Nathan had done his best. No one was going to be staying in. Mild dehydration in everyone was being treated with bottled water not a drip. He'd promised to keep an eye on stitches, bandages and any reactions to antibiotics or painkillers for all four of them, which was a practical possibility as Jim had offered to turn the loft into a sort of MASH unit.
Sometimes Jim still surprised Blair.
"I'm going straight upstairs to sleep as soon as I've had some food and a cup of coffee, and you can shoot anyone who comes further than the bottom step of the stairs."
And then again, of course, sometimes he didn't.
Blair glanced down the hallway to the two uniformed policemen who were on duty, providing their protection. Were they going to follow on to the loft too? He found it hard to believe there was any real danger now. More to the point, Jim and Chris didn't believe it. Only Vin still seemed uneasy. Hunch or delayed reaction?
The police were standing to attention now, more or less. All that associating with detectives made Blair deduceaccuratelythat Simon Banks must be on his way in. Simon had called about half an hour before to say he would come and update them if they hadn't escaped by then.
Blair didn't think that his first words were very helpful.
"Still here, Jim?"
Jim grimaced. "Some blood test or something. I've offered to sign anything they like to guarantee I won't sue if they miss some fancy complication, but it didn't help. Did you get Brackett or Miller?"
"Not yet. Joel and our boys are still out at the estate, with a few of the CIA, but to be honest I doubt whether we're really going to get them."
"Vin won't be happy," Blair said.
"He saw that news story," Jim said, with unexpected insight. "I spent half the night worrying about you seeing it, Chief."
Startled, warmed, Blair forgot the last three hours of listening to Jim complain.
"How about the Mayor?" Jim asked, perhaps getting his own back on Simon for the 'Still here?'.
"He did make some crack about you and Larabee having trained in demolitions, but he seems impressed by the arrest rate in your vicinity. Mr Gombeenhe owns the housewasn't so philosophical though. He wants to sue the French or Russian governments for some glass sculpture that must have got hit in the crossfire."
Blair looked at the floor. Jim stared with interest at the ceiling.
"I don't want to know," Simon said hastily. "Anyway, Jim, I can see Nathan Jackson, and since he's actually got a smile on his faceand I can guess what it's been like being stuck in here with the four of youI'd say you've got your release papers."
Nathan looked as relieved as Blair felt, though he firmly squashed Jim's immediate notion of calling ahead so pizzas could be delivered as they arrived. "You all need something simple and easily digestible," he said, perhaps not realising he was talking to a man whose stomach had been toughened on Wonderburger.
"I'm not eating oatmeal," Jim said suspiciously.
"Don't worry," Simon said. "I'll see to it. I've got a key to the loft. Healthy, nourishing, tasty food ready on your arrival. I know just where to get it. In fact, I'll get on to the matter right away."
"It'll only be an hour at most before we're there," Nathan warned, "and I don't think take-out's a good idea."
"You could get rid of those two," Jim put in, nodding towards the men still patiently guarding the hallway. "Brackett's not going to be coming back for more."
"We'll put a car outside the loft," Simon said. "Better safe than sorry, Jim. Unlike Sandburg, I did see yesterday's news, and I don't want to repeat that experience for a long, long time."
The nurse who had just come in and caught the end of that comment was perhaps less tactful than she might have been. "That's just what we've all been saying. Doctor Marks has finally cleared you to go, Detective Ellison. We do hope you'll stay out of trouble for a while."
Jim could be charming, once he'd got his own way. "Thank you. I know I'm not the best patient, but I do appreciate all you've done."
Blair felt the sort of approval he imagined parents felt when their offspring said 'thank you for the nice party' without being prompted.
Simon shook his head as the nurse was visibly won over. "If it was me," he said, when she'd gone again, "I'd stick you in restraints as soon as you came in the door."
"That wouldn't do anything about the complaining," Nathan said with feeling. "Well, I'll go and give Chris the good news. Vin and Ezra already know. Shall I call you when we're on the way."
Simon shook his head. "I'll be at the loft. I've just got a quick stop to make on the way there."
"He's up to something," Jim said, but tolerantly. The prospect of escape was mellowing him. "Never mind. We're out of here. Where are my shoes."
"Well hey, stud. You bullied those nurses into kicking you out already?"
Buck and JD had timed it well, Josiah thought, choosing to forget that 'envy' was right up there on the deadly sin list. They'd missed the hours of listening to Ezra's campaign speeches on unnecessarily prolonged hospital visits; they'd missed the humanitarian mission of preventing Chris from terrorising the medical staffthough to be fair, Josiah thought the glare was instinctive rather than intentional; above all they'd missed the excitement of Vin's certainty that the whole stay in ER was an open invitation to unidentified hostiles to come and have another go at Chris and Jim.
"I thought they'd keep you in for sure," JD said. "You looked awful. Why are you all standing around here in the hallway, anyway?"
"Nathan's just bringing back some chocolates for the nurses," Blair said.
"You can't beat chocolate," Buck approved. "Gives you a sweet place in a lady's memory."
Josiah could have told him it wouldn't need chocolate to fix them in anyone's memory. Between Ezra's vocabulary, Chris's air of menace and Vin's polite but urgent demands for body searches on every orderly who passed along the hallway, he thought Cascade General would have no difficulty recalling them. Besides, he'd noticed a certain susceptibility to Ezra's dimples and Vin's shy drawl. One of the lady doctors had even commented to a colleague that if Mr Larabee ever smiled, she thought he'd be devastating. No, the chocolates were a nice gesture, but hardly necessary.
"You checked th' cars?" Vin asked the uniformed policemen, who looked startled.
"Checked them? Captain Banks didn't say..."
"Vin, they've just arrived and the drivers have been in them all the time," Josiah told him.
"Not in ours," JD said. "Buck just left it outside."
"Next to the squad cars," Buck said. "Hell, Vin, it ain't the bad guys who've been blowing things up anyway. Those drivers'd probably like Jim and Chris checked before they get in."
He was distracted by Nathan's hasty arrival.
"I thought you'd all be getting into the cars, not blocking the hallway," Nathan said, harassed. "You know, there's some folks could find you downright intimidating. Ezra, where's your crutches?"
"You go find them, Nathan," Buck said, appropriating one of the boxes of chocolate. "You're no hand at presenting gifts to a girl anyway. There's some visions of loveliness down there and..."
"That little brunette's mine," Blair said hastily. "She's been an angel of mercy all afternoon."
"To you, maybe," Jim muttered. "She brought you coffee; all she came near me with was damn great needles."
"JD, you go check your car, you know the routine," Vin said, ignoring everything else.
Josiah glanced at Chris, who shook his head and mouthed 'later'. Chris was the only person with a chance of convincing Vin there was no imminent threat, and he obviously wasn't up to it just now. He was clean and patched up, but that just showed off the damage better. He looked as if whatever wasn't smarting was throbbing or aching. Josiah slid an unobtrusively supportive hand under his elbow and took charge.
By the time Nathan was back with Ezra's 'accidentally' mislaid crutches, Josiah had got everyone on the move. Buck and Blair had elected themselves to do the honours with the gifts. Josiah stayed with Chris, and let JD help Vin, whose leg was stiff where the bruises were coming out nicely. Nathan supervised Ezra's painful progress and kept a tactful eye on Jim. Thanks to Simon, they'd got two squad cars waiting, as well as Ezra's hired one which Buck and JD had brought over.
Since JD had begun earnestly checking the chassis for any traces of interference, Josiah decided he could take Chris and Vin. He helped Chris in. "We'll pick up antibiotics and some more painkillers once we've got you settled at the loft," he told him. "JD, you see Buck takes it slowly. Chris doesn't want that arm jogging."
"I can drive," JD said, looking up from under the car. "Vin, I'm sure this is okay."
Josiah left them to it. He wanted to help Nathan get Ezra comfortable on the back seat of the next car. Nathan put the crutches in across Ezra's lap; he was irritably muttering something about Chris and Jim and crutches when they got in, and as far as Josiah could make out, he was still saying the same things when they arrived at the loft. Chris and Jim seemed to be limping along successfully enough under their own steam though.
The elevator was working; that was one good thing. When they arrived at the loft door, there was an appetising odour of chicken soup and hot bread; that was definitely another. The continuing litany of groans, complaints, grumbles and cautions, which had never really stopped, was suddenly cut off as everyone smelt it.
Thank you, Lord!
When he got in the loft, he saw how Simon had achieved this in such a short time. Mindful of Nathan's strictures he hadn't gone for take-out food; instead he'd fetched take-out cooks. Busily stirring in the kitchen, aided by Jodie Reilly standing on a chair, was Charlotte Duncan.
"Sit down all of you," she said. "The soup's ready. Captain Banks, that young man needs something to prop his leg on. WHAT are you doing?"
This last remark was addressed to Buck, who was reaching his hand to the basket of warm rolls.
Buck whipped it back, and wisely didn't answer.
"Greedy guts," Jodie commented just audibly. "Gonna serve you last."
Josiah thought there wasn't much doubt about who she would serve first, and once they'd all been seated somewhere he saw he was right. Very carefully, she carried a tray to Chris and put it on his lap as if he was made of glass. She would have liked to linger, but Miss Duncan didn't hold with lingering while there were people to be served. Jim was next on Jodie's list, and Josiah was surprised and flattered to find himself third. After that he was too busy eating to pay much attention, though he did notice Miss Duncan herself bring some to Ezra and fuss quite kindly over his leg. Sharp woman. She saw past the surface of things.
Vin, who'd limped out onto the balcony, perhaps to keep an eye out for incoming missiles, had his soup in a mug; Buck was served last. Maybe Miss Duncan had shared Jodie's opinion on making the punishment fit the crime.
Jodie gave a last sharp look around, pointed out that JD was slurping, and came to sit on the floor between Chris and Josiah.
"C'n I get you some more?" she saidto Chris only. "I made it. I let Miss Duncan help, though."
"You're a great cook," Chris said, looking less white now he had some food in him. "Some more would be nice. What about everyone else?"
"You 'n Jim and Fancy manhe's going to need some new clothesand Vin first, Miss Duncan says." She fetched a second bowl of soup for Chris and Jim. "Why's Vin out there?"
"He's just a bit worried something else might happen," Josiah said. "It isn't going to, but he still feels worried."
"Want me to get him back in?"
"Yes, please," Chris said. "Don't hurt him."
"I promise," Jodie said solemnly. In about fifteen seconds she had Vin inside and sitting on the couch beside Chris, who moved up thankfully to make room for him.
"Stay there," Jodie said firmly. "I'll bring stuff."
Before Josiah or Chris had caught up with this changed state of affairs, Vin was holding a coffee for Chris and steadying his tray. "Should've known y' couldn't manage with that arm," he said. "J'siah, get a cushion fer it."
Chris, who'd been managing perfectly happily, blinked but allowed himself to be helped. It was a much better option than Vin out on the balcony. Jodie, who'd obviously been economic with the truth to get Vin back inside, piled him up with so many things Chris might need that there was no chance of him moving again. Josiah could only watch with admiration, especially when at the first sign of Vin getting restless she brought him a large chocolate cookie.
"I made these too," she said, then accidentally caught Miss Duncan's eye. "Well, I stirred in the chips and I put them on the trays." She handed cookies outBuck got a burnt oneand came back to her preferred place at Chris's feet.
"Mr Banks says you 'n Jim blew up two houses and a boat and wrecked some cars and caught nearly all the bad guys before he got there," she said, looking up at him with admiration.
"Vin caught some of the bad guys," Chris said fairly.
"With some help from Ez and Blair," Vin added.
Jodie thought about it. After a minute she stood up to whisper to Chris. It was certainly quieter than her normal voice, but a long way from inaudible. "I know you let 'em, to be kind to 'em," she said. "Shall I pr'tend I think they c'd do it on their own?"
"That'd be nice," Chris whispered back.
"Okay." She sat down again, stifled a fit of giggles, and said to Vin with elaborate seriousness, "Which bad guys did you catch?"
"You remember those two men you screamed at, when they were by my car?" Ezra said. Like Chris he seemed revived by soup and coffee, and had decided to join in. "One of them was an unpleasant fellow called Botting."
"With a spotty chin?"
"That's the man."
"We caught him."
"He wasn't very tough," Jodie said. "Did you tie him up? Is that where your tie went?"
"That's extremely perspicacious of you."
"Clever," Josiah said, before she could take offence.
"I am clever," she agreed complacently. "My mom says I'm so sharp I c'd cut myself. I 'spose you could catch that Bottom. Even my brother could. Bet you didn't blow up any houses like Chris."
"No one blows up houses quite like Chris," Ezra agreed solemnly.
Miss Duncan, looking around with approval at the way people were now showing signs of life, had already collected up the dirty dishes, and Simon Banks was washing up.
"Time to go, Jodie," she said.
"I only just started talking," Jodie protested, but she got up obediently.
"I got to go," she explained to Chris. "I had to promise, 'fore she'd bring me. She said I c'd come because I helped pray for you to get safe. Did you pray?" She turned sharply to Josiah with the question.
"I did," he said, truthfully.
"Good. 'n you two?"
Vin and Ezra looked at each other.
"We were extremely busy all night," Ezra said defensively.
"Maybe it weren't exactly in words," Vin said. "Reckon God c'd still hear."
"I 'spect so, but you'd be better doin' it proper like we did."
She saw Miss Duncan waiting by the door and sighed heavily. "I really got to go now," she said. "She don't like bein' kept waiting." A thought brightened her. "I'll send you a get well card. I'm good at cards. I'll put all the explosions on it, and you 'n Jim standing on the bad guys' heads."
She joined Miss Duncan, waved to Chris, and disappeared for all of five seconds.
Josiah had half expected her return, but he hadn't expected her announcement. "There's some girls coming here and they're not properly dressed. One of them's got a snake down her bikini."
Miss Duncan also looked back in, rather flushed. "Mr Wilmington, if these visitors are yours, it is hardly the time or the place."
Buck was far too interested to bother protesting his innocence, though Josiah could see it was Blair who looked guilty. The two of them and JD made it to the door simultaneously. Josiah, Simon and Nathan followed more decorously, with an air of just checking out a potentially problematic situation which probably called for some responsible adults to handle it.
The sight in the hallway was certainly unusual. Both girls were dressedor rather, undressedfor dancing in one of the more lively clubs. The taller one, a well-proportioned Amazon, had a python tastefully arranged down her cleavage.
"Blair!" she said, gesturing expansively and making the python undulate. "I didn't hear from you, so I thought we'd call on our way to work."
"Bet I know what work you do," Jodie said, wriggling out of Miss Duncan's grasp.
"Mr Sandburg," Miss Duncan said with awful formality, making Blair shift nervously backwards. "Are you responsible for the presence of these young women?"
"They can't go in the loft," Jodie said, and added to the girls. "Chris 'n Jim's hurt, and anyway they like nice girls." Another thought seemed to strike her, and she leaned back in to shout to Vin. "They've not got guns. You can see EVERYTHING and there couldn't be one hidden."
"Guns?" the Amazon asked, looking startled.
"Nothing for you to worry about," Buck said reassuringly, "Now if I can..."
Jodie pushed in front of him. "Can I touch your snake? I've never touched one before." She reached up to slide a hand over it. "Oh. He's all warm. I thought he'd be cold and slippy."
Given the snake's prime position, Josiah thought it was hardly surprising it was warmor that Buck now showed a sudden interest in herpetology. JD's eyes were so wide it was hard not to laugh. Jodie reluctantly yielded her place at the front.
"Is she your girlfriend?" she asked Blair. "I bet your mom doesn't know you got a girlfriend with a tattoo on her..."
"Well, it is there. She must want people to know or she'd wear something that covered it up properly."
Buck, murmuring something about it showing most attractively, was already beginning to escort the Amazon towards the elevator.
"I'd better go and make sure he doesn't get into trouble," JD said, dodging Miss Duncan and following with the second girl.
"Don't take the car!" Nathan shouted.
The Amazon had slipped her arm through Buck's. "Plenty of room in ours for a man like you," she said affectionately.
Josiah sighed, Blair regretfully watched them go, and the python twisted its head up and leered back at them all.
"Well!" Miss Duncan said.
"It was a nice snake," Jodie pointed out. "We've never had a snake at 'hobbies' club. It's always hamsters and stuff. You c'd get her to bring it and tell us how to look after it. She'd have to wear clothes though."
"She certainly would. I'm not at all sure she'd be a suitable person to talk to you, but even if I did consider itunder my personal supervision of coursewe don't know how to get in touch with her."
"Blair's got her phone number."
Blair yielded it up without a struggle, wilting under their joint disapproval. "She's a really nice girl," he said weakly.
"And he's the expert," Simon Banks said. He accompanied Miss Duncan down to her car, carrying the things she'd brought to cook with, and Josiah could hear him describing some of Blair's more disastrous dates all the way down.
"That's so unfair," Blair grumbled. "I get the blame and Buck gets a front seat for Lizzy's performance."
"Is she the one you suggested to me for a double date?" Jim asked ominously.
"Hey, I thought the whole jungle look might do something for you. She's really very talented."
He was still justifying himself when Simon came back, carrying a pile of stuff from the basement. "If I were you, Blair, I'd give Miss Duncan a miss for a while. Now where do you want these sleeping bags, Jim?"
"I'll sleep on Jim's floor," Blair said quickly. "Ezra can have my bed."
"The floor's fine for me," Nathan offered.
"Maybe you'd like to come back with me?" Simon asked Josiah. "There's a squad car outside, and if Jackson wants anything he can call."
It was quiet in the loft now. With the departure of Buck, JD and Jodie, the noise level had plummeted and a general, heavy-eyed peace had descended.
Nathan nodded to Josiah. "Go on. I know your old bones don't take to the floor."
"I'll help you get Ezra settled first."
Ezra frowned. "Shall we avoid the use of vocabulary more suited to a baby-sitting assignment?"
It was probably better not to comment on that. Fortunately, sleep was obviously beckoning Ezra, and he was still relatively smug about avoiding Cascade General. Once he was comfortable, he looked good for the next twelve hours. Vin's paranoia had also failed to be proof against exhaustion. Once he was sitting down next to Chris, it had only taken a few minutes of inaction and his eyes had closed. Josiah cautiously removed Chris's empty tray and coffee cup from his lap.
"You wake him, you spend the night on the balcony with him," Chris threatened, but without his usual force.
"See you in the morning," Jim said, heading up to his room. "Think you could pass up on the bedtime chanting tonight, Chief?"
"I told you, it was just that I trod on some tacks I'd dropped," Blair said, rising to it before he caught himself. "Put the earplugs in, Jim. I know a dawn one too."
It really looked as though they could all be safely left until morning. Josiah snatched a last look at his team leadera bit battered, and nearly snoring, but so visibly aliveand followed Simon to the comfort of a game on the box and a real bed.
Pierre Ducos was tired of waiting in the uncomfortable hollow beneath a bush. It had provided his hiding place when he crawled out of the sea, but he had long since grown to hate it as he waited throughout the long afternoon.
His impatient annoyance was directed fairly equally at his colleaguesfools to get themselves captured; at Brackett, whose plan must have been at fault; and at the CIA and Cascade PD, who, though clearly inferior to their French equivalents, had been doing an irritatingly thorough job. Now that it was dark, he was unsure whether they had finally withdrawn or were still securing the perimeter of the estate. Fortunately he wasn't planning to go near the house or the road. He shifted, and a branch poked into his back. How much longer did he have to grovel in this discomfort?
He moved cautiously, wriggling out onto the sandy ground. He was still well-concealed here. He looked around. No lights. No sound of any kind in his vicinity. Even at the house there was no visible hint of a police presence, though he assumed there would be a man on duty somewhere.
Squirming a little further, he cleared most of the bushes and was close onto the open ground above the shore. He'd still be sheltered from anyone inland seeing him when he stood up; he'd be able to watch for lights anywhere in the grounds, out at sea or back where the road lay.
After a final pause to listen he crawled out of the last bit of cover and rose to a crouch.
That was when he realised he'd miscalculated. Everything seemed to happen at once.
"Don't move!" someone ordered.
Lights blazed at him from all directions.
"Hands on your head!" came the voice again from somewhere behind them.
While he blinked, dazed, hands seized him and checked him thoroughly for weapons.
"We've been waiting for you, Ducos."
Everything about the nature of the arrest told him that this wasn't the Cascade PD. He searched his memory for the name of Miller's successor.
"I'm surprised at you, Ducos. I would never have expected you to be involved in such a fiasco."
Indeed. Finesse, subtlety, those were what Ducos thought of as his trademarks. He should never have allowed his curiosity to draw him into this. But then, he had been sadly mistaken in Brackett's abilities. In the circumstances, he owed Brackett nothing...
"You don't want me, Highfield," he said, staring into the glare as if he could see through it. "You want Miller, and Brackett. I would just be an embarrassment."
"I do want Miller and Brackett," Highfield agreed. "Unfortunately, I don't have any prospect of getting them just now, and I'm sure my superiors will be very unhappy if I don't offer them anyone."
"I think we could come to an arrangement," Ducos said. "I can bring Miller and Brackett to you. But it had better be quickly. At the moment they're probably somewhere in this area; who knows how long that will be the case."
The loft was dark when Jim woke. He'd already extended his sight to read the time on the clock before he was awake enough to appreciate the fact that his senses seemed to be settled again. The exercises Blair had persuaded him to go through when he'd rather just have gone to sleep must have helped after all, though it hadn't felt like it at the time. Nothing hurt now, and although his hearing was still muted to normal levels, the irritating background ringing had gone.
2:10, the clock told him. Blair was sound asleep, a slow-breathing cocoon on the floor, with a few strands of wild hair at the top of the sleeping bag the only part of him visible. Jim got carefully, stiffly, from the bed without waking him. Although he was aching and sore in a lot of places, it was his stomach that had awakened him. The soup had been great, but it had been a long time ago, and he had several meals to catch up on. He decided it was worth the painful negotiation of the stairs to raid the fridge.
Once he was safely down, he realised he wasn't the only one awake. Chris moved, peering into what to him was darkness.
"It's okay," Jim whispered, going over to him. "Can I get you anything?"
Jim fetched him a glass of water, Tylenol and a share of the cold meat, bread and cookies. He could tell Chris was hot and sore, the burns making themselves fully felt now. They ate in silence; Vin, stretched on the other couch, was a light sleeper, and Jim knew it was only because he was exhausted that he hadn't already wakened at their movements.
When he was taking the plates back into the kitchen, he saw the light on the phone and realised someone had left a message. He'd switched the phone off before he went to bed, but now he was up he thought he'd check it. He could hear well enough to turn the volume low.
He'd half expected it to be Simon, but it was a voice he didn't immediately recognise.
"Detective Ellison. I hope you get this message in time for it to be some use to you. I shouldn't be calling you, of course, but I've decided to anyway. We've picked up the Frenchman Standish saw swim ashore. We got him early this eveninghe'd been lying low all day. The part that will interest you is that he's sold Brackett and Miller out. He's arranging to meet with themsaying he's managed to obtain transport and can get them safely out if they can reach him. We've kept Cascade PD out of the loop of course. If things go according to plan, Brackett and Miller will show up sometime between midnight and first light. Later rather than sooner, because it's almost midnight now, and Ducos has only just made contact with Brackett on his cell phone. Brackett's careful with his use of it, so plans aren't being made very fast. The meeting should go down on that stretch of coast roadabout a couple of miles after the junction with the private road, heading towards Cascade. I th! ought you might want to be there. Needless to say, you didn't get this from me."
Rigby, Jim thought as the call ended. He'd only spoken to him a couple of times, but he was sure that's who it was. Which meant that the call was genuine, and they needed to get a move on if they wanted to make sure the CIA didn't botch this up. He told Chris in a hasty whisper, knowing that his reaction would be the same. Whatever they felt like physically, they weren't going to miss this. They'd both slept half-dressed, so it was matter of moments to find shoes and jackets. He half expected Chris to wake Vin, but Chris hesitated then left him. Jim had no intention of waking Blair; he didn't want Blair anywhere near Brackett.
It occurred to him Blair and the others would be disconcerted to wake up and find them gone, though. He scrawled a quick note: Don't worry, we're fine, just gone to tie up some loose ends. Back for breakfast. Jim
"How are we going to get there?" Chris asked when they were safely out in the hallway. Jim paused, taken aback. He couldn't believe he had actually forgotten what Brackett had done to his truck.
"Ezra's hire car," Chris said, answering his own question. He went back inside and found the keys. Recognising the car might have been a problem, though Chris had come to the loft in it, but luckily it was parked where they would have expected.
"You'd better drive," Chris said. "I can't use this arm much."
Neither of them was really fit to drive, but Jim thought he could manage. His knee was still painful, but his sight was restored enough to give him plenty of warning of any obstacles even in the dark.
"Okay," he said.
"Ain't okay," stated a voice immediately behind them, startling them. "Ain't neither of y' going anywhere."
Jim missed his heightened hearing. Normally he'd have had some warning that Vin had woken after all and followed them down. Vin hadn't bothered to pick up a jacket. He stood there hunched over slightly, favouring his bruised side, and more angry than Jim had ever seen him.
"What th' hell d'you think th' two of you 're playin' at?"
Jim glanced at Chris, who told Vin hurriedly. It didn't improve Vin's temper.
"You're going after Brackett 'n Miller without even lettin' anyone know? You out of yer minds?"
"We haven't got time for this," Chris said, awkward and obviously not happy with the situation. "It could be going down now. Get in if you want to come."
"Ain't decided about that yet. Might just shoot out th' tires on th' car and let Simon Banks know yer sticking yer necks out fer the fun of it."
Jim winced. He wasn't sure why Chris hadn't wanted Vin along, but it looked like they were going to have to take him, on his terms.
The door behind Vin opened again, and Blair came stumbling out, dishevelled and half awake. Jim knew, looking at him, that he wasn't going to be left behind either. Then again, maybe with someone as tricky as Brackett, Blair was safest exactly where Jim could see him.
"What's going on? Jim, you aren't thinking of driving?"
Jim looked at the keys in his hand. "Of course not. You're going to drive. Tie your laces, get in and I'll tell you where we're going."
Blair was not nearly awake enough to share Vin's fury. "Okay," he agreed, fumbling unsuccessfully with his trainer laces.
"No one's going anywhere 'less we all agree it's my call to decide when we pull out," Vin said shortly.
Jim thought the chance of Vin wanting to pull out of any action once he'd set eyes on Miller or Brackett was minimal. "Fine by me," he said.
"And me," Chris agreed. "Get in; we're worrying the boys in the squad car."
Jim gave the uniforms a wave to show there was no problemespecially no problem they might want to call Simon Banks about. Vin and Chris faced one another in a silent shouting match for a second or two. Blair, who'd finally mastered the laces after several attempts, dropped into the driver's seat. He hadn't even noticed the battle of wills going on next to him. Jim decided to ignore it, and got in beside Blair. The two back doors slammed a moment later; the silence in the back seat was the sort that usually heralded a storm, but it wasn't breaking yet.
"Make for the coast road, Chief," Jim said.
He hoped they wouldn't arrive to find it was all over.
Nathan's cell phone woke him from an unpleasant dream of burning trucks. Disoriented for a moment in the darkness, he couldn't even remember where he was, let alone where his jacket and phone were. He thought everyone else would have been woken up by the time he struggled out of his sleeping bag, but when he turned on one of the lights he found the room empty. Where were Chris and Vin? Come to that, was Ellison even here? He was the one most likely to have woken.
He found his jacket on the hooks by the door, and took out his phone.
"Nathan?" It was JD, far too wide awake for 3:00 in the morning. "Nathan, would you be able to pick me and Buck up from Cascade General? We're okay, really, but we don't have transport. Lizzy brought us but she had to go and..."
"What are you doing at the hospital?" Nathan interrupted, finding his voice.
"We came to have Buck's hand X-rayed. The python sort of crushed it a bit."
"Where was he putting... no, on second thoughts, I really don't want to know. Is he all right?"
"Yes, well, it's sort of broken, but not really badly. The python's still a bit upset with him though, and the nurses weren't keen on it being on the premises, so Lizzy took it home. Can you come and get us?"
"I don't know," Nathan said, wondering. He'd been walking around the room as he talked, and had found Jim's note. "Seems like Jim and Chris have gone off somewhere and taken Vin, and I can't see how they'd have gone except in the car."
"Why not Blair's?"
"It was at Rainier. I'll take a look, JD, and call you back."
He found that the car was missing, and Blair had gone with the other three, and decided this was a good enough reason for calling Simon Banks in the middle of the night. Of all his 'patients' it was Ezra who got the gold star for once. He was still asleep exactly where he ought to be, though he was fidgeting restlessly. Nathan felt his forehead lightly to see if he was feverish. Ezra stirred. "No!" he mumbled. "Not fire, no!"
Nathan's own dreams were fresh enough in his mind for him to know where Ezra's thoughts were, and he decided not to leave him there. "Ez," he said softly. "Come on now, wake up."
Ezra blinked, coughed and tried to sit up.
"Slow," Nathan warned. "That legs going to hurt more now than it did last night."
"It's still last night," Ezra muttered. "Nathan, it's three in the morning. Why are you waking me up?"
"Thought you might sooner be awake than dreaming what it looked like you were dreaming. I'd just been there."
Ezra shuddered, remembering. "Oh. Yes. Thank you. On second thoughts, even the early hours of the morning are preferable. I suspect that the scenario Brackett devised is going to haunt us all for some time to come." He looked at the lighted room beyond his door. And its emptiness. "Do we have a further problem."
"Think we might," Nathan said, handing him Jim's note.
"How extremely informative. Do I gather they've taken Vin as well?"
"Vin and Blair have gone. Note sounds like it was meant for Blair though, so maybe they woke up later. Hard to say, without knowing what's going on."
"If Chris considered departing on some further venture without waking Vin, I imagine the consequences will be severefor Chris."
"Hell to pay," Nathan agreed. "Think they must have gone together though, because there was only the one car."
"Mine!" Ezra said, horrified.
"Have you seen the catastrophic effect those two have on vehicles!"
Nathan couldn't honestly offer any reassurance there. "Nothing we can do 'til Simon Banks gets here."
Ezra was wide awake now, though, and thinking. "For them to depart at such an unearthly hour something must have happened, and the most likely thing is some kind of phone call. I am sure I saw Jim switch to the answering machine last night. Now, they may have been contacted on a cell phone, but if not, the message should still be there."
They'd listened to it once by the time Josiah and Simon arrived. They all four listened to it again.
Simon's rumble of anger spoke for them all. "Of all the stupid, irresponsible, reckless, inconsiderate, dangerous stunts...! When I get hold of Ellison...!"
Nathan could hear that Simon's fear for his friend that was fuelling his anger.
It matched his own.
Chris was aware of the pulse of Vin's anger as tangibly as the throbbing in his arm. He didn't try to say anything. He knew exactly why Vin was angryand was probably hurt, too. Vin hadn't spent the last couple of days fighting to make everyone listen to him, then following desperately along a trail of destruction, only to be left behind while Chris went back into the situation.
Chris hadn't done it casually, though, whatever Vin thought. Not to keep him safe, either. Jim's instinctive reaction had been to keep Blair out of danger, but Chris knew Vin was more than capable of keeping himself safe. It hadn't even been because Vin was bruised and exhausted and needed the sleep. But he had made the decision to leave him behind.
His problem with Vin was an uneasy, undefined thing, a long way from their usual complete confidence in one another. It had been there since the final showdown with Josephs. He should have had it out with Vin, but the time had never seemed quite right. And he'd never really wanted to think about the disaster it would have been if Vin had reached Josephs with that home-made knife.
He snatched a glance at Vin. The street lighting didn't give quite enough view of his face, but the stiffness of his body communicated discomfort and anger. Chris himself was tired and sore, and with Jim and Blair in the front seat it still seemed the wrong time to have it outand especially to say that he'd decided to leave Vin behind because he was worried exactly what he might do if they caught up with Brackett and Miller.
He might be wrong to worry, anyway. It had been a very different situation with Josephs, and Vin had been confused from the drugs and the manipulation of his memories. Chris just couldn't get it out of his mind.
They turned onto the coast road. The drive became less smooth, and Chris shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Nathan had been right. He was going to be feeling some of these injuries for a few days. He braced himself so he wouldn't knock his arm. Vin made a slight move, as if he'd been about to reach out and steady him against the movement of the car but had changed his mind.
They would have to talk, Chris thought. Maybe he could start with the question of Sadie, why Vin had kept meeting her in secret. Or with the two men Vin had scared into spilling information. Banks was taking that pretty seriously, but Vin had been dismissive the one time Chris mentioned it. The person whose judgement Chris would trust was his undercover agent, and he'd had no chance to talk to Ezra on his own.
"How far along here do you think we should go, Jim," Blair asked.
Chris shook off his thoughts and paid attention to his surroundings. Not that he could see much. They'd better all hope Jim could use his senses tonight.
"I'd say we're a couple of miles from the place Rigby described," Jim said. "We don't want to get too close until we've had a chance to assess things. Pull in if you see a clear space off the side of the road, and see if you can help me to listen. I can't seem to get my hearing much above normal."
"We can probably piggyback it on another sense," Blair saidincomprehensibly to Chris, but Jim seemed to accept it.
"It'll have to be scent," he said as Blair spotted a reasonable clearing and pulled off the road.
That wasn't because the night was impenetrably dark. When they got out of the car, Chris realised that even without heightened senses he could just about see adequately: there was no cloud, and the moon was still up. The problem with using Jim's sight in this situation was the lack of a vantage point. Maybe if they got desperate they could send him up a tree, but even that might not give enough height.
It wasn't Chris's decision, anyway. He leaned up against the car and tried to push his various aches and pains away from the forefront of his consciousness, while Jim and Blair debated it.
"Go with scent," Blair said in the end. "You could find where the trap's set up, anyway. There have to be several carsthat means hot metal, tires, probably some smell of gas. And numbers of people, so there'll be body odours."
Buck would have loved that one. Chris wondered how he was getting on with the python. He'd have liked to wonder aloud to Vin, but the silence between them was still vibrant with discord.
"Are you finding anything?" Blair asked, after Jim had stood for a while in silence, not visibly doing anything, even sniffing.
"Yeah. Just placed them. They're a bit closer than we expected I think, but I'm not used to judging distances this way."
"What have you got?" Chris asked.
"Cars. People. I think that now I've got a location maybe I could stretch my hearing."
Blair put a hand lightly on his arm. "Take it slowly. Just let your scent lead your hearing and carry it along. It's not going to be painful now." His voice was soft, remarkably persuasive. Chris could almost see it helping Ellison to stretch out and listen.
"I've got them!" Jim said. "I was right about distance. No more than a mile ahead and its definitely the CIA. I'm only getting bits and pieces at the moment. Trivia. They've been waiting a while..."
He fell silent, his attention somewhere they could not follow.
It was half fascinating half frustrating being a spectator of it. There was no other option, though. Chris tried to find a way to lean that didn't make any of his injuries hurt worse, and waited.
"I've got Ducos," Jim said at last, becoming more alert. "It must be him. Slight accent, and he's saying that Brackett will only call when he's ready. They've no contact with Miller. SomeoneHighfield?wants Ducos to keep trying to get him."
Another wait. Chris endured the constant pain in his arm, the intermittent spasmodic cramping in his leg. The night was still and quiet. Vin drifted off into the undergrowth soundlesslyto check the security of their position, Chris assumed.
For most of an hour, Jim gave occasional bulletins. There was a brief call from Brackett, saying he was on his way to the rendezvous. More attempts to contact Miller. As the time to spring the trap drew closer, a general movement of the CIA men. Obviously the operation couldn't be set too close to their vehicles; Brackett would be wary. Then there was another very brief call from Brackett saying he was close.
"I don't think he's where he says he is, though," Jim added, striving to make out the source of Brackett's voice rather than picking it up from Ducos' phone. "He should be beyond them, further towards the estate, but I think he's this side of them."
He paused, then started to relay it more quickly, as the pace of the action increased. "Highfield's telling Ducos all his men are in position. Ducos is trying to get Brackett again." He paused. "I'm getting a really strong smell of gas, Chief, as though the cars were nearer, but nothing's moved."
"Maybe it's because you're straining to listensort of cranking up everything else?" Blair suggested. "Anyway, you're hearing okay."
"Yeah. I've got Ducos and Brackett now. Ducos is giving his position again. Says he'll get Brackett out... help him go after us again... Brackett says that that game's over... Ducos needs to learn to accept when he's lost. Damn! I don't think Brackett's just being cautious in the way he's moving. I think he's on to them. He's near the CIA vehiclesvery nearcan't have missed seeing them I don't think. Ducos again. Says we were just lucky. Brackett says we made our own luck. Wish I knew what the hell Brackett's doing; from his voice he's moving in a circle. He's talking again now. Says he'd back us over Ducos any dayuh oh, he's definitely onto them. He just called Ducos a treacherous French bastard. He's telling Ducos and Highfield they're going to see how much you can learn even when you lose a game... don't know what he means by that... oh... shit... yes I do!"
He broke off and swung round to them. "I've dialled it all back, Chief," he said quickly to Blair. "I've just realised why I could smell gas. I know what Brackett's doing. Any minute now."
Even as he spoke, there was a flicker of flame from somewhere in the night ahead of them, then it blazed up and there was the unmistakable sound of a car's gas tank exploding.
"Highfield's cars!" Chris realised.
"That's what Brackett learned," Blair said, understanding.
"It's certainly going to distract them while he gets away," Jim said. "And there's nothing we can do about it yetI daren't try to pick him up with my senses while all that's going on."
'All that' was a rising flare and black smoke, and the repeated explosion of gas tanks. Chris didn't know how many cars Highfield had had there, but it didn't look as if any of them had survived. He realised how vividly until now they'd been following the scene through Jim's words. He felt as if his own senses had somehow been cut off now he could only watch the distant fire begin to spread.
Jim had already called for fire trucks and the PD.
"Though I don't think they've any more chance of picking up Brackett than Highfield has now."
"What about us?" Chris asked. "You, anyway."
Jim shrugged, dubious. "Maybe. If he's got any of the fuel on him, that would be the best chance. It's a strong smell. But Brackett's careful. He might even guess that we're somewhere around. He'll head away fast, and probably for the sea. I'll try in a few minutes. Once he's well away from the scene I might be able to pick him up. The fire's overwhelming anything close by."
It was quite literally doing that, Chris realised. The flames from the destroyed cars were rising well above the woodland. Luckily it wasn't too drywas Cascade ever that dry? And help was on the way. He thought he could already just hear a distant siren.
"You think Brackett was heading for the sea?" he said.
"Seems his best option. I think he may have come from there, too. Looking back, maybe there was a smell of seawater. I wouldn't be surprised if he deliberately came there soaking wethe'd obviously planned out what he was going to do. And it worked."
"He's made a lovely bonfire out of Highfield's ambush," Chris agreed.
"That was Brackett was it?"
The loud voice from the other side of the road startled themand not only because it was unexpected. The threat was more immediate than that. They swung round to see the dim light show their danger. The man who spoke was carrying a gun, currently aimed directly at Blair.
"Miller!" Jim said, somehow holding himself back from a fatally rash move.
"In person. Good for Brackett. I wondered why he was listening to that little rat Ducos. I should have known he had something planned. I hope my previous employers take their losses out of Ducos' hide. However, it's my own hide I'm worried about just now. Throw down your guns. Thank you. Now line up next to the car and put your hands on your heads. It's quite light enough for accurate shooting."
Chris, already leaned on the car, raised his handswhich hurtand watched Miller stroll across to them, the direction of his aim never shifting from Blair. The siren sounded much closer. "All right. Hands down. Look as if you're watching the fire," Miller said sharply. He couldn't miss from this distance. They all obeyed.
"You were careless you know," Miller said conversationally. "I'm surprised. You knew there were potential hostiles in the area, and all three of you were gawking at the fire." He moved a little closer as the firetruck swept along the road, but it completely ignored them. They were too far off the road, Chris thought, and probably just looked like a group of people who'd pulled up when they saw the fire ahead.
But they had an ace Miller obviously didn't know about. Three, Miller had said. And he wasn't watching the shadows around the clearing.
Chris's eyes shifted to Jim, then to the darkness of the undergrowth. Where Vin was, he didn't know, but he got the slightest of nods from the sentinel. Jim could sense him somewhere close; they should stall and wait for him to act.
"I don't want three hostages," Miller said. "In fact, Ellison, if I never see you and or Larabee again that'll suit me fine. But I am going to borrow your roommate. Get in the car, Sandburg. You're going to be my ticket out of Cascade."
"I don't think that'll work, man," Blair said, playing for time. Another fire truck raced past, closely followed by a police car. None of them noticed anything untoward in the clearing.
"Get in the car, Sandburg," Miller said again. "Ellison, you and Larabee walk away over there, to the other side of the clearing." As Blair moved to open the car door, and Miller gestured very slightly to Jim, the gun briefly moved from its focus on Blair. That must have been all Vin was waiting for.
Chris never saw him until he moved. Miller never saw him at all. Vin came fast, from the shadows, and crashed a heavy branch down on Miller's gun arm. The gun fired harmlessly into the ground, then dropped as Vin struck again. Chris saw the branch swing a third time onto Miller's back and Vin aim his own gun as Miller fell.
Chris moved fast. His fear of how far Vin might go flooded back, and he desperately wanted to make sure that shot wasn't fired. In the urgency of his alarm, he forgot the weakness in the strained muscles of his leg.
He took no more than a step. The leg failed under him. He stumbled and went down. The pain as he landed awkwardly on his burned arm almost made him pass out. Struggling to get up, he could only gasp. He felt close to throwing up and the sweat sprang on his face.
For a moment that was all he knew, then he realised that at least there had been no gunshot. His vision cleared a little. Vin was no longer anywhere near Miller, but crouched next to Chris. Blair held the gun, and Jim was kneeling on Miller, who was swearing and kicking.
He drew in a deep breath of relief. Vin was looking at him as if he thought he'd lost his mind.
"Chris? You okay? What th' hell were you tryin' to do?"
Chris couldn't answer. All he could do was grit his teeth. If he opened his mouth now, the only sound that would come out was a humiliating moan. Darkness threatened at the edges of his sight.
Vin moved rather clumsily to squat next to him and to help him sit with his head down over his knees. Nerve endings Chris didn't know he had seemed to be screaming in his arm. He daren't raise his head again until the sick giddiness passed. He hoped Jim was managing to deal with Miller. It sounded as though he was. The noise Miller was making now was more a sort of half-suffocated grunt.
"Jim's got him okay," Vin said, guessing his thoughts. "You come down on that arm?"
"Yeah." He was still breathing in gasps. One word answers would have to do.
"Should've stayed put," Vin said, but his arm round Chris's shoulders was friendly enough, and he settled next to him, grunting as his own muscles protested. "I had Miller y' know. I wasn't about to let him get up again."
"Knew that," Chris said truthfully. The last thing he wanted was for Vin to think Chris doubted his competence.
"Then why th'..." Vin stopped.
Sometimes he was just too good at reading Chris's thoughts.
"Y' thought I was going t' kill him," he said. "That was it. Y' thought I was goin' t' shoot him."
Chris couldn't see his face, but Vin didn't sound angry at this, more like someone who'd just worked out a puzzle.
"Y' thought that all along," Vin said, understanding too much. His arm was still warm across Chris's back though, and he didn't move away.
There wasn't much point in denying it. "Still have nightmares where you gut Josephs," Chris admitted quietly, glad that the other two were busy with Miller and with calling in the PD to their location. He managed to lift his head enough now to see that they'd got the ex CIA man immobilised. If anything, Jim looked invigorated by it, though he was limping a bit more than he had been. Blair looked over to them, concerned, but Vin waved him away.
"We're okay," he told him.
Chris took a deep breath and decided to finish what he had to say; he hoped they'd still be okay then. "And that girl Sadieher case worker called me last week, off the record. She was a bit edgy about you seeing her. Thought I knew about it. Then there was Botting and Alldred last night. Banks wasn't happy about whatever you did to them."
"Just scared 'em a bit t' get th' truth out of 'em," Vin said, unperturbed. "Y' c'n ask Ez. Hell, even Blair got in on th' act. Maybe I pushed it a bit, but they weren't in no danger from it. Should ha' told y' 'bout Sadie, but t' be honest I thought it might be easier fer you not to know with regulations 'n such. She's just an old friend, Chris. Didn't mean no more'n that."
"I'll clear it with the case worker," Chris said, hoping Vin would take it as an apology.
Vin laughed softly. "Damn, you must be feelin' bad. You ain't t' blame, Chris. Come t' that, y'ain't th' only one t' have nightmares 'bout gutting Josephs. I might've done it if'n I'd reached him. I know what that would've meant fer th' team. You got a right t' be a bit paranoid... good word that; Ez likes it... Anyway, y' bein' that way makes me feel better."
"Why's that?" Chris asked, finding he was leaning more and more heavily against Vin's support. He tried not to, because he remembered Vin's bruised ribs.
"Y'r okay," Vin said. "Keep still. I got y'. Want me t' tell y' why it's a good thing yer a bit over th' top on this one? See, I realised just now that Brackett 'n Miller really had had more 'n enough of th' pair of you. They wouldn't've come lookin' fer you if someone had paid 'em. I was listening t' Jim and feelin' all kinds of a fool. Specially fer th' hospital. 'N makin' JD git under th' car. But now I know yer as bad, so I reckon we c'n look fools tergether."
The easy humour in his voice did more for Chris than a bucket of painkillers. He let Vin's arm hold him firmly in place and watched Jim haul Miller to the car and bounce him across the hood. The hood seemed to dent more easily than Miller. Blair looked at it doubtfully.
"Well, it was lucky for us you were being careful out here," Chris said to Vin. "Miller had us just where he wanted us."
"Yeah. Maybe if I keep rescuin' you, y'll realise I'm really back on th' team."
"Keep rescuing me?"
"We saved your ass back at th' estate," Vin said confidently. "And I'm just goin' t' have t' save it again."
"How d'you work that out?"
"Blair was talking to Banks, and sounds like Banks is nearly here. How much chance d'you think there is Nathan won't be with him?"
"Right. 'N if y' want me t' shovel y' out of it, better get yer head on straight about not leaving me behind."
"Got it," Chris said. "Have to admit, I was thinking of doing it again next week. Mary's got me talking to all those kindergarten kids for that damn school project and I was going to leave you to mind the office. But I've learned my lessonyou'll be right there backing me up."
" Now that's just... devious," Vin said, calling up the word with some satisfaction. "Still, if y'r bein' nasty 'n tricky y' must be feelin' a bit better. Maybe we c'n get y' on yer feet 'fore they get here."
"Don't you try to lift me," Chris said quickly. "You ought to be careful of those ribs."
"I'm younger," Vin said. "I heal quicker. But anyway, Jim's finished spoiling the paintwork with Miller's head. He can give you a hand up."
He called to Blair, and he and Jim came and hoisted them to their feetjust in time. Simon's car followed by another came up fast and pulled sharply onto the grass.
"Ready?" Vin muttered.
Chris didn't think they had much hope of getting anything past Nathan, but at least he was standing upright to meet him, and hoping to stay that way.
Simon and Nathan got hastily out of the first car, Rafe and Henri from the one behind. For a man who didn't usually take to being woken up in the middle of the night, or to detectives who went off on harebrained errands without back up, Simon seemed to be in a reasonably good mood. He did point out to Jim the general stupidity of his actions, but since they were all on their feet and Miller wasn't, his remarks lacked force. They transferred the sullen Miller to Rafe and Henri's car.
"Think we should tell the CIA we've got him?" Simon said cheerfully to Jim.
"We could ask him our own questions first," Jim said. "Like who shot Josephsand Sandburg?"
Miller, grim-faced, didn't quite flinch.
Nathan had hurried over to them while this was going on, but to Chris's amazementand reliefhe seemed distracted. He gave them a quick glance, noted with relief they were on their feet and not bleeding, and explained: "Seems like Buck's got his hand broken fooling with that snake. I've got to get to the hospital and pick him and JD up. You sure you haven't hurt those ribs, Vin?"
"All I did was pick up a branch 'n hit Miller with it," Vin said. "Jim did th' heavy work."
"Well, he shouldn't be doing anything either with that knee," Nathan muttered. "Still, it don't look like he's much worse. What about you, Chris. You look a bit white."
"It's the light," Chris said. The dawn was just showing, and he hoped Nathan would blame his pallor on the greying sky. "Don't worry about us, Nate. Go and pick up those two idiots. Banks will take us back to the loft."
"How did Buck annoy the snake?" Blair asked, possibly helping to distract Nathan, but maybe just thinking of safety on any future date.
"I didn't ask," Nathan said. "Could make a guess though. Well, if you're sure you're okay... Josiah's back at the loft minding Ezraonly don't say I put it like thatand he'll sort you out. Get some sleep when you get in. Take some painkillers, Chris."
"I'll see he does," Vin said. Chris couldn't protest. He couldn't even elbow Vin, because it was only Vin's surreptitious hand under his arm that was keeping him upright. "Don't you worry, Nate," Vin went on. "Go and get Buck 'fore he does somethin' worse."
That was a powerful argument, and it got Nathan moving.
"Rescue number three," Vin murmured, as Nathan drove off. "Come on, Cowboy. Let's get y' into Banks' car. Nate might look back and notice if y' fall flat on yer face."
"Or if both of you do," Simon said. "Let me take him, Tanner. You and Jim can limp along under your own steam. How did you manage to miss the trouble, Sandburg? It's not like you to be last man standing. Jim, you'd better go in front and stretch that leg out."
"What about Brackett?" Jim said.
"What about him? You got any idea where he is?"
"Any lead on where to look for him?"
"Then let someone else search for him."
"I could do a better job."
"You're whacked," Simon said.
"If he was going for the sea, he'll have reached it by now," Blair said. "We're not that far inland."
Jim made the irritable gesture of someone who knows everyone else is right. "I wanted Brackett."
"We all want him," Simon said. "I've got a helicopter out, and the coast's busier with cops than it ever is with tourists. To say nothing of Highfield's lotthey'd really like to get him. You'll just have to leave it to someone else, Jim. Get in the car."
He was already helping Chris in. Jim stiffly lowered himself into the front seat, and from the sigh that escaped him, things were beginning to catch up with him as well. Blair was the only one feeling lively enough to give Simon an account of how they came to be on the scene of the CIA set up, and what had happened.
Chris hardly noticed the drive back to the loft. He sank into a sort of uneasy doze, his head rolling against Vin's shoulder, and only woke properly when he found Josiah helping him out on to the sidewalk.
The ride up in the elevator and the walk along the hallway took about as much out of him as a ten mile run. He was glad to sink down on the couch and let Josiah fetch him coffee.
"And these," Vin said, putting two of the painkillers into his hand. "Less y'd rather I shoot em down yer gullet, like Nettie does t' th' cat. And when y've taken them, yer goin' t' bed."
"Thought Ez was in the bed."
"I have slept for quite long enough," Ezra said, swinging over to him on his crutches. "Incidentally earning myself an almost unheard of approval rating from Nathan. I suggest you swallow those things, Chris. They only work when they're ingested. Staring at them is not adequate."
Josiah loomed up, lending silent but formidable support to their cause. Chris looked at the three of them and decided his arm was bothering them even more than it was bothering him. He swallowed the damn things, and accepted Josiah's help into Blair's small room.
It was a long time since anything had felt as good as stretching out on that bed. The painkillers already seemed to be taking the edge off the fire in his arm. He eased himself into a comfortable position and relaxed, and felt sleep pulling at him. In the other room the phone rang, and he heard voices then laughter. A minute later Vin looked in, Ezrastill virtuously on the crutcheslooking over his shoulder.
"Y'ain't asleep then," Vin said, coming in.
Ezra followed. "We thought if you were still awake you might appreciate hearing of the latest vicissitudes in the life of our long suffering medical expert."
"Nate?" Chris asked. He couldn't manage more than a word. His tongue felt as heavy as his eyelids.
Vin came and sat down on the side of the bed. "He got t' ER and sprung Buck, then he heard a whole load a fuss from around th' vending machine."
"Apparently the evening's excitement had left JD in need of some further repast."
"Well, y'know what them machines is like."
"Of course, if the item you have attempted to purchase fails to drop successfully, the appropriate course of action is to apply to the desk for remuneration, or tilt the whole structure gently."
"Ain't t' stick yer hand up it, anyway."
Chris's eyes had closed involuntarily, but he forced them open again at this.
"Good 'n proper."
"Extricating him is proving a slow process."
"Nate's had just about enough of th' lot of us, he says."
"Of the lot of YOU, I think you will find, if you reexamine his words carefully. Josiah and I were completely exonerated."
"That's why yer using them crutches? Suck up."
"Now that expression is juvenile even for you. Nathan on the other hand was quite creative, even poetic, in the remarks he made about you two when he discovered your absence last night."
Chris let his eyes close properly while they wrangled, and he drifted somewhere on a comfortable border between waking and sleeping. There was a brief pause. He could almost sense the two of them peering at him. Then Ezra's voice came, quieter.
"I think he may be asleep, though I suppose that would indicate a remarkable ability to ignore us."
"Prob'ly lurkin' and hopin' we say somethin' t'what's that when y' let slip somethin' y' wish y' hadn't?"
There was the slight thump of Ezra's crutches as he came a hop or two nearer the bed.
"I would say he's definitely asleep."
"And exactly what evidence do you base that opinion on?"
"I c'n tell."
"That is not evidence."
"Bet on it?"
Still drifting, peacefully, Chris could hear Ezra wavering. "I would be happy to wager, but exactly how do we decide the outcome."
"Worry about that after we've made th' bet. Ten dollars says he ain't asleep."
"Done. I suggest we let Josiah arbitrate."
"No need," Vin said smugly. "Y'ain't asleep, are y', Chris?"
Chris would never hear the end of it if he didn't answer.
"'M trying," he said.
Vin patted him on the shoulder. "Y c'n sleep now y've earned my doughnut money. Pay up, Ez."
"He could be talking in his sleep," Ezra protested.
"Wouldn't ha' made sense."
"Pay up or I'll take yer crutches and tell Nate y' been a bad boy."
"I'm not getting involved, and if the pair of you don't shut up I'm coming in to put a gun in Chris's hand. He ought to be able to hit one of you without opening his eyes."
Chris floated on the edge of sleep. A thump and a dipping feeling near his feet suggested Ezra had sat down at the other end of the bed. Vin was a warm lump stealing space at the head. At least he knew where they were. And he didn't need to worry about Vin any more. He'd only realised tonight what a weight that had been. Vin was back all right... though you couldn't call it three rescues... one and a half maybe...
He didn't quite finish the thought before he was asleep.
Jim stared from the balcony across early morning Cascade, and wondered just how far away Lee Brackett was now. Miller was in custody; they'd got assorted foreign nationals under arrest in hospital; he and Chris could definitely be called the winners in this game... but it really bugged him that Brackett had escaped.
"Come on in, Jim," Blair called. "You ought to get off that leg."
Jim's knee hurt. Come to that, most of him hurt. Much as he hated giving in, he limped inside and dropped heavily on the couch.
"Did you hear about JD and the Twinkie?" Blair asked.
Jim was so tired that for a moment this made no sense at all. Was it some new Disney movie? Then he remembered the phone call. He hadn't listened to it. He'd let his hearing drop to muffled as soon as he got in. Now he listened with disbelief to Blair'sprobably embellishedaccount.
"Nate's going to take them straight to the airport from the hospital," Josiah said. "I'll book a flight this evening for the rest of us."
Jim realised the living room was surprisingly empty. Curiosity dragged him to his feet and at a slow limp to Blair's room. Tired as he was, he had to smile. He'd never seen Chris look less deadly. He was sprawled on his back, very much in need of a shave, his mouth slightly open and his burned left arm propped gently on a pile of Blair's not-quite-dirty-enough-to-wash clothes. Vin was leaned up at the top of the bed, ten dollars for some reason loosely clutched in his hand, and Ezra was tilting precariously at the other end, a pile of cards dropped in his lap. They were both fast asleep as well.
He limped back out to the couch. He wasn't going to move again for hours.
"I'll get you a coffee," Blair said. "As last man standing..."
"You can wash the dishes and clean up, too, and there's trash to take out... as last man standing," Jim said hastily.
He leaned back and accepted the coffee gratefully, though. In spite of his aches, in spite of Brackett, it wasn't a bad morning.
There was just one thing missing.
"I thought I might go out and get some doughnuts," Josiah said.
Yep, that was it.
He wasn't going to sleep before Josiah came back with them... no way...
Blair threw the afghan over Jim. He looked in at Vin, Ezra and Chris.
Last man standing.
He was never, ever, going to let Jim hear the last of this .
He settled happily at the table with his laptop, shared some thoughts on Curtius with Josiah, who was probably the only person who would appreciate them, and enjoyed his achievement in peace.
~ End ~
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