By Gil Hale – firstname.lastname@example.org
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 vehicles—all where they shouldn’t be—seemed 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 Tanner—a fact they were extremely reluctant to acknowledge—Haines 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 teams—this 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. Botting—I’m sure you remember Botting—will 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 down—doing 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 was—though he could see Ellison did—but 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 something—dummies?—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 is—sweet-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 appearance—and I assure you we arranged for a fire that would remove any finer details—and 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 them—a 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 organisations—and of course a certain amount of confusion about who is responsible for the bodies. Then there’s the bullet in the tyre—from 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 was—and Brackett and Miller evidently needed them alive—but 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 them—to 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.
Ezra—meeting ‘clients’ in his persona of Ezra Simpson, in an expensive hotel suite—was 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 meeting—fast—before 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 that—ain’t just that—it’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 voice—uncertainty 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 voice—he 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 alarm—about 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 dramatically—put 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 Vin—the only person he’d ever trusted with both key and code—had 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 brandy—in a whisky glass—being 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 end—he c’n trace that news broadcast. I’m going t’ call Travis, ask him t’ see that all the tests are done on the—bodies—like 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 away—he 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 it—before 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 down—he 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 Pliny—who, 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 mentioned—tantalisingly—that 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 characteristic—complicated 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 guide—someone 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 girl—she 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 watch—over 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 could—generously—be 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 now—there was no sign of Botting or anyone else coming to let them out—they 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 casually—at 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 appeared—with some caution—to 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 indiscriminately—Ezra realised with surprise they were aiming to frighten rather than to hit—the 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 else—Kelso, Ezra guessed—and 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.
Continue on to Part 2 of 4