By Gil Hale – email@example.com
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 what—Brackett 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. Someone—Miller—yelled 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 called—you 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 wanted—and 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 off—I’ve tried to get them a few times since Ezra called—and 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 him—for 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 far—they 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 fright—first 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 off—Travis, Banks—if 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 noise—and 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 voice—not 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 fire—mebbe a diversion—and 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. Vin—I’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 trouble—he 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 low—wincing—to 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 Brackett—rogues 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 down—the dust was still rising—and 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. ” Simon—looks 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 car—the 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 house—had 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 it—and themselves—than 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 arm—not 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 kid—and 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 something—though 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 ourselves—if 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’s—today’s—work 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 Brackett—providing 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 exaggeration—the 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 two—one of them was called Yudin, I think—took 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 weapon—according to Yudin; personally I can’t see how they could have done—and 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 been—which 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 act—Ezra was reasonably convinced it had been an act—with 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 Frenchmen—or maybe one was German—have 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 going—where 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 again—and 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.
Continue on to Part 3 of 4