By Gil Hale – email@example.com
“Look, I just want out of here!”
Jim had had enough. Blair could see that. He sympathised. But he couldn’t wave a magic wand and get them out of ER any more quickly. It was already clear that no one was going to suggest keeping Jim in overnight. It would have to be a very masochistic medic even to think of it. Release was coming, and all Jim had to do was be patient.
Blair was eager to get home himself, of course. He knew that the only thing really bothering Jim was the lingering effects on his senses of the various crashes and explosions he and Chris had engineered, and that would settle much more readily in the familiar surroundings of the loft, with Blair more freely able to talk him through the exercises that would help. Blair was prepared to be grateful, though, for the thorough and caring ministrations of the emergency room staff.
It was proving almost impossible to sell either patience or gratitude to Jim.
Blair had tried to tell Jim, tactfully, several times, that Nathan couldn’t wave a magic wand either. If he could, he would definitely have done so by now. The grumbles Blair was getting from Jim, Nathan was getting four times over. Larabee was taciturn, Ezra eloquent, and Vin shyly polite around the nurses, but they’d all made it as clear as Jim that they’d like to be out of here an hour or two ago.
Nathan had done his best. No one was going to be staying in. Mild dehydration in everyone was being treated with bottled water not a drip. He’d promised to keep an eye on stitches, bandages and any reactions to antibiotics or painkillers for all four of them, which was a practical possibility as Jim had offered to turn the loft into a sort of MASH unit.
Sometimes Jim still surprised Blair.
“I’m going straight upstairs to sleep as soon as I’ve had some food and a cup of coffee, and you can shoot anyone who comes further than the bottom step of the stairs.”
And then again, of course, sometimes he didn’t.
Blair glanced down the hallway to the two uniformed policemen who were on duty, providing their protection. Were they going to follow on to the loft too? He found it hard to believe there was any real danger now. More to the point, Jim and Chris didn’t believe it. Only Vin still seemed uneasy. Hunch or delayed reaction?
The police were standing to attention now, more or less. All that associating with detectives made Blair deduce—accurately—that Simon Banks must be on his way in. Simon had called about half an hour before to say he would come and update them if they hadn’t escaped by then.
Blair didn’t think that his first words were very helpful.
“Still here, Jim?”
Jim grimaced. “Some blood test or something. I’ve offered to sign anything they like to guarantee I won’t sue if they miss some fancy complication, but it didn’t help. Did you get Brackett or Miller?”
“Not yet. Joel and our boys are still out at the estate, with a few of the CIA, but to be honest I doubt whether we’re really going to get them.”
“Vin won’t be happy,” Blair said.
“He saw that news story,” Jim said, with unexpected insight. “I spent half the night worrying about you seeing it, Chief.”
Startled, warmed, Blair forgot the last three hours of listening to Jim complain.
“How about the Mayor?” Jim asked, perhaps getting his own back on Simon for the ‘Still here?’.
“He did make some crack about you and Larabee having trained in demolitions, but he seems impressed by the arrest rate in your vicinity. Mr Gombeen—he owns the house—wasn’t so philosophical though. He wants to sue the French or Russian governments for some glass sculpture that must have got hit in the crossfire.”
Blair looked at the floor. Jim stared with interest at the ceiling.
“I don’t want to know,” Simon said hastily. “Anyway, Jim, I can see Nathan Jackson, and since he’s actually got a smile on his face—and I can guess what it’s been like being stuck in here with the four of you—I’d say you’ve got your release papers.”
Nathan looked as relieved as Blair felt, though he firmly squashed Jim’s immediate notion of calling ahead so pizzas could be delivered as they arrived. “You all need something simple and easily digestible,” he said, perhaps not realising he was talking to a man whose stomach had been toughened on Wonderburger.
“I’m not eating oatmeal,” Jim said suspiciously.
“Don’t worry,” Simon said. “I’ll see to it. I’ve got a key to the loft. Healthy, nourishing, tasty food ready on your arrival. I know just where to get it. In fact, I’ll get on to the matter right away.”
“It’ll only be an hour at most before we’re there,” Nathan warned, “and I don’t think take-out’s a good idea.”
“You could get rid of those two,” Jim put in, nodding towards the men still patiently guarding the hallway. “Brackett’s not going to be coming back for more.”
“We’ll put a car outside the loft,” Simon said. “Better safe than sorry, Jim. Unlike Sandburg, I did see yesterday’s news, and I don’t want to repeat that experience for a long, long time.”
The nurse who had just come in and caught the end of that comment was perhaps less tactful than she might have been. “That’s just what we’ve all been saying. Doctor Marks has finally cleared you to go, Detective Ellison. We do hope you’ll stay out of trouble for a while.”
Jim could be charming, once he’d got his own way. “Thank you. I know I’m not the best patient, but I do appreciate all you’ve done.”
Blair felt the sort of approval he imagined parents felt when their offspring said ‘thank you for the nice party’ without being prompted.
Simon shook his head as the nurse was visibly won over. “If it was me,” he said, when she’d gone again, “I’d stick you in restraints as soon as you came in the door.”
“That wouldn’t do anything about the complaining,” Nathan said with feeling. “Well, I’ll go and give Chris the good news. Vin and Ezra already know. Shall I call you when we’re on the way.”
Simon shook his head. “I’ll be at the loft. I’ve just got a quick stop to make on the way there.”
“He’s up to something,” Jim said, but tolerantly. The prospect of escape was mellowing him. “Never mind. We’re out of here. Where are my shoes.”
“Well hey, stud. You bullied those nurses into kicking you out already?”
Buck and JD had timed it well, Josiah thought, choosing to forget that ‘envy’ was right up there on the deadly sin list. They’d missed the hours of listening to Ezra’s campaign speeches on unnecessarily prolonged hospital visits; they’d missed the humanitarian mission of preventing Chris from terrorising the medical staff—though to be fair, Josiah thought the glare was instinctive rather than intentional; above all they’d missed the excitement of Vin’s certainty that the whole stay in ER was an open invitation to unidentified hostiles to come and have another go at Chris and Jim.
“I thought they’d keep you in for sure,” JD said. “You looked awful. Why are you all standing around here in the hallway, anyway?”
“Nathan’s just bringing back some chocolates for the nurses,” Blair said.
“You can’t beat chocolate,” Buck approved. “Gives you a sweet place in a lady’s memory.”
Josiah could have told him it wouldn’t need chocolate to fix them in anyone’s memory. Between Ezra’s vocabulary, Chris’s air of menace and Vin’s polite but urgent demands for body searches on every orderly who passed along the hallway, he thought Cascade General would have no difficulty recalling them. Besides, he’d noticed a certain susceptibility to Ezra’s dimples and Vin’s shy drawl. One of the lady doctors had even commented to a colleague that if Mr Larabee ever smiled, she thought he’d be devastating. No, the chocolates were a nice gesture, but hardly necessary.
“You checked th’ cars?” Vin asked the uniformed policemen, who looked startled.
“Checked them? Captain Banks didn’t say…”
“Vin, they’ve just arrived and the drivers have been in them all the time,” Josiah told him.
“Not in ours,” JD said. “Buck just left it outside.”
“Next to the squad cars,” Buck said. “Hell, Vin, it ain’t the bad guys who’ve been blowing things up anyway. Those drivers’d probably like Jim and Chris checked before they get in.”
He was distracted by Nathan’s hasty arrival.
“I thought you’d all be getting into the cars, not blocking the hallway,” Nathan said, harassed. “You know, there’s some folks could find you downright intimidating. Ezra, where’s your crutches?”
“You go find them, Nathan,” Buck said, appropriating one of the boxes of chocolate. “You’re no hand at presenting gifts to a girl anyway. There’s some visions of loveliness down there and…”
“That little brunette’s mine,” Blair said hastily. “She’s been an angel of mercy all afternoon.”
“To you, maybe,” Jim muttered. “She brought you coffee; all she came near me with was damn great needles.”
“JD, you go check your car, you know the routine,” Vin said, ignoring everything else.
Josiah glanced at Chris, who shook his head and mouthed ‘later’. Chris was the only person with a chance of convincing Vin there was no imminent threat, and he obviously wasn’t up to it just now. He was clean and patched up, but that just showed off the damage better. He looked as if whatever wasn’t smarting was throbbing or aching. Josiah slid an unobtrusively supportive hand under his elbow and took charge.
By the time Nathan was back with Ezra’s ‘accidentally’ mislaid crutches, Josiah had got everyone on the move. Buck and Blair had elected themselves to do the honours with the gifts. Josiah stayed with Chris, and let JD help Vin, whose leg was stiff where the bruises were coming out nicely. Nathan supervised Ezra’s painful progress and kept a tactful eye on Jim. Thanks to Simon, they’d got two squad cars waiting, as well as Ezra’s hired one which Buck and JD had brought over.
Since JD had begun earnestly checking the chassis for any traces of interference, Josiah decided he could take Chris and Vin. He helped Chris in. “We’ll pick up antibiotics and some more painkillers once we’ve got you settled at the loft,” he told him. “JD, you see Buck takes it slowly. Chris doesn’t want that arm jogging.”
“I can drive,” JD said, looking up from under the car. “Vin, I’m sure this is okay.”
Josiah left them to it. He wanted to help Nathan get Ezra comfortable on the back seat of the next car. Nathan put the crutches in across Ezra’s lap; he was irritably muttering something about Chris and Jim and crutches when they got in, and as far as Josiah could make out, he was still saying the same things when they arrived at the loft. Chris and Jim seemed to be limping along successfully enough under their own steam though.
The elevator was working; that was one good thing. When they arrived at the loft door, there was an appetising odour of chicken soup and hot bread; that was definitely another. The continuing litany of groans, complaints, grumbles and cautions, which had never really stopped, was suddenly cut off as everyone smelt it.
Thank you, Lord!
When he got in the loft, he saw how Simon had achieved this in such a short time. Mindful of Nathan’s strictures he hadn’t gone for take-out food; instead he’d fetched take-out cooks. Busily stirring in the kitchen, aided by Jodie Reilly standing on a chair, was Charlotte Duncan.
“Sit down all of you,” she said. “The soup’s ready. Captain Banks, that young man needs something to prop his leg on. WHAT are you doing?”
This last remark was addressed to Buck, who was reaching his hand to the basket of warm rolls.
Buck whipped it back, and wisely didn’t answer.
“Greedy guts,” Jodie commented just audibly. “Gonna serve you last.”
Josiah thought there wasn’t much doubt about who she would serve first, and once they’d all been seated somewhere he saw he was right. Very carefully, she carried a tray to Chris and put it on his lap as if he was made of glass. She would have liked to linger, but Miss Duncan didn’t hold with lingering while there were people to be served. Jim was next on Jodie’s list, and Josiah was surprised and flattered to find himself third. After that he was too busy eating to pay much attention, though he did notice Miss Duncan herself bring some to Ezra and fuss quite kindly over his leg. Sharp woman. She saw past the surface of things.
Vin, who’d limped out onto the balcony, perhaps to keep an eye out for incoming missiles, had his soup in a mug; Buck was served last. Maybe Miss Duncan had shared Jodie’s opinion on making the punishment fit the crime.
Jodie gave a last sharp look around, pointed out that JD was slurping, and came to sit on the floor between Chris and Josiah.
“C’n I get you some more?” she said—to Chris only. “I made it. I let Miss Duncan help, though.”
“You’re a great cook,” Chris said, looking less white now he had some food in him. “Some more would be nice. What about everyone else?”
“You ‘n Jim and Fancy man—he’s going to need some new clothes—and Vin first, Miss Duncan says.” She fetched a second bowl of soup for Chris and Jim. “Why’s Vin out there?”
“He’s just a bit worried something else might happen,” Josiah said. “It isn’t going to, but he still feels worried.”
“Want me to get him back in?”
“Yes, please,” Chris said. “Don’t hurt him.”
“I promise,” Jodie said solemnly. In about fifteen seconds she had Vin inside and sitting on the couch beside Chris, who moved up thankfully to make room for him.
“Stay there,” Jodie said firmly. “I’ll bring stuff.”
Before Josiah or Chris had caught up with this changed state of affairs, Vin was holding a coffee for Chris and steadying his tray. “Should’ve known y’ couldn’t manage with that arm,” he said. “J’siah, get a cushion fer it.”
Chris, who’d been managing perfectly happily, blinked but allowed himself to be helped. It was a much better option than Vin out on the balcony. Jodie, who’d obviously been economic with the truth to get Vin back inside, piled him up with so many things Chris might need that there was no chance of him moving again. Josiah could only watch with admiration, especially when at the first sign of Vin getting restless she brought him a large chocolate cookie.
“I made these too,” she said, then accidentally caught Miss Duncan’s eye. “Well, I stirred in the chips and I put them on the trays.” She handed cookies out—Buck got a burnt one—and came back to her preferred place at Chris’s feet.
“Mr Banks says you ‘n Jim blew up two houses and a boat and wrecked some cars and caught nearly all the bad guys before he got there,” she said, looking up at him with admiration.
“Vin caught some of the bad guys,” Chris said fairly.
“With some help from Ez and Blair,” Vin added.
Jodie thought about it. After a minute she stood up to whisper to Chris. It was certainly quieter than her normal voice, but a long way from inaudible. “I know you let ’em, to be kind to ’em,” she said. “Shall I pr’tend I think they c’d do it on their own?”
“That’d be nice,” Chris whispered back.
“Okay.” She sat down again, stifled a fit of giggles, and said to Vin with elaborate seriousness, “Which bad guys did you catch?”
“You remember those two men you screamed at, when they were by my car?” Ezra said. Like Chris he seemed revived by soup and coffee, and had decided to join in. “One of them was an unpleasant fellow called Botting.”
“With a spotty chin?”
“That’s the man.”
“We caught him.”
“He wasn’t very tough,” Jodie said. “Did you tie him up? Is that where your tie went?”
“That’s extremely perspicacious of you.”
“Clever,” Josiah said, before she could take offence.
“I am clever,” she agreed complacently. “My mom says I’m so sharp I c’d cut myself. I ‘spose you could catch that Bottom. Even my brother could. Bet you didn’t blow up any houses like Chris.”
“No one blows up houses quite like Chris,” Ezra agreed solemnly.
Miss Duncan, looking around with approval at the way people were now showing signs of life, had already collected up the dirty dishes, and Simon Banks was washing up.
“Time to go, Jodie,” she said.
“I only just started talking,” Jodie protested, but she got up obediently.
“I got to go,” she explained to Chris. “I had to promise, ‘fore she’d bring me. She said I c’d come because I helped pray for you to get safe. Did you pray?” She turned sharply to Josiah with the question.
“I did,” he said, truthfully.
“Good. ‘n you two?”
Vin and Ezra looked at each other.
“We were extremely busy all night,” Ezra said defensively.
“Maybe it weren’t exactly in words,” Vin said. “Reckon God c’d still hear.”
“I ‘spect so, but you’d be better doin’ it proper like we did.”
She saw Miss Duncan waiting by the door and sighed heavily. “I really got to go now,” she said. “She don’t like bein’ kept waiting.” A thought brightened her. “I’ll send you a get well card. I’m good at cards. I’ll put all the explosions on it, and you ‘n Jim standing on the bad guys’ heads.”
She joined Miss Duncan, waved to Chris, and disappeared for all of five seconds.
Josiah had half expected her return, but he hadn’t expected her announcement. “There’s some girls coming here and they’re not properly dressed. One of them’s got a snake down her bikini.”
Miss Duncan also looked back in, rather flushed. “Mr Wilmington, if these visitors are yours, it is hardly the time or the place.”
Buck was far too interested to bother protesting his innocence, though Josiah could see it was Blair who looked guilty. The two of them and JD made it to the door simultaneously. Josiah, Simon and Nathan followed more decorously, with an air of just checking out a potentially problematic situation which probably called for some responsible adults to handle it.
The sight in the hallway was certainly unusual. Both girls were dressed—or rather, undressed—for dancing in one of the more lively clubs. The taller one, a well-proportioned Amazon, had a python tastefully arranged down her cleavage.
“Blair!” she said, gesturing expansively and making the python undulate. “I didn’t hear from you, so I thought we’d call on our way to work.”
“Bet I know what work you do,” Jodie said, wriggling out of Miss Duncan’s grasp.
“Mr Sandburg,” Miss Duncan said with awful formality, making Blair shift nervously backwards. “Are you responsible for the presence of these young women?”
“They can’t go in the loft,” Jodie said, and added to the girls. “Chris ‘n Jim’s hurt, and anyway they like nice girls.” Another thought seemed to strike her, and she leaned back in to shout to Vin. “They’ve not got guns. You can see EVERYTHING and there couldn’t be one hidden.”
“Guns?” the Amazon asked, looking startled.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” Buck said reassuringly, “Now if I can…”
Jodie pushed in front of him. “Can I touch your snake? I’ve never touched one before.” She reached up to slide a hand over it. “Oh. He’s all warm. I thought he’d be cold and slippy.”
Given the snake’s prime position, Josiah thought it was hardly surprising it was warm—or that Buck now showed a sudden interest in herpetology. JD’s eyes were so wide it was hard not to laugh. Jodie reluctantly yielded her place at the front.
“Is she your girlfriend?” she asked Blair. “I bet your mom doesn’t know you got a girlfriend with a tattoo on her…”
“Well, it is there. She must want people to know or she’d wear something that covered it up properly.”
Buck, murmuring something about it showing most attractively, was already beginning to escort the Amazon towards the elevator.
“I’d better go and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble,” JD said, dodging Miss Duncan and following with the second girl.
“Don’t take the car!” Nathan shouted.
The Amazon had slipped her arm through Buck’s. “Plenty of room in ours for a man like you,” she said affectionately.
Josiah sighed, Blair regretfully watched them go, and the python twisted its head up and leered back at them all.
“Well!” Miss Duncan said.
“It was a nice snake,” Jodie pointed out. “We’ve never had a snake at ‘hobbies’ club. It’s always hamsters and stuff. You c’d get her to bring it and tell us how to look after it. She’d have to wear clothes though.”
“She certainly would. I’m not at all sure she’d be a suitable person to talk to you, but even if I did consider it—under my personal supervision of course—we don’t know how to get in touch with her.”
“Blair’s got her phone number.”
Blair yielded it up without a struggle, wilting under their joint disapproval. “She’s a really nice girl,” he said weakly.
“And he’s the expert,” Simon Banks said. He accompanied Miss Duncan down to her car, carrying the things she’d brought to cook with, and Josiah could hear him describing some of Blair’s more disastrous dates all the way down.
“That’s so unfair,” Blair grumbled. “I get the blame and Buck gets a front seat for Lizzy’s performance.”
“Is she the one you suggested to me for a double date?” Jim asked ominously.
“Hey, I thought the whole jungle look might do something for you. She’s really very talented.”
He was still justifying himself when Simon came back, carrying a pile of stuff from the basement. “If I were you, Blair, I’d give Miss Duncan a miss for a while. Now where do you want these sleeping bags, Jim?”
“I’ll sleep on Jim’s floor,” Blair said quickly. “Ezra can have my bed.”
“The floor’s fine for me,” Nathan offered.
“Maybe you’d like to come back with me?” Simon asked Josiah. “There’s a squad car outside, and if Jackson wants anything he can call.”
It was quiet in the loft now. With the departure of Buck, JD and Jodie, the noise level had plummeted and a general, heavy-eyed peace had descended.
Nathan nodded to Josiah. “Go on. I know your old bones don’t take to the floor.”
“I’ll help you get Ezra settled first.”
Ezra frowned. “Shall we avoid the use of vocabulary more suited to a baby-sitting assignment?”
It was probably better not to comment on that. Fortunately, sleep was obviously beckoning Ezra, and he was still relatively smug about avoiding Cascade General. Once he was comfortable, he looked good for the next twelve hours. Vin’s paranoia had also failed to be proof against exhaustion. Once he was sitting down next to Chris, it had only taken a few minutes of inaction and his eyes had closed. Josiah cautiously removed Chris’s empty tray and coffee cup from his lap.
“You wake him, you spend the night on the balcony with him,” Chris threatened, but without his usual force.
“See you in the morning,” Jim said, heading up to his room. “Think you could pass up on the bedtime chanting tonight, Chief?”
“I told you, it was just that I trod on some tacks I’d dropped,” Blair said, rising to it before he caught himself. “Put the earplugs in, Jim. I know a dawn one too.”
It really looked as though they could all be safely left until morning. Josiah snatched a last look at his team leader—a bit battered, and nearly snoring, but so visibly alive—and followed Simon to the comfort of a game on the box and a real bed.
Pierre Ducos was tired of waiting in the uncomfortable hollow beneath a bush. It had provided his hiding place when he crawled out of the sea, but he had long since grown to hate it as he waited throughout the long afternoon.
His impatient annoyance was directed fairly equally at his colleagues—fools to get themselves captured; at Brackett, whose plan must have been at fault; and at the CIA and Cascade PD, who, though clearly inferior to their French equivalents, had been doing an irritatingly thorough job. Now that it was dark, he was unsure whether they had finally withdrawn or were still securing the perimeter of the estate. Fortunately he wasn’t planning to go near the house or the road. He shifted, and a branch poked into his back. How much longer did he have to grovel in this discomfort?
He moved cautiously, wriggling out onto the sandy ground. He was still well-concealed here. He looked around. No lights. No sound of any kind in his vicinity. Even at the house there was no visible hint of a police presence, though he assumed there would be a man on duty somewhere.
Squirming a little further, he cleared most of the bushes and was close onto the open ground above the shore. He’d still be sheltered from anyone inland seeing him when he stood up; he’d be able to watch for lights anywhere in the grounds, out at sea or back where the road lay.
After a final pause to listen he crawled out of the last bit of cover and rose to a crouch.
That was when he realised he’d miscalculated. Everything seemed to happen at once.
“Don’t move!” someone ordered.
Lights blazed at him from all directions.
“Hands on your head!” came the voice again from somewhere behind them.
While he blinked, dazed, hands seized him and checked him thoroughly for weapons.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Ducos.”
Everything about the nature of the arrest told him that this wasn’t the Cascade PD. He searched his memory for the name of Miller’s successor.
“I’m surprised at you, Ducos. I would never have expected you to be involved in such a fiasco.”
Indeed. Finesse, subtlety, those were what Ducos thought of as his trademarks. He should never have allowed his curiosity to draw him into this. But then, he had been sadly mistaken in Brackett’s abilities. In the circumstances, he owed Brackett nothing…
“You don’t want me, Highfield,” he said, staring into the glare as if he could see through it. “You want Miller, and Brackett. I would just be an embarrassment.”
“I do want Miller and Brackett,” Highfield agreed. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any prospect of getting them just now, and I’m sure my superiors will be very unhappy if I don’t offer them anyone.”
“I think we could come to an arrangement,” Ducos said. “I can bring Miller and Brackett to you. But it had better be quickly. At the moment they’re probably somewhere in this area; who knows how long that will be the case.”
The loft was dark when Jim woke. He’d already extended his sight to read the time on the clock before he was awake enough to appreciate the fact that his senses seemed to be settled again. The exercises Blair had persuaded him to go through when he’d rather just have gone to sleep must have helped after all, though it hadn’t felt like it at the time. Nothing hurt now, and although his hearing was still muted to normal levels, the irritating background ringing had gone.
2:10, the clock told him. Blair was sound asleep, a slow-breathing cocoon on the floor, with a few strands of wild hair at the top of the sleeping bag the only part of him visible. Jim got carefully, stiffly, from the bed without waking him. Although he was aching and sore in a lot of places, it was his stomach that had awakened him. The soup had been great, but it had been a long time ago, and he had several meals to catch up on. He decided it was worth the painful negotiation of the stairs to raid the fridge.
Once he was safely down, he realised he wasn’t the only one awake. Chris moved, peering into what to him was darkness.
“It’s okay,” Jim whispered, going over to him. “Can I get you anything?”
Jim fetched him a glass of water, Tylenol and a share of the cold meat, bread and cookies. He could tell Chris was hot and sore, the burns making themselves fully felt now. They ate in silence; Vin, stretched on the other couch, was a light sleeper, and Jim knew it was only because he was exhausted that he hadn’t already wakened at their movements.
When he was taking the plates back into the kitchen, he saw the light on the phone and realised someone had left a message. He’d switched the phone off before he went to bed, but now he was up he thought he’d check it. He could hear well enough to turn the volume low.
He’d half expected it to be Simon, but it was a voice he didn’t immediately recognise.
“Detective Ellison. I hope you get this message in time for it to be some use to you. I shouldn’t be calling you, of course, but I’ve decided to anyway. We’ve picked up the Frenchman Standish saw swim ashore. We got him early this evening—he’d been lying low all day. The part that will interest you is that he’s sold Brackett and Miller out. He’s arranging to meet with them—saying he’s managed to obtain transport and can get them safely out if they can reach him. We’ve kept Cascade PD out of the loop of course. If things go according to plan, Brackett and Miller will show up sometime between midnight and first light. Later rather than sooner, because it’s almost midnight now, and Ducos has only just made contact with Brackett on his cell phone. Brackett’s careful with his use of it, so plans aren’t being made very fast. The meeting should go down on that stretch of coast road—about a couple of miles after the junction with the private road, heading towards Cascade. I th!
ought you might want to be there. Needless to say, you didn’t get this from me.”
Rigby, Jim thought as the call ended. He’d only spoken to him a couple of times, but he was sure that’s who it was. Which meant that the call was genuine, and they needed to get a move on if they wanted to make sure the CIA didn’t botch this up. He told Chris in a hasty whisper, knowing that his reaction would be the same. Whatever they felt like physically, they weren’t going to miss this. They’d both slept half-dressed, so it was matter of moments to find shoes and jackets. He half expected Chris to wake Vin, but Chris hesitated then left him. Jim had no intention of waking Blair; he didn’t want Blair anywhere near Brackett.
It occurred to him Blair and the others would be disconcerted to wake up and find them gone, though. He scrawled a quick note: Don’t worry, we’re fine, just gone to tie up some loose ends. Back for breakfast. Jim
“How are we going to get there?” Chris asked when they were safely out in the hallway. Jim paused, taken aback. He couldn’t believe he had actually forgotten what Brackett had done to his truck.
“Ezra’s hire car,” Chris said, answering his own question. He went back inside and found the keys. Recognising the car might have been a problem, though Chris had come to the loft in it, but luckily it was parked where they would have expected.
“You’d better drive,” Chris said. “I can’t use this arm much.”
Neither of them was really fit to drive, but Jim thought he could manage. His knee was still painful, but his sight was restored enough to give him plenty of warning of any obstacles even in the dark.
“Okay,” he said.
“Ain’t okay,” stated a voice immediately behind them, startling them. “Ain’t neither of y’ going anywhere.”
Jim missed his heightened hearing. Normally he’d have had some warning that Vin had woken after all and followed them down. Vin hadn’t bothered to pick up a jacket. He stood there hunched over slightly, favouring his bruised side, and more angry than Jim had ever seen him.
“What th’ hell d’you think th’ two of you ‘re playin’ at?”
Jim glanced at Chris, who told Vin hurriedly. It didn’t improve Vin’s temper.
“You’re going after Brackett ‘n Miller without even lettin’ anyone know? You out of yer minds?”
“We haven’t got time for this,” Chris said, awkward and obviously not happy with the situation. “It could be going down now. Get in if you want to come.”
“Ain’t decided about that yet. Might just shoot out th’ tires on th’ car and let Simon Banks know yer sticking yer necks out fer the fun of it.”
Jim winced. He wasn’t sure why Chris hadn’t wanted Vin along, but it looked like they were going to have to take him, on his terms.
The door behind Vin opened again, and Blair came stumbling out, dishevelled and half awake. Jim knew, looking at him, that he wasn’t going to be left behind either. Then again, maybe with someone as tricky as Brackett, Blair was safest exactly where Jim could see him.
“What’s going on? Jim, you aren’t thinking of driving?”
Jim looked at the keys in his hand. “Of course not. You’re going to drive. Tie your laces, get in and I’ll tell you where we’re going.”
Blair was not nearly awake enough to share Vin’s fury. “Okay,” he agreed, fumbling unsuccessfully with his trainer laces.
“No one’s going anywhere ‘less we all agree it’s my call to decide when we pull out,” Vin said shortly.
Jim thought the chance of Vin wanting to pull out of any action once he’d set eyes on Miller or Brackett was minimal. “Fine by me,” he said.
“And me,” Chris agreed. “Get in; we’re worrying the boys in the squad car.”
Jim gave the uniforms a wave to show there was no problem—especially no problem they might want to call Simon Banks about. Vin and Chris faced one another in a silent shouting match for a second or two. Blair, who’d finally mastered the laces after several attempts, dropped into the driver’s seat. He hadn’t even noticed the battle of wills going on next to him. Jim decided to ignore it, and got in beside Blair. The two back doors slammed a moment later; the silence in the back seat was the sort that usually heralded a storm, but it wasn’t breaking yet.
“Make for the coast road, Chief,” Jim said.
He hoped they wouldn’t arrive to find it was all over.
Nathan’s cell phone woke him from an unpleasant dream of burning trucks. Disoriented for a moment in the darkness, he couldn’t even remember where he was, let alone where his jacket and phone were. He thought everyone else would have been woken up by the time he struggled out of his sleeping bag, but when he turned on one of the lights he found the room empty. Where were Chris and Vin? Come to that, was Ellison even here? He was the one most likely to have woken.
He found his jacket on the hooks by the door, and took out his phone.
“Nathan?” It was JD, far too wide awake for 3:00 in the morning. “Nathan, would you be able to pick me and Buck up from Cascade General? We’re okay, really, but we don’t have transport. Lizzy brought us but she had to go and…”
“What are you doing at the hospital?” Nathan interrupted, finding his voice.
“We came to have Buck’s hand X-rayed. The python sort of crushed it a bit.”
“Where was he putting… no, on second thoughts, I really don’t want to know. Is he all right?”
“Yes, well, it’s sort of broken, but not really badly. The python’s still a bit upset with him though, and the nurses weren’t keen on it being on the premises, so Lizzy took it home. Can you come and get us?”
“I don’t know,” Nathan said, wondering. He’d been walking around the room as he talked, and had found Jim’s note. “Seems like Jim and Chris have gone off somewhere and taken Vin, and I can’t see how they’d have gone except in the car.”
“Why not Blair’s?”
“It was at Rainier. I’ll take a look, JD, and call you back.”
He found that the car was missing, and Blair had gone with the other three, and decided this was a good enough reason for calling Simon Banks in the middle of the night. Of all his ‘patients’ it was Ezra who got the gold star for once. He was still asleep exactly where he ought to be, though he was fidgeting restlessly. Nathan felt his forehead lightly to see if he was feverish. Ezra stirred. “No!” he mumbled. “Not fire, no!”
Nathan’s own dreams were fresh enough in his mind for him to know where Ezra’s thoughts were, and he decided not to leave him there. “Ez,” he said softly. “Come on now, wake up.”
Ezra blinked, coughed and tried to sit up.
“Slow,” Nathan warned. “That legs going to hurt more now than it did last night.”
“It’s still last night,” Ezra muttered. “Nathan, it’s three in the morning. Why are you waking me up?”
“Thought you might sooner be awake than dreaming what it looked like you were dreaming. I’d just been there.”
Ezra shuddered, remembering. “Oh. Yes. Thank you. On second thoughts, even the early hours of the morning are preferable. I suspect that the scenario Brackett devised is going to haunt us all for some time to come.” He looked at the lighted room beyond his door. And its emptiness. “Do we have a further problem.”
“Think we might,” Nathan said, handing him Jim’s note.
“How extremely informative. Do I gather they’ve taken Vin as well?”
“Vin and Blair have gone. Note sounds like it was meant for Blair though, so maybe they woke up later. Hard to say, without knowing what’s going on.”
“If Chris considered departing on some further venture without waking Vin, I imagine the consequences will be severe—for Chris.”
“Hell to pay,” Nathan agreed. “Think they must have gone together though, because there was only the one car.”
“Mine!” Ezra said, horrified.
“Have you seen the catastrophic effect those two have on vehicles!”
Nathan couldn’t honestly offer any reassurance there. “Nothing we can do ’til Simon Banks gets here.”
Ezra was wide awake now, though, and thinking. “For them to depart at such an unearthly hour something must have happened, and the most likely thing is some kind of phone call. I am sure I saw Jim switch to the answering machine last night. Now, they may have been contacted on a cell phone, but if not, the message should still be there.”
They’d listened to it once by the time Josiah and Simon arrived. They all four listened to it again.
Simon’s rumble of anger spoke for them all. “Of all the stupid, irresponsible, reckless, inconsiderate, dangerous stunts…! When I get hold of Ellison…!”
Nathan could hear that Simon’s fear for his friend that was fuelling his anger.
It matched his own.
Chris was aware of the pulse of Vin’s anger as tangibly as the throbbing in his arm. He didn’t try to say anything. He knew exactly why Vin was angry—and was probably hurt, too. Vin hadn’t spent the last couple of days fighting to make everyone listen to him, then following desperately along a trail of destruction, only to be left behind while Chris went back into the situation.
Chris hadn’t done it casually, though, whatever Vin thought. Not to keep him safe, either. Jim’s instinctive reaction had been to keep Blair out of danger, but Chris knew Vin was more than capable of keeping himself safe. It hadn’t even been because Vin was bruised and exhausted and needed the sleep. But he had made the decision to leave him behind.
His problem with Vin was an uneasy, undefined thing, a long way from their usual complete confidence in one another. It had been there since the final showdown with Josephs. He should have had it out with Vin, but the time had never seemed quite right. And he’d never really wanted to think about the disaster it would have been if Vin had reached Josephs with that home-made knife.
He snatched a glance at Vin. The street lighting didn’t give quite enough view of his face, but the stiffness of his body communicated discomfort and anger. Chris himself was tired and sore, and with Jim and Blair in the front seat it still seemed the wrong time to have it out—and especially to say that he’d decided to leave Vin behind because he was worried exactly what he might do if they caught up with Brackett and Miller.
He might be wrong to worry, anyway. It had been a very different situation with Josephs, and Vin had been confused from the drugs and the manipulation of his memories. Chris just couldn’t get it out of his mind.
They turned onto the coast road. The drive became less smooth, and Chris shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Nathan had been right. He was going to be feeling some of these injuries for a few days. He braced himself so he wouldn’t knock his arm. Vin made a slight move, as if he’d been about to reach out and steady him against the movement of the car but had changed his mind.
They would have to talk, Chris thought. Maybe he could start with the question of Sadie, why Vin had kept meeting her in secret. Or with the two men Vin had scared into spilling information. Banks was taking that pretty seriously, but Vin had been dismissive the one time Chris mentioned it. The person whose judgement Chris would trust was his undercover agent, and he’d had no chance to talk to Ezra on his own.
“How far along here do you think we should go, Jim,” Blair asked.
Chris shook off his thoughts and paid attention to his surroundings. Not that he could see much. They’d better all hope Jim could use his senses tonight.
“I’d say we’re a couple of miles from the place Rigby described,” Jim said. “We don’t want to get too close until we’ve had a chance to assess things. Pull in if you see a clear space off the side of the road, and see if you can help me to listen. I can’t seem to get my hearing much above normal.”
“We can probably piggyback it on another sense,” Blair said—incomprehensibly to Chris, but Jim seemed to accept it.
“It’ll have to be scent,” he said as Blair spotted a reasonable clearing and pulled off the road.
That wasn’t because the night was impenetrably dark. When they got out of the car, Chris realised that even without heightened senses he could just about see adequately: there was no cloud, and the moon was still up. The problem with using Jim’s sight in this situation was the lack of a vantage point. Maybe if they got desperate they could send him up a tree, but even that might not give enough height.
It wasn’t Chris’s decision, anyway. He leaned up against the car and tried to push his various aches and pains away from the forefront of his consciousness, while Jim and Blair debated it.
“Go with scent,” Blair said in the end. “You could find where the trap’s set up, anyway. There have to be several cars—that means hot metal, tires, probably some smell of gas. And numbers of people, so there’ll be body odours.”
Buck would have loved that one. Chris wondered how he was getting on with the python. He’d have liked to wonder aloud to Vin, but the silence between them was still vibrant with discord.
“Are you finding anything?” Blair asked, after Jim had stood for a while in silence, not visibly doing anything, even sniffing.
“Yeah. Just placed them. They’re a bit closer than we expected I think, but I’m not used to judging distances this way.”
“What have you got?” Chris asked.
“Cars. People. I think that now I’ve got a location maybe I could stretch my hearing.”
Blair put a hand lightly on his arm. “Take it slowly. Just let your scent lead your hearing and carry it along. It’s not going to be painful now.” His voice was soft, remarkably persuasive. Chris could almost see it helping Ellison to stretch out and listen.
“I’ve got them!” Jim said. “I was right about distance. No more than a mile ahead and its definitely the CIA. I’m only getting bits and pieces at the moment. Trivia. They’ve been waiting a while…”
He fell silent, his attention somewhere they could not follow.
It was half fascinating half frustrating being a spectator of it. There was no other option, though. Chris tried to find a way to lean that didn’t make any of his injuries hurt worse, and waited.
“I’ve got Ducos,” Jim said at last, becoming more alert. “It must be him. Slight accent, and he’s saying that Brackett will only call when he’s ready. They’ve no contact with Miller. Someone—Highfield?—wants Ducos to keep trying to get him.”
Another wait. Chris endured the constant pain in his arm, the intermittent spasmodic cramping in his leg. The night was still and quiet. Vin drifted off into the undergrowth soundlessly—to check the security of their position, Chris assumed.
For most of an hour, Jim gave occasional bulletins. There was a brief call from Brackett, saying he was on his way to the rendezvous. More attempts to contact Miller. As the time to spring the trap drew closer, a general movement of the CIA men. Obviously the operation couldn’t be set too close to their vehicles; Brackett would be wary. Then there was another very brief call from Brackett saying he was close.
“I don’t think he’s where he says he is, though,” Jim added, striving to make out the source of Brackett’s voice rather than picking it up from Ducos’ phone. “He should be beyond them, further towards the estate, but I think he’s this side of them.”
He paused, then started to relay it more quickly, as the pace of the action increased. “Highfield’s telling Ducos all his men are in position. Ducos is trying to get Brackett again.” He paused. “I’m getting a really strong smell of gas, Chief, as though the cars were nearer, but nothing’s moved.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re straining to listen—sort of cranking up everything else?” Blair suggested. “Anyway, you’re hearing okay.”
“Yeah. I’ve got Ducos and Brackett now. Ducos is giving his position again. Says he’ll get Brackett out… help him go after us again… Brackett says that that game’s over… Ducos needs to learn to accept when he’s lost. Damn! I don’t think Brackett’s just being cautious in the way he’s moving. I think he’s on to them. He’s near the CIA vehicles—very near—can’t have missed seeing them I don’t think. Ducos again. Says we were just lucky. Brackett says we made our own luck. Wish I knew what the hell Brackett’s doing; from his voice he’s moving in a circle. He’s talking again now. Says he’d back us over Ducos any day—uh oh, he’s definitely onto them. He just called Ducos a treacherous French bastard. He’s telling Ducos and Highfield they’re going to see how much you can learn even when you lose a game… don’t know what he means by that… oh… shit… yes I do!”
He broke off and swung round to them. “I’ve dialled it all back, Chief,” he said quickly to Blair. “I’ve just realised why I could smell gas. I know what Brackett’s doing. Any minute now.”
Even as he spoke, there was a flicker of flame from somewhere in the night ahead of them, then it blazed up and there was the unmistakable sound of a car’s gas tank exploding.
“Highfield’s cars!” Chris realised.
“That’s what Brackett learned,” Blair said, understanding.
“It’s certainly going to distract them while he gets away,” Jim said. “And there’s nothing we can do about it yet—I daren’t try to pick him up with my senses while all that’s going on.”
‘All that’ was a rising flare and black smoke, and the repeated explosion of gas tanks. Chris didn’t know how many cars Highfield had had there, but it didn’t look as if any of them had survived. He realised how vividly until now they’d been following the scene through Jim’s words. He felt as if his own senses had somehow been cut off now he could only watch the distant fire begin to spread.
Jim had already called for fire trucks and the PD.
“Though I don’t think they’ve any more chance of picking up Brackett than Highfield has now.”
“What about us?” Chris asked. “You, anyway.”
Jim shrugged, dubious. “Maybe. If he’s got any of the fuel on him, that would be the best chance. It’s a strong smell. But Brackett’s careful. He might even guess that we’re somewhere around. He’ll head away fast, and probably for the sea. I’ll try in a few minutes. Once he’s well away from the scene I might be able to pick him up. The fire’s overwhelming anything close by.”
It was quite literally doing that, Chris realised. The flames from the destroyed cars were rising well above the woodland. Luckily it wasn’t too dry—was Cascade ever that dry? And help was on the way. He thought he could already just hear a distant siren.
“You think Brackett was heading for the sea?” he said.
“Seems his best option. I think he may have come from there, too. Looking back, maybe there was a smell of seawater. I wouldn’t be surprised if he deliberately came there soaking wet—he’d obviously planned out what he was going to do. And it worked.”
“He’s made a lovely bonfire out of Highfield’s ambush,” Chris agreed.
“That was Brackett was it?”
The loud voice from the other side of the road startled them—and not only because it was unexpected. The threat was more immediate than that. They swung round to see the dim light show their danger. The man who spoke was carrying a gun, currently aimed directly at Blair.
“Miller!” Jim said, somehow holding himself back from a fatally rash move.
“In person. Good for Brackett. I wondered why he was listening to that little rat Ducos. I should have known he had something planned. I hope my previous employers take their losses out of Ducos’ hide. However, it’s my own hide I’m worried about just now. Throw down your guns. Thank you. Now line up next to the car and put your hands on your heads. It’s quite light enough for accurate shooting.”
Chris, already leaned on the car, raised his hands—which hurt—and watched Miller stroll across to them, the direction of his aim never shifting from Blair. The siren sounded much closer. “All right. Hands down. Look as if you’re watching the fire,” Miller said sharply. He couldn’t miss from this distance. They all obeyed.
“You were careless you know,” Miller said conversationally. “I’m surprised. You knew there were potential hostiles in the area, and all three of you were gawking at the fire.” He moved a little closer as the firetruck swept along the road, but it completely ignored them. They were too far off the road, Chris thought, and probably just looked like a group of people who’d pulled up when they saw the fire ahead.
But they had an ace Miller obviously didn’t know about. Three, Miller had said. And he wasn’t watching the shadows around the clearing.
Chris’s eyes shifted to Jim, then to the darkness of the undergrowth. Where Vin was, he didn’t know, but he got the slightest of nods from the sentinel. Jim could sense him somewhere close; they should stall and wait for him to act.
“I don’t want three hostages,” Miller said. “In fact, Ellison, if I never see you and or Larabee again that’ll suit me fine. But I am going to borrow your roommate. Get in the car, Sandburg. You’re going to be my ticket out of Cascade.”
“I don’t think that’ll work, man,” Blair said, playing for time. Another fire truck raced past, closely followed by a police car. None of them noticed anything untoward in the clearing.
“Get in the car, Sandburg,” Miller said again. “Ellison, you and Larabee walk away over there, to the other side of the clearing.” As Blair moved to open the car door, and Miller gestured very slightly to Jim, the gun briefly moved from its focus on Blair. That must have been all Vin was waiting for.
Chris never saw him until he moved. Miller never saw him at all. Vin came fast, from the shadows, and crashed a heavy branch down on Miller’s gun arm. The gun fired harmlessly into the ground, then dropped as Vin struck again. Chris saw the branch swing a third time onto Miller’s back and Vin aim his own gun as Miller fell.
Chris moved fast. His fear of how far Vin might go flooded back, and he desperately wanted to make sure that shot wasn’t fired. In the urgency of his alarm, he forgot the weakness in the strained muscles of his leg.
He took no more than a step. The leg failed under him. He stumbled and went down. The pain as he landed awkwardly on his burned arm almost made him pass out. Struggling to get up, he could only gasp. He felt close to throwing up and the sweat sprang on his face.
For a moment that was all he knew, then he realised that at least there had been no gunshot. His vision cleared a little. Vin was no longer anywhere near Miller, but crouched next to Chris. Blair held the gun, and Jim was kneeling on Miller, who was swearing and kicking.
He drew in a deep breath of relief. Vin was looking at him as if he thought he’d lost his mind.
“Chris? You okay? What th’ hell were you tryin’ to do?”
Chris couldn’t answer. All he could do was grit his teeth. If he opened his mouth now, the only sound that would come out was a humiliating moan. Darkness threatened at the edges of his sight.
Vin moved rather clumsily to squat next to him and to help him sit with his head down over his knees. Nerve endings Chris didn’t know he had seemed to be screaming in his arm. He daren’t raise his head again until the sick giddiness passed. He hoped Jim was managing to deal with Miller. It sounded as though he was. The noise Miller was making now was more a sort of half-suffocated grunt.
“Jim’s got him okay,” Vin said, guessing his thoughts. “You come down on that arm?”
“Yeah.” He was still breathing in gasps. One word answers would have to do.
“Should’ve stayed put,” Vin said, but his arm round Chris’s shoulders was friendly enough, and he settled next to him, grunting as his own muscles protested. “I had Miller y’ know. I wasn’t about to let him get up again.”
“Knew that,” Chris said truthfully. The last thing he wanted was for Vin to think Chris doubted his competence.
“Then why th’…” Vin stopped.
Sometimes he was just too good at reading Chris’s thoughts.
“Y’ thought I was going t’ kill him,” he said. “That was it. Y’ thought I was goin’ t’ shoot him.”
Chris couldn’t see his face, but Vin didn’t sound angry at this, more like someone who’d just worked out a puzzle.
“Y’ thought that all along,” Vin said, understanding too much. His arm was still warm across Chris’s back though, and he didn’t move away.
There wasn’t much point in denying it. “Still have nightmares where you gut Josephs,” Chris admitted quietly, glad that the other two were busy with Miller and with calling in the PD to their location. He managed to lift his head enough now to see that they’d got the ex CIA man immobilised. If anything, Jim looked invigorated by it, though he was limping a bit more than he had been. Blair looked over to them, concerned, but Vin waved him away.
“We’re okay,” he told him.
Chris took a deep breath and decided to finish what he had to say; he hoped they’d still be okay then. “And that girl Sadie—her case worker called me last week, off the record. She was a bit edgy about you seeing her. Thought I knew about it. Then there was Botting and Alldred last night. Banks wasn’t happy about whatever you did to them.”
“Just scared ’em a bit t’ get th’ truth out of ’em,” Vin said, unperturbed. “Y’ c’n ask Ez. Hell, even Blair got in on th’ act. Maybe I pushed it a bit, but they weren’t in no danger from it. Should ha’ told y’ ’bout Sadie, but t’ be honest I thought it might be easier fer you not to know with regulations ‘n such. She’s just an old friend, Chris. Didn’t mean no more’n that.”
“I’ll clear it with the case worker,” Chris said, hoping Vin would take it as an apology.
Vin laughed softly. “Damn, you must be feelin’ bad. You ain’t t’ blame, Chris. Come t’ that, y’ain’t th’ only one t’ have nightmares ’bout gutting Josephs. I might’ve done it if’n I’d reached him. I know what that would’ve meant fer th’ team. You got a right t’ be a bit paranoid… good word that; Ez likes it… Anyway, y’ bein’ that way makes me feel better.”
“Why’s that?” Chris asked, finding he was leaning more and more heavily against Vin’s support. He tried not to, because he remembered Vin’s bruised ribs.
“Y’r okay,” Vin said. “Keep still. I got y’. Want me t’ tell y’ why it’s a good thing yer a bit over th’ top on this one? See, I realised just now that Brackett ‘n Miller really had had more ‘n enough of th’ pair of you. They wouldn’t’ve come lookin’ fer you if someone had paid ’em. I was listening t’ Jim and feelin’ all kinds of a fool. Specially fer th’ hospital. ‘N makin’ JD git under th’ car. But now I know yer as bad, so I reckon we c’n look fools tergether.”
The easy humour in his voice did more for Chris than a bucket of painkillers. He let Vin’s arm hold him firmly in place and watched Jim haul Miller to the car and bounce him across the hood. The hood seemed to dent more easily than Miller. Blair looked at it doubtfully.
“Well, it was lucky for us you were being careful out here,” Chris said to Vin. “Miller had us just where he wanted us.”
“Yeah. Maybe if I keep rescuin’ you, y’ll realise I’m really back on th’ team.”
“Keep rescuing me?”
“We saved your ass back at th’ estate,” Vin said confidently. “And I’m just goin’ t’ have t’ save it again.”
“How d’you work that out?”
“Blair was talking to Banks, and sounds like Banks is nearly here. How much chance d’you think there is Nathan won’t be with him?”
“Right. ‘N if y’ want me t’ shovel y’ out of it, better get yer head on straight about not leaving me behind.”
“Got it,” Chris said. “Have to admit, I was thinking of doing it again next week. Mary’s got me talking to all those kindergarten kids for that damn school project and I was going to leave you to mind the office. But I’ve learned my lesson—you’ll be right there backing me up.”
” Now that’s just… devious,” Vin said, calling up the word with some satisfaction. “Still, if y’r bein’ nasty ‘n tricky y’ must be feelin’ a bit better. Maybe we c’n get y’ on yer feet ‘fore they get here.”
“Don’t you try to lift me,” Chris said quickly. “You ought to be careful of those ribs.”
“I’m younger,” Vin said. “I heal quicker. But anyway, Jim’s finished spoiling the paintwork with Miller’s head. He can give you a hand up.”
He called to Blair, and he and Jim came and hoisted them to their feet—just in time. Simon’s car followed by another came up fast and pulled sharply onto the grass.
“Ready?” Vin muttered.
Chris didn’t think they had much hope of getting anything past Nathan, but at least he was standing upright to meet him, and hoping to stay that way.
Simon and Nathan got hastily out of the first car, Rafe and Henri from the one behind. For a man who didn’t usually take to being woken up in the middle of the night, or to detectives who went off on harebrained errands without back up, Simon seemed to be in a reasonably good mood. He did point out to Jim the general stupidity of his actions, but since they were all on their feet and Miller wasn’t, his remarks lacked force. They transferred the sullen Miller to Rafe and Henri’s car.
“Think we should tell the CIA we’ve got him?” Simon said cheerfully to Jim.
“We could ask him our own questions first,” Jim said. “Like who shot Josephs—and Sandburg?”
Miller, grim-faced, didn’t quite flinch.
Nathan had hurried over to them while this was going on, but to Chris’s amazement—and relief—he seemed distracted. He gave them a quick glance, noted with relief they were on their feet and not bleeding, and explained: “Seems like Buck’s got his hand broken fooling with that snake. I’ve got to get to the hospital and pick him and JD up. You sure you haven’t hurt those ribs, Vin?”
“All I did was pick up a branch ‘n hit Miller with it,” Vin said. “Jim did th’ heavy work.”
“Well, he shouldn’t be doing anything either with that knee,” Nathan muttered. “Still, it don’t look like he’s much worse. What about you, Chris. You look a bit white.”
“It’s the light,” Chris said. The dawn was just showing, and he hoped Nathan would blame his pallor on the greying sky. “Don’t worry about us, Nate. Go and pick up those two idiots. Banks will take us back to the loft.”
“How did Buck annoy the snake?” Blair asked, possibly helping to distract Nathan, but maybe just thinking of safety on any future date.
“I didn’t ask,” Nathan said. “Could make a guess though. Well, if you’re sure you’re okay… Josiah’s back at the loft minding Ezra—only don’t say I put it like that—and he’ll sort you out. Get some sleep when you get in. Take some painkillers, Chris.”
“I’ll see he does,” Vin said. Chris couldn’t protest. He couldn’t even elbow Vin, because it was only Vin’s surreptitious hand under his arm that was keeping him upright. “Don’t you worry, Nate,” Vin went on. “Go and get Buck ‘fore he does somethin’ worse.”
That was a powerful argument, and it got Nathan moving.
“Rescue number three,” Vin murmured, as Nathan drove off. “Come on, Cowboy. Let’s get y’ into Banks’ car. Nate might look back and notice if y’ fall flat on yer face.”
“Or if both of you do,” Simon said. “Let me take him, Tanner. You and Jim can limp along under your own steam. How did you manage to miss the trouble, Sandburg? It’s not like you to be last man standing. Jim, you’d better go in front and stretch that leg out.”
“What about Brackett?” Jim said.
“What about him? You got any idea where he is?”
“Any lead on where to look for him?”
“Then let someone else search for him.”
“I could do a better job.”
“You’re whacked,” Simon said.
“If he was going for the sea, he’ll have reached it by now,” Blair said. “We’re not that far inland.”
Jim made the irritable gesture of someone who knows everyone else is right. “I wanted Brackett.”
“We all want him,” Simon said. “I’ve got a helicopter out, and the coast’s busier with cops than it ever is with tourists. To say nothing of Highfield’s lot—they’d really like to get him. You’ll just have to leave it to someone else, Jim. Get in the car.”
He was already helping Chris in. Jim stiffly lowered himself into the front seat, and from the sigh that escaped him, things were beginning to catch up with him as well. Blair was the only one feeling lively enough to give Simon an account of how they came to be on the scene of the CIA set up, and what had happened.
Chris hardly noticed the drive back to the loft. He sank into a sort of uneasy doze, his head rolling against Vin’s shoulder, and only woke properly when he found Josiah helping him out on to the sidewalk.
The ride up in the elevator and the walk along the hallway took about as much out of him as a ten mile run. He was glad to sink down on the couch and let Josiah fetch him coffee.
“And these,” Vin said, putting two of the painkillers into his hand. “Less y’d rather I shoot em down yer gullet, like Nettie does t’ th’ cat. And when y’ve taken them, yer goin’ t’ bed.”
“Thought Ez was in the bed.”
“I have slept for quite long enough,” Ezra said, swinging over to him on his crutches. “Incidentally earning myself an almost unheard of approval rating from Nathan. I suggest you swallow those things, Chris. They only work when they’re ingested. Staring at them is not adequate.”
Josiah loomed up, lending silent but formidable support to their cause. Chris looked at the three of them and decided his arm was bothering them even more than it was bothering him. He swallowed the damn things, and accepted Josiah’s help into Blair’s small room.
It was a long time since anything had felt as good as stretching out on that bed. The painkillers already seemed to be taking the edge off the fire in his arm. He eased himself into a comfortable position and relaxed, and felt sleep pulling at him. In the other room the phone rang, and he heard voices then laughter. A minute later Vin looked in, Ezra—still virtuously on the crutches—looking over his shoulder.
“Y’ain’t asleep then,” Vin said, coming in.
Ezra followed. “We thought if you were still awake you might appreciate hearing of the latest vicissitudes in the life of our long suffering medical expert.”
“Nate?” Chris asked. He couldn’t manage more than a word. His tongue felt as heavy as his eyelids.
Vin came and sat down on the side of the bed. “He got t’ ER and sprung Buck, then he heard a whole load a fuss from around th’ vending machine.”
“Apparently the evening’s excitement had left JD in need of some further repast.”
“Well, y’know what them machines is like.”
“Of course, if the item you have attempted to purchase fails to drop successfully, the appropriate course of action is to apply to the desk for remuneration, or tilt the whole structure gently.”
“Ain’t t’ stick yer hand up it, anyway.”
Chris’s eyes had closed involuntarily, but he forced them open again at this.
“Good ‘n proper.”
“Extricating him is proving a slow process.”
“Nate’s had just about enough of th’ lot of us, he says.”
“Of the lot of YOU, I think you will find, if you reexamine his words carefully. Josiah and I were completely exonerated.”
“That’s why yer using them crutches? Suck up.”
“Now that expression is juvenile even for you. Nathan on the other hand was quite creative, even poetic, in the remarks he made about you two when he discovered your absence last night.”
Chris let his eyes close properly while they wrangled, and he drifted somewhere on a comfortable border between waking and sleeping. There was a brief pause. He could almost sense the two of them peering at him. Then Ezra’s voice came, quieter.
“I think he may be asleep, though I suppose that would indicate a remarkable ability to ignore us.”
“Prob’ly lurkin’ and hopin’ we say somethin’ t’—what’s that when y’ let slip somethin’ y’ wish y’ hadn’t?”
There was the slight thump of Ezra’s crutches as he came a hop or two nearer the bed.
“I would say he’s definitely asleep.”
“And exactly what evidence do you base that opinion on?”
“I c’n tell.”
“That is not evidence.”
“Bet on it?”
Still drifting, peacefully, Chris could hear Ezra wavering. “I would be happy to wager, but exactly how do we decide the outcome.”
“Worry about that after we’ve made th’ bet. Ten dollars says he ain’t asleep.”
“Done. I suggest we let Josiah arbitrate.”
“No need,” Vin said smugly. “Y’ain’t asleep, are y’, Chris?”
Chris would never hear the end of it if he didn’t answer.
“‘M trying,” he said.
Vin patted him on the shoulder. “Y c’n sleep now y’ve earned my doughnut money. Pay up, Ez.”
“He could be talking in his sleep,” Ezra protested.
“Wouldn’t ha’ made sense.”
“Pay up or I’ll take yer crutches and tell Nate y’ been a bad boy.”
“I’m not getting involved, and if the pair of you don’t shut up I’m coming in to put a gun in Chris’s hand. He ought to be able to hit one of you without opening his eyes.”
Chris floated on the edge of sleep. A thump and a dipping feeling near his feet suggested Ezra had sat down at the other end of the bed. Vin was a warm lump stealing space at the head. At least he knew where they were. And he didn’t need to worry about Vin any more. He’d only realised tonight what a weight that had been. Vin was back all right… though you couldn’t call it three rescues… one and a half maybe…
He didn’t quite finish the thought before he was asleep.
Jim stared from the balcony across early morning Cascade, and wondered just how far away Lee Brackett was now. Miller was in custody; they’d got assorted foreign nationals under arrest in hospital; he and Chris could definitely be called the winners in this game… but it really bugged him that Brackett had escaped.
“Come on in, Jim,” Blair called. “You ought to get off that leg.”
Jim’s knee hurt. Come to that, most of him hurt. Much as he hated giving in, he limped inside and dropped heavily on the couch.
“Did you hear about JD and the Twinkie?” Blair asked.
Jim was so tired that for a moment this made no sense at all. Was it some new Disney movie? Then he remembered the phone call. He hadn’t listened to it. He’d let his hearing drop to muffled as soon as he got in. Now he listened with disbelief to Blair’s—probably embellished—account.
“Nate’s going to take them straight to the airport from the hospital,” Josiah said. “I’ll book a flight this evening for the rest of us.”
Jim realised the living room was surprisingly empty. Curiosity dragged him to his feet and at a slow limp to Blair’s room. Tired as he was, he had to smile. He’d never seen Chris look less deadly. He was sprawled on his back, very much in need of a shave, his mouth slightly open and his burned left arm propped gently on a pile of Blair’s not-quite-dirty-enough-to-wash clothes. Vin was leaned up at the top of the bed, ten dollars for some reason loosely clutched in his hand, and Ezra was tilting precariously at the other end, a pile of cards dropped in his lap. They were both fast asleep as well.
He limped back out to the couch. He wasn’t going to move again for hours.
“I’ll get you a coffee,” Blair said. “As last man standing…”
“You can wash the dishes and clean up, too, and there’s trash to take out… as last man standing,” Jim said hastily.
He leaned back and accepted the coffee gratefully, though. In spite of his aches, in spite of Brackett, it wasn’t a bad morning.
There was just one thing missing.
“I thought I might go out and get some doughnuts,” Josiah said.
Yep, that was it.
He wasn’t going to sleep before Josiah came back with them… no way…
Blair threw the afghan over Jim. He looked in at Vin, Ezra and Chris.
Last man standing.
He was never, ever, going to let Jim hear the last of this .
He settled happily at the table with his laptop, shared some thoughts on Curtius with Josiah, who was probably the only person who would appreciate them, and enjoyed his achievement in peace.
~ End ~