Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

For a long time, the things he saw made no sense. It was like hearing words in a language he couldn’t understand. His eyes registered objects, forms and movements but they meant nothing. Slowly—maybe very slowly, he had no idea of that either—concepts began to take shape. White. One day he woke, if it was sleep that had been holding his mind in blankness, and the word was there in his mind, giving shape to a thought: almost everything in his world was white. Time passed and the whiteness resolved into separate ideas: white walls; white sheets; people in white clothes.

Suddenly, a huge leap, he captured the word ‘hospital’ and that made a sort of sense, but left him with a vague feeling of puzzlement. Was he hurt? He didn’t feel as if anything was painful, and food and bathroom breaks appeared to happen normally, though still in a distant and only half-comprehensible way.

One day, after more movement and meaningless sound from the white coats, he lay and stared at his hands. Tanned, calloused, an old scar on the ball of the thumb, they were a sharp contrast to the white sheets. He moved them idly. He had control of them, but they looked unfamiliar, a stranger’s hands. He had no idea where the scar had come from or what his hands had once done.

That was the moment when he realised that he didn’t know who he was. The fear and anger that erupted in him at the thought was the most real thing he’d felt in… forever.

Josiah sat down heavily, sucker-punched, as he still was every morning when he came into work, by the absence of Team 7’s leader. How long could it go on hitting him like this? He looked at the unforgiving accuracy of his desk calendar. It was five months since the day Chris had disappeared, and not once in those five months had there been a trace, a hint, a murmur from an informant to give any clue to his team about what had happened to him or where he had gone. Since the first week, when the Ram had been found, neatly parked and forensically useless in a downtown parking lot, the investigation had gone nowhere.

There had been nothing at the time to suggest violence, at the ranch, in the parking lot, or anywhere else they’d considered—but no reason either why Chris should have gone without coercion. Josiah knew that Orrin Travis still considered it a possibility that Chris might have gone from choice. They’d all argued at the time that if he had, he’d have made arrangements for the horses, not left them to become distressed by the time Buck and Vin reached the ranch on the Monday. But the horses had come to no real harm and Chris would have known the team would be up there within the day if he didn’t show for work on Monday morning and wasn’t answering his phone. It was only Team 7 who considered it impossible he’d left voluntarily.

From the horses, they worked out that Chris must have left sometime on the Friday evening. The ranch was so exactly as he always left it, with no sign, even at DNA level, of a struggle that it seemed most likely he’d gotten into trouble wherever it was he’d gone. And where that was, they couldn’t find out.

The phone and answering machine at the ranch were no help to the investigation, and Chris had had an accident with his cell phone a couple of days before, so if he’d called anyone or been called it was from his temporary prepaid. The Ram showed on no CCTV except near the parking lot, and was parked at an angle where the security cameras had no chance of picking up the driver, though the tapes were viewed again and again for any known criminals.

Chris had been sought with urgency for a month, with professionalism after that, but five months was a long time for anyone but his own team, and even they had exhausted all the possibilities. The cases they’d been working on had been concluded successfully. The best ATF interrogators, and Josiah himself, had been reluctantly convinced by the denials of the men arrested that they knew anything about Chris’s disappearance. No informers had picked up even a whisper. One deep cover agent was pulled out, sacrificing a long-standing investigation, and he was certain that no one in gun crime in Denver had anything to do with it. Whatever had happened to Chris, it had no obvious link with present or past cases or with the ATF at all.

Chris had disappeared late June; Thanksgiving showed later this month on Josiah’s calendar. It didn’t promise to be a happy one. But in five months, a lot had happened, even for Team7. No one forgot Chris; everyone was still ready to go into immediate action at the merest ghost of a clue to his whereabouts, but in some ways, life moved on.

In September, Rain told Nathan that her pregnancy test was positive, and suddenly there was a huge new joy and concern and focus in his life. Josiah sometimes saw him run his hand over the slight swell of her belly, reading sign that his medic’s fingers could recognise; Nathan had once told him the strange jumble of emotions he felt then: a wish that Chris could somehow, against the odds, be back with them when the baby was born; a deeper understanding than he’d had before of what it must have meant to Chris to be a father; a hope for the future that almost made him feel guilty. And day to day, there was morning sickness and working out their finances and waiting for the first ultrasound. Nathan still thought of Chris, a lot, but without ever intending to, he’d lost that single-mindedness he’d had at first.

Buck and JD weren’t meant by nature to brood. Josiah was glad JD was spending more time with Casey. The boy had been obsessive at first, but now slowly even his internet searches grew less frequent. Buck had never stopped feeling the hole in his life, anyone could see that, but for him it wasn’t the first time of experiencing the painful gap where Chris’s friendship had been. For a month he wore himself out following up every possible and impossible angle, then reluctantly he became resigned. He always said he didn’t believe Chris was dead. Logical or not, he just reckoned he’d know, and his heart said Chris was alive. So either there’d be some clue sometime and Josiah knew that Buck would instantly drop everything to follow it, wherever it took him, or Chris would walk back into his life like he’d done before. Until then, Buck could no more help living in the present than he could help breathing.

Josiah himself had found another way to peace. He’d prayed more since Chris disappeared than he’d done in years. He felt a kind of purpose when he was praying, that it was the one thing he could do for Chris without knowing where or how he was. Like Buck, he didn’t believe Chris was dead. Making a time every day to pray for him, sometimes in a church or chapel, more often here at his desk, was Josiah’s way of coming to terms with his absence. Lately though, his prayers had been taking longer, and quite a lot of that time had been concentrated on Vin and Ezra.

Vin and Ezra had neither hope, nor resignation, nor any way of finding peace with the situation. In five months they’d earned more than enough informal warnings and official reprimands to get any other agents suspended. The problem wasn’t their work on the job. Orrin Travis still considered them to have outstanding skills as Team 7’s sharpshooter and undercover specialist. He just wasn’t sure how long he could let it outweigh everything else.

Where the rest of Team 7 had gradually begun to lead something like a normal life, Vin and Ezra had become increasingly obsessed. Since the likely avenues of investigation had been explored, they’d begun to spend all their free time on the improbable ones. Orrin had dealt with complaints from other teams about losing informers after Vin and Ezra had pulled them in and questioned them; he’d been diplomatic with tearful secretaries and furious computer technicians who hadn’t felt able to prioritise Vin and Ezra’s ‘requests’; he’d struggled with the fall-out from over-vigorous interrogations, and with angry DAs, and last but definitely not least with journalists who’d scented the chance to bring a couple of good men down. If it wasn’t for their success rate on the job and a sympathy he tried not to allow to cloud his judgment, Orrin would have suspended Vin and Ezra weeks ago.

“If there’s another incident, I won’t be able to let it go,” he warned Josiah, who had some influence with them.

“If you suspend them, we’ll have even less control over what they do,” Josiah pointed out.

“They have to see they’re achieving nothing.”

“They do see it,” Josiah said quietly. He knew, and Orrin did if he thought it through, that this was exactly what was leading Vin and Ezra to increasingly desperate measures. “Thing is, it was Chris who made Vin and Ezra into team players. His authority gave them a sort of stability. You’ve got their files; you know their backgrounds. Maybe they could just about have handled something happening to Chris in other circumstances, but not knowing where he is, whether he’s in trouble and been needing us all this time—that’s the worst situation for them.”

“I know, and I’ve cut them more slack than any half dozen agents. But one more serious complaint and they will be suspended.”

“I’ll see they understand that,” Josiah promised.

The problem, of course, wasn’t making Vin and Ezra understand, it was making them care what action the director took.

“Think we’re goin’ t’ worry about our careers if we’ve a chance of findin’ out what happened t’ Chris?” Vin asked. He looked tired and edgy; Josiah had seen him slowly but steadily lose all the calm confidence and relaxed fitness that had once characterised him. There were permanent shadows under Vin’s eyes and he’d lost weight, in spite of Josiah bringing him doughnuts, Nathan offering fruit and Rain and Inez sending regular invitations to meals. Nettie had been the only one who could make Vin swallow a proper meal, and Nettie had had to rush off to the side of a cousin who’d had a stroke. She’d been away now for nearly two months as the cousin’s rehabilitation proved painfully slow.

“You yourself wouldn’t hesitate to place Chris above any consideration of proper protocol,” Ezra pointed out to Josiah.

“No, I wouldn’t. But…” Josiah hesitated. He wanted to say that he’d need at least some possibility of a useful outcome before he did anything as reckless as some of Vin and Ezra’s recent moves, but he couldn’t find words that didn’t seem heartless. Besides, when he looked in Ezra’s eyes he saw a depth of weariness and depression that chilled him.

“Problem is,” Josiah finished slowly in the end, “the last thing we can handle is to lose anyone else from the team. We’re used to Vin covering us and you making the judgments on a bust. Don’t think we’d feel too confident with strangers.”

Even though this was true, it was manipulative and he didn’t like himself any the better for it, but it was the one thing that might give them pause.

“Ain’t plannin’ t’ let you down,” Vin said.

“We have no current lines of enquiry,” Ezra added bleakly.

“Gotta go right back t’ th’ start and look for somethin’ we missed.”

“Maybe I could help you,” Josiah offered, though he couldn’t imagine there was anything Vin and Ezra hadn’t already followed up and he wasn’t sure going over it yet again would bring anything but more pain.

Vin nodded. “We’re takin’ all th’ papers with us this weekend. We done what’s obvious, gotta take a look at it sideways now.”

Josiah knew Vin meant they’d take the reports out to Chris’s ranch. At first, all Team 7 had taken a share in going out to keep an eye on things and exercise the horses, though Yosemite was happy to handle it, and did so when they were working. Gradually, though, it had become Vin and Ezra’s role. JD only had the motorbike, which made it a difficult journey for him as the weather got worse. Buck had been having trouble with the pickup, but anyway, Chris’s absence had brought back some harsh memories of the first loss of Sarah and Adam—Josiah knew how hard Buck found it to go to the empty ranch. Rain was still throwing up enough to prefer to avoid longer drives, and Nathan was reluctant to leave her. Josiah made it out there from time to time, juggling other commitments with the youth shelter and visits to Hannah, but he was there nothing like as often as Vin and Ezra, who seemed to spend more time at the ranch the longer Chris had been gone. They were still keeping the place exactly the same, as if they thought Chris might walk back into it any minute, and that didn’t make it easier for anyone else, especially Buck.

“I’m not doing anything this weekend,” Josiah said. “Going out there Friday night? I’ll do my best to come along.”

He had every intention of joining them, but even in his most pessimistic moments he’d never have imagined the run of trouble that would hit Team 7 over the remainder of the week.

It started Wednesday morning, when Buck called in late, from the Emergency Room, where he’d just been having his ankle X-rayed. Nathan went over to pick him up and run him back to the apartment.

“It’s sprained, not broken,” he said when he came back. “Bad sprain though, it’s real swollen and turning blue already.”

“He fall on the stairs?” Josiah asked.

“No, tripped over that cat JD’s minding for Casey.”

Casey had been looking after the cat for a friend who was on a prolonged trip to France, and had asked JD to mind it while she joined Nettie for a few days. The cat was used to regular meals, not an occasional full bowl when JD remembered. Naturally, on seeing Buck staggering bleary-eyed towards the kitchen first thing in the morning, it had entwined itself affectionately between his legs, prepared to love anybody who might have a can opener. Buck hadn’t even remembered the cat’s existence. He’d taken a nasty tumble—on the cat, which had been very unhappy about it.

“JD left him at ER and went on to the vet with the cat,” Nathan explained. “He should be in later. Buck’ll be off for the rest of the week though.”

JD did come in by lunchtime, his hands and arms a mass of scratches. “Casey’s really mad at me,” he said gloomily. “I had to call her because I’d lost the vet’s details. I keep telling her the vet says the cat will be fine, it’s Buck who came off worse but she isn’t listening.”

“I hope you cleaned those scratches,” Nathan said. “Where are Vin and Ezra?”

“Gone to hand over one of our cases to Team 3,” Josiah said. “I told Orrin about Buck, and he thought we’d better cut our caseload a bit.”

This began to look a particularly wise decision when on Thursday morning Nathan came in with his arm in a sling, cleared by the doctor for desk work but nothing more.

“I went to an ‘expectant father’s’ group,” he told Josiah ruefully. “They showed a video of a birth—amazing detail, but a bit messy, especially if you didn’t know what to expect. The guy next to me keeled over, and I tried to catch him, which I suppose was pretty stupid since he must’ve weighed close to three hundred pounds. The worst of it is, I can’t drive, and I was going to take Rain over to her mother’s this evening.”

In the end Josiah drove Rain to her mother’s house where she was staying for a long weekend, and promised to pick Nathan up for work on Friday morning. He arrived at the apartment late, held up by some unexpected roadwork, and just as they were leaving, JD called.

It must be those cat scratches, Josiah realised, listening to Nathan’s end of the conversation: “Damn it JD, I told you to clean those up and put some antiseptic on… Yes, he’ll probably have to prescribe you an antibiotic now… No, go right away. Work can wait. You don’t want septicaemia.”

Josiah and Nathan were over an hour late arriving at the ATF building, and as it turned out, that hour really mattered. With Buck and JD also absent, it had meant that Vin and Ezra were alone in the office when Pat McGinty and Karl Weiss of Team 3 came along to complain that some of the paperwork was missing on the case that had just been transferred to them.

McGinty was a red haired descendant of Derry brawlers, with a short fuse on his temper; Weiss’s arrogant manner had made him one of the least popular agents in the building. Put that together with the fact that Vin was permanently on edge and Ezra had completely lost the ability to suffer fools gladly, and trouble had probably been inevitable, especially after Vin and Ezra had insisted the files were complete when Team 3 received them. Josiah spent his first hour at work dealing with the aftermath.

“As far as I can make out, the trouble started when Standish said my men had the reading skills of kindergarten drop outs,” Sam Brigham, Team 3 leader, said as he and Josiah defended their agents to Orrin Travis.

“Way I heard it, McGinty was the trigger, saying Team 7 should get their heads out of their asses and do a better job,” Josiah said. “Either way, it was Weiss who was really out of line. He’s not stupid; he must have known what would happen when he told Vin and Ezra they were useless because they were ‘obsessing over Chris Larabee’. And he said Chris had been a drunk and a maverick even before he walked out! There was no excuse for that.”

“I’m not making excuses for Karl,” Sam agreed. “But I’d rather deal with him myself. He won’t get off lightly. If you suspend him, I’m going to be really short on men, because Ericson’s still on the sick list after last week’s bust.”

“This didn’t happen because Vin and Ezra were looking for trouble,” Josiah appealed to the director. “You couldn’t expect them not to react.”

“I expect them to have more self-control than to be scrapping in the hallways,” Orrin said flatly. “Whatever the provocation, there’s no doubt Tanner threw the first punch. And I’d already given them their last warning. I’m sorry Josiah. I’m suspending Vin and Ezra, and Karl Weiss too, Sam, and I’ll give Pat McGinty an official reprimand. Also, as Buck Wilmington is off for at least another week, Nathan’s on desk duty and young Dunne has just called in sick, I’m standing Team 7 down altogether. Nathan can deal with the paperwork resulting from that and you can join Sam on Team 3, Josiah, since he needs another man.”

Josiah found himself dismissed before he could find words to protest. Sam Brigham must have seen his fists clenching as they went out. “Take it easy,” he said quietly. “I’m as sorry as you are about what happened; Pat and Karl should never have gone down there taking the tone they did. But Vin and Ezra were running out of rope; it was going to happen sooner or later. You know you’ll be welcome on my team till things smooth over.”

Josiah nodded. Sam Brigham was a good team leader, and no problem to work with. But somehow, having Team 7 stood down seemed like the beginning of the end. Even if Chris came back, would they all have been reassigned? And would Vin and Ezra actually come back. He hardly heard the other things Sam was saying; the loud bitterness of his thoughts drowned everything else out.

Rosa had often wondered about the way she’d been chosen to look after the strange patient in Room 13, though she never voiced her thoughts. When she’d gotten this job at the Alderways Institute, she’d been warned by the other staff never to ask questions; private psychiatric patients from very wealthy backgrounds were paying for discretion as well as medical care. Slowly over the eight months she’d worked here, she’d noticed that it was often other people who were paying for that privacy, for inconvenient relatives to be safely institutionalised when they could really have coped outside.

Just once she’d broken the unwritten rule about questions, while she was still very new. She had asked about the strength of the dosage of tranquillisers prescribed for a patient. Her query had been handled professionally; there was no doubt that the doctors and psychiatrists here were well qualified. Later the same day though, she’d been called into the administration office and warned that Alderways was considering making some cutbacks in staff; as one of the most recently employed her job was among the least secure. No one had implied any connection. Maybe it really had been a coincidence. But Rosa didn’t think so. On the other hand, she wasn’t a doctor and perhaps her question had been unreasonable; her doubts had certainly been refuted in a way she couldn’t argue with.

She’d kept her head down after that. The salary she earned here kept her, her mother and ten-year-old Lyndon quite comfortably, and even left a little to put away because she hoped one day Lyndon would go to college. It had been such a struggle when her husband left them, and again when her father died. She really didn’t want to lose this job.

She liked being the main caregiver for Mr Kennedy—JD Kennedy, so not quite the same as the president. She was the only person who seemed to have any interest in him as a person. She’d once met the people who had him committed here, and that was months ago when he was a new patient. Not his family, she’d thought at first. Lawyers, perhaps, or someone else with power of attorney. But the expensively dressed man who’d given the instructions turned out to be the patient’s uncle, though his name, Fischer, showed it might not be a close connection. He didn’t like Mr Kennedy, relative or not, she had been sure of that. There had been something in his cold eyes closer to hate when he looked at his nephew. He was a racist too. She’d learn to recognise the signs. When he’d looked at Rosa, he’d seen a black woman, not a person, and those cold eyes had grown harder with contempt.

That was why she’d been surprised when he first asked for her to look after Mr Kennedy. Once she’d thought about it, though, it made a rather unpleasant sense. There had been so little the poor man could do for himself when he first came in, not even the most personal things. As she took care of feeding and washing him, she felt sure that the man who’d placed him here had intended her presence to add to his humiliation—that he’d not just be helpless, but have to accept the care of a black nurse.

She didn’t think Mr Kennedy felt like that though. She took care to treat him with dignity, whether he was aware of it or not, and when, gradually, occasional flickers of reaction showed in his blank eyes, there was never any recoiling or distaste there.

She’d been instructed at the start to be very careful to report any change or progress in the patient. For the first couple of weeks she’d been anxious at having to report almost no difference or improvement—but then she realised that everyone was quite satisfied with that. Apparently Alderways wasn’t in a hurry to cure him. She remembered the subtle hatred in the eyes of the man who was paying for him to be here, and wondered. At the time it was only a month since she’d been warned about the security of her job; this was the second occasion she was forced to question the ethics of the place. Could you buy a lack of improvement in a patient?

She’d been wiser by then though. She made a silent, personal resolve to do all she could for Mr Kennedy, and she guessed she could do that best by appearing very quiet and docile, following instructions and not seeming too intelligent. She never questioned the surprising quantity of drugs he was prescribed, but by tiny steps she reduced the amount she was actually administering, and after a couple of months the doctors did reduce the dose—there was no sign of the patient being anything but passive.

Rosa always talked to him, always looked for anything that brought even a hint of a reaction, but for the most part when Mr Kennedy didn’t look blank, he looked in pain and lost. She dropped the tranquillizer dose even more, and perhaps she should have been worried when one day she found him sitting on his bed staring at his hands and there was something different in his eyes—fear, and anger.

“Mr Kennedy?” she asked gently, though he had never answered her before.

He stared at her, and she thought she glimpsed something in him very different from the passive patient Alderways knew—something like a strength of will, and an angry courage, though the moment didn’t last. Then slowly and stiffly, his face twisted with effort as though he’d forgotten how to speak, he forced out three words. “Who… ‘m… I?”

She realised then why he looked so lost. No one had told her anything about his being amnesiac. Perhaps they didn’t realise. She knew from his notes there had been some sort of electric shock treatment before he arrived at Alderways, and from what she’d seen of his condition, no one could possibly have talked to him since then. She didn’t report his words, though. She tried to tell him the little she knew about his name and how he’d arrived at the institute, but it obviously meant nothing to him. He did, very occasionally, struggle to speak after that, but always when they were alone, as if some instinctive wariness made him conceal the slight recovery he’d made, and almost never with enough clarity for her to understand.

After the third month of his stay, Rosa gained permission to take him out into the grounds sometimes. Far away from anyone else, concealed by trees or bushes, she began to help him to exercise and regain some strength. It became their secret. As far as the doctors and the administration department at Alderways were concerned, Mr Kennedy was still almost as mindless and helpless as when he arrived.

Rosa rejoiced to see the improvement in him that only she was aware of—and if he understood nothing else, he seemed to understand the need to keep hidden any gains in ability he made. But as yet another month drew to a close, she wondered uneasily where she went from here. She had no status, no contacts, no idea who Mr Kennedy was or where he came from. How much more could she help him now?

Vin and Ezra hadn’t bothered to clear their desks. Ezra had collected all the files on Chris’s disappearance before they went in to Orrin Travis, and had filled his briefcase and Vin’s rucksack. They’d expected to be suspended, and when they were, they walked out of the building without a backward glance. There was no danger of the team getting some risky assignment now, not with Buck and Nathan out of action.

Vin rubbed his knuckles down the side of his jeans; they were sore from making contact with Weiss’s face. He felt no satisfaction though. Weiss had asked for it, and he’d gotten it, but the bleakness of their failure to find Chris made everything else unimportant.

“Might’s well go straight t’ th’ ranch,” he said. They both had clothes and toothbrushes there; they’d spent more of their free time there than in their own homes for the last few months.

Ezra nodded. “We’ll have more time to concentrate on going through these papers now,” he said.

“And we’re free t’ follow up what we want.”

“I had considered suggesting we should take some annual leave, but in some ways this leaves us at greater liberty.”

“Ain’t responsible t’ Travis now.”


Vin always felt better when he rattled along the last stretch of road to the ranch. He understood the way Buck felt about it—hell, you only had to look at Buck’s face when he went into the empty building to know how the loss hit him when he came out here. But Vin felt that way wherever he was, and at the ranch there were things he could do for Chris: caring for the horses, or doing odd jobs on the barns and the land. He knew Ezra felt the same. Ez had taken charge of the business documents and all the other paperwork that needed attending to. Between them they’d make sure everything would be okay for Chris when he came back.

And he would come back. Vin rubbed his knuckles again. Fuck all the doubters outside Team 7 who thought Chris was gone for good. He wasn’t.

They didn’t need to talk much once they’d gotten to the ranch. They had a routine for the chores, and neither of them cared much what they ate. Tonight was kind of different though. Tonight, after they’d grabbed a hasty snack, they went into the den, cleared all the furniture back against the walls, and spread every scrap of information to do with Chris’s disappearance in chronological order across the floor.

Ezra looked at the wall-to-wall carpeting of files. “So much paper to reach a single conclusion.”

“Jackshit in seventy volumes,” Vin agreed, suddenly daunted by the sheer scale of it. Skimming stacks of writing wasn’t one of his better skills.

“We can dismiss any interrogations we carried out ourselves, at least for the time being,” Ezra decided, collecting up a number of files and removing them to the couch.

“We c’n chuck out all th’ crap about Chris leavin’ for some reason of his own.” Vin let Ezra sort those files out too; Ezra could do it at a glance.

“Also low on the scale of potential usefulness are all the reports on those people arrested by Chris who are still incarcerated, but we should look again at the ones who have been released.”

They had soon piled the couch and coffee table up, but there was still little of the floor showing. Ezra stared at the mass of paperwork for a long moment, maybe not feeling much better about it than Vin. Then he squatted down at the very beginning, picked up the first two folders, handed one to Vin and began to read his own with grim concentration.

Vin sat on the arm of the couch and opened the one he’d been handed. He hadn’t realised how immediately familiar it would all seem. There were interviews in here with Yosemite, with the local store owner, with other folk Vin knew… Swift, smothering, that Monday when he’d realised Chris was gone was as clear as yesterday. He could smell the horses, see the silent, empty yard, hear his own voice making call after futile call…

He pushed it all out of his mind and gave his attention to the words in front of him. For once he was glad that reading took so much of his concentration. Look at it sideways. That was what Ez reckoned they needed to do. Look for some angle that wasn’t in the normal line of investigation. Vin read the folder once, painstakingly, went back to the beginning now he’d familiarised himself with it, and looked for that side trail. They’d decided the best chance would be right back at the beginning.

“Perhaps before the beginning,” Ezra said, his thoughts following Vin’s as close as a shadow. “Do you have anything of interest from earlier in the week?”

Vin turned back a couple of pages. There was something that had just niggled at him a little as he read it. “What do you think of this?” he asked.

It was the interview with the local storekeeper. The guy hadn’t seen Chris since the Wednesday of the week he went, so there wasn’t much to the interview. Chris had been in, picked up a few groceries, a pack of sandwiches and a bottle of coke.

“You never see Chris touch coke,” Vin said. ” He don’t like things sweet. I remember now I noticed it afore, but I just thought Mr Dunning had made a mistake—anyhow, we’d all seen Chris plenty of times since then.”

“Chris doesn’t bring lunch to work,” Ezra said, reading the interview carefully. “Why would he be buying sandwiches? You’re right. If this hadn’t been so early in the week, we might have paid it some attention, at least to check it out.”

Vin glanced at his watch. “Store’ll still be open.”

It was all he needed to say. He and Ez were the same on this—all the time they weren’t looking for Chris it was like something was burning under their feet.

They took Ezra’s Jaguar. Old Jim Dunning who’d kept the store for more than thirty years loved to look at that car. Sure enough, he stepped outside almost as soon as Ezra pulled up. His wife was dealing with the one customer Vin could see in the store, so it looked like Jim was free to talk.

They didn’t need to find a way of starting in on what they wanted. Jim Dunning took a long look at them as well as the car. “Guess you boys aren’t here just to stock up,” he said. “You got news?”

Ezra shook his head. “Nothing new; just some questions, if you’ve the time at the moment.”

“Come and sit down and have coffee and ask all you want.”

Jim made good coffee, strong and rich, but it still tasted like nothing to Vin. Everything seemed the same, till it half choked him to get food down.

“It’s about Chris,” he told the storekeeper.

“I guessed that, son. What is there you think I can help you with, though?”

It didn’t sound much when you put it into words, Vin thought. Ezra wrapped it up some, but what had they got when it came down to it? Chris had bought a coke and a sandwich… Weiss’d die laughing if he could hear them.

Jim Dunning didn’t laugh though. “Yeah, I thought that was odd too. Not at the time. I was real busy that morning, only thinking about getting the customers through. But after I talked to your guys, read through that statement before I signed it, it struck me. When they’d gone I went and checked the till receipts for the Wednesday morning, and I was right, he had bought those things.” He glanced over at his wife. “Molly, didn’t I say to you then it was odd Mr Larabee getting coke when he always says he can’t stand it.”

“I still think he got it for that boy,” Molly said, finishing with her customer.

No one had mentioned a boy before. To Vin it was like hearing the one particular crack of a twig at night that was somehow different from all the other crackles and rustles of the land. It sharpened his attention, and next to him he could feel Ezra grow alert.

“A boy?” Ezra asked quietly, prompting them.

“I didn’t see him,” Jim said. “Molly told me about him when I mentioned the cola, but I don’t see it meaning much.”

“I saw him outside,” Molly said. “Like Jim told you, we were busy, but I was carrying some of Sue Baines shopping while she managed the twins. The boy was walking with Mr Larabee like he’d come from the Ram. He went around to the washroom while Mr Larabee went in the store. I hardly thought about it then, but looking back it seemed to me he was getting a lift into town.”

“You didn’t recognise him?” Vin asked.

“No.” Molly was definite about that. “He was a negro lad, thin, real scruffily dressed. I’d never seen him before.”

“We didn’t think it was something to report,” Jim said, a little worried. “We weren’t too sure if he’d been riding along with Mr Larabee, and even if he had, being as that was the Wednesday, we reckoned Mr Larabee would have told you about it if there was anything worth knowing.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Ezra said. “However, Vin and I have decided to go back over every detail of the case. You say this was an African American teenager, untidily dressed. Can you estimate his age?”

“Fifteen, maybe,” Molly said doubtfully. “I only saw him for a minute. He wasn’t the sort of lad to be trouble for anyone, nothing like those gangs you see in town. He looked a poor thing, really.”

Ezra wrote down the little there was to write. They thanked the Dunnings and bought groceries for the weekend, but Vin was impatient to be on the move. When they were back in the Jaguar, he said, “Feels worth following up.”

“I agree,” Ezra said. “It’s the first detail I have heard that suggests even a small variation in Chris’s normal routine. And as the time in question is the Wednesday morning, Chris would still have had his cell phone for a few more hours. We’ll go back to the ranch and check the records of calls again.”

Chris had gone for a late lunch on the Wednesday with Buck and JD, and it had just been bad luck that he’d been about to answer a call on his cell phone as their horsing around had sent them tumbling in his direction. JD’s elbow had caught the phone, and it had fallen under Buck’s feet. It might just have survived that, but spinning around at Chris’s angry shout, Buck had sent it into the gutter and under the wheels of a delivery van. The memory of Buck and JD’s chastened return—and of the extremely unpleasant chores Chris found them for the rest of the day—would have made Vin smile if it had been in any other context.

“Chris had the phone okay at one thirty. I called him then. Must’ve gotten busted around two.”

Ezra found what they wanted in a couple of minutes once they were back at the ranch. He’d read the files so often, he could remember where to look for any details.

“Between us, we can probably recognise a high proportion of these numbers,” he said. “The unfamiliar ones are more likely to yield something of interest.”

In fact, there were very few calls to numbers neither of them recognised, and one of those turned out to be a horse feed supplier. Ezra called one that was a Boulder number.

Leaning near the phone, Vin could just hear the reply. “Churches Together Shelter and Advice Center.”

“Do you have accommodation for homeless young people?” Ezra asked.

“We can arrange it. Is this an emergency?”

It was late now. Vin saw Ezra reluctantly decide it probably wasn’t the moment to demand an interview. “No, not an emergency,” Ezra said, a note in his voice giving the lie to that. For Team 7, the whole of the last five months had been an ongoing emergency. “I’m an ATF agent, looking into a series of events that took place last June. It’s just a possibility that someone from your organisation may be able to help us with regard to the investigation. Would it be possible for myself and a colleague to come over tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. I’ll be asleep by then, but there’ll be plenty of people around. Your best bet is probably Jake Schiller—he knows pretty well everything that goes on. I’m David McNair, by the way. Just say I invited you to come over and talk to us.” There was an outbreak of noise in the background, and he paused, then said, “Sounds like our coffee maker’s on the fritz again. I’d better go if you don’t mind. We’ll expect you in the morning.”

Vin felt the surge of hope, like he’d felt it a hundred times before. Maybe this would be the lead that gave them a breakthrough. He didn’t say anything though, nor did Ezra. Just made the bitterness when it came to nothing that much worse if you put the hope into words.

Ez called the one other number that they hadn’t recognised. He got a recorded message. “This is the Denver Holocaust memorial archive. Our office hours are from 8.00 am to 6.00pm. If you would like to leave a message…”

The voice was cut off as Ezra replaced the receiver. “Not so much of a possibility,” he said. “However, we could stop by there once we’ve been to Boulder. I suggest we get some sleep and make an early start.”

The early start proved easier than the sleep; they were both in the kitchen before six, Ezra up as readily as Vin over the last few months. Vin offered over-strong coffee, Ezra drank it without complaint. Ezra gestured to the Jag; Vin didn’t argue. They hardly needed to talk these days. The downside was they couldn’t hide much from each other either. Vin felt the treacherous hope bubble in his chest, tried to conceal it but saw that Ezra knew—and was trying to suppress his own eagerness. This felt like a trail worth following, but they’d been wrong so many times before.

v When Rosa was driving home, she always tried to leave behind her worries about her work. The evening was Lyndon’s time. Her mother would have seen to the meal and most of the chores; after they’d eaten, Rosa could sit down and hear about her son’s day, help with his schoolwork, or maybe play a game.

Tonight, though, she couldn’t forget her concerns. She’d just made her monthly report on Mr Kennedy. As usual, she’d kept her face down, talked apologetically, talked about the patient’s lack of progress. That was no problem. No one else had taken any interest in him for a long time now, certainly not enough to notice details like his improving muscle tone or the increasingly frequent glimpses of character and intelligence struggling to emerge.

She’d been quite happy with how the meeting was going until the end, when her manager said, “Good, good. It sounds as though we’ll have no problem with the visit from Mr Fischer, then.”

“Mr Kennedy’s uncle is planning to come here?” Rosa asked trying to keep the alarm out of her voice.

Perhaps she didn’t succeed very well, because the manager said kindly enough, “You don’t need to worry about it. They’ve been satisfied with the reports. It’s probably because next week will be six months. I expect they feel it’s appropriate to make an occasional visit.”

It might well be no more than that, but Rosa remembered the cold, intelligent eyes that had looked her over when Mr Kennedy’s uncle had him admitted. That was a man who would notice details, and his attention might be sharpened even more by the hatred she was sure he felt for his nephew. He might well see the difference from six months ago. And she felt another concern, too—that the sight of his uncle’s face might stir an angry reaction in Mr Kennedy. Would he understand the need to be the docile, almost mindless person she’d been creating in her reports? In spite of the progress he’d made, she knew the world was still a confused and confusing place to him. He had the will to get better. He seemed to feel some emotions now, and the blankness wasn’t as often there. But she had a feeling that none of that would be enough to help him deal with the arrival of his uncle.

One week! What else could she do? She knew nothing about his background, where he’d come from, whether he had any other family or anyone that cared what happened to him. No one had visited him in five months. There was no one she could talk to about him. She couldn’t think where to start.

“You’re quiet tonight,” her mother said, after Lyndon was in bed. “Cat got your tongue? Or are you worrying about that place again? I told you, if you think they don’t do right there, you give it up. We’re not so poor you got to sell your soul.”

“Who else would be there for my patients if I left?” Rosa said. “If I run away they’ll get someone worse.”

“Well, if that’s why you’re there and you’re doing your best for them, there’s no need to be so down about it.”

“I’m worried about one of the patients, that’s all,” Rosa said. She couldn’t tell her mother any more without breaching confidentiality. “I’ve been going over and over it in my head, and I can’t see how to help him.”

Her mother frowned at her as if she was still ten years old like Lyndon. “Well, you know what to do, and I don’t see you doing it any more, not in a long time. Get down on your knees and ask the Lord’s help for the man. You think God don’t have enough grace left?”

“It’s a complicated situation, momma—medical and legal problems, and so on.”

“So. You think that makes a difference? Didn’t I bring you up to know God’s bigger than all that? You get praying, Rosa. Forget the size of the problem.”

Forget the size of Alderways, and the money and power she saw there daily? Her mother had no idea of the numbers of distinguished doctors and wealthy patients, with corporations and smooth lawyers to back them up—nor of men like Mr Kennedy’s uncle.

“Faith like a mustard seed,” he mother said reprovingly from the kitchen, as if all she needed was to remember her Sunday school lessons.

Rosa sighed. She was sure her faith wasn’t even mustard-seed sized. In fact, just now it felt like something you’d only be able to see through an electron microscope.

Ezra and Vin had arrived at the Boulder Shelter so early that they found David McNair just about to hand over the office to his colleague.

“Hi—sorry—I was just going to explain about you,” he said. “Jake—these are ATF agents…” he paused. “Actually I don’t think I got your names.”

“Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner,” Ezra said. “We’re trying to trace someone who may have come here last June.”

“We need to see some identification,” Jake Schiller said, more wary and less friendly than McNair.

Ezra and Vin showed their ID and hoped that his wariness wouldn’t run to a telephone call. To discourage this, Ezra began a quick but comprehensive explanation of Chris Larabee’s disappearance, and the reason for their visit.

“It’s a long time ago,” McNair said doubtfully. “Five months—you’ve been investigating all this time?”

“He’s a friend,” Vin said briefly.

Ezra was watching the other man. If his instincts were still serving him correctly, Jake Schiller had heard something in their story that provoked a memory or a reaction, and a slight but perceptible—to Ezra—increase in wariness.

“I would like to stress that we have exhausted every other line of enquiry,” Ezra said. “While there are other possibilities, which are also under investigation, it’s our personal belief that Mr Larabee is both alive and in urgent need of help. I hope if there is anything at all that you can tell us, you’ll do so.”

“Last June,” Schiller said abruptly. “I’ll have to go look up my records. Maybe you’d like coffee? David?”

“I need to get home before Fiona goes out to work.”

“Coffee’d be good,” Vin said.

“I’ll send someone in with a tray.”

Schiller went out. Vin and Ezra, left alone, looked at one another and knew they’d shared the same impression.

“He knows something,” Vin said.

“I concur. However, although I may be reading too much into subtleties of body language, I’d say he feels suspicious of us rather than guilty in any way.”

“Makes sense,” Vin agreed. “If the kid was in some kind of trouble, they’re not just going to hand out his address—especially not to federal agents.”

“At least, not without checking our credentials.”

Vin frowned. “If he calls headquarters he’ll find out we’re suspended.”

“I doubt if any additional ATF involvement is on his agenda. If I were in his position, I would try to call an acquaintance rather than the authorities—someone who might have heard of agents Tanner and Standish and have an opinion on their characters.”

Vin thought about that for a minute. “Well, let’s hope whoever he calls thinks we’re some of the good guys.”

Fortunately—and perhaps predictably, though they hadn’t thought of it—Jake Schiller had called the homeless centre in Denver where Josiah frequently helped out. They discovered later that he’d found out they were not only genuine ATF agents but ones who lent a hand with repairs, Christmas meals and a bit of fundraising. It made his manner perceptibly friendlier when he returned.

“Who’d y’ talk to?” Vin asked, dryly.

Jake met his eyes, gave a wry smile. “Was it that obvious? Old Rev Benson. Says he’s known you for a few years. He also says you’ve spent every minute you could looking for Mr Larabee since he disappeared. I didn’t mean any offence, checking up like that. I wanted to be sure.”

“If the young man in question is wanted for some offence, that’s really not what concerns us at the moment,” Ezra said.

“No, he’s not in trouble with the law. He ran away from what sounds like some very nasty people. I never did get the full story. The boy—Sammy—has some speech and learning problems. He’s improving a little, so it may not all have been genuine disability, just a result of the way he’s been treated. I’m not sure how much Mr Larabee knew, or guessed. He brought Sammy here, but he only told me the barest facts. He did say the people who’d ill treated him might be looking for him, and that I should keep him out of sight, make up a different name and background for him for the time being. I’m sure he was planning to come back and tell me more. I didn’t know anything about him being an ATF agent—or about his disappearance. He just called, came with Sammy and went again. I did try to call the cell phone number he gave me, but it was always out of service. If it hadn’t been for what Sammy could manage to say, and the scars on him, I’d’ve doubted the story. As it was, I just sorted things out for Sammy quietly, and your visit’s the first time I’ve thought about it in a while.”

“Chris had an accident with his cell phone that same day,” Ezra said. “I don’t know why he didn’t say anything to any of us about the boy, but we hadn’t heard about him till yesterday. Then we followed up Chris’s phone call. We didn’t know he’d actually been here.”

“He called ahead. Must have gotten my name from someone because he asked for me specifically. Luckily I’m usually around.”

“Why’d he want you?” Vin asked. He was leaning forward, tenser than ever. It was bothering him why Chris hadn’t spoken to him, or any of them, about this.

“I don’t suppose he did, just someone who’d been vouched for as being able to keep a secret. Look, I need to tell you more about Sammy, but not here. I’ll take you to meet him, and I’ll tell you what Mr Larabee told me. I don’t know if it’ll help you, though.”

“But you do think there’s a possibility this could be linked to Chris disappearing,” Ezra said. He had seen that in Jake’s expression, almost from the start.

“Yes. Maybe. Because although I didn’t know he was ATF you could see he was a guy who could handle himself, and he was… I don’t know exactly… worried, angry, sure the people who might be after Sammy were real trouble. I’d rather talk about it somewhere else.”

“Okay,” Vin said. “We’ll follow you.”

Jake drove a few blocks and pulled up at a small apartment block. He must have called while he was on the way, because the elderly lady, Mrs Dubose, whose apartment he led them to, was expecting them. Sammy was hovering nervously behind her. She was a good choice to place the boy with, Ezra thought. In age and appearance she might easily have been his grandmother.

She welcomed them in to a small but spotless living room. “Come and sit down. Would you like some coffee?”

“Just had some thanks, ma’am,” Vin said. “We’re really wanting to talk to Sammy. Don’t know if Mr Schiller explained that to you?”

“About Chris,” Sammy said suddenly, in an unexpectedly deep voice. “Jake says you want me to tell you how Chris got me safe.”

“That’s right,” Jake said. “Do you want me to tell them what I know first?”

Sammy shook his head. He turned to Vin. “Chris is your friend?”

“Good friend,” Vin said, and Ezra wondered if everyone else could hear the pain in those two brief words.

“He was good to me,” Sammy said. “First real good white person I ever met. Mrs Dubose teach me there’s lotsa good people in the world, but I didn’t know that till Chris saved me. Why you want me to tell you though? You coulda asked Chris.”

Ezra had evidently overestimated how much information Jake had given them.

“I didn’t want to make it too complicated over the phone,” Jake said to him quietly, but at the same time Vin said to Sammy, “Chris is missing. Went missin’ two days after he met you. We just found out about you. Y’ tell us everything y’ can about that day and maybe it’ll help us find him.”

Sammy stared at him. “Chris is gone?”


“Been gone all that time?”


Sammy turned back to Jake, his face horrified. “Oh man, Jake. You know what happen? Must be the master got him. I shouldn’t never have told Chris ’bout the master. He real angry when he heard. I say, please Chris, don’t go lookin’, but he must’ve gone lookin’.”

Mrs Dubose put her arm around Sammy. “We don’t know that,” she said. “Now, let Jake explain to these gentlemen about where you were running from, and then you can tell them about the day Chris rescued you.”

Ezra took Vin’s arm and propelled him to the couch; they needed to have as calm an atmosphere as possible if Sammy was going to recollect details. Ezra’s own feelings were a confusion of hope that at last they were finding out something worth hearing, frustration, that they’d never stumbled on this earlier, and alarm. He tried to put it all aside and listen carefully.

Jake couldn’t miss the urgency stiffening Vin; he didn’t waste time on preambles.

“Basically,” he said, “Sammy grew up as a slave. I’m not using the word lightly. All he knew, all his life, till he ran away, was working for a man he called ‘master’ on an estate or huge ranch somewhere not too far from Denver. I know it doesn’t sound possible in this day and age, but as far as I can make out, there were men and women, and children, who lived and worked in a way you could only call slavery. Sammy never went to school, laboured for long hours, didn’t know he had any rights at all—and, show him your back, Sam…”

Sammy turned around, briefly lifted his shirt, and Ezra saw the white thin scars of repeated whippings.

“I tried to do stuff right,” Sammy said. “Sometimes I don’t learn too quick.”

“You learn just fine now,” Mrs Dubose said. “You’re a good worker, Sammy, but even if you weren’t, no one can do that to you. It’s wrong and it’s against the law.”

“Sammy didn’t know any other life,” Jake said. “It’s hard to think of running away from something that’s been your whole world. Sammy’s mother had come there as a girl, maybe from South America. Sounds like she’d lost her parents and her uncle more or less sold her, couldn’t afford her keep. All he knows about his father is that he was killed in an accident with farm machinery while Sammy was young.”

“But you knowed there had t’ be more,” Vin said softly to Sammy.

Ezra wondered which part of Vin’s own hard childhood that understanding came from. Sammy met Vin’s eyes and nodded.

“I bin workin’ outdoors. The horses, the wild animals, they had more life’n me. I’s maybe ten, twelve, when I’m thinkin’, maybe I could live like them. But I had ma. And I was afraid of the master, and the other master. And Berndt.”

“The owner of the estate doesn’t seem to have been there, or involved, most of the time,” Jake explained. “The man called Berndt was in charge in his absence. The whippings were his work.”

“But Berndt was scared of the master,” Sammy said. “All the staff, they lived better’n us, but they was just as feared of him.”

While Ezra’s brain was still protesting the sheer implausibility of what he was hearing, Vin leaned forward and asked, “What was his name? Your ‘master’—what did other people call him?”

“We all jus’ call him ‘master’. I never heard no one but us and the house servants. We ain’t s’posed t’ be in the way when there’s guests. Berndt call him sumthin else, sometime, but it weren’t a name, I don’t think. Was a word I don’t know. I think maybe it mean master in some foreign talk, anyway.”

“It’s only this last month or so Sammy’s been able to tell us this much,” Mrs Dubose explained. “The story was all much more of a jumble when he first came.”

“You have to realise, Mr Larabee didn’t hear anything nearly so coherent,” Jake agreed. “I’m amazed he understood as much as he did. He was quite sure Sammy had been kept as a slave, though at the time I thought that was rather farfetched—it seemed much more likely he’d had a stepfather or something who’d ill-treated him. Mr Larabee had guessed a lot of what we’ve only learned slowly. But of course, he couldn’t be certain of any of it. I suspect that’s why he didn’t want to talk about it until he had more facts. All we could say for certain was that Sammy had been running from someone who’d abused him.”

“I’s runnin’ and hidin’ two nights,” Sammy said. “From the day my ma died. Ma was real sick, doctor come out to her and say to Berndt, she not goin’ to get better. Ma, she ask to say goodbye to me, then the doc give her a…”

“Injection,” Mrs Dubose prompted quietly.

“Yeah. But it don’t make her well. She die real quick after that.” He was silent for a minute, sad and also puzzled. Ezra, thinking it sounded like a grim kind of euthanasia—or maybe ‘putting down’ was a better term—wondered what sort of ugliness they might be dealing with here.

Sammy took a deep breath and went on with his story. “Guess ma knowed. She pull me close and tell me what to do, and then say goodbye. She tell me, ‘the doctor got a big car, Sammy. You hide in the trunk. Hide and make it look shut, but don’t let it shut tight.’ I didn’t want her to be on her own, so I wait till that doctor tell Berndt ‘she’s gone’, then I go out quite quiet, and go to the car, and no one’s there, so I get in the trunk and don’t let it shut tight. I’s scared when the doc drives off, but I keep real quiet, and I hold the trunk open jus’ a crack, so I know when we’s off the master’s land. It’s a long time, a real long time, ‘fore the car’s goin’ slow, but then he stop sudden and I’m bumped and I’m scared the trunks shut tight, but it ain’t and I rolls out quiet and run into the forest.”

“He didn’t see you?” Vin asked.

“Don’t think so. I look back from the trees, and there’s somethin’ dead in the road, car must’ve hit it. I guess he’s lookin’ at that.”

“Sammy went on running for the next couple of days,” Jake said.

“Ma says, keep the sun behind me till it’s high, then in front of me,” Sammy said. “I done that, and keep away from roads, but it’s cold at night and I’m real hungry, don’t hardly even got a drink. I count two nights, and I’m not feelin’ so good that mornin’ and I make a mistake. I don’t see a drop comin, and I’s scared cuz I rolls down the side into a road. But I were lucky I did. That’s when Chris come.”

He looked at Mrs Dubose. “I told ’em it all right?”

“You did a good job, Sammy. You told them everything.”

“Mr Larabee picked Sammy up, got him something to eat and drink, and like I said, understood enough of his story to want to get him out of sight. He told me that if he hadn’t misunderstood Sammy, something very nasty was going on somewhere in Colorado. He left me to sort out Sammy’s care, and he said he had contacts in the police and he’d investigate. I settled Sammy with Mrs Dubose straight away—she’s looked after women running from abusive husbands, and teenagers with family problems. It was nearly a month before I was sure I wasn’t going to hear from Mr Larabee.”

“We still hadn’t really heard Sammy’s story then,” Mrs Dubose said.

“That’s right. And when we began to, he mentioned some things—like people arriving by helicopter—that made us think there was serious money involved. Wealthy men can hire very successful lawyers, and Sammy’s speech was still confused. Even if we found out who’d ill treated him, we might have trouble taking it any further—they’d have had plenty of time to work out some convincing story. Sammy was doing well, and I thought that if there were any other people being equally badly treated, the investigation Mr Larabee was starting should find that out. It looks like a really bad decision now to have just let things go, but at the time I thought that was best for Sammy, to just let him make a new start.”

“Ain’t blamin’ you,” Vin said.

“Chris’s reservations about how far he’d understood correctly must have similarly kept him from talking about it to any of us,” Ezra agreed. “Presumably he must have decided to look for some hard factual evidence.”

“And maybe lookin’ for it is what happened t’ him,” Vin said grimly. He stood up, as urgent in his manner as if Chris had only just gone missing. “And that’s where we need t’ go now—t’ find where the trail might’ve led him. You done good Sammy, but we have t’ go on now.”

Sammy nodded, his face solemn. Ezra also stood up because, however foolish it was to feel that minutes counted after all these months, he felt the same urgency as Vin. “If you recollect anything else that might help, these are our cell numbers, these are our home numbers, and this is the number for Chris’s ranch,” he said. There would have to be a Colorado-wide phone catastrophe before Jake found himself again unable to get in touch.

Jake smiled slightly, and put the sheet away in his wallet. “We’ll go over it again, see if we can come up with anything,” he said. “If … when you do find Mr Larabee, we’d be glad to hear about it.”

Ezra couldn’t find an answer to that, but Vin was already at the door so he didn’t try. They went out with hasty goodbyes, to the sound of three very different voices wishing them good luck.

“Where are we going?” he asked Vin, increasing his pace because Vin was walking fast, apparently with some destination in mind.

“That… holocaust place, can’t remember the exact name.”

“The memorial archive,” Ezra said. “You think there’s a connection? Or just because it was another call Chris made that day?”


They’d reached the Jaguar by now. Ezra was glad to have the driving, something to concentrate on while at a different level his mind sifted the story they’d just heard.

The man they called Mr Kennedy knew in some slow, inarticulate, detached way that he was improving. On good days now his mind was clear enough for him to feel the impotent fury of a rat in a trap. But confusion and chaos were never far away.

Even when he could think a little, nothing was familiar and nothing made sense. The name they gave him wasn’t his name. That was a small ember of certainty in what was mostly ashes. The people here all called him Mr Kennedy with confidence, even Rosa, but it was a lie. He might not know who he was, but he’d recovered enough to know who he wasn’t. And he was equally sure he’d never known this place or its staff before he struggled back to consciousness here.

These thoughts didn’t form logically or coherently in his mind; tiny, slow additions over the weeks had built them up. The ideas came most clearly when he was out of doors with Rosa working at the exercises that strengthened his arms and legs. He understood now what must at first just have been primitive instinct, that he needed to keep his improvement hidden. Rosa was worried about it, he’d read her body language from the start and maybe reacted to it. The last few times he’d seen her, her anxiety had been stronger, closer to fear.

He fought for hours in the long times spent closed in his room to rebuild the lost connection between his mind and his mouth, so that he could talk to her. It had worked with his hearing. More words made sense every day, not just names but whole chunks of what Rosa said to him, but his own speech would almost never come, and when it did it he had to force it out a word at a time. The frustration was a burning goad. Only his stronger sense of the need to hold it in, to keep his growing strength secret and hidden, kept him from hurling the furniture—and himself—at the white walls.

Rosa could tell when he was angry. He thought that frightened her too. She’d hurry to take him outside when she saw the heat of it in his eyes. He understood, though he couldn’t form the thought distinctly, that she was afraid for him, not of him, afraid of what would happen if anyone else saw what she knew. That helped him find a painful control. It also added to his confusion. One of the few ideas that actually came to him in words was ‘What sort of fucking hospital is this anyway?’

When he wasn’t struggling for speech, the man who wasn’t Mr Kennedy mostly spent the hours in his room fighting for memories. Who had he once been? How did he end up in this place? Sometimes he wondered if he’d been in a car crash, one that had killed his family. Some things about that felt right, but others jarred. He remembered grief. It touched him like a ghost when he was falling asleep or just waking; a trace of recollection of grief and anger and of the burn of whisky in his throat. But now his sense of the passage of time had returned a little, he realised it felt too far away, too long ago. Something else had brought him here.

And he was alone.

That had been the slowest thought to take shape, and he didn’t know where it had come from. Why shouldn’t he be alone? Confused as his mind was, he believed more and more that at some time he really had lost his family, so where did the haunting sense of further emptiness come from? The idea that there were other faces and voices lost to him, but living? Maybe sometimes he dreamed of them, but if he did all that was left on waking was a further sense of confusion. If he’d still had anyone—friends? brothers?—where were they now?

Need pounded in Vin’s head, thrummed there like the urgent wail of an alarm: the need to be on the move, racing to the next mark on the trail because maybe, who knew, it was now, after so many months, that time was finally running out for Chris. He didn’t need to look at Ezra to know Ez felt the same; all he had to see was the whiteness of Ezra’s knuckles as he gripped the wheel.

He noticed, though, that Ezra seemed to know where he was going.

“The archive is housed at the university,” Ezra said, catching his glance. “It’s something I have always intended to visit, and somehow other things have intervened.”

Vin had never even heard of it until it presented the other major question mark from that list of Chris’s calls. Now he felt it had to fit with Sammy’s story somehow, because whoever had left those thin lines of a whipping in the dark skin of Sammy’s back, was probably a man to hold a hate for the Jews too.

“This archive—it’d just be from the war?” he asked Ezra.

“Not necessarily. Although it would primarily be a memorial to the millions killed in the holocaust, most such places do deal with more recent examples of anti-Semitism especially from neo Nazi groups.”

Vin nodded, thinking. They’d made such an early start that it was still before noon when they finished negotiating the south Denver traffic and pulled in to the visitors parking lot. Good timing, because it turned out the archive opened to the general public at eleven.

“You can come at other times of course,” the pleasant, professional woman at the desk told them when Vin asked, “but you have to call ahead. Were you planning to come at some other time?”

“No ma’am. We’re trying to trace a friend who may have visited back in June, but he may just have called. Would you have been working here then?” He was aware of black and white scenes of appalling suffering on the walls around him, but he was more focussed on the thought that Chris might be suffering now.

“Oh please, make it Judith,” the woman said. “Ma’am makes me feel like an old schoolmistress. I’ve been at the archive for some years now, but I don’t quite understand what you want. You’ve lost touch with your friend? Why do you think we could help?”

Vin glanced at Ezra, who was better at explanations, but Ezra was staring at the photographs and his eyes were hollow with pain. He was looking at scenes of children: a line of them, some very young, some in the arms of older brothers and sisters, captured by an uncaring photographer in the last few moments of their lives. They moved forward, hand in hand, bewildered, lost, obedient. The building they were heading for was an extermination chamber.

Vin looked a moment or two at the pictures and let it hurt, because it was right that seeing this should hurt. It should wound the eyes and clutch unforgettably around the heart. But—and he didn’t like himself any better for being able to do it—he still went on to explain to Judith about Chris’s disappearance, and the fact they’d just traced the call to the archive.

Judith didn’t remember Chris’s name or face, but she had a work schedule which stretched back to the beginning of the year. After studying it for a few minutes and checking Vin’s time frame, she made a couple of calls to colleagues. On the second, she handed the phone to Vin. “This is Simon Goulder. He thinks he spoke to a Chris Larabee back then.”

“I’m sure I did, in fact,” Simon told Vin. “But it was only the once, and over the phone—I never met him. I only remember it because it was out of the ordinary. Mr Larabee knew that we often hear of incidents of anti-Semitism which will never reach court—things where the evidence isn’t enough, or it relies on a person’s word. He had a whole list of company names and those of a few charitable funds and wanted to know if we’d ever had any complaints against them.”

“Had you?”

“Just one, and that hadn’t come to anything. It was a fund that awards research grants. A girl came to us claiming she had been turned down because she’s Jewish, but the case came to nothing. Her professor had given her work and proposal a poor report, and the committee simply awarded the grant to someone with better reviews. She left soon after that, and I can’t say I would ever have thought about it again if Mr Larabee hadn’t mentioned the fund.”

Vin thought about it. Time to cast about a bit, looking for where the trail went. “You knew the girl?”

“No, not until she came to us, and she didn’t make a good impression. She was very bitter, and rather arrogant about her abilities and her work. When she found her professor had given her a poor report she began to accuse him as well, and that was patently ridiculous. I know the man. He’s not anti-Semitic, I can assure you.”

“We’d like t’ talk to him all the same if its possible,” Vin said politely. “Just in case Chris called him too. We’re trying to get a complete picture of those days back then. Coverin’ all the possibilities, that’s all. Since it’s a case of a missin’ federal officer.”

Intimidated by this, as he was meant to be, Simon gave him the name of the professor and directions to his office.

“Thanks,” Vin said. “Appreciate yer help.” He ended the call, and turned to Ezra.

“Time t’ go,” he said quietly, and seeing Ezra’s reluctance to turn away from the displays, he added, “We c’n come back, see this proper, but not now.”

His urgency crept into his tone as a plea, not a demand and Ezra responded to it, coming reluctantly with him, but turning back to look again at the photographs. “They were just children. What sort of evil or insanity would do that to them?”

“Th’ same sort that’d whip a boy like Sammy till he was half-flayed, and would likely have killed him if he was caught,” Vin said, the connection sharp in his own mind. “And if Chris isn’t dead—and I don’t b’lieve he is—the sort that’d want to put him in some kind of livin’ hell.”

Ezra shook himself, and was fully back with Vin again. “You got a name,” he said. “I heard that much. A professor?”

“Lib’ral arts,” Vin said. “You c’n do th’ talkin’. Let’s go.”

Josiah drove out to the ranch late on the Saturday morning, and found he’d missed Vin and Ezra. He glanced into the barn, stopped at the corral to rub Beavis’ nose, saw all the chores had been done. It was the same in the house; the lingering smell of coffee was the only testament to the fact Vin and Ezra had recently been here, until he went into the den. The sight of all the files, heaped on the furniture, spread about the floor, told him eloquently enough how they’d been spending their time. He picked up one that lay open and saw it was from the week before Chris disappeared. They’d said they were going right back to the start.

Josiah flipped the pages. The way the file lay suggested perhaps Vin and Ezra had found something in it worth following up, but he couldn’t see what. After a while he tried Ezra’s cell phone and found it was off. “I’m at the ranch,” he told voice mail. “Call me if you’d like me to cook dinner.”

He was worried—for no reason maybe except he was always worried about Vin and Ezra these days—and restless and reluctant to leave before he knew where they were. His answer came from an unexpected source. Midway through the afternoon, while he was fixing a piece of fence that barely needed it, Yosemite turned up.

“Your boys called to let me know they can’t make it back today or tomorrow,” he said. “Asked me to give you the message and a hand with the horses.”

Josiah put his hammer down and stretched a little. “Don’t suppose they said what they were doing?”

Yosemite shook his head. “It was Vin called and he ain’t much of a talker. Sounded in an all-fired hurry to me. But he said to tell you they was sorry about yesterday. They been in trouble again?”

“Couple of guys at work mouthed off to them about Chris,” Josiah said. “They reacted, it got out of hand, and they’ve been suspended.”

“Been getting closer to the edge for a while,” Yosemite said reflectively. “You want a hand putting the other two guys straight, you know where to come.”

“Appreciate the offer, but I think Vin and Ezra already made the point,” Josiah said. He was glad of Yosemite’s company, and uncritical concern for Vin and Ezra though. He grilled steaks for the two of them after they’d finished the chores. Yosemite was no more of a talker than Vin, but his silence was more friendly than a lot of people’s conversation.

In the end, Josiah decided to spend the night at the ranch, but there was no further word from Vin and Ezra, and when he tried to contact them the next day, they weren’t home nor answering their cell phones. The worst of his concern was eased by a message left on the Team 7 office answering machine saying Vin and Ezra had decided to take a few days away, but he thought of the den full of open files, and their hasty departure, and wondered just why they’d gone, and where.

“Professor D’Aubin?” Ezra asked politely and probably unnecessarily—the name had been on the office door.

The professor was a heavy man, well into middle age. His flabby girth, soft hands and mouth surrounded by petulant lines all said ‘weak’ to Ezra’s quick assessment.

“I only deal with visitors during office hours,” the professor said curtly. “The administration office is open to you, or if it’s about a student, please make an appointment so that I have time to find the appropriate files.”

Vin closed the door and leaned on it. Ezra moved into the professor’s personal space just enough to make him push his chair back and say angrily, “Go away or I’ll call campus security.”

Ezra showed him the ‘spare’ credentials he’d palmed from Travis’ desk the previous day—Mike Senger wasn’t suspended, but he was in traction at Mercy General, and for some reason his ID and firearm had ended up in the Director’s office. Whatever complaints might be made, Mike would easily be exonerated. “We outrank campus security,” he told D’Aubin.

“ATF? But what… If there’s some problem within the university I fail to see how it could relate to me.”

“Missin’ ATF officer,” Vin said shortly.

“And a grant proposal he was investigating last June, shortly before his disappearance,” Ezra said—reaching, because they were only guessing that Chris might have followed this up.

The reach paid off. Ezra saw an unmistakeable flicker in the professor’s eyes. Vin saw it too, and in one swift, fluid movement jammed the spare office chair under the door handle and turned to lean menacingly across the desk.

“You know something,” Vin said.

“I have to concur,” Ezra agreed coldly. “I suggest you tell us exactly what that is.”

“I don’t…”

“Yer goin’ t’ tell us,” Vin said with a certainty that even chilled Ezra slightly. “It’ll go easier fer you if you get t’ it quick.”

D’Aubin was beginning to smell of perspiration. ” I can’t… it wasn’t like that… I don’t know what happened to Mr Larabee. Please—the rest of it, why I had to agree to write that report on the girl’s research, you don’t need to know that.”

Ezra glanced briefly at Vin. It was a question of priorities, that and time. They could eventually get a complete story out of D’Aubin but it would be a long process and they didn’t have the advantage of being able to take him back to the ATF building. Even if they found out the name of whatever individual had actually threatened the professor it might not mean much—the lowest bottom-feeder in any criminal organisation would be well capable of leaning on a man like D’Aubin.

Vin nodded very slightly. Maybe time for the carrot rather than the stick.

“All we want is Chris Larabee,” Ezra said. “But you haven’t given us anywhere to look, have you Professor.”

“I don’t know anything solid,” D’Aubin said, and there was enough desperation in his voice to make it sound to Ezra like the truth. “I never did. Just that there were people with a great deal of power and money, who could make life easy for me if I did what they wanted, and very very difficult if I didn’t. They knew things about me… something I’d done… I still don’t understand how they could have found out about it, but they did. I could have lost my post here, maybe worse.”

An unpleasant whining note had crept into his voice.

“So y’ done the dirty on some student, ‘n then after Chris come, y’ told them he was askin’ questions,” Vin said coldly.

“I was afraid, that was all. I’d done what they wanted. They owed me some protection. But I never imagined… When I heard on the news that he was an ATF agent and had disappeared, I was horrified.”

“So horrified that you kept your mouth shut for five months,” Ezra said.

“I only suspected. I didn’t know anything. I still don’t. It might just be coincidence that he disappeared just after that.”

Vin’s hand shot out and knotted the neck of D’Aubin’s shirt around his windpipe so that he was unable to speak, and barely to breathe.

“We think there’s a connection,” he said.

“And coincidence after all, is often a convenient excuse,” Ezra pointed out. “It could be a coincidence that just after you met us and were unable to help us, you suffered a nasty accident. These things happen.”

Vin released the shirt a little and D’Aubin gasped out. “You can’t do this. What about my rights?”

“You’d prefer to be arrested and questioned, with a team of agents trying to discover the secret you were so keen to hide?”

“No,” D’Aubin groaned. “Shit, no.”

“Better start thinking hard, then,” Vin said.

D’Aubin looked around nervously. He was evidently still afraid of whoever had coerced him; but he was afraid of Vin and Ezra too, and they were the ones in the room with him.

“There’s one possibility,” he said in a low voice, as if he was worried he might somehow be overheard. “Like I said, I never really knew who was behind this—the man they sent to speak to me was just your regular rent-a-thug. But a car was sent to take me to the meeting of the grant committee, and later there were invitations—to poetry readings, to a couple of dinner parties, to a cocktail evening at some very plush company HQ. The connection was never obvious, but I knew it was there. They were making it clear they owned me, but that it would have its rewards, if I played my part.”

“This goin’ somewhere?” Vin asked.

“Yes. I may not have been able to stand up to these people, but I didn’t like being used. I did keep my eyes and ears open whenever I was at events. There was a place I heard mentioned twice, and I wondered… it did bother me, about Mr Larabee. I thought it was just possible this place was worth remembering.”

Ezra’s hands, quite without his volition, curled into tense fists, sending his nails biting into his palms. He kept his face calm and unexcited though. It was vital not to spook D’Aubin.

“What sort of place?” he asked quietly, as if they were having an ordinary conversation.

“A kind of up-market psychiatric hospital cum nursing home. Private and very expensive. The sort of place that’s in an attractive but very isolated setting and caters for the problems of the rich and famous.” His voice was still low and nervous.

“Name?” Vin demanded, as he paused.

“Alderways,” D’Aubin muttered, then scrawled it on a piece of paper which he handed to Ezra. “I’m not saying it’s anything definite—just an impression of mine. Once I heard a chauffeur mention it, mention driving there. I probably wouldn’t have thought any more of it, but there was something, I don’t know, slightly off in the way the guy was talking about it, and the way he went quiet when he saw me. Then later, at that party I told you about, I heard the name again. I went out onto a balcony to have a smoke, and there were a couple of men already out there. I caught the word Alderways, and just held back in the shadow to listen a moment. The guy speaking said the place was completely reliable and discreet; no one would ever know ‘he’ was there. It sounded like the sort of conversation it would be a bad move to overhear, and I went straight back inside, but I remembered the name, looked the place up, and I wondered… they could have been talking about anyone, but somehow it seemed to fit.”

Vin glanced at Ezra, who nodded. He’d heard a little of the place, notably once when he’d been undercover and a Sicilian mobster had praised it for keeping his teenage daughter under control until she gave up her hysteria and learned to obey her father. If it was offering that sort of service—no doubt very expensively—it might be a possibility, though the thought left him with a great many unanswerable questions.

Vin accepted his judgment, and stepped back from D’Aubin. “If it don’t work out, we’ll be back,” he promised. “If y’ go t’ your bosses, they’ll find out you talked to us, and if y’ go t’ ours, I think yer little secret might come out. Understand?”

D’Aubin understood. “Just go away,” he said bitterly.

They left him trying to get a cigarette out, with hands that were shaking so much he dropped the packet. Outside, they had to flash Mike Senger’s ID again at some university official. The gentleman in question was agitated because they’d parked in a slot allocated to the Vice-Chancellor—who was actually having to sit and wait, an unheard of disruption to his day. They drove off hastily while the man was still talking, and before the Vice Chancellor could get involved.

As the date for the visit from Mr Kennedy’s uncle grew closer, Rosa began to feel more and more trapped. She’d managed to check the admissions information. There was no other contact or address for her patient and no doctor except the one who’d signed the papers and who was probably the uncle’s man. There was no one in the hospital she felt she could approach—there were a few people she liked, but not whom she trusted to listen to this kind of conspiracy theory. It didn’t help that she had so few actual facts.

She snapped at Lyndon, and hated herself for it, though it didn’t dent his usual cheerfulness. She snapped at her mother, and didn’t regret that nearly so much. Her mother was being more than usually exasperating. After several arguments, she was no longer offering Rosa advice, but she could make it just as obvious silently that momma knew best.

With barely a week to go, Rosa decided she must, somehow, warn Mr Kennedy directly about the visit. She still wasn’t sure how much he understood of what she was saying to him, but she thought she’d try another way.

Even though the weather was cold, she usually managed to wrap Mr Kennedy warmly and take him out of doors. It was emptier in the grounds now, which was an advantage, and he’d been more frustrated and disturbed recently, so much so that she was afraid someone else would notice, though he did remarkably well at being passive while there was anyone to see him. He could work some of that anger off outside, walking once they were out of sight, and doing a routine of exercises. She’d noticed in the last couple of weeks that he’d added in some muscle stretches and strength work that she hadn’t taught him. He seemed to do them without thinking, but as if he was used to being very fit. The sight of him working grimly through the movements only added to her unanswered questions.

Once he was tired, and sitting in the wheelchair again, she crouched in front of him and tried to make eye contact. His hazel eyes weren’t often blank now, but they were always tormented; she found it harder than he did to hold the gaze.

“Mr Kennedy, your uncle is coming to visit you this week.”

It meant absolutely nothing to him, as she’d feared. She’d thought of another possible way though. From her coat pocket she took a small pad of plain paper and a pencil. She’d liked art at school, and the best part of the subject for her had been producing a likeness. She was better at plants and animals, but she’d been making herself envisage Mr Kennedy’s uncle. She’d have preferred to draw the picture in advance, but it had seemed just too impossible to explain if by some accident it had been seen.

Moving so she was beside him and he could watch the picture take shape, she began to sketch out what she remembered of Mr Fischer. The figure was easy, and the suit. The face she couldn’t remember so clearly except for those cold eyes.

She wondered if she would be able to tell whether or not he recognised the man.

Then, without any warning, her patient erupted to his feet, snatched the pad of paper and ripped up the picture; his inarticulate noises of fury were the most sound he’d made all morning.

Rosa stepped back in sudden fear of him, and he realised it, deliberately turning away as if to show his rage wasn’t going to hurt her.

Ashamed of herself, Rosa began to pick up the scattered scraps of her drawing, and when she stood up again he’d regained some sort of control, though he still stood with fists clenched and outrage in his eyes.

She waited a moment, then said quietly, “Mr Kennedy?”

He looked at her, his face contorting as if in some sort of struggle. He was trying to speak, she recognised the signs. She could see his desperate need to communicate, but there was nothing she could do to help him. For the first time, now, though, she began to see the real strength of his will. With painful violence he began to force something out, a garbled noise at first but then real, though barely recognisable, words.

He said it twice before she realised what he was saying.

“Not… fucking… Kennedy.”

When he saw that Rosa had understood, it was as if some switch flipped again in him. He dropped into the wheelchair, all the light gone out of his eyes, looking more like he had done when he first arrived. Rosa began to push him back towards the main building. She felt numb and confused, but in no doubt what he’d been trying to tell her. He said that he wasn’t Mr Kennedy—and she believed him. But the papers, the ‘uncle’, the hospital authorities all said that he was, and no doubt they had whatever was needed to prove it if she went to the police or medical authorities. What would she say? No one else would even believe he could speak; she’d covered up his progress all too well.

Her thoughts were interrupted as she re-entered the building by her manager, who was hurrying somewhere but paused to look at the patient in the wheelchair. Perhaps it was lucky that Mr Kennedy—or whoever he really was—had fallen back into his blankest state. She could see the manager noting the vacant eyes but healthy looking skin and colour.

“You’ve done a good job, Rosa,” he said.

Rosa answered appropriately, but her mind was screaming. A good job for who—Alderways? Not for her patient. But how could she do better? She hadn’t felt so completely helpless in years. After she’d returned ‘Mr Kennedy’ to his room, she almost turned towards the Alderways ‘meditation room’, but it wasn’t what she needed. It was light, airy, attractive with flowers, and carefully avoided the symbols of any individual faith.

She drove towards home more slowly than usual, and stopped at a little chapel she knew on the edge of town, one which was always open. She didn’t know what she was going to do, she felt more like a ten-year-old again than a competent and professional adult, but she walked slowly in. looking at the cross on the end wall. She had the chapel to herself. Stiffly she sat on a chair in the front row, wondered if she ought to bow her head, but gazed up at the cross instead.

She didn’t even have a name to pray for now; he was just a hazel-eyed stranger in desperate need. Struggling as hard for words as he had done, she swallowed all her adult pride and asked for help.

About half an hour from Alderways, Ezra pulled over to the side of the road for a last brief check that they had covered everything.

“You ready?” he asked quietly.

Vin nodded. “To play th’ part? Yeah. Just worried how much chance I’ll have t’ look around once I’m inside.”

Ezra looked him over critically, but was satisfied. The role hadn’t called for major changes in the way Vin looked: a slight trim to the hair that made his face look softened and younger; a bright T shirt with a logo a kid would like; unfashionable sneakers that fastened with Velcro for uncoordinated fingers to cope with. The most important thing was the face, and Vin caught that perfectly. His features seemed blurred with bewilderment, he looked at Ezra with confused trust then gave a loose, childlike grin. Ezra was impressed.

“Thought I was the one s’posed t’ have m’ mouth hangin’ open!” Vin said derisively, his face sharpening to its normal alertness.

“You surprise me with your acting ability,” Ezra said, truthfully.

Vin shrugged, then said slightly uncomfortably, “Grew up in a lot of places set up fer kids that didn’t fit in. Saw a few that had problems. Anyhow, y’ reckon they’ll buy it?”

“I do,” Ezra said. He checked through his file of papers, all beautifully forged, and the varied credit cards in the name of Edward Stanford. Mother would probably not notice for years that one of her ‘nest egg’ accounts had been emptied. Fortunate, really, that when he’d first acquired the details he’d decided to save the knowledge for some emergency.

He and Vin had decided on this approach within hours of leaving D’Aubin. By then they’d already been on the road. It had seemed best to make their move immediately. They had spent two nights in a slightly shabby but very private motel room, while Ezra used his talents to create all the paperwork they needed, including Vin’s fictitious medical records.

There were a number of ways they might have gone into Alderways, but the front door seemed best. The last thing they wanted to do was to alarm anyone and get Chris moved—if he was there at all. Ezra had decided on the persona of Edward Stanford—wealthy and successful entrepreneur. He was travelling in Colorado and Utah during November and December, he had explained to the helpful receptionist at Alderways. His younger, mentally impaired brother was accompanying him, but most unfortunately the lad’s caregiver had succumbed to a sudden attack of shingles. Mr Stanford was very fond of his brother, but had several business meetings in the next couple of weeks where his time would be fully occupied. Was there any chance Alderways would be able to offer appropriate care at such short notice?

Alderways was politely—and very expensively—happy to oblige, and after a night at a local hotel, to further establish their cover, he would be leaving Vin there this afternoon.

“Get goin’,” Vin said, ready for it. While Ezra had been working on the details of their roles, Vin had obtained maps of the area surrounding Alderways and studied them as if he was on some military assignment. He’d also created his own particular ace in the hole which he was now holding on his lap. It was a large and threadbare teddy bear, which he’d selected from a thrift store so that it would have the battered look of a long-loved toy. Some creative work with scissors, needle and padding later, and teddy contained a number of items Vin thought he might need, including a cell phone and a compact 9mm handgun. One thing about exclusive institutions, especially ones where you had paid an outrageous sum in advance, was that they were unlikely to subject their wealthy customers to intrusive checks.

Alderways was impressive on first sight. Polite porters at the huge wrought iron gates were expecting Ezra’s arrival and sped him up the long drive. The grounds were extensive and beautifully maintained. Planted sixty or seventy years ago, Ezra thought, mentally measuring the growth of the trees. Just after the war perhaps? The building confirmed that impression, and had clearly been built as a hospital not, as he had expected, a converted house or hotel.

The interior matched the exterior, the reception reminding him of a particularly good hotel. Vin trailed in beside him, his walk perfectly calculated to support the impression of disability. He had the bear clutched under one arm, and a duffle bag covered with bright stickers and badges in the other hand. Faced with the imposing front desk and a smart woman approaching, he stepped close to Ezra with convincing timidity. Ezra put a reassuring hand on his arm; he was still slightly unnerved by how completely believable Vin was in this role.

“I’ll be staying till you’re settled in,” he promised just loudly enough for the interested staff on the desk to catch the words. “Don’t worry. You’ll like it here.”

Their receptionist smiled at Vin with professional kindness. “You must be Vincent. I’m Marilyn. I’m going to show you your new room. Would you like that?”

“Ed?” Vin was clutching his bear more tightly, Marilyn’s professional smile had softened into something slightly more genuine and to Ezra’s trained eye this was a scam that was going very smoothly. He took the duffle bag from Vin and held his hand. It should help Vin in the next few days if the Alderways staff thought that this rich customer was very attached to his handicapped younger brother, and it would also make it more plausible for Ezra to turn up at short notice for visits.

Ezra completed all the formalities, taking in as much as he could of the computer systems and visible security at the desk as he did so. When they moved off along the gleaming hallway, Vin shuffled with his head down but Ezra could tell he was memorising every office and turning. Alderways was large, and he guessed that some patients were kept completely separate from the rest; this wasn’t going to be a quick in and out. He reminded Vin of that after their tour, when they were alone for a minute in Vin’s room.

“Take your time. Get to know the layout of the place. I noted what I could of their computer network, and one of the nurses logged on with her password while I was filling in the forms. I’m reasonably sure I caught all the digits—she was watching you so she was slower than she might have been. I think I can find a way into their system.”

“It’s not gonna say Chris Larabee anywhere.”

“Thank you, I wouldn’t have thought of that. It will still give me an idea of the number of patients and hopefully their admission dates.”

“You tell ’em I like t’ be out of doors? I need t’ get into th’ grounds.”

“Yes. You’ll almost certainly have someone accompanying you though.”

Vin shrugged. “Makes sense. I c’n still get a better idea of the place. If y’ come back t’morrow, I’ll say I want t’ show y’ what I’ve seen outside, we c’n take a better look around then.”

“Good idea.” Ezra hesitated, but he could see Marilyn coming, and he had to keep up the impression of a man whose time was valuable. Well, a brother wouldn’t part with just a handshake… He wrapped his arms around Vin. “Be good, kiddo.” Vin returned the grip, and not just for Marilyn’s benefit. This was the first time they’d had to split up and play a lone game in months, and their reluctance was only half-acted.

“Now Vin,” Marilyn said. “Shall we go and wave goodbye to your brother, and then it will be time for lunch.”

Ezra deftly slipped his visitors’ permit up his sleeve while apparently returning it to the desk. He might not need it, but you never knew. He looked back once to wave to Vin, then turned his mind firmly to his own part in this and the best approach to hacking into Alderways computers.

Orrin Travis reread the letter which he had put to the bottom of the pile when he began his paperwork that morning. Now that more urgent matters had been dealt with, he was able to consider its rather puzzling contents. The complaint from the Vice Chancellor of the university made no sense. Well, it made grammatical sense; it was quite fluent, though with more long-winded indignation than Orrin had patience for. But no ATF agents were currently investigating any case with a university connection, and while he could think of quite a few who might park in a slot sacrosanct to the Vice Chancellor, Mike Senger wasn’t one of them—he was still in traction at Mercy General.

It was a trivial enough matter. Someone had obviously behaved discourteously; even if the parking had been an error, they shouldn’t simply have driven away, and his first thought was to send a standard letter of apology. But somehow it niggled at him. He decided to call Campus security instead.

Like Orrin, the man he spoke to failed to view the affair as seriously as the Vice Chancellor had. “Your men showed some ID and left; there was no trouble. The rest of us weren’t expecting them to grovel.”

“You were there?” Orrin asked.

“Yeah. Vice Chancellor Brookfield called me. Urgently. To be honest, before I realised it was some of your guys I thought it was just someone who’d wanted to leave his car where the paintwork wouldn’t get scratched. I hadn’t realised an ATF salary ran to a Jaguar, I’m obviously in the wrong job.”

Orrin managed to laugh and finish the conversation on the right note, with the promise the Vice Chancellor’s ruffled feathers would be duly smoothed with a polite letter. Then he paged Josiah Sanchez urgently. As far as he knew, there was only one ATF agent in Denver who drove a Jaguar, and Orrin would very much like to know how he came to have Mike Senger’s ID. Surely he’d seen it somewhere himself recently…

“It was on your desk, sir,” Mike’s team leader said, puzzled, when Orrin called him about it. “A paramedic delivered it to the desk downstairs, and it was brought up to you. I was going to pick it up a day or two ago, then things got busy. Is there a problem, sir?”

“Not for you,” Orrin said. There would be for someone though. From his own desk! He paged Sanchez again, and then called Nathan Jackson for good measure. He was angrier than he’d been for a long time, and worse than that, he was worried. What the hell was Standish—and no doubt Tanner as well—up to now?

Vin found that after a couple of days, no one noticed him very much. He made sure he was always in the right place when it mattered, like meal times or the social room in the evening. By the evening of his first full day at Alderways he’d discovered that there were hallways that were kept secure; patients from there ate in their rooms, and the staff passed through doors with electronic locks. Some of the people from those rooms did come out, however, from time to time, though always accompanied. Vin saw a couple being escorted to the pool for a private session, another came with a nurse to sit at the back of the first evening’s movie.

He decided that his best option was to be out of doors in the grounds as often as possible. Marilyn found an orderly to take him out the first morning, then Ezra paid a ‘surprise’ visit the next afternoon, and they went to walk around. That was more convenient. A high fence surrounded the grounds, but Vin and Ezra’s walk took them—cautiously—near the gardeners’ area.

“There’ll be ladders somewhere,” Ezra said. “I’ve checked the fence has no alarms; they obviously rely on its height and the supervision of any risky patients.”

“They keep some of them doped up,” Vin said. The advantage of wandering about, teddy under his arm and his gaze vacant was that he’d already overheard a lot of things that would not have been said in front of him otherwise.

“Yes. I thought that was probable. And Chris would be a prime candidate to be kept subdued… But at least you’re in, and getting an idea of the place. For the time being, I should work on becoming invisible, just someone the staff expect to see wandering about. Marilyn already asked me if I considered you capable of being out of doors on your own—near the building of course. Take the next two days to establish that, then you should be able to wander a little further.”

“You get anywhere with the computer?”

“I’m into the system, but so far I’ve only managed to access the current list of patients and admission dates. There’s nothing within a week of the time we’re looking at, but three in the week after, and two the week after that, all long term cases.”

“Must be a hell of a lot of rich people around,” Vin muttered.

“Some of the individuals are probably elderly—if you get senile old dad off the board of directors so you can take over, this would be a cheap price to pay. It’s a good deal more difficult to get into patient details, but I’m working on it.”

“Nothing in the names?”

“Oddly, one did sound somehow familiar, but nothing I connected with Chris.”

“What was it?”

“J.D. Kennedy—but maybe it’s just the coincidence with JD’s initials. Kennedy’s a common enough name, it’s probably nothing.”

Vin stopped abruptly, forgetting for a moment to keep up the slightly shambling walk, and gripped Ezra’s arm. “Hell, Ez. J.D. Kennedy? I know where y’ heard that. Our JD was real upset, kid didn’t like sharing his initials with the guy. It was that seminar we had t’ go to on civil rights and such. There was a John D Kennedy was a founder of th’ first Ku Klux Klan. Don’t s’pose I’d’ve remembered the name if JD hadn’t made a point ‘f it, but that’s one almighty coincidence.”

“I agree,” Ezra said. “A very arrogant and warped mind might see it as humour to use such a name to incarcerate a man, if that man had dared to cross him concerning some racist act.”

“It c’d be Chris…” Vin found the words strange in his mouth, and the thought of some real hope even stranger. “Y’ got t’ get further into the system Ezra, find the room, find the details…” He trailed off, because Ezra already knew this. But Ezra was equally stunned by the thought that after so many false trails and lost hopes, they seemed at last to be getting closer.

They stood and looked at each other in silence for a moment, then Ezra said quietly, “I need to get into the computers; you need to do exactly what you’re doing now. It seems unlikely that if they have Chris he would be allowed outside, but there may be better vantage points in the garden to see those closed hallways. I won’t come for a couple of days—better not to draw any more attention to ourselves. You’ve no problems with the phone?”

Vin shook his head. “Got t’ keep it switched off, but I c’n call you from out here.”

“Try to check in morning and afternoon.”

There was more they wanted to say, but neither of them could find the words. Overwhelming everything else was the need to make no false move now, no wrong step that could alert someone in Alderways and see Chris moved away, somewhere they might never find the trail.

Marilyn stood with Vin as Ezra drove away. “You really miss your brother, don’t you?” she said. “Never mind, he’ll be back soon.”

Vin nodded and dropped his head, not wanting to show too much in his face. He wished he and Ez hadn’t had to split up, but he thought Marilyn had seen more. The thought of Chris maybe so near was breaking the self-imposed barrier that had kept his grief and loss at bay for the last few months. He dared not let himself feel how much he missed his brother…

Josiah didn’t normally indulge in black humour, but he couldn’t help a certain grim amusement at the amount of trouble Vin and Ezra could cause Orrin Travis even after they’d been duly suspended. The director was furious about the misappropriation of Mike Senger’s ID; more furious that it had been done with such apparent disrespect for himself; and he was worried, very worried, about what Vin and Ezra could have been doing as no one in the university admitted to having met them on the morning in question.

For Team 7, the worry was softened by the fact that Travis had decided to leave them together to find out what the hell was going on.

“So Vin and Ezra did us a big favour,” JD said cheerfully. He was off the sick list, though a mild allergy to the antibiotics had given him hives on top of his cat scratches and he looked like a walking outbreak of some nasty plague. “It was definitely them. Buck and I went through the security camera footage.”

Buck wasn’t officially off the sick list, but he’d hobbled along with JD to the university. JD had dropped him off at their apartment to call around friends and acquaintances for any hint of Vin and Ezra’s present whereabouts. Josiah, who had seen him briefly, found him uncharacteristically angry and hurt that Vin and Ezra seemed to have ditched the rest of them and gone after something alone.

“But we don’t know where they’ve gone or why,” he said, thinking aloud.

“We know why,” Nathan said quietly. “They’re still looking for Chris.”

“Yes—but why there? Why now? What possible connection could they have found to the university?”

There was the sort of silence that naturally followed unanswerable questions. The phone on Josiah’s desk broke it.

Josiah picked up, but before he could say anything a torrent of angry female rhetoric poured out at him in a voice he recognised.

“Maude?” he said, when she briefly paused for breath. “I don’t understand.”

“I want to speak to Ezra,” Maude said sharply. “And I want him now. Where is he?”

“We don’t know. He and Vin have been suspended—I think they’ve gone away for a few days.”

“The little weasel!”


“I’m going to make him pay back every penny. I know it’s Ezra. I know his style.”

“Maude, what has Ezra done?”

“Emptied—completely emptied—a private bank account of mine. A nest egg for my old age,” she added with a pathos that was probably habit, and was certainly wasted on Josiah. Realising that, she went on more briskly, “I admit that Ezra might, when he was much younger, have contributed a very small amount to the fund, but…”

“Maude, how much has Ezra removed from the account.”

“All of it! And how much that is, is my business and Ezra’s. Let’s just use the word substantial. I wouldn’t mind so much if only there was a chance he was using it sensibly.”

“To fund a good scam?”

“Exactly. But he won’t be, will he? It will be funding another quixotic and futile search for… It’s not that I’m unsympathetic, Josiah, but how much chance can there be now of finding Mr Larabee?”

“There’s always hope,” Josiah said, not feeling any.

“There won’t be for Ezra if I see him before that money has been returned!”

Maude put the phone down forcefully. Josiah sighed. He’d always refrained from getting involved in the financial chicanery that occasionally went on between Maude and Ezra, but this time he would have dearly liked to know how much money was involved—and even more, what it was that Vin and Ezra had found to spend it on.

Vin carried on quietly establishing the routine he wanted, going out of doors soon after breakfast, and reappearing for lunch. He let Marilyn wrap him up well in the scarf and gloves Ezra had left for him, stood there solemnly while she tied an identical one around the bear’s neck, then stayed on the gravel walk near the house for a while, picking up cones and pieces of twig. One or two other patients from his part of Alderways also ventured out into the cold, but the wind was biting and no one stayed there for long.

No one paid attention when he drifted further into the grounds. Ezra had said he was fine to be out of doors alone, and he made sure to be back close to the house well before the meal times. The grounds were almost deserted, anyway. It wasn’t difficult now he was unsupervised to get into a position from where he could watch the doors that led out from the more secure part of Alderways, but there was very little to see. On the mornings of his surveillance, at slightly different times each day, an African American nurse pushed a wheelchair out into the grounds. She walked in the opposite direction from where Vin was loitering, though. He could see nothing of the person in the wheelchair, hidden under the hooded coat and a blanket.

The second morning, after she was well out of his way, he stashed Teddy under a bush and shinned hastily up a thick conifer to look into the hallways he couldn’t see from the ground. Without being able to see into the patients’ rooms, this didn’t tell him a lot, except that meals were taken in on trays and there was less of a formal routine than in the other block. He waited and watched until he was numb with cold, and then returned after lunch, but learned nothing useful.

The next time he had a chance to find a well-concealed spot and call Ezra, he said, “Y’ need t’ get somethin’ more from the computer. I c’d watch that hallway for days and see nothin’ worth seein’. Y’ don’t see patients at all. Meals get carried in, staff go in, that’s all. Can’t even work out a time when shifts change.”

“It’s not so easy as you appear to think to access their computer system,” Ezra said, sounding equally frustrated. “There are different levels of security. JD would probably be able to tackle it more successfully, but…”

“But we got no more t’ go on than last time.”


They’d mobilised the whole team the last time they thought they had a lead to Chris. And they’d ended up crashing—and compromising—a police investigation into a kidnapping that turned out to have nothing to do with Chris at all. It had drawn some unwelcome attention from the press, and gotten Vin and Ezra another reprimand. Vin could still remember the looks they’d received from Josiah and Nathan—concerned, sure, but with that tinge of pity that made both Vin and Ezra want to resort to violence. Buck had simply been angry, partly from hopes raised and dashed, partly because JD too had received a reprimand on this one. He’d said some things he might not have meant, but he definitely had meant it when he added that it was the last time he was being dragged on some fool chase based on whispers and guesswork.

“In fact, we could still be wrong,” Ezra went on quietly.

That said it all really. They’d been wrong too many times already.

“Y’ get anythin’ at all?” Vin asked, shivering as a particularly cold gust of wind penetrated his shelter.

“I have the name of the nurse assigned as primary carer to this Mr Kennedy—Rosa Johnson. I tried to find out something about her from other parts of the data base, but apart from the fact that she’s 35 and African American, there was nothing I thought would help you to identify her. However, I had the impression that there were relatively few workers at Alderways who were from the African American community.”

“Fits with what I seen,” Vin agreed. In fact, as he thought it over, he could only think of one woman he’d seen who would also fit the age Ezra had given. “Thirty five?” he said, checking.


“Okay. I got something I need t’ take a closer look at t’morrow, then.”

“Would you like me to pay another visit?”

Yeah, Ezra was finding it hard not being here. Vin thought about what he’d seen so far of the woman’s routine—if it was a routine, he’d not had long enough to make a judgment. She’d gone out around midmorning, stayed a couple of hours at least in the grounds. He’d better wait and see if that happened the next day. “I’ll call y’ late mornin’ if it’s worth y’ comin’ in,” he said.

“Take care, then. You’re having no problem maintaining the cover?”

“Nope. They think I’m ‘cute’ ‘a sweetie’ and ain’t it a shame I’m the way I am ‘cos otherwise I’d be the hottest guy in the state,” Vin quoted accurately. He ended the call while Ezra was still speechless. He wasn’t feeling much like joking, but it was harder for Ez, stuck out there waiting than it was for Vin. Better to finish with a lighter note.

Vin made his way slowly back inside in time to eat. Marilyn fussed over his frozen hands, and a motherly lady on reception pretended to do the same for his teddy. It bothered Vin some—more than some—that there were kind people here. He guessed the nurses and other support staff were too respectful of the doctors to question anything they did, but still… He kept thinking of something Josiah said, that all it needed for evil to flourish was for good people to do nothing.

He wondered about the nurse pushing the wheelchair. Was that how she was? Or were the staff who worked in the more secure area chosen because they were more deeply involved in the establishment’s less ethical work? He’d have to make a quick judgment in the morning, when he had every intention of ‘accidentally’ running into her.

As he lay in the dark, humming softly to the damn bear—Ezra reckoned it was important to keep up an act even when you were sure you weren’t being watched—he let himself wonder about the muffled figure in the wheelchair. Nothing about the patient had said ‘Chris’ to him, and if someone had incarcerated Chris here, it hardly seemed likely he’d be allowed out in the grounds in any circumstances, but… Vin decided he’d manoeuvre so he could get a proper look at the guy in the wheelchair even before he set up his accidental meeting with the nurse.

Josiah had the confused, frustrated sort of feeling that he associated with trying to find his way in a dream—the type of dream where you repeat your route over and over again, feeling more and more urgency but never knowing which way to turn.

“Vin and Ezra must have found something.” JD said. It was the third time since they’d arrived he’d made this comment, but he seemed to think it was worth saying again. Buck had taken one look at the piles of paper covering the floor of the den, and declared he was going out. Relishing being mobile again, he went to check the horses and the rest of the ranch, then looked in briefly to announce he was going down to the store to fetch some beer.

Josiah and Nathan were trying to find an order or logic to explain the different piles of reports Vin and Ezra had been looking at. So far it was escaping them. JD leaned over Nathan to take a look, brushed a heap of files and the whole lot cascaded from the couch.

“Sorry,” he said hastily as loose papers slipped out.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” Nathan said. “We haven’t a clue what they were doing.”

“You could try the computer,” Josiah suggested—mostly because it was down the hallway in another room.

JD didn’t take offence. “I could call up the phone records for the ranch,” he said. “It’s hard to get a good signal for a cell phone here. Maybe Vin or Ezra used the one in the study.”

Josiah looked down at one file which was open—open on the list of the last calls made from Chris’s broken cell phone. It hadn’t particularly struck him before, but suddenly he wondered…”Yes,” he said. “JD, I think you might have something there. You do that. And while you’re at it, find out who these calls were to.”

JD looked at him hopefully, realised Josiah really did think there might be something in his idea, and went off so fast he caused another slight landslide in the files. Nathan began to stack them up again. “I’ve no idea what order these were in.”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter. Vin and Ezra told me they were going to start again from the beginning. Those phone calls were made before Chris disappeared, and there’s a file open on the floor down there of interviews with people who saw him that day. How much of this could they really have looked at before they disappeared off on whatever trail they’re following—what we need to do is find the earliest files there are.”

Before they’d done more than look at a few covers, however, the door was flung open and Buck came in like a larger whirlwind than JD, sending the files Nathan had just picked up cascading down again. “You can drop that,” he said. “I know what Vin and Ezra are doing, where they started at least. When I went in for the beer, Jim Dunning told me they called in on him, and that they were real interested in what he and his wife had to tell them about some kid Chris had riding along with him the day before he went missing.”

It was colder still at Alderways that morning, and heavy clouds suggested snow was possible, but Vin thought it would hold off until the afternoon or evening. He was more worried that it would concern Marilyn to the extent she didn’t want him to go outside—or that the nurse he’d seen would think it was much too cold to take her patient for a walk.

Things worked in his favour though. Everyone was busy. He got the impression as he wandered about and listened that there was a visitor coming that afternoon, an important one, and that the management were determined on presenting the place at its best. Vin made sure he had his warmest assortment of clothes on, and escaped into the icy grounds while they were all too distracted to pay much attention to him.

He returned to his vantage point watching the secure wing, more hopeful than maybe the situation warranted. It was early, earlier than he’d seen the wheelchair before, and he was prepared for a freezing wait. He needn’t have been. Barely fifteen minutes after he’d taken his place, he saw the nurse emerge, her patient almost invisible under a pile of blankets.

Vin watched her closely, and was surprised to see that she looked as relieved as he had been to be out of doors. She walked away from the building fast, adding to the impression that she felt the need to escape. She was paying little attention to anything else, not even her patient, and Vin found it easy to drift after her, teddy dangling from one hand. He kicked a pine cone along clumsily. He doubted very much whether anyone was watching him, but he made sure his attention seemed to be on his game, rather than on the people he was following.

As a bend in the path took them out of direct sight of the building, the nurse turned sharply off the gravel and across the grass, struggling a little with the wheelchair although the ground was hard with frost. Vin gave the cone a wilder kick, making sure he hit it so that it spun off in the direction that suited him. He’d have to be more careful now. If she’d turned and seen him playing on the path behind her, that wouldn’t have been too suspicious. He’d be more conspicuous following her here. Of course, she’d probably just assume that like a little kid he was interested in the only other people around, but there had been something about her speed and the way she’d moved once she was out of sight that made him think she might not want anyone else too close.

He moved at an angle, using the shrubs and trees, wishing for a few more evergreens. Adding to his sense that the nurse was furtive too, he saw her push the wheelchair back onto a path and into a small circular walk hidden by a yew hedge, one of the most private places in the grounds. Vin had reconnoitred this, like every other part of the garden. There were two entrances to it, the main one that the nurse had taken, and a smaller arch in the hedge leading directly to the centre of the walk, where seats surrounded a small water feature. In summer it might have been a popular place to come. Now it was always bleak and deserted.

He listened, and could hear she was talking to her patient, though he couldn’t make out the words. Quietly now he moved along the outside of the hedge. The characteristic sound of the wheelchair on the gravel had stopped, near where she entered the walk. He paused outside the second entrance. If he ran in now, as if he was still playing some game, he should be able to see the patient and the nurse without breaking his cover at all. Okay, the patient was so well muffled it might be hard to get a good look at him, but he could always try the ‘look at my teddy’ approach and get right in the guy’s face. And surely, if it was Chris, he would know…

He stood silent at the break in the hedge and listened again. Still no sound of wheels. He decided to go for it, to charge in swinging his bear as if he was rushing about happily to keep warm.

The one thing he hadn’t considered as he listened for the wheelchair, was that the patient might no longer be sitting in it.

Vin entered the yew walk at a run, and had to skid immediately to a halt, almost losing his balance as he avoided crashing into the man who had been the muffled immobile figure in the wheelchair—but who was now striding towards the water feature.

They stopped barely a foot apart. For a moment, Vin was too taken aback even to be sure what he was seeing, though they were standing face to face. Stock still, he stared in shock.


The name came out hesitant, not the explosion of joy there should have been in the fact that they’d been right, that at long last, after all their futile searching they’d finally found Chris. Instead he found himself looking at familiar features made strange by new lines of anger and suffering, and into hazel eyes that looked at him without recognition.

“Chris!” he said again, unwilling to accept the lack of response.

The nurse, back near the entrance, couldn’t hear them, and anyway, the minute Vin had seen Chris walking, he’d realised she had as much to hide as he did … and that she wasn’t the enemy. Even if she had been, he was prepared to take almost any risk in his urgent need to see that blankness leave Chris’s eyes. He took a step towards him, held out a hand the way he’d done many a time before a dangerous assignment. “Hey, cowboy,” he said softly. “Been looking for you one hell of a long time.”

Slowly, painfully slowly, something kindled in his friend’s expression. He lifted a hand, clumsy in its thick glove and touched Vin’s, then tried to clasp it. Vin returned the grip, glancing quickly back at the nurse. She was coming towards them, but with no threat or alarm in her manner. Chris was staring at him like a man trying to read a book in a language he didn’t understand. He must have found something in what he saw, because in a move that was as uncharacteristic of him as that blankness in his eyes, he stumbled half a step forward and let his head drop against Vin’s shoulder.

“What the fuck have they done to you,” Vin muttered, his arm tightening around Chris and his mind screaming defiantly that Chris wasn’t broken, not Chris, nothing could break him…

The nurse was speaking as she reached them, but not with questions or any of the challenges Vin might have expected. Instead she said abruptly, “You have to get him away from here. You’re his friend, I can see that. You have to get him out of here before three o’clock.”

It was weird, tracking down Vin and Ezra. JD wasn’t sure how he felt about it, other than weird. It had to be done, he guessed, because maybe the two of them were in trouble or needed some back-up Anyway, Buck was close to exploding at being left out of what looked like a lead worth following up and was going to find them whatever JD felt.

“You told them you’d had it with their wild goose chases,” JD pointed out reasonably. “And you blamed them for me getting a black mark, like I was some kid not old enough to make my own decisions.”

“They shouldn’t have involved you.”

“Well, this time they haven’t! They haven’t involved any of us, have they?”

“And what the hell’s that supposed to mean—that it’s my fault they’ve gone off without a word, leaving us to play catch up?”

“Maybe they just wanted to be sure this time.”

Buck walked impatiently to the side of the parking lot, to look out for Josiah and Nathan. JD knew he was more frustrated than anything—and missing Chris with a fresh sharpness. They all were. They’d gone back to the store with Buck so they could all hear Jim Dunning’s story, and then JD had traced the calls Vin and Ezra had made. This morning they’d split up: Josiah and Nathan over to Boulder, JD and Buck to the holocaust memorial centre. Josiah had called with a brief summary of the startling and alarming story of the boy Chris had picked up—or rescued. JD and Buck had gotten one thing they’d been wanting to know for a while—the name of the person who Vin and Ezra had gone to see at the university.

Now they were waiting for Josiah and Nathan to arrive so they could all go and brighten Professor D’Aubin’s morning together. Buck had wanted to pull the man out of his lecture at once, but JD had persuaded him to wait. D’Aubin would be free by the time Josiah and Nathan reached them, and JD himself would be very glad of Josiah’s calming presence. The talk with Jim Dunning the previous night had brought Chris back poignantly to all of them, but it was hardest of all for Buck.

“Josiah’s here,” Buck called. His face was almost unfamiliar to JD, it was so hard and set. “This guy D’Aubin lied to us last time we questioned him. Let’s go and see how much persuading it takes to make him tell the truth.”

Rosa wasn’t ashamed of the tears that stung her eyes. They seemed the only right response to the sight of her lost and threatened patient finally finding a friend. And just how lost he’d been, how hard the fight back to sanity had been for him, she only realised when she saw his head drop against the stranger’s shoulder. She’d seen his strength of will, his utter determination in the battle back to fitness, but she’d never truly realised till now how much it cost him.

But there was no time to think of that. “You have to get him away from here by three,” she repeated. She’d hurried out here this morning, desperate in the face of the so-called uncle’s visit in the afternoon, her only hope to make Mr Kennedy—she had to think of him by some name—understand his danger.

Or to drug him. She’d thought of increasing the dosage back to the level he was supposed to be receiving, rather than letting them see his improvement, but it was risky. Too little, and there’d be a danger of only undermining what self-control he had; too much and the doctors might notice the difference in him. And if he didn’t understand why she was doing it, maybe she’d lose his trust for ever.

Now, at the very last moment, it seemed there might be a better chance for him.

“By three?” the stranger said. Rosa realised he was supposed to be a patient; she’d noticed him a couple of times in the foyer. She glanced at the stuffed bear at his feet and couldn’t help a small smile. He’d been convincing! But she hadn’t time to think of that.

“The man who had him admitted here—he’s coming. And I think he’s got a lot of influence with the board of Alderways. If you’re here alone…”

The young man nodded. “I’ve some back-up,” he said briefly. Taking her completely by surprise, and never once letting go of her Mr Kennedy, he scooped up the bear and pushed his hand up its rump—coming out with a cell phone.

“Vin,” he said to her as he dialled. It was a moment before she realised he was introducing himself.

“Rosa,” she told him, but he was already talking, presumably to his back up. She picked up a name, Ezra, but little else, before Vin turned to her with questions.

“You reckon this ‘uncle’—Fischer was it?—is dangerous? He was the one did this to Chris?”

Chris. She was so glad to know his real name, but there was no time to think about it. “Yes,” she said quickly. “If he didn’t do it himself, he worked for whoever did. And he provided false medical records. Mostly false. I think that someone really had drugged your friend and used some sort of electric shock treatment on him, but not for any justifiable medical reason.”

She saw Vin’s face twist, as if the thought hurt him, and she was glad. If he cared that much for Chris, he was the right sort of friend.

Vin went back to his cell phone conversation, and she couldn’t follow it just from hearing his side, though he asked a few more questions, seemingly random, like what town she lived in and what family she had. She moved close, so she could help with Chris if need be, but he was silent and unmoving, leaning on Vin like a man who’d fought his way to the end of a very long and hard journey home.

Vin ended the call, and turned to her. There was a light in his eyes that made her heart pound hopefully.

“Okay,” he said. “We got a plan. One that won’t hurt you, I hope. Take the chair back to where you came in, where you can be seen from the path, like you’re just turning out of here. We’ll get Chris back into it. Ten minutes from now, Ezra’s going to call reception and make out he’s your local hospital, calling to say your son’s had an accident at school. You got a pager?”


“Good. They know where you are?”

“Yes, I always tell the desk when I’m going out and when I come in, and roughly where I’ll be.”

“So they’ll send someone to get you.”

Rosa was slightly overwhelmed by the speed of this. “Yes… yes, of course. An orderly, probably.”

“Right. Then you act panicked the minute you get the news, go off at a run and ask the orderly to push Chris back in. Me and Chris, we’ll deal with the guy, and that should give us time to get out of here to where my friend will pick us up.”

Rosa looked at him doubtfully. “You won’t hurt the orderly.”

“Just tie him up and leave him in the chair.” He was starting to sound impatient and she could understand why. Ten minutes… how much of that had passed? She went back along the yew walk, and Vin followed with Chris, repeating the plan briefly. She thought Chris was going to balk at getting back into the chair. He went briefly rigid, and she sympathised. It had to symbolise all his imprisonment in this place. But Vin said, “Five minutes, Chris. Treat it like undercover, okay. Just stay there long enough to fool whoever they send, then we’re out of here.”

Rosa was surprised Chris really understood that; maybe it was no more than that he trusted Vin, and could comprehend what he wanted, but anyway, he sat back in the chair, and slumped a little, so that he was convincingly her incapacitated patient. She was barely in position near the entrance before she heard a voice calling her name from close to the main building.

She felt better when she saw who it was. Kurt, a bit of a bully, and someone she wouldn’t feel too bad about Vin incapacitating. Karl was big, but flabby, and she thought he wouldn’t really give Vin trouble, especially not if he was taken by surprise.

Kurt waved urgently to her, and she ran to the path, leaving the wheelchair where it was. She was so tense by now that it was easy to act the part of an alarmed mother. Hastily asking Kurt to bring the wheelchair in, she ran to reception and tried not to feel guilty at all the sympathy and concern there.

“I’ll be okay to drive,” she assured them. “I’ll call from the car, and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear what’s happened. Kurt’s bringing Mr Kennedy to reception. Oh dear, it’s awful that this should happen just as his uncle’s coming to visit, but I’ve no one else to go to Lyndon…”

Her urgency was genuine. She really wanted to be out of Alderways. Luckily, the one manager around was a junior one, and he was quick to say that a family emergency must take priority. Less than ten minutes after Ezra’s call, Rosa was in her car and on the road, and only then did the reality of what had happened sink in.

She had time now to feel afraid.

Would they suspect her? What would Vin do? His friend had been amazingly quick to think up such a plan on the spur of the moment, but would it go smoothly. She wished she’d arranged to hear from them somehow, though it would have increased her own risk. Meanwhile, she must do everything as if she believed that Lyndon was hurt. She called her local hospital, and went through all the appropriate channels, prolonging things as long as possible before saying it must have been a cruel hoax, and even after that she remembered to call Lyndon’s school. By then she was almost half an hour from Alderways, and she’d had time to think it through a little. She’d done all the things she would have done if she believed the call was genuine—now, to be really plausible she must call Alderways… and go back.

Ezra was thankful that he’d chosen a route through the back roads which required his full attention to navigate—scenic was probably the optimist’s description, though at least there was no snow. He had to concentrate ahead, and it was a bitter relief to have no time to glance at the back seat where Chris lay like some mocking replica of the man Ezra knew and respected—lay with his mind apparently empty and his eyes fixed blankly on the roof of the car.

Ezra did have time for an occasional glance at Vin, but the expression on Vin’s face was no comfort. They’d exchanged no more than the most necessary explanations when they met up at the place Vin had chosen. His careful study of the area maps had paid off fully—the car had been able to approach surprisingly close to Alderways down a disused track.

Ezra’s heart had leapt painfully with relief, perhaps with something closer to joy, when the two of them had emerged from cover. That first gladness had evaporated before he even opened the door. Something was wrong… He knew it from a dozen tiny tells, the sorts of body language he looked for all the time as part of his undercover life.

Chris had moved differently, almost with a shuffle, had followed Vin with his head down, something so uncharacteristic that it had shocked Ezra almost more than the confused eyes that met his and that struggled to recognise him. Ezra had for once been completely lost for words, and afraid even to try for them in case his voice gave away his feelings.

Even now, he was reluctant to be the one to begin the conversation they had to have, but after settling Chris on the back seat and telling Ezra to get them out of the area, Vin had sat silently staring at the road. Ezra saw from the clock on the dash that this silence had endured for almost half an hour. Ahead there was an area designated for a picnic place in summer, deserted now. Without consulting Vin, he pulled off the road and into a corner obscured from any passing traffic, should there be any.

“We have to make some decisions,” he said quickly. “I imagine that even now, computer records at Alderways are being hastily adapted, and this Mr Fischer—which is almost certainly not his real name—is cancelling his visit. However, we have the incontrovertible evidence of Chris himself that Alderways has colluded…”

“Not Chris,” Vin said.


“Ain’t lettin’ anyone see Chris like this.”

Something deep in Ezra agreed utterly with the feeling, but he struggled to voice the opposing view of common sense. “How do we proceed without producing him? Alderways will no doubt have some sort of contingency plan, but they are unlikely to have achieved it in half an hour. We need to move quickly if we want to obtain any kind of justice for Chris, and I don’t see how we can do that if we hide him away.”

Vin’s silence had apparently hidden some serious thinking. “Call th’ police,” he said. “Call ’em twice, your prepaid and mine—it’s still up Ted’s ass—he’s only lost his head. That orderly we took out never seen me. Chris took him by surprise and he was already doubled over when I finished him. Doubt if they’ve even noticed I’m missin’ yet. Call as Ed Stanford, say you had a ransom call from someone claimin’ they took yer handicapped brother from Alderways, don’t talk long, say y’ got t’ keep tryin’ t’ get through t’ th’ reception there. Then call—y’ can do enough different voices—like yer someone at Alderways, reporting two patients missin’ and an orderly attacked. That sh’d get them movin’ fast, probably call in some Fed help too. After that, call th’ boys. Tell ’em we got Chris safe, but he ain’t ready for meetin’ up with everyone yet. They’ll be kinda pissed at that, so tell ’em that these bastards at Alderways had him, and t’ give th’ place hell. Gotta be an almighty good contingency plan’ll survive cops, FBI and Team 7. They’ll find some way of provin’ Chris was really there without anyone ever havin’ t’ see him till we got him okay again.”

But for a lifetime of training, Ezra would have simply gaped at him.

“It’s th’ only way,” Vin said.

“You’re seriously suggesting we tell Buck and the others that we have Chris safe but they can’t see him!”

“Yeah. Call J’siah.”

“If you think that even Josiah is going to forgive this one, you’re delusional.”

Vin shrugged. “Ed Stanford, worryin’ about his brother,” he prompted, making clear he wasn’t discussing Team 7.

Ezra flipped through some regional law-enforcement numbers in his notebook—like Vin, he believed in being prepared—and selected two. Dropping automatically into the tone and manner of wealthy Edward Stanford, he made the first call, hitting just the right note of doubt as to whether this was some psychotic prank, or a genuine ransom demand. For the second call, on the other phone, he used the name and intonation of a junior manager at Alderways who had annoyed him by his scarcely hidden distaste for ‘retards’.

“They goin’ for it?” Vin asked as he finished.

“Most satisfactorily.”

“Give me my cell. I’ll call Josiah.”

“We should think about this. Chris must need medical help. We can’t get that anonymously; what’s been done to him isn’t like a bullet wound that any backstreet doctor can deal with. And however much we’re his friends, I don’t think we’re adequate alone. Buck is Chris’s oldest friend, Nathan would know better what medical problems might underlie this, Josiah…”


The flat statement halted Ezra mid-sentence, because it didn’t come from Vin. He turned around, slowly, uncertainly. Chris was sitting up, and for the first time, there was something in his eyes Ezra found familiar—that look that said Chris had made his mind up and arguing would do you about as much good as ramming your head against a concrete wall.

“No more people…” Chris said, slowly as if he had to force the words out.

Ezra opened his mouth to argue, then hesitated, because he wasn’t sure this Chris could handle it.

Chris met his eyes, and somewhere, buried in there, was the man Ezra knew. “Say… it,” Chris spat out.

“You need professional help. Vin and I, we don’t know where to begin, we don’t even know what was done to you. And while the investigation’s going on into how you ended up at Alderways, you may need protection too—you’re a huge threat to this Mr Fischer or whatever his real name is. I’m not sure I understand why he had you concealed in Alderways rather than killed in the first place.”

Chris raised a shaking hand to his hair, as if that was an answer. The effort of holding this conversation, and of comprehending the rapidly moving situation, was clearly exhausting him, but he looked at Ezra with a shadow of his old glare. “No one… else. You, him, handle it.”

“But Buck and the others…” Ezra broke off, not sure how much the names would mean if Chris was even referring to Vin as ‘him’.

“Too many… too much…” Chris closed his eyes, and a shudder ran through him.

Ezra had never felt more inadequate, but he could no longer bear to put the ‘sensible’ view. If he and Vin had subscribed to common sense in the first place they wouldn’t be here now. He turned the ignition key. “You call Josiah,” he told Vin. “Give him everything we know except our location and where we’re going. Though that would be difficult in the circumstances anyway. Where are we going?”

“Away from Alderways.”

And into the unknown… Ezra turned, saw Chris curled into himself on the back seat, and wondered where they could go, and for how long. How could he and Vin possibly do this?

How could they not.

Rosa pulled up, called reception, told them that Lyndon had never been admitted to hospital, and asked if they knew who the original call had come from. To her great satisfaction, there was a hubbub of noise in the background, and Tracy, who’d answered, said, “Oh, Rosa, you won’t believe what’s happened. That call must have been part of it. Dr Craven just found Kurt outside tied into Mr Kennedy’s wheelchair, and Mr Kennedy’s disappeared. They think he’s been kidnapped!”

“How awful!” Rosa said, trying to sound shocked. “I’ll come straight back. I just called Lyndon’s school and he’s fine. The message must have been a trick. I suppose they hoped Mr Kennedy would be unattended for a few minutes.”

Thankfully, everyone who mattered seemed to think that as well. Kurt hadn’t even seen the man who attacked him. He claimed Mr Kennedy had kneed him in the groin and that he’d been doubled up when it happened. No one but Rosa could believe this was possible; Rosa could imagine the brief flare of savage determination in Chris’s green eyes.

Her main fear was the arrival of the ‘uncle’. If he wasn’t blinded by his own prejudice, if he considered the possibility she might not be too ‘inferior’ to be capable of deceiving him, he would be the real danger.

But to her enormous relief, Mr Fischer never came. Instead, startling her as much as everyone else, the police arrived. Vin or more likely his friend Ezra must have called them she realised—she’d worked out by now that Ezra must be the ‘brother’ who’d had Vin admitted.

If there had been alarm among the senior managers before, there was something close to panic now. The discovery that the police had reports of a second patient missing, and that they were also calling in the FBI, raised this to the level of catastrophe rather than crisis. Compounding it, a macabre touch which horrified everyone, the head of the teddy bear Vin had dragged everywhere with him was found decapitated near the fountain and smeared with blood. In the confusion about who from Alderways had called the police, and the efforts to contact Mr Stanford, Rosa’s minor part in the morning’s events was almost forgotten. She had to answer questions, but she kept her story simple, and most of it was true and easily verified.

The worst part for her, as the day wore on, was thinking of all the things about Mr Kennedy’s… Chris’s… care that she had not had time to tell Vin. She’d seen the depth of Vin’s concern for his friend though. She guessed that he and Ezra had been looking for Chris for all those months he’d been at Alderways. Surely that sort of commitment and determination was what Chris really needed now.

The media arrived not too long after the police, but made little headway against Alderways long-established methods of maintaining the privacy of their patients. Rosa thought the news people would be cautious in what they put out in the evening bulletins. Alderways had notoriously excellent lawyers. Still, the presence of the press added to the general disruption, and with every harassed hour that passed for the senior management of Alderways, Vin and Ezra should be further away, and Rosa felt more secure.

She tried to keep out of the way as much as possible, making herself useful in small ways for the patients whose care was being interrupted. Once, as she walked outside to cross more quickly to the other wing, she smelt bonfire smoke and saw a thin blue column drifting up from near the gardener’s shed. It looked natural enough, probably, to escape the attention of the FBI, but Rosa could guess there was more than leaves and dry wood burning. More secure than a shredder… There wasn’t much she could do about that though. She wasn’t even sure how much Chris would want the law-enforcement agencies to know. Best to trust him to his friends, and let them make those decisions.

She felt exhausted by the end of the afternoon, though perhaps not as much as the tense, stony-faced senior staff who were still working to defuse this disaster. Late in the day Mr Golding, one of the directors, came up to her. “Nurse Johnson?” He’d never really noticed her existence before today. “We realise this must have been a very stressful day for you,” he went on briskly. “I’m sure you’ve been wanting to see for yourself that your son is safe and well.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve spoken to the detective in charge, and he’s happy for you to leave now. Your manager can take the responsibility for explaining Mr Kennedy’s history and case notes.”

“Thank you, sir,” Rosa said politely, wondering if he really thought she was too stupid to understand that they wanted her out of the way in case she blurted out anything about the way the case notes had been changed. She had no doubt at all that they would have been altered, at least to conceal the details of Chris’s admission. “I know the call was only a hoax, but I’m looking forward to going home and seeing Lyndon.”

“Of course, of course. Go home now, and I’m sure it will be all right for you to take a personal day tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir,” Rosa said again, head down, submissive, laughing inside. She, Vin, Ezra, and above all Chris were away and free, and the time for justice would come, she was sure of that.

As she hurried to her car, she noticed yet another group of men arriving. More FBI? They didn’t quite have that look, but agents of some sort, she was sure. A burly man in front was talking persuasively to his angry companion; behind them a young dark-haired lad half-ran to keep up with their longer legs, and the African American man who had been driving kept dialling on his cell as if he couldn’t make a connection. They caught her interest, because they all looked as if they had some personal concern in what was happening, but she soon forgot them as she drove home.

She didn’t forget Chris. All the evening, while she cooked, while she struggled with Lyndon’s algebra, while she listened to her mother detailing Mrs Norton’s unfortunate intestinal problems, half of Rosa’s mind was far away. Chris was with his friends, and she was so glad for him, but she wished she knew just how they would all cope—she wished she could see him becoming the man he should be, not the shattered man she’d helped.

“Want me to drive for a bit?”

Vin and Ezra had left the picnic place promptly after making the calls, not because they really thought there was any danger of their being traced, but because they felt the need to be on the move, putting a greater distance between themselves and Alderways. It was slow on the roads they were using, but very quiet. The greatest danger was that anyone local would remember a stranger’s car, and Ezra had already decided to change the rental car at the first opportunity.

“I’d rather we decided on a destination,” Ezra said.

Vin glanced at the back seat. Chris seemed to be asleep. Even resting he looked drawn and gaunt. Vin had been shaken by how much it exhausted Chris to speak—much more than action seemed to do; he’d been effective enough dealing with the orderly. That had been the point where Vin’s first shock had edged into something with a trace of hope in it. Chris had understood exactly what was needed, and his timing had been better than Vin had dared expect. They’d immobilised the guy in seconds, and better still, without his ever having seen Vin. That had given them the chance to add to the confusion at Alderways—Vin grinned to himself slightly as he recalled Ezra’s face when he saw the headless bear. Anyone’d think the damn thing had feelings.

“Hurt me more’n it hurt teddy!” he’d pointed out; the cut that he’d made across the ball of his thumb to smear blood on the furry head still smarted.

“It opens a whole new perspective on your character, that you can commit teddicide with so little compunction,” Ezra had said, but though his voice had been light and joking, his eyes by then had already been fixed on Chris with the same alarm and dismay that Vin had first felt. Ezra’d eased a bit when Chris had laid down the law in something like his old way, but Vin could see tension and doubt in every line of his body as he drove.

“We need to decide where we’re going,” Ezra said again.

“Y’ thought where y’ can change the car?”

“Somewhere big enough to have two outlets. I can hardly return this one as Mr Stanford then change to another ID on the spot.”

Ezra had to be distracted if he felt the need to say something so obvious.

Vin took the map. “Here should be okay—or here if you want t’ go further t’ th’ south.”

“There are a number of options,” Ezra agreed. “But there’s also the question of what I do with you and Chris while I’m making the transaction.”

“They won’t’ve released photos. Not fer a kidnap victim, and not fer Chris in any circumstances. They won’t want anyone identifying who their Mr Kennedy really was—be a nasty surprise for ’em when Team 7 arrive, but that won’t be fer a good while.”

“I don’t know,” Ezra said thoughtfully. “Something struck me about your conversation with Josiah.”

“Struck me, too,” Vin said with feeling. “Never would’ve thought J’siah c’d go so Old Testament on us.”

“Yes, but something else. It was clear during your conversation that Josiah was in transit somewhere with all of the others. Given the team’s current status, doesn’t that strike you as puzzling?”

Vin had been so taken aback by the volume and intensity of Josiah’s wrath that he hadn’t thought about the background snatches of noise until now. “I did hear Buck, shouting fer his turn t’ rip me one,” he said. “And yeah—Nate tellin’ JD t’ sit down and stop blockin’ the rear view.”

“The clarity of reception was certainly better than I would have expected.”

That was for sure; there’d been no problem hearing how much the rest of Team 7 hated their current plan…

“Y’ think they were closer than Denver?”

“I think they might well have become concerned about our whereabouts, or alerted to our movements in a number of ways—a comment from Mr Dunning, for instance, if anyone called at the store, or a follow-up call from the memorial archive.”

“Or yer ma.”

Ezra winced. “Mother would certainly have felt an urgent need to confront me if she noticed the activity on that account, yes.”

Vin thought about it. “Well, if the boys were already on th’ trail, that’ll be all the quicker they’ll be givin’ Alderways hell. Don’t see it makes us change what we’re doin. Switch th’ car at th’ first place we can, and y’ can leave me and Chris outside town while y’ do it.”

“By the side of the road? It’s freezing.”

“We got warm clothes.”

“But you’ll be waiting for two or three hours at best. We could find a motel—no need for you to be seen while I get a room—or maybe I could drop you at a quiet diner?”

Vin hesitated. Wasn’t as if Chris looked well, and the temperature was still dropping, but… He leaned around. “Chris? Chris, you awake?”

Chris opened dazed, wary eyes. It took a while before they seemed to focus a little. Ezra stared hard at the road, whatever he was feeling invisible on his face. Vin waited. When he thought Chris was with them, enough at least to hear him, he said, “Ezra needs to leave us for a couple of hours. You prefer to get a meal somewhere quiet, or wait up outside town?”

He kept his voice as ordinary, as conversational as it might have been if five months hadn’t left Chris almost unrecognisable as the man they’d known. Chris pushed himself slowly upright, his eyes on the road. Vin went on waiting. So did Ezra, though tiny movements showed Vin how uptight it was making him.

Vin was just about to give up, when Chris said with that painful effort that seemed to characterise all his attempts to speak, “No people.”

“Not the diner, then.”

“Outdoors. Space.”

There was a pain and a need in the two words that hurt Vin—and he didn’t think it was the brightness of the day making Ezra blink, either. They didn’t speak again until Ezra pulled off the road at a point where a small trail twisted quickly behind boulders and sparse trees. The air was cold enough to sting their faces but Chris seemed to straighten up a little and stand less stiffly as he sensed the freedom.

“Take care. I’ll be as expeditious as possible,” Ezra said to Vin. To Chris he made a slight gesture of salute, two fingers tilting an imaginary hat. It used to be Ezra’s half-ironic way of showing Chris had his respect. Whether or not Chris remembered this, Vin knew Ezra wanted to say, without any irony at all, that Chris still had his respect and always would have. The gesture, and all it carried with it, warmed Vin and lifted the lingering doubt he’d felt since he spoke to Josiah and lit an anger in the big man Vin had never experienced from him before.

‘Guard each man’s dignity.’ That was one of Josiah’s own sayings about the homeless folk he worked with. Well, sometime Vin would take a stab at explaining that’s what he and Ezra were doing now—guarding Chris’s dignity till he was okay to face the world again. Never mind that the Team loved Chris like a brother. Vin knew instinctively how much Chris hated being seen like this, struggling even to get a word or two out. Hard enough for him to have Vin and Ezra seeing it; no need to add to that. As Ezra drove away, Vin followed Chris a short distance up the trail until he stopped, leaning against a boulder, head tilted back.

The sky was empty. Maybe that was what Chris was looking at: space. At any rate, it seemed to ease him. Vin saw him draw in a deep breath as if he relished the bite of the cold air in his lungs.

Vin leaned up against the rock next to him. They’d never needed to say much when they were outside together. This felt good… natural… ordinary—all the things life hadn’t been for so long.

After maybe half an hour, he shifted a little. “Let’s walk. My butt’s numb.”

Chris looked at him with something like the beginning of a smile. He didn’t answer, but he set off with less of the ugly stiffness in his walk. Vin let himself forget all the decisions he might have gotten wrong, and began to hope a little.

JD stared in disbelief as Josiah upended the entire desk, computer, files and all, of the man who had been calmly blocking his enquiries. Admittedly it was nothing like the size of the huge main reception desk, but it was a very substantial piece of furniture that went crashing to the polished floor. It wasn’t so much Josiah’s strength that startled JD though; it was the fact that he had never, ever, seen the big man lose his temper so completely.

Luckily the other federal agents were interviewing the directors in offices far along the hallway, and most of the detectives were out in the grounds. One uniformed officer on the outer door turned abruptly as the crash echoed hollowly in the shocked silence, but seeing what had caused it he went back to his sentry duty as though nothing had happened—Team 7 weren’t the only ones who knew they were getting the run-around from Alderways.

The violence, the shattered computer, the scattered debris from the surface of the desk briefly had everyone immobilised. Buck and Nathan were quickest to react. Each taking an arm, they hustled Josiah out of the far doors and outside. JD said hastily into the rising murmurs of shock and anger, “We’ll find out exactly what happened to Chris Larabee here, and it’ll be all the worse for you that you didn’t help us.”

To his satisfaction, though some looked confused most of the bystanders looked as if their consciences were troubling them. There were a lot of uneasy faces, struggling not with the events that seemed to have overtaken Alderways—even now Team 7 hadn’t gotten any real information on these—but with personal guilt. Maybe these people didn’t know exactly what had been going on, but they knew that some things at Alderways might not bear a full investigation.

Meanwhile, a full investigation was the last thing JD and the others were getting a chance to carry out. The FBI had been unwelcoming… perhaps not too surprisingly… and it was harder than JD would have imagined to convince them that Chris had been held here under the name JD Kennedy. There were no pictures in Mr Kennedy’s notes. The blood group listed was wrong. Team 7’s assertion could hardly be based on the word of two suspended agents, it had to be ‘information received’. And the problem was confounded by the fact that not only was Chris missing, but some other patient seemed to have been abducted at the same time.

“Vin and Ezra wouldn’t have taken anyone else,” he whispered to Buck as they shivered out on the gravel and Nathan tried to calm Josiah down.

“Hell, who knows what they’d do,” Buck said. “Before today I’d have flattened anyone who suggested they were crazy enough to keep on going it alone even after they’d found Chris.”

“It may be a question of what condition they found him in,” Nathan said. His hand was still on Josiah’s shoulder, in support more than restraint. “I had a word or two with one of the docs while we were being given the run-around by admin—thought I recognised the guy and it turned out we’d been to a trauma conference together. He wasn’t saying much, and I get the impression he doesn’t deal with the more sensitive cases, but he did say that ‘Mr Kennedy’ had been practically catatonic when he was admitted and didn’t look like he’d made much progress.”

JD shivered, not from the cold, and saw the older men’s faces grow bleaker, grimmer.

“Drugged up?” Buck muttered.

“Maybe. If it was just that, I don’t reckon it would have made Vin and Ezra take off with him though. I’d guess something more. We need Orrin Travis to come through for us so we can get full access to the staff and records.”

JD knew the director would be doing his utmost, and it probably wasn’t the liaison with the FBI that was the problem. It would be Alderways lawyers and board of directors that were the real block. He looked back towards the foyer, then around the grounds. There had to be other, less direct ways to start some questioning—like maybe with the woman who had just come out of a side door looking distressed, and was jerkily smoking a cigarette there.

“Buck,” he said softly. Buck was the best person for this, and JD had never felt less like their normal jokes and rivalry about such things.

Buck followed his slight gesture and nodded. JD could see him putting everything aside but the need to find out what had happened here.

“Okay,” Buck said. “Nate, you go and see if your doctor buddy will say any more. Push him whatever way you can, we’re not getting anywhere doing this the official way. JD?”

“The officer on the door looked kind of like he was on our side. I’ll talk to him. Get him some coffee, no one else has bothered.”

Josiah took a deep breath, let it out, shook his head as if to clear it. “I’ve got to walk around till I cool off. You go ahead.”

He walked off without another word, head down as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and JD couldn’t help the irrational feeling he’d just keep on walking, disappearing like Chris and Vin and Ezra. But Josiah turned briefly before he’d gone far, and there was the trace of his usual reassuring manner as he said directly to JD, “I won’t be long. Just getting my balance back.”

JD managed a smile in return. Maybe Josiah was throwing furniture, and half his team were missing, but he still had a job to do. He straightened himself a little and refused to give in to the gloomiest of his thoughts. He’d go talk to the man on the door, and he’d damned well carry on and on and on till they were all back together again.

Chris… he was Chris… All through the bombardment of too much happening, too many words, changes that happened more swiftly than his mind could grasp, this was one thing he could hold to that made sense. Another was that he was free. Whatever was confusing or out-of-control as the day hurtled on he accepted as a price he was more than willing to pay. He was free, and he was with… friends? brothers? comrades?

It hurt that his mind was so slow to grasp them. Images slid and flickered at the edge of his thoughts. Blue-eyes—on horse back, in a ghetto street, smiling over a cup of tarry coffee. Green-eyes—in a sleek car, transforming to fifty different people but a good man always at the core. Why couldn’t he hold to the pictures for more than a moment, or the names; it was worst of all that the names slipped from his mind like water. Fury with this weakness battered at him, driving him to retreat within himself for a while and let their voices become nothing more than a meaningless, comforting sound.

It helped a little.

Time passed, and he felt the pressure in his mind ease.

Eventually he was aware of blue-eyes asking a question, and the words made sense again. “… You prefer to get a meal somewhere quiet, or wait up outside town?”

He fought the battle again to spit words out, and in the end it was worth it, because he could see they understood beyond the stark syllables. Outside. The need to be in the open.

He wasn’t sure why the car had to leave for a while, but it didn’t trouble him. Here, out in the open, the cold air cutting through the fog in his head, his freedom was a tangible thing. He tilted his face up to look at the emptiness, and enjoyed the silence. Blue-eyes, a warmth at his side, liked silence; green-eyes, now on some incomprehensible errand, always needed to fill it… Was that a true memory? He thought so. And the feeling that he’d often been under a wide sky with this man beside him? It felt right, a certainty that lightened his heart. He stored both the memories with his name, building blocks on which he would begin to reconstruct his life, and when blue-eyes stood up to move around, Chris felt as if he could follow along without any struggle to achieve a smooth stride.

Rosa would have been pleased.

The thought formed whole, name and everything, but it brought him up short. They would have understood, surely, these men who were perhaps his brothers, that Rosa had to be kept safe in all this.


He looked at his companion who’d stopped beside him, and found peace and acceptance in his gaze. It made the struggle for words just a little less hard.

“Rosa. Was good to me.”

“She’s safe, Chris.”

They had understood, then.


“Yeah, sure as we can be. Wouldn’t be a good idea for us to contact her, but Ezra worked out a plan that kept her well out of it. Rosa’s okay, and we’re okay. We just got to decide on our next move.”

Chris nodded, and they walked on in silence for a while, too cold to stand still for long. He was tired now, muscles aching with the unaccustomed time on his feet, but it was a discomfort he welcomed. The movement, the peaceful pattern of rock and undergrowth and tree, seemed to help his mind to focus for longer. “… decide on our next move” stayed with him and sent his thoughts on unaccustomed paths. He had the chance to make a choice—and the bewildering question of what he wanted now that he could choose. Controlling those thoughts was his determination to regain what he’d lost—and then find the man who took it from him.

There was a place in his mind he wanted to go, but he couldn’t find the word to explain it. Frustration welled up, but instead of plunging him back into the cell inside his mind it blew away in the cold air. There was always a way. He could come at it sideways. Something told him that the man with him wouldn’t need much of a clue to understand his thoughts.

“Horses,” he said, breaking what had now been a long silence. “Go there.”

“Go to the ranch?”

Yes! Ranch was the word that had eluded him. But blue-eyes was still talking.

“Hell, Chris, there’s nothing I’d like better, but that’s where everyone’d look for us sooner ‘r later—friends and enemies. Whoever it was had you locked away in that place knew who you were and I reckon they’d know where you lived. And if you want to kinda get back on top of things a bit before we team up with the others again, well the ranch is the first place they’d look.”

Chris listened, understood enough, thought for a while as they walked up the narrowing trail. There were ideas in his mind that he couldn’t form clearly, even for himself; they came to him as a series of pictures, disjointed but vivid. He wanted to explain the possibility that the pictures presented, but all that came out was, “Near ranch. Work?”

“It’d work if there was anywhere we could go, yeah, but the barn’s too much part of the place and it’s no weather for camping.”

Chris broke off a stubby branch and tried to scrape on an open patch of ground the shape he wanted.

“I got some paper somewhere,” his companion said.

Chris realised that this was how it had once been, this easy understanding that seemed to know what he was trying to communicate even before he put it into words. He took the screwed up piece of paper and flattened it, accepted a … thing kids drew with… and scrawled in thick orange lines what he wanted to convey.

He looked up, trusting the intent blue eyes to be following his hasty lines. They were, but they looked uncertain. “I don’t know this Chris. This is the ranch here, right? Yeah. And the barn, the corral, and I know yer land. But this”—he pointed to the shape Chris had circled—”I don’t know this. Must be way up among the trees?”

Chris nodded.

“It is a building? How far from the ranch?”

This time the frustration did threaten to overwhelm Chris. He hadn’t a chance of explaining that one, couldn’t do this question and answer for much longer either. He was rescued by the quiet voice going on, “Well, it don’t matter, anyway. We’ll find out. You reckon that’s the place to go, we’ll drive through the night, should get there around dawn. We’ll have t’ go in careful, but with any luck we’ll be ahead of everyone lookin’ for us.”

Chris met his eyes for a long, slow moment. He couldn’t put into any sort of words what he was being given back by this agreement, this trust in him to make a decision even fucked up as he was. He held out his hand the way this man—this friend—had held his out before. Their arms clasped, sealing something that didn’t need speech.

“‘Course, I’ll be the one has to explain it t’ Ezra,” blue-eyes said. “That’ll mean one hell of a lot of talking. He’ll go along with it okay, but he just can’t do it without wearing his voice out going all around the subject. Don’t s’pose you’ll even bother to listen.”

Chris heard the warmth and amusement in the words rather than the actual content, but he got the general idea. He found himself smiling. “Sleep,” he said smugly, and when they sat back in the car again he let himself do that, confident that the two of them had his back.

Most people who were acquainted with him were afraid of the man who had called himself Mr Fischer in his recent dealings with Alderways. With some it was no more than a sense that he would be a bad man to cross in business matters, with others it was closer to terror.

They would all have been surprised to know there was someone whom even he feared.

He had dismissed the servants from the whole of this wing of their remote and well-protected house. If this interview went as he thought it would, better that none of them heard. He tapped on the open study door. “Father?”

The old man in the wheelchair had seen his ninetieth birthday a couple of years ago, but if his body was failing, the violence of his temper wasn’t. “You fool. You utter fool!” he snapped. “How could you allow this to happen? Do you know what this could mean?”

“Yes, Father. Everything is being done to retrieve the situation.”

“It must be ‘everything’—absolutely everything. We cannot afford so much as a breath of suspicion now. We are vital to the cause! Never let anyone suggest otherwise. Money has come from those who went to South America, but nothing more. They have been more concerned with their own lives. Brunner and the others who found a haven in Syria are the front line, it’s true. They’re the ones who have truly carried the ideals of the Reich, but without our silent undermining here, our influence on business and the media, our funding of university fellowships for the anti-Semites, how much harder it would have been for them! Is all our work to be threatened by your failings, Otto?”

Otto had heard the speech many times before, and knew his father felt as much jealousy of Alois Brunner as support for him. A post in Syrian intelligence had been a much more obvious way for carrying on the Fuhrer’s work than this secluded estate in Colorado. He waited for the opportunity to break in afforded by his father’s question.

“It will not threaten anything. The man was a vegetable. Wherever he is, he is no danger to us.”

“His friends may be.”

“His friends are causing mayhem at Alderways demanding to know how he came to be there. All our informants are agreed the ATF men really do not know where he is now—they’re angry and frustrated, it’s not some game.”

“Someone has him, Otto. Who is it? And why?”

That was why Otto had feared this conversation. He still did not know. He even wondered if it was all some bizarre mischance, and the double kidnapping had just been some opportunistic effort by someone who’d gained access to the grounds—they were saying there’d been a ransom demand for the other patient who’d disappeared. He offered this thought.

“I do not believe in coincidence,” his father said grimly. “What was the black bitch doing taking him outside anyway?”

“Trying to get some colour in his face before I saw him,” Otto said scornfully. “She’s a stupid woman and scared of me and her managers. They all say she thought she would be in trouble because he’d made so little progress, and of course no one would disillusion her.”

“Even the lesser races can show a sort of animal cunning,” his father said thoughtfully. “You’re probably right, but have her watched. In fact, go further. Does she have family?”

“A son, certainly.”

“Have someone threaten him, or anyone else she has. It doesn’t need to be too much, we don’t want another line of investigation for the local police. Just enough to frighten her—if she has any connection with what happened, she might make contact then.”

Otto nodded. That was easy enough. He saw his father was about to return to the theme of how his son had failed him, and said quickly, “Perhaps it would have been better if we had simply eliminated him in the first place.” The decision not to do so had been his father’s alone.

“No,” the old man said without any doubt at all. “With that colouring and the eyes of a warrior? There are few enough real Aryans in this benighted country. When he had begun to show signs of recovering from the shock treatment, he might have been re-educated. Such men should not be wasted.”

Otto allowed himself to be silenced. If his father thought he had won this argument, perhaps he would move on from his anger at what had happened. For a moment it could have gone either way, then the old man gestured to him to sit down. “Tell me exactly what took place, every detail, whether you think it relevant or not, and then I will decide what is to be done next. What is your priority at the moment?”

“The ATF men were at the university before they left for Alderways, we’ve just had that confirmed, and D’Aubin didn’t turn up for his afternoon class. I have several people looking for him. Perhaps he knew something that gave them a lead.”

His father nodded, a hint of approval at last in his expression. “Have him brought here. I’ll question him myself.”

Ezra was a genius, not that Vin’d ever tell him this. For a minute when he drove up, Vin thought he must be a mind-reader too. Instead of returning in another smooth rental car, Ezra pulled up to pick them up in a battered Ford truck. It had to be at least ten years old, but Vin could hear the powerful engine was going sweetly, and Ezra had somehow obtained some sacks of feed and hay bales making the truck look natural for the country roads they’d planned to follow.

“A Mercedes would have been nice, but rather conspicuous,” Ezra said. “Considering your possibly prescient remarks about my mother, I decided to forego renting and spent some more of her money on a purchase she would certainly loathe. In this I feel we have a sort of natural coloration that should camouflage us well.”

“Perfect,” Vin agreed, bundling Chris in out of the cold. “Want me to drive a while? Where’d you find it?”

“A happy chance as I approached the town. I saw it with a for sale sign in propped in the cab window. I returned the car, abandoned Edward Stanford along with it, and became Ed Schmidt, looking for something to run feed etc around in. Cash, as always, smoothed the deal rapidly, and we’re now in business for as long as we want to travel.”

Vin took the keys Ezra seemed happy to hand over. “Which is most of th’ night,” he said. “Chris reckons we could hide up near th’ ranch, and I agree. It’d have a lot of advantages—no problem helping ourselves to what we need, and we could keep a look out for anyone showing an interest in th’ place. And it’s home…”

He had a feeling the last argument was the one that carried the most weight with Ezra. If there was anything Chris looked as if he needed, it was home. Ezra took the crayoned sketch map, and studied it as Vin began the next stretch back towards Denver.

“I’m not sure I’m familiar with this … building?” he said slowly.

Vin shrugged. Chris was already asleep, but he’d about talked himself out anyway. “We’ll have t’ see what it’s like when we get there.”

“You haven’t seen it either?”


Their eyes met. “As you say, we shall see when we get there,” Ezra said.

They drove through the rest of the day and into the night, not seeing much traffic, getting no attention from what they did see. They were just another truck, well-used and loaded up with supplies for horses. They stopped at a couple of different stores while they were still open, not wanting to buy enough food to get themselves remembered. Around midnight they changed over and Ezra drove again. Chris slept, not as restlessly as before.

They made it back to the ranch just before first light. Vin checked it out, but it was as quiet and deserted as they’d left it. “Buck and the others must’ve gotten to Alderways quite late,” he said. “Guess they’d stay over. And this’d be down the list a bit for anyone else looking fer Chris. With any luck, the kidnapping story’s still causing some confusion. Once that’s done, the men who put him in Alderways’ll be thinking of hospitals and police stations, not a quick run home.”

Ezra pulled up in the yard. “We’ve maybe an hour before Yosemite comes. Let’s find this place, then I’d better move the truck. We’ll carry what we can up to… whatever… once Yosemite’s gone again.”

Chris hadn’t woken till they stopped, but now he sat up and stared into the darkness. Light was just beginning to seep in, showing shapes but no detail. Vin opened the door, and after the warmth of the cab, the icy air bit into them painfully. They were all stiff, but after a brief unsteadiness Chris walked towards the corral then around towards the house. Ezra shifted slightly as if to move after him then stopped.

“What?” Vin said, sensing his unease.

“It was the way he looked at the house. Almost as if he expected someone to be there, to have heard us arrive. Does he remember, do you think?”

Vin didn’t know what to say, and was silenced anyway by the grimness of this thought. Surely they wouldn’t have tell Chris of his bereavement all over again, not after everything else he must have suffered. But Chris turned and came back to them. It was light enough now to see the expression on his face, and it was a familiar one; Vin had seen it before when something unexpectedly reminded Chris of Adam or Sarah and made their loss vivid again. If he had forgotten for a while, he’d remembered now.

Chris didn’t say anything, but gestured to the shadowed edge of the woodland, and they followed him in a few yards to a rough trail Vin hadn’t realised was there. Chris seemed to know the way even in this dim light, and they followed him up it, maybe for quarter of an hour or a little more, their hands and feet getting number but the ground showing more clearly in front of them.

There were plenty of conifers here. Vin had long since lost sight of the ranch though it wasn’t that far below them, when they came to a slight natural opening in the trees and he stopped, completely taken aback.

Someone—Chris—had worked hard here, clearing an extra bit of land and building up a flat enough area for a small cedar shed. Not a work shed, not up here.

“A play cabin,” Ezra said softly.

Chris turned and nodded, though his face was more gaunt than ever. “My boy … camp here… before.”

No wonder they hadn’t known it was here. Maybe Chris had been back once or twice, once the good memories started to find a way through his grief, but the cabin looked as if had been untouched in the years since Adam died.

The door wasn’t locked, but there was nothing inside bigger than a spider. The cabin was empty and dusty, a shell—but a useful one. Vin glanced at his watch. Ezra would have to go and move the truck; he and Chris could go down with him and bring the stores up, then after Yosemite was gone, they could get all Chris’s camping stuff and some extra blankets. A heater, too, he was fairly sure there was a kerosene heater in Chris’s workshop…

Had Chris thought of all this? Vin remembered the awful blankness he’d seen in Chris’s eyes when he first ran into him, and the way Chris seemed unable to grasp so many words and memories, even their names. But his map had been right. The doubts Ezra and Vin had refused to acknowledge to each other had been unnecessary. Chris had wanted his ranch, a safe place to find himself again, and a chance to watch for whoever might be hoping to recapture him, and he’d led them to somewhere that fit all those requirements.

Chris rested his hand on the cedar wood briefly, and whatever was in his mind haunted his eyes with pain, then he turned sharply back towards the trail and led the way back. Vin and Ezra followed—and it felt damn good to be following Chris again.

Josiah walked around Alderways grounds for what felt like hours, his feet striking the gravel, his fists clenching involuntarily at his side and no room at all for a still small voice of calm in his head. It was only as the cold wind gradually numbed him to a point where he couldn’t feel his hands enough to know whether they were fists or not that other thoughts crept in.

Vin and Ezra had been blown along in the storm for a long time now. They’d deliberately let go of all the comfort anyone offered, anything that could anchor them and dull their sense of loss, because they had to keep the impetus of looking for Chris. Maybe they’d gone past rational in the search some time ago—but they’d found him when anyone with sense would have failed.

Guilt, the thought whispered in Josiah’s mind. You wouldn’t be so angry if you didn’t feel guilty. They went on when you’d all but given up. But you couldn’t all let the storm take you, or what would there have been for anyone to come back to? Let the guilt go.

Too cold to hold onto his anger, Josiah sighed, and turned back towards the buildings. There was still a Team 7. Maybe he had played some part in that. Chris was alive, and however desperately he wanted to see him with his own eyes, it was still better knowing he was out there somewhere than believing him dead. And Vin and Ezra had at least wanted the team—wanted them to do a job here that they’d had to leave unfinished.

One of the FBI agents came out as Josiah reached the entrance, and nearly ran into him.


Josiah realised he knew him very slightly. After years in law enforcement, there were a lot of people like that. “Jacobson?”

“I’m sorry about all this secretive crap,” Jacobson said quietly. “Your boss is doing his best; mine’s getting a lot of pressure put on him. This place needs to know it isn’t above the law.”

“That’s for sure,” Josiah said. “But I guess kidnappings are the hardest ones to call.”

Jacobson looked around. “If it is a kidnapping. Off the record, I’ll tell you we’re beginning to think some kind of set up. Though if it is, I can’t imagine why the supposed brother would have called in the police.”

“Brother?” Josiah asked.

“I suppose they wouldn’t even have told you that much. Along with Mr Kennedy, who may or may not have been your missing agent, another young guy—mentally handicapped—disappeared, and his brother called the police to say he’d had a ransom demand. Thing is, there’s been no further contact at all, and as far as FBI records go, neither of them seem to exist.”

He’d fallen into step beside Josiah, who’d decided this was worth freezing a little longer for.

“Don’t suppose, off the record, you could give me a name?” Josiah suggested quietly.

“So long as you remember you didn’t hear it from me. Stanford. A Mr Edward Stanford, who had his handicapped brother Vincent admitted here for respite care.”

Josiah blinked.

“Looks like that might have meant something to you?” Jacobsen said, in the same tone of mild enquiry Josiah had used on him.

“If it means what I suspect, you’re right. The Stanford brothers probably don’t exist.” He paused, and thought. “Let me put a hypothetical case to you, offering it as speculation if you see what I mean.”

Jacobson nodded, a slight smile saying he understood exactly what Josiah was getting at.

“Our boss, Chris Larabee, disappeared around five months ago. A lot of people have been looking for him since then, some with more official sanction than others. It’s a possibility that if someone had a tip-off that Chris was here, and wanted to check it out without alerting whoever was responsible for Chris’s disappearance, an undercover approach might seem safest.”

“An ATF undercover approach?”

“No, this is speculation remember, though I can definitely say today’s events were news to the ATF.” He thought of something. “Will Director Travis have seen those names?”

“Probably.” Jacobson had been frowning with concentration, and he looked up suddenly. “Standish! He was your undercover man, wasn’t he? Has a variety of names he uses, like all of them, I guess.”

“Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner are suspended,” Josiah said, giving their names due weight. “For being out-of-line in their search for Chris. I’ve no idea what they might have been doing since they were suspended.”

Jacobson nodded. Josiah was starting to really like the guy. “Interesting. If we put the kidnapping aside, I’m thinking we can’t make much progress until we prove whether Chris Larabee really was here. How quickly do you think you could get me some decent photos. At the moment we’re all quite pally with Alderways, and no one has told us who we can’t question—mostly because we haven’t been trying to. I think a judicious choice of who to show the pictures to might get me some confirmed identification before the powers that be realise the line I’m taking.”

“When you do, ask some questions about how the wrong blood group got in their patient notes,” Josiah said. He flipped through his wallet, and found a snapshot. “Take that one for now, and our computer whiz kid brought his laptop, he’ll print you some better ones off as soon as I find him.”

Jacobson gave him his cell phone number. “I’ll do what I can.” He paused, then added, “There have been whispers for a long time about Alderways. Mostly the usual stuff about the sort of patients they take, the convenient treatment money can buy, but others about the fact they don’t like any of what you might call the racial minority groups here. A few have their token representative here—but not mine.”

Josiah, who’d noticed the Hebrew letters on his signet ring, understood. “Maybe their day of reckoning is coming,” he said. When Jacobson had gone, he was finally able to go back into the warmth to look for his team. They were standing next to the door, coffees in hand, and looked relieved to see him.

“Buck got that girl into trouble,” JD said as he came up. “I mean…”

“She wasn’t supposed to be talking to us,” Buck said. “What sort of place is this? Some slimy little pencil pusher came and warned me off before she’d gotten more than a couple of words out, and pushed her back in as if she was an escapee from some kind of prison. Then we went to find Nate, and they came after us, finally threatened to have us ejected from the premises if we didn’t stay here and stop causing trouble. I think if it wasn’t for Travis they would have.”

Josiah took JD’s coffee, and nearly dropped it from his numb fingers. A hot mouthful thawed him a little. “I just had a very interesting conversation with one of the FBI guys,” he said softly. “Apparently the guy who disappeared with Chris was a Vincent Stanford, paid for here by his brother Edward Stanford. That sound to you like anyone we might know?”

He told them the rest in a hasty whisper. “Jacobson’s going to do his best. You get him some photos printed off, JD. I’m guessing Ezra and Vin weren’t sure it really was Chris until they got Vin in here.”

“Might not have been sure then until Vin got close,” Nathan said. “I did find out a little from that doctor. Looks like Chris was in a bad state when he got here, and was in his room most of the time except when the nurse occasionally pushed him out into the grounds.”

“We’ll make it a priority to show the nurse those pictures, then,” Josiah said.

“You don’t think she’s a part of it?”

“Let’s not prejudge anyone,” Nathan said quietly. “There’ll be good doctors and nurses here who maybe have doubts about the place but nothing definite to go on.”

“None of this is getting us any closer to finding Chris,” Buck pointed out impatiently.

Josiah’s new found calm seemed to be staying with him even now he’d thawed out. “I think we’re going to have to trust Chris to Vin and Ezra,” he said, and was surprised how comfortable he felt with the thought. “And they’ve trusted us with the job here—to find out just who did collude in Chris losing five months of his life in this place. Let’s get on with it.”

Ezra lay on his stomach and watched the road to the ranch through the binoculars they’d taken from the house earlier in the day. He was extremely cold, in spite of the sunshine, and appallingly uncomfortable, but both he and Vin had agreed that there was a chance that Chris’s unknown kidnappers would take a look at the ranch. It wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of their priorities, but if everything had gone as they planned, there would be no other lead that worked.

He worried slightly about Rosa. There was nothing he could do about it now, and she must be a resourceful woman to have helped Chris so silently for so long without anything being suspected. It just bothered him that in casting about for some lead, the people looking for Chris, or the directors of Alderways themselves, might harass her. Not for the first time, he wondered about sending a text to one of his own team asking them to make sure she was okay. The drawback was that if she had remained completely unsuspected even that might draw attention to her.

The silence around him was too complete. Vin said that during his stint up here he’d caught a glimpse of a winter fox, but Ezra felt as if he was the only living thing for miles. He looked at his watch, incurring a painful jab in the stomach from a stick as he did so. Even less time had passed than he’d thought, let alone hoped. There was too much room to imagine problems, lying here staring at an empty road. Too much time to wonder what had been done to Chris … and whether it could ever be undone.

Ezra and Vin hadn’t known what to make of it when they finally let themselves into the ranch house after Yosemite was gone. Chris had walked silently and without expression into every room. There was nothing to give a hint what was in his mind. They’d taken it in turns to keep watch while everyone hastily showered, then stuffed as much as they could carry into rucksacks and cases. In one fleeting touch of normality, Chris had looked at the pile, walked back to his study and taken the whisky from the cupboard there to add to it.

That might be a terrible idea of course, but Vin had shrugged and for all Ezra knew it might equally well be medicinal. He wished he had some now. It might numb the parts of his anatomy that weren’t designed for lying on a forest floor. It was unfortunate that this was so clearly the best vantage point. Perhaps tomorrow they could look for one where the watcher didn’t have to remain flattened to be invisible from the road.

His thoughts kept him unenthusiastic company for another hour, during which he only had to slip off his gloves twice to note down the license plates of two extremely unpromising vehicles. Then his attention focussed effortlessly, as at last something surprising showed in the distance.

A top of the range Mercedes no less… that wasn’t a common sight up here. Ezra noted the number with more enthusiasm this time even before he saw that the car was turning up towards the ranch. There was something about the arrogance of this that seemed to fit his impression of the people who had dealt so drastically with Chris—and with the boy, Sammy. He wondered how the men in the car had planned to explain themselves if they found the ranch occupied. Presumably they would simply have lied to someone like Yosemite, but if one of the team had been there… ?

He moved swiftly to see what he could of their arrival, keeping his high vantage point. Four men got out of the car, one of them carrying what Ezra thought might be a Skorpion—not the sub-machine gun of choice for most of the criminals he dealt with. Their check was cursory, though they showed some interest in the horses. That didn’t worry Ezra. Five minutes research would find out for them that Yosemite had been looking after the stock for the last five months, and at predictable times of day.

He watched them drive off and his mind was busy with possibilities. First, though, to let Vin know… to let Vin and Chris know… that someone was showing an interest.

He found them doing light sparring exercises; at a guess, Vin’s idea of therapy.

“Got a bite?” Vin asked, pausing.

“I do believe so.”

Vin listened with interest. Chris leaned against the cabin wall, and it was impossible to tell whether he was taking anything in.

“Need to get the plates run,” Vin said. “That’s your job.”

Ezra flipped through his notebook. From time to time, he came across the ID numbers of all sorts of fellow law enforcement agents. It was reprehensible, he knew, to save these for emergencies—like being suspended and needing access to information.

“Who shall I be today?” he mused aloud. “Detective second-class Asa Morris, I think—a man who feels the need to keep his number scrawled on a scrap of paper on his desk.”

“Better hope he ain’t suspended or retired,” Vin pointed out.

There were no problems with getting the information though. It just wasn’t as helpful as they might have hoped. “It’s registered to a company,” Ezra said. “I suppose we should have considered the possibility. Ackerman Imports. I could go down to the ranch and use the computer to find out about them.”

Vin glanced at Chris, but Chris was somewhere else, nowhere very cheerful by the expression on his face. “They could have dropped someone off to watch the place,” he said slowly. “Sounds like whoever they are they’re big and they’ve got money. Probably got enough guys on the payroll to leave some grunt to freeze his nuts off staking the place out.”

Ezra thought about it. He’d seen them drive out of the yard, but it was possible they had left a man somewhere along the roadside, perhaps looking for the sort of vantage point Ezra himself had been using.

“You want to check it out?” he asked. Vin would move silently enough to elude any spy.

Vin nodded.

Chris shifted, looked at Vin intently. “Watch yourself,” he said unexpectedly.

“I will. And if I catch anyone I’ll bring ’em back fer you!”

Chris grinned—rather a dangerous grin, but Ezra found it remarkably uplifting. Perhaps the sparring had been good for Chris. When Vin had gone, he decided to offer his own brand of therapy. Pulling a sleek pack of cards from his jacket pocket, he said, “Can I interest you in a game?”

Team 7 spent the night at a motel that offered no more than basic amenities, but they weren’t very interested in sleep anyway. They were still struggling with the bureaucrats over what they could do at Alderways, but this had served one useful purpose—attention had been distracted from Jacobson and the members of the PD who he’d gotten to assist in showing the photographs of Chris to porters and cleaners and anyone so low in the hierarchy they could be assumed to know very little of anything that shouldn’t be going on.

Chris as Mr Kennedy had spent a lot of the five months seeing barely anyone, but even so, Jacobson already had three tentative identifications and one from a gardener that was surprisingly positive—he said he’d seen Chris being wheeled about the grounds by his nurse, and there was no doubt it was him.

Alderways were disputing this, but it was clear they were getting alarmed. When Josiah and the others had left late in the evening, it seemed like there were nearly as many lawyers as medical staff on the premises. Talks of a wider investigation into the way the place was run were being countered with threats of suing for the disruption to the patients, and some influential relatives were being brought in. Josiah thought that was in its way as much of a problem for Alderways though—it was certainly a blow to their reputation for silence and discretion.

Team 7, however, were something of a liability in all this. Travis had pointed out forcibly that their methods so far were just making his task more difficult, and Jacobson had more tactfully suggested the same thing.

“We could do with someone not too tied to the official investigation anyway,” he’d said to Josiah as they parted. “For instance, we’ve been told to lay off questioning the nurse—Rosa Johnson—but you guys aren’t part of the investigation, so you don’t know that, right? She’s supposed to be too upset to talk, but I don’t believe a word of it. Whether or not she’s innocent of any complicity in this, I think it would be a good idea to show her Chris Larabee’s photo before anyone from Alderways has a chance to speak to her. So far, we have a couple of senior staff denying he was the patient and talking about a superficial likeness, while we’ve got positive IDs from people’s whose word won’t count for much against theirs. The nurse really matters.”

Having something to do made the mood at their very early breakfast a little less gloomy. Vin, Ezra and Chris seemed to have disappeared into thin air—the FBI were now convinced that the Stanford brothers weren’t innocent victims, but couldn’t trace any of their movements beyond the return of a rental car to a local town. Josiah had given Orrin Travis the same story he gave the FBI, that they’d had a reliable tip off that Chris was at Alderways. He’d no doubt Travis would be making some accurate guesses, but he might well choose not to know more than he had to. The rest of the team, though, seemed to have come to the same conclusion as Josiah overnight: Chris somewhere with Vin and Ezra was one hell of a lot happier option than Chris missing presumed dead.

“Doesn’t mean I’m forgiving and forgetting,” Buck said when JD offered this thought aloud. “They’re going to find out just how I feel about it when I see them.”

“You might have to go through Chris!” Nathan said, and the thought of it somehow made it more real to everyone that Chris really wasn’t gone. Buck didn’t answer, but he dug into his eggs more cheerfully, and Josiah saw him notice for the first time that the girl serving them had a pert pretty face and a matching figure. JD was all eagerness anyway.

“We should go now,” he said. “Catch her before the day’s really started. And before anyone thinks of telling us that she’s off limits.”

“I’ve just got to call Rain,” Nathan said. “She’s just thrilled about this. Only we’re not sure now whether to go ahead with calling the baby Christopher if it’s a boy.”

Josiah paid the bill. He wondered whether this Rosa Johnson would tell them the truth, and what part she’d played in what had happened to Chris.

Hahn Reichert might be an old, old man, who had seen his Fuhrer’s empire crumble inexplicably from his hands and gone on living for more than half a century afterwards, but he wasn’t senile yet. Otto was not telling him everything, and that had to be because things were going badly. His son cared for profit more than the cause at the best of times. Hans, now, even as a toddler Hans had shown he would be a warrior. If he had survived… But Otto was the one who had been rescued, a mewling, puking baby, from the ruins of their Berlin home.

Hahn pushed himself painfully from his chair. He could call a servant, but it would be weakness. It was too long since he’d left the comfortable suite of rooms on this wing, but he could still do it. He would find Berndt, who obeyed his every order, and understood killing. Otto had never embraced killing; he did it like an accountant. Perhaps that was how he made love. It would explain why he’d never fathered a child. No grandson… But regrets were an old man’s weakness too. He had no time for them if he wanted to go on fighting this long war.

D’Aubin first. Even a fool like Otto should have been able to find the university professor by now. And then pressure on the many men whose secrets he’d collected over the years. It should be easy enough to prevent the investigation ever coming close.

Only he remembered Larabee’s eyes blazing hatred and defiance, even as his body jerked with the shocks they ran through him. He hadn’t told them where he’d taken the boy, or how he came to start asking dangerous questions. He hadn’t told them a single thing they wanted to know. Even when he’d had to spit the words through blood and froth, he’d just gone on cursing them all till he lost his words altogether. A brave man. A dangerous man. Maybe Otto’s cold accountant’s instincts had been right, and it would have been better to let Larabee die.

But he’d been the sort of man Hans would have become…

It was a cold sort of future all his killing and the purity of his blood had brought, if now there was more room in it for lawyers than warriors.

Vin kicked his captive’s legs from under him and sent him crashing to the floor, more to save his neck than because he was likely to try running away. Ezra wasn’t going to be able to hold onto Chris much longer, and the look in Chris’s eyes went way beyond anger. Vin grabbed him as he bucked free of Ezra’s grip, and then they were both pulling him back.

“It’s okay,” Vin panted, though it was a long way from that. “It’s okay, Chris. He’s not getting away with anything.”

“Remember we want to question him,” Ezra added, trying like Vin to pin Chris against the wall without hurting him. “He’s our lead to the people who are behind all this.” He kicked Vin’s prisoner as the man made a half-hearted bid to get to his feet and the door. The air huffed out of him, and he went down again.

“We need to find out where they are and who’s behind them,” Vin tried, amazed at the strength Chris was finding from somewhere. He was angry with himself; he should have realised how Chris might react if he recognised the man.

Chris shuddered and nearly dropped, his energy completely used up. Vin and Ezra switched seamlessly to holding him up instead of holding him back. Ezra used his free hand to draw his gun and cover the man on the floor.

“Tie his feet as well,” he said.

Vin nodded. He’d had little trouble slipping up silently behind this careless watcher, and had briefly stunned him then tied his hands before forcing him to walk to the cabin. He’d have been rougher with him if he’d guessed he was actually one of the men who’d been there when Chris was hurt, but he hadn’t thought of that until they stepped into the cabin and Chris had taken one look and with a growl of recognition and fury had gone for the guy.

Vin yanked the ties painfully tight, and pushed the man out into the cold. “Lie there till we want y’,” he said, tethering him to the post.

Ezra was taking all Chris’s weight now, struggling to ease him down onto the pile of blankets they’d pushed to one side of the floor. Chris looked bad; whiter than Vin had seen him yet, and his hands jerking. Ezra was doing just what Vin would’ve done, but there was agonized doubt in Ezra’s glance up as he came back in.

Vin hastily joined them as Chris’s body arched and tried to spasm. It wasn’t a seizure, Chris was still in some kind of control; he gasped and stiffened and relaxed, panting harshly. Ezra gradually released the grip on Chris’s arm, but kept his hand there. Vin lent his shoulder on the other side. He could feel the slight shudders running through Chris, but he didn’t say anything. This was some personal battle Chris was fighting, and all they could give him was their silent support.

It took a long time. Vin looked at the wood of the cabin wall, not at Chris. He could feel everything he needed to know from the tiny movements against his arm; no need to stare at Chris. Eventually Chris sat upright, took a deep breath and said, “Fuck.”

“You said it, cowboy,” Vin agreed. “Been a fucked up world fer a while. That bastard out there one of those who took you?”


The nurse, Rosa, had said something…”They used electric shocks?”

“Why don’t we bring ‘that bastard’ back inside and encourage him to tell us,” Ezra suggested. “It would be useful to get him talking; he may have a regular check in time.”

Ezra must have seen like Vin had just how hard it was again for Chris to force the words out. He’d been doing well before, Vin thought bitterly. It made him even rougher than he might have been when he dragged his prisoner back in.

It wasn’t too hard to get the man to talk. The speechless, savage way Chris had gone for him had evidently unnerved him and the cold had eroded his courage—such as it was—further. The bravado with which he eyed Vin’s knife was so evidently hollow that Vin hardly needed to got through the farce of preparing to hand the knife to Chris.

“Don’t let him touch me! The guy’s not sane.”

“Better start talkin’ then,” Vin said.

“There is no one to come to your assistance or hear you, just ourselves, an adequate amount of pain-causing materials and this gentleman who has every reason to visit some kind of revenge on you,” Ezra pointed out. “We really have no incentive to discourage him unless you’re saying something useful.”

The guy wasn’t the stuff heroes were made of. He started to talk.

Afterwards, Vin thought it had been more harrowing than useful. They did get the prisoner’s name—Matt Parish—and the time he was supposed to call in. Ezra handled that when it was due, creating some convincing interference over a brief ‘nothing happening’.

The rest was painful to listen to, and didn’t get them as much further forward as they’d hoped. Parish worked for Ackerman Imports, who dealt mainly with big estates in Argentina and Paraguay. He was a security guard, sometimes acting as a bodyguard, more often employed in a sort of corporate thuggery—discouraging dismissed employees from suing, frightening off small rival companies and threatening vulnerable people in big ones—and occasionally something more.

Chris had been something more.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Parish said, in whiny self-justification. “All we were told was to pick this guy up, he was trouble for Mr Adler—Mr Adler runs the company, I never knew till I got involved in this business that he didn’t own it. Anyway, apparently he…” he nodded at Chris “… was asking questions. Questions about Ackerman, and other companies it owns, and some other stuff, out at the university. They’d got some professor there to set him up…”

Vin caught Ezra’s glance. D’Aubin had still been lying to them then, maybe too scared to admit how much part he’d played. Chris gave no sign he recognised the name or remembered what had happened. He was watching silently, withdrawn but listening intently.

“This prof had arranged a meeting, we turned up instead, picked your friend up, so far it was normal enough. After that, it got weird.”

“Where did you take Mr Larabee?”

“That’s part of what I mean about weird. See, first we found he was ATF. I mean, usually when we pick someone up like that, the wallet’s ours, kind of a tip for our trouble. But it had never been the law before, they usually make other arrangements with them—money, or threats to the family or whatever, or maybe an accident—not taking them like that. Jenks, he was my boss, he called it in, maybe said too much about not being happy with handling a fed. He was off the job straight away, and next day he was transferred to the Paraguay base. The rest of us got the idea that this was a good time to keep our mouths shut.”

He stopped. “Look, I’m telling you what you want. Loosen these ties for chrissake. I can’t feel my hands.”

“They’re still there,” Ezra said without sympathy. “You still haven’t told us where you took Mr Larabee.”

“I don’t know. That’s what I meant. Mr Adler himself started giving the orders, and when we got back to Ackerman’s there was a helicopter waiting. We weren’t going to ask any questions. We didn’t even know then it was only going to be Paraguay for Jenks. We just shut up and got on with the job. We landed outside some big place—serious money, you could tell that even in the dark. They must have had plenty of their own security guards, we saw a few, but they kept us with the prisoner while they… got on with asking him some questions.”

“Why?” Vin asked.

“What? Oh, why’d they keep us? I didn’t know, and I wished they hadn’t. I guess now it was because of the old man.” Chris moved suddenly, the angry look back in his eyes, but he was controlled now. No less dangerous, but Vin guessed the prisoner didn’t fully appreciate that.

“Look, I’ll tell it my way,” Parish went on. “It… well it went on a long time. They needed to know something, and they must have needed to know it bad, because you could tell that Mr Adler wanted to hurt him more than he was doing. Another guy came down, I think he was maybe Mr Adler’s boss, seemed to be his place we’d come to anyway. They used a lot of stuff…” The fact he actually looked slightly sick at the memory chilled Vin more than a detailed description would have.

“He just wouldn’t talk,” Parish said. “They tried drugs, they tried the usual ways, then they started using all this electrical equipment. They still didn’t get what they wanted. You could see from the start he was going to be difficult. I don’t know if maybe they’d just have cut their losses, given up on finding anything out and killed him, but on the second day another man came in to watch. He was old, I mean real old, but he was kind of like a Mafia godfather or something. Mr Adler and even Mr Adler’s boss, they were actually scared of him. I reckon that’s why they kept us in the first place; they hoped he wouldn’t hear just what was going on like he might from his own men. The old man wouldn’t let them kill Larabee, even when he didn’t break. Because he didn’t break, I guess. He kept on hurting him, but you could see he was kind of impressed. I’ll tell you this, I’ve seen a lot of tough guys persuaded to talk. Doesn’t matter how hard they are, or think they are, they always do in the end. Only your man didn’t. He just kind of went somewhere else in his head in the end I think.”

He was talking about Chris as if he wasn’t there, and Chris had moved slightly, out of Parish’s line of sight. Vin hadn’t wanted to look at his reaction, but he risked a glance now, and was startled. The anger, the memory of pain was still there, but Chris actually looked relieved. Vin had been about to cut the guy off, but he let him go on a bit longer.

“Adler wasn’t happy, nor the other boss, but they did what the old man said. Larabee was practically catatonic, they overdid the electric shocks maybe, I don’t know, I’m no doctor. The old man said to take him to some hospital, see what happened. We were sent home with a bonus. I never thought about him again till yesterday, when Mr Adler started going berserk, called us all in, and others I didn’t know, and sent us all over the place to look out for him because he’d escaped or been busted out or something.”

He paused, looked uneasily around at Chris. “They think he’s still in a wheelchair or something. They didn’t say it’d left him crazy and fucking dangerous.”

“That wasn’t your inhumane treatment,” Ezra said. “Mr Larabee’s normal state is ‘fucking dangerous’.”

Like Vin, he’d seen Chris looking more like himself as this ugly account went on.

Chris’s mouth hitched in a half smile. He held out his hand for Vin’s knife. Vin looked at his eyes and saw the Chris he knew. He handed it over. Chris made a sudden but aborted move with it, and Parish let out a yell of panic, tried to jump backwards, fell over and started to beg. Chris handed the knife back to Vin.

“Take… him away,” he said, and the words were not so noticeably forced.

Vin tied the man up again outside. “We’ll have to do something with him before his relief’s due,” he said. “I got friends in Purgatorio who’d mind him till we can do something more official.”

“Tell them not to treat him too kindly,” Ezra said. His face didn’t show much unless you knew him well, but Vin could tell he was shaken and horrified by Parish’s matter of fact account of the torture Chris had suffered.

Chris was less upset than either of them now, though he looked exhausted. He met Vin’s look, saw the question.

“I remember… some,” he said. Then to Vin’s confusion, “I did it… to myself. Understand now.”

“I don’t,” Vin said. “Did what?”

“You stopped the words yourself!” Ezra said, quicker to comprehend, and saving Chris the struggle to explain. “And the memories, maybe. It could have been that way,” he went on, to Vin. “If he had that absolute determination not to talk, and they were using drugs, electric shock and so on, he may have subconsciously just blocked himself from talking at all.”

“Electric shock does your memory in anyway,” Vin said.

“Well, yes, I’m sure much of the damage was done by that, but the only way Chris could be absolutely sure of not talking would be if he pushed from his mind everything they might need to know, and even the words to speak with.”

Vin looked at Chris, who shrugged but nodded. Vin thought of the sheer strength of will, and the desperation that Chris must have felt, and clasped his arm. “We’ll make them pay, Chris.”

“We will,” Ezra agreed, also reaching out a hand. “And what we have just comprehended makes me believe it is even more likely you will regain all your normal facility with language.”

Vin saw the flicker of amusement in Chris’s eyes.

“You’ll need it to ‘comprehend’ Ezra, cowboy. ‘Course, you don’t have to overdo it.”

“Are you casting aspersions?” Ezra asked, a glint of humour in his own expression.

“Could be.” What the hell were aspersions?

Ezra grinned. “Got you,” he said, probably to prove he could use short words if he wanted to.

Chris tilted his head towards Vin in mock sympathy, and scored a silent point to Ezra in the air.

For a moment, it was like the easy friendship it had always been. Vin held that warmth of companionship in his mind. It didn’t dispel his lingering shock and revulsion at what Chris had suffered, but it did let him go off with his mind on the future rather than the unalterable past.

He hustled Parish to where Ezra had temporarily concealed the truck, and set off for the rough streets where he had some very loyal friends. There wouldn’t be any sign for Parish’s employers as to where their man was or what exactly had happened to him. That should help unsettle them. Chris free; trouble at Alderways—he could rely on the boys to stir that up; now one of their men disappeared. Someone, somewhere should be getting worried by now.

Rosa had received a phone call late the previous evening, warning her not to talk to anyone, especially the FBI, without a lawyer from Alderways present. ‘To protect her interests’ they said. Rosa reminded herself that being thought stupid was her best protection at the moment, and thanked them for looking after her. It was clear they’d not caught up with Chris, Vin and Ezra, which sent her to bed feeling encouraged.

Early the next morning, her manager called again. “I think it’s best if you stay at home for the time being,” he said. She was pleased to hear he sounded like a man who’d had a harassing and sleepless night. “Obviously the FBI will want to question you, but yesterday was very stressful for you—we’ll send someone over to make sure you’re up to it and to stay with you while they take your statement, probably this afternoon.”

Once she’d been told what to say, and had someone watching her to make sure she said it…

She kept the cynicism out of her voice and thanked him again. “Is there any good news about Mr Kennedy yet?”

“No.” Yes, he was definitely worried; it was most unlike him to be brief. “Just stay at home. Someone will come to you in the next couple of hours.”

Fending off her mother’s suggestion that if she didn’t have to go into work now would be a good time to clean behind the kitchen appliances, she had a second cup of coffee and stood on the step to watch Lyndon going to the corner for the school bus. She was usually well on her way to work before he went; she enjoyed the opportunity to see the eager way he ran off to join his friends.

He was only a couple of minutes from the house when she noticed the car.

Afterwards she wasn’t sure why it caught her attention so immediately; there was other traffic. But there was something menacing about the black sedan even before she saw it was going to pull in just ahead of her son.

Before she had time to think she might be making a fool of herself, she screamed, “Lyndon! Look out! Run!”

She was running herself as she screamed, but she could see the passenger door of the sedan already opening and she knew she was just a few seconds too far behind.

And Lyndon hadn’t understood her panic! Instead of running faster he’d paused to look back at her, and even now he didn’t seem to realise the threat from the car, not until a big man jumped out before it had stopped and made a grab for him.

Lyndon dodged him, and did try to sprint away now but the car had passed him and a second man getting out was ready to cut him off. It was all happening too fast. Rosa just couldn’t reach them fast enough and her neighbours were too slow catching on that something was happening.

Then from nowhere an even bigger man stepped in.

Grey haired, strongly-built, with a face Rosa vaguely recognised, he hauled the second of the would-be-kidnappers out of Lyndon’s way, then flattened the man as Lyndon sprinted to safety. A tall black man prevented the first thug from getting back into the car. Two more of these ‘rescuers’ stood in the street covering the driver, and she had no idea where any of them had come from. She came up panting. Lyndon had paused again, and his school friends were running up to join him and to see what was going on. Her neighbours began to spill out onto the street, finally realising there’d been a threat to one of the kids.

“ATF!” Rosa had heard one of the men by the car shout. He repeated it now, trying to send everyone out of the way. She saw he was another big man, moustached, and that the one accompanying him looked much too young for this sort of work. And again, there was something elusively familiar about them. Suddenly she placed it. They were the men who had arrived at Alderways the previous afternoon.

She hardly knew what to think about them, whether they were people to trust or not, but the big man who moved aside to let her run to Lyndon had a kind face, and they’d appeared at just the right moment.

“Mom,” Lyndon protested squirming away as she moved to put her arms round him. “Mom, it’s no big deal. I wasn’t going to let some nut drag me into a car! Stop fussing!”

There were times when Rosa felt it was entirely justifiable to embarrass her son in front of his friends. She hugged him. “You may not have been scared but I was,” she said. Lyndon sighed, but apparently accepted this as a mother thing.

“The bus is here,” one of the other kids shouted.

Rosa thought education was very important, but there was no way she was letting Lyndon out of her sight just now. “You’re staying home with me,” she said firmly.

“We’ll tell the principal you were nearly kidnapped by gangsters,” his best friend promised, turning towards the bus.

“Sounds a good deal to me,” the man with a moustache said, with a smile that was catching. “A day home from school and your friends telling all the girls how you were too fast for a gang of thugs!”

Rosa saw that this way of putting it had instant appeal for her son. He decided not to protest, gave his friends a casual wave and looked with interest at his rescuers. “Are you cops? Are they really gangsters?”

“We’re ATF agents,” the young dark-haired guy told him. “My name’s JD Dunne, and these are the rest of my team—Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and Buck Wilmington. I don’t know about the gangster thing, but we’ve called the local PD to take them away and they’ll find out about them. I expect you’ll have to give a statement, and so will your mom.”

“Your cool mom,” said the moustached one, Buck if Rosa had followed JD’s introduction right. “With reactions as quick as that, she’d make a good agent.”

Rosa couldn’t help smiling at him for that. It was nice to see Lyndon look at her with surprised respect for once, impressed that this tough agent should praise her—and Rosa knew that was exactly why Buck had said it. She saw the one called Nathan talking kindly to her mother, who had finally realised something was happening. These were good men. She really didn’t doubt that now—and if they were, they were probably not on the same side as her employers.

“Are you friends of Chris’s?” she asked. Maybe it wasn’t exactly logical, but some instinct prompted her.

The name gained their attention instantly.

“Friends of Chris’s who’ve been missing him for a long time,” Josiah said gently.

“Please come inside, then. I’ve a lot I want to say to you, and perhaps you’ll know better than I do what I ought to do next.”

Otto wished he’d left the estate. It would have been better to have dealt with these problems from the Ackerman building. When word had come from their subcontractor during the morning that the local men they’d hired to frighten the nurse had failed, Karl had called him, angry and worried—particularly as it seemed it was Larabee’s team who’d been there. The situation had been made much worse when a few hours later, Alderways reported that they thought the nurse and all her family had left—possibly with the ATF men, but they were not yet sure. She’d been there immediately after the incident, but when their representative reached her house it was empty. The neighbours said she’d kept the boy home and had probably gone two or three hours earlier, right after Alderways had spoken to her.

Could she have been taken for questioning by the ATF men? The director, Travis, said not. Could she have known more all along about what was happening than they realised? Otto thought of what his father had said about animal cunning, but he still believed she was too stupid and too meek even to have thought of deceiving her superiors.

Now there seemed to be more trouble. Karl had called his security man who was watching the ranch and had gotten no reply. Feeling things seemed to be unravelling, he’d sent out the men who’d been there before. They reported the same complete lack of activity at the ranch, but Parish was missing. They were scouring the area now, but he seemed to have disappeared completely.

Otto had to stop the old man finding out about all this. He still had far too much control of their servants and worse, their finances, and he had always been unpredictable when he was angry. He was getting stranger now, too; senile perhaps, but unfortunately not in any way that looked like allowing Otto to put him quietly away somewhere. Instead he was still giving the orders.

Over coffee that morning, his father had demanded he stay on the estate. “You realise Otto, that while you are hunting Larabee, he will be hunting us.” The idea was ridiculous. Larabee had been virtually an imbecile, and what Otto feared was some kind of exposure, not physical danger. How could anyone know the Ackerman connection anyway? Even with D’Aubin all their dealings had been through other subsidiaries.

The concept of Larabee as actually dangerous to them made no sense, but his father had predicted it with such certainty that, briefly, the thought had chilled him.

Chris had believed that the pain of the shocks to his body was as unbearable as it could get; the agony of the jolt, the smell of his own flesh scorching, the restraints ripping into his limbs as he fought to escape it. But he had somehow come through it with the words they wanted to hear still unspoken, the names they wanted secured in some burned core of him. This assault on his mind was worse; this truly frightened him. His body was still twisted from the seizure, there was blood and spray on his lips and the stench of his own waste, but far worse even than those was the terrifying feeling of confusion, of everything that made him himself shaking loose from the centre.

The old man stooped over him and his face was calm and predatory, a torturer who knew his craft. “That was the lowest dose, Mr Larabee. Just a taste of what we can do to you—what we can take from you.”

Chris wrenched violently at his restraints. He was truly afraid, and some of the men around the room were enjoying it. He’d never forget their faces… But the old man’s calm assurance was the most frightening thing, and the knowledge that he would do exactly what he’d threatened.

But Chris hated him silently and didn’t talk.

Somehow, from some well of stubborn, damn-them-to-hell refusal, he drew the strength to maintain his defiance, so now they were about to attach the electrodes to his head again—and he fought and fought against the restraints and the…

Restraints broke?

He was on his feet before he realised he was waking from a nightmare. Sweat drenched his hair, and he was shaking so much that the reality of the seizure was even more vivid in his memory. The light was dim, and he’d no idea for a moment where he was or what was happening. As he looked around in confusion, he saw wooden walls, and the concerned faces of Vin and Ezra. The fact he wasn’t alone was a staggering relief.

He stood still, panting as if he’d run a sprint, waiting for his head to clear.

… Vin in the doorway, what looked like sunset light behind him… Ezra picking himself up from the floor rather painfully, his mouth split and bleeding…

He remembered the frantic struggle in his nightmare, and put that alongside Ezra’s battered face.

“Fuck.” It was one word he hardly ever had to struggle for. That probably said something, but right now he didn’t want to know what. “Ezra… sorry.”

Why should a stumbling, two-word apology make Ezra look so startled and pleased? Vin came in, put his hands on Chris’s arms, no pity in the blue eyes, only understanding.

Blue eyes…

“Vin,” he said, the name clear in his mind now.

“Yeah,” Vin said, managing to get a whole lot—relief, encouragement, hope—into the word. “You’re getting it back, Chris!”

“Recovering your memories may be an unpleasant process for you, but the gains are more than worthwhile,” Ezra agreed.

Chris looked at the blood trickling down Ezra’s chin, contrasted with the warmth and acceptance in Ezra’s expression. He felt the unchangeable friendship that Vin could only express by his firm grip on Chris’s arms. The nightmare, still vivid in his memory, began to lose its power.

He shivered a little as his sweat-soaked body registered the chilly air. Vin came in and closed the door; Ezra handed Chris a thick jacket. Chris pulled it around his shoulders and slowly sat down on the mess of sleeping bags and blankets.

Vin squatted in front of him. “It’s just getting dark. I took Parish to Purgatorio; my friends’ll keep him out of circulation till we’ve time t’ deal with him. Whoever sent him knows he’s missing though. I saw th’ car again when I was comin’ back, so I took th’ truck up further and came back on foot. There was three more crashin’ about, lookin’ for him. I could’ve taken them one at a time, but that might’ve stirred up more trouble than we want. They gave up searchin’ but they’ve left two guys in the car watchin’ the drive.”

“They must be convinced we’re here,” Ezra said. He was out of Chris’s line of sight; probably sparing Chris having to watch him patch his face up.

“Ain’t us they’re lookin’ for now. From what I heard, they’re hopin’ Buck and the others will head here.”

Chris realised he was starting to follow conversations more easily. It was partly that he was feeling better—the few drugs Rosa had still had to administer had finally cleared his system, and so many things happening at once seemed to have kick-started his brain. But it was also a long-forgotten familiarity with these two, with the sound of their voices and the patterns of their speech. There was something healing about Vin’s quiet drawl and Ezra’s elaborate vocabulary.

Chris picked up now on Vin’s last statement. “Why?” he asked.

“Why are they hopin’ the guys will come here? I only heard bits of what they said, but it sounded like Buck and the others have that nurse of yours, Rosa. Maybe she wasn’t as clear as we thought, I don’t know, but she’s safe enough with the team. And Parish’s bosses aren’t happy about it; they want to find her.”

The word ‘team’ distracted Chris. The images that had been fleeting before seemed clearer and easier to grasp now that he had names to put with them. Buck. Buck, changing little over the years, laughing with him in the good times, loyal in the bad, a friendship so deep-rooted the storms had never done more than shake it a little. Josiah … wisdom, compassion and a punch like the kick of a mule. Honest, straightforward Nathan, with a natural gift for healing. Then there was the kid, JD, and Chris remembered how his eagerness made the world seem fresher.

He said the names aloud.

Vin waited silently a while, then said, “You ready to see them?”

Chris turned around to see Ezra dab his swelling mouth. He thought of six witnesses to that nightmare instead of two—and one of them JD. The kid could handle it, but Chris didn’t want him to have to.

“Not yet,” he said.

He still had no real idea of how much time had passed in the hospital, or how he’d been rescued, or where the rest of his team was. Or why there seemed to be so little communication…

His memories of those first hours in the car were fuzzy, but he thought he’d balked at seeing any more people, and then there had been someone yelling at Vin on the cell, or had he dreamed that?

“They… pissed off?” he asked.

“Not with you,” Vin said.

Chris found he was rediscovering the ability to read Vin’s thoughts from a flicker of expression.

Something was wrong here. He might not be up to dealing with it, but he was damn sure he could cope now with hearing it. Since he’d listened to Parish’s story, questions had buzzed in his mind, more than he could form even to himself. He needed to hear the whole story of what had happened since… or rather before… What the hell was it he’d been refusing to tell the old man? He didn’t know any more.

He wrenched the disorientating feeling under some sort of control, and sat back against the wooden wall. He was tired again, though he must have slept through a long stretch of the afternoon. Well, tired or not, he was staying awake now.

“Talk,” he told Vin and Ezra. “From… the start. Why? How long… in that place. How’d you find me?”

It was the most he’d said at one go since he woke up in a blank white room to a mind full of emptiness. Vin was right, he was getting it back, and faster now. Vin and Ezra looked as relieved about that as Chris felt… they also had a look he couldn’t have named, but could definitely recognise.

“All of it,” he said.

They glanced at each other. There was the slightest of nods from Vin to Ezra. He found that he understood this quite effortlessly. If Ezra was to be the spokesman, that meant it needed a smooth shine to gloss over some rough surfaces.

“Vin… tell it,” Chris said. “Ezra—coffee.”

They looked at him.

“Kind of a long story, cowboy.”

“Some parts are undoubtedly more relevant than others.”

It was hard enough finding words in the first place. Chris wasn’t wasting time saying something new. “Vin… tell it,” Chris repeated. “Ezra_”

“I know, I know, coffee. I must say your recovery seems to be proceeding apace.”

“Ain’t forgot how to lay down th’ law.”

It was perhaps unfair that hearing them grumble made Chris feel better. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate everything else they’d given him. He did; more than he’d ever be able to find words for even if he recovered all his old ability. It was just that listening to them mutter and try to wriggle out of telling him something—now that really did make him feel normal again.

This had been one of his better ideas, Josiah thought, as he watched Rosa’s mother share a recipe for butternut stew with Mrs Dubose. Once they’d heard Rosa’s story, it had been clear she’d be safer somewhere far from Alderways, preferably somewhere that only Team 7 knew about. Josiah was feeling slightly guilty about Orrin Travis, but if Orrin was angry about not knowing exactly where they were or what they were doing, he’d put all the more effort into the investigation, and they’d done their best—Rosa had given a full statement, and JD had faxed it to ATF headquarters.

If Orrin didn’t know where she was, no pressure could be put on him. Josiah doubted he’d be grateful, though.

They’d debated where to go for a while. None of their homes, nor the ranch, would do; the ATF would call there if no one else did. Ideally they needed a place no one would associate with them, where Rosa’s little family could be comfortable and where they could trust the discretion of the people.

That was when Josiah had thought of the arrangement Jake Schiller had made for Sammy. Those were definitely people who could keep a secret…

“I know the apartment’s small,” he said to Jake when he got through to him and explained a little of what he wanted. “But I hope it wouldn’t be for too long.”

Jake had taken barely an hour to get back to him. “Mrs Dubose says not to worry; her niece has an apartment in the same block. Between the two of them, they can accommodate three people, though it might be a bit tight.”

It wasn’t quite as tight as Josiah had feared. Rosa’s mother gained the comfortable spare room in the niece, Carola’s, apartment, which was just along the hallway. Lyndon had a mattress on the floor of Sammy’s room, and Rosa was happy with the couch. Mrs Dubose insisted that they all pack in for a meal, and wouldn’t hear of Buck fetching take-out, though she did let them help clear up.

Josiah went down with Rosa to take out the trash, and was glad of the opportunity for a quiet word with her. “You must feel as if your life’s been turned upside down.”

She smiled a little. “The important things in my life are here. Actually, even though it’s been a strange day, I’m glad. I kept telling myself the job at Alderways would work out, that I was being paranoid about the place. Then Chris came in, and I had to question everything again—but I was afraid I guess, of what sort of reference I’d get if I left, of how I’d look after Lyndon. And Chris needed me. I didn’t know who he was, or that he had anyone else. Now he’s safe with Vin and Ezra, all I want is to make a new start.”

“If you hadn’t been at Alderways, I think Chris’s situation would have been desperate,” Josiah said.

“I should have found some way to help him earlier, or done more. When he first saw Vin… the expression on his face… I’d never understood how alone he was feeling.”

“You were there for him,” Josiah said, not to reassure her but because he was sure it was true. “I know he’ll want to thank you himself, when he can.” He paused, not sure how she’d take it, then added, “Seems like you were a real answer to prayer.”

Rosa smiled rather ruefully, “And you were an answer to mine. But let’s neither of us mention it to my mother, okay.”

When they squeezed back into Mrs Dubose’ main room, Nathan was about to go off to spend the night helping Jake out at the shelter. He’d asked Rain to go to her mother’s again, he didn’t want anyone at their home address, even if that seemed a little paranoid. Keeping with the ‘better over-the-top safe than unpleasantly sorry’ approach, Josiah suggested Buck and JD should sleep in the living room of Carola’s apartment.

“I can’t see how anyone could have traced us, but we can’t leave these folks unprotected tonight. I’ll watch as well, but since Rosa’s going to be on the couch out here, I could do it from the car.”

“Oh, no, please stay inside,” Rosa said. “I’ll feel safer if I can see you. Anyway, I’ll never get to sleep; there’s too much buzzing around in my head. I’d rather have someone to talk to.”

“Be a pleasure,” Josiah said truthfully. He glared at Buck, who’d raised an interested eyebrow. “Mrs Johnson looks tired, why don’t you escort her along to Carola’s place.” Carola had already gone some time before, to make sure everything was ready. Buck didn’t lose the hint of amused curiosity, but he co-operated cheerfully, charming Mrs Johnson along and cuffing JD to hurry him up.

“And it’s time you were in bed, Lyndon,” Rosa said as they went.

Lyndon was the least happy of the three; he missed his own stuff, and didn’t like not knowing when he’d see his friends again. Sammy was older, and although they seemed to get along fine, Lyndon was not quite easy with him yet. Rosa went though to the bedroom with him, accepting the grumbles and wisely not making promises she wasn’t sure of keeping. Sammy came and sat next to Josiah.

“Agent Sanchez,” Sammy said softly.

“It’s just Josiah, son. Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

“Is Chris really safe?”

“He’s with friends. He’s still recovering,” Josiah said, hoping that was true.

“Can he tell you where to find the people who hurt him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would it help if I could find where I walked? When I ran away. I understand maps and stuff now. Mrs Dubose helps me with my schoolwork and I’m doing good.” He looked with open love at the old lady busy in the kitchen area. “At school they think she’s my granma. I wish she was.” He remembered what he’d started saying. “I think maybe if I tried, I could work out where I ran from, to near enough. I know I walked from th’ East, ‘cos I kept the sun behind me till it was over my head, then in front of me. I know how long I walked, though I weren’t quick. But there couldn’t be so many real big places out there, could there?”

Josiah had only heard a little of Sammy’s story, and had had the impression the kid had been wandering around lost for a while after getting away from a ranch or something similar. They’d gotten the better lead from D’Aubin, and since then events had followed one on another so fast they’d not even thought about other lines of investigation.

Now he wondered if they’d missed something significant.

“This was a really big place?”

“Yeah. Big as a town, I guess, only it wasn’t buildings, just land and trees and one real big house. When men came they had to drive a long way or come in helicopters. There couldn’t be lotsa places like that.”

“You’re right,” Josiah said. He still hesitated a little, because he didn’t want to bring back distressing memories for the boy, and he was also sure that what Sammy remembered couldn’t be used for evidence or a warrant. The boy had been confused at first and now far too much time had passed. But it could give them a place to start looking for who had taken Chris—and why. Their other leads were disappearing. Josiah had called Jacobson, and even though Alderways looked like suffering badly on this, no one would give the FBI anything on the elusive Mr Fischer. JD had called the PD, and the men who’d threatened Lyndon were local thugs, and the PD wasn’t having much success tracing the contract back to its source.

“I’d like to look at some maps with you in the morning,” he said to Sammy in the end. “Maybe we could drive to where Chris found you, if Mrs Dubose and Jake think that’s okay.”

Sammy beamed. “I’d like to help Chris, and the folk on the estate,” he said. “It ain’t right to whip boys and make them work so hard just ‘cos they’s black.”

“No, it’s not,” Josiah said quietly. “It’s not right to forget that all human beings are precious in God’s sight.”

“Chris was the first white guy ever treated me like I was human at all,” Sammy said. “You get the maps Agent… Josiah, and I’ll try real hard to work out where I walked.”

Rosa came back in. “Lyndon’s just about asleep already,” she said. “Thank you for sharing your room, Sammy.”

“I like it,” Sammy said. “I didn’t have friends before, and it’s nice. I usually go to bed about now. I won’t wake him up, will I?”

“No, I think he’ll like having someone else in the room,” Rosa said. She went to help Mrs Dubose finish off in the kitchen and came back with a couple of mugs of coffee.

“After today, I rather like having someone else in the room too,” she admitted to Josiah. “Can you tell me a bit more about Chris and what happened to him, and how it connects with these people, or is it all… secret, classified?”

“I’ll tell you what I can, and you tell me about Chris and how he was,” Josiah offered.

They gradually fitted more comfortably together on the couch, talking, thinking, finding an unexpected pleasure in each other’s company. For both of them though, it was beneath the shadow of needing to know how Chris was, and needing to see justice for what had happened to him.

Vin had talked. Seemed to him he’d been talking for hours. Ezra had made two pots of coffee, the sun had gone down, they were shivering a bit in spite of the kerosene heater, and he was still talking.

It didn’t feel like he was making much of a job of it, and sometimes he wasn’t sure Chris was taking too much in—he’d look kind of blank, but if Vin stopped for more than a minute, Chris’d sign him to get on with it, so he did.

He’d tried not to get into the details. Better just to give Chris the facts, those were hard enough. He wasn’t sure if Chris had any idea before that it had been as long as half a year he was missing. Vin skipped the leads that hadn’t gone anywhere—which had been most of his and Ezra’s life for those months—and tried to skip the fact they’d been suspended.

That was one of the points where Chris stopped looking blank and tried to say something.

“We decided to look at everything from the beginning again,” Vin said.

Chris shifted. The shadows under his eyes looked like black bruises in the dim light of the cabin, and he was leaning over against Ezra rather than sitting up by now, but somehow he didn’t miss this. “Work?” he asked.

“We’d been plannin’ to take some vacation,” Vin said.

Chris made a gesture that Vin knew only too well meant cut the bullshit.

“Okay, we were suspended,” Vin said, not happy about having to admit it. “Those bastards in Team 3, McGinty and Weiss, they picked a fight with us. Josiah backed us, but Travis wasn’t having any of it. But we’d have taken time anyway.”

“One… time?”

Vin shrugged. “Maybe Travis wouldn’t’ve suspended us for that, but we’d had some trouble before.” He wasn’t going to say how desperately they’d been hunting for Chris, how many lines they’d crossed. Chris had his own way of doing things, but he generally kept the book in there somewhere. He went on hastily, “Then we finally got lucky. Went back to the week before, looking for any little thing, and came across a statement from Jim Dunning at the store that you’d been in for a cola and sandwiches. Maybe it was a bit like grabbing at straws, but we know you never drink cola, so we went and asked some questions of the Dunnings, and for the first time they told us about the kid, Sammy. They’d never_”


He’d learned long since to react quick to that kind of urgency in Ezra’s voice. He hadn’t seen any change in Chris—couldn’t even now—but Ezra must’ve felt something. Vin was just in time to catch Chris on the other side, so that with both of them holding him he didn’t crack his head so hard on the wall when the first spasm hit, and then they had time to haul him forward into the middle of the floor before the really violent muscle contractions started.

“Front ‘n back,” Vin said shortly as Chris’s elbow caught him. One in front and one behind would be less like restraints and make it easier to hold Chris without hurting him. Vin bit his lip as Chris’s head cracked against his chin, but then he had him safe, his hand behind Chris’s neck, holding the sweat-soaked hair and pulling Chris’s face in against his shoulder. Ezra had his arms around Chris from behind, so Chris was pinned between them. They could feel every violent spasm of his limbs and torso.

Had to be some sort of sense memory of the shocks, Vin thought, and the ugly picture he’d already gotten from Parish’s words became more unpleasantly vivid. Every flailing movement told him how much Chris had suffered. It couldn’t go on long though; Chris hadn’t the strength. After one final convulsive arch of his back, he went limp, suddenly boneless and flopping through their arms where a second before it had taken all their strength to hold him still.

“He’s breathing all right,” Ezra said, his voice more shaken than it ever was after a shoot-out, as they eased Chris into a safe position on the floor.

Vin rested a hand on Chris’s chest, felt the strong and steadying thump of his heart. “This is my fault,” he muttered. “I was talkin’ on, should’ve realised, it was the kid they’d been askin’ him most about…”

“I didn’t think of it either, I could have stopped you had I been more alert.”

“He never told ’em where Sammy was, lost everythin’ else rather ‘n that. No wonder the kid’s name spooked him.”

Ezra stretched out one of the sleeping bags and covered it with a blanket. Silently they moved Chris onto it, and Vin didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried that he didn’t stir. Ezra put the other blankets over Chris, tucking them around him with a gentleness that he didn’t often allow to show. He used the end of one to blot some of the sweat from Chris’s hair, and Vin saw that, like his own, Ezra’s hands were still shaking slightly. Vin heated the water again, made more coffee and added a generous spoon of sugar and slug of whisky to each mug. They sat in the dim light, drinking it slowly and watching over Chris.

Hahn Reichert was glad these days that he’d had an elevator put in from his suite of rooms to the basement. He still made himself use the stairs from time to time, stiff and painful though the process was, but the elevator was far more practical. He stepped out into the large basement room and handed another armful of files to Berndt.

They were two old men, in a world that had moved on. Berndt was a little younger, a little less stiff, but no more at ease than Hahn if he left the estate. There was too much of everything, shops, media, people of all races crowding together around the streets. Hahn had accepted long ago that the old dreams could never be fulfilled now in the way they’d once believed. This country and even his fatherland had gone soft; women flashed their bodies like whores and no longer cared for the old values of the children, the home. No, he and Berndt were content to be out of it all.

Otto never came down to the basement. He saw it as a dusty repository for his father’s old papers, probably for his father himself. He’d been too busy and distracted this week to realise it was now becoming a repository for all the other papers in the house as well. Hahn and Berndt worked slowly, very slowly these days, but steadily, and they needed little sleep.

Hahn no longer wanted to sleep. Over the last few months, sleep had become his enemy. He blamed Larabee for it.

It had nothing to do with fearing the man—in a way he did, perhaps, but that was more the sort of respect you felt for a soldier on the opposite side of a war. And Larabee was a soldier, whatever his official role under the law, a courageous, dangerous man. Hahn did believe, as he’d said to Otto, that now Larabee had escaped he would be a threat, but that would not have kept him awake for a minute. He hadn’t feared killing or being killed for more than seventy years.

No it was the dreams, the new nightmares, that he did fear, and these were Larabee’s fault—it was as if he had unleashed some slow-moving earthquake, cracking apart the rock-solid certainties of a lifetime.

The first time it had happened was the day after he’d sent Larabee as a comatose wreck to Alderways. The nightmare had been all too familiar at first, one that had tormented his sleep intermittently for many years. He was running, desperately, through the bombed-out streets of Berlin; he was struggling to find his way, because every landmark was obliterated; he was cursing as he ran, knowing that if he was too late, Hans and Frieda would die. And of course, he was always too late, and he would suddenly take a final turn and see in front of him the smouldering rubble of their house.

Sometimes he would wake up at that point. More often, he’d dream of pulling away the hot stones with blistered, bleeding hands until he found the small broken body. As he had in reality, in his dream he’d know it was Hans even before he turned it gently over and saw his son was dead.

The grief had never changed, but somehow over the years it had become a part of life. It was only since Larabee that the nightmare had taken a new and shocking turn. Now in his dream, Hahn would dig and heave away the stones, and find the tiny body, and turn it over—and instead of his son he would see some other child: a little negro boy; an idiot mongol baby; a gipsy toddler with miniature gold hoops in her ears; even a skeletal infant like the few survivors of Belsen. But he would feel the same grief.

The first time it happened, it had shocked him so much he’d seen the dawn in with half a bottle of vodka, filled with revulsion and self-loathing. It was a betrayal of his son, and his cause, to feel that same mourning. Negroes, the handicapped, worst of all the Jews, they should be worth less sorrow than a good dog.

But the nightmare came again and again.

He knew it was because of Larabee. The man had been prepared to suffer appalling torture rather than reveal the whereabouts of a black slave boy he could hardly have known. It wasn’t simply a defiant refusal to give in, though that had been there. But Hahn had been taking a personal interest in the torture, and he was good at reading a man in extremity. Larabee had believed that boy was somehow worth the cost of protecting him.

He’d understood what that cost would be, too. Beneath the anger and defiance, Larabee had been violently afraid of that last series of electric shocks, but he’d still chosen to let it happen.

You suffered like that for your family or your fatherland, not for some scabby, whipped runaway slave.

But in more than half a century, he’d never seen a man he could respect like Larabee…

Dismissing it with difficulty from his mind, he ordered Berndt to fetch the other items he wanted to hide in this room. Berndt would not ask questions; he never had. He was stolid, sometimes cruel and completely loyal to Hahn. He would do exactly what he was told, and never talk about it, especially to Otto.

It was very important Otto knew nothing.

“Y’ think we done wrong?”

Ezra didn’t need to ask Vin to clarify that question. He’d been asking himself the same thing for the last couple of hours. Should they have taken Chris for proper medical care; should they have provided statements to the police and done everything by the book; should they have joined up with the rest of their team?

“I don’t know,” he said.

“This way… it’s turned out kill ‘r cure.”

“Chris has gained more in two days than he might have done in weeks under orthodox medical care,” Ezra said. He was quite certain that any doctor who had seen Chris on the day they took him from Alderways would have had him instantly placed in another institution, quite probably a better one with a more enlightened drug regime, but how could Vin and Ezra have done that to him?

“I do still believe that this is the choice Chris would have made—did make, if we understood him correctly,” he added.

“He’s hurtin'”

Ezra had no answer to that. Chris was hurting, and all Vin and Ezra seemed to be able to do was to hurt along with him.

“But he is progressing,” he said eventually. “And although I’m no psychologist, it does seem to me that what he’s gaining is in some proportion to what he’s suffering. In spite of these… set backs, reactions to returning memories… you would already hardly recognise him as the man we rescued from Alderways.”

Vin looked uneasily at Chris, who hadn’t stirred since that last alarming episode. Ezra followed his gaze. Chris’s appearance seemed to give the lie to his last words: his face was as gaunt as ever, the shadows under his eyes deeper, all the normal, predatory grace of the man apparently lost.

“He may not be well, but he is Chris again,” Ezra offered, though he wasn’t really any more confident in their choices than Vin.

Vin nodded. “Yeah,” he murmured. “That’s what I’m holdin’ to. When I first saw him, it was like he was empty, just at first. No surprise, neither—electric shocks, ‘n then being in that place half a year, probably drugged up a fair bit of th’ time. But he did know me… knew us…”

“After so many months it must have been hard to believe a world really existed outside the walls of Alderways.”

“Yeah. I think that’s what he was waitin’ for, though he didn’t know it. The nurse, Rosa, she’d done a hell of a good job. He must’ve been on the way back fer a while, because he’d kept it hidden how he was getting’ fit.”

“But it needed something more to start him remembering properly,” Ezra agreed. “And of course, she couldn’t give him that, she had an entirely false history. I cannot imagine being in that situation, struggling to remember while being given information that contradicted true recollections—with even someone trustworthy like Rosa using the wrong name. It would destroy your attempts to regain an identity. Even so, he must have been fighting through it.”

“He was almost there, I reckon,” Vin said. “Maybe it was th’ right time fer us t’ find him. Guess that’s what J’siah’d say. But I don’t know we were right not to get help.”

“The choice is still open to us,” Ezra said, but even now, in spite of that last alarming seizure, he believed the decision was really Chris’s.

Vin met his eyes. “Yer thinkin’ it’s up t’ him, and I guess it is, if he can make th’ choice. We been runnin’ blind, and tryin’ t’ do what he seems t’ need, that’s been th’ only path t’ take. But if he wakes up sick or worse, I don’t think we c’n go on.”

That was the fear Ezra had been refusing to acknowledge to himself. What if Chris woke with that blank look in his eyes, that mindless lack of recognition that had shocked Ezra when he first saw him, and this time it never changed? He knew they hadn’t been deluding themselves about Chris’s progress: he’d fought through to an understanding of what was going on, had found words and now names again; part-broken he might be but he’d still showed the leadership in him again—the only leader who Ezra had ever voluntarily followed. But how secure that recovery was, Ezra had no idea, and as he watched Chris sleep, he was silently afraid.

It was another hour before Chris stirred. By then some of the lines of pain on his face had smoothed and relaxed a little. Even so, Ezra braced himself in case Chris woke with some return to the violent reaction they’d seen earlier.

“Chris?” Vin managed to make it softer than a whisper, but somehow perfectly clear. “You wakin’ up?”

He sounded as if he had no doubt or concern about it, but Ezra could see he was stiffly tense.

Chris moved, opened his eyes, squinted as if even the dim light hurt. A long, long pause made Ezra feel as if something was scraping nails down his heart. Then Chris’s mouth quirked in the slightest beginning of a smile. “You two… got nothing better… to do?”

Ezra beamed inanely with relief, caught himself and hastily composed his features.

Chris moved cautiously to sit up. “Shit, my head aches.”

Ezra moved hastily to prop him up, Vin equally hastily to check the back of his head where he’d cracked it against the wall. Chris muttered something that definitely wasn’t thanks. Ezra’s grin tried to come back. He suppressed it firmly.

“Y’ got a bump, but it’s not much,” Vin said. “I’ll get you some Tylenol.”

Chris pushed himself up so he wasn’t leaning on Ezra’s arm, took the tablets and washed them down with cold coffee and said, “Time?”

“Around ten.”

Chris rubbed a hand wearily over his eyes, made a visible effort to remember what had been happening and suddenly straightened a little. “Sammy?”

“Safe,” Ezra said quickly. “Safe and well, and living with a charming elderly lady.”

“We talked t’ him,” Vin said. “Him and those folk at th’ Holocaust place and that lying bastard of a professor.

“And having ascertained that you might be at Alderways, we inveigled ourselves in, confirmed it, and you know the rest.”

Neither he nor Vin wanted to prolong this story; there were too many booby traps they might trip on. Chris thought silently, his face taut with concentration. Thought turned to an expression Ezra knew well and welcomed. Chris was angry.

“I remember… some,” he said. “Enough. Prof set me up. They wanted… the boy. Sammy. Used… the works. Damn near talked.”

“But you didn’t,” Ezra said. “What really puzzles me is why they didn’t kill you, though. Once it was clear you were beyond speaking, why Alderways?”


“I’m sure they were extremely unpleasant, but…”

“Nah, he don’t mean it like that,” Vin said. “He means they really were Nazis.”

Chris nodded. “Old man… there was an old man… the real thing. Didn’t kill me… blond, Anglo-Saxon … fighting…” He shook his head in frustration at the slow way the words came. “Whisky?”

“Don’t think that’s a good idea,” Vin said.

“I do.”

They compromised on an ungenerous amount in a fresh cup of hot coffee. If Chris was right—and if they were understanding him correctly—it seemed Chris had stumbled on something truly bizarre, and very nasty. Chris drank his coffee, the fierce look of concentration never leaving his face. When he put the cup down , he seemed to have come to a decision.

“Payback… time,” he said.

“Still nothing,” Karl Adler reported tersely. “No sign of the nurse or Parish, no sign of any of the ATF men, not a hint of where Larabee could be, and D’Aubin flew out from Denver International the same day he talked to Sanchez and Wilmington. Obviously decided his skin was worth more than his career.”

“Unsatisfactory,” Otto said. “Who do we have we could put pressure on at ATF headquarters?”

“No one who knows anything. A reasonably reliable source told me that the people in charge are nearly as worried as we are about where these guys are and what they might do next. I think we may have identified the elusive Mr Stanford and his brother, though. Two of Larabee’s team, Tanner and Standish, were suspended recently, and they fit the descriptions.”

“That’s far from helpful. We need to bring these men out into the open. What about wives, girlfriends, dependants?”

“Sanchez has no one listed, nor Wilmington, though he seems to have dated every eligible woman in the city. Jackson has a pregnant wife, so he should be the weakest link, but their apartment is closed up and we haven’t traced her yet.”

“I have to report to my father within the hour. Can you think of anything remotely positive to tell him?”

“We’re looking for Mrs Jackson; emergency procedures are being put into place in all departments of Ackermans. The director of Alderways is remaining completely loyal.”

“So he should. His late father was in the German-American Bunde in the thirties. He understands what’s at stake.”

“We all do.”

Otto could not understand how their normally efficient intelligence system could have lost track of so many people. Karl said Parish was reliable; his disappearance had to have something to do with this affair, but the ranch appeared as empty and deserted as ever according to the men watching it. He wondered if Karl really knew all his employees as thoroughly as he thought.

“When are you relieving the men at the ranch?” he asked.

“Not until morning at the earliest. All my security men are working on other leads.”

“I’ll send two from the estate to arrive sometime in the early hours. Tell your men they’ll be coming; that should help to keep them alert.”

“They’re always alert,” Karl said, irritated.

“Well, my father appears to think Larabee is some kind of superman, though I’m more inclined to the belief that his team have him hidden away somewhere because they don’t want the world to know what a wreck he is. Father insists the men are all warned to take extra precautions.”

“Alderways still say he had almost no mobility, and couldn’t even speak.”

“Argue it with my father yourself. He says that whatever happens, he wants you here by lunchtime to morrow to report to him personally.”

The silence at the other end of the conversation told him that Karl was beginning to share Otto’s view that his father was becoming more of a problem than an asset. Unfortunately the estate staff were either mindlessly loyal to him, or were cowed slave labour bought in from Paraguay, and the old man would probably have taken some nasty precautions to avoid a takeover.

Maybe something that looked like an accident?

Reluctantly he dismissed the idea. Deal with this Larabee incident first, then perhaps he and Karl could plan the old man’s permanent retirement.

“Make the Jackson woman your priority,” he said. “His wife and unborn child, or Larabee? I don’t think that should be a difficult choice for any man.”

Nathan was glad to make himself useful at the Boulder shelter. There were plenty of minor medical needs which he could help with and Jake was pleased to have another volunteer on the premises. But by midnight it was mostly quiet. Nathan sat down in a battered armchair in the office and had time to worry.

He wished he could have seen Chris’s medical notes, altered and fictitious as they might have been in part. His acquaintance at Alderways had talked of electric-shock therapy that had gone wrong. Nathan knew that the ‘therapy’ part would be inaccurate, but the mention of electric shock had come up so often it was likely to be true. What that might have done to Chris… In Nathan’s opinion it was a barbaric procedure with horrible side effects even when it was medically prescribed. As a torture it was vile and destructive. Yeah, he was more than worried about Chris.

Vin and Ezra were on his mind too. He was comforted a bit by the thought that what they lacked in medical knowledge might be made up for by their very thorough knowledge of Chris. Even so, he guessed they’d be having a hard time and he wished he could help.

Most of all, though, he worried about Rain. He missed her, and he was sorry to be absent for any of the pregnancy—and he was afraid for her. The feeling grew as the night wore on. Perhaps her mother’s wasn’t far enough from their home. It wouldn’t be so hard to find her maiden name and trace the address if someone was determined enough.

Ruthless enough.

Would it be paranoid to call so late at night? He’d be disturbing her sleep, and adding stress when she didn’t need it, possibly for nothing, and yet his fear seemed real enough.

He called Josiah first. At least Josiah would be alert, and his perspective would help Nathan judge whether his own fears were unfounded.

For just about the first time in his life, he found Josiah prepared to be more worried than he was.

“You think I should call her then?” Nathan said.

“I do. I think she should be somewhere much less predictable.”

“But where? We have friends, but are they really harder to trace than her mother?”

Josiah thought for a moment. “Rain knows the religious community who look after Hannah, and Hannah isn’t listed anywhere in my records—even on the team only you and Rain and Vin know about her. No one would ever think of that, and the sisters would welcome her in the middle of the night, their door’s always open to someone with a need. I’ll call them if you like.”

Relieved, Nathan agreed. When he reached Rain on her cell phone she was sleepy, but understanding. Maybe they were being paranoid, but with the baby to think of, she’d rather be too careful than take a risk.

“I’ll leave now,” she said. “Mom’s a heavy sleeper, so I’ll just leave her a note—I’ll say you needed me urgently!”

Nathan could imagine what his mother-in-law would make of that—and say to him next time they met—but he was too relieved Rain was moving to make any objections. He was finally able to relax a little when she called again from the safe haven of the Sisters of St Agnes.

“This is a lovely idea of Josiah’s,” Rain said. “I can tell I’m going to be spoilt here—I’m already being waited on hand and foot!”

“Don’t let it give you ideas,” Nathan said, though truthfully there was nothing he’d have liked better than to be there to fetch her a hot drink or a pillow for her back… and to have her take his face in her hands and kiss him thanks. He wanted to tell her how much he missed her, but knew if he started she would hear how troubled he was, and he wanted her carefree.

“I love you,” Rain said, probably guessing his thoughts. “Take care of them all. Bring Chris home to us. And don’t worry about me or the bump. We’re fine!”

Nathan still did worry, he couldn’t help himself, but it had lost that painful urgency. Some looming darkness, like a flock of Josiah’s crows, seemed to have been averted. Perhaps that was a good sign for the day ahead, which was very close now. He closed his eyes and tried to snatch a few hours sleep before dawn.

Chris had only the vaguest memories of the flashback triggered by hearing Sammy’s name but since then something fundamental seemed to have shifted in his world. For the first time since he woke in Alderways nameless and without awareness of anything about himself, he actually felt confident he would get his life back.

All through those months of struggle and setback and furious incomprehension he had simply been fighting because he wouldn’t give in. He’d been too lost to know he had friends looking for him; without cues his memories had been too confused for him to begin to piece together what had happened to him. Now he had hope in his grasp.

Hope, and a strong desire to see the end of the men who had somehow preserved a secret fascist enclave in the heart of Chris’s territory.

He understood a little better now why it was so hard to find words even when the ideas were clear in his head, but it didn’t make it any less frustrating. It was one of the reasons he was glad it was Vin and Ezra with him. Buck loved him like a brother, but the ways they thought were too different for Buck to find his broken sentences easy to follow. Vin and Chris understood each other so easily words often didn’t matter, and Ezra had a gift for getting into other people’s minds.

And for what he wanted to do now, he’d choose Vin and Ezra. It was payback time, a payback that had to be swift and unofficial, because he was sure the only way he could hit this group was to take them completely by surprise. Whether or not Vin and Ezra agreed, they’d follow where he led. He’d maybe bring in the others once there was no going back. He wanted to see them again, badly, but he could remember enough to know how it would go down if he called them now. Buck would be too relieved to have him back to be able to bear the thought of risking Chris’s neck again so soon; he’d want to call Travis in, and one of the other teams. It would be harder, professionally, for him not to do it, too. Chris could plead temporary brain damage or something; Vin and Ezra were suspended; but Buck was probably in charge of the team now… or Josiah, if Chris hadn’t dreamed Vin telling him Buck had sprained his leg.

He thought of Josiah and Nathan and JD. He didn’t want the kid in this yet; it had been ugly and would probably get worse, and maybe it was stupid but he was still reluctant for JD to see him stuttering for words. Josiah would be a solid comfort, but Chris didn’t want comfort, he wanted war. Then there was Nathan, and apart from the fact that he really didn’t want doctoring, Nathan was the only one of them with a wife. It was a vulnerability Chris hadn’t thought of till now, a reminder to him of how far he still had to go to be back to normal. Did his team realise the ruthlessness of the people they were dealing with? He spent a few minutes groping for Nate’s wife’s name.

“Rain?” he said to Vin.

“Nope; cold and dry.”

So much for not needing words. He tried again, and wondered how he’d ever explain the rest of his plan if he couldn’t even ask a simple question. “Nate… Rain?”

“That Rain? She’s good; she’s having a baby.”

Vin said it like it was the most ordinary news, and in some ways it was, a natural, expected part of Nathan’s married life, but to Chris it somehow symbolised all the stretch of time he’d lost. Something so important in Nathan’s life, and Chris hadn’t remembered Nathan’s existence, let alone imagined a baby.

His mind tried a convoluted set of calculations he wouldn’t have conceived of even a day before. If Rain had been pregnant before he went, maybe waiting to be three months before she told them, the baby could be nearly due. It wasn’t relevant to anything he was planning, but suddenly he had to know.

“How long?”

Vin frowned. “Can’t be too long. When’d Nate tell us?”

“September?” Ezra hazarded. “Yes, he was quite preoccupied all through the month.”

“She was throwin’ up a lot.”

It was clear that the whole baby thing had more or less passed them by. Chris was briefly saddened, because he could guess the reason—they’d been looking for him. He still hadn’t fully understood the current tensions between Vin, Ezra and the rest of his team, but he guessed now they went back a while. These were the two he’d have worried about most if his mind hadn’t been too scrambled to think. Buck would miss him just as deeply, but he had too much of a gift for life to be obsessive; Nate had Rain, and now even a baby on the way; JD a host of new experiences to distract him. Even Josiah had the faith to hand it all over to his God.

Vin and Ezra would have been obsessive, unreasonable and insubordinate in their search for him. Which in this case made him a lucky man. He’d have to thank them later though, when he had time and words. For now he had other more urgent things to communicate.

“Rain… not safe,” he managed.

“A potential hostage,” Ezra said, understanding quickly.

“They’ll have thought,” Vin said, but he was already digging out a cheap cell phone, and handing it to Ezra.

“JD?” Ezra asked.

“JD,” Vin agreed. “He ain’t so pissed with us. Put the sound up so’s we can hear.”

Chris couldn’t ask the questions he wanted, so he just waited in silence, until he heard JD answer the phone, bright, alert and eager regardless of the fact it was now well past midnight. It was the first time Chris had heard him in six months; listening to the words tumbling rapidly out was surprisingly refreshing. He concentrated on the young, clear voice, and followed the conversation better than he could have hoped.

Ezra didn’t try to answer the torrent of questions, and didn’t ask any of his own, though his face mirrored Chris’s surprise when JD told them where he was. Instead he cut through it all with Chris’s warning about Rain.

“Hey, that’s so weird you should think of it now!” JD said. “I just went along to talk to Josiah and he says he and Nate arranged just five minutes ago for her to go somewhere safer. He didn’t tell me where, I guess they think better not too many people know. Same with Chris I suppose. Is he okay? They said at Alderways he couldn’t walk or talk or anything, but Rosa says he was getting better.”

Chris held out a hand for the cell phone. He decided he could manage a few words for the kid without giving away what a struggle speaking was.

“JD,” he said.

“Chris? Chris! Hi, it’s so great to hear you again, I mean I know you’ll be okay with Vin and Ezra but it’s different hearing you, and the stuff they said at that hospital_”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m so glad. We’ve all been kind of worried, well especially Nate, but I think Rosa’s quite worried too—she’s a real nice lady, I didn’t have time to tell Ezra how we saved her little boy from these guys who tried to take him in a car, and of course she was shaken up about that too, but she likes it here, and she’s getting kind of close to Josiah I think—well Buck thinks, and I don’t always agree but this time I do because she was cuddled up with him on the couch when I went along.”


“I know. Buck can’t believe it either, only he’s not as interested as he would be usually—he’s too mad with Vin and Ezra. When are we going to meet up Chris? We all want to see you.”

“Soon,” Chris promised. “Maybe… tomorrow.”

“Can I tell Buck that? He went out—to check around, only really I think he just wants to be on the move. He’s been waiting six months to see you, Chris…”

There was no reproach in the kid’s voice, just a plea for his friend. It tugged at Chris, but he needed to go through with the plan he had, and if it worked the way he hoped, they would be calling the others in soon enough.

“Tomorrow,” he said again, and hoped that was how it would go down. “Ez wants… to talk.”

Ezra correctly interpreted this as an invitation to finish the call. Vin was grinning.

“What?” Chris asked as Ezra put the cell away.

“He never noticed,” Vin said. “JD never noticed one thing different about that call. For the kid, it was just a normal conversation with you. Y’ never say more than three words at a time!”

“Shut up… Tanner,” Chris growled, and realised with annoyance when Vin’s grin widened that that was still only three words. He felt better for talking to JD though. And he hoped Buck would understand…

Meanwhile the night was getting old, and he had a plan to try to explain to Vin and Ezra.

Hahn sat in the darkness of his high suite, drinking schnapps and looking out over the estate. He’d seen a car leave soon after midnight, and a word with the night doorman confirmed what he’d guessed, Otto had sent two of their own security men out. A mistake, Hahn thought. While they were using men from Ackerman, no one could lead Larabee directly to the estate. Otto still would not believe Larabee was out there somewhere, waiting to strike at them. Hahn, however, had enjoyed hunting until the last few years, and knew there was nothing so dangerous as a wounded predator.

That was not what troubled him as he stared out into the darkness though. The present seemed almost dim compared with the vivid scenes of the past. He saw sights and faces superimposed on the night, ones that he’d thought he’d forgotten over the years. He saw acts he’d done—because it was ordered, because it was for the Fuhrer and the fatherland, perhaps simply because of the cruelty in the human heart which only needed an excuse. And he seemed to see every act through Larabee’s cold direct eyes. It was as if the electric shocks had created some infernal link. He gulped at the schnapps.

He had a decision to make, and he needed the night to consider whether it was simply an old man’s insanity, his brain crumbling under the weight of years—or whether it was the one thing left to do if he was to die any kind of warrior. He thought he wouldn’t get longer than a night. When Parish disappeared he’d taken it as confirmation that Larabee was not simply hiding somewhere licking his wounds. Hahn knew, with the sort of intimacy that torturing a man could provide, that if Larabee could move and think, however damaged he might still be, he’d be coming for them.

The night was clear, but the two men watching the ranch were not alert enough to take advantage of it to see the minimal shifting in the shadows near the ranch. They glanced out of the car occasionally, but one was smoking and one looked as if he was sending a text message. As he put his phone away, he made some joke to his companion. Vin had no chance of hearing it. The car was shut up against the cold. It was probably nearly as chilly in there as it was outside, though Vin had heard them run the engine briefly while he was approaching.

He slipped back through the darker parts of the yard to where Ezra and Chris waited for him. It had taken a while, and some inspired guesswork from Ezra, to understand what Chris wanted to do, but Vin had it down plain enough now. Chris thought that the men behind his disappearance had the money and power to have a very effective intelligence network—Ezra’s rewording of ‘own fuckin CIA’—and that any official investigation and planning for raids would give them far too much warning. They’d be at red alert anyway after Alderways.

Chris wanted to go for the heart of the organisation, the secluded estate Sammy had escaped from, where Chris had been tortured and where the ‘godfather’ of the fascists remained.

Find the place, find the excuse to take action, then call in the rest of their team, that was Chris’s thinking. Time enough to alert Travis and others when the fight had already started.

Chris reckoned they would find enough to justify their actions retrospectively, or that was how Ezra translated it, also transforming: ‘Ezra… can con ’em after’ into ‘I will certainly endeavour to explain our course of conduct in a way which exonerates us from actual consequences, if not private remonstrance’. Vin thought Chris was right. A predictable course of action would be to organise enquiries centring on Ackerman, Alderways and possibly men like D’Aubin. No one in their right mind would plan a three-man attack on a place which probably had its own private army. They should have the advantage of surprise if nothing else.

Chris, shivering so much that Vin doubted again the sanity of going along with this, looked his question now instead of making the effort to speak.

“Should be okay,” Vin said, “but I think we need to move fast. They look kinda cheerful, like they’re hoping to get away home soon. I’d say they’re expecting t’ be relieved.”

In the starlight, the half smile on Chris’s face was colder than ever. “More come… more to take down.”

There was no arguing with that.

Now came the part of this plan that Vin liked least. “One of us c’d do this,” he said to Chris, like he’d already said twice.

Chris cuffed him with a freezing hand for doubting, and moved off into the darkness before there could be any more discussion. They waited until they could be reasonably sure he was in position—not too happily. “He appears to have all his old familiarity with the ranch,” Ezra muttered.

“Yeah, but he ain’t movin’ right yet. Though I guess we’re the ones that need to do the fast movin’. Come on, let’s get in place.”

They were in position well before the blond haired figure showed, stumbling in an exaggerated manner where the security light would come on and pick him up. Vin’s worst fear was that the men in the car would simply draw their guns ready to dispose of the problem once and for all, and he and Ezra were ready to act very quickly. But Chris was right. The men in the car didn’t see the staggering man as any kind of threat; they jumped out, the smoker saying, “It’s him, I’m sure it’s him, where’s the photo,” as if they were going to stand there and check it before they did anything. And Vin and Ezra took them completely by surprise, one from each side, and had them down and immobilised before Chris joined them—no longer staggering, but not moving with his old fluid ease either.

“Away… from here,” Chris said.

Ezra removed the keys from smoker’s pocket and locked the men’s car. Vin appreciated his attention to the tiny details; if more arrived the impression that the men had left in good order with some sort of purpose in mind would make them less wary to begin with.

They dragged both men to Chris’s workshop. The barn might have been more convenient, but they’d disturb the horses and anyone who came might hear them. The workshop was a bit small but had the advantage of a number of sharp tools and heavy blunt instruments. Ezra put a sheet of board up to cover the one window, then they switched on the light. Chris picked up a chisel and looked thoughtfully at the man Vin had mentally dubbed ‘cell-phone’. He was the one Vin would have picked too. He had a softer—and to be fair, more pleasant—look to him. Smoker was a hard case.

Chris took a step forward, looming over the men who were propped against the rear wall, and made a gesture to Ezra to do the talking.

Ezra smiled with ominous charm at the two men. “Mr Larabee is considering whether the mere prospect of a kneeless, and possibly sexless, existence will be enough to encourage you to talk to us, or whether he needs to demonstrate on one of you ‘pour encourager l’autre’.”

Vin’s role in these dramas was usually the dumber heavy there for the disposal of the bodies. He reckoned he did it well. For now, he spent a while selecting the most suitable hammer, while Chris and Ezra watched the men silently. Smoker stared back, but cell-phone looked as if he was wondering just what he’d gotten himself into—and hoping that perhaps he’d wake up and find it wasn’t real after all.

Vin handed the hammer to Chris. “They some of th’ ones who did you over?”

Chris shook his head. “Same… breed.”

“We never did anything to you,” cell-phone said, his voice coming out unintentionally high and squeaky.

“My word, if you sound like that now you hardly need to lose anything to sing soprano,” Ezra said, with a detached interest that was more chilling than violence.

Vin squatted down so he could get in their faces. “Y’ know what they did t’ him though,” he said, with a jerk of his head at Chris standing like an avenging spirit behind him. “Y’ know all th’ different sorts a pain they used t’ try t’ get him t’ talk, and how when he wouldn’t they used their box of electric tricks t’ screw up his mind.” The anger he really felt bled through into his voice. Even smoker flinched. Cell-phone said high and fast, “I don’t know anything about anyone being tortured!”

Chris brought the chisel closer. “Get… on with it,” he told Ezra.

“Now that they understand the situation and how very ungenerous we are feeling towards them and their organisation,” Ezra agreed. He looked down at their prisoners. “We need information, gentlemen. We need clear and coherent directions to your employer’s estate and an escort when we decide to drive there.”

“Fuck off!” said smoker, not very convincingly.

“But we don’t know!” Cell-phone’s howled protest unfortunately sounded as if he might be telling the truth. “We work for Ackerman, but we don’t know the bosses there. I wouldn’t even know the estate existed if Parish hadn’t talked about going there, and even he went by helicopter. We can’t tell you!”

“There’s only one way for us to prove the accuracy of that statement, I’m afraid,” Ezra pointed out.

“But the guys who are coming to relieve us are from the estate!” cell-phone said very fast.

“Shut up!” his companion snapped.

“Vin… gag,” Chris ordered.

Vin rammed a relatively clean rag in smoker’s mouth, checked how securely he was tied, then dragged him by the scruff of his neck out of the workshop.

“I’ll make it quiet,” he said to Chris for call-phone’s benefit.

“Not… too quick.”

Smoker was not a likeable guy, but he wasn’t a coward. Vin saw in his eyes that he expected to be disposed of, but he kept his head, looking about for an escape that wasn’t going to happen. Vin wondered where to stash him. Out in the open wasn’t an option, he’d die of hypothermia. In the end, he hauled him all the way across the yard to the ranch house, unlocked the mudroom door and threw him in there. He’d still be cold, but he shouldn’t actually freeze.

Back out in the yard he paused and listened. There was the distant sound of a car, and although the road might occasionally be used at this hour, it wasn’t common. He went quickly back to the workshop where cell-phone was practically choking himself telling Chris and Ezra everything he knew. Judging by their faces, it wasn’t much.

“Car’s coming,” Vin told them. “Couldn’t tell yet if it’s coming here, but there’s a good chance.” He picked up a piece of cloth that Chris must have used on the Ram sometime. Ezra shook his head and gagged cell-phone with his own clean handkerchief instead.

“Never let it be said that I’ve descended to the level of mere thuggery,” he murmured.

Chris switched off the light, and they uncovered the window.

Two or three minutes later a car—a black Mercedes Vin thought—did indeed pull up near the ranch entrance. The men in it didn’t bother to switch off their headlights as they jumped out and walked towards the other, empty car.

Two men. One was well into middle-age but powerfully built and something about his face and the way he moved suggested to Vin that he’d be tougher than smoker, who’d been by no means a pushover. The other was much younger, blond, athletic, probably a perfect specimen in the eyes of anyone dumb enough still to believe in a master race.

Ezra must have thought the same, because he murmured, “I assume we’re all agreed we go for the Aryan wunderkind?” Vin dug an elbow in his ribs because it didn’t need saying; Chris another from the other side because he was still annoyed by having to concentrate on Ezra’s vocabulary unless it was vital. Ezra sulked silently between them after that while they watched the men discover there was no one here to relieve.

Vin thought the younger man looked as if he’d be brave enough, in an arrogant sort of way, in sport or some outdoor expedition, but not tough faced with the pretence of uncompromising brutality. He was inexperienced; Vin could see that from the way he moved, whereas his companion had almost certainly served his time in someone’s armed forces.

“See if they… split up,” Chris breathed.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Vin began to worry they might simply get in the car and drive away, but after a brief conversation they must have agreed to check around the ranch first. This gave Vin, Ezra and Chris the chance to get into a position where they remained in darkness but able to use the light of the headlights to watch the men’s progress.

The two of them stopped outside the mudroom.

“Shit,” Vin muttered.

Even trussed up as he had been, smoker could probably make a noise by knocking something over, if he’d heard the car and had the presence of mind.

“Take ’em… now,” Chris said abruptly.

It was lucky they had the advantage of surprise. Even with it, and with the extra man, this wasn’t anything like as easy as taking the other two had been. Vin and Chris got the tough one down and semi-conscious, but at the expense of a cut cheek-bone and a swelling knee for Chris, while Vin was left with a nearly numb left arm and a rib on the same side that he hoped was just badly bruised. Ezra dealt rather more neatly with the wunderkind, fighting by the rule book for just long enough to allow him to get overconfident, then resorting to street tactics that had him down in seconds.

They had to resort to flex and duct tape to finish tying these two. “We’ll need to go to a hardware store if we’re going to keep doing this,” Vin muttered.

“We’re done,” Chris said. The blood on his face was already congealing in the cold air, and he wiped it impatiently away. It made him look even more deadly as he indicated the young man. “This one… do fine. Name?”

The young man was silent, his chin tilted up arrogantly, but there was a hint of uncertainty and fear in his eyes.

“He… was there,” Chris said softly.

Vin could imagine it: there to learn, to see a better man broken, to learn there was nothing the master race couldn’t do if they chose. He drew his knife, and although the kid tried to hide it, it was clear he flinched. Vin didn’t say anything, just used three skilful cuts to slit straight down the kid’s expensive coat and through his shirt. Maybe scratched him a little; definitely showed him what the knife could do.

“Name?” Chris said again.

The young man still didn’t answer, but the arrogance was giving way to wide-eyed shock. Spoilt, Vin thought. Told all his life he was something special, and believed it, and now he was finding it hard to comprehend the way he was being threatened. Vin ripped the slashed coat and shirt roughly from him. He’d feel less special shivering half-naked in the yard.

He wasn’t sure if it was the threat of the next cut or Chris’s face, hard as an avenging army, that forced the first crack.

“Leo,” the kid said, before Vin could move again.

Chris smiled coldly. They had him now. It was just a matter of time. Vin could almost have felt sorry for the youngster if he hadn’t been one of the bystanders while Chris was tortured. Leo was out of his depth—probably employed on the estate with a view to eventual promotion in the firm, but not remotely prepared for what he was facing now.

Breaking Leo wasn’t pleasant but wasn’t prolonged. By the time they’d finished with him the kid was barely holding back tears of humiliation and fear, but he was theirs, and all the defiance had leaked away. It was just possible he’d find the courage to lead them in a wrong direction, but Vin doubted it. Leo was confused, ashamed and very frightened, and that wasn’t a good combination for thinking clearly. Besides, Ezra had given the impression they knew more than they did about the estate and its owners.

Chris wanted to reach the estate before dawn, and that ought to be possible in the powerful Mercedes. They had no idea of the security there, but forcing instructions about the route out of Leo was just the first step. He’d already said the monitoring devices at the outer end of the road would recognise the license plate from any estate car and he wasn’t a gifted enough liar to have deceived them. Once into the woodland around the main buildings, they’d have to make some quick decisions, but Vin still thought that the enemy’s attention would be turned much further away, expecting trouble at Ackerman or searching the ranch for their missing men.

“Let’s go,” Chris said. He was limping slightly now, and the blood smeared down one side of his face emphasised its gauntness, but still he managed to give the impression of unstoppable determination.

“Y’ got t’ feel sorry fer that small army he’s takin’ on,” Vin murmured to Ezra as they pushed Leo into the car.

“I wonder whether they have the imagination to be afraid,” Ezra agreed, settling behind the wheel. The Mercedes, purring with smooth power that made Ezra nod approval, made swift work of the empty roads. Vin put all his earlier doubts aside. They’d seen Chris do the impossible before. They’d be with him all the way this time.

A wintry dawn broke over Colorado. At Alderways, Jacobson was red-eyed and exhausted after a completely sleepless night, but satisfied that the FBI had enough evidence to start the place’s house of cards tumbling. Several members of the ancillary staff had given positive identification from the photos of Chris Larabee before the management realised they were being questioned, and in addition to that, the exhaustive fingerprinting of rooms and hallways Jacobson had ordered after talking to Sanchez had thrown up several partials that any expert would confirm as matching Larabee’s. That ought to be enough to start getting further warrants.

The junior doctors, too, seeing the way the investigation was tending, were suddenly more co-operative in their eagerness to distance themselves from any criminal charges or accusations of unethical conduct. Jacobson thought the corruption probably went all the way to the top. The director of Alderways was absent—supposedly at a conference—and no one seemed likely to be able to interview him in the near future. The lawyers were trying to lock down every avenue of questioning and preparing for a long litigious siege. Jacobson thought they were too late to stop disaster falling on Alderways. The thought gave him considerable satisfaction.

In Denver, Orrin Travis had left his wife sound asleep to come into his office long before the day officially began. He wanted to keep abreast of all the evidence that now seemed to prove that Chris Larabee had been kidnapped, brain-washed or worse, and incarcerated for the last several months. He intended to do all that he could to see that every single person involved was brought to justice—and he would have dearly liked to know exactly what team 7 might be doing to achieve the same end.

The names of Edward Stanford and his brother Vincent had had a galvanizing effect on him when he saw them. Luckily, his personal conviction that Vin and Ezra were on the loose somewhere—with a completely unpredictable Chris Larabee—could remain unofficial. He hoped for some contact with the remainder of the team, preferably one of the saner ones, which he was limiting to Sanchez and Jackson. In his efforts to get in touch with them, he was slightly troubled by his inability to contact Rain, and decided he’d have to look into that during the morning. But it was the Tanner-Larabee-Standish unexploded bomb that was worrying him most.

Hahn Reichart saw the dawn just beginning to lighten the sky as he went to speak to the night security chief, and asked him which two of his men had been sent out in the early hours. The security chief looked nervous, which probably meant he’d been told not to mention this by Otto.

He told Hahn the names, adding hastily, “I wouldn’t have sent the boy. I told Mr Otto he’s inexperienced, but Leo has been asking him for more assignments.”

And Otto indulges him, Hahn thought. He had noticed his son’s weakness for young men, though he didn’t believe it had ever become a problem before.

“You obeyed your orders,” he told the chief. “Have they come back yet?”

“No, sir. Mr Otto said they wouldn’t be back until the afternoon.”

“Has he been in contact with them?”

“No, sir. I don’t think he’s up yet. Do you want me to… ?”

“No. I’ll do it.”

Hahn went through to his office to make the calls and was not particularly surprised when no one answered. His next move was not to wake Otto, but to go once more down to the basement to carry out some work which he intended to keep secret even from Berndt.

The sky was grey but light when he came back up. He looked out over the estate. His workers were already at their tasks in the grounds and barns and here in the big house—negroes, like the boy whose escape had started this, native Indians, half and halfs, all brought in young from the Paraguay part of the operation or even born here. None of them knew very much about the world outside—a soap opera was as fantastic as science fiction to them. He suspected that many of them would want to stay even if they were offered the chance to leave, such was the lure of familiarity over the unknown.

On a strange whim, he walked down to the kitchen where Maria was segmenting oranges and had a bowl of bread dough rising. She was old, plain, ordinary and many years ago had been born the bastard of some Paraguayan rancher with a native girl. She had been at the estate for most of the years he had owned it and although he’d never forgotten her status, he too found something comfortable about familiarity.

“Please, sir,” she said, flustered and alarmed. He was not given to entering the kitchens unless there was a problem.

“Bring me a cup of coffee, Maria,” he said.

Relieved, she went about it in a nervous silence, her skill with food at odd variance with the rest of her manner. If he forgot her origins, what did he see? A woman who would have seen Kinder, Kuche, Kirke as a happy way to live? He had almost given up struggling against the way his eyes and mind had begun to betray him. When she placed the coffee very carefully in front of him, he asked her, “What do you believe, Maria?”

He wouldn’t have had her punished if she’d been too confused and afraid to answer, but she said quietly, “The things I learned as a girl, sir. From Father O’Higgins.”

He smiled slightly at the name. There was nowhere an Irish priest couldn’t reach, it seemed. “And what did the Father teach you?”

Maria plucked anxiously at her apron, but she answered. “That this world is a fallen one, sir, and full of trouble, but we can get our feet on the right road out of it by following God’s own son, so we can.”

Hahn could almost have laughed as he heard the Irish expressions from Maria whose English was slow and careful and whose normal mode of speaking to him was painfully formal; perhaps he might have laughed too at the idea of such nonsense sustaining her through forty years of drudgery, but he didn’t; it would have been too much like striking an old but faithful mare.

Not a mare, not an animal—a woman!

Why did he keep hearing these things in Larabee’s voice, a voice hoarse with screaming, rasping these imaginary challenges as he had rasped his defiance to the last?

“When you have finished preparing das Fruhstuck, tell Berndt to arrange for one of the others to make coffee for my visitors, and you come to my room.” There was real fear in her eyes, and though he had no need to stoop to explain himself, he said, “You are not in any kind of trouble, Maria. I want you because I can trust you for a particular task.”

She looked not only amazed but as if he had given her some kind of medal. “Thank you, sir.”

He drained his coffee, and went hastily to check the monitors in the security office, into which the cameras from around the estate fed their information. He was sure Larabee was somewhere closer now, but the man’s real presence would trouble him less than his phantom, mocking voice.

Josiah woke to the unfamiliar—recently, he told himself, just recently unfamiliar, he had had his moments in the past—feel of a warm woman snuggled up beside him. Rosa smiled as she felt him stir. “Welcome back. There hasn’t been a sound. Not so much as a footstep in the hallway. I’m just going to put coffee on.

His appreciation of a well-rounded woman (encouraged by the Song of Solomon) was definitely enhanced when she was making coffee. He enjoyed the sight and the aroma for a few minutes of peace before Sammy came padding in barefoot, eager to start doing what he could to help Chris by directing them towards the estate.

Josiah’s plans about this had been thrown a little when JD came bounding along in the early hours full of the conversation he’d just had with Chris. On reflection, though, finding the estate might as well still be their priority. Chris hadn’t really communicated anything useful about his plans to JD and they would be as available for him out searching the countryside as they would sitting in Boulder.

Buck and JD appeared just as the coffee was ready, thrown out by Rosa’s mother. “She said she couldn’t feel comfortable in the shower knowing we were in the apartment,” JD explained. “Is there anything to eat?”

Josiah didn’t have to defend Mrs Dubose’ fridge and cupboards because Nathan was the next arrival, carrying bagels and the maps Josiah had asked him to fetch. While they ate, Josiah told Buck and JD about Sammy’s offer. Buck listened, but he was somewhere in another world most of the time—not a very pleasant world judging by the expression on his face. It was JD who greeted Sammy’s suggestion with real enthusiasm.

“It’s lucky I’ve got my laptop with me. I can call up maps of almost anywhere, but better than that, I’ve a programme that will show you in 3d what the map locations really look like. Quite a lot of it is ground or aerial photographs, but where they don’t have those the computer generated pictures are really good. It should make it a lot easier for Sammy to see if he recognises any landmarks.”

His enthusiasm was infectious. They all crowded around the laptop, with Rosa pushing them back a little so Sammy didn’t feel suffocated, and watched as JD magicked up view after view spreading out from the place where Sammy had tumbled into the road in front of Chris’s Ram and had innocently set off the events of this long painful half year.

Slowly, but more confidently with each step, Sammy began the complicated task of retracing his footsteps. They knew he’d walked roughly west, which helped narrow things down a little, but Josiah soon saw that without JD’s program they would have been hopelessly lost. As it was, they began to get something of a sense of Sammy’s route, then JD had the idea of using aerial photographs to search for any large estates in the right direction, places far enough from Denver and the other towns to involve a reasonably long drive.

It might have been a resounding failure, except that Rosa had the inspired suggestion of checking the area covered by aerial photographs against the map. There was a large patch of territory in the direction where they were searching, that had apparently never once been photographed from the air.

“I can get satellite images, though,” JD said, typing in some web address so fast Josiah could hardly see his fingers move. It took a little while to accustom Sammy to the idea of what he was seeing in these. Looking at a promising collection of buildings, Nathan sketched out a rough plan on a piece of paper.

“Yes!” Sammy said. “Oh, yes. That could be it. See—that’s the little barn, and that’s where the wood for the fires goes. And the master’s big house! It is right, Agent… Josiah.”

Josiah still wasn’t certain, and he could see something of the same doubt on Nathan’s face: Sammy was so keen to help, he might have convinced himself. But he was picking out details now, listing them more to himself than to them, and the chance he was right seemed good enough to act on.

“Let’s take a look,” he said.

“I could come,” Sammy offered hopefully.

“Sorry, son, we need someone to take care of things here.”

“To be our home base,” JD added.

Buck moved, a little less gloomy now there was the prospect of action. “You’ll have to look after the women,” he told Sammy. Rosa looked at him, but apparently forgave him since he was doing his best to make Sammy feel good about being left behind.

“We’ll be fine,” she told Josiah. “But shouldn’t you call in some of your people?”

“Once we’re sure it’s the right place,” Josiah said. He didn’t want to contact Orrin Travis too early—he could imagine some of the things Orrin might say when they did. Best to do it when they were moving fast on an indisputably good lead. He would have liked to kiss Rosa goodbye, but Lyndon and Sammy were there, and Mrs Dubose was tidying the bedrooms.

Rosa smiled, and he didn’t think it was imagination that it seemed to promise something when the time and place were right. “Take care,” she said.

JD was already out of the door, laptop under his arm, and Nathan and Buck close behind him. Josiah hurried to catch up. The estate, or Chris, or maybe both, because if Chris was even half himself he’d be wanting to do something about these people. Today might bring some answers at last.

As soon as he caught a glimpse of a light somewhere far ahead in the darkness, Ezra looked for a place to pull off the road into the woods; it meant treating the Mercedes like a jeep, but she responded beautifully. Perhaps when everything else was over, Ezra would be able to find her a new home…

He bumped to a halt and killed the headlights. It would be difficult to see how obvious the trail of smashed bushes was behind them, but any light was more of a risk.

“We c’n cover our tracks at first light,” Vin said. “Dawn’s coming.”

Ezra had decided before they even left the ranch that nothing would be gained by mentioning the way Vin was rubbing at his left arm, and favouring the ribs on that side. It would be equally futile to even hint at the fact he’d noticed Chris shaking with tiredness as well as cold, and that his limp was undoing the increased ease of movement he’d been gaining before. He did, however, map out in his mind the way he could cover and compensate for these things.

As the first early light allowed them to conceal the Mercedes, and the worst of the damage they’d done getting her off the road, he worked with an energy that made Chris look at him as if he was checking a memory against reality, and Vin say, “We ain’t that damaged.”

“I am merely endeavouring to thaw my frozen circulation; I assure you I haven’t abandoned my normal objections to physical labour.”

It must have been unconvincing. Chris said, “Not planning… to take ’em on alone.”

Well, he had wondered…”At what point then are we considering reinforcements?”

“We’ll… take look.”

“More people, more chance of being picked up on some security camera,” Vin said.

Ezra was tempted to use a rather appropriate expression of Billy Travis’s—’well, duh’—but he restrained himself. He understood what they had in mind; it would have been his own first choice of plan if he had not been so uneasy about the fitness of his companions should they run into any unexpected problem. Assess the site, assess the number of people who might be prepared to defend it, and if possible, perhaps from one of the outdoor workers whom Sammy had described, ascertain if any of the big players were currently in the building. These were not minor matters to achieve even with a larger, fully fit team, but on the other hand their small group had quality.

They checked Leo hadn’t worked his hands or feet loose, then gagged him and decided to leave him in the car itself rather than the trunk, where he might actually be able to make more noise by kicking. Vin and Ezra disabled everything they could in the car that might conceivably be used by a chin or an elbow to gain attention. The car phone, horn, lights, the list was surprisingly long. They also found something that looked like an emergency transmitter giving the car’s current location, and removed that too.

“A pity we didn’t find it earlier,” Ezra murmured. “We could have laid an interesting false trail.”

“This way might hold ’em up longer,” Vin said. “Not sure if anything’s wrong and nowhere to look.”

He threw a blanket over Leo, who they’d pushed down on the floor behind the front seats. He’d get up in the end, but there wasn’t much he could do when he did, not quickly enough to cause them problems.

“You c’n lie there and think how you got yer hands dirty torturing a guy who’s a thousand times better than you’ll ever be,” Vin told him.

Chris made an impatient gesture, his mind on attack.

Ezra smiled, and added to Leo, “You appear to have been under a sadly mistaken apprehension as to what really makes a man. Never forget Chris Larabee—I can assure you your miserable group of enslavers and torturers is never likely to.”


If he couldn’t actually see Chris, he’d almost have imagined him to be back to normal. Locking the doors on Leo, tipping a half-salute to Chris, Ezra followed on. Vin, who was almost as good at evading surveillance as he was at following a trail, led the way.

They had to move slowly, made even more cautious by the sound of an early helicopter apparently arriving at the estate. Vin wanted to approach at the furthest point of the fields and rides, far from the house, where he thought pressure pads and the more effective motion detectors would be infrequent before the perimeter. Even so, he made them crawl in at ground level, reckoning that anything this far out would be set high enough to avoid animals.

“Reckon they’ll have the good stuff further in, inside the fence,” he murmured. “Y’ can just see th’ fence. They’ll have a cable underground as well, one that’ll show a shape, pick out a man compared to an animal. There’s insulators on the main fence—but just electric fer livestock. Reckon they’ll rely on security men more.”

“Their privacy—secrecy in fact—is their biggest protection,” Ezra agreed. “Imagine the scenario where two idiot hikers lose themselves and somehow stumble this far; with a lethal fence, one might electrocute himself and the other dial 911 bringing attention here. I’m sure you’re right and that their surveillance will be efficient but involve an element of human decision.”

“That’s in our favour,” Vin said.

“Plan?” Chris demanded, not sure where this was leading.

“There’s cattle,” Vin said. “I c’n smell cows. Heard a horse a while back. There’s men working. There’s going t’ be movement of some sort near th’ fence sooner ‘r later. Look at th’ sun.” This was not in fact possible, as it had not yet risen even a tiny crescent above the horizon. “Be a nice patch of sunlight close t’ th’ fence in around an hour I’d say. Good chance th’ herd’ll move into it. We use them fer cover. None of those detection things’ll do much better’n 12 foot, ten maybe. When the cows is close we c’n get ’em agitated, use ’em fer cover. I c’n get through. Got rubber-soled shoes. Like I said, the fence is fer animals rather than men. Problem is, it’d be hard to make it look much like th’ fence broke—best we c’d hope is it’d confuse ’em a bit. Maybe some of th’ labourers’ll come out to get th’ cows back.”

“Do it… stay outside,” Chris said. “Watch.”

Vin thought about it. Ezra, relieved, saw the potential in this idea. They would gain some understanding of how the security guards worked, how many they were and how they were armed. The chances of them carrying any weapon actually illegal in Colorado was minimal unfortunately, and he was hoping to avoid any demonstration of the type of ammunition they were using. There was usually a way though…

“Sammy would have been classed as an illegal alien had he ever come to the attention of the authorities,” he mused. “I doubt whether there is any chance of the slave labour here being armed, but the conjunction of weapons and illegal aliens might be a useful pretext for calling in the ATF.”

“Good… thinking,” Chris said. “I want to see… who’s there, first.”

“You’re hoping that we’ll see someone directing operations?”


“Yes, I suspect we would have to be.”

“Listen… reports.”

“We want to be that close, we’d best find a very good place to hide out,” Vin said. “And we’ve no kind of thermal shields. Best case scenario, we hear them when they’re checking the fence out, and hopefully they’ll concentrate their manpower on the inside of the perimeter. Worst case, they look for us out here, very thoroughly.”

Chris rubbed a hand across his forehead as if it ached. “We try,” he said. “Cover… ourselves. When you cut… fence, Ezra call in the team and Travis. Use illegals… reason.” He glared at both of them, annoyed not with them, Ezra knew, but with the permanent frustration of his speech failing to catch up with his thoughts.

“We’ll have to play it by ear a bit,” Vin said. “If we get a chance to go in without getting ourselves killed before back-up gets here we take it; if not, we try to pick up one of the guards, find out exactly who’s on the premises. If we have to, we’ll wait.”

He looked at Chris doubtfully. Chris nodded, “Not… suicide,” he said. “But when we can… the old man’s mine.”

Vin grinned. “Guess you sh’d be up to an old man. Me ‘n Ezra, we’ll deal with his army.”

Chris resorted to a gesture rather than words, but the meaning was plain enough. The morning was light enough now, just a hint of mist lifting. Vin led them to where they could see the small herd of cattle. A decent place to hide was hard to find; they had to settle for a place where a slight open rise was backed by a lower area thick with undergrowth. They watched from the rise, freezing in silence, until the herd pressed near the fence. “Okay,” Vin said, dropping completely flat now and blending surprisingly into the undergrowth. Ezra watched him with some concern; his arm seemed to be functioning a little better, but it wasn’t hard to see that squirming over the ground was hurting him quite a lot.

He glanced at Chris, who in spite of the fact he looked whiter than ever in the light, seemed to be recovering the indefinable things that made him the leader. He, too, was watching Vin. “Ribs,” he said. “Bruised?”

“He appears to be coping. I think he’s suffering from discomfort rather than anything that will actually impair his abilities,” Ezra said. If he hadn’t believed it, he would have insisted on an adjustment to this plan.

“Call,” Chris said. “Buck?”

“Josiah, I think,” Ezra said. This really didn’t seem the time for an explanation, but he added, “Circumstances and our uncertainty whether Alderways was really a good lead unfortunately led to this train of events where Buck knows you are alive and well but we appear to be placing obstacles in the way of his seeing it for himself.” He mentally replayed that speech and added, “Buck thinks we’re keeping him away.”

“Got it… first time,” Chris said, not grateful for the translation. “I’ll… talk to Buck. Get on. Call… Josiah.”

Otto Reichert waited impatiently for Adler to make his way from the helicopter that had just landed. Why his father had called a conference at all, let alone so many people at such an early hour, he had no idea, but at least Adler was his ally.

“Do you have any news?” he asked sharply.

“No. Have you been in contact with your men at Larabee’s ranch?”

Otto had made a brief attempt, but the car phone had been out of action. It was so implausible that anything could have happened to two of his men he’d been putting it down to a communications glitch which he’d deal with once this wretched conference was out of the way. “Why? Had yours had problems?”

“I’m concerned,” Adler said, which was a rare admission. “The last report from my two had been normal. They had orders to go home once they were relieved—they should have confirmed the relief, but whoever was on last night just called here, checked your guys’ arrival had been confirmed and left it at that. Then five minutes before I left I had some girlfriend on the phone saying Bennett—he’s one of our least bright sparks—had texted her to say he’d be relieved any minute, but then had never shown up. I’d hardly time to do anything about it, but they just called me from Ackerman to say they can’t locate either of our guys.”

“We don’t want to tell my father about this,” Otto said quickly. “Not before the meeting. I don’t think he knows I sent any men out—he hasn’t said anything to me about it, anyway. We’ve a few minutes. We’ll go up to the security room, and Peters should be able to playback that confirmation our men arrived.”

Peters could, but there was very little to the message, just a quick call to say they’d reached the ranch and were just turning in. There had been no problems with communication then…

“What do you think, Peters?” Otto asked.

Peters stood there with that stolid look on his face that said he wasn’t employed to think.

“The car should have something that transmits its location,” Adler said.

Peters did something with the equipment, then shook his head. “That’s not working either. Should do in any area unless the cable’s cut.”

Otto’s unease grew. Adler glanced at his watch. They needed to make a decision quickly. Otto imagined the old man’s scathing anger if he found out men from the estate had been sent out and he hadn’t been informed. Especially Leo. His father didn’t see the boy’s qualities. To hear him these days, you’d think that no one matched up to Larabee, even though he’d seen him left a drooling wreck. No, his father would say it had been a foolish mistake, and what’s more he’d probably say it in front of the assembled meeting.

“Have you sent anyone else out there?” he asked Adler.

“Four, well-armed. They should be arriving at the ranch shortly.”

“We’ll wait till they report before we say anything to the old man. Let him have his conference first. We don’t want the Paraguay representatives to think we’re incompetent.”

“Do you know why he’s called in so many of our top people? I hear the director of Alderways is coming as well.”

“He’s already arrived,” Otto said. “No, I think my father’s mind is finally going. He’s been getting slightly strange for the last few months, and since Larabee escaped it’s really been exacerbated. After the meeting it will be a good opportunity for us to talk about the problem with the others.”

He would have to push, even so, to get them to take a stand against the old man. Even though he was weakened and withered with age, they were still afraid of him. Otto looked around the twenty men gathered in the largest room of his father’s extensive suite, and saw fear. It was hidden behind polite expressions and cold eyes, but it was there in every case.

Hahn sat in his high backed chair, behind a small table with a laptop on it. Otto craned his neck, and realised it was so the old man could see all the current feed from the security room. Paranoid as well as growing senile: as if Larabee was about to appear with a small army. Something else on the table looked like a remote control. He hoped they weren’t going to have to watch some interminable footage of the great old days.

He couldn’t quite understand the expression on his father’s face as he looked around the room. Otto didn’t like that. It made him nervous.

Chris was pretty sure he’d never been much for introspection, but the last few months had forced it on him, once he could think at all. Not being able to answer the question ‘who am I?’—that’d force some soul searching on anyone.

The answers had been slow coming. He understood now how many glimpses of the truth he’d not recognised. When he’d stood in the yard early … was it only yesterday? Had to be. When he’d stood in the ranch yard, and the vague memories of loss had clarified into painfully sharp recollection of just how dear to him Sarah and Adam had been, and how he’d lost them, he’d felt he’d regained a huge part of himself no matter how much it hurt. The same with every minute with Vin and Ezra, and with the talk with the kid last night, and every mention and memory of Buck and Josiah and Nathan.

Now, lying here shivering, his cheek throbbing and dizziness not far away if he moved too fast, he realised he knew who he was again, really knew it, and in spite of all his physical discomfort the thought was exhilarating.

It lessened the urgency of his need to act, though, muted that feeling that he had to smash this place in order to get back what they’d taken from him. He was still determined it would happen, but it was as if with the dawn a sort of tunnel vision had suddenly widened out. He saw the situation whole, and while he didn’t care too much about himself, he wasn’t taking unnecessary risks with Vin and Ezra. They were quite good enough at doing that themselves.

He should have seen Vin’s discomfort before. He watched him critically now while he could, and decided Ezra was right. It was oddly comforting that Ezra had been keeping an eye on this until Chris had it covered himself. He lost Vin in the undergrowth, and listened closely now as the call to Josiah’s cell went through on the second attempt.

Ezra hadn’t gotten out more than a couple of sentences about their location when Josiah said, “We’re already on our way. I’ll explain how later. We were going to drive to within sight of the estate, not approach too closely but make sure it looked the right place before…”

“Tell him… not turn in,” Chris whispered urgently.

“I would advise you not to turn down the road to the estate,” Ezra said. “In spite of the distance from the buildings, there are cameras there registering any vehicle that comes onto the road at all.”

“Too late,” Josiah said. “You think we’ll get a reception committee?”

“Travis,” Chris ordered.

“Chris says call in Orrin Travis. There’s enough going on here, we should be able to justify it.” He and Chris both looked up at the sound of a second helicopter. “In fact, maybe there’s something big happening. Tell Travis that we can call the bust because there are illegal aliens and guns here. If he asks any questions, I suggest you blame the lack of further information on us.”

With Chris prompting—and Ezra putting up with it in a way that told Chris his conman still wasn’t convinced Chris was okay—Josiah and Ezra agreed that the rest of Team 7 would approach while they could but co-operate as soon as they were stopped. “Show your IDs,” Ezra said. “Don’t mention the bust or what you’ve told Travis. Say that the ATF is investigating the shooting of two men from here, who’ve been found at a ranch near Denver.”

“You shot someone?”

“No, but they won’t know that.”

“How am I supposed to know they came from here?”

“Tell them the younger man—his name’s Leo—was wounded but not killed and the information came from him.”

Josiah ran over his instructions again. In the background Chris could hear the impatience with this from the rest of the occupants of the car. JD and Buck were both demanding the phone. He hoped it was Nathan behind the wheel.

Buck grabbed the cell, not without violence judging by the amount of noise. “Ezra? Ezra, goddammit, will you put Chris on this thing.”

Chris took it. “Buck!”

“Chris… damn it’s good to hear your voice. Chris, what the hell is going on? Why are we chasing our tails all across the country? When I get my hands on Vin and Ezra_”

“I’m okay,” Chris said as quickly as he could manage, answering what he knew was the real urgency behind Buck’s words. “Need you… to do… your part.”

When had Buck ever been able to ignore his need, voiced or not? He could tell his old friend wasn’t mollified, but Buck still said. “You know we will. But I’d like to know how and when we’re going to meet up again when we’ve done it.”

“We’ll find each… other, old dog,” Chris said, hoping Buck could hear his warmth in the words that still came hard. He had to cut the connection then though. He knew Vin must be close to the fence.

Even from the rise, which gave them a good vantage point, there was no sign of Vin at all, but he could see the group of cattle pressing close to the fence, their flanks steaming a little as some warmth from the wintry sun reached them. He was puzzled at the lack of labourers in the field now; they’d seen some when they first took up their position. He tried to communicate this to Ezra, and was annoyed to find that in addition to the faulty link between his brain and his mouth, his voice gave away how violently he was shivering. He fended off Ezra’s attempt to give him some of his own clothes, and finally managed to get his point across.

“That’s odd,” Ezra agreed. “But if anything it’s in our favour. Chris, at least take the sweater. I assure you it’s natural wool, and will add a useful layer of warmth.” He paused. “If it comes to shooting, never let it be said you shot someone in cold-blood!”

In spite of himself, that amused Chris, and he could see it was distracting Ezra watching him shiver. He accepted the sweater, and it helped. He watched for Vin, although he knew how well the sharpshooter could disappear into his surroundings. He only saw him at the very last minute. Vin dealt with the fence at almost impossible speed and disappeared among the cattle. A wild, blood-chilling ululating yell startled Chris almost to his feet and made the cattle mill in panic.

“That’s Vin,” Ezra said—though Chris knew damn well he’d been just as startled.

The cattle were crashing about now. One steer rammed into the cut fence, pushed through the gap, and another followed.

Vin came back, much faster than he’d gone, and they all pulled back into the undergrowth.

“That should start something,” Vin said.

Orrin Travis had been on edge for so long he was well-prepared. When he received Josiah’s call, he was able to commit two teams to back up his mavericks. He began to adjust his paperwork with a skill honed over a number of years. This was going to be an official ATF action. He just hoped Team 7 hadn’t already done anything so far out of the book that to explain it would tax even Standish’s skills—or that would play into the hands of the legal experts who were putting every obstacle they could in the way of the investigation at Alderways.

He mentally added to that a hope they hadn’t shot anyone, or gotten themselves shot. Most of all, he hoped there was a chance of having a complete Team 7, led again by Chris Larabee. They could make his life as stressful as they liked; it was much better than the alternative he’d had to live with for the last half year.

Josiah saw two black Mercedes approaching down the narrow estate road. He braked immediately and held his ID out of the window. Four men jumped from each of the cars and a lot of armament was visible, but the story Ezra had suggested worked like a charm. After a hasty call, it was agreed the two cars would escort them back to the estate.

Hahn Reichert had asked the head of the Paraguay section to give his views on the situation first. The man had been a windbag for more than fifty years; he could be relied on to keep talking until he was stopped. This left Hahn in peace to watch the developing security situation on his laptop. The one aspect of the modern world he embraced was the new technology. With the software he had, he could sit in a meeting and yet watch every part of his estate.

He called up the view of the fields and pastures out towards the large barn. The picture was too small for him to be sure, but he thought the last of the workers were just entering the barn. Maria had followed his orders and gathered them all there, house servants and outdoor labourers. He’d warned Peters to expect it. Peters like Berndt had the ability to obey orders without thinking about them.

Maria herself had been puzzled but unquestioning. Something though—an instinct of the heart rather than intelligence—had perhaps given her a sense of what was to happen. Just before she left she had paused and looked directly at him, with a grave sadness that gave her dignity.

“Go with God, Maria,” he’d told her in her own language. He knew that whatever she feared, it wouldn’t affect her obedience.

He glanced down at an alert on his screen. An unrecognised car had just turned on to the estate road. He saw that Peters sent two out to intercept it. Not Larabee, Hahn thought, but almost certainly something to do with him. It would soon be time.

He made a slight gesture to Berndt who stood at the door. Silently Berndt locked it. He did it without knowing or caring why. Should Hahn have told Berndt more? He thought not.

Vin, Ezra and Chris had slid back well under the thick bushy growth that filled this slight hollow. Things were falling well for them. Several steers were out now, trampling the fence down as they came.

“Where’d all the workers go?” Vin asked. The noise he’d made and the lowing milling cattle should have brought some of the labourers before anyone from the house came to investigate the breach in the fence.

“Everything is remarkably quiet except that herd,” Ezra muttered. “Too quiet.”

The sound of an engine gave the lie to that. Vin looked out cautiously down the line of the fence. “Not too bad,” he reported in a whisper. “One vehicle. Looks like three guards. They can’t have picked up a definite on me or they’d have sent more.”

He flattened down again behind the rise and listened to the voices.

“Get those fucking cattle out of the way!”

“Let me see the wire.”

“Where the hell are the lazy bastards who should be working out here? We need them to round the cattle up.”

“Peters says the boss sent them all to the big barn.”

“What for?”

“Old Mr Reichert he meant, not Mr Otto. You don’t ask the old man why.”

“This wire’s been cut. The cattle have trampled it, but it was cut first.”

“Fuck, that’s all we need. All the bosses are in that meeting, Peters just sent eight men out up the road, we don’t want another problem here. Could it have been one of the workers, thinking he had a chance while the rest were being rounded up to the barn?”

“Maybe. Look, I’ll get on to Peters, get him to sweep the grounds in case it was someone coming in. You check outside, Michaels, in case we do have a break out. Roe, you go over to the barn, check who’s there against the roster, see if anyone’s missing and get someone to round these damn cattle up.”

Vin felt Chris tense with readiness at his side. Couldn’t be better. Only two of them here for the time being, and one of those at the car calling his chief.

The one called Michaels had pushed through the fence, looking for any signs someone had run. Vin could see he was no expert at tracking, but even if he had been, the steers were trampling everywhere and would have covered any sign. Michaels cursed them and shouted to Roe to hurry up and get someone to drive them back inside. He himself went on, walking where the way into the woods was most open.

“Mine,” Vin said softly.

“Ribs?” Chris’s voice was a soft breath against his ear.

“Sore, not cracked.” He saw Ezra about to protest and added, “I’m quietest.”

Concern warred with knowledge of this truth on Ezra’s face, then he gave a slight nod of agreement. Chris squeezed Vin’s arm, to wish him good luck or to tell him to take care, maybe a bit of both. Vin moved off silently.

He found that he could time his movements to tie in with the moments when the cattle were distracting Michaels, and it wasn’t too hard to get close. He decided to take him down hard, though. He didn’t want a struggle. If Chris wanted to question someone, it’d have to be the next guy.

He moved as close as he dared, then stooped and picked up a small stone. In his pocket he still had the rag Ezra had rejected as a gag for the man back at the ranch. It made a good enough sling, rough but enough to whack the stone at the steer nearest to Michaels with a lot more force than Vin could have thrown it.

The steer objected noisily, bellowing and trampling in a circle, its head swinging to find what had stung it. Michaels stared at it, obviously wondering what had disturbed it, and Vin was able to move fast and cold cock him before he guessed anything else was wrong.

Vin caught him as he dropped and pushed him roughly out of sight. He should have brought something to tie him up, he doubted he’d be out for long.

There was a slight movement to his left. Vin spun then checked his aggressive movement. Ezra. Vin shook his head, meaning ‘I could have flattened you before I saw who you were’. Ezra grinned, in the way that said ‘I could take you any time’ only in words a few syllables longer. He held out some pieces of cut cable.

“From the car,” he said quietly.

Between them they quickly trussed Michaels, who was already stirring sluggishly. Vin rolled up the grimy rag that had served as a slingshot. Ezra shrugged, and let him use it this time. Must have run out of handkerchiefs.

So much for Michaels. The cattle were still spreading out near the fence. It gave Vin an idea as they rejoined Chris.

“They weren’t all blacks, those workers,” he said. “I saw some who looked half Indian before they all disappeared. Long haired, too.”

Chris caught on quickly. He might not look too great, Vin thought, but in every other way all this danger and violence—and having someone to go after—seemed to be curing him. Nathan’d never believe the difference it had made.

“Herd … cows?” Chris asked.

“Hell, yeah. Worked with all sorts of animals in m’ time.”

“Who would have guessed,” Ezra murmured. “Your plan, I take it, is to start herding those beasts back inside the fence as if you’d been sent to do it?”


He dropped his thick coat. That left him in the jeans and sweater he’d slept in the previous night. The clothes were dirty enough, from that and crawling about. He’d only had a brief look at the labourers who worked as slaves on this estate, but he thought he’d pass a casual glance.

“I’ll get the cattle packed together; you two come in low on the far side of the herd. Their bodies’ll hide you from him”—he gestured to the man at the car—”and probably from anyone else who might be watching.”

The cows and young steers were already finding there was nothing really interesting to eat on the far side of the fence. Vin cut a long switch and yelled at them a bit, but it was easy enough to get them back through. He kept his face turned away from the man at the car, who glanced up once, saw the round up he’d ordered was happening, and went back to his conversation.

Vin made sure Chris and Ezra were through the fence, and that the third man, Roe, was way across the pasture and approaching the large barn. He glanced at Chris—struggling but ready—and at Ezra who was dodging with disgust out of the way of a hot stream of cattle piss. The man at the car had just finished his call. Time to turn the herd.

The man looked up as the steers suddenly came pounding towards him.

“Stand still, sir,” Vin said, trying to sound panicky and putting on a Spanish accent. “They’ll go around you.”

“You stupid dago bastard. I’ll have your back flayed for this!” the man yelled, and then Ezra emerged from the cover of the herd and hit him with perfect precision. They bundled him into the back of his own vehicle, and scrambled hastily inside before the cattle were all past.

Ezra started the engine. “Where to?” he asked.

Chris had picked up the man’s semi-automatic and looked as if he might be rethinking his decision to wait for back-up, but he said, “Barn.”

“To take the other man—Roe was it?”

“To get… workers out.” There was an urgency in his voice as if he’d just seen a danger none of them had thought of.

Ezra was already obeying as Chris went on, “Why… all the workers… one place? This time of … day. The old man… was Nazi.”

Vin didn’t get where this was going. Ezra was first puzzled then appalled. “You can’t think… that kind of slaughter took place sixty years ago, in war time. Anyway, a barn wouldn’t be airtight.”

“Not gas, maybe,” Chris said. “Machine gun? Explosives? Why all… together otherwise?”

“You think someone’s going to blow them up in the barn?” Vin said, shocked.

“Getting out,” Chris said, waving the semi-automatic in the direction of the house. “Finish things… here.”

“If they do plan to evacuate the place, feeling we’re closing in, it might be conceivable they would do something so murderous,” Ezra said doubtfully. “But I have to say my impression was that they were not taking the threat that seriously yet. We would have had a very different response just now if they were.”

Vin agreed, but now Chris had put the thought in his head, he did see something ugly and threatening in the way all the slave-labourers had been collected into one place—not too differently from the cattle Vin had just herded. Ezra sent the car bumping faster over the ground. The barn stood silent and shut. A death trap? Vin could hardly believe it, but Chris did, and that was enough.

Hahn Reichert watched the different security situations appear on his laptop, and unlike his chief of security, assessed what was happening with a good deal of accuracy.

The ‘coincidental’ problem by the fence right at the furthest point of the pastures—that was Larabee, he was sure of it. Through his earpiece he’d listened to Peters increasingly agitated conversations with the men he’d sent out to meet the car, which had duly proved to have an ATF team with a plausible reason for approaching. Hahn was sure Peters was concentrating his attention in the wrong direction.

On his screen, one of the security staff’s trucks bumped across the grass towards the big barn. There was nothing to prove it, but he was sure he knew who was inside it, and it wasn’t his personnel. He smiled slightly. Larabee was good. He almost felt a sense of pride in him.

But Hahn was better. He was the one who knew not just what was happening but what was going to happen. Interesting Larabee had gone for the barn not the house. Hahn saw in that the measure of the man, because he could imagine Larabee’s desire for revenge. The strength of his commitment to the small, the unwanted, the worthless, was illuminating.

It was time to act.

He looked around the room, saw the faces through a cloud of others that memory interposed. Dead, dying, tortured, humiliated, corpses of the past… but not of the future.

The prickle of unease that Larabee had sparked all those months ago had grown steadily. In the last two days it had become a burning, consuming agony. A blindness had finally been scoured from his eyes and now what he saw was unbearable.

He stood, and all the talking stopped immediately. He picked up his phone to the security room, and told Peters, “Take all the remaining security staff and go immediately to the entrance to the drive. The ATF men will be there shortly, and will be followed by other of their colleagues.”

He made an impatient gesture to Otto, who stood up ready to bluster about his statement. Otto would never realise how much too late it was.

“Gentlemen,” Hahn said. “I regret to tell you that recent events have convinced me that it is time to wind up our operation.”

A second of silence broke into a hubbub of protest, Otto and Karl’s voices rising above the rest. He allowed it to continue a while; Peters needed a few minutes. Then the head of the Paraguay section stormed to the door, to make one of the dramatic exits he favoured—and found it locked. As he tugged at it and others stared, Hahn began to speak again.

“I have one last action I need to take.” He picked up the remote control from the table. He thought they would guess now, but they just stared at him as if he had gone insane.

Perhaps he had.

Or perhaps he’d become sane.

He glanced at his watch. Time enough. “Gentlemen,” he said, as if offering them a toast. “We don’t have glasses, but I think I may truly say I raise this to Chris Larabee.” He held up the remote control…

… and pressed the button.

To Chris, the air felt thick with something about to happen. He jumped from the car as Ezra stopped with a jolt. The swift movement was a mistake in one way—giddiness swept over him and he nearly fell—but saved his life.

Roe proved much quicker on the uptake than his colleagues. He turned, saw instantly it was a stranger leaving the car, drew and fired without a pause. If Chris hadn’t staggered the bullet would have hit him in the chest. As it was, it just grazed his arm. Simultaneous shots from Ezra and Vin took Roe down before Chris had even found his feet properly.

“Chris, your arm!”

Chris ignored him. It stung, and a bit of blood was trickling out, but not enough to worry about. He wanted to get into the barn. He looked to see how the door was locked and found it not only unfastened but ajar. That was wrong…

He pushed it open, and was faced with a sea of nervous faces that reminded him of Sammy’s the first day he’d seen him. Cowed faces, people who’d been ill-treated until they accepted brutality as a normal part of life. He looked around them. There were indoor and outdoor servants; it looked as if every person the estate owned was in here.

There was no sign of explosives and no one seemed to be making them stay, but he still had that feeling of something about to happen and he wasn’t taking a chance with their lives. “Outside, all of you!” he ordered.

He wondered if they’d obey a stranger but they moved immediately on his word and he made them line up at what should be a safe distance from the barn. They’d be visible on any camera, but there was no reaction he could see coming from the house.

“Chris,” Ezra tried again. “At least let me look at your arm.”

“Scratch,” Chris said. “Ruined sweater … sorry.”

“I don’t give a… I’m not concerned about the sweater,” Ezra said.

“How long we planning t’ stand here in th’ open?” Vin asked quietly. He and Ezra had moved close, one on each side.

Before Chris could even try to think about that, an elderly woman came up to him nervously. “I am Maria. The master told me you would come,” she said in heavily accented English. “I must gather everyone in the barn and wait for you, then do what you say.”

Chris, Vin and Ezra all stared at her.

“Do you know who he is?” Vin asked, thinking she’d mistaken Chris for someone else.

“Mr Larabee,” the woman said. “The master showed me a picture before he sent me away.”

Chris lost the feeling that he was back in control. He wondered for a moment if he’d lost his grip on reality altogether, only Vin and Ezra looked equally confused. The old man—he had no doubt what master she meant—knew they would be here? He must have had more reason than that for his actions. Chris was completely at a loss. All he could do was stand there and stare at the woman, who waited patiently.

“I… don’t get this…” Chris said thickly. The burst of energy, the sense of purpose that had brought him so far, was fading fast. Vin slid an arm around him from one side, Ezra stood guard on the other, but they were equally silent, equally at a loss.

Then the world blew up.

The roar and heat and shock and blast of it only brushed them where they were, though the ground seemed to rock and the hot air battered their faces. Chris’s ears rang. He could only gape at the massive destruction. Where the estate house had stood, a huge crater smoked and in the hush after the explosion the only sound was debris still falling. Then Maria began to cry, and someone else to mutter in rapid Spanish, perhaps a prayer.

Chris couldn’t take it in. The destruction he and even the ATF could never have achieved had been carried out for him on a more massive scale than he could have imagined. The rooms where he’d been questioned so brutally, the men who had ordered it, the whole ugly organisation of this place was gone within the space of a minute, and still the smoke rose and stones tumbled, and still nothing made sense.

He sagged against Vin’s arm, he felt Ezra lend his strength on the other side, then the two of them were all that was keeping him from the wet ground. He heard Vin talking in rapid Spanish to Maria; Ezra said quietly, “We’ll take care of things, Chris. Rest a minute.” Their voices were far off, but a reassurance he could let go, leave it to his friends.

His eyes closed, but behind the lids he could still see the glaring brightness of the explosion. He had to know what had happened—why it had happened—but he was just going to catch his breath first.

“We got you,” Vin said firmly. “It’s over, Chris. Nothing left but clear up and explanations.”

An ugly thought jerked Chris briefly back to awareness. “Team?”

“Are safe,” Ezra said. “I have just received a confused but reassuring message from JD.”

That really covered everything that mattered. Chris suddenly realised how exhausted he was. His head rolled against Vin’s shoulder, and he didn’t try to lift it. Ezra said something in a tone that was unusually gentle, but he couldn’t make out the words. It didn’t matter. He could slide into darkness safely.

The explosion was big enough to register on all sorts of monitoring equipment, from satellite to seismic. Orrin’s first report came in from a police helicopter which had seen the flare from a distance and diverted to over fly the scene. After that, they came in thick and fast.

His first horrified thought was that Chris had somehow managed to blow the place up, followed quickly by the even more distressing fear that he’d blown himself and Team 7 up at the same time. Josiah, getting through to him on some security man’s equipment reassured him about that, but couldn’t offer any idea as to how the explosion had happened.

“We managed to talk to Ezra. Cell phones aren’t working too well, though JD’s state-of-the—art one’ll still text. Ezra got through to us on a car phone from a security vehicle near them. They don’t know any more than we do about what caused this, but they’re okay. They’ve all the estate workers—basically slave labour—with them, so they’ve got their hands full. We’re going to have to go a long way around to reach them. There’s too much rubble in the way of a direct route, and more falling all the time.”

“Team 8 are already on their way,” Travis said. “I’ll arrange for Team 3 to come in by helicopter, and I’ll send someone along with them who can deal with these workers. They’re all illegal aliens?”

“I wouldn’t treat them like that,” Josiah said. “Like I said, they’ve been used as slave labour. I think you’ll find they had no say in coming here—probably bought from poor families in South America, or kidnapped.”

“I’ll get someone who’ll handle it sensitively,” Orrin promised. “Do we know anything about who was in the building?”

“At least twenty, and I think we can assume they’re all dead. The man who owned the estate was holding a conference with a lot of his senior people—including the director of Alderways, according to the chief of security here.”

They were both silent a minute, considering the ramifications of this, then Orrin said briskly, “Secure the scene. Detain everyone who’s uninjured until we know more about what happened and about these ‘slaves’. You’ve called ambulances?”

“Yes, but it’s only for minor injuries. Peters, that’s the security chief, says that he and all his men had been sent out to the gatehouse shortly before the explosion. All the servants had been dismissed to a safe place earlier. I don’t think it can have been an accident.”

“Mass suicide?” Travis asked doubtfully. “I’ve been making enquiries about the director of Alderways, and he doesn’t seem the type for it.”

“Maybe they weren’t all in on it,” Josiah suggested. “Anyway, we’ve started questioning those who aren’t too shocked. It’ll go quicker once Team 8 arrive, but I’m starting from the hypothesis that the explosion was triggered by someone in the building.”

Once he’d broken off the call, Orrin communicated the few facts to everyone concerned, making sure Jacobson was first to receive the news about the director of Alderways. It might give him a chance to trip up some of the people being difficult there.

He didn’t communicate to anyone his personal conviction that whatever the direct cause of the explosion, Chris had to be behind it, somehow.

Ezra’s first idea had been to lift Chris into the car, but Maria shyly offered a better alternative. There was a concrete hut, beyond the barn but still well out of the area affected by the explosion.

“It’s for the guards, when they watch the men out here,” she explained. “There is a_” she consulted Vin quickly, “_a camping stove, and I could make some coffee.”

Chris’s hands were icy, and Ezra guessed he was suffering from cold and exhaustion as much as anything. Warmth and coffee might restore him a little. Two big lads who reminded Ezra very much of Sammy helped support Chris over to the hut. They were surprisingly gentle for people who’d never been treated with any kindness themselves. Or perhaps they had been, among their own.

They eased Chris down into the only chair. Maria lit the gas and put water to boil, while Vin and Ezra removed layers of clothing to get a look at Chris’s arm.

“Tellin’ th’ truth fer once,” Vin said relieved. It really wasn’t much more than a scratch.

A thin, long-haired young man, the Indian whom Vin had hoped to be mistaken for—ran to the security vehicle and fetched a basic first aid box. Ezra did a neat temporary repair with Neosporin and a dressing while Vin held Chris in place. The cold air on his bare chest seemed to be getting through to him, and he was stirring.

“One minute and we’re done,” Ezra promised.

He and Vin had Chris back in the—indeed ruined—sweater and a coat and covered by a horse blanket someone brought from another barn by the time Maria was making coffee.

“Fer everyone,” Vin said, gesturing to the people huddling outside, staring at the ruins of the only place most of them had known.

“In what?” Ezra pointed out. There were four mugs in the cupboard, all stained or chipped.

“One fer Chris,” Vin said, sugaring it heavily. “One fer you and me,” sugaring that generously as well in spite of the look on Ezra’s face, “and two to go around.”

Ezra grabbed one of the ‘two to go around’ and downed a scalding, black, mercifully unsugared serving before handing it back to Maria. It was surprising how good even the cheapest instant coffee could taste.

The mugs were passed from hand to hand outside, and Maria boiled more water. From the same cupboard where she’d found the coffee, she took an unopened package of gingerbread cookies which she gave Ezra.

Vin had an arm around Chris, talking to him quietly and coaxing a little of the coffee down him. Ezra saw with relief that although Chris’s eyes were still closed, he was swallowing.

Vin paused. “You with us yet, Chris? Come on, cowboy.” He sounded to Ezra not too far from the end of his own rope.

Perhaps Chris heard that even through the fog of exhaustion. He blinked open his eyes, and helped hold the cup. “No… whisky … this time?”

Vin grinned, hugely relieved. “Nope, but we got cookies.”

Chris slowly finished the coffee and ate a couple of cookies, and began to look as if his condition could be upgraded from terrible to simply bad. Vin squatted next to him. With the Coleman lit, and the number of people coming in to refill the circulating coffee cups the hut was warming up satisfactorily. Ezra had kept the semi-automatic and watched the area. He felt rather like a villainous extra in a B movie, but there were a lot of vulnerable people to protect—and just now he was including Vin and Chris in that.

Everything remained quiet though. He checked in with Josiah, and found that the security team were as shocked as the workers, and were cooperating. Team 8 were close. Team 3 were delayed, but a helicopter would be arriving. The small crowd of people outside the hut were unnaturally quiet, talking in whispers if they wanted to say something. After a while, Maria sent some of them to bring root crops from a store.

“I will make soup,” she told Ezra. Her eyes were reddened and he noticed that as she began preparing the vegetables with a knife from one of the men, she wiped tears hastily away.

Maria looked up, feeling herself watched. She shrugged. “You think I’m stupid old woman to cry for the master?”

“I would never think something so ungallant,” Ezra assured her. “He wasn’t cruel to you?”

“Yes, sometimes. He was a man to be feared. But not a small man, not small in his ideas or his cruelties either.” She paused, trying to explain it to herself perhaps. “I had known him for a long time, and at the end, I was the one he trusted.”

Ezra wondered what she meant.

“He sent us here, to be safe,” Maria said. “He told me to bring everyone, and I didn’t know why, but I saw something in his eyes.”

“Y’ think he done that?” Vin said, gesturing at the wide scene of destruction. He hadn’t left his place at Chris’s side, but the rest and repeated helpings of coffee had Chris more alert now, and they were both listening.

“I think so,” Maria said. “I think his mind was very troubled. He had lived a long life and he had done many evil things.”

“But he didn’t tell you anything except to bring your fellow workers to the barn?” Ezra prompted gently.

“He told me to wait for Mr Larabee, and to give him this.” She took an envelope from the pocket of her skirt. “I waited, because he looked too sick before, but I think he is a little better now.”

Chris silently held out his hand for it—a manila envelope with something bulkier than paper inside.

“Let me open it, away from here,” Ezra said abruptly, fearing one last trick or twist.

Chris smiled slightly and shook his head. He tore the envelope open and nothing more alarming happened than a small framed photo and a couple of sheets of paper dropping out onto Chris’s lap.

The photograph was an old black and white print in a heavy silver frame and Ezra saw it had no connection to their investigation; it was just a snapshot of a blond woman with a toddler in her arms. It looked as if it had been taken many years ago. Chris looked at it for a long time, but whatever he was thinking it didn’t show on his face. Ezra craned his neck to see what was written on the paper; Vin watched Chris; Maria looked at the photo frame as if she recognised it. None of them spoke.

When Chris put the frame down and picked up one of the pieces of paper, it occurred to Ezra he had no idea if Chris could still read. Maybe Chris had no idea either. He frowned at the words, but he seemed to be taking something in. After a long scrutiny, he handed it to Ezra.

“Read it aloud,” Vin said, glancing at Maria, maybe also wondering if Chris had gotten all of it.

It was clearly written, in an old-fashioned formal hand, the strokes of the letters forceful even though the writing was slightly shaky in the way an old man’s writing often was.

“I salute you, Mr Larabee,” Ezra read out, “and I concede you victory. It may surprise you to know that you have been waging this campaign not only for the last few days but also during all the time you were in Alderways. I do not know whether you could have won a physical battle if you had not already defeated me in the far more fundamental one of your beliefs. It may give you some satisfaction to know that harshly as you were tortured, you have inflicted a greater torture on me. What I saw in you has shattered the work and goals of a lifetime. I have made the only choice left to me. I will not become a traitor. I will destroy this work myself, and die as much of a warrior as is left to me. The photograph is of my wife and son, killed in an allied bombing raid. I do not believe things would have been different if they had lived, only that they might have been corrupted by the same lies. As it was, they died innocent. If Maria will take it, and I think she is more forgiving than most, I would like her to have it. I doubt very much whether your government will leave anything of my personal fortune, but if they do, the other paper gives you legal responsibility to use it for the people who have worked on the estate. I am grateful to you. I have inflicted a great deal of pain in my time, but I also know how to bear it, and I prefer the pain of seeing clearly to continuing blinded. I offer you my respect.” He paused. “I can’t read the signature clearly, but no doubt we’ll know his name once the investigation gets under way.”

“Chris?” Vin asked softly.

Chris held out the old photo to Maria, who took it as if it was something precious, and the other sheet of paper to Ezra. He pushed himself up out of the chair, ignored Vin, who moved to help him, and walked stiffly outside. Still in silence, he stood and gazed at the smoking ruin.

Ezra and Vin had followed him, and their attention was on him so completely that it was only at the last minute Ezra registered the rise in voices near them. He turned slightly, and saw that Buck and JD must have somehow made their way around the side of the estate through the woodland, and were coming towards them, JD hurrying a little to keep up with Buck’s long stride.

This was not impeccable timing, Ezra thought uneasily. He looked at Chris and saw him as Buck would—horribly pale, his cheek swollen and still bloody, his body visibly shaking with the cold and lingering exhaustion, the bloodstained rip in his sleeve quite obvious. Even worse, Vin was moving slightly, as if to put a barrier between Chris and the two coming. What he wanted, Ezra knew, was to give Chris a minute to find some closure as he thought about the letter and looked at the wreck of the place where he’d been hurt. It wouldn’t appear like that.

He saw the hot anger rise on Buck’s face.

Chris needed this moment. Vin had ribs in a dubious condition and more to lose in any contention with Buck. Ezra stepped into Buck’s path.

“You stupid selfish pair of_” Buck’s fist finished what his mouth had started, but Ezra had been expecting it and rolled with the blow before returning it. His own temper was not proof against this readiness to assume he hadn’t cared about the state Chris was in. They crashed over together onto the hard ground, JD’s shocked protest ignored, and would have landed a lot more bruising blows if a gunshot hadn’t startled them apart and to their feet.


It wasn’t some threat—well not the sort it might have been. It was Chris who’d fired into the air. When had Chris obtained a gun? He looked at Vin, who shrugged. They’d captured enough armed people over the last night and day to have allowed Chris to help himself to half a dozen firearms. It must have been in the deep pocket of his coat; at any rate that was where he replaced it now.

Ignoring the rest of them, Chris walked slowly up to Buck, put a hand on his chest. “It’s okay,” he said.

Buck stood stock still, then he pulled Chris into a crushing hug.

Ezra rubbed his jaw. He was sure he was going to develop a bruise there, to add to the swollen lip Chris had accidentally given him earlier, while ironically the enemy had failed to cause him the slightest damage. At least JD was only likely to dent his ears with over enthusiastic questions. Answering the first ones the kid poured out, he took him over to the car so he could use the phone and let Josiah know they’d arrived. Vin joined them, giving JD a quick pat on the shoulder in welcome. They took longer over the call than they had to: Buck needed this time with Chris. Ezra found to his surprise that he was not worrying about how Chris would communicate—Chris had made it clear enough that he was still in charge, at least till he dropped.

Ezra and Vin talked to Josiah for a while, went over to the barn and checked on their last prisoner, who some of the labourers had moved there from the car and answered a lot of JD’s questions.

“What did you mean ‘last prisoner’?” JD said as they turned away from the barn.

“Two at th’ ranch, one I got some friends mindin’, one in a Mercedes we took, one in th’ bushes—we ought to get him brought in—and this one. They’ll need questioning along with th’ rest, though I don’t know they’ll be much use. They’ll get more out of the people at Alderways and that Ackerman place. Reckon a lot of them’ll be fallin’ over themselves t’ talk when they hear about this…” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the still smoking ruins.

“You told Josiah you’d got some letter saying the guys here did that themselves? Why? I mean they could just have gotten out in helicopters and gone to wherever—Paraguay, was it?”

“It seems to have been a staggeringly unlikely change of heart in the man in charge,” Ezra said. “Even while being tortured, Chris appears to have impressed his personality upon him.”

JD grinned. “Chris is something, isn’t he? You guys—you have to understand how Buck felt…”

“We do, kid.”

“By the time we were certain of the situation at Alderways, events forced us to act.”

“I guessed that,” JD said. “It was just, the people at Alderways, I mean, even the okay ones, they were saying Chris couldn’t walk or talk, and it sounded like he wouldn’t be him at all, only he is isn’t he? I mean he looks awful, but only like it can be patched up. He will be okay to come back to the team once he’s fit, won’t he?”



If it needed fighting for, they’d give it everything they’d given the search. Starting now, he thought, as the sound of a helicopter overhead heralded the arrival at last of Team 3. Quickly they walked back to join Chris and Buck, who were sharing a bar of chocolate Buck must have had on him. Chris still looked as if he should be lying down, but he straightened with an effort as Sam Brigham approached. Buck had an unobtrusive hand under his elbow; Ezra and Vin drew close on either side. JD saw their faces when they realised McGinty was one of the men approaching and said hastily, “He was really sorry about you getting suspended.”

“Ain’t that we’re thinking about.”

“He needs to have it made clear to him that Chris’s current condition is not a suitable subject for office discussion, and that Team 7 is now complete again.”

“And the best!” JD agreed.

McGinty, though, was subdued under the eye of his team leader, and all the arriving ATF men seemed more inclined to be impressed by the scale of the devastation around Chris than to be noticing his gaunt looks.

“Guess these guys crossed you!” Sam Brigham said to Chris.

That characteristic half smile quirked the corner of Chris’s mouth and he said, “You’re… late.”

The hesitation was barely noticeable, and by the time Sam Brigham had finished defending the team and listing all the other people to blame for their late arrival, a second chopper had arrived and Nathan and Josiah came in by the route Buck had taken.

Josiah engulfed Chris in a bear hug; Nathan was caught between relief at seeing him and horror at the way he looked, but Ezra noted with satisfaction that no one in Team 3 had guessed at the extent of Chris’s lingering problems. While Nathan took Chris into the hut to recheck the dressing on his arm, Ezra took it upon himself to brief Sam Brigham on the broad outline of what they knew, and particularly the need for sensitivity with the workers.

“It’s okay,” Sam said. “Orrin’s sending in an immigration officer who’s dealt with victims of people smuggling before, and also someone from one of the Denver health centers which sees a lot of illegal aliens. They’ll be okay. Leave us to handle this now. I’ll get my pilot to take Larabee and anyone else in need of medical attention back into Denver.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Ezra agreed. Nathan had noticed for himself that Vin was favouring his left side, and Vin’s usual objection to being scanned prodded or poked was muted by his preference for staying with Chris.

“You may still need to speak for him,” Ezra said quietly as they parted. “So far, circumstances have favoured us. I don’t think it should go beyond Team 7 that he still had this impediment with his speech.”

Vin grinned. “That’s okay. Nate got the picture real quick, and he’s already told a couple of people Chris ain’t to speak till that cheek’s been X-rayed.”

“What a commendable improvement in deviousness.”

“Yeah; it’s good to have the team back together again. I’m goin’ t’ fight t’ get us all out t’ th’ ranch by tonight.”

“The most intransigent of medical personnel should be capable of seeing that that is what Chris needs.”

“And if not, it won’t be the first hospital we’ve kidnapped him from this week!”

On that positive note, Ezra strolled back to help Buck and JD harass Team 3, and then to remember the young man Leo, probably developing hypothermia in the abandoned Mercedes. Encouraged by Sam Brigham to get the hell out of his hair, and relieved by the kindly doctor and acceptable agent they found talking to Maria, Team 7 went to retrieve the Mercedes.

“Nice car,” Buck said, as they bumped it back to the road.

“Indeed. And as we have inadequate transport without it, I think that once we have disposed of the baggage in the back, we should suggest we temporarily commandeer it.”

It took a certain gift for persuasion, but Ezra had that in plenty. Mother would have applauded. The Mercedes—for the time being—was his.

“You can take Buck and JD then,” Josiah said quickly. “I’ll go on back to Boulder—got a whole lot to tell them there.”

“Vin’s hoping that Chris will be released to the ranch tonight.”

“I’ll be there. I won’t bring Rosa today, but maybe tomorrow…”

Buck shook his head as Josiah went. “It’s always the ones you wouldn’t suspect. I never thought Josiah could be such a fast mover.”

He blocked JD with his arm from grabbing the front passenger seat in the Mercedes. “Ezra, I…”

“… will be riding shotgun,” Ezra said quickly. “And carrying out any of the menial labour that might be required at the ranch if we are properly to celebrate the restoration of Team 7 and Chris’s homecoming.”

“Damn, but that sounds good!” Buck agreed.

He gave Ezra half a hug—Ezra deftly dodged the rest—and made no more alarming attempts to talk things through. When it came down to it, they all had things they could be apologising to each other for, but why spoil the pleasure of the drive. The Mercedes ate the miles with a smoothness that belied the speedometer. Buck and JD sang, but he could even listen to that with equanimity. Best of all, just as they reached the ranch, Nathan called and said the doctors should be releasing Chris later to rest at home under his supervision.

As Buck immediately voiced it, “Whooooeeeey!”

The day had become another test of Chris’s endurance, a struggle, increasingly fierce, to keep everything together until he could escape the hospital. He’d handled the helicopter and the journey okay; as far as he could he’d kept his mind on things outside himself—Maria and the other ex-slaves; the old man’s letter; Vin bickering with Nathan about whether he really needed X-rays.

That argument had gone on long after they reached the hospital. Chris knew Vin didn’t want to agree to anything that might separate them. If he’d ever considered it, he’d dropped the idea after Chris had nearly lost it going into the ER.

Chris winced from the remembered feeling of humiliating panic. Maybe he’d done too well at keeping his thoughts away from himself and the recent past up till then. Ever since he’d scrambled over Alderways wall with Vin, he’d refused to think of the months there, the white-walled rooms, the drugs, the slow inarticulate struggle back to himself.

It had all rushed back in on him when he smelled that characteristic hospital smell and saw the nurses. He’d gripped Vin’s wrist so convulsively he must have bruised it.

“Ain’t the same,” Vin said softly, understanding what was behind the crushing hold. “I’m with you. Nate here’s only got t’ say the word and th’ rest of th’ team’ll be on their way. Yer out of Alderways and free. Y’ got t’ get used t’ being free again, same as those folk we just left. Y’ got rights, y’ got choices… and y’ got friends.”

Chris had managed to catch hold of the words, and slowly unclamped his fingers though he didn’t completely release Vin until Nathan managed to get them moved to wait in this quiet, almost private area. Nate was fighting for him, and that was another thing to hold onto. Chris had heard him telling the medical staff there was an ongoing investigation, that Chris was a security risk, that Nathan would be able to watch him just as well as a nurse.

News was filtering onto the bulletins about the major explosion and Federal investigation, and some of the security men who’d been arrested were on their way to be treated for minor injuries, so Nathan was able to point out the seriousness of the situation they’d come from. As far as he could follow, Chris thought Nathan was winning all the arguments except the one with Vin. Which meant it was time Chris pulled himself together and made the X-ray an order.

“Go,” he said, backing Nathan’s latest argument.

“They’re bruised is all,” Vin said. “Damn it, I oughta know. How many times have I had cracked ribs? And what’re they goin’ t’ do anyway?”

“I’ll ask them to treat you as a priority,” Nathan said. “They won’t want you with Chris while he’s having that cut stitched, anyway.”

In spite of his determination not to, Chris flinched. Vin’s hand closed warm on his arm. “I’ll stay,” he said.

Chris shook his head. It was another step on the way back, and if he didn’t take it, the next one would be harder. “Go… I’m… okay,” he said, not caring how unconvincing the lie was.

Vin looked at him for a moment, saw he needed to do this, and nodded. “Okay. But y’ don’t have t’ get everythin’ back in a day.”

Chris watched him go and forced aside the desire to call him back. Nathan was still here, and quick enough to interpret if Chris’s speech wouldn’t come. It was fading in and out again now; even his ability to interpret what was being said was slow, but he gritted his teeth and endured.

The worst part was when the cut on his cheekbone was being stitched. The combination of hospital, vulnerability, needles—he either had to lose it spectacularly or let his mind take him somewhere blank and distant. He kept just enough grip on reality to know when it stopped, and even then he was far from everything until Nathan was saying urgently, “Chris—don’t do this, not now. We’re nearly out of here. You only need to hold on for a little longer.”

Chris shuddered and forced himself painfully back to full awareness of his surroundings. His head was pounding, and Nathan’s relief and quiet reassurances were barely enough to help him keep some semblance of normality. He was beginning to think he couldn’t do this any longer at all when Vin came back in, brushing off an orderly.

“Nate, tell him I’m with you.”

“He’s ATF, security detail,” Nathan told the orderly, showing his ID yet again.

“Waste o’ time,” Vin grumbled, sitting down next to Chris and briefly dropping a warm hand over Chris’s cold one. “Nate, Chris needs food and coffee, not to sit here freezing his butt off.”

“Doing… his best,” Chris—well, he couldn’t say he leapt to the medic’s defence, but he stumbled there at least.

“We should be out soon,” Nathan said.

“Y’ called the guys and told them that a couple of hours ago,” Vin said.

“I told them later today,” Nathan said. “And it will be later today.” He sounded as if his own patience was wearing a little thin. Chris thought of something.

“You… called Rain?”

“Yeah, called her at the same time as I did the boys,” Nathan said, his face immediately losing the frown. “She’s doing fine—enjoying the rest. Says to give you her love.” He paused, then added, “Said she felt the baby kick, last night. That’s the first time.”

“Great,” Chris said. “… special.”

“You can feel ’em kick when they’re that small?” Vin asked, surprised.

Nathan’s explanation of the stages of a baby’s development was interrupted by another doctor wanting a prod and poke at Chris and to mutter unenthusiastically about all the things in his blood that shouldn’t be there, or the missing things that should or whatever. Chris didn’t even try to follow it. He just watched Nathan’s face. Still winning, but not getting out of here as fast as he’d hoped, he guessed. How much longer was he going to have to do this? Even with Vin at his side, he could feel himself close to disaster.

Then there was a commotion in the hallway, and a familiar voices rising above the rest. Nathan opened the door and the words became clear, though all Chris had needed was the sound to know rescue was coming.

“… a number of dangerous individuals unaccounted for…” That was Ezra.

“We need to remove the patient to a safe house immediately.” Buck.

“We want to avoid a security situation at the hospital.” JD sounding convincingly solemn and earnest—Ezra would be satisfied with him.

“Please make the medical arrangements as rapidly as possible so no other patients are at risk. We do have the PD at the entrance.” Ezra again. Yeah, this was definitely rescue.

“About… damn time,” Chris said, as they reached his door.

Buck grinned. “We thought we’d come pick you up rather than clear up the ranch. Josiah’s driving there now to do the basics, and he’s bringing food.”

They all squashed into the room, Nathan hurrying out to collect any last minute instructions from the doctors who had been effectively galvanized into releasing Chris more promptly. Chris struggled upright, but didn’t fight it when Buck helped him get his clothes and shoes on. Ezra was giving Vin a hand and, even more usefully, listening to Vin’s grumble about the X-ray and the ribs which he’d been right about all along.

“What about your arm?” Ezra asked quietly. Chris’s flickering grasp of words briefly sharpened. He’d noticed the stiffness, he should have remembered.

Vin looked around hastily for Nathan and huffed a sigh of relief when he saw the medic wasn’t back. “Getting’ the feelin’ back,” he muttered. “What we need is t’ be out of here and gettin’ some food and coffee.”

Chris made a mental note to watch Vin’s use of his arm over the next few hours, but it was hard to disagree. All he wanted, too, was to be out at the ranch with his team to watch his back. He made an effort to cooperate with the last formalities of leaving the hospital, and felt warded against the institutional hallways by Buck at his side and the rest crowded around him. Outside, he could suddenly catch a deeper breath, and even feel a touch of amusement that Ezra had annexed the Mercedes.

“We went past headquarters and picked up your car, too,” JD told Nathan. “Ezra picked your desk lock so we could get your spare keys.”

“Thanks… I think,” Nathan said.

“We thought you’d want to see Rain.”

“I do. But Chris…”

“Has survived the last couple of days in more adverse circumstances,” Ezra said.

Nathan hovered, so torn that Chris was absurdly touched.

“Go see your wife,” Chris ordered, summoning up the last dregs of authority from somewhere. His voice was clear and sharp enough to tilt the balance. Nathan went, completely unaware that he was almost bouncing to his car like JD. Chris and Buck shared a silent look that said a lot more than they’d ever put into words about love and loss and hope, and the last few months seemed meaningless, almost ephemeral compared to all they’d shared.

Unfortunately, Chris’s body wasn’t getting into the spirit of this. The aches and pains, the weakness and frustrating lack of speech all refused to be anything but solid and real. He sank into the back of Ezra’s Mercedes with a grunt, and Buck and Vin got in on either side. Something about the way they flanked him made Chris think they’d not settled their differences but he was too tired to care so long as they didn’t fight it out in the confines of the car. JD was talking enough for seven, and Ezra was practically purring like the engine as the car glided out of the parking lot. Chris listened vaguely, not caring if JD made as little sense as the sounds of the road, and fell into a sleep so deep that he didn’t even register arriving at the ranch—in fact the first he knew about being there was stirring comfortably on a soft bed and hearing JD, intelligible to his ears now, saying, “But he’s been asleep for ages. Don’t you think we ought to wake him up to check up on him or something.”

“He ain’t concussed.”

“Could be something’s out of balance…” That was Buck, sounding a bit out of balance himself. Maybe he should wake up.

“Nathan will be here in an hour or so.” A comfortable rumble from Josiah.

“I have never understood the propensity of this team to insist on waking people from well deserved slumber.”

They were all out there! Chris sighed. “I’m awake,” he yelled—at least that was the intention. It came out more of a rusty creak.

“Y’ woke ‘im up,” Vin said, simultaneously with Buck and Ezra. Whether they were all blaming JD or each other Chris didn’t know. He glared at them impartially as they came in, softening it only for Josiah, who appeared a minute later, having evidently had the sense to go along to the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee.

“You’re looking better,” Buck said. Chris didn’t know if that was because he looked less tired, pale or whatever, or just that Buck found the glare reassuring.

“Time?” he asked, after a mouthful of coffee had cleared his throat.

“It’s half past nine,” JD said. “Nathan said to let you sleep.”

Half past nine wasn’t so bad, surely, it must have been late afternoon before they left the hospital. Vin caught his eye and jerked his head at the window. Thin, cold sunlight… Shit. Half past nine in the morning. No wonder he felt empty…

“Out, all of you,” he said. “And the bathroom better be free.”

Vin and Ezra both moved slightly, a glance at each other, relieved surprise. Chris realised both sentences had come out almost unforced. The others wouldn’t realise how big an improvement that was, thank goodness. He drained the coffee. Not one of them had left.

He didn’t try for polysyllables, but it wasn’t too hard to manage a few more words. “I want to shower and eat before Nate’s here.”

He distinctly heard footsteps outside the bathroom door before he got into the shower—Buck’s he thought, though Vin and Ezra might also be there, just sneakier. He took a lot of care not to drop the soap or shampoo—he really didn’t want his bathroom door shouldering off its hinges by anyone in a moment of overprotective paranoia.

And the fact his mind could even shape a couple of words like that showed how far he’d come, or that he’d been spending too much time in Ezra’s company.

The long, hot, peaceful shower seemed to wash away more than grime. He ached a bit, his face smarted in the heat, he could tell he was thinner and had lost some muscle, but he felt more like himself than he had since he first surfaced to Alderways white walls. He remembered the feeling of looking at his hands and seeing the hands of a stranger. Even now it had the power to speed up his breathing and heart rate.

But it was over. Over more finally than he could ever have hoped for, thanks to the old man’s final, violent action. They’d damaged him, but they’d not broken him, not beyond mending.

He looked at the scar on his thumb, and remembered when he and some other kids had run their go-kart into a neighbours fence, demolishing both and running away limping and bloody before he could recognise them and call their parents. Trivial, but recalling it was part of taking back what he’d lost.

He’d found clean jeans and shirts, everything as he kept it even after all these months. His team had refused to move on; he saw signs of it all around the ranch. He dressed, combed his damp hair, and the familiar movement made him aware of another loss he hadn’t even thought of until now.

The bastards had taken his wedding ring.

The realisation would have sent a wave of shattering fury over him even a day earlier, but now he could accept, even control the pain and the anger. He stood there, fists clenched, fighting not to allow them even this small victory. The ring had been precious, but it was only a symbol. Back here at the ranch everything spoke to him of Sarah—her smile, the scent of her hair, her voice calling Adam in from the yard. They hadn’t been able to take from him the things which mattered most.

He waited until he was sure his face wouldn’t show anything of this before he left the bathroom. As he opened the door, he glimpsed Buck just disappearing around the corner of the hallway, warned not quite in time by the sound of the lock turning. He could hear JD there, too, asking in a misjudged whisper, “Is he okay?” Josiah, thankfully, seemed to have focused his concern more usefully, by cooking a large breakfast. Vin and Ezra came in from outside as Chris sat down to it, so they evidently hadn’t been part of the hallway surveillance team, but there was something just a little too casual and unconcerned in their manner.

The yard should be hard and dry after the cold weather, except under the bathroom window, where Chris had been planning to fix the leaky hose bib for years. He leaned over and looked pointedly at the traces of mud on their shoes. Ezra’s air of innocence notched up a level, to practically cherubic. Vin met Chris’s eyes with just a trace of defiance—’got a right t’ worry’ that look said.

Well, that went both ways. “Get Nate to look at your arm when he comes,” Chris said, still hitting almost normal speed when he spoke.

“Arm’s fine!” Vin said quickly, but too late.

“I thought you were having trouble lifting that tack,” Josiah said, looking at him.

“Is that what the Tylenol was for?” JD asked.

“Nate’s here all day; plenty of time to see him,” Buck said, but still with that trace of stiffness. Now that their first enthusiasm at seeing him had settled, Chris could see things remained not quite right with his team.

Ezra hastily brought Chris more coffee and encouraged Josiah to serve. It was lucky Chris was hungry; he felt like some new creature in a zoo, with all the keepers waiting to see if it would eat.

“Update me,” he said. If they were all going to sit there, they might as well be doing something useful.

Buck and Josiah had both spoken to Orrin Travis; JD had gleaned a few additional facts from email traffic he probably shouldn’t have been reading; Vin and Ezra were silent. Chris had half forgotten that he’d pried the information from them that they’d been suspended. Sorting that one out would have to wait, but he had every intention of making clear to Orrin that he probably wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for their actions.

He listened carefully to Buck and Josiah, following their words more easily than he’d hoped, and he began to realise what Hahn Reichert had intended to achieve. It wasn’t going to be hard to prove criminal activity had been taking place—but it was going to be very difficult indeed to link it to some international fascist grouping. Reichert had destroyed his own operation, but at the same time had made sure he didn’t betray any other one.

“He had them all there when he detonated the bomb,” Josiah said. “The director of Alderways, the CEO at Ackerman and the only other board members who really knew what was going on, other men we haven’t identified yet, but who presumably were overseas contacts. And there’s very little for forensics there—we’re relying mainly on the security guards’ account of who was in the room. One of the house servants says that all the files, paper records, documents whatever were in the basement directly under Reichert’s rooms—and it looks as if that’s where the explosion was set, so I think we can write those off.”

“Computers?” Chris asked.

“For a guy in his nineties, he seems to have been unusually aware of modern technology. It’s early days yet for our techs, but Orrin says the first informal assessment from their examination of the Ackerman ones is that they’ll be able to convict people on currency charges, import and export violations—but no leads to international fascist groups. The legal paperwork for Alderways has only just come through, but I imagine there’ll be similar results. We’ll probably get more from the people arrested—the Ackerman security men are all looking to bargain.”

“But they don’t know a lot,” Buck said. “Kidnapping, intimidation, sure, but not the big picture.”

“One of the techs at the house thinks Reichert was actually watching you on the security feed before he detonated the explosives,” JD said.

“Chris doesn’t need to know that,” Buck muttered, glancing at him.

“It’s okay,” Chris said, though the thought had briefly made him freeze. He remembered Reichert only through a haze of pain and defiance, mainly the cold intelligent eyes in the withered face, watching him with completely ruthless detachment. But Reichert and his works were gone, and Chris was taking his life back.

“We made sure Maria and the other workers were okay,” Buck went on quickly. “They’re being well looked after, treated like they’re victims as much as anyone else. They’ll get care and counselling. They should be free to stay if they want, or to go back if they’ve any homes to go back to. Some of them were born here, like Sammy.”

JD jumped up to look out of the window. “Nathan’s here. I thought I heard the car.”

Chris noticed that at some point in the last couple of minutes Vin had silently disappeared. He caught Ezra’s eye, saw Ezra realise at the same moment. As Nathan came in, Ezra slipped out. He’d bring Vin back if Vin was anywhere to be found.

Nathan looked Chris, and his empty plate, over with approval. “You look better. How are you feeling?”


“He slept for sixteen hours!” JD must have been counting.

“Best thing for him,” Nathan said. “Surprised you all managed to leave him in peace that long. Okay, Chris, I’d better take some blood and check your knee and so on.”

They went along to the den for some privacy, and for the first time Chris saw the huge pile of files pushed over to one side of the room. It took him a moment to realise it was all paperwork connected with the search for him.

“I must remember Travis wants those back,” Nathan said. “Vin and Ezra absconded with them when he suspended them.”

“Lucky they did.”

“I know. Josiah and I have been pointing that out to Orrin. A major point in their favour is that Rosa says if they hadn’t arrived when they did, Fischer—who we think now must really have been Otto Reichert, the old man’s son—might have had you moved, or had her replaced. He was coming that day.”

Chris had understood that in some distant way; now that the fog in his mind had lifted so much it was hard to remember the confused impressions he’d struggled with.

“I wouldn’t… have handled seeing him,” he said honestly, remembering the uncontrollable anger that had welled up in him when anything brought back a memory of the torture. “I’d have given away the… improvement. Bad for Rosa, bad for me.” He shook off the memories. “I’ll talk to Travis. Soon. Better think out the words first.”

“You’re talking a lot better already,” Nathan said. “I was wondering about speech therapy—Rain’s done some before—but at this rate by the time you’re healed you’ll hardly need it.”

“Like to see Rain anyway,” Chris said. “And Rosa.”

“Not today, but maybe tomorrow if you feel up to it. Apart from anything else, Rain’s got a check up and Rosa promised to take her son to the Zoo since that’s open all year.”


“Thought we should have a day for the team to be together. And I agree. It hasn’t been been an easy six months.”

Chris cooperated with unusual grace with every test Nathan wanted to do to keep him on this subject. Like the pile of files, like Vin and Ezra’s reluctant confession to suspension, like Buck’s explosive greeting of Ezra the day before, Nathan’s edited account told him a lot about how his absence had hit the team. He’d felt so damned alone in Alderways, and all the time there had been six of the best friends anyone could ask for refusing to give up on him, whatever it cost them. It was time for the team to start healing too.

Vin wasn’t really dodging Nathan; not because of his arm, anyway. It was just he hated the feeling of all being back together again and yet… not together. He’d felt it in the hospital the day before. When Nathan had every reason to lose his temper, he’d been too patient; when Buck arrived, there’d been that bit of extra tension. Okay, maybe it was little things, but Vin was used to letting those point him in the right direction. Nate had been… wary? Maybe that was too strong. Not like he blamed Vin, more like he felt something was a bit broken between them and hadn’t mended yet. JD was just too eager to be friendly and enthusiastic, wanting to show he wasn’t hurt or uncomfortable about having been shut out. And Buck… He’d made some kind of peace with Ezra; perhaps Vin ought to invite him to throw a punch. The only one Vin felt right with was Josiah, and that was surprising when he thought about it, because it was Josiah whose anger had reverberated down the phone the day they brought Chris out of Alderways.

Vin walked up to the hut where they’d briefly camped out. It gave him some space from them all and time to think, and anyway, the stuff needed to be brought back. He rolled up the sleeping bags and tied them with the twine he’d brought. They were damp, and the hut was freezing. Not much of a place to have brought Chris when he was sick…

A noise behind him on the trail made him look outside. Ezra strolled up to join him, and began to help pick up the scattered blankets.

“Chris continues to recover apace,” Ezra said tentatively after—for him—a lengthy silence.

Vin nodded.

“His fluency this morning was clearly improved.”

Vin slung a bundle over his good shoulder and acknowledged the remark with a slight tilt of his head.

“Have I ever mentioned how much I hate—loathe—detest these one-sided conversations?”


“We did the right thing.”

That got right under Vin’s guard. “Can’t know that,” he said.

“The evidence seems to me incontrovertible. The bad guys have been obliterated, none of us have suffered more than minor injuries, justice is being done at Alderways and Chris has made quite an extraordinary recovery from the condition he was in when he escaped from there. At first I thought…”

But Ezra uncharacteristically stopped mid sentence. Vin knew what he’d been going to say. “Thought so too when I saw him there. But we were wrong. He was still Chris. Just needed a bit of space to remember it.”

“Which we gave him,” Ezra said, recovering his thread and the argument. “It was the right choice. And insofar as Chris could indicate it to us, it was his choice too.”

“Ain’t that I’d do different,” Vin said. “But maybe we could’ve handled it better. Reckon it’s going t’ be a while before Team 7s back to being what it was before.”

“Team 7 was on the verge of being disbanded, with us suspended and the others scattered to different units. The damage was done when Chris was taken, not when we rescued him. We all handled it the best way we could, including in the last week. We have different strengths and weaknesses; it’s why we’re a good team.”

“You’ve been talking to Josiah.”

“I’m quite capable of formulating those ideas myself.” Ezra met his look and shrugged. “However, coincidentally, Josiah did express some similar thoughts to me yesterday evening.”

“How come Josiah’s managed t’ ferget how pissed off with us he was?”

“This he did not confide—although JD told me he was impressively enraged at Alderways, to the extent of hurling a desk across their reception area.”

“Got some of it out of his system, maybe, but that don’t explain why we’re back like we always were with him, no rough edges, no pretending.”

Ezra lifted an unusually large share of what had to be carried and turned to leave. “I suggest you ask him, not me,” he said. “Though I make no promise his answer will be comprehensible. Now I recommend we return before anyone else comes to look for us.”

Vin nodded, picked up a rucksack with his left arm and tried not to wince. A glance showed him it was too much to hope Ezra hadn’t noticed.

“I am refraining from comment,” Ezra said.

“Y’ain’t—that was a comment.”

“I am refraining from the much more forceful and provocative comment I’m strongly tempted to make. I will say, however, I believe it would be in the interests of the team for you to show Nathan the no doubt spectacular bruising you have on that side, and if he recommends any medication…”

“Suck it up?”

Ezra grinned. “Exactly. For once you’ve found the precise expression.”

He said little more as they went down the trail, but before they came out at the ranch he said seriously, ” Nathan feels guilty. He thinks he should have been less preoccupied with Rain and the baby, and then we might not have been suspended, or he might have been in a better position to help Chris.”

“He did everything he could,” Vin said. “Wouldn’t have wanted him to take the time from Rain, and the baby’s got a right t’ be centre of its daddy’s world.”

“He still feels guilty.”

“You think? Or Josiah does?”

“We agree,” Ezra said, having the last word as he went to get rid of his load.

Vin spread the sleeping bags over the back of the kitchen chairs. He’d seen Buck and JD were out with the horses, and he couldn’t help a twinge of relief at that. Josiah was in the study on the telephone, maybe talking to Travis. Something official, anyway. Vin found Chris and Nathan in the den, Nathan closing up his bag.

“We’re done,” he told Vin. “How are you feeling?”

“Ribs sore, arm’s stiff,” Vin said. He knew Nathan wouldn’t need more than that to pick up on. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes Nathan was gently examining the livid bruising that covered most of his left arm.

“You did this at the same time as the ribs?”

“Yeah. Took down a guy who was tougher than he looked. It was mostly numb till last night.”

He let Nathan finish and even swallowed the painkillers he was offered. He wasn’t sure from Nathan’s face that Ezra was right about this course of action though.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s just not normal—you and Chris so damn cooperative,” Nathan said. “Either you’re both feeling a lot worse than it seems like or…”

“I… needed it, he’s got orders,” Chris said, while Vin was still thinking of the things he was going to say to Ezra.

Nathan looked at Chris, uncertain but open.

Chris took a moment to marshal the words, then he said, “Those months… I had a lot of doctors, most of ’em not good. Need to get over it. You’re healing… more than the… physical stuff.”

Nathan swallowed and looked down hastily. “Hell, Chris, I’m not doing much.”

“You are.” There was the old strong certainty in Chris’s voice that Vin had heard coming back over the last couple of days. “You’re… a healer Nate. I’m going to need that a while.”

His speech was a little rough, uneven in its pauses, but Vin saw it lift the burden from Nathan’s shoulders, and Nathan’s embarrassed smile had none of the unease that had grated on Vin before.

Maybe he should stop struggling with what he couldn’t change, and leave the team to Chris.

It didn’t seem possible to Chris that he could still be tired after all the hours’ sleep he’d had, but by the time he’d eaten some lunch he was ready to agree to Nathan’s suggestion to lie down for an hour or two. He stretched out on the bed and although the room was so light it was only moments before he was asleep.

He dreamed of Alderways, half woke, lost the white walls of Alderways and found himself in some place with no light at all, where the darkness pressed towards him thick as slime, sticky like blood. With part of his mind he knew he was dreaming, but he was still filled with horror at the vileness of the place. The darkness swirled as if it burned blackly, full of pain and ugliness and everything inhuman. Chris thought it would suffocate him if he couldn’t wake up, but as he tried to wrench free of the dream he saw a man in the blackness. If the angry, tortured shadow was a man.

The darkness coalesced near the shadow, which screamed in violent rejection of it. With the odd certainty of dreams, Chris knew what he was here to do. “Take it, soldier,” he ordered. “Take the weight of what you’ve done.”

“No!” A howl of fury and despair.

“You’re no coward. Take it!”

There was a moment so long that it seemed to Chris they were outside time as he stood lending his will to the shadow’s choice. Then the man, flayed by the burning darkness, braced himself and bowed his head. The darkness massed, weighing him down, bringing him to his knees and then crushing him further, down through what seemed limitless darkness. Chris dropped beside him.

There, in the depths, he saw that the darkness which had seemed total, was broken. A thread of light, thinner than the finest wire, cut through its foulness, and the darkness shrivelled back from the minute glow.

But the shadow, a bent, crawling figure under his huge burden, struggled towards the light inch by painful inch. The black fire beat him back; it seemed to shear substance from what form he had.

“Don’t give up now!” Chris urged him. “You can make it! Listen to me, soldier. You can do this!”

With a final, lunging effort the man flung a shadowy hand forward and grasped the light, a thin shred of hope in a place where hope didn’t come. As soon as his fingers closed on it, the flailing fire withdrew a little. Chris knew something huge had happened, even though it was only the beginning of a long and painful journey. He tried to focus more clearly on the shadowy form, but instead he was flung back from the darkness to wake on his bed, shivering and sweating and eager to shake off this dream as soon as possible.

He stumbled to his feet and headed for the kitchen without bothering with shoes. Josiah was in there on his own. He took in Chris’s rumpled appearance and said, “I just made coffee.”

“Good.” Chris took it gratefully, scalded his mouth a little gulping at it.

“You okay?” Josiah asked.

“Yeah. Weird dream.”

The memory of it was fading now. Josiah didn’t ask any more questions, just went on chopping vegetables for what looked like a casserole, but his company helped Chris shake off the lingering sense of darkness. Along in the den he heard the TV on, and Vin and JD arguing the finer points of some game.

“Nate, Ezra, Buck?” he asked.

“Nate decided it wouldn’t spoil a team day if he took a couple of hours to go with rain to her check up—I told him that this morning, but you seem to have convinced him.”

“No reason… to feel guilty,” Chris said. He still hadn’t quite come to grips with the tensions in his team, and it irritated the hell out of him not having the fluency to ask the right questions. He’d seen the discomfort in Nathan, though, and this confirmed it had lifted a little. Chris looked at Josiah thoughtfully. The big man was his best chance for answers. “You know Buck… punched Ezra out? Him and Vin in the car… like they were going to fight a damn custody battle! JD, he’s trying too hard. You… give me a run down on the worst of it. You’re okay?”

Josiah was; Chris could feel it. There was a reassuring calm and strength there that right now Chris was glad to lean on. What he really wanted to know was why.

Josiah nodded, answering that first. “I wasn’t, but then I guess the Lord reminded me if the whole body was just an eye, how could it hear. And once I’d taken that on board the lesson was sweetened by the company of a lovely woman!”

Chris should have remembered that while he might get answers from Josiah that didn’t mean he’d understand them! And although the idea of Josiah and Rosa was distracting, he had the team to think of first.

“Buck, Vin, Ezra?” he said, hoping to get something clearer.

Josiah walked over, closed the kitchen door and gave him a short but detailed account of the months he’d been away. What Chris had pried out of Vin and Ezra had only been a tiny fraction of it, he realised. And damn, but he could see it all so clearly. He knew his team.

“Think what really finished Buck off though was them going it alone after they’d found you,” Josiah said, getting to the end of the depressing tale.

“My choice,” Chris said. There had been more to it than that, but when it came down to it he’d been the one to make the final decision. “I’ll… make it right.”

“He feels guilty too,” Josiah said. “We all did. They’d been out of control on this a long time but it seemed we’d stopped listening just when you needed us.”

“Crap. You… did right, they did right. No one… to blame except Reichert’s people. If you’d all done what Vin and Ezra did… there’d be no team now, right?”

“If they’d done what we did, you wouldn’t be here now.”

“Yeah. That’s why… we’re a team.”

“You’re preaching to the converted, brother,” Josiah said. “Go tell the rest.”

Priorities, Chris thought—or maybe he should think of it as triage; it certainly seemed like everyone had been hurting. Josiah was okay now though. Nate was getting there. JD’s problem was wanting to see his team back in tandem rather than his own feelings. Vin and Ezra had each other; he’d come back to them later. He found his boots and went out into the cold yard to look for Buck.

Buck was leaning on the rail of the corral. He managed a smile when Chris came and leaned beside him, but his heart wasn’t in it. They stood in silence a while, then Chris said, “Take a walk… with me.”

It came out a bit more like an order than he’d intended, but Buck nodded and straightened up. “Not too cold for you?”

“I like it,” Chris said. He’d never minded the weather; he liked to be out of doors, and at the moment, with months of being shut away behind him, being able to walk where he wanted was a pleasure in itself. Though where he wanted to go would bring as much pain as pleasure. He needed, now he was thinking clearly, to trek back up to the play cabin. His memories had been too confused when he was first there, and then the pace of things had been hectic. He just wanted to stand there a while and remember Adam, and he couldn’t think of anyone better to do it with.

He guessed Buck would understand that without words, and he was right. When Buck realised where they were going, he glanced over and probably recognised the expression on Chris’s face, except it didn’t have anger in with the pain. Quietly, testing the ground, Buck said, “Haven’t been up here in years.”

“Me neither,” Chris said. With an effort that was only partly to do with finding the words, he added, “I… forgot them. In Alderways. Didn’t really remember till I was back here.”

“Ah, heck, Chris…” Buck’s voice cracked. He reached out a hand, and Chris didn’t shrug it off.

They came out into the clearing and looked at the little cabin. Something came back to Chris that he’d guessed he hadn’t let himself remember even before Reichert’s machine did its stuff. “Cowboys… and Indians,” he said slowly.

Buck smiled, with the same mix of remembered happiness and present loss that Chris felt. “Me and him, we always had to be the Indians,” he said. “Damn, I remember the way you hunted us through these woods.”

“I… remember when you thought… it’d be a good idea to tie Sarah to a tree!”

It was the first time he’d really heard Buck laugh since he’d been back. “She gave us hell!” Buck said. “Adam, he’d seen some picture of it in a story, he was dead set on doing it—said she’d think it was fun. Once we’d got her tied up I was scared to let her loose!”

Chris could still see her that day, flushed and half-furious, half-laughing.

“Oh, God, I miss them,” he said. “But forgetting them, that was worse.”

They stood in silence a while, and Chris realised that in spite of the grief and the loss he’d found his way to a place where he could also feel a little of the happiness they’d had. Maybe it was one small gem to come from what had been done to him—a sense of how precious those memories really were. He didn’t realise he was standing there shivering until Buck said, “Nate’s going to kill us if you get hypothermia. Here—put my jacket on top of yours.”

The sun was low and it was time to go back. Chris accepted the warm weight around his shoulders and turned to the top of the track. “You know, something she always said… about you,” he told Buck. “You warmed life up. Fun when it was dull. Kind when it was hard. Me, Vin, Ezra—we find it easy… to walk in the dark. Wouldn’t want you to be any… any way but you are.”

His teeth were chattering a bit now, and the words weren’t coming too easily, but he saw Buck understood.

“My choice… after I got out,” Chris went on. “Wasn’t fair… to you and th’ others. But that’s the way I am.”

“We’ve been friends a heck of a long time, whatever way we both are,” Buck said.

“Yeah, good friends.”

“We didn’t give up on you, Chris, none of us. But it damn well felt like it when Vin and Ezra found you and we were nowhere.”

“You never gave… up on me before or now,” Chris said. “I know it… if you don’t. We good?”

He hoped so, because he was about talked out for now.

“Us? Hell, we’re better than good!” Buck said, and Chris thought how right Sarah had been. He’d never met anyone with a warmer heart than Buck.

They made it back inside just before Nathan pulled up, and a few minutes in the kitchen was enough to stop Chris shivering. Rain’s check-up had gone well, and she was glad to be back in her own home. “But she’s real excited about seeing you again tomorrow,” Nathan said. “And looking forward to meeting Rosa and the rest—if you’re sure you’re up to it.”

“Yep.” Chris said. He was tired—again—and not planning to waste words, but he wanted tomorrow’s visitors. He was fond of Rain and very glad he hadn’t missed this baby, and he was eager to have the chance to thank Rosa. The more he recovered the more he understood how much she’d done for him. He felt as if he’d be seeing an old friend and yet meeting her for the first time, so much had changed in the days since he escaped from Alderways. He’d never really had a conversation with her… And he still hadn’t gotten his head around the idea of her with Josiah—he wanted to see that for himself.

“They’re not all coming are they?” Buck asked. He turned to Chris to explain. “Rosa’s mother’s a bit of a tartar. Thought she was going to whack JD with one of his own sneakers at one point.”

“No, Rosa thought it’d be a bit much for Chris,” Josiah said. “And I think she wouldn’t mind a few hours away from her mother! Mrs Dubose and Mrs Jackson are going to enjoy themselves at an over-sixties rave up at the Baptists. I’ll be getting Lyndon and Sammy along with Rosa, but they’ll be no trouble; they’ll enjoy the ranch.”

One of the best parts of the long wait in the hospital the previous day—one of the few bearable parts—had been listening to Nathan’s account of how Sammy had found a home. To Chris he was a half-remembered victim, someone who had needed protection but he’d never had time to find out more than that about him. He was looking forward to getting to know the real person Sammy was.

Josiah opened the oven door to look at the casserole and hot rolls, then looked out into the hallway. “Dinner in five minutes!”

JD and Vin were there in one, Ezra in precisely five. Chris saw JD glance at Buck and the kid seemed to grow a couple of inches and gain some bounce when he saw the easy grin on Buck’s face. Vin? Well, Vin was harder to read, but Chris thought he lost some shadow of tension, and dinner was a more relaxed and noisy meal than lunch had been. Chris dipped some crust in the last of the gravy on his plate and was wondering how he could possibly feel sleepy already when a brief pause in the conversation let them all hear a car door shutting outside.

“Late for visitors,” Nathan said.

“It’s Orrin Travis,” JD called from the window.

Both Vin and Ezra shifted back from the table. Chris lifted a hand to stop them going any further.

“Don’t worry,” Buck said. “We’ve got your backs.”

Nathan and Josiah had already moved near the door, ready to head Travis off. Chris grinned. This was what his team needed—some threat to unite against. Orrin didn’t know he’d just volunteered, but his arrival came in very handy.

“I’m not here officially,” Orrin said hastily taking in the wary atmosphere in the room. “Just had to see Chris for myself. I’ve heard so many damn rumours I’d rather trust my own eyes. You look good to me, Chris!”

“He’s doing well,” Nathan said.

“He’s certainly added to the urban legends there already are about him. Even Sam Brigham was impressed by the scale of the destruction. And talking of destruction, it’s economic and legal annihilation for Alderways, not explosives, but it’s going to be just as final. They’ll go down on a whole heap of charges, not just what they did to Chris.”

He accepted the cup of coffee Josiah offered him and passed on messages from Evie and Mary. “Oh, and I’ve a picture from Billy. Wait a minute, yes, here. I think he must have seen the news when Mary was watching.”

Billy’s picture suggested that in spite of his mother’s ban on them, he was well acquainted with the world of comic books. A rather well drawn explosion had BANG in huge letters across a tumbling building that resembled Dracula’s castle. At the edge of the picture Chris was drawn holding a gun the size of his body, and saying, “Take that, suckers.” The other six were along the bottom, relegated to a back-up role, but Billy had carefully edged the whole thing with 7s.

Chris tacked it up on the fridge, and used the time to get his words ready. “Nice team picture,” he commented to Orrin. “Hope you got the idea.”

He knew this was hitting below the belt. Orrin hadn’t really had much choice in what he did. Chris wanted his team back together again though, and looking around the kitchen he saw the same determination in all their faces.

“If I didn’t, I’ve got it now,” Orrin said rather wryly. “I see all the female sympathy being lavished on you in my house is unnecessary, Chris. I’ve had several earnest doctors from Alderways—some of the few honest ones—telling me it would be months before you were fully recovered, if ever.”

“Fortunately, Chris’s deception of the medical authorities was made much easier by the collusion of his nurse,” Ezra said, deftly suggesting Chris had never been the complete wreck the doctors must have seen. “She will be in this area for a few more days. I suggest some sort of demonstration of the department’s gratitude might be appropriate.”

“He won’t be back at work for a while.” Nathan sounded a note of warning. “Got some minor injuries that need to heal and some weight to get back, to say nothing of building up fitness.”

“I’ll be ready when Vin and Ezra are off suspension,” Chris said. It had taken him a major effort to get that sentence ready to say clearly and at something like normal speed, and he wasn’t going to struggle even more to make it polite and subordinate.

Orrin met his eyes, and since there wasn’t any problem at all with Chris’s strength of will the message got across.

“It’s a good thing I’m so pleased to see you again,” Orrin said. “I’m reviewing their suspensions, and I’ll leave you to deal with any outstanding disciplinary matters—like taking Mike Senger’s ID from my desk and impersonating him!”

That was another of those things Vin and Ezra had forgotten to mention, but Chris managed not to blink. “Leave it … to me,” he said. In spite of himself, a slight hesitation was creeping in to his speech. He didn’t think Orrin had noticed it, but his team did, and all hastily broke into the conversation.

“Chris shouldn’t be talking so much till his face is healed,” Nathan said.

“Let me get you something to eat,” Josiah offered. “I’ve a few things I didn’t have time to tell you on the phone.”

“Maybe Billy’d like this,” Buck said. “Piece of carved stone from the house that was thrown quarter of a mile—I saw McGinty pick it up and took it off him, and just remembered it was in my pocket.”

“Vin and I have more information about Alderways to give to the investigation,” Ezra told Travis. “So far, we haven’t had the chance to liaise with anyone.”

“And I’ve some encrypted files I managed to mail myself from one of their computers,” JD said. “I forwarded them to the investigation, but I wanted to know if I could work on them myself as well.”

Orrin looked slightly overwhelmed. “You know, I just came out here to wish Chris all the best and say how pleased we were to have him back. I’d about given up hope myself, Chris. I won’t say I’m sorry about that, because we’d tried every line of investigation and taken them to the end and beyond, but I’m damn glad we were wrong.”

“Thanks,” Chris said.

After that, it was easier. Orrin was distracted by dessert and kept in conversation by Ezra and Josiah. Chris only had to eat and manage an occasional monosyllable. He leaned back in his chair and saw that the undercurrents of unease in the team were fast disappearing. Chris knew there were still a few obstacles to get around. He might take Rain up on the speech therapy, though he wasn’t known for saying much in meetings anyway. But there was the prospect, tacitly agreed by Orrin, that he would be back in charge and his team all together again in the foreseeable future, and that was enough for tonight.

They saw Orrin off, promising to sneak the lump of stone past Mary, who was unlikely to approve, and that left Chris with only one thing on his list before he headed for his bed. It was easier than he had thought it might be to get Vin and Ezra on their own. While the kitchen was being cleared and the others were arguing about what movie to watch, the two of them went to put away the aired sleeping bags and other camping gear.

Chris slipped out after them and helped stow the stuff. He had a whole lot of things he wanted to say to them—that he was going to do his damndest to get their careers back on track again; that he was just beginning to understand how desperately they’d gone on searching for him; that they’d probably saved his sanity over the last few days and had made it possible for him to gain back so much of what he’d lost. His mind was full of it all—and his words just wouldn’t come.

Instead, all he could do was wave a vague hand at the camping equipment, which maybe summed up a little of what they’d given him those nights when he was just out of Alderways, and say, “Thanks!”

Vin and Ezra looked at him and he saw that they understood, that the unspoken words didn’t need to be spoken. Vin and Ezra knew what they’d done, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

And neither of them could find the words to say so either.

In spite of the fact that he’d wanted—very seriously—to express just a little of what he owed them, Chris couldn’t help finding the humour in this. He caught the same amusement on Vin’s face, and the glint of it in Ezra’s eyes.

Who needed words anyway?

The three of them turned together, and he slung an arm around Vin on his left, Ezra on his right as they headed for the den. Josiah was dozing in the largest chair there, in spite of the fact Buck and JD were already louder than the TV; Nathan was standing holding the remote—had just rescued it by the look of things. Buck glanced towards them, grinned and heaved JD onto the floor to make more room on the couch, which Chris and Ezra promptly captured. JD fought Vin for the better cushion and lost, but without opening his eyes Josiah threw him one from the chair. On the screen, the first car chase had just started. It was warm and noisy and chaotic and made the white emptiness of Alderways seem to belong to another lifetime.

Chris leaned back comfortably. He gave himself maybe five minutes before he joined Josiah in dozing through the shoot-outs. Sitting there, drowsy, surrounded by friends, he was more aware than ever how much he had to be grateful for. He had his team back; he had his memories back; he had his life back. All that time when things had been at their worst, he’d been held in a lot of people’s hearts.

“Thank you,” Chris muttered aloud.

Never forgotten, and determined never to forget it, he was home at last.

~ End ~

Author’s Notes: With particular thanks to everyone who put so much kind effort into betaing this, and as always, thanks to Jane for The Browsery!