By Gil Hale — corbidae@yahoo.com

Part Two

“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.

Continue on to Part 3 of 6