"Vin, just come! Get GoStar to locate J.D., and come wherever they say. MOVE! Call Buck! I need you to follow me. Get the cops and the paramedics coming after us. Shoot, I think I'm headed right... OH HELL, VIN... JUST HUMOR ME." Rapid instructions to a partner known for rapid response. The driver could only assume he was heading in the right direction. The connection broke with no sign-off. Vin had gone to work.
He pushed end. Then he punched in another speed-dial code on his cell phone, swerving into the right lane and chasing cars in every direction as he did so. The speedometer of his antique black Jaguar passed 80. As soon as he cleared town, he would hit 120 or more, whatever this thing would still do. He dabbed with the back of his phone hand at the small but stubborn trickle of blood that oozed down his forehead and into his eye. "Come on, J.D..Pick up."
Contact. "EXACTLY WHERE ARE YOU." This was precisely why he had bought a state-of-the-art cell phone for each of them, just so he could find his partners in moments of pure terror. The rule was NEVER, EVER turn the damn things off. Their bunch could run, but they couldn't hide.
"Well hello to you, too! I'm on I-10, about 15-20 minutes south of the city. Why? Where do you think I am? I only left an hour or so ago. It was after four. I told you we were going out of town for her birthday..."
He felt instant relief mixed with the terror. Even off duty, the boy hadn't turned it off, and the Jag was heading in the same direction, the right direction. "SHUT UP AND LISTEN. YOU IN YOUR BIG TAN SEDAN?"
"What else would I be driving? She's pregnant. Doesn't like the Hummer. You better not have any spoiler planned."
"IS THERE AN OPEN FIELD OR EMPTY LOT ANYWHERE AROUND YOU?"
The old man had certainly gotten his attention. "Well, an old amusement park at Exit 26... some old animal attraction..."
"SHUT UP. GET OFF THE HIGHWAY... GO THERE."
"Why would I..."
"SHUT UP AND DO IT. DO IT RIGHT NOW. KEEP HER CALM."
"KEEP HER CALM? WHAT IS THIS?"
"Who is that, J.D.?" Such a strange conversation. He was getting so upset, really nervous. It wasn't good when they were both nervous.
"SHUT UP AND DO IT!
"OKAY, OKAY... JUST... A... MINUTE... TWO MORE EXITS TO GO..."
"LISTEN TO ME!..."
"Which one of those idiots are you talking to? I bet it's Chris. Wait... Why are we turning off at this exit?"
"Hush, Casey, I can't hear. What's wrong... !"
"IT'S A BOMB!"
"Wrong!? Who is that? Just hang up... You're off duty."
"BOMB IN YOUR CAR! GET TO THE PARKING LOT... STOP, BUT DO NOT OPEN THE DOORS."
"Tell me who that is..." His mounting nervousness was making her twice as nervous by the minute.
"SHUT UP, CASEY!"
"DON'T OPEN THE DOORS... I'LL TELL YOU WHAT TO DO WHEN I GET THERE." All there was to do was listen, yell into the phone, and drive like a madman... and hope he didn't hear an explosion or see flames. The speedometer was topped out... maybe he'd have time...
J.D. Dunne, the youngest partner of the MAG7 Agency, drew a deep breath and glanced at his young, very pregnant wife, trying to make himself sound calm again. "Chris says there's a bomb in the car." He left it there, concentrating on the call, "OKAY, EXIT... COMING UP ABOUT A MILE AHEAD." Dead silence for about a minute. "WE'RE HERE... PULLING IN. I'M STOPPING NOW. DO I TURN THIS THING OFF?"
"WHY ARE WE STOPPING HERE? DID YOU SAY BOMB?"
He turned to her, forcing himself not to panic, "Chris is just behind us. Be calm, it's gonna be all right, but get ready to run."
The phone's receiver squawked loudly in his hand. Without raising the thing to his ear, he clearly heard, "NO! NO! DON'T TOUCH THE DOORS! IF SHE OPENS A DOOR... 30 SECONDS... GOES OFF... STILL... AT THE EXIT NOW." He threw the phone across the car, fighting for control as the Jag careened up the thankfully vacant ramp.
She had heard it to, all the way across the leather seat. "If there's a bomb in here, I'm not waiting around because Chris Larabee wants to give orders..." She was a feisty young woman... a great match for J. D.
"CASEY, HE SAYS NOT TO TOUCH THE DOORS."
It was too late. She was already in mid-flight, and her brain failed to register the command. The door flew open at her push.
"RUN! DON'T STOP... RUN!"
"J.D.! NO!" The Jag pulled up well away from the gleaming Cadillac, skidding to a bone-jarring stop as the two young people ran toward him. He had jumped from the XKE calling the young man's name even as his own tires smoked and the Jag's door slammed outward.
J.D. rounded the bumper, grabbed and pushed her from behind to encourage her flight from the car. At seven months, she couldn't move fast under any circumstances. "GO!". He dove after her, shoving her forward in desperation. He followed behind her, even as his boss jumped from his own car and headed toward them. He shoved her one last time, hard, into the approaching man's arms. Chris shoved her again, pushing her beyond and behind himself, over a small rise, into a deep depression created by huge, missing chunks of asphalt. He turned for his partner.
The roar was deafening as pieces of the car surrounded them. The fireball reached skyward as metal, leather, and plastics hurled outward, joined by spewing fire as a second explosion issued from the rupturing gas tank. She screamed as she flew a short distance before landing in the broken asphalt and dirt depression. As she lost consciousness, she saw her husband, first airborne, then still as he and his boss each slammed into the hard, broken surface.
The leader of the MAG7 Agency opened his eyes reluctantly. Fuzzy figures surrounded him, floating in and out of sight and understanding. The tiny bits of information the voices provided refused to remain in his mind for long. Tired of even this small effort, he gave up and decided, not for the first time, that it would be best to just do what someone asked him to do. His eyes closed and he went back to sleep.
When finally woke for good, after several more tries, while his eyes were still shut, he inventoried the damage... only two tubes. The one in his left wrist was taped snuggly to a worrisome board. The other invaded his nose providing cool air to unhappy lungs. Monitors whirled and beeped. No casts... that was good. The only other things he could identify were a sizeable lump covered with a bandage on his forehead; a mountain of wet, gooey gauze wrapped around his raw, scorched, upper right arm; and enough elastic bandages to cover his right leg from ankle to middle thigh. When he moved to check everything out, he realized he was definitely either drunk or dizzy, but he didn't remember which. He had one hell of a headache, and he was sore, remarkably sore, extremely sore everywhere. All in all, not too bad, considering. Considering what? He hadn't remembered that either, until now. Considering that he'd met a bomb up close and personal.
From his inventory, he quickly estimated maybe another night or two's stay here in the hospital. The beeps and whistles of the monitors confirmed that he was in one again. He also remembered that there were two people in this place who wouldn't let him out too soon, probably not until he could tell them who, what, when, where, why and how. Well, they'd have to let him out of here before he could answer who or why, but he'd have his work cut out trying to convince them to turn him loose.
Another set of irritating, alternating beeps and whistles made him remember that he shouldn't be the only one here. He had to think hard before he remembered that the other one caught up in this was J.D. He looked across the room. Surely enough, there he lay. There were a good many tubes leading in and out of his partner's small compact body. During all the time Chris had alternated in wake and sleep, he had never once seen the man open his eyes. What would he tell Casey?
Where was Casey? Somehow Casey was part of this, too. He suddenly remembered her landing in rough asphalt, remembered fire and flying debris. "Oh, God. If she's gone, or lost the baby..."
"Catherine!" The younger man across the room came awake with a scream. Instantly alert, Chris swung from his own bed, detaching the monitors; losing the tubes; ignoring the leg, the arm, and the head; coming to stand beside his friend.
The blast should have killed him, but he was a tough little knot. If he had been a few yards closer to the exploding car, he would be dead. The kid just never gave up. Vin called him their pitbull, but Chris thought of him more as a rat terrier, tenacious and willful, but smaller and with less tendency toward meanness. From where he lay, he looked like a man who'd been half dunked in creamy oatmeal, then left in the sun to dry. Broken leg, broken arm, broken ribs, torn cheek on one side, lacerated and flash burned back and chest from the shrapnel and fire of the car, plus all of the usual assorted cuts and bruises that went with the territory of working for MAG7.
"Shoot, and people say I'm lucky." The leader said it to himself.
"Catherine!" Young husband before patient, he called her name before he cried out at the newly discovered pain. Her name before marriage had been Catherine Corrine Connell. The boys at MAG7 had shortened it, mostly to annoy J.D. But the two newlyweds had actually liked it. Who would have guessed.
"She's fine, J.D. Easy." He reached to the side of the bed railing and pushed firmly on the call button.
"Catherine!" Husband before partner, he screamed her name again, trying to sit up. In his condition, the attempt was worthless. He lay back exhausted. Where's..."
"Easy. I think she's close by. Don't really know."
"She okay? Baby?" He obviously heard words, but unless he got reassurance past his ears and into his mind, and soon, he'd just hurt himself more.
All he could do was lie and hope it was true. "She seems to be fine, J.D. I think Nathan said they were fine. She got a little banged up, but nothing serious. It's you we've been worried about."
The RN walked in purposefully, slightly alarmed to see him up already on the leg that had taken so many of the stray metal fragments and a really terrible fall. His green eyes were too shiny, the pupils strangely dilated... the concussion hadn't faded yet. "What are you doing up..."
"Then move over." A large syringe came out of her pocket, already loaded and in her hand. The cap came off between her teeth. She quickly double checked it. "I'm giving him more sedative and pain killer." She pushed the contents of the syringe into the IV solution into the veins of the younger man. He was quickly asleep again.
"You get yourself back in bed... it's too soon for you to be up. I'm just going to have to restart that IV... you do know that don't you."
"Nope... not going to happen. How long's he gonna be out?"
"Didn't give him much; enough for about four hours. But I'm not promising you he won't get more. You don't need to push him... he almost died out there."
"Anything else beside what shows?"
"We thought he might have a brain injury more serious than the concussion he does have, but the CAT didn't pick up anything."
"I always told you he has a hard head." He grinned a little, please with the joke. "Seriously, we've got to find out if he knows anything about what happened."
"No. You don't have to find out this minute, or in four hours, or maybe in several days. I want you to rest, too. Get back in bed."
He was instantly ready to fight. "Shoot... I'm not tired."
"You've got your own concussion, that leg took a beating, and you're cut and bruised all over. You can't tell me you're not in pain. Get back in bed."
"My head hurts like hell, my arm hurts some, but I'm not sleepy."
"I don't care, just DO IT. You know that concussion is dangerous."
"Didn't even break the skin!"
"Oh, yeah? Seems like I remember it taking about twenty-five stitches to close that unbroken skin."
"Hey, Nathan. I just thought it was a big goose egg."
She walked around him, pushing him gently but determinedly toward his hospital bed. He dug in his heels, at least the one on the left, staring straight into her hazel eyes, ready again to do battle.
As she circled behind him, her hand suddenly produced another syringe, the cap flew off, and his backside was her most vulnerable target. "I would have put it in an IV tube, but you had to pull it out. Which means I just have to put it back in again. Now, you better get back in bed... and I'd suggest you do it quickly before you wind up sleeping on the floor."
"That's not fair!" Shoot, she never did fight fair. He pushed himself onto the bed. His well-recognized temper was beginning to boil over. "I not letting you root around in my wrist to start another IV either!"
"Since when do you expect anything about life to be fair?" So, he was going to be double teamed again by Terry, the RN, and her doctor/co-conspirator, Nathan Jackson. "Don't make me get heavy handed with you." The doc was big enough and strong enough to enforce his rules, and he wasn't scared of a Larabee temper tantrum at all. He had handled those many times before.
"If he wakes up before I do, find some way to bring me to."
She was at him again. "Go to sleep. If I got the doses right, you'll both wake up together... uh... at the same time."
"I've told Terry not to let J.D. wake up for a good long while. You just forget about it for now. You get yourself some rest. I mean it. I don't want him disturbed at all. You gonna do what I say?"
"No." He meant it... but as he meant it, he yawned.
The doctor smiled; laughed a soft, deep chuckle; and shook his head.. "Just like I expected. Muleheaded. Pure muleheaded. But you see, you will do what I say for at least a little while... I told her to double the sedative this time."
"THAT'S NOT FAIR!"
"Nope. But it sure is better than listening to you bellyache!" He was more serious as he left, "Glad you're back... now at least try to get some rest."
After sixteen more hours, the younger man was finally allowed to wake and discover the full extent of his casts and bandages. After several sips of water and a not too vigorous turn of his head, he tried to sort it all out, "What happened?"
The older partner, awake for more than four hours this time, had long since given up in boredom and impatience, and moved from the bed to an odd little reclining chair. If he had had two strong legs, he would have paced, or if his head didn't hurt so much, he would have pestered the other one until he roused. He was more than ready to help the younger man think things through. "Bomb went off."
"I know the dang bomb went off..."
"Not much left of the car, I'm afraid. Sorry about your hat."
"Casey okay? Baby okay? You okay? Who's got my hat?"
"Who knows, probably somewhere in the ashes? I saved your skin, and it isn't the first time."
"You are telling me the truth aren't you." He was suddenly very serious. "She is okay isn't she, and the baby?"
"Everyone's fine... especially since you finally decided to wake up. Must have been a pretty bad concussion.
"It is a bad concussion, with a hair line skull fracture, and he needs to rest. You go back to your own bed and do the same."
"Where'd you come from? Watch her, J.D... she makes sneak attacks. I'm not going back yet." He knew she was a bossy thing when she was at this hospital. Hell, she was a bossy thing anywhere, but other places, at other times, the beautiful blonde who, for now was bent on making his life hell, was his wife, and he was allowed to fight back.
"Do I have to stick you again?"
"I'll go back in a minute." Well, he didn't have to go meekly, did he?
"No! Now!" She shepherded him back to his bed, but she had no illusions that he or his partner would actually sleep this time, not unless there were drugs involved.
"I'm just fine! I'm not hurt that bad. J.D.'s the one that's hurt. You know all that crap... those dang shots... won't do more than keep me down for a few miserable minutes." He was fully awake, even with the doubled dose, while the young man next to him was groggily stirring at best.
"Oh, you look like you're just fine!"
J.D., though confined to bed, was sufficiently agitated by now to keep sleep at bay for a good while. She didn't want to give either of them more medicine than necessary, especially with the concussions.
"I want to see her, Terry."
"She's asleep, without drugs, and she needs to be. We want to monitor her and the baby for a few more days, just to be sure. When she wakes up, and if she feels like moving around, I'll bring her to see you."
"Can't I go see her? Now? Please?"
"J.D., just how would you propose to do that? I'm not going to help you... and neither is he."
The boy studied his own situation again. "Oh."
"Yes... Oh. She'll be here soon enough. You've got to get some rest, too."
"Better do what she says."
"You're one to talk! Who'd want to put a bomb in my car to begin with?" End of reasoning... they were off and running.
"Same one who put one in mine."
"Who would want to kill me? Me and Casey? I haven't been working on anything that ugly lately. Any ideas?"
"Don't know yet... shoot, I've been in the bed next to you since Friday afternoon. I've been in and out, but they still won't tell me anything."
"We don't know anything. Neither of you has been awake enough to even tell us what happened. We wouldn't let any of the rest of them up here so far. We needed you both quiet. Vin and the paramedics brought you in. Glad he got there when he did."
"For once he did what I told him to do."
"How'd you find out about the bomb? What kind? How'd you know it was in my car?"
"Remind me to have our logo taken off those parking slots. After mine blew up, I thought you might be next. Parking place is next to mine, same make, model, color. Thought whoever-the-hell it was might have wanted to hedge their bet. "
"Remind me to buy blue or neon purple next time... shoot, I'll take pea green if it doesn't match yours! So, yours blew up first?"
"Nobody told me your sedan blew up. I thought they said you were driving the Jag, but it's on the parking lot outside... a few pits and dings. When did your car blow up?"
"Just before I took the Jag. Like I said, I haven't been awake enough to remember details." He reached up and touched the bandage at his hairline, "Seems I remember part of the windshield passing by a little too close."
"Good gracious. I thought you just got hurt with J.D. You got blown up twice in one day? GET IN BED, NOW."
"Look, no fooling... I'm not sleepy at all... and I've got to think for the next few days. Damn shots just make me restless and dull my senses. Too much of that stuff and I'll be sick as a dog. No more needles or sneak attacks, okay."
"We will see..."
His partner was amazed. "Two cars gone and one damaged, all in one day... man, the insurance company's gonna love us!"
"Let Ezra worry about it. He's the money man."
"Where was the car when your bomb went off."
"In the parking garage across the street. Blast took out five or six cars. Luckily for us, they were all on other spaces beside ours. That thing had a real special signature. Enough plastique to tear that car into widgets, and the rig was something like I've never seen before. Way yours went up, I expect it was pretty much the same design."
"I just can't believe it... yours, too!" She never ceased to be amazed at the trouble he could get into, and survive.
"Yeah. But at least I wasn't on the road when I found out it was gonna go."
"How'd you know mine was going up?"
"When I opened the door to the sedan, I saw someone running away. Being cautious like I am," The younger partner rolled his eyes. "I closed the door and sort of did a walk around. Saw a funny little wire connected to the front door on the driver's side. The one rigged to my car started counting down real fast and real loud when I opened the door the second time to trace that wire. Had a feeling yours might, too."
"How'd you get away from it?"
"Ran like hell... what do you think I did. You know old man Burlson? He kindly parked that old mammoth of his in Vin's space again. I counted later... nine spaces from my car to that one. That was as far as I got before it got quiet, just before that thing went off. I just tried to duck behind that old car. Car wasn't as big as I thought it was, wound up leaving my head in the open... that's how the windshield found me. It sure did hold a lot of fluids.
"Why did you think the bastard would want us both?"
"Just a feeling."
"Oh. One of those. How'd you find me?"
"Got Vin to get GoStar to pinpoint your location."
"Didn't use your psychic powers, huh?" It hurt to laugh, but it was a standing joke... one they all used to totally irritate their leader.
"Hell, J.D... there wasn't any psychic anything. Unless you left that phone of yours somewhere, it was in your pocket. Unless for some stupid reason you were lying to me, the two of you were heading toward Tucson. That tracker service of ours confirmed it. That's where you said you two were going. What is it about that town and you and Casey?"
"Don't know... just like it a lot, especially around Old Tucson. We like it almost as much as you like that area up around the four state boundary line. Don't give me a hard time about it. You're always going to some of those old cowtowns up there yourself, and you never tell me why."
The boss didn't tell him, or any of the partners, why. Every time he tried to tell someone why he did some of the unusual things he did, all he got were looks that said he was nuts.
"Enough, Chris. Neither one of you need to keep this up. He's got too much damage to overcome. You're not helping him heal any at all. And you got blown up TWICE. J.D., you have to rest." She handed her husband a glass of water, and spooned some down the other man's throat. "Now, J.D., I'm putting a stop to this conversation. IV or arm""
"Dang... the IV."
"Okay, then... good night."
They were quiet just long enough to let the youngster get good and groggy.
"Don't fight me on this, please. No wonder you've got a headache. Do you know how lucky you are!"
"My head doesn't feel like I'm so lucky, but I'll make you a bargain."
"What type of bargain?"
"That one sleeps; I don't fight staying put; you won't give me any more shots. I'll stay in bed, as long as you keep me supplied with notepads and pens."
"Work? Now? I guess your muleheaded enough to do it anyway. You'll let me know if your headache gets worse. And, you will turn in at nine, without a fight. Promise?"
"I HAVEN'T GONE TO BED AT NINE SINCE I WAS THREE."
"That and the concussion explain the temper. And I'll guarantee the curfew if I have to. All right. You're obviously feeling a great deal friskier than you should be, but I'll settle for rest." She turned toward the door.
"Hey, you going so soon?"
She looked back at him, still slightly annoyed, but there was softness in her eyes and a small smile on her lips. "I don't have to go for a little while. I've got Nathan's theatre in about 20 minutes. Why?" She reached for his glass, putting in a small bit of ice and a larger amount of water.
He gratefully took the offered drink. "It would be nice to get to look at you for a few minutes without you yelling at me."
"You know I only yell when you won't listen to reason. I don't mean to be the one who's all business... I try to leave that to you." She leaned close and kissed him, pushing a still-plastered lock away from the bandage on his forehead. She was pleased to see his expression change. The coolness and tenderness of her touch as she gently played with his scattered hair lightened his mood considerably. "Are you too sore for me to rub your neck and shoulders?"
It was a miracle how something so simple could ease him so much. "You know... if you'd stay here and just do that all day, I'd probably go to sleep without any drugs, and I wouldn't have to fight you at all."
She brought a chair close to his bed and sat holding his hand as long as she could. "Don't be such a pain. You want something to eat? Or drink?"
"Let's not think about food just yet. Little early. Maybe some juice or just the water will do."
"I'll get them to send the juice when I go. Drink all the water you want... I'll pull that tray close enough for you to reach it yourself. Drink the juice, though. You need something in your stomach, but I can understand about the food. Can I trust you to keep your word about staying in bed?"
"Just don't hold me to it for too long. How's Adam?"
"He'll be here after school."
"After school? What time is it? Shoot, what day is it?"
"It's Wednesday afternoon, around one-thirty." She stood to leave.
"Shoot!" He gave her a cocky smile, waggling his eyebrows..."My, how time flies when you're blown to bits. Do I get another kiss before you go?"
"Not until tonight, when you decide to turn in..."
"Well then, I just may have to turn in early after all."
She turned again to glance at her other patient, "I've given him a pretty strong sedative. Even if he comes to again, you remember that all of this can wait. I promise you it can. Don't keep him up going over details. You hear me."
"Yes, ma'am... I hear you. Say, is Casey really awake?"
"Comes and goes, but she was awake a little while ago."
"Is there a phone in there?"
"Can he call her?"
"When he wakes up, I'll dial the number myself."
"He'll take you up on it... it's the best offer he's gonna get, and I ought to know."
He kept his word. But even as he stayed on the narrow bed, propped on all the extra pillows he could cajole from the candy strippers he could sweet talk, he pushed himself relentlessly, making notes and lists until he thought his brain would burst. "Who, what, when, where, why, and how."
He gave up when he had finished consolidating his scribblings into one final list. He noticed the writing was shaky at the beginning, but getting shakier by the end. He stopped because everything was getting too blurry to see. He studied the clock she had left on the small bedside table, and finally decided it was sometime after four.
The list he had labored over for more than three hours contained, at the end, only two partial pages of ragged, scratchy, oversized writing:
Who -- Don't know. Any mistakes? Don't think so. Person? One person? Hired person? Target: J. D.? Casey? Me? Agency? What -- A damn big bomb, Two damn big bombs. What has Buck found out? Any chance of more? Hide Casey? Hide J.D. / J.D. and Casey? Hide Terry and Adam? Hide everybody? Where? When -- Friday... three days ago? Where -- Garage, vacant parking lot. Where are they? Who knows? Hide everybody? Where? Why - DAMN GOOD QUESTION! Vendetta? New? Old? Crazy? Do I even have a clue? How - Demolitions expert. Talented amateur. Hired hit? Where is BUCK! Where is Vin? Extras? Track car pieces - Buck Find witnesses? - Vin Money? - Where's Ezra?
Ezra walked, or snuck, in about three... just as he was getting really settled. "Well I see you are finally awake. Does this mean you are ready, and permitted, to do a little work?"
"It's what I've been trying to do. Trying to make a list... make this brain of mine get back into motion."
"Well, I do have semi-good news."
"I could use some good news."
"We still have auto insurance."
"Why wouldn't we... wasn't our fault."
"Doesn't seem to be any actuarial tables connected to car bombs... especially in multiples of two. As for liability, well... six cars totaled kind of messes up the curve a bit."
"Then how did you manage to keep us covered."
"I insured us with that company we helped get out from under the gang making up fraudulent claims. I reminded them we saved them several million, and we managed to avoid all publicity connecting them to the payoffs. By the time I reminded them of what information was available for publication, our rates even stayed the same."
"Not bad. So we're still insured."
"At least until we cost them a million... which I hope is far in the future."
"Well... I guess if you're giving semi-good news, I better give you my part."
"Burlson and everybody else whose car got scratched will probably sue us... insurance or not. Since Burlson's car probably saved my skin, we might just want to make nice and pay to have that one fixed. You said semi-good news... let's have the other shoe."
"Medical... it doubled..."
"Doubled... for all of us?"
"Tripled for you."
"Tripled for me? But not for J.D.? Why?"
"He's a young man... where they classify you as..."
"I'm not even forty yet!"
"You are serious aren't you. Forty? On which calendar?"
"I'm gonna have to hurt you one of these days, Ezra. Did Buck or Vin come up with anything yet?"
"Not yet. Working on it... and they threatened me with serious physical consequences if I stayed gone more than an hour... and your wife threatens us all with annihilation if we bother you with news of the case. I best be returning to the nest."
"I don't care what she says... you boys keep me posted."
"Well, I'll do my part... as will Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Tanner... but if you expect Mr. Tanner to make a personal appearance, you are most definitely still delusional."
"Don't I know... okay... get out. Let me think. I've still got work to do."
"As do we all, my friend... as do we all."
Alone again, he let his head fall back against the piled up pillows, the pad and pen falling to the side. He had admitted it hurt a little... well, by now it hurt like hell, but he wasn't going to tell her unless it got a whole lot worse. He closed his eyes, and in a few minutes, he was drifting in semi-sleep.
The room was dark. "Help you?" He muttered it to the woman in his room. She was just there... a woman he didn't know, but someone he definitely felt he had seen before. She stood just inside the open door; dressed in a fancy, flowing dress. She had long, raven-black hair. What she wore was not an evening dress. It was long, but different somehow. If he had been asked, he would have said she was all just darkness and light. The look on her face seemed to change. At his first glance, she smiled a smile of tenderness and happiness. The next moment, the face held a look that bordered on hate. He saw her, but she did not approach, did not speak. On the third look, she was gone, and he was suddenly cold and more than afraid. His head was a great deal worse.
"Hi, Dad." The clock read seven-forty-five. He started awake, feeling groggy, as if the dream's visit had left fragments of uneasiness at the edge of his mind. She wasn't there. "Mom said I could come today, stay a little while if you're up to it."
"Sure, I'm alright." He tried to sound chipper. "How's school today? Thought baseball practice would go until after dark tonight. This is still Wednesday, right?"
"Yeah, it's Wednesday, and today's the day for practice. Coach said I could skip it this once. You really okay? You look like shit."
"Should I say thanks? Watch your language... You hear me use stuff like that way too much. It's fine around me, I don't think anything about it... but remember, lots of people find all that stuff offensive."
"Buck helped me learn a lot, ya know." At his father's sideways glance, he chuckled, "Okay. Okay. I hear you!"
"Good." He leaned his head back against the pillows. He couldn't ignore it much longer.
"You didn't answer me."
"Are you okay?" The boy hoped he was, but knew he wasn't. He didn't want to hurt him, but it wasn't often they really talked... just the two of them.
"My head hurts like hell. You know how it goes. Banged up pretty bad, but I'll be alright. You wouldn't consider helping me take off these bandages on my leg would you? Getting where all my toes feel is a tingle."
"No luck, Dad. Mom said you were lucky, but J. D. was luckier. Now I see what she means."
"Yeah, he missed the fun of the first one; but that second one was a doozy. He'll be out for days before they let him really wake up."
"You get a piece of both?"
"Yeah. Literally." He reached up to touch the bandage on his forehead.
"Did Mom tell me right... They took out BOTH the sedans?"
They were both silent... a few minutes of thinking about what if."
"Yeah?" There was another heartbeat of silence. "Well... what?!" He knew what was coming. The boy had asked the same question every time since he was about five. It was time the father answered his only son seriously.
"Just exactly why do you and your bunch do what you do?"
"Why do I do it?" Another moment of silence... time to let his son know how important the business was to him. "Because I'm good at it. No, I'm damn good at it. And, son, I love doing what I do. Uses my brain and my body, and it's never the same job twice."
"They're good at it too, but you'll have to ask them why. They might tell you, but I doubt they really know. We've all got different talents that bring us to the work. It took me a long time to admit that I just really like pulling people out of jams when nothing else has worked or answering mean little puzzles. Pays not bad, either. Don't let my being in here scare you. I'll be okay."
"Shoot... you being in here? I'm used to that, Dad. That's probably the first thing I ever remember... seeing you lying in a hospital bed with Mom trying to hold you down, or tie you down, or shoot you up with enough drugs to keep you down. Doesn't ever seem to work. First time was the worst. I think I was four, and I thought you were going to die."
"You weren't far from wrong. They thought I might. It's the only reason they let you in. Them letting you in might have actually saved my life. I got mad enough to fight when they made you leave." He shielded his eyes from the lamp on the bedside table. That was a little easier.
"You ever solve that one? You never talk about it."
"Just have to let it go. No sense wasting time thinking about it any more after you get moving again. We got him... at least Vin and Buck got him. We were the three original partners, you know. Ezra and J.D. came along later. Man was just a crazy. Didn't have anything to do with any of us. He just saw me on line with your Mom at a movie theatre. Worst part was that he shot me in the back with a Luger. I shouldn't have been alive after that, but he was a lousy shot. Why he went and shot me in the back, I never did figure out, especially when he kept saying that I had the Devil's own face. But I was thankful. Your Mom kinda likes my face, I think. But, I don't recommend taking a bullet that way... takes a long time to get everything inside to heal."
"You're mighty unruffled talking about it all. How do you learn to be that still inside? To just take it? Or do you learn it? Have you always been that way? Didn't you hurt?"
"Wasn't so unruffled at the time, and I hurt a lot! Never have learned to be still, inside or out. But, you look at pain and injury a little differently when it's not the only time you've gotten shot, or been beat up, or nearly drowned."
"But you go back and do it again. Isn't that sort of stupid?"
"Well, would be if you got shot or beat or drowned every single time you go out. That's why you train... so it doesn't happen real often. But you just never know. The boys and I try to keep our work on the civilized side, but if some son-of-a-bit... gun takes us on, we're ready to sort of handle the situation."
"I bet Mom's had a real good time. How long did it take you to get over that one?"
"Took around six months for body and soul to heal, and you better know we had a time of it. I wanted to be working. Nobody, not at the office, the hospital, or home, would let me do anything. You were well past being a baby. I was around you, but I couldn't play ball with you or do anything else. I was letting you down, but I was so jumpy, your playing with anything that made noise would set me off. I was afraid the agency would go under. Never any problem there, really. It was just something else to lay in that bed and worry about. While I was down, Vin and Buck actually pulled in lots of business. All I did was gripe and complain. I was treating your Mom so bad I got afraid I was gonna cause her to leave, but..."
"She knew you were just being a hard-headed jackass."
"Hey! Shoot. I was hurting. Did she tell you I was a jackass?"
"No." He grinned at his father, but the light went out of the boy's smile a tad too soon.
"Everything alright with you?" Good fathers noticed such changes... he was sorry that he wasn't always a good father, but he did try very hard.
"Yeah... well, I'm okay."
"I'm not dead yet, you can tell me if something's bothering you."
"Look, don't kid like that. I'm used to you being in here, but it still scares me, okay. It's just Ms. Pepperjohn."
"Ms. Pepperjohn? Oh... yeah... a teacher? One of your teachers? Right?"
"Good. Those bombs didn't get to every brain cell I've got. What about her?"
"She knows who I am."
"What?" He sat forward, alarmed. "How'd she find out?"
"That woman who works in the office... Sandy?... well, she got word that my father was in the hospital, and came to bring me a note to call Mom. She walked in the room and asked Ms. Pepperjohn for Adam Larabee... not Adam Horton. Nobody's ever called me by your name before."
"I thought we had that all worked out. How'd the woman know?"
"I don't know. She switched to Adam Horton real fast, but I saw Ms. Pepperjohn's face change... somehow she recognized the name, and she made some kind of change, right there. This afternoon, she started giving me hell."
"Don't look for too much trouble, least not yet. Is there anything you could have done to give her cause? You're not a saint."
"No, Dad. There's not one darn thing. I thought about it hard all afternoon."
"What did she say? She do anything?"
"Called you a couple of real choice names, real low, under her breathe. She hit me a couple of swats with that paddle of hers... said I was causing trouble. She's nothing but a mean little hellcat, anyway, and it didn't hurt."
"Well, Larabee men have always been known for causing trouble." It mattered very much to the father, but he didn't want his son to realize the extent of his alarm. "I don't doubt you could take anything she dished out... I doubt you should have had to take it. But stuff happens. Told your Mom yet?"
"You'll need to do it tonight. You don't, I'll tell her in the morning myself. No secrets among us. It's important."
"I know. "
"You want me to talk to Pepperjohn for you?"
"I don't think you're in any shape..."
"I won't be here forever! I'll talk with her when I get out, or your Mom can talk to her tomorrow... no difference..."
"Dad, I can talk to her or the principal myself. I need to take care of it, unless she starts playing real rough. That happens, I'll let you and Mom both have a go at her. You just always want to know."
"Suit yourself. You can always tell either or both of us what you need."
"Yeah?" His head was getting worse by the minute. Still, there was never much time for the two of them to really talk. The older he got, the older his son got, the harder the questions and the more important that he make the time to answer.
"Why don't you let me use your name? I am legit aren't I?"
"We've been over this. Your mother is my wife and has been for more than your almost seventeen years. I can't imagine ever having anyone else to love me like that. It's a real special thing that only comes along once, and then, only if you're lucky. You're our son. Our only son, our only child, at least for now." He smiled a smart-alecky smile and reached over to ruffle his son's hair. "You're a pure blooded, hardheaded, Larabee stud, out of spirited and quality Horton stock, and I'm proud that you're my son." Adam blushed crimson to the top of his ears. "I've told you before why we enrolled you without my name... used your Mom's maiden name instead."
"Why? It's been so long. I thought you planned to change it back."
"You know what business I'm in. You know I make serious enemies at times. Like now, somebody trying to blow me and J.D. apart. I don't know who, and I don't know why... at least not yet. Since I asked her to marry me, I've been more than a little paranoid about something happening. When she finally said yes, I made her a promise. I wouldn't knowingly do anything that would bring one of my clients or their trouble into our home. She keeps accounts and works under her maiden name. When you came along, paranoid didn't begin to touch it for me. I got her to agree it would be just as easy to use her maiden name as your last name. We used Adam Horton, rather than Adam Larabee, and on the easy-to-find birth certificate you father is named Chris Horton. When it got time to put you in school, we kept it that way, and we put you in a place that's secure. Almost every kid in your school has security concerns, or at least their parents do. Only other ones who know who you are are the partners, Josiah, and Nathan, and the principal. I'm not even sure Casey knows, but J.D.'s not good at keeping secrets from her. We even talked with your grandfather and got one of his friends to sort of bury your real birth certificate. We have the original in a safe place when you need it. There's a forged one at the courthouse and in state records. You'll always have a choice."
"You took a lot of chances protecting me."
"Not too many. Not enough to suit me, but I couldn't think of anything else to do beside send you to a cabin in the wilds of Mongolia. I couldn't keep you a secret from the boys, though. I had to have somebody other than your Mom to know... how else was I gonna be able to brag about you?" He was trying to lighten the conversation.
"But it ignores the fact that you're my father."
"You'd be the only one who could ever do that, and it matter. Your Mom and I agreed that you would always know, and when you got older, you could decide for yourself what last name to use."
"I'd change now if you'd let me. No offense with her name, but you are my father. I'm not ashamed or scared of it. Can I do it now?"
"Not yet... wait until you've seen what goes on with older eyes than you've got right now. I'm afraid you've got an idea that what I do is glamorous. Truth is, it's hard work, lots of times really boring, other times an adrenaline rush. It's worry. It's lots of leg work and more brain work. But the danger is there, and it's real. You've visited me in the hospital enough to know. You forget that part of the business, you aren't in business long."
"What movie were you in line to see?"
"What? Oh. Let's see... Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom, I think."
"Must have been your choice."
"What can I say, it was Spielberg. It was action! My birthday, my choice. "
"As it turned out... damn spooky. Didn't get to see it for years." He was glad the boy was here, and he was able to talk with him, but he thought his head was going to fall off. He let it fall back against the pillows.
"WHAT!" He regretted it instantly, both for raising his head from the pillow and for raising his voice at his son. "Sorry... Can't get my head to stop for even a minute... Mom says it's a concussion. I've been barking at her all day, too. No excuses though. What was it you wanted to ask?"
"When you start working on this... can I... would you let me... can I work with you on this case?"
"Your mother would kill me."
"But I want to work on it. Maybe just help at the office... you know, ask people questions... look up stuff... hell, I'll sweep the office, too."
"You that desperate to be connected to me?"
"Well, then... No."
"Awh, Dad. Come on."
"How old are you?"
"Sixteen... sixteen and a half."
"You counting halves doesn't make you seem older. Dangerous age. You think you know lots of things, when you only see glimpses. Dangerous age."
"I won't be doing anything dangerous."
"Neither were J.D. and Casey. Just going off for her birthday. Neither was I... just in line to see a movie. Friday, I was just trying to come home for the weekend. You just never know."
"Hell, Dad. You just never know anything at any time. If you're gonna go, you're gonna go... and I don't necessarily think how you go makes a difference... it's just what's convenient and close by when your number's up... car, bus, plane, train... bomb."
"Keep talking like that, they'll be calling you nuts, too."
"I'll risk it. Can I try? I want to know what it's like."
"First, you're gonna explain your philosophy to your Mother. If she says yes, I'll let you come in on weekends. J.D.'s going to be out awhile. You can run errands for him when he gets to the point he knows he's tied down. He's almost as mean as me when you try to sit on him. You can take care of some research too. First time grades slip or you use it to skip baseball practice, or to pick up a girl, I'll pitch you out of there. Understand? It's not a game. And your name will never be Adam Horton or Adam Larabee while you're there."
"Yes, sir. I know it's not a game... just one more thing?"
"As long as it's just one. Okay?"
"When are you going back up to the boundary again?"
"Don't have a clue. Why? I was there about a month ago... wasn't planning another trip real soon."
"When you go... can I go too?"
"You interested? Kind of sudden isn't it?"
"Yeah. We've been studying about the area in state history class. I'd like to see it, find out what you like so much about it."
"Sure. You want to go, I'll take you. If your Mom wants to go, we'll make a weekend of it. If she doesn't, why don't we get Josiah to go along? That would make a good plan. But you do know there's no town there... just a bunch of loner types and a historical marker."
"Then how did you learn so much about it?"
"Been talking to an old man up there. Name's Bill Bonney, if that's his real one, which I doubt. He knows a lot... sort of serves as the local library and looney bin, too. Collects lots of stuff. Says he's inherited things collected by generations of his family. He don't try to remember yesterday, but you get him started about a hundred or more years ago... he's got a steel trap for a brain. Remind me to pick him up some taffy... and some jawbreakers ... the ones with the hot centers."
"You think he ought to have those?"
"He's older, but he isn't dead anymore than me. At 80, he's still got all his own teeth, and he likes taffy and jawbreakers. I take him candy, he let's me have a few sips of his home remedy. More than a fair trade. Remind me. Right now, I haven't got too much of a brain myself."
"What are you still doing here? I told you to stay a few minutes. It's nearly eight-thirty. Chris, you're supposed to be getting ready for sleep." She stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at both of the delinquents.
"And I've got a report due tomorrow! Night, Dad."
"Mighty convenient report, sport." He needed to teach the boy how to make a more dignified retreat. "You remember to talk with your Mother about that question you had. You'll have to help me remember about the trip. How are you getting home?"
"Buck said to call him and he'd give me a ride. Hope your head stops hurting and you rest well... I'll come by tomorrow."
The boy had escaped. The father wished he were so lucky. He let his head fall back on the pillows again.
"The comment was rest well. Since you haven't rested at all this afternoon, I have a little present for you."
He spied the needle. "That's not fair. We had a bargain. I stayed put all afternoon!"
"I kept my end of the bargain, I didn't put you out... but it's time for sleep, so this is the final phase of our bargain."
The shot had done nothing to help. He knew he had had too much. It wasn't putting him under, wasn't making him easy. Instead, he was awake, confused, and his attempts at sleep left him laden with feelings and thoughts he could not avoid.
Tired and uneasy, he rose and limped to the window near the foot of the bed. A glance told him that J.D. still slept, his breathing easy. A slight chill reached him as he approached the panes of glass.
From somewhere, he thought he heard music. A soft, wistful sound, with a woman's voice as clear as crystal..."all that's left of two hearts on fire ..." He had awakened to the sound of the song, now he stared in disbelief at the woman across the room. She was alone, but slightly closer to the bed than before. She was silent, staring at him, with a quizzical look on her face, studying him with a look that seemed suddenly to fill with intense sadness. As he saw her, a name hovered just out of reach, trying to escape his lips.
Then his head exploded in a wave of agonizing pain. He didn't remember falling to the floor, rolling into a ball, or screaming for help.
"Lie still." Nathan was taking his pulse, checking his eyes.
He was back on the bed, weak and tired, but no more terrible pain. "I'm alright."
"No, you're not. You pushed yourself way to hard yesterday. Terry said you didn't rest all afternoon, just wrote on those pads of yours. It's the first day you were really awake. What were you doing up tonight? Were you working again? That sedative should have held you well until morning."
"They never work right. You and Terry should know they don't work for me. By the time I've had this much, it's just hell. Can't eat, can't sleep, can't wake up. I feel nervous and on edge. You give me much more of it, and I'm gonna be sick to my stomach on top of the rest. I know you're trying to give my head time to quit hurting by putting me out, but just STOP. I'll sleep when I'm tired." Just as suddenly as it had erupted, his temper cooled. "Any more than that's a waste of my time anyway. I don't want anymore. What time is it?"
"Thursday morning? Or did I lose another day somewhere?"
"Don't worry about that. Yeah, it's Thursday morning."
"Did you find someone in my room?"
"Someone was here?"
"Thought I saw a woman standing in the room. I don't know."
"Didn't see anyone around. Do you know when you got up?"
"Think it was a little before midnight, not sure, wasn't seeing too clear. . Saw her just a few minutes after I got out of bed. Anybody on this floor have a radio or CD player?"
"Shouldn't have... not at night, not loud enough for a patient to hear it. Why?"
"Thought I heard music. Guess I was hallucinating pretty good."
"Well, you may have been hallucinating, music and woman, but your head was trying to tell you something. You need to sleep and stay in bed until that headache stops. Listen to your head and forget about the music, and the woman."
"Look, I don't need to sleep."
"I don't think I've ever seen you this stubborn." Dressed in a soft sweater and jeans, Terry was back, standing in the door, looking tired and concerned.
"Don't be mad... I tried to sleep. Just couldn't. Sorry they called you."
"Why couldn't you sleep? You were awake all afternoon... you had a long visit with Adam... you should have been able to sleep, but you have to let yourself give in to it."
"But I don't sleep... not when you make me take those shots. Every time you two try it... once I get past the first dose or two, everything starts going down hill. I don't know why... but it makes me feel strange. It's the exact same thing every time I get put in here."
"Maybe I just don't realize that you've got a problem with the medication itself. You did have a concussion... we confirmed that. Maybe the concussion's not there anymore, but we can't tell it cause the drugs are getting to you first."
"You think? Damn, Nathan, then quit giving that stuff to me. Let me go!"
"You can't go until we know that's what it is."
"And just how long will it take to discover that?"
"Look, you stay here until tomorrow. The medicine should clear your system sometime around noon... with your metabolism, maybe sooner. That's probably your only salvation. It doesn't stay around that long. Tomorrow, if you're okay, we'll let you go to the house."
"That's more like it."
"He said to the house, not to the office."
"I heard him."
"Did you understand? If you didn't, say so now and I'll make arrangements for Sid to go home with you."
"I heard him. I don't need a baby sitter."
"I'm glad... Nathan, why don't you go home. I'm going to sleep in the recliner the rest of tonight. Adam knows where I am, and Buck's keeping an eye on him."
"Then I'll say goodnight. Chris, listen. For just one day, until I can tell what's going on with your head, please just stay down. I'm going to have them draw some blood in the morning to see if that sedative has caused any problems, and I'll probably do one more CAT just to be sure nothing has changed. I'm hoping we'll find that you were more likely having some kind of allergic reaction or might even be in withdrawal. If you burned up the medicine like you normally do, that would be a possibility. If that's the case, I think if you stay really still, you'll maybe get past this without another attack like you had tonight."
"Are you sure it doesn't hurt any more?" It was late afternoon Thursday. Nathan was trying as hard as he could to think of a reason to keep him there. He had stalled as long as he could by x-raying and then slowly removing the ace bandages from his leg.
"Boy, that feels better. I'm okay, Nathan. You can turn me loose." He did feel better. He had done what they asked and rested for the greater part of the night and morning.
"Okay isn't good enough. Does your head still hurt. You ever eat anything?"
"My head's not bad. I've been drinking juice, had one of those awful things they call a shake, drank something they called soup. I'll get something better when I get home."
"Keep it soft for a couple of days. I'm not sure about your stomach. Answer my question. Does your head still hurt?"
"Shoot, Nathan. It hurts a little, but it's more like a good old fashioned headache. Nothing like what's been going on the last few days. What did the CAT show? How about the blood work?"
"CAT was fine. Blood work early this morning still showed minute traces of the sedative, but the one we took a while ago was clear."
"Then I can go home." He smiled, determined to do as he wanted, stood up and started for the closet. "Where are my clothes?"
"I wish you'd stay over one more day... I don't like it when--"
"I'm going, Nathan. Sign the orders and turn me loose."
"You can't drive... not yet. Is your vision still blurry?"
"No. Stop hunting for excuses to keep me here. Terry got time to drive me home?"
"Buck, Vin, any of the boys around?"
"No. Buck was here yesterday. You know Vin, not gonna come here if we don't tie him up first."
"And you're not going home!" She walked in wanting a full scale war this time.
"Come on, Terry. I'll be better off out of here."
"Nathan told me about the nightmare. You could still be having problems with the medicine, or with the concussion... I want you to make sure you're okay."
There was a sharply defined look of agitation in his face, and he was adamant about his plan. "Look, I want out. I'm going to go home. I'm sorry if it upsets you, but I don't want to be here anymore. I'm getting out. I'll be home when you get there, and, if it's absolutely necessary, we'll finish this conversation then. JUST HUMOR ME."
She starred at him. Just humor me, a final plea, a plea from this man to just leave him alone. He used those exact words, generally without recognition, whenever he had feelings he could not explain... or problems he could not solve... like the nightmares. The last time he used it was just before he went to the boundary a month before.
"Hi, Dad. Hey, they turning you loose? Mom said..."
"How'd you get here?"
"Buck, gave me a..."
"He still here?"
"Yeah... supposed to let him know if I need as ride home."
"Well, I need a ride. We're going home."
"Terry... no more. I'm going home."
Nathan didn't like it, but it was time to let the man control his own life. "It'll take about thirty minutes for us to get your paperwork in order. You get dressed, and stop by the front desk on your way out."
"Thanks, Nathan. Really, thanks for everything. I just need to go."
"So it seems. Mulehead."
"Adam, you call Buck and tell him I'm coming."
"I'm coming with you too... okay?"
Hospital paperwork and regulations. He hated them even more than being stuck in the place... especially having to be wheeled out. Even when he arrived at the front desk, his release was delayed. "Mr. Larabee," the syrupy sweet clerk produced a rafter of forms, "if you'll just sign these, we'll let you be on your way. Please remember to stay in the wheelchair until your ride comes."
Adam was glad he was going home... and very glad to be visiting the desk, especially since a very pretty young, redhead was on duty, and not very busy. He was practicing his conquest skills. As they talked, a beautiful dark headed woman stopped the redhead to ask for information.
Standing near the entrance, Buck noticed his partner's mood of the moment, and came to distract him. "Well, stud, going home? How'd you manage it? Nathan's not getting soft is he?"
"No. The two of them are trying to keep me down just as long as they possibly can. Come on, can we ever get out of here."
"Yeah, if that watch dog don't stop your progress." He pointed surreptitiously toward one of the aides from the man's previous floor. She was standing behind the desk, watching him, writing something on a piece of paper.
"If she's planning to stop me, she better start getting more help than she's got."
She approached him. "Mr. Larabee. Ms. Horton asked that I give you these." She handed him a small white envelope.
"What are they?"
"I don't know. She said you're to take them with you. Some kind of souped up sedative from what I can tell. She said it might help you rest."
"Okay. Enough. Ma'am, he's just a ornery cuss right now. I'll put the pills in my pocket. Chris, is there anything I need to get?"
"Just me. Left the little bit I had for Terry to bring later. Let's go." He started to stand up. Something caught his attention, from the far corner of the desk. He dropped back into the wheelchair, turning to the other side. "Buck!," he hissed. He was pale, and strangely nervous.
"What is it? You having problems? Maybe you should go back..."
"Get Adam out of there! Take him upstairs. Find Terry. Take care of J.D. and Casey. Get them all someplace safe."
"What's got into you."
"Do you see that woman at the other end of the counter?"
"There are maybe 20 women around there... which one?"
"Small; long, black-wavy hair; dressed in a black and white print dress."
"Yeah, I see her. What about her?"
"Do you know her?"
"Can't say as I do. Wouldn't mind though."
Adam had noticed what appeared to be an argument brewing between his father and Buck. He quickly said goodbye to the redhead and headed over to see if he could maybe keep the argument from getting loud and boisterous. As he arrived, he heard his father's words, "Well, I know her."
"How do you know her?"
"I don't know. But I know her."
One of those. "You don't know how you know her? Nathan said to watch out in case that concussion sets in again."
"It's not any concussion. I've seen her. I just don't know her name. She's been in my room twice."
"You think she might be involved..."
"I don't know. She's just attached to a feeling I've been having."
"Lord, Almighty, Chris... you feel you know her. You having one of your psychic flashes again."
"It's not a psychic flash, and it's no joke, Buck. I've felt things lots of times, but this time's different. This time I saw her. Keep Adam away from her, and get all of them safe and away from me. I'll need Vin, too. I'll wait down here until you get them settled. Adam, you're not going with me, go stay with your mother."
"You said yes!" Buck even jumped. The boy was having his very first Larabee fit right in front of his father.
"Now I say NO!"
"Calm down, both of you."
He saw the fire in his son's eyes, and knew his rejection had been a mistake. "Look... that woman over there is one I know. I don't know how. I just know she's dangerous."
"She isn't dangerous!"
"How would you know she isn't dangerous?"
"She's Ms. Pepperjohn's sister."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah... she subs sometimes."
"That tears it. Old man, your head is on just about as backwards as it can be today. You just come on upstairs so I don't have to watch two places at once. We just need to sit down and have a little discussion... try to sort this out."
"No. I go upstairs, you'll tell em I've gone nuts, and I won't get loose anytime soon. I shouldn't be in danger in the middle of the reception area. Just get me as far away from any of my family as soon as you possibly can."
"Is it far enough to get you home?"
"I'm not going home, Buck. Adam's the only one going upstairs besides you."
"Yes. But when I come down, you are going home."
"No. I'm going to the office. Nobody's in the cave are they? I'll stay there tonight, if you'll keep watch for a little while. I need to do some thinking, check some old information, and I need to do that more than I need to do any sleeping. Just humor me."
Buck's eyes opened wide. All of the partners recognized the phrase, even if the old man didn't. "That important?"
"Yes. I know her Buck. Somehow I know her, and she scares me to death."
The cave was a place of refuge, well planned from the start to fit within the old warehouse that held the agency. It occupied the top floor, and unless a partner made the arrangements, no one would ever know it was there. The first elevator brought people to the main agency office, on the floor below, or to the other professional offices that rented space on the five lower floors. When in use, only the partners, the staffer on duty and the extremely well paid full-time housekeeper had access to the shelter from a small elevator that was hidden as a mechanical closet in the back of the sixth floor below. Clients who faced danger were often spirited into the suite of rooms during early morning hours, scheduled to remain there while the men solved their problems for them.
In the common area, guests could fight over two treadmills, a few current books, a television that wasn't hooked to cable but did have a vcr with a small selection of tapes, and one telephone locked and guarded by the housekeeper. There were no connected computers, so no e-mail or Internet worries. The staffer's computer, bolted to the desk, was triple password protected just to get anyone past start-up. If they succeeded in breaking through all that, they only found a few old, uninspiring computer games. By then, generally even computer enthusiasts were ready to give up. Nobody had a phone in the apartments. The partners had found they could trust their clients to, at least once, attempt to phone their (a) home, (b) paramour, (c) mother, or (d) bookie... not necessarily in that order. If they attempted a call from the one available phone, anyone who attempted to trace the call would have found that the phone belonged to a run-down truck stop in Tortilla Flat.
This was an inner sanctum with seven smallish apartments. Each was furnished with two double beds, a tiny kitchenette, an equally small bath, a tinier closet, a very good work table, and several extremely comfortable chairs. Few people slept well in these rooms, but they worked or worried a great deal. Each room had only one door, and that was narrow in all rooms except one. Seven inner rooms... one for each partner, and two more for safe keeping, literally.
He chose the one nearest the common area. There was no luggage, so he went to the closet, where an assortment of leisure clothing hung. He chose pajamas, folding the top into one of the drawers in the closet's corner. He stripped quickly and threw his now shabby suit on the floor inside, wondering if the remaining smoke and propellant smells would get into everything else. He stretched his body determinedly, spending extra minutes on his injured leg and arm, starting a routine to rebuild the muscles. In the cramped bathroom, he found individually wrapped toiletries and opened what he needed. The long, hot shower was a marvel of luxury after the detestable sponge baths of the past days.
"You not going to eat?" Buck was seated at the table in his room when he came out drying his hair.
"No. Not now."
"We've got stuff in the central kitchen... soup, those little pudding things, can microwave some of that rice or pasta stuff--"
"You can stop just about now..."
"You still green?"
"You ever see me come out of that place when I wasn't green? Do we have any soda?"
"Soda? Don't you want a beer?"
"Well, come on... I'll raid the refrigerator for you. Regular, decaffeinated; sugar, no sugar; ice, no ice?"
"Regular, sugar, lots of ice. Make it a cola if we've got it. And bring a real glass."
He followed his friend, the one who had watched his back for more than two decades, but he stopped at a large leather couch in the center of the room. The other man finished a quick inspection tour of the galley and returned with what he'd been asked to bring. Tucked under his arm was a box of whole wheat crackers, a wedge of cheese, and a cheese knife, just in case.
"Good idea. Open em up, and we'll share."
"Saving my skin?"
"Yeah. Mine, too. Figure Terry's made you promise to see that I eat, sleep, and do every other little natural thing while I'm here."
"You get Adam squirreled away with her and the others."
"I got him upstairs. That's all I can say good about the experience. You made that boy mad as a rattlesnake. And Chris, about sleep--"
"You know you've got to get some. It's late. We don't have anything pressing yet to keep you up..."
"No, just a bomb... excuse me, two bombs; an injured partner with a pregnant wife who got bombed with us; just a woman I know, but don't know, who's been in my room, and just happened to walk up to that desk while Adam was there. Just a woman who scares me to death. Plus who and why?"
"No... plus who and why."
"Vin won't show at the hospital, but he got Ezra to go and make sure everybody stayed bedded down. We need to get started on the case, but tomorrow morning's not too far off. If you were to get eight good hours..."
"Not going to happen."
"...or six or even five, you won't have to apologize to your wife, and neither will I. Why don't you at least lay down and try. You need anything else?
"Gonna give it maybe a little try?"
"Now, that's being a real good boy."
He returned to the bedroom, finishing the cola as he moved. He didn't expect to be able to sleep, but he was surprised at how good the mattress felt. He was actually tired. He stretched out on the bed, glad to feel it's firmness beneath soft exterior coverings. The things he missed were the pillows he'd hustled at the hospital. He got up again, walked next door, stole the pillows there, returned to his room, swiped the extra one from the closet, and piled them all around. They were the only answer for having to sleep in a lonely bed without Terry.
He began to drift off. The air was cool and clean. The only sounds were the muted television from where Buck sat guard and the circulating air from the ductwork in the ceiling. He slept deeply, restfully for the first time since the explosion. Buck checked on him a few hours later and smiled when he heard the easy breathing.
Music entered his mind. "...all that's left of two hearts on fire..." He could have enjoyed it... would have enjoyed it... but someone was there. She stood next to the bed, close enough to touch him, the quizzical expression back on her face. Her lips traced a few words, and this time, his mind knew he heard, even as he knew his ears hadn't. "I've looked for you." She was gone, didn't walk away, just disappeared. "Wait... who are you?" His head felt torn apart.
Buck was watching something Chris would have normally derided as high class smut. It was as close as the big man still came to being a carouser. His occasional night on duty at the cave was his only opportunity to go wild. There was no plot, no intellectual dialogue, so it didn't matter if he turned the sound to near zero. He thought he heard a sound from the room where Chris slept. The man must have been completely worn out... he had slept for nearly three hours.
"Buck... you got that stuff Terry sent?" He was standing in the doorway, leaning heavily against the door jam. He looked ragged. He came into the room rubbing bloodshot eyes. He looked even greener than before.
"Lord, Stud, I've seen you look better after one of our old two-day benders! What are you doing up? Thought you were going to get some good sleep for a change."
"Me, too. But she won't leave me alone."
"She? The headache's a woman now? Or is this something I don't want to know about?"
"That damn ghost!" He sat on the couch, elbows on knees, head in his hands, pushing hard against his eye sockets to try to stop the pain.
Buck's look of disbelief would have been comical, except he really was beginning to think the other man was going pure loco. "I don't think anyone's been here... at least not tonight. And I didn't think you believed in those things either."
"Hard not to when they wake you up to say hello. Look, get the pills. My head's gone off again."
"Sit down, I'll get them and some water."
The directions said Take two with water after a meal. He chewed up three, followed by a cracker to chase away the taste and nothing else.
"You know it's the concussion. It's got to be. You've been crazy for years with these feelings of yours, but you've never seen spooks have you?"
"No... sure don't remember having one pop up beside my bed."
"Damn, Chris. You're seeing and hearing em now? What did she say?"
"Said I've looked for you. I swear Buck. She was there. And I heard her, even though the sound didn't come from her. And I heard music again."
"Don't tell me anything else. This is just too damn spooky."
"Well, let's just forget about it. I'm going to try to sleep again."
"If I was seeing and hearing something like that, I wouldn't sleep until it was absolutely necessary."
"I haven't slept too well without drugs for most of a week, and not too well with them either. Tonight, my body tells me it's getting pretty well necessary. You stay awake and see if she comes back. I'd rather not meet her again any time soon. She's getting too damn close." He walked back to the room, lay down again, and waited for the souped up sedative to help him pass out. "Hey, Buck?"
"Vin coming tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Supposed to spell me about eight or nine."
"Good. I've got some tracking I want him to take up. And call Josiah."
"Good Lord, Almighty. What do you need your preacher for?"
"He and Terry are the only two who don't call me nuts about this. May think it, but at least they don't say it. Josiah's always studying strange stuff. I think this might just be strange enough to interest him."
"I did miss you in the congregation last weekend." It was the crack of dawn and the broad-smiling preacher had been there for about twenty minutes. He had brought supplies and cooked his parishioner a decent breakfast in the small kitchenette before he would let any conversation begin. Of his group of friends, the preacher was the only one who would stop everything and show up before sunrise to talk about spooks. No question, he knew this member of his flock would probably be as wide awake as he. The others would come and go throughout the day. They would come... knowing that the hunt was on, and Larabee was leading the hunt.
"Probably didn't miss me that much. Even people at the church think I'm mostly a basket case." He brought a fresh cup of creamed and sweetened coffee to the cleric, setting it on the worktable, next to the fresh cup of black he had poured for himself.
"When you rope them into a long-winded theoretical discussion on reincarnation... that congregation is NOT pleased, especially when you don't say two words any other time. Not too many of them think you're even capable of being a deep thinker."
"Keep em guessing. And I never said I believed it... I was just thinking about reincarnation and psychic power."
Was it true? He didn't know. He sure wasn't a movie-style psychic. He didn't see demons, or see visions of the future in blood-drenched color. What he had didn't come that often, didn't always come when needed. No, he just sometimes felt like he intimately knew people he'd just met, and sometimes the feelings came on a little too sudden... these feelings he had learned to trust. They provided very small pieces of information about people, or about a case he was on. Often the feelings told him who he should protect or told him to run. He didn't know why he had them, where they came from, but he listened. He'd learned to use the feelings, and to keep his mouth shut about their presence. This was the type of feeling that had saved J.D. and Casey.
"Why do you think I'm suddenly tuned into something different like this? Is it even possible?"
"Possible. Possible. We certainly don't have the answers to the universe. There are lots of people out there who believe we're destined to return. Some think we keep coming back if we've been bad. Other's think we come back until we've done certain things right."
"What do you believe?"
"That the Good Lord love's a soul that's unafraid of the search. Or else your skull's been pounded once too often, or you really have gone nuts. You've told me about your feelings before... what's so different about this time?"
"I saw her."
"Her? Your apparition is a woman?"
"Yeah. Beautiful woman. I heard her too."
"You saw her? She spoke to you? What did she say?"
"I've been looking for you. And there was music somewhere."
"Song I don't remember at all. I've never heard it, at least not before the first time I saw her."
"I didn't think these feelings came with audio or video feeds. How many times have you seen her?"
"Three so far. She keeps getting closer, and every time she comes and goes, my head explodes."
"Music have words? How's it go?"
"Just part of a line, really... all that's left of two hearts on fire..."
"Love song! A ghost sending you a love song! You told Terry about this particular vision? Bet she'd chase her off for you."
"LOVE SONG?! Hell! All Terry knows is what Nathan blabbed... that I was having nightmares. Keep your trap shut, Josiah."
"It is a love song."
"And how do you know that?"
"I have it."
"You have it?"
"I have it. It's on the CD in my jeep... Selection number 7... real sad love song... makes me want to cry."
"I've never heard it."
"Yeah you have, but you probably don't remember. Only place I know you to sleep for a real long while is when we drive back from the boundary. Old jeep of mine must feel like a baby's cradle to you. When we came back from there a couple of weeks ago, you fell asleep about ten minutes this side of Mexican Water. I started the CD to keep from talking to you. That's lyrics from one of my favorite cuts. I tend to put the CD on repeat for that one."
"What's the name of the song?"
"A Ghost in This House. Damn appropriate if you ask me. Speaking of appropriate, if you don't mind me butting into your business, what did you do to that boy of yours?"
"Do to him?"
"He's downstairs in the main office, at this time of the morning, talking to Ezra, and he's some kind of mad. From what I can gather, all the insults he was hurling were aimed at you."
"I told him yes, then I told him no, to the same question in the space of about thirty minutes. He didn't like the no. I didn't know he was here."
"You've got an army out there. Vin, Nathan, Terry. Buck's sleeping in a room two doors down. Ezra's minding the store and trying to calm your boy down."
"Who's at the hospital?"
"J.D., of course."
"Nobody guarding him?"
"Nobody saw a need, not after we figured out that the woman you saw wasn't a threat."
"How is J.D.? Casey?"
"You haven't heard?"
"He's a father!"
"I'll be damned... when?"
"Late last night. She went into labor real sudden. Scared Nathan and Terry pretty good. J.D. had a true to life Larabee fit! He made them wheel him, in his bed, to the birthing suite so he could be there!"
"Is everything, everybody okay?"
"Baby's premature... but not much... They've got him in an incubator just to make sure. Casey wound up with a C-section, so she's not real easy yet... but she's smiling a lot anyway."
"A boy. J.D. with a son. That's just great. What's the name?"
"John Christopher Dunne."
"John Christopher Dunne. Hell of a name if you ask me. J.D. said you and Terry are gonna stand as godparents."
"Yeah. We said we would. I'd have never thought he'd use my name, though."
"J.D.'s name... John, plus your name... Christopher. Gonna call him Chris."
"I'll be." He thought about that for a few minutes. A namesake. The smile on his face was the most tender Josiah had seen on him since Adam's birth. "Who's he look like?"
"Unfortunately, he looks like J.D. Maybe the boy'll outgrow it. " His grin was highly infectious. But he could also be serious, "Speaking of sons. You gonna set things straight with that one of yours? What did you say no to that got him that mad? Didn't think he was one to malign his father's name in such a despicable manner."
"He's not one that's apt to, at least I hope not. He does have his father's temper on occasion, though. Shoot, Josiah, I told him he could come here with me last night... then I told him he had to stay at the hospital and go into hiding with his mother."
"That the way you put it. Stay with his mother?"
"Yeah, I was a little distracted at the moment. Distracted, hell... I was scared out of my mind."
"Had a feeling."
"Woman who came up behind Adam at the hospital. Something inside me just said to get Adam away from her... to protect us all."
"Did you recognize the woman?"
"Yeah. It was the apparition."
"It was the ghost, in the flesh."
"I reserve the right to reconsider whether you're just crazy. What makes you think they're the same?"
"Well... looked the same. Small, long black hair, black and white clothing."
"What about the face?"
"I don't know. Seemed the same."
"Now we're gonna get somewhere. Adam says she, the woman at the hospital, is a substitute teacher from the high school."
"Yeah... that's what he said."
"Then get Ezra up here and get him to do a sketch of the woman that was close to Adam. Then, you get him to do a sketch of your ghost. Don't look at Adam's before you finish yours. Then let's have a look and see if they're really the same."
"Now that's a good plan. Get Buck to make arrangements, and if you'll give me a few minutes, I think I'd better talk with my son."
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I just got scared."
Adam had responded reluctantly to his father's call. He was listening with a distant respect. That was the most generous thing the father could call the boy's attitude.
"You don't ever get scared."
"What would make you say a stupid thing like that!"
"Hell, you don't ever seem scared. You don't ever seem like you're anything but in total control."
"That's a bunch of crap. You ever seen me when I'm working?"
"No, but I could have last night if you'd have let me come."
"I wasn't working last night. I was trying to hide. When I'm working, when any of us are working, we get angry, nervous, down right terrified lots of times. We're just men, Adam."
"Why'd you make me stay at the hospital? I told you she wasn't dangerous."
"You said it, but my brain didn't. I generally trust my brain."
"And what was that Just humor me you told Buck. He shut up the minute you said it, and he started to move to get you what you wanted. All of a sudden, he looked real worried."
"I guess I say that more often than I realize."
"I never hear you say that."
"If you're around me at work, you probably will hear it at times. Otherwise, it's your Mother that hears it. There are a few things I try not to say in front of you... and I wish you'd try to keep some things to yourself, too. I don't want people thinking I'm raising a hellion."
"What's Just humor me mean when you say it?"
"Probably means I'm nuts."
"Look. About ten or so years ago, before you were old enough to remember, all of us were trying to catch a stalker. We knew we were close to him, had several location leads, so we broke up to keep watch. I found him, but the way I found him was that he hit me over the head with the butt of a gun. It was my first, full-blown concussion. After I got out of the hospital, I started having these feelings of mine. I don't know why, but I know they're real. Never know why they come, but when they do, I pay attention, and all the others have come to pay attention to them. They all think I'm probably nuts sometimes, but it's just like a week ago... I didn't feel there was a bomb in my car... I heard the tick and saw the wire... solid evidence. But I felt there was a bomb in J.D.'s car. That's why I went after him... that and no other reason on earth."
"Damn, Dad! What does it say?"
"Generally doesn't say anything. Just a feeling... no noise... real quiet... just comes. Friday, it was screaming in my head like a banshee; yesterday it was about the same. No sound... just panic. I just needed you away from that woman, needed you away from me, with your Mother, 'cause the boys could guard you, and you could both guard each other."
"But why would you get the impression that Ms. Pepperjohn's sister was dangerous?"
"That's something I want Vin to figure out, and if you want, I'd like for you to help him."
"Sure! What do I do?
"How should I know. Vin's the best tracker; do what he tells you to do. Get the work done. Look, I'm sorry I sort of treated you like you were still a little kid. Didn't mean to do it yesterday, and I sure won't do it if you work here." He turned toward the door and simply yelled... "Vin, get in here."
The tracker entered, pushing back the hat that always adorned his long brown hair. He propped against the door jam, "Somebody yell my name? What's up?"
"You ready to track that woman?"
"You bet... just waiting to know who I'm tracking."
"Adam knows her."
"Should track pretty easy then."
"He's gonna get with Ezra to get a composite done. He knows at least one of her kin... another teacher. You be upset if he starts his professional training by working with you?"
"He's just a kid!"
"He's my kid."
"A kid with a mouth, you ask me. Well, I suppose if I can birddog you, I can birddog him. Just exactly for how long?"
"What do I do, Mr. Tanner."
"Stop calling me Mr. Tanner for a start. It's been Vin all your life; it's Vin now. Come on. I'll start you out with Ezra, then it's on to the dang paper work, teach you how to surf the Net some. You're gonna learn pretty quick that what I hate, you get to do. It was good enough for J.D., it's good enough for you."
"I know how to surf... just not where to surf."
"You know how to tell what's good information from what's a piece of scuttlebutt? What's worth hunting down?"
"It'll take practice, but we'll fix that. Get on downstairs to my office, I'll be along directly." The two hard and fast friends watched him go.
"Thanks. I sort of stepped on his pride yesterday."
"Batting a thousand, pard. You stepped on mine a minute ago. You're forgiven 'cause he's your boy, and you've been a little puny... but don't go trying to impress him by pulling rank on me like that again."
"Won't promise... but I'll try."
"Fair enough. You back?"
"Bout time you got out of that place. Gives me the dang willies."
"How dare you let him do this!" Vin had left, she had stormed in behind him, followed by Nathan and his bag. The man felt like he was either holding court or waiting for the executioner. He didn't know which he liked least.
They held their discussion while Nathan poked and prodded. "He's old enough to start if he's interested. He wants to try, and I'm not going to tell him no. It's still stiff, Nathan... I've started working to limber it up, but that don't mean it's ready to bend backwards. Vin won't let him get hurt. I won't let him get hurt either--"
"And how will you stop it! You can't. You can't tell me you can keep him safe when you can't keep yourself from being hurt."
"Look, he's gonna work with Vin on computer stuff... not on the street."
"Chris, lay down over here. I need to check that leg some more."
"And when he wants to learn about the street, what then?"
"Then, if he's old enough and proves he can do good work, I might consider taking him on a case... Doc, you touch me with that needle and I'm gonna... Look, before he even thinks about taking it up full-time, he'll have to do a lot of training, and the group will have to vote. Vin's not to happy with it as it stands."
In anger, she punched him, not very hard, but squarely on the burned area of his right arm. "But you'll just be a proud papa and push it through, and you'll just get him killed."
"My nurses don't go around swatting on the patients. Could you both, please, just calm down? Let me see that arm, Chris."
"I didn't think we hit each other in this family, either!" But, he reached out and pulled her to him, knowing too well her deep-seated fear. "We can't keep him tied down. He's growing up fast. I hope this is just a phase... that he's just curious. But I refuse to be ashamed of what I do, and, at least for now, he seems interested. He's got a great mind... you know... he's strong, and he can figure things out. Could be this is where he's meant to be."
"He can write, he likes music, he can do anything he puts his mind to. Why does it have to be this he's interested in?"
"I'm afraid it's because I've let him down."
She looked at him, seeing a sadness just behind his eyes. "You haven't ever let him down."
"I denied him... denied him my name. He's hurting because of it. While I was in the hospital, he wanted me to let him change his name."
"He finally asked you?"
"While I was in the hospital. I told him he'd have to wait until he knew more about what I do, what we all do for a living. Now, he's determined to know. I'm afraid he's seen me get hurt and get back up too much to convince him that the work can be really dangerous."
"So you think that's what's driving this?"
"I expect it is. He wants his birthright, and I can't... I won't... deny him again."
"It's just you and your ego! That's all this is!"
"No ego... I don't matter in this."
She knew he was telling the truth. "Then exactly what is it?"
"Pride, and trust in our son. I have to let him try." She rested her head on his shoulder, but he knew it wasn't the end of the discussion.
"Mom, Dad. We can hear you in the galley! You're not fighting because of me are you?" At least they were hugging each other. Nathan didn't seem bothered.
"No... no... we're just discussing some things."
"Tone it down. It's embarrassing."
"We'll discuss causes for embarrassment later. You get with Ezra?"
"Yeah. Mine's done. We've been waiting for you. Let's see what your woman looks like?"
"Your WOMAN?" Her head snapped back from his shoulder.
"Yeah, Mom... Dad's dreams are about a WOMAN!"
"Remind me to kill Buck! Now, Terry, you're going to be rational about this, aren't you?"
"Who is she? How do you know her? DO I KNOW HER?"
"I don't know! That's what we're trying to find out."
"I saw her!" He was going to have to teach the kid about being a blabbermouth; he was digging a deep pit for his father..
"You did. Well, tell me about her... all about her." She led her son across to the work table in Chris's room, ready to listen to the whole story."
"We don't even know they're the same woman!" Chris hated himself. Like son, like father.
"I didn't know about the second one... Dad just said he had a feeling the last one was dangerous."
She was instantly quiet. "Just humor you?"
"For a little while?"
"For a very short while, Mr. Larabee... and you better remember every detail."
"I've got to get with Ezra about the sketch." It was a fair retreat, but not a great one.