A short fictional work based on the tv series 'Without a Trace'
Rating: PG-17 (Language, violence)
Disclaimer: Without a Trace is owned by Jerry Bruckheimer Television, CBS Productions and Warner Bros. This fictional tale is for entertainment purposes only, not for commercial gain, which is prohibited.
Friday, November 22, 7:45 a.m.
The wind howled, the windows shook, and the angry gray clouds rebelled, coughing violently. It was a cold, wet miserable excuse for a day and matched her mood perfectly. Eyeing her watch and feeling her headache turn into a keg of dynamite, the harried woman hissed in frustration. Shoving a black pump on and grabbing earrings, she flipped the bedroom light off and ran into the hall and down the stairs.
"Finish up, Tiger," she ordered to her pokey six-year-old. She pulled on her coat and checked the two lunchboxes, snapping each one shut. She shoved dishes into the sink and clenched her eyes in desperation. Why did her children move like molasses uphill in January?
Rosemary Anderson's exasperated voice rose to the second floor of the well kept home and bounced loudly on the eight-year old girl's door. "Great," she murmured, peering under her bed, "Snickers. Snickers!" Sighing in frustration, she frantically swept her arm under the bed, hoping to dislodge the missing hamster, "Mom's gonna kill us."
"Come on, Steven," Mike Anderson snapped his fingers, gulping his coffee and shoving a lunch at the slow moving six-year-old. He got the boy's yellow slicker on, eyed the clock and hissed, "The bus is here! Why isn't she ready?"
"Hey, Mike, I got two hands, okay? I get them up, cook breakfast, check homework, get myself ready..."
"Just get her!" he growled, cursing as the bus horn sounded from the corner, "I can't miss the train."
"Go, I'll take her!" she shouted, kissing the top of her son's forehead and shoving him at her husband.
The door closed, the thunder rolled, her head threatened to leave her body and still no child. She eyed her watch and swore softly. Her eight-thirty meeting was with two clients the architectural firm she worked for had been wooing for six months. She couldn't be late. She started back up the stairs.
"Emily! Now! What are "
"I'm sorry!" The dark-haired child adjusted her glasses and ran down the stairs. "I was... uh... looking for... uh... my... homework, yeah that's it..."
"Your homework is in your backpack," the irate mother drilled, shoving the wayward arms in the yellow slicker. "Zip up and get to the car. You missed the bus, I'll take you to school." She paused, watching the dark head peek up the stairs. "Oh no. Don't tell me that rodent is missing?"
"I'll find him... he just... sort of..."
"I don't want to hear it!" the harried mother put both hands up, "When are you going to learn to be more responsible?"
"I'm sorry, Mom, really. I didn't mean "
Emily flinched as the door slammed. She buckled her seatbelt and felt her breakfast churning in her gut. She remained silent, her hazel eyes sliding sideways through foggy glasses. She knew that look and knew better than to bother her mother. Finally, the short ride to school was over.
"Not here," she said quietly, "it's Friday, remember? I've got to go to General Assembly. It's on the other side. Mr. Petrucci said we gotta be on time "
"Aw, dammit!" Rosemary pounded the wheel and the digital clock spilled another number: eight fifteen. "Sorry." She saw the startled look. "It slipped out," she noted of the curse.
The school grounds were extensive and surrounded by trees, part of a park. The entrance to the auditorium was on the other side. A familiar silver Volkswagen pulled up several yards ahead of them. She saw the raincoated driver hop out and open the door. She watched Irene Dunne hustle her own daughter out and climb back in the car, out of the rain.
"Look, there's Jessica. You won't go in alone!"
"Good!" the worried girl sighed, tucking her pigtails under the hood and opening the door.
"Hey," Rosemary said, recalling the note on the refrigerator from the principal. A note she'd read and should have known. She saw Emily's face turn slowly and rested a hand on the fair cheek. "You have a great day, Honey. I'm so sorry about losing my temper. Looks like I need to be more responsible, too, huh?"
"Maybe we can learn together!" Emily announced, then smiled and leaned over for a kiss.
Rosemary waited until the yellow slicker was nearly caught up to the taller girl on the path. She heard Emily holler Jessica's name and saw the other girl stop. They were nearly at the doors, Jessica had her hand on the knob. Then the shrill screeching of brakes and the sickening loud sound of metal crunching caused her to jump.
"God!" she exclaimed, hand on chest, eyeing the wreck at the dangerous intersection across the fenceline. When she turned back, both girls were gone.
Friday, November 22, 10:15 a.m. McHugh Elementary School
"Whadda we got, Jack?"
Danny Taylor pulled the collar of his jacket up, squinted into the teeming rain and hustled closer to the black umbrella his boss held. He shivered slightly, wishing he'd taken the time to finish that coffee now getting cold in his car.
"Emily Anderson, eight years old." The older man showed the handsome, dark-haired agent a school photo.
"Cute kid," the younger agent noted. He had a soft spot for kids and the crooked glasses over the smile, complete with missing tooth, captivated him. His nose twitched, his eyes scrunched, then he took two short breaths and a long wavering one, holding his finger under his nose.
"Hey!" Jack Malone, the head of the city's most elite missing person's squad, rebelled. He moved back, put a hand of defense up and grimaced, "I thought you took care of that germ convention?"
"I... I... I...." Danny tried, his senses tickling, and then his eyes closed and the lips parted.
"Turn your head!" Malone growled, and the younger agent moved just in time, before the Godzilla of sneezes was unleashed.
"Damn that felt good!" Taylor exuded, dark eyes full of relief. "I've been trying to lose that for an hour."
"Lucky me," Jack sighed, pushing the door open, "Inside. I can't afford to lose you to pneumonia."
"Aw, hell, Boss, I didn't think you cared!" he teased, wiping his face with a napkin from the diner. He drew out a second one, courtesy of where he'd been the night before, and blew his nose.
"Don't get your hopes up," the other managed, reviewing his notes, "My nerves aren't up to breaking in another rookie."
"Speaking of which," Danny looked around the auditorium, which was filling with students, "where is Harvard?" He referred to Martin Fitzgerald, the newest member of the team and an Ivy League grad.
"He's in the cafeteria, trying to find a teacher, Isabella Graziani."
"Aren't we all?" the mischievous dark eyes twinkled.
"She teaches third grade and Emily was in her homeroom. She's also organizing this year's Thanksgiving pageant. She's the one who reported the little girl missing," the senior man advised.
"How long?" Danny asked, flipping out his notebook.
"The principal, Joseph Petrucci, spoke to Mrs. Anderson. She dropped Emily off outside at eight fifteen, they were running late. She said her daughter was with another child, Jessica Dunne. Assembly started at eight-fifteen, lasted forty-five minutes. At nine o'clock, the students were dismissed to their homerooms. Miss Graziani..."
"With a capital M, Romeo," He muttered, "called Petrucci's secretary, Mrs. Wilson, at nine-fifteen, when she noted Emily was not present. None of the children recalled seeing her during the assembly. She checked with the office, to see if the girl was out sick. The secretary got no answer at home. She called both mom and dad at work. Mr. Anderson stated they were running late today and his daughter missed the bus. He said his wife was dropping her off."
"The wife?" Danny asked, blowing his nose again.
"Works for Levy, Browne and Lightheart, a very pricey architectural firm." He nodded to the principal, signaling he'd be right with him. "Michael Anderson, the father, is an accountant in town."
"Stuck in traffic. She's on her way. He had a hard time reaching her," he nodded to a tall, slim dark-haired man whose face was pale and wrought, "That's Michael Anderson and the shorter man next to him is the principal, Joseph Petrucci. I'm gonna talk to them and then he's gonna address the kids see if anybody has seen her."
"What about the other kid... uh... uh..." He frowned, coughed and sent a wet sneeze airborne.
"Christ, will you be careful!" Jack winced.
"Hey, I was supposed to be home sick today! I climbed outta my deathbed "
"Spare me!" the hand went up again, "Jessica Dunne, also eight and a classmate. She claims she never saw Emily. She arrived, entered and took her wet things off outside the assembly, then went in and took her seat."
"The kid never made it inside..." His voice dropped, his heart sank and he sniffed again. "Right behind her?"
"That what Mrs. Anderson said."
"Sam is checking hospitals. Vivian is with the secretary, getting a list of employees that might be working in and around the building."
"Okay," Danny eyed the corridor, his keen eyes seeing an arrow and the word 'Cafeteria'. "I'll be in touch my future fiance awaits."
Jack smiled, handed the photo of the missing girl to him, pointed to a tweed-carpeted hall and turned the other man around.
"Knock 'er dead, Champ..."
Two Hours and Thirty Minutes Missing
While his partner reviewed his notes again, Martin Fitzgerald tried to clear his head. The clean-cut native of Seattle, Washington, let his keen blue eyes wander the room. On pillars supporting the eatery ceiling were large decorations. Leaves in gold, red and orange splashed color on the otherwise drab room. Pilgrims, turkeys and cornhusks trimmed the other poles. Several groups of children, varying in ages and costumes, sat at circular tables. Some were reading their scripts, some were fooling around, and some were getting into their costumes. Today was dress rehearsal for the pageant on Wednesday
His firm fingers rested on slim hips, just below his worn brown leather jacket. The room was much too warm, the hot air was extremely dense. He wanted to undo the top button of his white shirt and loosen the restrictive tie. His brown hair was still damp and slightly mussed something that the teacher he interviewed found appealing. Her green eyes kept straying to his hair, as if she wanted to rake it with her fingers.
The dull ache began to get nasty. He thought perhaps this year, in a new city, new job new start that it would be different. But now, he stood hip deep in memory lane. Pilgrims, corn, wheat sheaves, dancing leaves, the parade with floats, a turkey, trimmings and pie the whole Norman Rockwell scene assaulted every sense. His stomach churned, he clenched his lips tighter and sucked air nosily through his teeth. He swiped at the beads of sweat forming on his forehead, must be ninety degrees inside the stifling room.
"This guy smells like bad news to me," Danny continued, flipping through his notes, "Teresa, the cook, said he was always leanin' on a broom near the recess area, right where Emily and her friends used to play. Where's this Murray, anyway? Where's the janitor hangout?"
"Environmental Services," Martin corrected distractedly. Didn't anybody else realize how hot it was? He tugged on his collar, releasing his pent-up neck. Twin long lines of sweat snaked a race down his back. The shirt was sticking to him and his hair was getting damper. The bright decorations seemed to glare at him, their colors garish and harsh. He sucked in a long breath and swiped at the sweat appearing on his face.
"Oh, sorry," Danny rolled his dark eyes, "aren't we the politically correct, young G-man." Then he saw the pronounced difference in the other man. Martin looked like a rat caught in a trap. Curious as to what was causing those wide blues to become so frantic, he slowly scanned the room. "So?" he asked, "Where is he?"
"Who?" Martin rasped, blinking sweat from his eyes and breathing hard. The whole scene was too close... too damn close.
"What?" the wavering soul blinked.
"What's with you, man? You okay?" He cocked his head and wrinkled his nose in puzzlement. Normally, Fitzgerald was GQ all the way, every inch pressed and creased. Hell, he bet the shorts were even starched. Something was very wrong to be causing the immaculate agent to be in such disarray.
"Yeah... no... Hell, it's like an inferno in here."
"Just my luck, you'll keel over in here. I hate extra paperwork." He nodded his head towards the door, "Why don't you go get some air? Hit the office up there and see if Vivian has an address on this guy... uh... Murray, the jani... the Environmental Services Manager. We'll go check it out, okay?"
"Yeah," Martin managed, wiping his wet face and taking his shaking limbs to the door. He fumbled with the heavy bar, shoving it hard, and grunted when if finally opened. He slid outside, letting the icy pellets hit his face, and sucked in air greedily. The roar in his ears died down as the past drifted away for now. Composing himself, he made his way along the building to the side entrance. He combed his errant hair with his hand, buttoned his shirt and straightened his tie. He took out a linen handkerchief and wiped his face and the back of his neck. Stopping long enough to get several gulps of water, he took a deep breath and entered the office.
Two Hours and Forty-Five Minutes Missing
Samantha chewed on a pencil, scanned the list and was about to pick up the phone, when it rang. She viewed the series of numbers in the call window and relaxed.
"Anything?" the senior man asked, heading for a meeting with the parents.
"Nobody fitting her description in any of the local hospitals or the morgue. I'm checking the surrounding areas. "
"Okay, what about mom and dad?" He eyed the distraught parents through the glass wall of the principal's office.
"Clean," she noted of any records. "He's been with the same firm since college. Very well liked, active in the local community theater and sports teams. She's only been working two years, but a real go-getter. Her secretary implied that Mr. Anderson often disagreed with his wife's work schedule."
"Okay, keep at it," he eyed the clock, "After Vivian and I talk to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, we'll round up the boys and head back, go over all pieces."
He flipped his phone shut and knocked once, got a nod from the principal and entered.
Danny blew his nose, tossed the tissue away and washed his hands. He doused his face with cold water, while taking in his reflection.
"Man, you look nasty," he told the figure in the glass, whose runny eyes and red nose were standing out. He dried his face and eyed his watch. He flipped out his phone, plunked a dollar into the vending machine and got a coke. Pressing the cold can against his hot face, he ambled back into the crowded cafeteria.
"Hey, you get anything on Murray yet?" he asked his blonde teammate.
"Nothing local, but the state and federal checks aren't in yet." She eyed two more lines lighting up. "I gotta go. Calls are backing up." She flinched when his sneezed sounded loudly. "And Danny? Don't sit near me, okay? I've got plans for this weekend and I don't need to catch that creeping crud."
"You know, a little sympathy wouldn't hurt." He frowned as the dial tone came on. "Women," he shook his head, sat down and then jumped back up when a voice hollered at him.
"Hey!! You're sitting on my pipe!"
"Huh?" Danny turned around and eyed the chair, picking up a wooden prop, "Sorry. Watch out for splinters." He eyed the group of young children, all dressed for the play. The tallest boy, with a shock of short red hair and bright eyes, glared up at him.
"Hey, Miles Standish?" He guessed of the famous pilgrim. The coppery head nodded. The severe dark clothes, right down to the hat and the buckled shoes, looked perfect. "You look great!"
"Thanks," the boy offered his hand, "I'm really Patrick Kelly." He saw the silver badge pinned to the lean man's belt and his blue eyes went wide, "Are you a policeman?"
"F.B.I." Danny ruffled the short dark hair of a younger pilgrim, whose dark eyes smiled back, "Danny Taylor."
"Nicky Chin," the boy shook his hand, "Are you looking for that lost girl?"
"Yeah," he squatted down in the center of the group, "Did you guys know Emily?" He fished the photo from his pocket and showed it to them.
All four heads shook negatively. Taking his role seriously, 'Miles Standish' spoke for the group.
"Miss Graziani said she was lost. It's an awfully rainy day to be lost? Don't you think?"
"I do!" he agreed, winking at a sweet-faced Indian maiden whose front two teeth were missing, "What grade are you guys in?"
He chuckled at the monotone chorus and tugged on the braided wig of the princess.
"You guys look great! What's the play called?"
"By the Blessing of God," the smaller pilgrim announced.
"Cool name!" he assessed, warming up to them.
"It's from a letter from Edward Winters," the sleepy little princess announced while yawning, "He was at the first Thanksgiving."
"Winslow!" Miles Standish corrected, rolling his eyes and clucking his tongue, "Girls... "
"That about says it all, my man!" Danny laughed at the pained look.
"We don't got the letter," little pilgrim Chin piped up, staring up at the tall agent and grinning.
"No?" Danny chuckled, completely charmed by the quartet
"But Mrs. Farber saw it," the princess said of her teacher, "She read it too." She paused, wrinkling her brow, "She wasn't there, neither."
"She wasn't?" Danny bit back a laugh, the little maiden was so serious.
"No, it was from a book... about... uh... the... Mayflower..." She sighed, staring up at the handsome man.
"Ah," he nodded wisely, winking at the giggling child. "So I guess they had turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and stuff, right?" he asked, testing their knowledge.
"No, they hadda eat fishes and reindeers," the little pilgrim announced, "Yuck!" He wrinkled his nose and made a face.
"They weren't reindeers, Nicky," Miles Standish corrected, shaking his red head, "Reindeers live in the North Pole with Santa. They ate ven... ven..."
"Venison?" Danny guessed.
"Yeah!" the tall boy nodded.
"Do you eat that?" the little pilgrim asked, tugging on the policeman's leg.
"No way!" He laughed, high-fiving the boy and ruffling his hair again. He immediately rose a notch in their book. "Fish huh? That's rough... why was that?"
"It snowed lots and lots the year before and people died lots of 'em. So... so... they needed... the Indians to help them learn about growing stuff... to eat... so they wouldn't starve no more."
"Excellent!" Danny patted the back of the speaker, who was the lone female and was taking her job as princess seriously.
"They hadda eat stewed pumpkins. They didn't have a store for the pies," Chin noted proudly.
"That's a shame," Danny agreed, "Me, I love pumpkin pie with a whole can of whipped cream!"
"Me too!" the Indian agreed, smitten with her new hero.
"...fruit... cheese... and... and..." Miles thought for a moment. "Corn. Lots of corn."
"You guys really did your homework!" he lauded, congratulating them all. It was then he noticed a solemn boy to the side, undersized and seemingly shy. His sandy hair was wavy and his eyes were wide and blue. He looked terrified, his fingers clutching a paper in a deathgrip. Taylor moved over a few feet, offering his hand.
"Hey, little guy, I'm Danny. I work for the F.B.I. I'm trying to find Emily Anderson. Do you know her?" He showed the picture, but the blond head shook no. "Sure? " He saw the head move again, lifting briefly and then dropping down again. "Okay," he paused, pocketing the photo. He winced at the shaking, long exhale from the tiny child. "You in the play?"
"That's Scott Westfall," the redheaded leader announced, "He got to pick a poem from the teacher's poetry book... and... and... he's gonna read it."
"Yeah?" Danny's voice went up. "That's very hard to do. You must be a very brave boy," he lauded quietly, watching the blond head dip further down.
"He's been practicin' real hard," the Indian maid announced.
"Yeah?" Danny squatted down, meeting the small boy at eye level, "What's it called?"
"Nothing Gold Can Stay," he whispered, "by Robert Frost." He paused, studying his feet.
"You like poems?" the dark-haired agent prodded gently and the sandy head nodded slowly. "Me too! Can I hear it?"
Danny's eyes widened in startled amazement at the boy's sudden burst of life. He was bowled over by the saucer-like blue eyes . He could almost feel the tiny heart hammering in the boy's chest.
"Said so, didn't I?"
"Okay." Scott tried, he really did. Twice he took a deep breath, but twice it escaped. His shoulders slumped. Then he looked up at the warm encouragement in the brown eyes of the man with the badge and he found his courage.
"Whoa!" Danny chuckled, put his hand up and smiled. "Slow, little brother, slow and easy. It's not a race."
"That's okay. Deep breath," he took a breath with the boy and nodded, "Go on..."
Three Hours Missing
"Okay," Jack sighed, rubbed his neck, and turned to the weeping mother, "The last time you saw Emily, she was right behind Jessica Dunne."
"Yes," the sobbing mother nodded, "Emily called out to her. Jessie stopped. Em...ily... caught up to her. Jessie went forward... her hand was on the door knob..."
"Then you turned away, briefly," Vivian encouraged.
"Yes..." She took a deep breath, "there was an accident... at the inter... section. The brakes screeched... there was a horrific crash. It startled me. When I turned back, both girls were gone. I assumed they went inside..."
"How far behind was Emily?" Jack asked.
"A few feet, maybe..." the mother guessed.
"Did you notice anybody nearby? Somebody on the grounds?" Vivian inquired.
"No. Just the Dunne's car in front of mine. I recall that... because Emily was upset at being late. There wasn't anybody outside, then Irene dropped Jessie off."
"Did you notice anybody behind you?" Malone pressed, observing both parents intently.
"No. Where could she be?"
"Well," Vivian rose, walking to the window, and eyed the rain falling outside. Dozens of policemen with flashlights were scouring the school grounds. Some had dogs with them. "They're covering every inch " She heard the stifled sob and returned to pat the anxious mother's hand, "I have a boy, Reggie, he's twelve." She gave a squeeze of sympathy. "No news is good news. You keep thinking positive."
"How could Jessie not have seen her?" Mike Anderson lifted his head. His voice was thin and wavering. "Rose said Emily hollered to her and she stopped."
"She was wearing headphones... and a CD player," Malone recalled of the upset child's testimony, "She turned it down when she got close to the school. She stopped again to put it away. She was very shook up."
"She never even heard Emily," The mother's voice died.
"No, she didn't," Vivian replied, picking up her raincoat. "I'm gonna check outside," she eyed her boss, indicating the search team. He nodded and eyed the clock, every second passing all too swiftly.
"Okay, get an update, then head in. I'll finish up here and check on the boys."
After getting the address from Vivian, Martin went to speak with the security guard as well as an electrician who had been working in the building earlier. Now, he was taking his newfound information to his partner.
His hand froze on the handle; he heard the voices inside and the winds of time threatened to sweep him away again. Another school, another storm, another parade of scarecrows and pilgrims screamed at him. Thunder and lightning... darkness and cold... no way to escape... The knuckles on his hand went white with repressed fury, as a man's memories of a boy's terror came slashing back.
He shook it off, took a deep breath and entered. His eyes scanned the room until he spotted Danny talking to some small children. He tried to get the other man's attention while keeping his body in the doorway. The cardboard pilgrims on the walls seemed to scowl at him. Danny didn't see him. Sighing, he took another breath, blocked them out and moved towards the group.
"Nothing Gold Can Stay," the little blond boy said, then paused, took a deep breath and felt his fear leaving, looking at the dark eyes of the F.B.I. agent, "by Robert Frost." Taking another deep breath, he began, "Nature's first green is gold. Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower; but only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief. So dawn goes down today. Nothing gold can stay."
Danny was silenced momentarily by the sad overtones the poem held. Moreover, he saw that same melancholy in the blue eyes of the child. Recovering, he smiled and squeezed the boy's shoulder.
"That was great. I really like it. You did a fine job, Scott."
"Thanks... I picked it... special..."
"Why's that?" the agent inquired, seeing a light in the boy's pale eyes far older than his years.
"It reminded me of my Grandpa." He dropped his chin to his chest. "He's in heaven now."
"I'm sorry about that," Danny consoled, keeping his hand in place, "So is my Grandpa."
"Yeah?" The eyes looked up again, in curious fashion. "You think, maybe, they know each other?"
"I think so!" Danny agreed.
"I miss him," the boy whispered, wincing as his chest hurt.
"I know. It hurts, huh?" He saw the sandy head nod.
"He took me to the park. We would collect the pretty leaves, red and gold, and save them. Sometimes, there was so many they were like snow..."
"Yeah," Danny nodded, smiling. "Close your eyes and go back to the park. Go on," he paused until the tiny features softened, "See it?"
The curly blond head nodded and the wise agent continued, "See your grandfather? He's right there. With those red and gold leaves."
"Hey... hey..." Scott smiled, his eyes still shut, "I can see him. Thanks, Mister."
"It's Danny," he ruffled the sandy locks, "and you're welcome. Good luck with the play." He saw the teacher coming over and flashed his winning smile. She was a very attractive, petite blond with huge green eyes. "You're kidding. Isabella Graziani?"
She laughed and shook the hand extended, "What can I say? My father's people were from Northern Italy."
"Must have been way north!" Danny teased, "Like Norway."
"Come on, now, we have a play to get to and Mr. Taylor is a busy man. Say goodbye."
"See you, Danny."
He kept his eyes on them until they got to the door. From the corner of his eye he saw Martin's body nearby. Then the small blond boy turned around.
"Hey, Danny? Will you come? To the play? It's on Wednesday night, seven o'clock."
The haunted eyes and the poem still with him, the federal agent found himself nodding. Something about the boy's painful shyness had melted his heart.
"I'll try, Buddy, okay?"
He smiled at the audible sigh of relief and turned to face his partner. His smile died at the odd sight. Martin was standing several feet away, his face as white as snow. His eyes were wide and full of blue fear, his fists clenched painfully and his jaw locked.
"What the hell..." His voice died away and he turned, following the line of Fitzgerald's pained gaze. It was on the spot Scott Westfall had stood when he read the poem. He moved closer, noticing that the other man seemed lost to all around. "Hey." He waved a hand in front of the unblinking sky gaze. "Hey. Earth to Martin," he tried, waving again, "You with me, Harvard?" He tapped the brown leather jacket sleeve and the body jerked. A short hiss escaped the tense lips and the eyes went wide and frantic. Then they blinked rapidly, scouring the room as if seeing it for the first time. A hand started up toward the pale face, wavering badly before going back into a fist.
"You okay?" he tried again, laying a hand on the sleeve.
"Fine!" Martin hissed, jerking his arm away and not liking this lack of control one bit.
"You don't look it..."
"I said I'm fine!" he declared in a molten tone, turning rapidly, "Let's go. I got an address."
"Great," Danny slumped, wondering about the bizarre behavior, "It's gonna be a long fuckin' day."
Three and a Half Hours Missing
"Was Emily complaining of headaches, stomach aches?" Jack asked, sitting on the edge of the principal's desk. "Did her sleep patterns change? Eating habits?"
"No," her father replied, "She's a real outgoing kid... uh," he rubbed his eyes, "she's in scouts, plays soccer, belongs to the 4H."
"She's well-liked at school; gets good grades." her mother interjected.
"How about fights with a friend? Trouble of any kind? Bully picking on her?" Malone pressed.
"No," Mike Anderson sighed.
"Problems at home?"
"Of course not!" the father's eyes got hot, "She wouldn't run away!"
"Mike," Rosemary Anderson placed a hand on his sleeve, then turned to the dark-haired agent. "She's had a few problems with responsibility lately, but that's normal for a girl her age. You know, forgetting stuff, not putting things away... losing library books..."
"...and hamsters," Mike sighed.
Jack nodded, "I've got two little girls. I do know," he eyed the clock, "I'll be in touch. We'll need to hook into your phoneline, in case it is a kidnapping. There are two agents in a car outside. They'll take you home."
"It's back here somewhere," Martin announced loudly over the rolling thunder. He shivered and pulled his collar up, frowning as he sank into mud. The road to the janitor's residence was through a patch of dense woods. A loud series of sneezes caused him to pause, shaking his head, "You sound good."
"At least I got dry feet," Danny tossed back, eyeing the blue-eyed agent's wet bootless feet.
Martin made a face and pulled out his ringing phone.
"Fitzgerald," he said as he ducked under a low branch, peering into the thick woods.
"Guess who was chief cook and bottle washer at the house of many doors?" Samantha updated, peering on her computer monitor.
"Our missing janitor?" he shouted over the thunder, making a face at Taylor, who mouthed the words 'environmental specialist' and crossed his fingers in a gesture of chastisement.
"The very same. Walter Howard Murray, age 35," she scanned, "He's been in and out of jail since he was fourteen back in Detroit. Started in juvie hall for stealing purses, at sixteen he was hot-wiring cars, at eighteen he did four years for ripping off a convenience store. Then he moved to New York and he hit the big time: armed robbery and felony assault. He's been with the school a little over a year..."
"But?" Martin responded to the catch in her voice. He saw Danny gesturing to a small, one story building several yards away. "Yeah, I see it," he indicated and nodded.
"His cellmate in the pen said our boy Murray was into kiddie porn," continued Samantha.
"How the hell did he get hired in an elementary school?" Martin barked, his voice and face flushed in anger.
"His uncle is a big shot on the city council and on the school board," the blond agent replied.
"That sucks," Fitzgerald decided. "We're here. Looks like nobody's home." He huddled next to Danny, who had been pounding on the door. While Martin peered in the dark window, his partner disappeared around the side. "We're gonna check around the "
"Hey, Harvard, back here!"
"Martin? What's going on? Vivian's here." Samantha pushed the 'speaker' option on the phone so Vivian could hear as well. The other agent had just arrived, tossing her wet coat on a chair and leaning over the console.
"Hold on!" He paused, ran around the side and followed the beam of the other detective's flashlight. He squatted down next to the sniffling man and his heart sank. "Shit!" he hissed, eyeing the item on the floor of the cellar.
"Vivian, what was the description Mrs. Anderson gave of Emily's backpack?"
"Uh," she scanned the notes in her book, "Ocean blue... with dolphins... and two stickers."
"On the lower right? A flag and a butterfly?" he peered closer, as Danny flashed the light.
"Yeah," she sat down, narrowing her eyes, "What do you have?"
"The first piece of the puzzle," he lamented, then turned and asked, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Martin?" Vivian pressed closer, trying to hear what was going on.
"Window's open," Danny decided, lying on the cold, wet ground, "Grab my feet."
"Wait! You can't just... Dammit, Taylor!" He knelt down as the upper body disappeared. He grabbed his partner's ankles and held fast.
"Get me up!" "Martin, what's going on?" Samantha stood up, her eyes shifting as the other agent's voice faded in and out.
"You can't just do shit like that!" the newcomer raged, hauling the coughing body up and settling him down on the ground, "What if you slipped? How about warning me?" He paused, seeing the fevered man's face go ashen. He cocked his wet head and frowned, "What?"
Danny sighed once and stared at the anxious blue eyes. "She was here. There's a bloody handprint on the wall, a little one."
"Fuck!" Martin sat down hard next to the wheezing agent. Danny picked up the discarded phone.
"Danny? What happened? What did you find?" Johnson pressed.
"Vivian, update Jack. Get a warrant and the lab over here."
Numb from the cold, Taylor blew on his hands, listening as the other agents were updated. Twin profiles remained dejected for a moment. Rain streamed down, running off the fine features of both young men. Blue eyes and brown studied the landscape, each revisiting their own thoughts. Then a flash of movement just in front of them caused both to startle.
"Hey, did you see..." Martin jumped up, peering intently into the wooded area next to the house.
"Yeah," Danny hissed, clapping the arm of the other. "Let's go," he shouted, hopping off the porch, his partner in close pursuit.
Five Hours Missing
The red and blue lights of the police vehicles reflected numbly on the leader's face. The dark clouds were still angry and the sky shouted loudly. He shivered in the doorway of the caretaker's dismal home, watching the lab work.
"Yeah," he turned, greeting the medical examiner, "How long?" He walked through the narrow hall, peering into the bedroom
"Somewhere between eight and ten hours," Sadie Hopewell said, snapping new gloves on, "I'll know more after the autopsy."
"Foul play?" He eyed the nude body on the bed.
"Not that I can see," she said.
"Patterson?" he asked, calling to the detective nearby, "Anything?"
"No sign of her up here." He stood up, "we'll dust and collect it all, but I think she was contained in the basement."
"Where the hell is she?" He gazed at the unseeing eyes of the naked corpse, the former Walter Murray.
"This belong to one of yours?"
"Let's see," Jack approached the patrolman who was holding a cell phone. Jack flipped it over, "Yeah. It's Fitzgerald's. Where was it?"
"Under the porch. Might have dropped it..."
Malone blew out a frustrated breath, shook his head and went outside. He eyed the river of mud, wondering what evidence had been washed away by the storm. His head shot up when the familiar tones of the ever-feuding voices reached his delicate ears.
"Don't talk to me!" Martin snapped, slipping twice in the mud and resembling a wayward skier. He was thoroughly soaked, his clothes sticking to him and his bones already in deep freeze.
"I didn't ask you to come charging in there like the damn Marines!" Danny shot back. "I was handlin' th... th... things...." he concluded and sneezed hard three times.
"God Bless You!" Fitzpatrick hollered, waiting for the other man to catch up. "You couldn't handle your ass with both hands," he charged, turning and pointing to his clothes, "Look what you did!"
"I didn't do that!" Danny hollered, reaching out with his free right hand and steadying the wayward man, who was sliding again.
"You sure as hell didn't help!" Martin shook off the arm of assistance. "Flank him and flush him out," he huffed, mimicking the order given earlier, which had sent him into a creek, "Brilliant fuckin' move on your part."
"It worked!" Danny trumped, slapping the back of the other's wet head, "I can't help it if you slide rule types aren't athletically gifted." He saw a single fingered reply and winced, "Nice. You learn that in that fancy college?"
"Well if it isn't the Hardy Boys!" Jack crossed both arms and glared openly, stopping the bickering pair in their tracks. "Either of you two geniuses remember how to use a phone?"
"Uh," Martin patted his pockets, then saw Jack holding his phone, "Oh."
"Gone in the line of duty, boss..." Danny sneezed.
"Well?" Malone demanded, then saw Taylor's hand appear from beneath his coat.
"What the hell is that?" Jack squinted at the gray wet pile of fur in the agent's hand. Then Danny's fingers moved and Jack's eyes lit up. "Where'd you find him?"
"Her," the sneezing agent corrected.
"She ran from the side of the house, after we updated Vivian and Samantha," Martin managed, shivering badly, "Can we do this inside?"
"Side of the house..." Jack ignored the plea, walked around and studied the side, "Here?"
"I guess," Danny winced through the rain, "Why?"
"We found empty tins of cat food inside. Down there." He eyed his two top men, hair plastered to their skulls and eyes wary. "Upstairs, a corpse."
"Aw, hell," the former Seattle resident swore, rocking back on his heels as if an invisible sandbag had hit him.
"Not the girl," Malone shook his head, "Murray. Coroner thinks 8 to 10 hours. In his bed."
"That rules him out!" Danny's dejected tone matched his mood.
"You two head back to the office and dry off." He eyed the wet cat. "Make sure the lab gets that walking flea hotel. That's the same style ribbon Mrs. Anderson ID'd back at that school."
"Yeah," Danny gazed at the pink hair ribbon around the feline's neck with large purple hearts, "Will do, boss. Come on Harvard, you look like shit."
"No mirrors in your house, Taylor?"
Malone sighed and shook his head, wondering at the odd bond the two younger men were forming.
Seven Hours Missing
Danny Taylor melted into the hot steam, letting the pulsating water pound against him. The steam eased the pressure in his sinuses and he felt a temporary sense of relief. His heart nagged at him to stay under the heat, but his head held the upper hand. He hurried, shutting the water off and grabbing a thick towel. He dried off quickly, jumped into a navy blue F.B.I sweatsuit and shoved his feet into clean socks and a pair of sneaks. Then he frowned, cocked his head and hissed. As if Jack wasn't already pissed off at them.
"What the hell is he doing in there?" he mumbled, standing in the doorway. "YO!" he hollered, "Get your ass outta there. Jack's pissin' vinegar already!"
Martin didn't hear his partner. He peered through the steam, eyeing the image in the glass. The room behind him disappeared, and through the mist a face appeared: a small boy with sandy hair full of waves and pleading blue eyes. The hands came up, reaching out, seeking help. The mouth opened and the wavering voice went airborne. Despite the heat in the room, he shivered, as the child's cry for help echoed, bouncing off the walls. He grimaced and ducked his head, clenching his eyes shut.
"... go... away..." he whispered, pressing his face against the mirror.
The banging followed, a small set of hands futilely pounding a thick door. Over and over... until the palms were raw. Bang... bang... bang... bang... bang... bang... bang
That caused Taylor to move from where he was lounging in the doorway. He sprinted through the shower room, ready to call out, when he saw the other man. Fitzgerald was in front of a mirror, enveloped in steam in the semi-darkness. A snug-fitting towel hugged his damp hips. Above the left hip, the lower ribcage was a nice shade of blue. He thought back to the antics used to corral the cat and the slimmer man slipping. He must have hit the rocks in the water.
"Hey, you okay?" he hollered.
There was no reply. He moved closer and saw both hands pressed over the agent's ears, under a short wet set of brown waves. Both eyes were clenched shut and the newcomer was breathing heavily. He was sucking in air desperately, like a drowning man. Unsure of what to do, Danny thought for a moment and then rested a hand on the wet shoulder.
"Martin?" he asked quietly, giving a gentle tug. The body moved quickly, as if touched by a dancing flame. He jerked away and a loud hiss split the air as Fitzgerald's breath was forced through his clenched teeth. Danny winced at the raw fright in the wide blue eyes. The unblinking gaze finally broke, the head swiveling rapidly. Who was he looking for? The set of angry blues came to rest upon him, both fists balled up.
"Whoa!" he put up both hands defensively. "What's up with that?" he noted of the odd posturing.
"Uh," Martin looked around the room, seeking out the troublesome ghost. He dropped his head, regained his senses and raked a shaky hand through his damp hair. "Sorry. I uh... was... uh... thinking about that kid..."
"Yeah, right," the disbeliever snorted softly. "You don't play poker that good," he noted of the expressive features. "Listen, get your ass moving. We're already in the doghouse."
"Go on. I'll catch up."
Martin picked up a new towel to dry his hair and upper body. From his side vision, he saw the sneaks and dark blue sweats. Still shaken by the horrific vision, his jangled nerves were raw and throbbing. He wasn't a kid anymore, and he didn't want to see his partner's eyes flickering with sympathy. He'd find a way to bury it again, nailing the pain away in the dark where it belonged. He tossed the towel away and noticed the legs still a few feet away.
"That cold cloggin' up your ears?" he said testily, "I'm fine!"
Taylor sighed, shook his head and left. He jogged up the stairs and into the hallway towards their office. Martin wasn't fine he was far from fine. Whatever Pandora's box the blue-eyed agent had opened in that school was still haunting him. He paused at the door, watching Jack updating the timeline on the board. He turned again to the stairwell and composed his thoughts.
"I'll cover your ass this time, Harvard," he vowed, "but you and me are gonna have a talk."
He wasn't about to allow whatever was eating away at Fitzgerald to interfere with this or any of their other pending investigations. He knew the signs, and burying whatever hornet's nest was plaguing the young man would only make it worse. It would fester until it exploded. He wasn't about to end up in a hospital or worse because of another 'space' event.
"12:45. Murray's body is discovered," Malone paused, black marker poised, as the door opened. He looked beyond Danny Taylor, his dark eyes narrowing.
Danny went to the coffee corner, pausing long enough to grab a large mug from his desk. He tossed in a tea bag, squirted in honey and lemon and filled it with hot water. He turned, his eyes sliding to each face.
"Where's Frack?" Vivian asked of the missing half of the oft-sparring duo.
"He'll be here," Danny stirred his tea, dropped into a chair and then grabbed a doughnut from the white box on the end. Jack was still staring at him. "He's movin' slow. He's sportin' some color on his ribs."
"How bad?" the leader inquired.
"Do I look like George Clooney?" he noted of the ER doctor and shrugged.
Malone's phone rang and he ducked inside his office.
"Don't I wish," Spade teased, "Now that's a man!"
"What's he got that I don't?" Taylor eyed the two women at the table, both smirking.
"Good looks, charm," Samantha sighed melodramatically.
"Sexy as hell," Vivian piped in.
"I said stuff that I DON'T got!" Taylor grinned cockily through cold-ridden eyes and a red nose. He saw Johnson's brow arch up. "Okay, well, besides a lot of money... a house in Beverly Hills... wall to wall women," Danny sighed, "Damn."
"Mrs. Anderson gave a positive on the ribbon." Jack picked up the discarded marker. "So sometime between eight fifteen and noon," he resumed, "when Danny and Martin found the house, Emily arrived there. The blood is hers and they found some more inside on broken glass."
"Where?" Danny asked, flipping his notebook open.
"On the floor, under the window." Vivian stood and walked to the photo pinned up on a line.
"She didn't fall," Samantha eyed the photos, "The handprint is going the other way. She climbed in. Why?"
"The schoolbag?" Danny surmised, "Maybe she leaned in too far and it slipped."
All the heads turned when Martin Fitzgerald walked very stiffly towards them. Try as he might, he couldn't help but flinch. His left side hurt like hell. He glared at Taylor, still feeling the rocks as they hit him from where they were buried under the water. He poured a quick cup of black coffee and moved to the far end of the table, keeping space between them.
"I'm fine," he answered Malone's penetrating gaze. "She either caught it or chased it. She put that ribbon on it "
"Or somebody used it to lure her there," Samantha interjected, "She could have dropped her backpack running away. Cut her hand climbing to the window."
"Who?" Martin shivered despite the warm room and navy blue sweatsuit, which was slightly oversized on his lean frame. "Mrs. Anderson said the grounds were empty. She drove around the assembly hall on the way in."
"I gotta go with Martin on this one," Danny agreed, sipping his tea, "I don't think she'd have let that little girl out of the car if she saw somebody lurking."
"Okay, why would she chase a cat in that rain? And what happened at that house? Why didn't she go back to the school?"
The jangling phone took Malone once again to his office. The team followed his motions from the other side of the glass wall. Then his head shot up, his free hand covering the mouthpiece. They knew before the words left his mouth. After nodding a few moments more and scrawling on a yellow tablet, he hung up the phone. Four sets of eyes remained on him until he rejoined them.
"They found her."
"That was Memorial Hospital in New London," he paused, seeing the four anxious faces trained on him. "She's alive," Malone continued, watching all four exhale in relief.
"How'd she get there?"
"Is she okay?"
"Who found her?"
"Whoa!" Jack's two hands went out in a defensive mode, silencing the group. He pulled out the notes he'd taken and scanned them. "The NLPD found her walking on the shoulder of I95," he noted of the interstate highway, "She appears to be fine. They contacted her folks."
"How the hell did she get there?" Danny furrowed his brow, gave two sneezes and then grimaced as both woman moved to the other end of the table. "Nice. I've seen snakes with more compassion."
"According to the cop I talked to, she was pretty shook up. Cold, hungry and wet. She was crying for her mother."
"Poor baby," Vivian sighed.
"Was she abducted?" Martin asked, trying to find a comfortable spot. His side was throbbing in an unending parade of pulsating pain.
"No." Jack got his coat on, "At least they don't think so. She said she fell asleep in a church van near the woods. She woke up and got out they think at a rest stop off the highway. The kid wasn't sure, she's really mixed up. She went into the bathroom and when she came out the van was gone. So she started walking."
"What about the cat?" Samantha wondered of the hair ribbon.
"I don't know," Jack replied, buttoning his coat, "Yet."
"A church van," Danny frowned, scouring his notes.
"Near the woods," Martin completed.
"All this brain activity is wearin' me out!" Vivian rolled her eyes at the two young men.
"Let's go," Jack tossed to Vivian, "You're up. We'll go up to New London. Sam, I want you and Danny to get a map and find out where this 'church' is. She's a kid, she couldn't have walked that far. I want that van. And the driver."
The two peeled out, grabbing coats and quickly exiting, ducking past their boss at the door.
"I go with Danny!" Martin interjected, his eyes flashing blue fire. "We were the leads!"
"You could go with Danny," Malone conceded by the door, "but you'll be busy getting your picture taken."
"My picture?" The brows over the blue eyes knit together.
"Not that pretty face, Ace," Malone opened the door, "Your ribs."
"I don't need any damn..." He stood too fast, grimaced and grabbed the table.
For a long moment, Martin held the other man's intense gaze, then he sat back down, shoulders slumped. He kept the scowl long after the rest of the team departed.
"Great!" Martin tossed his pencil across the table, "Perfect way to end this miserable fuckin' day."
Five O'Clock, New York
The rain finally stopped, but the air was chilly. The germ-ridden agent blinked and yawned, rubbing his eyes.
"We're here." Spade pulled into another building, the third that they'd found by following the crooked roads scattered through the woods. She got a flashlight from the trunk and flicked it on. The dark-haired agent was already near the porch.
"Bingo!" he called out, squinting in the twilight. The woods and overcast day made it darker than normal.
"What?" She jogged over, flashing the light on a sign hanging over the door.
"The New Light Mission." The lettering was in white on a gray wooden sign. It was accompanied by a cross with a lamb lying in front and a stream of light bearing down.
"Hey!" He knocked on the door loudly. There was no reply. The house was dark and the door locked. "F.B.I.!" he rapped again loudly.
He left the porch and went around the side, to where the blond was squatted over a patch of ground. The light illuminated two small prints in the mud.
"She was here..." Samantha flashed the lights to a tangled thatch of woods. "That's quite a walk..."
"I'll call it in..."
Memorial Hospital, New London, CT
The eight-year old looked up from her bed, two French fries poised in mid-air.
"Honey, this is Mister Malone. He's one of the F.B.I agents who was looking for you," Rose Anderson noted from her position by the bed. Her husband was in the chair on the other side.
"Hi," Emily said, eyeing the two people approaching the bed. "Want some?" she offered part of her meal.
"No, thanks," Jack denied.
"Hi, I'm Vivian. I work with Mr. Malone. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm gonna go home later."
"Good," the dark-skinned agent smiled, "Can you tell us what happened?"
"Well," she sighed, putting the fries down and taking a sip of soda, "I was late for assembly. I tried to catch up to Jessie. I even hollered, but she didn't hear me."
"Jessica went inside, but you didn't follow?" Jack asked, keeping his place at the foot of the bed.
"I heard a cry," the eight-year old adjusted her glasses, "It sounded like a baby. I ran around the end of the building. I saw a cat a gray cat come from underneath with a kitten in it's mouth. I peeked in the hole, and it was filling with water. There were two more kitties in there. I took 'em out. I didn't want them to drown." She sighed, rubbed her eyes under the glasses and yawned.
"Take your time, Sweetie, " her mother coached.
"So I followed the mama cat. I had to run, she was fast."
"Into the woods?" Vivian inquired and the dark head bobbed.
"Yeah. It was dark, and the rain was pouring. I kept running. Then I saw a house and the cat jumped into a window. So I stopped and looked inside. The window was busted. I wasn't gonna go in, I wouldn't do that. It wasn't my house..."
"But you dropped your schoolbag?" Jack guessed.
"Yes, sir. I put it down to get the kitties out, so the mama could take them. I had one kittie in each hand and I moved. My bag fell inside. It was brand new and my Mom, well, she's says I'm irresponsible. I didn't wanna get into trouble again."
"So you tried to get it yourself?" Johnson asked.
"Not right away. I knocked... I... I knocked hard on the door," she stammered. "But nobody was home. So I tried to climb in the window and I slipped. I cut my hand." She held up her bandaged hand. "I tried to go up the stairs, but I couldn't see, it was too dark in the cellar. So I rested awhile and tried to get my hand to stop bleeding."
"When did you lose your hair ribbon?"
"I put the kitties with her the mama and I tied the ribbon on her neck. The thunder was loud and I was wet and scared..."
"What happened next?" Jack gently prodded, trying to move the story along. Taylor had called in, identifying the van as one owned by an Edward and Marylin Wilby. Mrs. Wilby's mother lived in New London. The Wilby's were coming for the weekend and intended to bring the mother back for Thanksgiving. Taylor had spoken to the New London police, who'd tracked the panel van to Mary Louise Morgan's home in New London. Nobody was more surprised than the quiet, middle-aged couple. They'd had no idea they'd driven away with the child. Mr. Wilby had found three kittens inside a sweater and notified police. The pieces came together.
"Well, the cat, she left. She jumped up the boxes and I tried to catch her," she paused, taking a fistful of fries and chewing thoughtfully, "Mommy says maybe there was another baby. A missing one and she was trying to find it."
"Could be," Vivian prodded, "Did you follow her?"
"Not right away, but then the babies started to move around. I didn't want them to get lost in the cellar. I put them in my pockets and tried to find the mama cat. I didn't know where she went." She took more soda and finished, "I got lost. It was dark... the thunder was loud... the rain hurt my face. I followed the cat into the woods... but then I didn't know where to go... so... so... I started to run. I kept going and going and my side hurt and I was crying and... and..."
"Easy now, take a breath," the father spoke, sliding a hand through the rails to hold hers.
"Okay," she tried that and eyed the two agents, "Am I gonna get arrested?"
"No, " Jack smiled.
"Good!" She sighed, "It was dark, really dark, and I was all wet and cold and my head hurt from crying. I saw a white cross that was after I was asking God to help me out so, I thought he answered. The back door was open and I had to get out of the rain. It was too hard, it hurt. There was lots of clothes and blankets and stuff inside. I was so cold, I buried myself in them to get warm."
"You didn't see the church?" Vivian asked.
"No. I saw the cross and I just... I was so cold and the thunder..."
"Okay, okay," Vivian nodded with a smile, "Did you fall asleep?"
"Yeah. I woke up... and... I had to go to the bathroom... really bad. I left the kitties in my sweater. They were sleeping. I didn't see anybody in the front and I really had to pee. It was a... a... wooden... uh... like the kind of bathroom in the... state parks... not real nice."
"Okay," Jack said, "You came out and the van was gone?"
"Yessir. So I started to walk. I didn't see nobody. Then the policeman came along."
"Well, you sure had quite an adventure," Jack said, "That van you climbed in was owned by a minister and his wife. They were coming here to pick up her mother. They had no idea you were back there. Those clothes and blankets are collected for the poor. Mister Wilby, the minister, he took his wife to his mother's house, then he went to do some errands."
"And stopped at the bathroom," Vivian concluded, "He got back to his mother's and heard those kittens." She left out the part about how the man had panicked when he found a child's sweater and no child. "He sure was glad to hear you are okay."
"My mom and dad, they said you were looking for me all day," Emily's voice wavered and she started to tear up, "I... I... I'm sor... sor... sorry..."
"Honey, don't cry," Jack came forward, showing her his ID badge, "You see what that says?"
"Missing Persons Bur... bur..."
"Bureau..." he finished, "It's my job, and Vivian's job, and the rest of my team's job, to find people who disappear. So you save those tears, okay? We're just doing our job, and we like a happy ending."
"The cat!" she looked up, eyes wide, "She... I took her babies!"
"You were trying to protect them," her mother soothed.
"They're at the vet. Mister Wilby will bring them back. Our people will hold onto the mother cat until they get back. A couple of my men found her."
"Yeah, she's tough, like you!" Jack winked, then turned to the parents. The child was tired and needed to rest a bit. It was a long ride home. "We'll be in touch. Good luck!"
"Thanks, Mr. Malone, for everything. Please thank your team. I can't possibly repay "
"Can I have a smile?" Jack asked the little girl, who gave a huge one, "Paid in full!"
Seven thirty, New York
"Can I drop you off?"
"Nah. I gotta pick up my stuff," Danny advised, flipping the cell phone shut, "Still no answer."
"Maybe he went home and took some painkillers," Samantha added.
"My boy Harvard?" Danny shook his head, "No way. He's the type that'd chew off his foot to get free from a steel trap."
"Then why are you worried?" She eyed the profile, turned a corner and waited. He didn't reply. "Did you two have another fight?"
"So maybe all the kinks aren't out yet," he relayed, but would offer no more. He was worried, but not about the ribs. He wanted to know what could cause the driven young man to become so full of fear.
"Maybe you should go right home. Chug-a-lug some Robitussin."
"Later," Danny yawned, fingering his throbbing temples. "Plus I want to wrap this up tonight. I can put a couple hours in and get the paperwork done. This is good," he nodded to the corner coming up, just a block from their office. A pair of panda bears under crooked red lettering called out to him. "I need some won ton. I need a vat of it."
"Jack's not due back for an hour or more. How 'bout we eat first?"
"I swear those must be the words between Daniel and Taylor on your driver's license."
"Thanks. I owe you!" He slid from the now parked car.
"I didn't say I was " she winced as the door slammed, "buying dinner."
Parking Lot of the Federal Bldg
"Hey, Boss!" Danny called out, seeing the older man near the elevator, "How'd it go?"
Jack stopped and waited until Sam parked and the other two agents joined them. He gave them a brief update as they rode up to their floor.
"You hear from Fitzgerald?" Danny asked, "I can't get him. Here, home or cell."
"No," Jack said, "Did you check with the ER?"
"I don't know where he went," Danny replied, "I figured he'd answer his phone."
"They don't allow them on in an ER," Vivian replied, holding the office door open, "Well, I guess that mystery is solved."
"Where is he?" Samantha asked, eyeing the coat flung over a chair. Several files were open on his desk and new notes were written on a yellow legal pad.
Jack cast his eyes around the room and spotted the door to the conference room open a little. He moved over, pushed it all the way and sighed.
"And you say I'm stubborn!" Danny wormed his way inside. He paused next to Martin, who was snoring softly. His head was lying on his folded arms on the table. Several folders, photos and schematics were neatly organized on the large table. A half-eaten package of orange crackers with peanut butter and a small, empty bag of pretzels were lying near an empty mug of coffee.
"Vecchione," Malone frowned, eyeing the notes.
"That dealer from A.C.?" Taylor recalled. "We're not still on that, are we?"
"He's sound!" Vivian eyed the relaxed features on the sleeping man's face.
"So would you be if you took these," Jack eyed the painkillers, "Take with food."
"Men!" Vivian shook her head of the 'food' on the table.
"Could be Sleeping Beauty needs a kiss to wake him up," Danny goaded, wagging his eyes at the two females.
"Go on, Honey," Vivian waved her hand at the smirking male, "Knock yourself out!"
"Martin," Jack tapped the navy blue sweatshirt, frowning when his fingers encountered something bulky. He moved them around. "Some kind of brace."
"Damn, he must have busted them," Danny sat on the edge of the table, peering intently at the sleeping man. "Hey, he's got that drool thing going," he pointed to a line of saliva running from the corner of the slack lips, "I hate that."
"Then don't look."
"He's back!" Vivian said of the cranky voice, "You okay?" She rubbed his neck as he stiffly sat up and blinked.
"Bruised, not broken," he yawned, opening his eyes unnaturally wide.
"Take with Food!" Jack addressed the stuporous face.
"That's not food!" Samantha picked up the crackers and chuckled when the blue eyes slid shut again.
"Damn, that must be good shit," Danny picked up the bottle.
"Come on, I'll take you home," Jack tapped the dazed man's arm. "You can't drive. Downtime?" he asked of potential time off, from the doctor's advice.
"Uh, it's after nine I think," Martin's fuzzy voice replied as he tried to find his watch.
"Man, you're flyin!" Danny laughed.
"Alright," Jack stood up and nodded, dismissing them. "What's all this?" he cocked his head at the reopened case.
"Thought... maybe... I... missed... something..."
"Yeah, well, save it for Monday. You keep icin' them ribs up and take it easy. You fall on that you could put a hole in your lung."
"Huh?" Martin yawned, then stood and wavered as the room moved a bit. "Shit!"
"That's why you take them with food, genius," Jack growled, shoving the pills into Fitzgerald's pocket.
The leader grabbed his elbow and waited until the slim man was more stable. By the time he managed to propel him to the outer room, Johnson and Spade were gone. Jack saw Danny lingering, and something about the way he was looking at the dazed Seattle native told him there was unfinished business.
"I go that way," he updated of his dazed partner's home, zipping his coat, "Come on, Harvard."
"Danny?" Jack said, meeting the dark eyes as Fitzgerald tried to get his arm in his jacket. He knew something was wrong. Taylor was hiding something. He wanted to talk to Martin alone. Whatever it was, it couldn't wait for the new work week. "Get it done by Monday."
"Easier said than done," he replied, steadying the wayward body. "Watch that, will you?" He grabbed the elbow. "One trip to the ER on a Friday night isn't enough for you?"
"Huh?" Martin blinked through what felt like many layers of mud between his eyes and his brain. He was having a difficult time remaining on his feet. The elevator ride was a blur and he had to concentrate hard to get his feet working. Finally, he slid on leather seats and sighed, letting his head loll. He felt the snap of the seat belt and the blast of heat, as a motor roared to life. He was dozing, grateful for the warm ride, when a loud series of sneezes got his eyes open. Peering over, he could see the driver's eyes reduced to cold-ridden slits.
"Helluva team," the words seemed too hard to maneuver on his thick tongue, "I can't walk... you can't see..."
"Well," Danny grinned, "as long as nothing important is affected. You know, I could be at home, in bed, being nursed back to health by the lovely Denise."
"Sorry," Martin slurred, casting woeful eyes at the driver.
Danny had to laugh at that, shaking his dark head, "That's okay, Harvard. We're a team!" His smile disappeared when the half-mast, lost blue eyes went to a place far beyond the horizon.
The dark-eyed detective knew Fitzgerald wasn't talking about his injured ribs. The soft voice was unsettling and the mournful eyes were worse. He would get to the bottom of the problem, but not tonight.
"We're gonna talk about that, Martin. I can't have you off lost in space while we're working."
The tone and brittle words cut through the mud. The lost blues swung from the cold glass of the window to the hot gaze of the driver. The medication had his head logy, but not so much that he didn't realize he had a problem. Taylor was correct in that he needed a clear head to work effectively. But he'd slay the demons alone, nobody would revisit those dark days.
"I'll handle it."
It wasn't the affirmation that upset Taylor it was that it was set in concrete. He paused, turning at the light, and shuffled his thoughts. Through a series of coughs and sneezes, he decided to wait a couple days and let them both heal a bit. But on Sunday, Martin Fitzgerald would come clean - even if it took all day and more than heated words.
It seemed like forever before he had the key in Fitzgerald's door. He got the staggering man to his bedroom and shoved him on the bed. Martin sacked out, arms splayed, snoring lightly. Danny turned the body, lifted the shirt and frowned. The thick ace-bandage-like covering would have to be removed to get ice on the injury. He saw the clips and took them out, carefully rolling the dozing man.
Martin never stirred as a cold pack from his freezer was placed on his side. He slept through the thirty-minute treatment and the quilt being pulled up after. He didn't hear the door close and lock. He didn't hear the stillness of the night, broken only by the ticking clock. The painkillers took him to a black deepness, without dreams. He slept soundly, but his demons weren't done playing yet.
Saturday Morning, 10 a.m.
Light spilled into the room, causing the newly opened eyes to flinch in pain. He turned, groaned and sat up too quickly, clutching his left side. His loud hiss went unnoticed as he gingerly eased his throbbing body from the bed. He shuffled to the bathroom and thought on his fuzzy recollection of the night before.
He shed his clothes while eying the large purple and blue area on his side. It throbbed and every breath was a burning trial. He turned the shower on, letting the hot water put some life back into his confused state. As he lathered up, he found a few pieces of the jagged puzzle.
The doctor's orders were to rest a few days, keep ice packs on the injury and use the painkillers. The pills. He thought about that while he washed his hair. He'd come back to the office and there was a message from somebody named Jimmy. No last name. Martin had been the principal in the disappearance of an Atlantic City blackjack dealer name Tony Vecchione.
The team had tracked down every lead and followed the calls, but the road led nowhere while their caseload increased. After ten days, Jack put the Vecchione case on hold. Martin was tagged as the point of contact and any new calls would come to him.
That was over two weeks ago, and the new call had been waiting when he got back from the ER. It was short and the caller had been nervous, stating only that he had information on 'the worm' and he'd call back. The reason it caused the aching agent to drag out the files, folders and photos was that they'd never released to the newspapers or public that the missing man's nickname was 'the Worm'. He ran with a bad crowd in both Philly and New York, tied to the mob.
He turned the shower off, climbed out and toweled off. He skipped the blow dryer, combed his damp hair back and slid into a clean sweat suit. Padding to the kitchen, he opened the freezer to get his ice pack. Frowning, he lifted it out, noting that it was on a different shelf than where he kept it.
Dusty images of a car ride and an olive-skinned face returned. Dark eyes found his, hands helping him inside, most likely into bed. That's why the ice pack wasn't on the right shelf. Sighing, he put coffee on, sat at the table and pressed the cold pack to his side. He used his shoulder and neck to hold the phone and dialed.
He was just about to hang up, after five rings, when a voice that was a cross between a croak and a cough slurred something.
"Danny, not Liz."
The snappy comeback gave Fitzgerald a brief smile. A series of deep coughs, sounding wet and wild, followed by a series of bangs and curses, took the smile away.
"Bang your head on the iron lung?" Martin asked, when the wheezing, cursing voice came back.
"Something like that," Danny groaned, "My head's about to explode. How you feelin'?"
"Okay," the aching agent admitted, "I can't remember too much, but... thanks. I know you got me home."
"You were makin' like Aladdin," he said of the airborne carpet-rider, "Take with food!"
"I know. I know," Martin cringed, then sat up, when a decidedly feminine and very sexy voice crooned nearby.
"Baby come to bed, I'm cold."
"Sister?" Fitzgerald inquired, a smile quirking on his lips.
"Nope," Danny groaned as two soft hands massaged the hot flesh on his lower back.
"Not likely," he hissed when they danced around his hip.
Before Martin could reply, the voice assaulted him again.
"My poor baby's too hot, you need a cool sponge bath."
"Sponge bath?" Martin's throat started to close and he felt hot. "Aw, hell."
"The lovely Denise!" Danny wheezed, coughed and fumbled, "Here, Babe, say Hi to Harvard."
"Uh... Mornin'... Ma'am," Martin winced as soon as the words left his mouth.
"Smooth, my man," Danny laughed, "real smooth. Listen, you need anything?"
"No, I'm good," Fitzgerald rose, anxious to get off the phone.
"I'm not, I'm naughty!" Danny wheezed as the pretty woman's hand slapped at him, "I gotta go, my nurse isn't happy with me. You gonna be home tomorrow around four?"
"Should be. Why?"
"I'm comin' over for the four o'clock game," he noted of the football event, "With pizza. We gotta talk."
"Yeah," Martin sighed, eyeing the clock. He had a day and a half to come up with the right answers. He didn't have to see the dark eyes, he knew they were serious and determined. He also knew that his partner was owed an explanation. "Okay."
Saturday Afternoon, 4:30 p.m.
Martin put the key in his lock and opened the door. He let the warmth of the room take off the chill that was in his bones. Feeling hemmed in, he'd taken a long walk. The air invigorated him and he looked at the boxes piled in his spare bedroom in a new light. He'd intended on making that room his study. A place for his computer, shelves for books and a worktable to use for his model ships. But he'd not unpacked all the things he'd brought from Seattle. Until this weekend he'd been working cases and not had time to put into the task.
He tossed his coat on the chair and headed for the kitchen. He placed the box of doughnuts on the table and made a quick supper. He took a can of Escarole soup from the cupboard, poured it into a large ceramic mug and nuked it. Then he tossed some turkey breast, tomato slices and lettuce with some Dijon on multigrain bread. A bottle of diet peach Snapple completed his lateday meal. He kept the ice pack on while he ate, so after he'd be ready to work.
Two hours later, with six boxes unpacked, he stood to use the bathroom and cried out in pain.
"Shit!" he hissed, biting his lip as a jackhammer-like sensation speared his delicate left side. He'd pushed too hard. He'd lifted too many heavy boxes and was now paying the price. He eyed the remnants of the last opened box. It was sitting on the new worktable, under a large window. He pulled out some college photos, putting them in one pile. Next were his track and field ribbons from high school, lovingly kept under glass in frames by his mother. He winced at the photo in the frame in his hand. A very young image of himself, thinner and with longer hair, looked back at him. He was about to toss the box aside, to break it down with the others, when he noticed an oversized gray and maroon folder. Puzzled, he pulled it out and tucked it under his arm. His bladder moved him quickly from the room. He tossed the gray curiosity onto the sofa on his way to the bathroom.
"Take with food," he frowned, not ready to eat yet. "Dessert?" he agreed with the man in the mirror. He made a large mug of coffee and selected three doughnuts. He grabbed his ice pack and padded to the sofa. He switched the television on, catching the last part of a football game. He popped the last piece of cake into his mouth and took his pills. He drained his coffee and was about to settle back into the comfortable cushions when he noticed the envelope and flipped it open.
It was as if all the air was taken from the room. The referee's whistle from the muddy field faded away, along with the cheering crowd. The only sound he heard was the rush of blood to his ears and the drum-like rhythm of his pounding heart. A cold sweat broke out as he sat up, gasping for air. His hands trembled while his stomach churned, threatening to toss the food back. His burning eyes raked over the art paper. The design had been done in painstaking fashion, with all the love a lonely seven-year old could muster.
He sighed heavily, raking his trembling fingers through his hair. Gold leaves, each one hand-crafted of felt, cut and pasted, framed the image. The crooked lettering was done in browns, rusts and dark greens, to capture the heart of autumn. Desperate to get air in his lungs, he took several wavering breaths.
"Nothing... Gold... Can... Stay..." he stammered badly, as pinpoint rifle shots shredded his guts to ribbons. "Jesus," he clenched his eyes shut in a desperate attempt to stop the awful movie from replaying.
The soundtrack came first, loud booms of thunder and gusty winds, rattling the entire building. That icy breath spilling from Mother Nature's cruel lips took the power away and left a little boy cold, alone and terrified. The saucer-like eyes were wet and warm, the undersized body trying to be brave.
"Don't," he warned weakly, "run." But it was too late. The boy ran and ran, terrified in the blackened arena of fear. It was an impenetrable sea of ebony, save the brilliant blue shards of lightning dancing through the tall glass windows. They seemed to choke him, causing the boy to fall. Brother Thunder was jealous and screamed his anger, causing the boy to make the fatal error. "NO!"
He felt the acids in his intestinal track rebel and dropped the poetic picture. While he ran a crooked path to the bathroom, dropping on his knees to lose his lunch, the gift made from tiny loving hands sailed under a wing chair.
The pain from his injury, coupled with the anguishing revisit to that dark time and enhanced by the powerful drugs, was an overload. It was too much to bear, even for a Fitzgerald. Stomach empty, he flushed the toilet, stood and gripped the sink for dear life. He rinsed several times, groaning as sharp pains stabbed through his gut, shoving the red-hot knife harder into his ribs. The room was tilting and he walked a crooked path, collapsing on the bed. With a soft sigh, he dropped into the blackness. A single tear for that lost boy ran a crooked path down his cheek.
While the twilight turned her cloak inside out, putting on a black velvet wonder, the man slept. But it wasn't a restful sleep. His slim body thrashed and moved, fighting for that lost boy. His legs twitched, trying to stop the flight into hell. He gasped and moaned as the thunder and lighting sent the terrified child into the talons of the devil.
Sweat poured from the tortured sleeper. His damp head worked the pillow hard, two fists clutching at the blanket beneath his moving body. No one was there to hear his cries, just like that night. No one was here to reach out and grab his pounding fists, just like that night. There was no one warm to hold him and soothe him, to chase the terror away, just like that night.
The ragged breathing increased the head tossed violently trying to stop the boy.
"No... don't..." he mumbled, his face drenched in sweat and twisted in pain, "... no... no..."
Too late, the boy didn't listen again. The lad's eyes were burning a hole into his brain again. Wide and a startling shade of blue, they were filled with terror. The small body jerked and moved... stumbling and falling... falling... too late. It hurt... it was dark and cold... he was alone. There was no way out... and then the devil came.
Sunday morning, five a.m.
"Yeah?" Jack Malone grumbled, sitting up and wincing. He flipped the light on and switched the phone to the other hand. He nodded, picked up a pen and began to write. "When? Where? Don't let them leave yet. I'm sending two of my men, Taylor and Fitzgerald. I'll check with division and follow on my own. Yeah, thanks Paul."
Spent and utterly drained, the body had no fight left. The limbs were slack, the lips parted and the ragged breathing labored. His heart was heavy, crushing his chest. The boy was depending on him and he'd failed him again. He saw the boy, unmoving, eyes fixed, the tiny chest rising and falling and he crawled towards him, reaching out. He was almost there, his strong hand reaching for that frail one... just a little closer...'
He jerked, gasped and licked his dry lips. For a split second, he had no idea where he was. He eyed the unfamiliar room and felt his heart hammering loudly.
"Yeah, yeah," he coughed, then sat up and grabbed the bedside phone. He winced at the red digital numbers on his radio, "Five-fifteen?"
"Martin?" Jack called out, having heard the ringing stop. There was no voice right away, just ragged breathing. "Fitzgerald? You there?"
"Huh? ye... ah..."
"How you doing?"
He sat up, took a good breath and flipped the light on, hissing in pain at the bright stab in his eyes.
"Good," Jack relayed, "Get showered and dressed, Danny's on his way over."
"What's wrong?" he croaked, rubbing his dry throat. He squinted until his eyes adjusted, scratching his chest and yawning.
"Vecchione turned up."
"Atlantic City. Two witnesses place him outside a bar called Dirty Annie's, not far from the Trop. He had an argument with the bouncer just about two a.m. A loud one. It ended up with a brawl. The bouncer was found dead not far from Bader Field."
"Nothing yet. I'm gonna check his haunts around here. Sam's gonna check with the cops in Philly, see if he headed there. Vivian's checking the state cops in Jersey. You two head down to A.C. and talk to those witnesses."
The click turned to dial tone and the phone was still locked in his hand. He dressed quickly, grabbed some coffee and was gulping down a stale doughnut when the buzzer sounded. He strapped his gun on, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.
Neither man spoke, both were tired and Martin knew Danny was still bearing the brunt of his cold. His dark eyes were rimmed red and his breathing was harsh. As for himself, he felt exhausted, worn to the bone. The nightmares were vivid and clung to him yet. The twin roaring pains in his ribs and head didn't help. He was in a shitty mood.
The trip didn't take long. They exited the Atlantic City Expressway, passing the convention center and bus station.
"Turn here," Martin said, "take Atlantic Avenue to North Albany, hang a right. Jack said they found the body near Bader Field," he noted of the small airport, "That's near Chelsea Heights."
Danny nodded, his head pounding and his sinuses backed up. The whole front of his face was throbbing. He was glad Fitzgerald has been quiet during the ride. Every word uttered felt like another nail in his face.
"That's gotta be it," Martin pointed to a roadblock with yellow tape and a bevy of flashing lights.
Danny pulled up, flashed his badge and the cop indicated for him to roll his window down.
"Taylor and Fitzgerald, F.B.I. Looking for a Captain Murphy."
"Hold on." The cop pressed a button on a radio on his shoulder. "Cap, couple o' feds here for you. Fitzpatrick and Taylor."
"Fitzgerald!" Martin barked, causing his partner to flinch.
"You mind keepin' it down to a bellow?"
"How'd you draw the short straw?" Martin asked, eyeing the pained soul.
"Just lucky," he sighed. Truth was, Jack knew Martin was having a problem and that Danny was tied to it. He'd offered to have Sam go with Martin, but Danny had denied that.
"Okay," the cop waved them onward.
Danny pulled over, parked and exited, sucking in cold air. His body was here but his mind was back in his bed, buried under a comforter with Denise Nardone's lush body pressed close by.
"Whaddya got?" he asked a silver-haired, slight man, "You Murphy?"
"Paul," the other extended his hand.
"Taylor. This is Fitzgerald." He sneezed three times, coughed and took out a tissue, "Sorry..."
"The former Leland "Boogie-boy' Beaumont, twenty-five years old and until about two a.m. a bouncer at a dive near the Tropicana called Dirty Annie's. Your boy Vecchione picked a fight with him outside the bar. It got rough before a couple of Beaumont's friends intervened."
"Vecchione?" Martin asked, squatting over the corpse. The victim was about six foot, two twenty and lots of upper body muscle. The African-American male had close-cropped hair and a small crimson hole next to where his left eye should be.
"Last seen staggering towards the boardwalk, that would be just about two-thirty or so," the investigator noted.
"He didn't do this."
"Oh, you're one of those psychic feds I read about in the rag sheets?" The Captain scoffed. He watched carefully as the clean-cut blue-eyed man stood and turned. He eyed the pristine white shirt and silk tie. Hell, that tie alone cost more than his whole outfit. Damn feds especially these GQ whiz kids who didn't know squat.
"He uses a blade. He doesn't carry a piece. I studied this guy, I know him. What about him?" he jerked his head to the body, "He got a record? Enemies? Ties to local action? What's his story?"
"You're here to find Vecchione," Murphy steamed, "This is my house, hot shot. Take your Madison Avenue ass outta my face."
"Great!" Danny sighed, "I didn't even eat yet." He moved from the corner and walked over. "Ease up," he advised the irate cop, "We don't wanna step on anybody's toes. Martin was just trying to -"
"Martin can speak for himself!" The troubled blue-eyed man seethed.
"Knock yourself out. I'll be in the car."
Martin watched Danny walk away, not missing the disgust on his face. He sighed and kicked a can in the weeded, overgrown lot.
He took several breaths, getting his raging emotions under control. He rubbed his neck, closed his eyes and let out a pent-up breath. He turned back, the glare of the older man still burning into him.
"Do you have addresses on the two witnesses?"
Murphy handed them over and turned back, punching numbers into his cell phone.
As they drove back to the bar in question, to talk to one of the witnesses, Martin's eyes roamed over the streets. Atlantic City was a real mix of rags and riches. On the world famous boardwalk, a string of glitzy casinos drew high-rolling gamblers from around the globe. Just a few blocks away was the shabby stepsister. She housed crime of every facet. Prostitution, drugs, guns, crack houses, pimps, shoddy landlords and other vermin crawled through boarded-up houses, overgrown lots and burned out cars.
His eyes narrowed as a group of skinny teens with hollow eyes passed by. Two of them were supporting a third, a waifish blonde with dirty hair and half-mast eyes.
"Hell, they can't be more than fifteen," he mumbled, "stoned this early."
"This is the real world," Danny shot back, turning up a side street, "not that white bread Bradyland you grew up in."
"You don't know a damn thing about me!"
"I know enough," Danny soured, his face throbbing. It felt like a dozen nails, red hot and tipped with poison, were pulsating in his face, "I know you always had a bed to sleep in, with real heat in the house. You had food on your plate and a school to go to "
"Excuse the hell out of me for not being born in a ghetto!" Martin growled, then grabbed the wheel, "Watch it! That's a one way street."
Fortunately, the bar was at the next block. Both hot heads had to put their emotions on the back burner. Danny pulled in and appraised the four people nearby. A twenty-something plumpish young woman with a miniskirt, black sheet stockings and pink hair snapped gum at him. Next to her, a pockmarked man, tall and thin with sunglasses and a gray suit, complete with hat, eyed him with disdain. From a window above the grimy sign reading 'Dirty Annie's', complete with an ample drawing of a pair of breasts, there was an older woman. Sweeping the walk in front of the bar was a bearded white male, fortyish.
Danny flipped his badge, "Taylor, F.B.I. I'm here about the fight last night."
"Heard about Boogieboy, damn shame," the pimp-like male noted.
The three people in front of him all stared past him. His mouth formed a grim line and he paused. He felt a body moving, standing just behind him.
"He's cool, he's my partner. We're looking for Charles Alvarez and Kenny Foxe."
"Sorry, Sugar," the pink-haired prostitute snapped her gum, "You come down here a lot?"
"No," Danny made a face, ignoring the eyes mentally undressing him, "So where can I find them?"
"Can't help you," the sweeper paused, then resumed his job.
"You better think again," Martin grabbed the broom, "or you'll be sweeping the pavement in front of the unemployment office."
The pimp snorted and the pink-haired princess laughed and made a face.
"Oh, man," Danny groaned, but the sweeper's eyes inadvertently moved to the open window, "What about it, Ma'am?"
"I mind my own business."
"Mindin' everybody else's business IS your business," the pimp retorted. "Mama don't miss much, catch my drift. Me and the lady weren't here last night."
Danny nodded and entered the seedy dive, wincing as his feet stuck to the floor. He didn't look down, he didn't want to guess what was residing there. Martin was already knocking on the door. After a short shuffle, a whiskered chin and one blue eye regarded him.
"Open up!" Martin stuck his foot inside, "Look, lady, if you know where they are or where Tony Vecchione is, you better start talking."
After several moments, the crack closed long enough for a lock to be undone. They entered the two-room apartment just as the roaches completed a relay race across the kitchen floor. Martin's nose wrinkled at the stench. He couldn't tell if it came from the tenant or the flat, and he didn't want to find out.
"You saw the fight?" he pressed, eager to be out of this place.
"I heard it first." She shuffled to the window, scratching her backside. "Lee tossed this guy out. Tall and mean looking. Dark, greasy hair, mustache, kinda hefty."
"Is this him?" Danny showed the photo of Tony Vecchione.
"Yeah, that's him. They were right under the light. Chooch and Charley jumped in, beat on that man but good. They dumped him up the street."
"Is he a customer here?" Martin asked.
"Not for the booze," she remarked. "He likes dark meat," she noted of the prostitutes who strutted their wares. "I've seen him a couple times. Heard he's rough, but tips good."
"Honey, this ain't a train station, they don't check in with me." She eyed the blue-eyed man and her face screwed up. Ignoring him, she turned to the other one, "Candy might know."
"Pink hair?" Danny asked and the grayheaded crone nodded. "What about the other two?"
"Black guys, kinda like Mutt and Jeff. Chooch wears a red scarf, it's his trademark. Sometimes they hang out across from McDonalds up on the boards a few blocks. You can't miss them."
"Thanks," he nodded, giving her his card, "If you see Vecchione again, you call, okay?"
They spent an hour on the wooden walkway that fronted the casinos, shops and restaurants. It was almost eleven a.m. when Danny eyed a coffee shop.
"Let's take five. I gotta eat."
"Yeah, okay," Martin agreed, not missing the fact that Taylor looked awful. They grabbed some sandwiches and coffee, then went over their notes. Martin drew a tiny timeline on the notepad.
"According to Pink, Vecchione went upstairs with 'Crystal' about midnight. There was trouble and he got booted out. He comes back later, two or so, and picks a fight with Beaumont."
"Chooch and Charley jump in, tear his ass up and toss 'im," Danny added, "Could be old Boogieboy went lookin' for Vecchione to finish him off?"
"Maybe," Martin's phone rang and he flipped it out, "Fitzgerald. Yeah. Nothing so far. Well, hell, Jack it's not like we're out here gettin' a tan!" He rolled his eyes and chuffed out a breath, then handed the phone over.
"Hey boss," Danny's voice was thick and nasal.
"What about it?" Jack asked, pulling off of the Expressway.
"We got another witness, the lady who lives over the bar. She saw the fight and says Alvarez and Foxe nailed Vecchione. Last we got him is three a.m. or so, headed up the boards. We're lookin' for them now. The lady, she says he likes his paid ladies dark. Could be he has regulars, they might know where he's hidin'."
"Vivian and Sam came up dry. I'll check out the stable, you two find those witnesses," Malone paused, "and you tell your partner to watch that mouth of his."
"Yeah," he sighed, handing the phone back.
Martin took both cardboard trays to the trashcan and dumped them. He waited, pulling up his collar against the cold air and shivering. The sun was gone and the gray sky appeared threatening.
"You coming or not?" he asked his pensive partner.
Danny turned, finished the end of his tea and picked at the edges of the cup.
"We need to talk."
"When? After that temper of yours causes one of us to end up in the ER?" He turned, straddling the bench and saw the fists flexing. The handsome profile was turned partially away, eyeing the ocean. "What's eatin' at you? It's tied to that cafeteria, at the school."
"Look," Martin turned, shaken by the words, "it was a long... it's over..."
"Over?" Danny rose, "I look blind to you?" He thought again on when Martin had looked so shaken. The poem... the small boy... that poem. "It's got something to do with that kid's poem... about the dead leaves."
That got a reaction. The other man's face turned ashen and he tried to stifle a choke. Danny looked closer and saw how haggard the other man looked. Like he'd been up all night wrestling those demons. "Is that it? You have some kind of bad memory from when you were that kid's age? At Thanksgiving?"
"Don't!" Martin managed, trying to fight both Danny's bullets and the slashing images replaying again in his throbbing skull.
Taylor paused a few feet away, the wind taking his dark hair off his face. "Whatever shit you got locked up in there," he gave the nearly concave abdomen a pat, "is festering. You don't get it out, you're gonna explode. I don't want to be cannon fodder? You got it?"
"Then stay the hell out of my face!" Martin hissed, eyes hot. He didn't like the fact this man could read him. He'd never let anyone get close, he always kept them at arm's length. This new feeling unnerved him. He turned sharply, heading towards the next stretch of their destination.
"Look Danny, it's none of your " He blinked, his partner wasn't there. "Taylor!" he called out and then saw the quick moving man flying down the boardwalk. He didn't see the faces, but a long red scarf trailed in the breeze. "Shit!" He took off, following the trio.
The pursuit spilled off the boards, into the seedy sidestreets of Atlantic City. Martin heard Danny identify himself several times, but the odd pair never stopped. Finally, heaving for breath and choking on phlegm, the ailing man got desperate. He fired a shot at the street sign just ahead of them. The smaller man jumped, hitting the taller one and spilling them both on the ground. Danny's congested lungs and the hot run took his air away. He bent over, waved Martin onward and tried to find his lost air.
"Get over there!" the blue-eyed agent hollered, shoving the odd pair together, "Fitzgerald, F.B.I. " Kenny 'Chooch' Foxe was about six-seven and thin, with a yellow cast to his dark complexion. Charles Alvarez was stockier, barely five foot. "Where's Tony Vecchione?"
"Puttin' his wood in your Mama," Chooch tossed back with a wad of spit, hitting the white man in the cheek.
"At least I have a mother, I didn't spring from pond scum!" Martin turned the other man and shoved him hard against the bricks. He pulled his gun and waved to the other man, who was trying to move, "Kiss the dirt!" He waited, shoved his foot on the small man's back and then turned back to the struggling man in front of him. "Now, I was being polite the first time. We can finish this here or in the ER."
"Man, you got an attitude problem!" Chooch tossed, seeing from his side glance that help had arrived, "I ain't done nothin', Pig. You got no call to bust me. I ain't carryin'."
"I'm losin' my patience," Martin growled, "Where is he?"
"Hey! Back off, Kojak!"
"You got no business hasslin' him."
"Get your white ass outta here."
"Great!" Danny muttered, parting the sea of angry residents, "I can't leave you alone for five minutes."
"I'm handlin' it!" Fitzgerald seethed.
"Yeah, I can see that!" Taylor hissed, "In case you haven't noticed, Dorothy, we ain't in Kansas anymore!" This got a laugh from both Chooch and Charley. "SHUT UP!" he kicked the smaller man and thwacked the other in the head, "Call for backup."
"Where's Vecchione?" Martin shrugged off the arm and ground the protesting male's face into the wall, "You better start talking while you still can."
This action brought more catcalls and a bottle sailed by. Danny turned, pulling his weapon and putting his free hand up.
"Back off. We're F.B.I and we only want to talk to them."
Danny eyed the woman in the front, who was taller and heavier than he. She thrust her chest out, waving a fist.
"You call that talk? I call it something else. Ain't that right!"
The loud chorus echoed her sentiments. The swell was now up to about twenty angry residents and they pushed inward. Danny kept the gun moving and his eyes on the crowd. The fever and the race through town had him sweating and now the thought of being torn apart by angry residents increased his flow. He tapped Martin's leg and the other man half-turned, emitting a soft curse.
Then the call of a siren filled the air. Danny sighed inwardly, relief coursing through him. The flashing lights and loud wail caused the irate crowd to rethink their actions. Two cars pulled up and four cops got out.
"Alright, back off!"
"What's the problem here?"
"Wonder Bread comes down here hasslin' the man."
"Wonder Bread?" Martin griped, glaring at the woman in front.
"Poster boy!" Danny shot back, angry and sick. His sinus was throbbing, his chest hurt and his head was about to explode.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Fitzgerald seethed.
"You don't get it? You don't know the streets. Man, I lived here. I didn't live in Bradyland. That attitude of yours could have gotten us killed."
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Jack Malone was at Dirty Annie's, interviewing Candy. She gave him the names of three of the darker skinned girls who'd complained about being roughed up. He turned as a police car pulled up.
"Yeah," Jack nodded, walking to the window, "What's up?"
"We got a situation. Captain Murphy said to get you. A couple of your men are causing a riot."
"Dammit!" he pounded the hood of the car, "I'll follow." He ran to his car, which was parked down the street.
"Don't look at me that way!" Danny hissed, poking the starched white Kenneth Cole shirt, "You know I'm right. Your head's been up your ass for days now. This ain't a game, Martin, this is real. These people are real. You don't come bustin' in like the fuckin' Gestapo."
"I was doing my job!"
"Oh man, you can't be that blind!" the dark-eyed agent said, exasperated, "You didn't see the forest for the trees. This isn't Wall Street and you're not a paper jockey anymore."
"Oh, here it comes. Martin fucks up again. Must be all that white collar crime catchin' up with him. I'm sick of it! I can do this job," he paused, recalling his interview as a finalist, "and Jack Malone doesn't pick just anybody for his squad paper jockey or not!"
"Okay, Wonderboy, where's Vecchione then?" Taylor shot back, his eyes throbbing, "Huh? What was that address?" He cupped his ear. "I didn't hear that?"
"You call me that again and " Martin stopped, feeling the eyes of the neighborhood on him. They were looking at him like he was a bug. Revulsion painted on every face. Him, not Danny. Danny was one of them, street born and raised, and city wise. Martin was the outsider, the paper jockey from Wonder Bread land.
Danny sighed hard, seeing the anger die in the blue eyes. Now the emotive pools harbored something else. Something he didn't like: doubt. He didn't miss them flick to the crowd. He scratched his chin and reached out touching the tense shoulder.
"Leave me alone!"
"No, we settle this here and now. What happened in that school?" Danny pressed.
"None of your business," Martin flashed, the doubt replaced by anxious evasion. He needed air he couldn't breath and his side hurt.
"It is as long as we're ridin' together."
"Well that can be fixed!" Fitzgerald charged.
"You look shitty in yellow, Martin!" Danny accused of cowardice.
"What did you say?"
"You heard me! You're a coward. Hidin' behind some big fuckin' mystery from what? Twenty years ago?" He saw a crack forming and tried to bust it open, "Some bully beat up on you, huh? Your little ass get tossed from the Turkey Pageant?"
"Shut up! Shut the fuck up!" Martin exploded, ramming the other man hard into the wall.
"They're all yours!"
Jack nodded to the patrolman and put his badge away. He got to the alley, hearing the last bit of the exchange. Martin had Danny backed into a wall and Jack moved fast, grabbing the fair-haired man's shoulder.
"Enough!" He eyed both roosters, sizing each other up. "Somebody talk to me." He waited, but still their horns remained locked. Twin chests heaved, out of breath, and pain danced in eyes - dark and fair. "Fine. But know this: you settle this shit on the way back to town." He turned to Danny Taylor. "You get the crud from your system." Then he turned to the blue-eyed pit bull "And you. Get whatever the hell is stuck in your throat out by eight a.m. tomorrow, understood?" He waited, but the blue eyes were still locked on Taylor's. He moved between them, breaking the hold. "I'm talking to you. You lose that attitude problem, Fitzgerald. It's a long ride back to Seattle." That got a response, the eyes narrowed and a hiss snuck out. "No? You don't think I'd do that? TRY ME, HOT SHOT!"
"I got witnesses to "
"You got shit, Sherlock," Jack interrupted the rookie, "I'll talk to them. You can do yourself a big favor by getting the hell outta my face right about now."
He didn't wait for a reply, he walked off. He knew Taylor was hiding something. The dark-haired agent was protecting Fitzgerald. He couldn't figure out why. It wasn't like Danny to hold back, especially in a situation like this, which could have turned deadly. He nodded to the patrolmen who were keeping the two men under guard. The crowd lost interest and began to disperse. He looked up again, seeing his two men walking slowly back towards wherever they had left their car. Neither said a word, but he noticed Danny pausing several times because Martin was walking slow, holding his side.
"He got to you, huh?" He shook his head, wondering about the odd pair, and turned back to the two witnesses.
Not a word was spoken. Not on the walk back or on the short jaunt through town. Not one syllable. But the tension was so thick even a hatchet wouldn't cut through it. Martin kept his eyes out the glass of the window, studying every boring tree on the Expressway. The pain in side was nothing compared to the one inside.
From day one, when he'd been assigned to the team, he'd been driven. He was a perfectionist, he couldn't change that. Sometimes that line got blurry and his overeagerness was misunderstood by others. They saw what they wanted, a corporate ladder climber. He was ambitious but also he had a strong desire to right wrongs justice was important to him. Maybe he had been a 'paper jockey' too long. Maybe he was trying too hard and that quest for gold was blinding him. Maybe Danny was right. Hell, who was he kidding? He wanted his partner to respect him, to trust him to watch his back. Was it too late for that?
Danny sighed and tried to concentrate. It was getting harder to focus. His headache was in overdrive, the pressure in his sinus cavity was in the red zone and the fever burning through him left him lethargic. Still, he worried that he'd pushed his eager partner too hard. Despite the cocky attitude and short temper, he liked Martin Fitzgerald. He thought maybe working together, the other man would learn a few tricks of the street. But today had scared him, the blue-eyed man had lost control. Moreover, he didn't seem aware of it and had forgot about teamwork. He pressed he eyes again, trying to stop the pain.
Martin saw the agony on the other man's face and shifted.
"Okay, how 'bout we pull off and get you some soup?"
Danny eyed the dark gray sky and the rain that was now pelting down. Soup might not be a bad idea. Plus, he needed to pop some Tylenol before his head fell off.
"Okay," he sighed, taking the next exit. Three blocks later, they spotted a diner on a lonely stretch of road, bordered by trees. A white sign with aqua lettering shouted at them.
"Can be too bad," Martin tried to make light of the tension and read the letters. "It's got 'Mom's' name on it."
Danny parked and got out, pausing long enough to stretch and rub his back. Then he followed the worn leather jacket into the small diner. A tired waitress, somewhere between forty and sixty with died blond hair and ten extra pounds, approached.
"No," Martin smiled, "Food that bad?"
She shrugged, "Don't usually get strangers." She eyed the two males, "Good-looking too. Must be my lucky day. Smoking?"
"No," they answered in unison.
She led them past a pregnant woman eating alone, and an elderly man having a sandwich at the counter. They slid on either side of a white- and gold-flecked Formica table. Two red plastic menus appeared.
"Coffee, black," Martin said.
"How 'bout you, Sugar?" she turned to the dark-haired man and winced, "You got a fever? You don't look so good."
"The cold from Hell!" Danny commiserated.
"I got the cure. World's best chicken noodle, right here. I'll bring you a big bowl."
"Sounds good. Extra crackers!" he added, "and some hot tea with lemon."
"You got it, Sweetie." She turned to the other man, whose blue eyes were captivating, "You hungry, Honey?"
Martin's eyes drifted on the columns and he noted Special number four.
"I'll have a western omelet," he decided.
"What kind of toast?" she paused, "Wheat, rye or white?"
"Uh, wh..." his face blanched and his eyes slid across the table. Danny began to smirk, covering his mouth with one hand. It started as a chuckle, but Martin laughed. Danny followed suit and soon the two were laughing hard.
"Something I said?" the puzzled waitress waited.
"No. I'm sorry, uh..." Martin paused, lifting a devilish blue eye, "Well? Should I go for it?"
"Without a safety net," Danny goaded, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
"I'll have, uh, rye!"
"And it's still daylight!" Taylor announced, grinning.
"Yeah, us paper jockey's lead dangerous lives. Always on the cuttin' edge."
As they sipped their hot beverages, waiting for the food to arrive, Martin grew somber. He fiddled with the sugar packets, then the creamers, and was starting on the napkins, when a soft voice broke through.
"I was only trying to help."
"Why can't you talk to me? Is it that bad?"
Martin took a deep sigh, raked a hand through his damp hair and lifted his face. He saw not anger or coldness, only compassion and understanding. He nodded, took a breath and a sip of water and started.
"It was November and I was seven-and-a-half. You were right about scenario. I had a bed to sleep in every night, plenty of heat and food." He paused, shaking his head. "Warm clothes and a seat in school every day... and... I..." he swallowed hard, "I was the loneliest fuckin' kid in that private school. You got no idea," his anger started to rise again as his father's cold face loomed above the table, "how much it hurts. Before that Thanksgiving, I really believed his lies. The sudden business that came up... and another holiday alone. Weekends when other kids went home or their folks came, I waited... by... that... win... dow..." he paused again, wiping his eyes. "Dammit."
"Take a breath, you're doing fine," Danny gentled, already stung by the words. He'd heard about the mighty Victor Fitzgerald. The man was a legend in the Bureau. This was giving him a whole new picture. Cold-hearted bastard didn't deserve a son. He studied the unadulterated pain in the sky eyes and felt that feeling in his gut.
"He promised gave his word that he'd be there. It was a show. Each grade did an act. You know, songs about harvest, a one-act play with Pilgrims, stuff like that. I had to read a poem."
"Nothing Gold Can Stay?" Danny noted
"Yeah. I spent weeks working on it, making felt leaves and gluing them. I wanted the damned thing to be perfect... for him. Hopin' he'd finally notice me. I was shy. Painfully shy. The thought of getting up in front of an audience terrified me. The boys there picked on me as it was. I was undersized..."
"Was?" Danny teased and got a small smile.
"...and sick a lot. The school nurse liked poetry; she'd read to me. That poem, for some reason, hit hard." He sipped his coffee carefully. "He didn't come, but I got out there, kept my head up and read the damn thing. I kept lookin' at the back door, hopin'..."
"Shit!" Danny's tone was a combination of dejection and loathing. The image of a lonely, small, sandy haired urchin with large, gut-swallowing blue eyes unnerved him. "You deserved better."
Danny and Martin met over a sad smile on Fitzgerald's face. Then the blue eyes grew dark, the fingers went to white knuckles and he could nearly hear the heart beating wildly. The worst part of the nightmare wasn't exposed yet. Martin didn't continue the story, his eyes were focused on something beyond the window. But it was a start, and some of the wound was cleansed. "Thanks." They each said, as the waitress appeared with the steaming food.
"You boys okay here?"
"Yeah," Danny nodded, crushing several crackers into the golden soup. They ate quietly, and he kept his eyes on Martin, who only got halfway through the large egg creation.
He buttered his toast and looked out the window. The rain was pouring down and the wind lifted a drape of fake leaves hanging over the entry. He watched them dancing in the wind, and jumped slightly when the thunder exploded. Then, out of nowhere, the face of the demon appeared, leering at him through the glass.
"Jesus!" Danny looked up from his soup at the loud clang. He eyed the utensil that had been in Fitzgerald's hand, now resting on the plate it had hit. "Shit," he hissed, seeing the face as white as the table and the eyes wide and terrified. He followed the gaze through the glass and saw nothing but rain.
"Martin?" Danny called, then touched the other man's wrist. "Are you..." his sentence was cut off by a hiss and jerk. The eyes were dark, still lost in the trance.
"I'm f..." the startled man started to say. "Shit!" His hand slid under his dark gray suit jacket to where his gun was resting.
"Trouble just walked in. Two of them are armed, the third looks hit."
"Robbery?" Danny whispered, turning slowly. Then he saw the other man starting to ease the gun out.
"No, they're wet. Something went wrong. They're runnin'," Martin assessed of the wet gunmen.
"Chill!" Danny whispered, watching the three men carefully. One had his gun trained on the pregnant woman. "There are too many people in here. Slow and easy," he waited until the blue eyes met his and the hand retracted, "Okay."
"Everybody up front here!" the leader barked, wiping his face with a cluster of paper towels.
Martin waited for Danny to slide out, while keeping his eyes on the leader. He was a tall man, fifty perhaps, six-three or four, at least two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. His gray hair was close cropped. The two younger man were in their twenties. One resembled the older man, he was the one holding the gun on the pregnant woman. The other, younger and in pain, was sitting in the end booth. Blood covered his chest.
"Oh God... Oh God... Oh God..."
"Shut up, old man!"
"Take it easy," Danny placated, putting both hands up, "He's old and scared. He's no threat to you."
"Yeah, well, keep him quiet!" the dark-haired gunman relayed, then he pressed the gun into the woman's abdomen.
"Don't... no... please..." she begged.
"Get up and get the money from the register," he ordered, then his dark eyes narrowed. He sized up the other diners by their dress. The two men at the end were out of place. The shorter one's right hand was wavering near his hip. "Suits? In a dump like this? I smell roasted piggies."
"Well now," the older man moved from behind the counter, "Let's just see about that. Up front. Come on." He wagged the gun.
Martin kept his eyes on the leader's, never blinking or giving an inch. Danny stopped to help the old man, who was having problems breathing.
"You got nitro pills or something?"
"Yes... pocket... God... hurry..."
"Okay." Danny helped him up, but the man's legs buckled. Martin stopped and turned, thinking to help the stricken man.
"Hey, pretty boy, something wrong with your ears?" The younger one hollered, "Get your ass up here or I'll put a hole in Mama's fat belly."
"Be the last thing you do," Martin sent back, drilling the dark eyes with his own.
"I thought so!" the mouthy gunman shoved his hand under the jacket and found a badge, "Hey, you're a like royal pig a fed." He took the gun next, handing it to his father.
"Let's see," the older man took the badge and gun. "He might come in handy. Get him in the back and tie them all up. Then come back and get Mike." He eyed the shivering youth then, "You okay?"
"You hold on, we'll get you some help." He shoved his gun in the F.B.I. agent's belly.
Martin snorted, the wound was bad and the kid would bleed out before help came.
"You fucked up, Mister. You fucked up good," Martin noted, wincing when the gun hit his ribs, "that kid don't have an hour left. You should have taken him to a hospital."
"P....o...p... I... don't... wanna... d...d...die..."
"Don't listen to this prick," the old man slammed his fist into the soft belly of the agent and then grabbed his head, slamming it against the counter. Blood shot from this lip and nose, and his cheek bruised.
Danny was trying to stabilize the old man, who was large and heavy, deadweight. He saw Martin and tried to catch his eye. Another smart remark might cause one of the gunmen to lose control. His partner was on his knees, coughing and panting. He saw a wad of blood spit onto the floor. Martin was leaning against a light blue vinyl stool.
"Up. Up. Let's go," the dark-haired one ordered, shoving the pregnant woman. She was scared and clutching her belly, protecting it. He put his free hand under the large shirt, rubbing the stretched skin. This caused her to sob.
"Get your paws off of her, you animal," Martin ordered in a rasp, spitting another wad of blood from his bleeding, mashed lip.
"You got a big mouth, Piggy, you know that!" he snapped, whipping the gun between the steely blue eyes. "Bang!" he teased, but the other man didn't flinch.
"Ray!" the leader hissed in annoyance, then turned to the wheezing agent. "Get up and get the money from the register." The older man had been cutting cord and tied the expectant mother's hands. He shoved her onto the floor in the kitchen with the cook and waitress.
"What are we gonna do for wheels?" the younger one asked, his gun trained on the agent shoving money in a plastic bag. What should have been an easy warehouse heist had gone south. Not only was his younger brother shot, but they killed a security guard. The dying man had put a couple rounds in the car. It died just down the road.
"One thing at a time, Ray," the man replied, "Get the hostages taken care of. Then get your brother in the back. There's a sofa in the office. A safe too."
"Let's go!" Ray grabbed the bag and hustled past the smart-mouthed agent to get to the other one. "Up against the counter," he shoved him hard.
"Let the old guy go, his heart "
"I give a fuck about him?" Ray scoffed and took the cop's gun. Then he flicked his hip when the old man's hand came up.
"He can't breathe. Just let me get his pills," Danny tried, "They're right in his pocket."
"You don't hear so good!" Ray grabbed the fed by the collar and shoved him hard, "Leave him!" He intercepted the agent, who was trying to get the old man off the floor.
Martin's eyes shifted in a split second, first to the trio tangled up in the narrow aisle several feet away. Then to the older gunman, who turned briefly when his wounded son cried out. Every second seemed to slow down. If he could get Danny's attention, they could jump the two on their feet. He knew, like his partner did, they might not make it out alive. Gunmen didn't hold lawmen in high regard, especially ones who could identify them. Timing split second precision he could take out the father and whip around. All Danny had to do was cover the sick man.
"He's an old man, just give me a minute!" Danny shoved back, then lost his footing and hit the gunman's legs. He felt the butt of the gun hit his neck and then a numbing sensation. He was on his knees, one hand on the old man's back and peering through the area between the gunman's raised arm and his leg. That's when he saw Fitzgerald's blue eyes dart from the father, who was tending the wounded boy, to the other gunman. He mouthed the word 'no' but it was too late.
"What?" Ray saw the dark-haired man beneath him giving lip to the other cop, "Pop, watch your back!"
"What?" the old man turned, his arm flexing out.
"No!" Danny cried out as Martin lunged.
Two shots rang out, bodies fell and a deathly silence cloaked the diner. The only sound was the howling wind and the icy rain pelting the foggy glass.
It seemed he was both far beneath reality and yet in the middle of it. He could see foggy images, surreal and distorted, from a tilted angle on the floor. Floor? He saw boots and blood and some french fries. There was a noise. What was that noise? It was a slow sound, like wind in his ears. Breathing. His breathing? Was that it? Something was very wrong. Something was very wrong. He tried to think. He tried hard. Someone was moaning in the wind in his ears. His cry? What happened? More feet came by and one of them kicked him. Pain exploded in his side. The sound in his ears changed to a sharp cry. Someone was hurt. Someone was bleeding. Someone nearby, he was that someone.
The silence was broken by harsh voices. A face with dark hair bent over him and began laughing. A slap to his face, pain exploded on the left side of his head. The man's words didn't all trickle though his foggy netherworld, but a few did.
"...bleedin'... pig... fucked... now... die... shot..."
He tried to talk but his tongue wouldn't work. He turned his head painfully and wished he hadn't. There was body in the narrow aisle. It wasn't moving. A man. A dark blue suit. Didn't Danny have a suit like that? Danny? Danny? Danny's hand, fingers half-curled. Danny's body. Danny's body?
Then he saw the blood. A lot of blood. It was growing and pooling under his partner. His partner? That thought nearly ceased the erratic pulsation of his heart. The legs moved again, blocking his view. More harsh words. Someone was pulling him. His head exploded in a brilliant burst of orange pain. A scream from far away surrounded him, invading his ears. His scream. His voice. His pain. Too many tangled, shattered pieces of a puzzle. What happened?
A new face, the old face. The man with the gun. Not just any gun. His gun. His gun? As he was dragged from the spot, he saw more blood. His blood? Flashes stabbed at his throbbing brain. The older man's arm turning with the gun. His own arm grabbing for it. Two shots... two shots... Danny's body. Danny's blood.
Then he realized and the pain was far worse than his own wound
"Oh, God, what have I done?" he screamed silently.
He'd shot his own partner. He'd killed Danny Taylor.
He was rolled on his belly on the kitchen floor. Something stung his face, burning his wounds. He smelled the strong odor of cleaning solvent.
He didn't feel the pain anymore. He didn't care about the boots kicking his legs and body. He didn't feel the blood pouring down his face into his eyes. Through a dull, distorted, macabre scenario, he saw the waitress and pregnant woman huddled together. The younger girl was crying. The sound in his ears was changing . The heavy wind was slowing down, his eyes were sliding shut. He only saw half of the waitress now and the legs of a table.
Then Danny's body appeared, dumped a few feet away. Blood the smell invaded his nose and choked him. Danny's blood. The stench of death more vile because it had come at his own hands. He'd never be able to free himself from that stain or stench.
The agony of what he'd done made it easier. The sound in his ears got slower. Like the fadeout of an old movie, his world was moving into a black circle. He parted his bleeding lips and with a soft sigh he gave himself over. The last image inside the closing black circle were the tapered fingers of Danny Taylor, still uncurled and kissed with crimson.
Four p.m. Atlantic City
"ACPD! Open up!"
A shuffling of feet, several curses and a shattering of glass brought the door in. Two officers, guns drawn, preceded the F.B.I agent into the room.
"Get your clothes on," his partner advised the woman in the bed. "I didn't do nothing!" Tony Vecchione protested.
"We'll see about that," the officer cuffed him and turned to his partner.
"Lookee, here," he held up a gun, "how much that this matches our friend Beaumont?"
"That's not mine! I never saw that before!" the protesting prisoner denied. He eyed the man in the doorway, narrowing his gaze. He saw the badge clipped to his hips. It wasn't the same as the cop's.
"Who the hell are you?"
"F.B.I." Malone concluded, "and since you're not missing anymore, my job here is done."
The interrogation was short. On the night of his disappearance, Tony witnessed a mob hit on his way home. He had seen the shooting and the body go in the water. They had seen him, too, and he went into hiding. He came out the night of the murder to get money from an old friend who owed him a favor. He'd intended to leave the country. Unfortunately, he'd had a few drinks while he was waiting and Crystal showed up.
"Poor bastard was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Jack lamented of the dead man. He'd been unwittingly followed and 'questioned' about his connection to Vecchione. They couldn't prove it, but the marks on his body indicated such. Tony got nervous, thinking Beaumont spilled his guts. So he silenced him.
All this sprang from two people. Kenny "Chooch" Foxe was wanted on several petty crimes. During questioning he traded off, giving the name of Jimmy Carson. Jimmy knew Tony and was with Chooch and Charley in the bar that night. He'd called Martin's number, having heard the F.B.I wanted Vecchione.
Crystal gave up the address of a 'friend', Chantrell, whom Tony visited frequently. This also traded for a promise not to be held on a misdemeanor.
"You need anything else?" Jack asked Paul Murphy.
"No, thanks, Jack. I'll call if I do," the other man shook hands, "Oh, keep the mouthy kid off my turf, okay?"
"Blue eyes, fast mouth, expensive shirt," he paused, "One of your boys."
"He's not a kid," Malone defended, "and you're right, he's one of mine. I picked him." He accentuated the 'I', clearing up Fitzgerald's place. Then he headed for his car. The storm raged on, making it difficult to see. High winds, driving rain and darkness only made his quest more driven. Home and a plate of pasta, a little wine and some Sinatra, that was his goal. He frowned, eyeing the lineup of cars ahead. Then he saw flashing lights.
"Great," he muttered, slowing down to a crawl. Finally his turn came and he rolled the window down, flashing his badge, "Trouble?"
"Warehouse got robbed. The guard was killed. We ID'd the perps from the security camera. A family 'outing', so to speak. Dad's only been out of the pen three months. The older boy's done time, too. The younger one hadn't, but the video showed him hit. We're searching cars."
"Don't know 'em?" Malone noted.
"They're local. Sorry to delay you. Can you pop the trunk?"
Ten minutes later, he was once again on the Expressway and headed for home.
"I should have taken the Greyhound that day."
Ellen Weaver looked at the young woman beside her and smiled weakly. The girl was about twenty-five or so, six months along maybe. She wasn't pretty, just average, like thousands of other girls in no-name towns.
"A long time ago. I was eighteen and fresh out of high school. More than anything else, I wanted to go to Hollywood and be a star." She sighed sadly, "I made it to the bus station, all day I eyed that sign. I mapped out the route, including bus changes, and even saw myself on Sunset Drive working in a nice place."
"It started to rain. I thought that was a bad omen. I decided to leave the next day."
"You never went?"
"No. When it came down to it, I didn't have the guts. So I became another nameless nobody in a dead end job in a town nobody knows." She turned, "You from around here? I'm Ellen."
"Abby Danvers. No, I was visiting my boyfriend. He's stationed at Fort Dix. We were supposed to meet in Atlantic City."
"His orders got changed, so I'm meeting him down there or I was. I was supposed to get the six o'clock bus."
"Well, maybe he'll miss you and "
"No, I was surprising him. He thinks I'm on my way back to Boston."
"Oh," Ellen slumped, then saw the father coming over. Louie, the cook, was tied up and gagged, somewhere in the backroom. The old man didn't make it. He was in the freezer.
"How 'bout takin' these off? I can't feel my fingers. She shouldn't be on the floor," the blond head jerked to the mousy brown-haired girl.
"Either of you know first aid?"
"I do," Ellen said. "I worked as a nurse's aid for awhile." She flinched when she was roughly jerked and the ropes were cut off. "Hey! That hurts!"
"Hurt? Lady you don't know the meaning of the word." He grabbed her hard and propelled her forward.
"Wait!" she eyed the two strangers, both bloodied and unconscious, "They need help."
"My boy needs help. Move!"
"Untie her first!" she demanded and he nodded to his son, who was lounging on top of the kitchen table. "Honey, on that shelf behind you are clean towels. See if you can do something for them." She turned to the father, "There's a first aid kit on the wall near the walk-in freezer. It's not much."
"Ray, get it!" he ordered and shoved her into the office.
"Mike? Mike?" He kept the gun on her and shook the clammy, sweat-soaked body with the other hand. "It's in his gut."
She nodded, then opened the shirt, stiff with blood, and winced. It didn't take a medical degree to see that the wound was fatal. She took his pulse, checked his pupils and listened to the horrid breathing. Sighing heavily, she rose, wiping her hands.
"I'll get some water. I can bathe his face, make him comfortable "
"You better do more than that!" Ray demanded, aiming the gun.
"That won't bring him back," she assessed without flinching, and waited. "I'm sorry, he's dying. I didn't shoot him. You should stay with him, he's barely breathing."
He nodded once and she left, feeling Ray Jr.'s gun on her back. She eyed the girl on the floor who was holding several sodden towels against the dark-haired stranger's shoulder.
"It won't stop."
"Press harder, honey, as hard as you can!" she ordered and the girl obeyed. The man twitched and cried out, and she saw the girl's tension ease up. "NO! Never mind him crying out you push and get that bleeding stopped! DO IT!"
She took a glass and a full pitcher, pausing to eye the other agent. He was on his side, not moving. Her eyes flicked to his chest, rising and falling steadily. No new blood was under his already battered face. That was a good sign.
"Get moving!" Ray Jr. ordered, waving the gun.
She did what she could, wiping his face and neck, resting his sweat-soaked head in her lap. Lord, but he was young. Her anger rose at the walking vermin who'd fathered this child. He was the real murderer. The boy moaned and cried out, and she soothed him, talking low and stroking his face. Then it came, that awful rattle. His head lolled and his hand slid from her grasp. She turned to the father, who was sitting on the side of the sofa.
The man made no sound, just waved the gun towards the door. She nodded, took the kit and the pitcher of water and left. She immediately dropped to the unmoving man's side. She recalled the badges and guns taken. Fed's? Lawmen, servers of justice and keepers of peace. They took risks every day that most people couldn't fathom.
She gently moved her hands down his legs and arms, feeling for broken bones. A soft hiss escaped when she moved her fingers over the left side of his ribcage. She gingerly eased him onto his back and then sat him up, while easing his suit coat off. Her eyes raked to a stack of burlap sacks of rice nearby. They were just the right height to support him, especially with a rib injury. She pulled him back and eased him down. His head flopped back, hitting the sack. She tilted it to one side to inspect the damage. Most of the left side of his head was soaked in crimson. Her fingers parted the sticky hair and she saw a nasty wound high over his left ear. She unbuttoned his shirt, pulled up his teeshirt and winced at the horrid purple and blue bruising, streaked with crimson. She eased him over and noticed the new bruises forming. She glared openly at Ray Jr., whose boots had done the damage.
"Bite me, lady!" he grabbed his crotch and leered.
"Honey, you should have kept on driving," she murmured, rinsing a cloth and wiping the blood that covered the entire left side of his face. She dabbed at the wound with antibacterial wash and pressed the cloth against it.
She laid the handsome man's jacket over his chest, pulling it up to his chin. She turned then and saw the question in the other woman's face.
"Can you help?"
She moved about six feet over to where the other lawman was lying. The jacket was off and his white shirt was maroon with dried blood. She gently tugged at the fabric, wincing as skin stuck to it. Finally, it was free. She ripped the shirt, exposing his shoulder and side. She tipped him forward, then saw a larger hole in the back of his shoulder.
"It went through. That helps a little bit. Rip up those white linen clothes." She pulled the kit open, fishing around for the antibacterial wash. She saturated two clothes, pressing one on his back, the other to the front. She eyed the area, spotting a pile of tableclothes, "Get them. He should be raised a little."
Finally, she used patches of linen and strips wound around to make a crude bandage. She watched and waited, they stayed white. Sighing in relief, she pulled his jacket and a tablecloth over him. She knew before her hand hit his forehead that his fever was rising. She soaked a cloth in the pitcher, taking all the water that was left. She wiped his face, neck and chest. She stood to refill the pitcher and was denied.
"That's it, Nurse Nancy, move it!" Ray Jr. ordered.
She helped Abby to stand and moved far across the room, sitting on a crate of vegetables. Ray Jr. seemed to like the fact that from this position they couldn't see either agent. She worried that when Ray Sr. came out of that office one of the two wounded men would become the object of his wrath.
"We can't stay, Pop. The cops are gonna be all over this area. They'll find the car."
"Yeah, yeah," the older man eyed the body of his younger son and sighed, "I gotta think. Anything in the safe?"
"No. Just deeds and a couple hundred bucks." The younger one remained just outside the office, keeping his eyes on the two male hostages. "The TV said that they got all the roads closed, searching cars and shit."
"Dammit. We got nothing. That warehouse should have had the payroll. That fell through. Mike died for nothing!"
"Pop, we gotta "
"Let me think!" the angry man interrupted, beginning to pace.
The fox's blue slits remained narrowed, his face pressed to a rough cloth. He heard the words of the murderers. He'd been awake for several minutes. They were desperate desperate enough to kill. He couldn't move his head. He'd tried and the white hot explosion of pain nearly blinded him. It also sent his lunch spewing forth, all over his chest and chin. He was in too much pain to care. It rolled in waves through his head, obscuring any movement. He couldn't breathe well and the new burning sensation with every searing breath told him the bruised ribs were now broken.
The younger gunman reappeared briefly, twirling the gun and looking bored. Desperate men. How desperate? He thought of the four hostages, who still had a chance. It might be too late to save Danny Taylor, but he would try to save the others. One thought came to mind and he decided it was worth a shot. It was the universal language, one even the desperate understood. A female voice interrupted his scattered thoughts.
"Hey, this little girl needs to go to the bathroom? Hey!"
"Yeah okay!" Ray Jr. moved, eyeing his father, "Pop, that fat bitch needs to pee."
"Take 'em both. Be quick!"
Martin faded for a moment, and the next thing he was aware of was a warm, wet cloth wiping the vomit from his mouth and chin. He coughed, shivered and began to tremble violently.
"Easy, Sugar. Ellen's got you."
"I think... I... I..."
She turned him just in time, letting the remainder of his stomach empty into a large towel. Quick hands cleaned him up, and he mutely followed the rinse, spit and drink orders. Finally, she laid him back, cupping his chin.
"How's them pretty eyes doing?" she cast a sad smile, his left eye was discolored and swollen shut, "Well, at least one pretty eye. Can you see me okay?"
"...ye... yeah... fuzzy... but... yeah..." He shifted, and sent a ripple of agony through his chest. He cried out, bit his mashed lip and rolled his eyes. Two hands held his shoulders, keeping him still.
"You're a mess," she lamented, "A bullet parted that pretty head of yours, and that creep's boots worked overtime on your back, side and legs." She saw his maroon-stained fingers pressing to the injured side. "They're broken."
"Figured," Martin breathed, then felt the mug pressed to his lips and took more water, "Girl?"
"Holdin' up pretty good. Louie's tied up but he's okay," she noted of the cook.
"...old... old... man..." He saw her head shake and his eyes slid shut. "Damn." It was then Danny's teasing grin invaded the shimmering agony that was his world. First his partner, the first person in a long time he'd trusted, now the old man. A helpless soul who just picked the wrong time to have lunch. Dead... dead... dead... on his mantle. "Oh God. I'm sorry."
"What?" she saw such agony in the one blue eye that wasn't swollen shut and flinched. She cupped that chin and gazed at the emotive pool, "Honey, this isn't your fault. It was an accident. Those creeps are the ones who "
"No!" he hissed, pulling away and forcing hot breath through clenched teeth, "stupid Martin... fucks up again. He trusted me... watch... his... back..." No more words would come, the pain in his chest was too great. Every breath through the burning ribcage was like inhaling jagged, hot pieces of glass.
It took her a couple of minutes to realize what he meant. The full gravity of the pain he felt enveloped her. She stroked the bruised cheek and fell into that emotive blue pool.
"Honey, look at me," she directed, "He's not dead. Is that what you thought? Your partner?"
"Danny Taylor," Martin choked, trying to sit up, "I thought... all the blood... he didn't... didn't move... I... I..."
"Save your breath," she coached, "You'll only make it worse." She held him until his ragged breathing slowed. "It went through his left shoulder. He lost a lot of blood and I won't lie to you, he's in a bad way. He's burning up. If he doesn't get help soon..."
"I need to see him."
"Easier said than done," she nodded to Ray Jr. who was pacing.
"You stay... with... Dan..ny..." he paused, reading her nametag, "Eleanor?"
"Ellen, Sugar," She helped him sit up and get his balance, "What are gonna do?"
"Make a deal with the devil." He knelt forward and that brought Junior over, pressing the gun to his already throbbing head.
"Well, well, you're not lookin' so fine now, Piggy!" He ran the gun over the face and onto the bloody lips. "Bang!" he teased, then saw the spark of anger in the one eye that worked.
"Talented," Martin rasped, "peein' through brains."
"Funny man, huh!" the felon grabbed the sticky hair and yanked hard, getting the cry of pain he wanted. He eyed the Adam's apple bobbing and smiled, "Maybe I get a knife and give you a shave, huh?"
"Where's your old man?" Martin panted, trying to remain conscious, "I got a deal..."
He'd never swam through fire before. He didn't think he'd do it again. It was hard. Hot waves of lava burned his flesh, but he fought on. Then he heard voices, soft and easy. A woman's words water doused the fire a woman's touch on his face. Soothing, cooling and reviving. He moaned and parted his eyes, blinking painfully into the harsh light.
"Um, I'm Abby," she paused, not sure of what to say, "Do you want some water?"
He nodded, his thick tongue having a hard time navigating his dry mouth. His eyes closed and someone held his head up. He felt the mug pressing his lips and parted them. Cool water invaded his desert and he moaned, sucking like a greedy infant.
"Not so fast, Sugar, you'll toss it back."
He frowned over the cup, gasped in pain and turned to the new voice. A familiar face swam into view under blond hair. Lunch. He remembered the diner. Soup. That's where he knew her from.
"World's... best... soup?"
"That's right!" she smiled, wiping the fevered brow again, "You got shot. It went through. You can't move around, okay? It'll start bleeding again."
"Sh..sh... shot?" His eyes slid closed and fractured bits of the image replayed. Martin going for the older felon's gun after he'd told him not to. Then a shot and an explosion of pain that sent him into blackness. The other agent's rash actions had nearly got him killed. All day the walking powderkeg had brought trouble. Now that mouth sassed the murderers and his poor judgment led to gunplay. Fever and pain took his logic away. His shoulder was on fire, his lungs congested and his head throbbing. He couldn't find reason. He was hurting more than he had in all of his life. His fevered state blamed one person.
"Fitz... ger... ald..." he hissed.
Mistaking his whispered plea for concern, she lifted his face and angled it, so he could see his friend. The other man was sitting on the floor right outside of the office, not close to them. His knees were drawn up and his newly cuffed hands in front, draped on them. His head was down and staring at the cuffs.
"He hasn't moved an inch since he came out of that office," she thought aloud.
Danny saw the right side profile, jaw set and shoulders drawn in a starched shirt. That made him even madder. Why was he over there? He wasn't even looking this way? Didn't he care? Again, his high fever took all reason and sense from him. He struggled in his anger, unaware of the repercussions.
"Don't do that!" she ordered, "You'll bleed again."
He closed his eyes, sighed and felt her fussing again. Too much pain to wade through and too hard to keep his head above water. He'd just rest for a moment.
"Pop, we gotta leave. Whadya gonna do?" Ray Junior kept the gun on the Fed on the floor nearby and his eyes on his father. The older man was still sitting by the corpse.
"What do you think, son?" Ray asked, finally standing and pulling a blanket over the body.
"Are you kidding?" the younger man hissed. "You heard what that tape from his bank account said. He's loaded!"
"Nine a.m. is a long time off. You said yourself the roads are covered."
"Highways, Pop!" Ray Junior moved closer, "We can go to Dace's." He saw the gray head rise and cock, "Only other person who knows about that cabin is Mike, he ain't gonna tell."
"You might have something," the older man nodded, "It might work. You know how to get there? Without hitting the highway?"
"In my sleep," he noted of the cabin in the dense area of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, two thousand square miles of darkly beautiful and supposedly haunted area of southern New Jersey. Scored with dense pine trees, rivers and few inhabitants, the wooded area would be the perfect hideout.
"Okay," he walked out of the room, "Come on, Pretty Boy, we're gonna make tracks." He pointed to the pregnant woman. "You, fill some of those bags with food and stuff. You," he motioned to the waitress, "get that bleedin' pig to the storeroom before I change my mind."
Her eyes flicked to the silent, injured agent, who had been hauled to his feet. He couldn't stand up straight, and without Ray Jr. holding him by the arm he would have fallen. She didn't like his color or the harsh breathing. Moreover, his words worried her. What 'deal with the devil' had he done?
"Hey! Move it, sister!"
"Get off me," Martin said in a low voice, "I'll do it. He's my partner."
"Knock yourself out!" Junior waved the gun, "Just be quick."
"I'm fine," he answered the kind waitress' worried look.
"What've you done?" she pressed, easing Danny Taylor's inert body up, "You let me do all the work. It's not far."
"I did... what... I... had... to..." he gasped, pain ripping through his chest. His blurred vision saw two doors and he was glad she was in the lead. He used his cuffed hands to support the injured man's legs. His mind kept replaying his move for the gun. If only he'd been quicker, or Danny had moved.
Danny was eased down on a cot in the storeroom. He moaned as the trip caused his injury to throb mercilessly.
"Dammit!" Martin grabbed a pile of paper napkins clumsily, "He's bleeding again." He pressed hard, as hard as his injured side would allow. He kept pressing, despite the tearing pain and fire in his side.
"...doin'?" Danny hissed, eyes shooting open. Through the fire and waves of pain, he saw a blurry patch of flesh and a blue eye, "... get... 'way...'
" I'm only trying to help."
"You helped enough," Taylor shoved the arm away, his face creased in anger. "...head twisted wrong... all... day... help..." he scoffed, "...thanks... no... your... help... got... me shot..."
"No. No, Danny listen " Ellen tried to reason, tipping the delirious face towards her. She caught his dark eyes, but not before she saw the absolute raw agony in the blue one. She saw him swallow hard and try to find his voice. His mashed, bloodied lips moved, but no words came out. His cuffed hands moved, trembling badly, toward the dark-haired agent.
She flinched when the other man turned away. Then Junior appeared, grabbing the departing lawman hard.
"Help'll be here soon," Martin managed, as he was pulled away, "Thanks. I'm grateful."
"I'll take care of him." she answered the silent request. His words were to her, but his eyes never left the feverish face of the wounded man.
The father appeared, irate and ill-humored. He tossed keys to his son and grabbed the prisoner by the back of the neck.
Danny flinched, the thunderous voice rousing him. His bleary eyes opened, blinked and he tried to see through what looked like a waterfall. He saw the two killers, the larger one was shoving someone hard towards the door. He blinked again, the picture cleared and a cry of pain alerted him. "Martin?" he whispered, flinching at the mottled, discolored, swollen and bloody left side of where his face should be. A hand was clutching his ribs and the word came back.
"Go?" He coughed, 'go where?" He struggled to sit up, restrained by two sets of hands. Then his partner turned, just before the storeroom door closed. Brown eyes met blue. In the passing of those hot seconds, they each spoke silently. Danny saw the remorse and guilt and heard his own harsh edict rebound. Something took hold inside of his gut the cold icy tendrils of foreboding. His breath quickened, his pulse raced and in that brief flicker of time, he knew. As the door closed, he tried to make his mouth work, but failed. A rough hand pulled Martin's head, the eye rolled and the other man cried out, then slumped. The door closed. The door closed. The echo shot through his mind. He was never going to see his partner gain. "MARTIN!" he panted, trying to fight delirium, pain and reality, "Noooooo!"
Ellen caught him as he slumped, lying him down and covering him. Then the waiting game began. She prayed that whatever plan the other man had devised would work. She prayed that both men lived long enough to reunite and resolve the awful drape of guilt both wore. Most of all, she prayed for the blue-eye young man whose fate was riding in the bloody hands of two murderers.
The combination of a very rough ride, his delicate head hitting a hard carpet, and the stench of vomit woke him up. He turned away from the smell, pulled his cuffed hands up to wipe his mouth and blinked.
Darkness. Total darkness cloaked him, smothering him and sending his heart into a frenzied dance. His throbbing skull and burning ribcage added to the inferno. Flashes popped into his throbbing skull. A diner, bright and homey. A waitress, her tired eyes lit and a kind smile. Danny's runny eyes. Three killers... two shots... Danny in a pile of blood. Then... what?? He sighed, his thick tongue trying to navigate a hot mouth. What next? He pushed and pushed, but no picture came.
He was curled on his side in a small enclosure that was moving. He smelled gas and felt every bump they hit on the road. The road. Traveling. Locked in a small enclosure. A trunk. He was trapped in a trunk. Driving. Driving where? He sighed and pushed harder, but the uneven driving caused too much driving pain in his tender skull. The last image he saw before darkness fell was his hand on another's and Danny's body in a pool of blood. He'd killed his partner.
8 p.m. New York
"Like painted kites, those days and nights went flyin' by.
The world was new, beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
And I lost you to the summer wind."
Jack Malone sipped the hearty red wine and eased his body back into the soft leather embrace of the timeworn recliner chair. He let the smooth, silken voice of Francis Albert Sinatra soothe his soul. He picked up the wedding picture and winced painfully. They both looked so young, eyes bright with new love. What went wrong? His fault, her fault nobody's fault. His mistress was the job. It was one even the most stalwart wife couldn't fight. His eyes lingered on the white dress, full of hope and promise, as Frank whispered into his ear.
"The autumn wind and the winter wind have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days, go on and on
And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end.
My fickle friend - the summer wind."
The shrill ring of a phone broke his painful trip down memory lane. He put the photo down, letting his finger caress her face. Then he sat up, put the wine down and got out of the chair. He turned Frank down and made his way to the phone.
"Who's this?" Jack frowned.
"New Jersey State Trooper Edwin Coverdale, sir. I'm calling to inform you that one of your agents is being transported to a nearby trauma center. Once they stabilize him, he'll be medivac'd to New York City, to Mount Sinai."
"An accident?" he guessed out loud, thinking on wet roads and the storm.
"No sir, he was shot, during a robbery at a diner. It's off Route 9 on the way to I-95, north of Freehold."
"Shot? Who?" Malone's anxious voice queried.
"Taylor, Daniel Taylor. The EMT said the bullet went through, but he's lost a lot of blood and he's not stable."
"What about Fitzgerald?" Jack began to write notes on the pad by the phone.
"His partner, they were together, Martin Fitzgerald."
Jack flinched and listened to the young cop talk to his partner. The words he heard made his blood chill.
"Hey Ty, what's the ID on the body in the freezer?"
"Jesus!" Malone scrubbed his face with his hands.
"Muller, Clement Muller, the waitress thinks it was his heart."
"It's not him," the cop got back on, "Sir?"
"Yeah, " Jack sighed a long breath, "I heard. Give me what you have. What's the timeline?"
"Okay, we got three live witnesses: a cook, a waitress and a customer. Your two agents walked in about two p.m. About a half-hour later the three felons stumbled in, one was wounded. We found their car in a ditch about a half-mile away, all shot to hell. That came about the same time as the 911 call."
"Yeah, unidentified male called for help. He said a man was bleeding to death. He gave the name of the diner, then the line went dead."
"Taylor got shot during the robbery?" Malone guessed.
"No, the perps were trying to corral them all in the kitchen. They figured to clean out the register and safe, take one of the cars in the lot and head out. The waitress said the dead guy, this Muller, was pretty old with a bad heart. He had trouble and Taylor tried to help. The gunman got testy. The other guy, Fitz..."
"Yeah. He was up front by the register with the one gunman. The other gunman lost his patience with Taylor and the old man and went to grab him. That's when it happened."
"He shot him?"
"No, this Fitzgerald saw an opening. There was a third felon, wounded, in the booth. He cried out or something. His father was the one in charge and had turned to help him. Fitzgerald went for his gun. They struggled, the other gunman turned and both fired."
"Martin shot Danny?"
"It looks that way. About six o'clock, right after the wounded gunman died, Fitzgerald asked to talk to the father. The waitress said he made some kind of deal with them. They talked it over, shoved the witnesses into the storeroom and left. They took your agent with them."
"Was he hurt?"
"Yeah. Bullet crease in the head. Waitress said it was nasty. She said they beat the hell out of him too, while he was unconscious. She thinks maybe his ribs are broken."
"Dammit," he sighed, "Okay, I want a full report. You make sure it gets to the hospital. I want to talk to the witnesses. Who's running the investigation?"
"I don't know, Sir, you'd have to talk to my C.O., Dave Hollins. I called him already, he has your number."
He pulled on shoes and a coat and dialed Vivian. After updating her, he told her to get Samantha and head to the diner to see what the lab turned up. He made his way to the hospital, arriving just as the helicopter landed. He rushed to the ER, blanching when he saw just how pale and still Danny Taylor was.
"Danny," he whispered as he moved closer, eyeing the unmoving form.
"We have to x-ray him, sir. You'll have to step outside. I'll update you when I know anything," the nurse instructed.
"How is he?"
"Guarded, his vitals are good. The blood they gave him helped."
"Okay," he sighed, then walked to the waiting room and found a phone. Three rings finally brought a reply.
"F.B.I. Garvin speaking."
"Brendan, it's Jack Malone."
"Hey, Chris is looking for you," the agent replied, flagging down his boss, "Hold on, Jack."
"Jack?" Chris Boone, the head of the team assigned, pulled out his notes, "I just got off the phone to Vivian. That 911 call came from Fitzgerald."
"It came through at 7:45 p.m. From what we got from the witnesses, that was about twenty minutes after they left. She said Fitzgerald made a deal with them. I know this kid doesn't have much background yet, but he knows we don't negotiate with "
"We don't know all the facts yet," Malone's defenses went up, "He's a good agent. What we do have is four hostages alive, thanks to him. I want all five. Anything on the car?"
"No," he noted of Taylor's missing vehicle, taken by the trio, "Koslowski's ex died three years ago. He's got no other family in the area. I got two men at the prison talking to his cellmate. How's Taylor?"
"Stable. I'll be in touch." Jack hung up and dialed Vivian, "It's me, Danny's doing better, he's stable. They're running some tests."
"Did Boone talk to you?" she asked, watching Samantha talking to the waitress.
"Yeah, the call came from Martin?"
"Yes, I heard it. He sounded awful. He could barely get the words out. Jack, you need to hear what this waitress, Ellen Weaver, told us. For awhile, while he was lying in a pool of blood, Martin thought he'd killed Danny," she paused, hearing the deep and audible sigh, "According to her, Martin said he was going to 'make a deal with the devil'. She said he tried to talk to Danny, right before they hauled him out. Danny..."
"Danny rejected him, blamed him."
"Great." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "Anything on the car?"
"Theirs? No. Stolen from Atlantic City yesterday. We're gonna finish here and head back to town. You going to the office?"
"Once I talk to the doctor. Check in with Boone again. He said a couple of his men were talkin' to this guy's cellmate."
"Sam," he acknowledged the new voice.
"According to Ellen Weaver, they didn't get anything from the safe and little from the register. She said after the boy died, the father lost it. Did Boone tell you what they did to Martin?"
"What could Martin have said to them?" the blond wondered aloud, "She said that Ray Koslowski Junior was getting antsy, pushing his father for a decision. Then Martin spoke to them privately and everything changed."
"Okay." He spotted a doctor signaling him. "I gotta go, we'll meet downtown." He hung up the pay phone, conferred with the doctor and headed for the elevator. The bag he held contained Danny's things and Martin's wallet. He watched the buttons light up and fingered Martin's bloody badge, which was in his hand.
"What the hell did you do, Fitzgerald?"
The images came fast and furious, propelled by forces locked deep within the tortured man's soul. It was cold, there were no lights or heat. He stumbled blindly, fumbling and tripping in the endless hall. He jerked knobs, feeling desperate and fleeing something terrifying. His face was covered in sweat, his heart pounding and his small legs failing him. His sandy hair clung to his face as he stumbled forward to the last door. The heavy footsteps were closing in; he jerked the handle as a hand touched his shoulder.
His one working eye jerked open, his chest heaved and he struggled to breathe. He shifted his eyes around the small room. The hewn wood walls were old but secure. The bunk beneath him smelled musty, but he was warm. His cuffed hands were around a pole that went from the floor to the ceiling next to the bunk. The pain in his head had dulled somewhat, but his ribs were making up for that. Every breath was like breathing in hot, jagged shards of glass. Moreover, it was a struggle to breath. It almost felt as if a weight was on his chest.
The fog rolled out of his mind and revisited the events he could recall. His lousy mood causing trouble all day with his partner. Jack's wrath and the quiet ride on the interstate followed by a stop at the diner. Danny's wheezing face appeared on the other side of a Formica table. He thought on their short talk, taking in small amounts of air.
Danny was the first person he'd talked to about that black time in his life. Sometimes it seemed to be a bad dream, rather than a nightmare. Nightmare. Now he had a new one: the red source of life running from his partner's spent body. Danny. The cocky grin appeared and he felt a pain in his chest. He replayed the movie again, each frame in painstakingly slow motion.
Ray the dad turning to his dying son. His own gun his weapon taken from him in the killer's hand. Ray the son distracted with Danny and the old man. The sound of his heart beating, Danny's eyes meeting his... reading him and the mouth curled into the word 'no'. His body moving, two shots, two shots... blackness.
He sighed heavily, grimacing at the fire in his chest. He couldn't move on the cot too well, trying to shift from his side to his back. He inched his body up a bit, which helped. He leaned against the rough wall, feeling the splinters of wood on his neck. His jacket was gone and his shirt was maroon with his own blood.
The movie stopped playing. He thought on his actions. It was the right move, he'd had no choice. If Danny had reacted differently, taken his cue, they might be in the office now, getting the wrath of Malone. But they'd be home. Home? He closed his eye, trying to adjust to the darkness and the pain in his head. Home was New York now. For the first time in many years, he felt he had a home. He liked the unit, he liked his partner, and working for Jack Malone was the best way for him to become the best agent he could.
It had been the right move, he trusted his gut and it had told him to 'go'. Now, recalling the conversation he'd heard in that office, he knew it had been the right call. He remembered Ray the dad being bent out of shape, eyes wild and lost, straying to the corpse of his younger son. Ray the son trying to reason with his father to take the offer. Ray the dad, shaking his head and moving, putting the gun, Martin's own weapon, right between Martin's eyes. He still felt the cold metal pressed to his forehead. He hadn't blinked, he'd kept his eye on the killer's. For a few seconds, he felt time stand still. Ray the dad had kept that gun there, telling Ray the son that they would 'kill them all'.
But he hadn't. He'd pulled the gun away and listened. Martin couldn't remember what he'd said to the deranged man, but that phone call worked. He'd dialed his bank, accessed his account and let them listen. Then he asked how much for each head. Ray the son talked about Mexico and living like kings. Ray the dad agreed. They'd taken Danny's car and twenty minutes later let Martin dial 911. By now, everyone was safe.
He sighed softly, shivered a little, and thought on Danny again. More than his physical wounds, the one pain that lanced him hardest, that festered now, was the fallen man's face turning away. He doubted he'd get out of here alive to talk to Danny about the decision to move for the gun. He'd have argued his points, Danny would have come back at him. Maybe in a bar over a couple of beers.
But that day wouldn't dawn. The others lived, for that he was glad. He drifted to sleep, again seeing the dark haired agent's head turn away.
Midnight, Mount Sinai Hospital
He blinked and moaned, his tongue roaming around a dry mouth. He coughed and cried out, as his congested chest rebelled. He was hot too hot. His hand fumbled, dispelling sheets and blankets. His wrist hit chrome. Chrome? He blinked again, the shadows cleared and a dimly lit room came into focus. Pale walls, plastic chairs and a bedside table met his gaze. His confusion grew and he coughed again, harder this time.
A voice, then a set of hands lifting his head and wiping his mouth. A straw nudged his lips.
"Take some water."
He obeyed, he knew that voice. He moaned in pleasure as the cool liquid put out the fires in his mouth. Finally done, he sighed heavily and eased back onto pillows. A motor sounded and the bed rose up. He nodded, it felt better. He saw a plastic tube running into his arm. His face screwed up in confusion as his good hand moved, touching his left shoulder, which was encased in a sling.
"You got shot."
"Yeah, this afternoon. You lost some blood, but nothing broke, just torn up soft tissue. You'll be out awhile, and need therapy."
He nodded, his half-mast eyes darting slowly. Shot. Shot. He repeated the word silently in his mind. Ghosts appeared, hovering in slow motion in a gray world with booths and a counter. A diner. A bowl of soup, hot and tasty.
"World's best soup," he muttered, his eyes drifting shut.
He sighed, his eyebrows moved, and he tried to open his eyes but couldn't. The ghosts began to waltz faster. A troubled face over the table, wide blue eyes spilling dark secrets from a troubled soul. But the demon stopped him, causing the blue-eyed man to pale and panic.
"...holdin' out on me..."
He mumbled, turned away from the bedside guest and pressed his face into the pillow. The ghosts were upset, something was wrong. The storm raged, the wind howled and a cold air filled the cozy space. Three phantoms appeared with bloody red eyes. Harsh words, a struggle, a set of blue eyes meeting his own and a split second decision.
"Hey, calm down!"
He resisted the strong arms pressing him back and felt the pain explode again in his shoulder. Then blackness. The dark sands shifted and the images changed. The face appeared again, battered and bloodied. Cuffed hands reached out to him, an eye much too wide and emotive wanted reassurance and understanding. He turned away. The phantoms appeared, hauling the tortured soul away. Then he locked onto the blue eye and that face. He saw right through the troubled window to the soul. He knew, then, what had transpired.
"Take it easy, Danny."
He sat up, ignoring the pain slamming him and the concerned face of his boss. Jack was trying to get him to lie back down.
"Let go of me!" he argued, "Where is he?"
"I don't know." Malone observed the pain laced eyes and rapid breathing. "You need to calm down."
"Calm!" he vented, pounding his right fist into the bed, "I'll kick his sorry ass all the way back to Seattle. Who the hell does he think he is?" He wheezed, choked, coughed and took a drink. "Playin' God. Dammit to hell!"
"Calm down and talk to me. Tell me what happened."
It came out, slow and halting, by a young agent struggling with his own demons. Finally, it was done.
"That waitress, she was okay, Jack. She saved me. Kept her head. That kid kept shooting his mouth off, but she never lost her cool." He paused, fighting to stay awake. "He sold out."
"What?" Jack puzzled, "We don't know what he did. This deal, whatever it was, saved your lives. He's the one who called 911 just in time, I might add."
"He traded off, his life for ours. He don't have that right," Danny fumed. "How the hell am I supposed to live with that? Huh? When... we..." his voice broke and he swallowed hard, "find his body, riddled with bullets. Huh? My shoulders ain't that broad, Jack."
"First of all, he's alive. Don't write him off. Whatever he's cooking up, they bought in..." He saw the eyes fighting to stay open. The fist was still clenched. "Get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning."
"Things won't look better unless I open my eyes and that cocky bastard is sittin' there." He eyed the empty chair. "I keep seein' them damn blue eyes of his... He reached out... for me... he needed me to understand. I cut him off cut out his heart. Jesus."
"Don't!" Jack pleaded, but the fist uncurled and the jaw went slack. He waited a few minutes, then lowered the bed and watched the troubled eyes darting under stilled lids. Martin and Danny each had demons to battle. It would be a long night for both.
In the darkness of the night, Danny did battle with the demons. He fought through the thick muck, brandishing a sword. It was hard to fight, his body was covered with heavy armor on a battlefield many hundreds of years old. Sweat poured from his body and his bleeding arm slowed him down. He tried to lift the heavy sword but couldn't. He saw the black knight charging, garbed head to toe in a cloak of death.
He turned and saw his partner's unprotected back. His partner was on his knees, groggy and bleeding from a head wound. His helmet was missing. He turned then, those soulful blue eyes locking on his own brown. The troubled face broke into a smile, through the blood and dirt. His armored hand rose, reaching out. Then the spectre arrived, the sword arced and Danny screamed. Martin never saw the blow coming, as his head was severed.
Six a.m., Pine Barrens, NJ
Martin was covered in sweat, his heart hammering. The dream was so real, so vivid. He felt his neck, reassuring himself it was still attached. The word resounded around the room, bouncing off every wall. A word that had come to mean so much to him. Oh, he'd been called names before, most cruel and hurtful, as only kids can do. But this time it was different. It rolled off Danny's tongue so easily, with that sly grin.
It suddenly occurred to Martin that on the day prior, from the time Danny picked him up, he'd not uttered the name. Martin hadn't realized, until this moment, just how much he missed it and how much it meant to him. It was more than a nickname it was a badge of honor. Something brothers do. Something he needed to hear.
His thoughts were interrupted when the door opened. Ray Junior appeared and unlocked Martin's cuffs. Ray Senior was in the doorway, bleary eyed and waving a gun.
"You gotta take a leak?" the younger Koslowski inquired.
"Yeah, why don't you duck down and I'll show you," he snapped, hissing in pain as he was hauled to his feet.
"Always the wiseass." The dark-haired man shoved the groggy agent forward.
Martin staggered badly, weak, tired, cold and hardly able to breathe. He saw a can of Pepsi and a wrapped-up sandwich. He was shoved through a door into the yard, where he shivered badly in the cold morning air and he sunk into mucky, wet thick mud.
An outhouse appeared and he wrinkled his nose, sucked in a breath and relieved himself. Then he was given five minutes to eat.
"Make the call."
Martin eyed the phone and picked it up, pushing the button. Nothing happened.
The hostage dodged on instinct, preparing for a blow that never came.
"What now?" the older man asked his son.
"There's a payphone near that bait place, and it's closed for the winter."
"Yeah, okay, that's not far. Let's go." The father kept the gun trained while the cuffs were put back on and the hostage hauled up.
8:30 a.m. New York
Jack paused, his shirt wrinkled and his stomach soured from too much coffee. He'd been in the office all night. He'd gathered the information from the witnesses: state troopers, Boone's F.B.I. crew and what Sam and Vivian had. He rubbed his eyes and frowned, then the caller spoke.
"Who's askin'?" He snapped his fingers, directing the two female agents into the office. They'd gone home at one a.m. and arrived back at dawn. Vivian started a trace and he pushed the speaker button, so they all could hear.
"My name is Mark Grant. I'm the manager of First Union Bank in midtown. I got a rather strange call on my voicemail. I think it's for you, it's from Martin Fitzgerald."
"This is Martin Fitzgerald, account number 13-389L4. This message is for Jack L. Malone. Listen, Jack, I need a favor. I need to move a lot of money from my trust fund, forty thousand dollars, and I need it today. I'll call back at ten to give you the bank to transfer it to. Thanks, Leeds, I owe you."
"Okay, someone from the bureau will be over to speak with you and take that tape. Is Martin a customer?"
"Yes, he opened an account a few months back. I gave him my card. He had some assets he wanted to speak about and some investments to discuss. But we never made a date."
"Mister Malone, that's not his account number. It's not even close."
"It's a clue of some kind. He's missing. We'll be in touch."
He hung up and furrowed his brow. "Leeds?"
"He's trying to tell you something." Sam frowned, eyeing the odd numbers. "He didn't say one, three, he said thirteen dash. Thirteen," she wrote down, "Leeds..."
Vivian's head came up and she moved around the desk next to Spade. She read the other digits.
"He's a lot more than a pretty face," the dark-skinned agent smiled. "He's in the Pine Barrens. That was smart."
"Pine Barrens?" Malone queried, "How did you figure that?"
"Mother Leed's thirteenth child." She looked at the other two. "The Jersey Devil. Ring a bell?"
"That half monster thing that steals children?" Sam frowned, "That Jersey Devil?"
"The myth is that a woman named Leeds gave birth to her thirteenth child, sired by the devil. She lived in shack in the Pine Barrens. Thirteen," she pointed, "Three, Eight, Nine... is C, H,I...."
"L, D," Sam finished, "We've got ninety minutes."
"Maybe less." Vivian ran back into the large outer room to her desk. She shoved papers around until she found the right one. Jack and Sam were now next to her. "I spoke to the warden of the prison Koslowski was in yesterday. He didn't have many visitors. But," she moved her finger, "here, Milton Dacey, 'Dace', his wife's father. He died about eight years ago."
"So?" Jack didn't follow the logic.
"The warden remembered him because he was so odd. He dressed in clothes from years ago, talked with a strange accent. They joked about him. Called him 'Piney'."
"He lived in the Pine Barrens." Sam felt a flicker of hope.
"I'd bet on it," Johnson replied.
"Get the address," Malone barked, but Sam was already dialing the phone. "I'll update Boone, you call the state troopers. Oh, somebody call Danny."
9:30 a.m., deep in the Pine Barrens
They crept in slowly, surrounding the tiny shack. Jack nodded and Boone went in first, gun drawn.
The echo came around the small room and went out the door. Food, empty bottles and other trash were strewn about. Jack stooped and picked up a cell phone.
"He was in here."
Jack eyed the tiny empty room and sighed in frustration. He picked up the charcoal gray suit jacket, wincing at the large maroon stains on it.
"We got tracks out back."
"Let's go," Boone answered the agent at the door.
"Yeah?" Jack answered his ringing phone. "Good. Where? No they're not here." He eyed the driver. "Chris, Vivian said the phone call Martin made came from a payphone at a bait shack about two miles from here."
"I've got a visual on the car!"
Sam's voice came through the radio from the lead car. Jack craned his neck, spotting Danny's car parked outside a tiny shack with the words 'Live Bait' in red letters on a worn gray sign.
Jack jumped out and ran to the car. The door was open and a body was lying on the wet, muddy ground beside it. The back tire was flat.
"He's dead," Sam said, eyeing the hole in the corpse's throat. She looked up at her boss' worried face, "So where are Martin and Ray Koslowski Junior?"
"Jack," Boone called him over, pointing to the back seat, "If that's what I think it is, we're running out of time."
Jack Malone eyed the blood on the floor behind the driver's seat. Bloody vomit. His eyes went to the seat, also stained with blood. The words came back, a crease in the head, and the harsh, labored breathing he'd heard on the phone.
"What?" Sam came abreast of him, peering in the door.
"Martin," the tired leader replied, "His lung's popped. We don't find him soon, he'll choke to death on his own blood."
He walked several feet away, hands on tense hips, eyeing the thick, wet muddy road. High grasses, some as tall as him, covered the area as far as the eye could see. He shifted his weight, scowled at the gray sky and sighed.
"Where the hell are you, Martin?"
9:45 a.m., in the Pine Barrens
He dropped, his spent body unable to move any further. His exhaustion was more frightening than the blood running down his face from the wound on his head. It had been reopened by Ray the son slamming it against the armrest when they got in the car. He'd vomited blood and that scared him, he knew he had to get help. He rolled on his back, eyeing the blue peeking through a gray sky. His breath slowed, his heart slowed, his eye widened in delirious amazement.
He was dying.
He got a sarcastic snort at that; drawing up the look on his father's face when they told him. Told Victor? No, he wouldn't take the call, he never did. The bitterness rose again, as it always did when he 'saw' his father. He didn't fight it this time, he let it spill over. It hurt... still... perhaps it always would. He'd done more than any son should have to, but it wasn't enough.
He saw Danny then, lying in pool of blood. He furrowed his brow, fighting hard to breathe. Was Danny alive?
"...m'sor..." He slurred, one bloody hand reaching out, before his eye shut and his head lolled.
9:49 a.m. in the Pine Barrens
Looking through his dark sunglasses, Jack Malone's head swiveled when the first of two choppers swooped low over the massive landscape. Then the voice broke through his radio, which was clipped to his hip.
"I got movement, two hundred yards up at three o'clock!"
"Move!" Jack ordered the officers gathered and ran, gun drawn. He ducked just as Ray Junior turned and fired. "Freeze, fuckface, F.B.I.!" he ordered, taking aim on the man's kneecap, "I can put four in you and cripple you..."
The gun dropped.
"Hands behind your head; interlace those fingers. Now!" Malone moved in, pushing the button on his hip. "Chris, I got him."
"Roger, Jack, I'm right behind you." Boone moved, going past the irate Missing Person's leader, and frisked the suspect, taking a knife and another gun. Boone cuffed him and held on, as Jack moved in.
"Where's Martin Fitzgerald?"
"Dead," the killer tossed back with a leering smile .He saw the other man's face blanch. "I put one in his stinkin' guts. It hurt like hell!" He paused then, the other man didn't react the way he wanted. His eyes narrowed as the other man checked the chambers in his gun.
"Chris, why don't you scope out the next field. I think I saw the suspect over there."
"You got it Jack," Boone nodded, knowing Malone wasn't going to do anything but scare the weasel. He moved away, walking until the tall grass covered him.
"Hey! Get back here!" Ray yelled. "You can't leave me here!"
"Shut that hole," Jack said quietly, shoving the irate man to his knees. He leaned in, grabbing the sweating face with one hand and lowering his weapon with the other. He caressed the perp's thigh, grazing his groin before going to the knee. "You ever taken one in the knee? Hurts like hell. Worst pain you can imagine, but you won't pass out." He moved the gun again to the other knee. "By the second one, you'll be gasping like a fish outta water, your eyes roll and you try to scream but you're in too much pain."
"Hey! Help!" he panted, fearing as the smile got wider above him, "You can't do that..."
"What?" Jack's lips quirked into a smile. "You don't like it? Call a cop!" he suggested with a twisted grin. Then the gun moved again, pressing against his ankle. "It'll shatter, but you'll be beyond reason by then." He moved it again, feeling the fear choking the other man. He pressed the weapon against the offender's groin. "This... would be for me. 'Cause I'd like nothing more than to blow your balls off, you sick son-of-a-bitch!" He leaned in, rammed the gun hard and narrowed his dark eyes. "Talk!"
"I don't know. He... jumped," he paused, took a gulping breath and waited, but the hammer went back on the pistol and it went to his knee, "Honest! We took the cuffs off, he called his banker. Then he passed out, or pretended to he'd thrown up blood on the way over. I went to pick him up and he got the gun. He shot my father " he choked, still seeing his father's face, eyes wide as the gurgle of death came. "I shot back and hit the tire. Then I held onto my dad until..." he sobbed, "He took off..."
While the anxious team leader interrogated the spent suspect, the two helicopters continued their search. Each took a sector, zooming low over the marshes, woods and tall grasses that covered the area. They needed a miracle. Finding a non-moving body in that mess would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
"Doug, turn back, I saw something," the co-pilot directed, his eyes on the side glass. He narrowed his gaze and peered below intently. A thatch of white in a sea of pale green grass. "There! Lower," he directed, then saw an unmoving white male. "This is Charlie six, we got a visual! I repeat 'We have a visual'"
"Chris!" Jack barked, gripping the back of Koslowski's neck and craning his eyes to the sky. They spotted the chopper, and the digits 'C6' on its side. He jerked the body up and over to the approaching agent. "Take this piece of filth."
He moved quickly, parting the tall grass, and huddled over when the wind from the chopper got intense. As soon as he dropped down, they lifted up a bit and lowered a ladder to him. He grabbed the ladder and hung on, until he was over the missing agent.
"Martin!" He dropped down, wincing at the battered face, blood streaking it proudly like war paint. He groped on the neck and got a weak pulse. He tapped the pale cheek hard. "Martin! Wake up! Get those blues open!" He saw the brows furrow and the lips part, not missing their blue tinge. "Dammit, Fitzgerald, don't you die on me!"
From far beneath a thick sea of hot mud, Martin Fitzgerald fought back. Something deep within him kicked into overdrive. The voice drew him; it was one he knew and trusted. Someone was there. Someone cared. He wasn't dead. He tried hard and pushed with all his might, then was rewarded with a blurry face in front of a blue sky far above.
"That's it," Jack coached, gripping the fallen man's wavering hand. Skin met skin and the blue-eyed panic died down. A soft sigh of relief was barely audible. "It's Jack, son, can you hear me?"
"...s... s...s...on..." He sighed and nodded. Somehow from Jack it meant something.
"I called your dad," Malone corrected, thinking the dazed man was confused. At those words, the pale lips screwed up, the eye opened wide and the breathing became even more labored.
"Hah," Martin choked. "...miss funeral..." he managed, his weak voice in a derisive tone. "Oh," he mimicked his famous father, "...sorry... Mar..t..in... something... came up.... "
Jack winced then, not at the words, or the battle scars, but at the deep and old wound in the young man's eyes. "Bastard," he muttered, thinking of the jet-setting, high-profiled elder Fitzgerald. Now he saw all too clearly why this intense young man was so driven, almost to the point of perfectionism. He moved for a moment, as the copilot dropped a canvas gurney down and they eased the injured man onto it.
"I'm comin' with him!" Jack forecast, seeing the flash of fear and confusion in the lost eyes. The feeble fingers clutched at his hand in desperation.
"Okay," the other man answered, tugging the line and sending the bloody agent into the helicopter.
Finally, they were airborne, on their way to the nearest trauma center. Jack sat vigil next to the injured man, keeping his lock on the weak hand. The eye opened again and the bloodied lips moved, too blue beneath the dark red crusting them.
"I... tried..." Martin whispered, lost in a fevered world or mixed images, past and present. "I... tried... hard... " he reaffirmed to the body. He gripped as hard as he could, needing that lifeline, that human touch. "Never... good... enough..."
"He's a fool then, son, or blind. Maybe both." He found those lost eyes, so desperately needing hope and affirmation. He lifted the body up a bit, hoping to give him relief from the intense pain and shelter him from the emotional storm. He let the shaking body rest against him, the fevered head on his arm. "Martin, can you hear me?" He saw the fuzzy eye blink and focus, then the blood-encrusted head bobbed. "I believe in you. You beat out over seventy very qualified men and women to get this job. I picked you, Martin, for the man I saw, not the name you wore. You understand?"
Martin heard every word and knew Jack Malone spoke the truth. He felt it in the delivery and moreover, saw it in the intense black gaze. He inhaled as best he could, then nodded and squeezed the hand.
"Good, then you fight like hell," Jack ordered, hearing the sigh of release, "I got no room for quitters around my campfire, comprende?"
"Trying... J... a..ck... hurts... like... hell."
"Then fight harder!" he barked loudly and saw the slim man gasping hard.
"...sittin' on me..." Martin rasped, "Get... him... off... chest... J..ac.k... pl...pl... ease... heavy... move."
"How much longer?" He eyed the other man with him, who was taking Martin's vitals.
"What's our ETA, Doug?"
"Cut it in half!" Malone barked, just as Martin's whole body tensed up. 'Martin?" He cupped the gaping jaw, which floundered like a fish out of water. Strange sucking sounds emerged as the eye went blue with wild fright, then a bloodied claw came up, hitting his neck and face. The silent plea of agony broke his heart. Then the blue lips parted and a single, heartfelt word emerged.
Jack snagged the emotive word, just as a sea of red spewed forth. "Aw, Christ!" His voice shook, "He's choking to death, get this Goddamn thing landed!"
Something was wrong he had no air. He gasped and sucked, but nothing came. There was a crushing weight on his chest. Black spots appeared covering Jack's face. ΤNo. Not now. I don't want to die.' He heard the other man's voice from a place far above. The last word he heard, before his agony-ridden body gasped and shuddered, was 'fight'.
"Martin!" Jack briefly saw the panic-filled eye searching for him, then the body went limp in his arms. "Jesus, not now."
"Sir, let me have him!"
He moved away then, as the bloody warrior was laid on a gurney, surrounded by a sea of medical personnel.
"I've got no air sounds, Jeff!" the nurse relayed, listening to the purplish-blue mottled left side of the injured man's chest. "Pulse is 120 and rapid, BP is 80 over 50 and falling, respirations are 28 and extremely labored," she read off the information, "We need a tube."
"We're gonna tube him and put in an IV with saline, wide open," the medical resident hollered, inserting a small needle carrying a plastic catheter into the now stripped young man's arm. He withdrew the needle, then inserted the line carrying saline solution.
"Hemothorax suspected," Stevenson, the ER resident next to him updated, strapping the body onto the gurney. "Get the Ambubag," he advised his partner, "I'll get the tube in." He tilted the patient's head back and used a small, metal instrument with a light on the end. His veteran fingers quickly moved the tool past the mouth and down the throat. He skillfully lifted the dormant epiglottis, a cartilage lying behind the tongue and in front of the vocal cords. This allowed the tube to be eased into the trachea. "Okay, Kim, get those fingers working," he barked to the nurse on his right, attaching the bag to the tube. His partner would pump the bag every ten seconds, giving the critical man air, until the tube was attached to a respirator. He lowered his stethoscope and listened, insuring that the tube was in place correctly. "Let's go!"
"Hemo... what?" Jack sputtered, pushing his numb legs to follow the racing team into the building.
"Hemothorax," the nurse who was holding the door informed the bloodied man.
He followed her gaze and shook his head. 'It's his, not mine. Oh uh, he's got no allergies and he's uh... AB negative," he said slowly. He had every team member's information memorized, in case of emergency.
"Thanks, that'll help." She waited, picked up a phone on the wall and dialed the ER. "Maggie, it's me. You tell Matt that guy's AB negative and no known allergies. Thanks." She turned back to the other man, whose pale face revealed his worry. They walked quickly up the corridor to the elevator. She punched the button and waited, then spoke, "Roughly translated, they suspect that his lung is pierced and it's filling with blood. If they don't put a tube in his chest to relieve the pressure, he could drown in his own blood."
"Jesus," Malone sighed, raking a trembling hand through his dark hair. The doors opened and they got inside. Once they reached the floor he moved immediately to a bank of pay phones. He dialed Vivian first, who was in a car with Boone, heading over.
"We're here, his lung collapsed and it's filling with blood. They're working on him. Call Danny!"
"Okay," Johnson clipped the phone and turned to Sam, "He's alive."
Jack punched the next number and waited. He tried to control his anger. His boiling insides escaped in seething tones when the now familiar female voice answered.
"It's Jack Malone again!" he barked, "Get him the hell on this phone now!"
"I'm sorry, Mister Malone. Mister Fitzgerald can't be reached. If you'll leave a message "
"Message?" His face screwed up in revulsion. "Yeah, I got a message. You can tell him I'm standing the fuck outside an ER with my chest covered in his SON'S blood. You can tell that heartless son-of-a-bitch his SON damn near died in my arms!" he growled, and hung up.
The doors of the emergency room opened and a nurse ran out as Jack moved inside. He watched in a muted mixture of horror and amazement as the team worked on the fallen man.
While a trauma team surrounded the young male, cleaning his wounds and beginning life saving treatment, he remained limp and unaware. His slack features were as pale as the sheet beneath him, which was now stained with his blood. The grime and filth were cleaned off and wounds were dressed. A second IV line was started with a dopamine drip and a new unit of blood was hung on a pole by his side. The head of the team set to work immediately, realizing that they had just minutes to spare. This young man was close to dying.
"I'm in," Dr. Lauren Hollis announced, completing the gory procedure. After cutting a hole in the chest wall and dissecting through the muscle, she placed the plastic tube into the pleural space. Then she connected it to a large plastic container, laced with blue liquid and wall suction, to remove air and fluid from the damaged area. Immediately, bright red liquid poured through the tube, filling the container. "Terry, get that to the lab, type and cross-match!" she ordered the nurse drawing blood.
"It's AB negative," a nurse remarked.
"We need to confirm and you don't question my orders!" Hollis shot back, then turned, "Dave, get that portable unit over him and take some pictures, so we can see what we have. How's his BP?"
"80 over 40, his pulse is racing, just over 130," the nurse announced, before leaving for the lab.
Dave Kauffman kept his eyes on the vital signs from the pulse oximeter attached to the patient's index finger. He did a complete set of x-rays, eager to get pictures of the problem areas to the doctor.
"You're lucky," she addressed the unconscious male, "That was close." The doctor eyed the pictures from the x-ray machine. "There it is!" She pointed to the broken ribs, which punctured the lung.
"What about this?" the medical resident asked Hollis, tipping the patient's head to reveal a deep laceration.
"I'm ordering a CT Scan." She checked his ears, nose and throat. "I don't think it's fractured, though. Is Escort here?" Doctor Hollis asked, taking the patient's temperature. "Good," she nodded at the young man, while writing notes and heading to the phone. "Mary?" she spoke into the phone to the head of the ICU, giving her the victim's name and his report. "He's a little hypothermic, get some warming blankets and make sure the IV's go in warm. I want his vitals checked constantly, and he'll need a central line put in. I think Hank Richardson is on call today," she noted of the vascular surgeon, "I'm ordering a CT Scan as soon as I clean up the head wound. I'll check on him later."
She hung up the phone and noticed the blood-splattered man in the doorway, face pale and eyes riveted to the figure on the gurney. She walked over and waited, then moved her head.
"I'm Doctor Hollis. He's critical, but stable. He should be fine, barring any unforeseen information from the head injury."
"We're gonna be working on him for awhile and taking a CAT Scan. Why don't you get cleaned up? He's going up to ICU."
"Okay. Hey, Doc," Martin paused, eyeing the pale body in the bed, "You take good care of him. He's special."
His phone rang just as he tossed his now ruined shirt into the trash. The ER nurse had given him a blue scrub shirt to put on under his suit coat. He flipped the phone open and his features darkened when he heard the voice.
"You'd better be on your way to an airport!" he managed between clenched teeth.
"I've cleared my calendar for the immediate future. I'll be there shortly."
"Didn't strain yourself, I hope!" Jack sent back, not masking his rage, "You should have been here last night or early this morning. I called you six times!"
"I was kept aware of every move. I had my office checking on "
"You cold-hearted bastard!" Malone tossed back, "You don't deserve a son as fine as that. You get your arrogant ass here and stay as long as he needs you. Don't you break his heart again!" He shut the phone off, not wanting to hear the prick anymore.
He went to the lobby, got a large coffee and sat down on a blue vinyl chair. He pulled his phone out and punched the numbers. He flaked some dried blood off with his fingers, it seemed to be under every nail.
"Danny? He's alive." He heard a muffled sigh and forced air. He listened intently and heard gasping. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Danny took a calming breath and tried to slow his racing heart. "It was on the television, they broke in." He paused, "How is he, Jack?"
"Bad. His lung popped, he damn near died in my arms, spittin' up blood." He sipped his coffee. "I finally got his father. Christ, he's a real piece of work."
"Yeah, I know," Taylor's voice faded away as the image of that lost child in the cold, stark school returned.
"They're checking out Martin's head wound, he's in ICU. I'm gonna hang here awhile. Chris Boone is the primary. His team will clean up the mess. The father is dead and the son is lucky."
"He's really okay?" Danny's voice wavered.
"The Doc said he should be fine. You get some sleep, I'll call."
Sleep? Danny hung the phone up and turned the television off. He eased his throbbing body back and ran his good hand over his hot face. The fever was still high and his headache raged, but Martin Fitzgerald was alive.
Sleep? He sighed, yawned and let his eyes shut. He'd sleep and eat and take all their damned medicine. Then he'd go to that hospital and give that cocky, blue-eyed terrier a piece of his mind.
"You and me are gonna have a talk, Harvard!" he vowed, then fingered the small gold cross on his neck. A gift from his mother when he got out of Quantico. He eyed through the ceiling to a place far above, where Hope used her charms to spin miracles on the Loom of life. "Thank you," he sighed, slipping into a peaceful rest.
He was cold and his head throbbed. His chest was on fire and something was shoved down his throat. He furrowed his brows in confusion and began to thrash lightly. He panicked at the thing in his throat until a voice penetrated his lost world.
"It's a tube, it's helping you breathe. Leave it alone!"
It wasn't just any gruff voice, it was one he needed to hear. He sighed, obeyed and knew whatever the voice told him, it was so. He believed in the voice and knew he was safe.
Jack hovered over the bed, willing the blue eyes to open. The only sound in the room was the beeping of the monitor. Martin was pale and weak, but he was on the way back. Satisfied the panic was over, he retreated to the doorway again.
The darkness broke. From the abyss he was lost in, rich vivid waves of colors broke over a pristine white beach. He sighed and relaxed, bathing in the warmth. The blues and greens faded away, birthing a new light. It was rich and gold, shimmering and glittering, nearly blinding him. He was drawn to the magnificent light, needing to bathe in its brilliance. The bath was full of emotion and wrapped around him, filling him with a healing elixir. He turned and swam in the glow, feeling an explosion of incredible power overtake him. He inhaled it, feeling the warmth course through his ravaged body. He felt almost giddy; he wasn't lost anymore. He knew where he was now; his compass was back. It was right there. Right there. Right there.
Martin gasped and eyed the unfamiliar room. Strange walls and an awful antiseptic smell. A beeping in his ear and a plastic line with fluid running into his arm. Pain. Pain and pressure. His chest felt like an elephant was dancing on it. Then he realized he couldn't breathe. Something was jammed down his throat. His eyes went wild, his hand groped, trying to pull the thing out and get air.
Two very confused blue eyes wavered from left to right. For a moment, there was no movement. Then the body began to shake; the eyes darted frantically. "Shit!" Jack jumped from the chair by the door, "He doesn't know where he is or what's going on." He moved closer, then eyed the other man with contempt. "Get a doctor!"
"Calm down!" he ordered, wiping the fevered brow with a cold cloth. He locked onto the lost soul, leaning in and watching the fear screaming silently from the blue eyes. He didn't need ears to 'hear' what those vivid eyes were shouting.
"What the hell... goin'... on? Shit... I can't breathe... I can't... where am I? My chest hurts... God it hurts... I can't...." Martin' s panic died down when his fumbling hand was snagged and the voice returned. He blinked and trained his eyes on the face, trusting it without question.
"Cut that out, Fitzgerald!" Malone commanded, his eyes watching the vital signs jumping all over as the panicked man's body reacted, "Look at me!"
He waited until the damp head turned, keeping the weak hand in his own. He kept his face stern. "You're in the hospital in New Jersey, in ICU, and that tube in your throat is helping you breathe." He saw the eyebrows cross and the fingers claw at his hand to get free. He gripped harder and remained strong. "Quit cursing at me, Martin! That tube is staying for awhile. It's been a bitch of a day and I don't need your shit, understand?"
Martin nodded and began to shiver. He was so cold. He nodded in appreciation when the blanket came up. Then the pieces of the puzzle returned in part: he saw the diner, the soup, the blond waitress and Danny Taylor's body. His head jerked, he tugged on the hand, using his free one to tap the badge clipped to the visitor's belt. He had to know. He needed to hear.
"He's fine," Jack smiled down at the expressive face, "He'll be wearing a sling for awhile, and don't think I don't have a nice 'chat' planned for you two." He leaned over, pulled his hand out and tucked the blanket closer. The wounded man was shivering badly, a combination of fear, confusion and fever. "You dad's here, he went to get the doctor."
Before Martin could react to that, the door opened and his eyes turned. There came the imposing figure of Victor Fitzgerald, with a young woman in tow. She looked tired, but found a smile for him. He listened carefully as she explained his injuries, the punctured lung and head crease. The tube would remain in for the rest of the day. Then he'd have to take it easy and rest a few weeks. He nodded and closed his eyes, his head hurt so. He heard her speaking to his father, then that voice drew him back.
"Did you hear that, son?"
He pulled away from the man's touch, repelled and annoyed. He dodged the words like poisoned bullets. He turned his body physically, the sound of 'son', from those lips, sickened him. He turned to the doorway and reached a hand out. He saw shock first, then a flush of maybe embarrassment then finally warmth. The body moved, a hand clasped in his and he let his emotional plea come through his eyes.
"Quit shoutin' at me, Fitzgerald, this is a hospital!" Malone gruffed, completely disarmed by the blue eyes, "You're dented a little, but you'll be okay. You've got Vivian, Sam and me to kick your ass if you don't." He paused, reading the eyes again. "Yeah, and you've got Danny, too! That partner of yours is one tough customer. You're not alone anymore. You're on our team now, you're family."
He considered the words carefully and felt that golden light invade him again. The warmth coursed through him and he eyed the strong hand gripping his weak one. Every step... a shoulder to lean on... strong arms to help support him. Danny's face flashed, that cocky grin invaded his space. A brother. All the tension left his body and he relaxed. He kept his gaze fixed on those dark beacons of hope until the nurses and doctor started to fuss over him. The examination brought a tidal wave of pain and it washed him away. His eyes slid shut and he rode out the storm. The first of many to come, but they wouldn't defeat him. He wasn't alone, not anymore.
9 a.m. Tuesday Morning, November 26th
The figure in the chair slumped, flicking his disinterested eyes on the silent television. He put the remote down, having settled on ESPN Classics, and picked up his coffee. He sipped carefully, allowing the heat to warm him. Every few minutes his gaze shifted to the figure in the bed.
Unaware of his silent observer, the injured man slept fitfully. His fine features were distressed, covered by a sheen of perspiration. His pale brown brows were furrowed as he battled demons in his troubled sleep.
The grainy images were in black and white, twisted and mixed by his fevered brain. Parts of the slow-moving scenario were the diner. The tired waitress, the leering gunman and his fallen partner covered in blood, the only color in the grisly scene. They all looked at him with scorning eyes painted with blame. He turned away, stumbling and falling. He pressed against the kitchen door and the room changed. He was back in time over twenty years. Too late he realized where he was and the panic began. He beat on the doors, trying to scream for help. Something was wrong, he couldn't breathe. The beast was looming over him, shoving a pipe down his throat. It burned and tore into him, taking his air away.
"Whoa!" The body shot off the chair and grabbed the thrashing man.
Martin's eyes shot open and his heart gyrated wildly. His fists came up, striking out at whatever was gripping him. He was trembling and shivering, covered in sweat. Then the panic accelerated and he grabbed at his throat. The pipe was still lodged there!
"Leave that alone! It's helping you breathe. Calm down!"
The hand grabbed his wrist, pulling it from his throat. His wet, matted head turned and his fear-filled eyes finally focused.
Blue eyes locked on brown.
"Hey, Harvard, welcome back!"
He wiggled weakly, trying to free himself from the other man's grip. He scowled and pushed his anger outward. He wasn't sure of all the facts, but he was angry at something.
"Take it easy!"
"You take it easy!" Martin fumed silently, unable to speak. "You don't have a fuckin' tube shoved down your throat. Don't touch me! Get away. Leave me be! Dammit, Danny."
"Nice!" Danny chuckled at the irate face and continued his hold on the other man's wrist. He knew Martin wasn't fully aware yet and didn't want him doing any damage to the breathing tube. "See, they all think you're some kind of Huck Finn." He mimicked the nurses, "Oh, poor Mister Fitzgerald. Oh, he's got such pretty eyes." He shook his head, "See, they don't about that salty tongue you got! You gonna quit cursing at me now?"
"Go to hell. Calm down? Big talk, you want to trade places?" The blue eyes raged. Martin scowled harder, using his free hand to point at the sling on Danny's chest and then at the bed.
"I'm legit," the dark-haired man proclaimed, "I got sprung a couple hours ago."
Fitzgerald persisted, finally pried his other arm free and gestured again to the injured arm, the bed and the window.
"That's the thanks I get," he teased, leaning on the bedrail, "Drag my sorry ass over here to check on you. I could be home, being tended to by the lovely Denise..." It didn't get the smile he hoped for. An odd look crossed the fallen man's face and all the wind left his sails. He seemed to melt into the mattress, turning his face away.
"Hey," he said gently, tapping the bare arm. The head turned slowly, the eyes were bruised and set into a face too pale. He lifted the other hand and gripped it, his tone serious. "Right, wrong or indifferent, you saved my ass out there. The doctor told me I would have bled to death. I could kick your ass clear back to Seattle for pullin' a stunt like that..." his voice didn't hide his feelings. "We have our differences, Harvard, and we're gonna clash over shit, but...you're my partner now. I can cuss you out and trash talk you, but I'll break the balls of anybody else who tries it." He smiled then as a faint show of pink christened the pale cheeks. "Hey, you blush! Hey, that's cool. Chicks love that."
Martin rolled his eyes and shook his head, feeling uncomfortable. He'd ridden solo for most of his career, and being a partner didn't come without its share of pain. Try as he might, the awful, cold feeling he'd felt when he thought Danny Taylor was dead kept coming back. He kept seeing his hand on the gun...and Danny in a pool of blood. Taylor wasn't just anybody's partner, he was his partner, and despite himself, he liked that.
His headache went into overdrive, the pain forcing his eyes shut, and he dozed for a bit. Strange, the nightmares didn't come this time, just a restless sleep. Martin woke, blinked, eyed the room again and realized he was in the hospital. He shivered as the coldness he seemed unable to shake revisited.
"Hey, 'bout time you woke up." Danny moved in the chair, needing to sit but wanting to see his partner's face. "I talked to the doctor, " he paused, scratched his chin and frowned, "Either I'm gettin' old or the residents are gettin' younger. This kid looked about fourteen, like Doogie Houser, you know?" He saw the eyes soften and the weak hand came up, pointing to his chest. "Thanks, some partner! You callin' me old?" His smile broadened as the wet head nodded. "Not so old I can't kick your ass," he boasted and the patient's middle finger danced across the sheet. "Charming," he grinned. "So Doogie says you're gonna be fine. They're gonna take that tube out soon and put you on oxygen. Then, if you behave and that fever leaves, you might come home on Thursday. I'll tell you what, this is one Thanksgiving where I'm gonna appreciate the meaning of..." He paused when the scorned blue eyes went past his face to the sling.
All the fight left Martin and his whole body sagged in defeat. He closed his eyes and nodded weakly. He felt a cold cloth press against his features and it felt good. Several minutes passed and he opened his eyes again. He turned to the left and saw Taylor's profile. His pained gaze caught the sling resting against the navy blue F.B.I sweatshirt. Guilt rose uninvited and consumed him.
"Don't, Martin," Danny sighed, "Man, them blues of yours are as lethal as your gun. I'm fine, so quit with the hounddog eyes, okay?"
Martin shook his head, pointed to the sling and then turned contrite eyes to the other man. He offered his hand and it was consumed, gripped hard, and then changed to a brotherhood grip.
"I don't blame you, is that what you thought?" Danny asked of the awful eyes, "It happened, not your fault, not mine, it just happened. Would I have pulled a move like that, going for that old man's gun? No way." The face turned away and he got angry, yanked on the arm until it turned back. "But I should have reacted differently. I should have understood that move and given you some support. Later on I would have kicked your ass for doin' that," he teased, then grew somber, "but by not supportin' you, I put myself and you in danger. I'm sorry."
Martin jerked his head and shook it hard, gesturing with his hands.
"Slow down! We're partners. I should have been watchin' your back out there. I pulled back. That jerkoff, he knew that. That's why you got shot." Danny turned away, dropped his head and pulled his hand free. Several minutes went by and he felt a trace of fingers on wrist. He raised his eyes and saw Martin straining to reach him. Every muscle was taut from exertion, from the weak body moving to reach out. He eyed the open palm and all it offered and he hesitated, eyes unsure.
"My head's about to fall off and I got a tube shoved down my throat. Don't give me any shit, Danny. I'm not blaming you, dammit."
"Okay, quit cursin'," the dark-eyed man teased of the irate features. He took the hand and cocked his head. "So maybe we each got a few things to learn? Still have some kinks to work out, huh?" The head nodded and he responded in kind. He took the hand and resumed the brotherhood grip, sending a solid wink with it.
"As much as I hate to bust up this Kodak moment..."
They both turned at the voice from the doorway, where their boss stood. Actually, he did more than stare, he glared openly at Danny Taylor. If Martin's ailing body had been capable of grinning, he would have. Malone was pissed and the source of his ire was his new partner.
"Hey boss!" Danny exuded, "Don't Martin look better? That doctor said "
"If I didn't know better," Jack entered the room, tossing his coat on the foot of the bed and staring intently at the squirming agent, "I'd swear you can't hear. What about the words 'rest and recover' don't you understand? You think that doctor was shootin' shit when he ran down that list of complications?"
"Don't you start too!" Danny warned the now glaring blue eyes in the bed, "You're supposed to be coverin' my back."
"You two will have plenty of time to debate the ins and outs of this incident later. For one thing," he turned to Martin Fitzgerald, "whatever was bothering you in Atlantic City, that caused that inappropriate behavior, you lose that, understood? I need your head clear when you're on the street. You've got a few weeks of downtime coming and you get rid of that shit, are we clear on that?"
"He'll do it," Danny answered, watching Martin's face blanch.
"And while we're on the subject of screwing up, did it occur to either of you Einsteins to report in? If we had known you'd pulled into that diner, things might have been different." He saw Martin tap his chest, but not before Danny disagreed.
"Don't even try that," Taylor shot a glare at Fitzgerald, "I was driving, it was my call."
"Enough!" Jack placated, when the patient got distressed. "I haven't begun yet. We still have a lot of ground to cover, including that stunt you pulled with the gun!" he warned Martin, "But now, you're leaving."
Martin pointed to Danny's coat, far across the room and then the door, before waving a 'goodbye' gesture.
"I was on my way home," he defended, "I just stopped by to make sure my man Harvard was okay."
"You're both busy," Malone stated, "You've got a cab outside waiting to take you home. Martin's tube is comin' out and they want to come in and prep him." He turned to the patient, whose features were pale and drawn. "I've been there," he noted of the tube, "It hurts like hell, but it only lasts a minute. I'll be just across the room, okay?"
Martin nodded and watched Jack help Danny into his coat. He waited until his partner was ready and caught his eye.
"You behave and keep a civil tongue," Danny warned, then grew somber. "Hey, Agent Fitzgerald, in case I haven't said it, I'm damn grateful." He tapped his heart with his fist and nodded once. Then he saw Martin weakly repeat the gesture and he found a smile. "Later, man." He leaned down, wagged his brows and smirked, "Oh, I told that big nurse, the one with the hairy mole, you needed a slow sponge bath. You can thank me later." He chuckled when the middle finger was tapped on the sheet.
"Good Afternoon, Mister Fitzgerald."
Danny nodded and exited and Jack hovered by the door, as the physician entered and gave instructions. A nurse came with him, wheeling in a tray and waiting by the patient's bed.
"It's time for your extubation. That's the process of removing that tube. We've been keeping check on your ABG's." He saw confusion looking back at him and paused, "Arterial blood gases, that is how we make sure you are getting enough oxygen in your blood and carbon dioxide out. We'll put you on a CPAP, uh, a mask that supplies oxygen at a certain base pressure, but you will be breathing on your own. Once you stabilize on that and improve, you'll be upgraded to a nasal cannula. I'm going to warn you, your throat will be very sore and you shouldn't attempt to talk for awhile. You'll be allowed ice chips until we are confident you don't need to be reintubated. Then, if things go well, you'll get a clear tray for dinner." He waited, seeing both fists clutching the sheet.
"You'll do fine!" The nurse encouraged, wincing at the wide eyes.
"Okay, I'm going to take the tape off now," he kept his voice low and watched the saucer-like blue eyes as he gently removed the tape holding the tube in place. "There, that's done. Now I need you to listen carefully. I want you to take a deep breath, as deep as you can. Then you watch me and wait until I say exhale. That's when I'll take the tube out, okay?" He saw the wet head nod and moved in. "Okay, Martin, take a deep breath," he paused, "Exhale!" He pulled the tube out and turned to leave, letting the nurse move in and work.
"What's wrong?" Danny asked.
"I thought you left?" Jack pushed him back out into the hall, but not before Danny saw Martin's body jerking on the bed and heard the sickening gagging sounds. The terrified wide blue eyes were unsettling.
"She's gonna suction him, get all the trapped mucus and fluid from his throat," The doctor advised the worried dark-haired man. "It's normal, and you need to rest, you look awful."
"He was just leaving!" Jack bristled, pointing to the elevator and waiting.
"Yeah, yeah." Danny eyed the closed door, worried, until Jack physically turned him and shoved.
Jack waited until the nurse left and went back inside, relieved that Martin was now free of the device. He moved closer, watching the sleepy eyes fighting to stay open. He knew they had given the pained man something to relax him and it was now kicking in.
"Between you and that partner of yours, I'm gonna go bald." He waited and saw the sky eyes crinkle in mirth. "Oh, you think that's funny?"
Martin nodded and smiled weakly, then pointed to the cup.
"Ice. Hold on." Jack got a spoonful, gently eased the mask up and eased the utensil onto the waiting tongue. The small moans of pleasure gave him a smile. "I know how good that feels."
Two spoonfuls later, he spoke again, timing his words carefully.
"Listen, Martin, your father stayed all night. He was exhausted. I called at seven this morning and he was still here. They made him go home and rest." He saw the mocking face appear and caught the hurt eyes. "I don't know what's happened between the two of you. But, you could have died out there. Maybe he knows that too, now. Maybe...you need to reach out and forgive him." That got a reaction, the body twitched, the head rolled in anger and two weak fists formed. "I know you're pissed, Martin. You've got good reason. But you still have him. I wish my old man were around. He died and we had unfinished business. You can't ever get that back, once they're gone. He's picking you up on Thursday to take you home. Talk to him, Martin before it's too late."
"Talk to him?" Martin fumed. Who did Malone think he was? Victor only listened to the sound of his own voice. Talk? He blinked and felt the wave of the drugs kicking in. His eyes drooped and he felt a blanket pulled up higher, taking his shivers away.
"You get some sleep, okay? You think on what I said."
Martin nodded sleepily, despite the razors he felt were lodged in his tender throat. He was glad he'd seen Danny. They had their differences of opinion on tactic, style and procedure, but he wouldn't have anyone else. He wanted Taylor watching his back. He blinked and watched Jack's profile as he drifted off to sleep, for now, keeping the hidden demon at bay.
Wenesday night, Eight p.m.
"...and that concludes our Thanksgiving presentation for this year. I think you'll all agree the children did a great job."
The applause was thunderous in the school auditorium. The heat blasted through the room, making it too warm. He sought the cool air in the corridor, sucking noisily and heading for the water fountain. He waited by the door, watching the 'pilgrims' spill out. He saw a tall boy, who waved excitedly
"Hey, Miles Standish!" Danny boomed, "You were great!"
"Thanks. Hey, come here," Patrick Kelly waved and tugged on his mother's hand, "MOM, it's the F.B.I. man I told you about. Remember?"
"Hi, I'm Mary Kelly and you sure made an impression on the children. Patrick now has a new career goal."
"Once I get done in the NFL," the tall boy boasted.
"That's my man!" Danny ruffled the shock of hair. "It's nice to meet you," he waved as they departed. He waited as the crowd thinned, then saw the one he sought. He smiled and waved, putting his best smile on.
"Hi, Danny," Scott walked over, "You came. I can't believe you came."
"A man is only as good as his word," he shook the small hand, "You were terrific, Scott. I loved the poem, you put your heart into it."
"That's cause you helped," the small boy thought on their initial meeting, "I was so scared, even tonight, but I heard your voice again. Thanks."
"No problem," Danny grinned as a young couple walked over. Scott looked like his father, who held a two-year-old. Another child of about five was standing next to the mother.
"Danny Taylor?" The man shifted his sleeping tot and shook the hand. "I'm sorry about your injury. We saw it on the news. Is the other agent okay?"
"He's gonna be fine, thanks." Danny nodded, "Your son, I was very proud of him."
"So were we," the mother smiled, "He told us about your encouragement. He takes things to heart, my Scott. He's sensitive."
"Most gifted artists are," Taylor praised with a wink to the shy boy, "and he's very gifted."
"Can we give you a ride?" the father offered, shifting the sleepy tot again.
"No, thanks!" Danny grinned, "My girlfriend is getting the car. She thought you were awesome, too!"
"Danny, could I come visit sometime?Σ Scott asked, "I never saw an F.B.I. office."
"Sure!" Danny struggled but got his wallet out, then flipped it to the mother who drew out a card. "You call me, and I'll give you the grand tour, okay? But I'm gonna be out for awhile."
"Okay, maybe after the New Year," Scott suggested, shaking the hand, "Thanks for everything!"
Thursday Morning, November 28th, Thanksgiving
"Good Morning, Martin."
He was sitting on the bed, dressed and waiting to leave. The nurses had gotten him ready, giving him instructions, medications and orders to rest. They had warned him about the severe repercussions of the concussion. Not to overdo it, or blackouts and dizzy spells could result. He might have lapses of memory and shouldn't be alone. He had nodded, listened and felt the room closing in. He wanted out, to leave the smell that only a hospital can produce.
He looked up as his father entered, holding the door for the nurse. The older man's face was still youthful at fifty-eight. The black hair had just started streaking with shots of gray. He looked at the same eyes he wore, just aged a bit. But he sensed a change, the cobalt blues were softer somehow. He wondered about that as the nurse got him on his feet and into the wheelchair.
The elevator ride was silent. He waited with the nurse, thanking her as his father opened the cab door. He let the older man ease him inside and leaned back against the black vinyl, closing his throbbing eyes. His stomach was upset and he felt sick. His head throbbed and his chest kept time.
He blinked and puzzled as they pulled up. He let his father get him inside and into bed. He took the pain meds and fell into an exhausted sleep. He'd not rested the night before, too full of fear and apprehension. For with every fall of his lids, he feared the return of the beast. It was the reason his eyes were bruised and the dark circles lingered under them.
He woke up to blackness. He frowned and sat up painfully, shoving the blankets off. He hissed audibly at the burning pain in his chest and the dull headache. He furrowed his brows in confusion, padding to the bathroom. Did he have the flu? Why did he ache so? He flushed and turned to wash and shocked himself. The man in the mirror was pale but the left side of his face was blue and purple. The bruises and swollen area were from a beating.
"Jesus!" he jumped again as his father's image appeared, "How the hell did you get in here?"
"I brought you home from the hospital, remember?"
"Hospital?" Martin blinked, his hand resting on his tender side. "That why I feel like a truck hit me?"
"You got shot and a rib punctured your lung on Sunday..." Victor's voice trailed off at the blank face. "The concussion. The doctor said you might have lapses of..."
"The diner!" the younger man choked, seeing the flashes of stainless steel, tiles and blood. "Danny. Aw shit, I shot Danny."
"He's fine." The older man tried to move his son from the image in the mirror, but the sky eyes of the younger man were transfixed. "As a matter of fact, he's called twice. Are you hungry?"
"Huh?" Martin blinked, "Danny's really okay?"
"He's worried about you."
"It's nice somebody does," he shot back, moving past the older man. He eased a flannel robe on, hoping to conquer his chills. He blinked in the dim light in his living and dining area. The table was set and classical music played on the stereo.
"I called and had some dinner sent over. There's a caterer nearby..."
"Why are you doing this?" Martin turned, still battling the hostile feelings.
"I, uh..." Victor saw such hurt in those eyes it stole his words. The body swayed a bit and he reached out, but the younger man pulled away. That hurt. "I won't hurt you, Martin."
"You're a little late, Dad."
He walked into the kitchen, leaving his father behind. He put water on for tea and eyed the containers of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and trimmings in the refrigerator. Jack's face appeared in his head, complete with the advice given. He sighed, reached inside for the milk and then cried aloud.
"Be careful!" Victor grabbed the milk with one hand and his son with the other, "SIT DOWN!"
"I'm not six, don't yell at me!" Martin pulled away and gingerly eased his aching body into a kitchen chair, "Hell, you didn't even yell at me then. You didn't even see me."
"That's not true!" Victor denied, pouring hot water into a mug over the waiting tea. "I tried, Martin, maybe you only remember what you want. I know I'm guilty of being an overachiever, spending too much time away from you and your mother. But at the time, I didn't..." He sighed, poured a glass of wine and eyed the squirming body. "That's not the right kind of chair. Why don't you rest on the sofa?"
Martin didn't argue that, he was too sore. He shuffled into the living room and found the sofa, complete with pillows and a blanket. Soon he was settled, covered and warm. He sipped the tea carefully, suddenly seeing himself in his father. How many times during his checkered career had he lost girlfriends and even buddies, not unlike Danny, due to his 'work'. His compulsion to drive, his unending quest to get it right, he was a perfectionist too.
"Looks like the apple don't far from the tree," he muttered, then turned his cold eyes towards his father's, "But I'd never abandon my child."
"I never abandoned you. You had a good home, good school. Your mother and I..."
"I didn't have you!" Martin raged, sat up too quickly and felt a horrific pain in his side. He cried out and flailed, latching onto a hand.
"Easy now. That's gonna hurt for awhile. You have to be careful." Victor waited, held on fast and shamefully realized that he could not recall the last time he'd touched his son. It was not a strange feeling, the warm skin on his own, but a good one. He looked at the profile hard, seeing both himself and his late wife there. The sky eyes were rimmed in pain, tearing up due to the injuries. He reached his free hand out and stroked the back of his son's hair. The head jerked in surprise, as the face turned towards him. "You're so much like her, your mother. I'm sorry, I never meant to hurt you."
Martin nodded, swallowed hard and eyed the hand in his own. Maybe Jack was right, maybe it wasn't too late.
"Guess if I want to eat some of that food, I ought to have a nap before dinner."
"Good idea, you have pills due, hold on."
Martin eased back onto the stack of pillows and waited. He saw the blinking red beacon on the phone and slid his hand over.
"Hey Martin! Welcome home!"
He grinned at Samantha's voice.
"Vivian and I stopped in to see you yesterday, but you were sleeping. We're coming over tomorrow to visit. Call me later."
The second message brought a genuine smile.
"Hey, Harvard, get your ass up and get this phone. I could get a relapse hittin' the redial so much. My nurse isn't happy..."
"...he's a naughty boy!"
"He sleeps in shit!" Martin laughed at the feminine voice in the background. He picked up the phone and dialed his partner.
"My man!" Danny exuded, "How you feeling? You get home okay?"
"Yeah, my dad's here." He paused, suddenly wishing the young man was with him.
"How's that going?" Danny tried to control the vinegar in his voice.
"We talked a little," he hedged, "it's a start. He's leaving Saturday morning."
"You got plans?"
"Yeah, I'm rock climbing!" Martin teased, "Hell, I can't even scratch decent."
"You want some company?"
"Sure," Martin sighed.
Victor paused in the doorway, seeing the warmth on his son's face. It was the same look he'd had when Jack Malone was with him. In a short span of time, the two men had given his son something he'd failed to in nearly thirty years. Was it too late to get that look? He decided it wasn't and he'd try his best. He waited until the phone was back on the cradle and approached.
"Here," he gave the pills over with a mug of cranberry juice, "My culinary skills not withstanding, I think dinner will be fine."
"Okay," Martin yawned, settled back and felt the blanket pulled up. "Thanks."
"You remember Art Zimmaro?"
"No," he sighed, his heavy eyes drifting.
"He was a neighbor of ours when you were about ten, I guess. His wife and your mother were best friends. They had a big sheepdog..."
"Barney!" he yawned, "Yeah. I think I remember now."
"They live in Newport now, he's retired. I go hunting with him a couple times a year .He has a cabin upstate," he noted of the lodge in the mountains, "I was thinking, the weekend of the fourteenth of December, maybe you and I could meet there. Just to talk, spend some time. It's a beautiful area."
Martin thought for a moment, the cabin, the rural setting and the date spinning in his head.
"Fourteenth?" he yawned, "London."
"I'll fly back, I have a break between the ninth and seventeenth," he noted of the international meeting.
"Okay," he nodded, sleep taking him.
Martin was already sleeping when the sigh came. He didn't feel his father's light touch on his cheek or see the relief in the blue eyes. He didn't feel the hair brushed from his forehead or see the eyes go skyward.
"Thank you," Victor said, for the answer that had come to his prayer.
Saturday Morning, early
The banshee screamed outside in the storm, sending torrents of freezing rain and broken limbs through the dark sky in a frenzied dance. The whole building seemed to shimmer and shake, only causing the small boy to curl up tighter. His heart hammered hard against his chest wall and his sky eyes were jammed shut. The half-choked pleas were barely audible, the sob-tinged words keeping perfect time with the rocking body.
"...please... please... please..."
The wind shrieked louder, seeming to draw on the child's fear. The power was long disrupted; the large building was dark, cold and totally desolate. Every vacant hall and empty room trembled under the fierce storm. It was as if the devil himself were shaking the entire building by the foundation.
Then a heavy step and a harsh, haggard cough filled his world. His eyes shot open, and his heart gyrated wildly, nearly splitting his small ribcage.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
He flinched and sweat poured down his face, with every hard tread of the thick boots he felt his stomach lurch. His wide eyes adjusted to the darkness and skirted the room. Past tall stacks of wooden boxes, discarded furniture and other piles of dusty debris they searched, frantic and desperate for escape.
The rank odor of liquor, vomit and body odor nearly suffocated him when the hot breath sailed past his face. Close... so close... too close.... Oh God... Oh God.... He held his breath, flattened himself out and waited. He didn't care about the warm urine now trickling from him. The terror of the nearness of the beast caused that reaction.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
A pause a fraction of a second that seemed to turn into hours.
"Know you're here, boy, I can smell you."
The maniacal laughter chilled him and lightning lit up the sky outside, sending a silver light into the darkness. A blade glinted just inches from his face, then the mad black eyes found his saucer-like blue ones.
"Gonna carve you up real pretty."
"NO! NO! NO!"
The lost soul tossed fitfully in the sweat-soaked bed, his wet hair plastered like a cap on his head. The dark nightmare had never revisited in such vivid and horrific fashion. He felt his heart pumping as the boy screamed. He urged the child to run and the small legs obeyed. The tiny body didn't feel the sharp corners of boxes, crates and debris as they tore through his clothes and flesh. He ran blind, right into the large, heavy wooden door. He fought bravely, beating his hands against the wood.
BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG.
He nearly made it, his fumbling fingers found the knob, then the hand on the devil grabbed his neck, the talons cutting into his skin.
He sat up hard, chugging air like an overloaded freight train. His skin was slick with sweat and he was shaking so badly his teeth chattered.
"Jesus Christ!" he whispered in a shaky voice, taking a gang of tissues from the bedstand and wiping his sweat-drenched face. The room was dark, and with the shades down he had no idea of time. What caused him to wake up?
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Three short raps on the door. He rose slowly, his chest aching and his headache raging. He staggered from his bedroom through the hallway and to the door. He peered through the peephole and then slumped, resting his aching body against the frame. His hand fumbled with the locks, finally the door lurched open.
"Man, I have seen better faces and they've been three days dead." The greeter paused, eyeing the boxer-clad figure, with purple skin peeking from his bandaged chest. The eyes were dual slits of confusion and the steady, harsh breathing came out thickly over the still healing ribs. The head wound was nasty and he averted his gaze. There was no flicker of recognition in the pale face before him. He waved a hand in front of the dazed man.
"You with me, Harvard?" He dodged his head, bobbing and weaving, but the face remained blank. "Anybody home?" He paused, starting to worry. He thought on all the complications from a head wound. "Freeze! F.B.I?"
"Danny?" Martin croaked at the blurry dark-eyed figure.
"And they said you were just a pretty face." He paused with a half a smile, "Can I come in?"
"Where's your old man?" Taylor hissed, eyeing the shivering, wet body, barely able to stand, "You need to be in bed. He could answer the door."
"Come on," Danny gently turned him, steadying the shaken body until the arm was jerked loose.
"...no fuckin' invalid."
"Fine, fall and break the other half of your face." Danny kept pace until Fitzgerald was walking better. He eyed the chart on the refrigerator and the clock. "You're almost due for pills. You hungry? How 'bout I cook some breakfast, okay?" he called out, watching the body limp into the bedroom, "Martin?"
Satisfied, he went back to the hall to pick up the overnight bag he'd left there. He dragged it behind him like a nylon dog on a leash. Locking the door, he toted it back into the immaculate apartment. Leaving it in the living room, he scanned the note left by the senior Fitzgerald and then opened the refrigerator. Being at a disadvantage with only one arm to use, he chose wisely, selecting microwaveables from the freezer.
Daylight was streaming in the windows and he hissed, curled up and cried out. He felt the warmth leave as the shadows fell.
He muttered something to the voice and let a few minutes waste away. The first thing he saw when he opened his throbbing eyes was the remainder of his breakfast disappearing off of the tray in front of him. There was a brief fuzzy recollection of the meal arriving, then nothing.
He saw a sling resting against a San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt. He cocked his head as the other hand moved, taking a piece of sausage to the waiting lips. He knew the face, but the thick mud in his aching skull covered the name. He was safe, that he knew, the name didn't matter.
He watched for a few seconds and frowned in annoyance when the painful, high-pitched voice of Olive Oyl assaulted his ears. The tanned face softened and a short laugh escaped. That's when the name appeared.
Taylor. Danny Taylor.
He eyed Taylor's profile in a chair next to the bed and grimaced. The younger man was unaware he was being watched. The chocolate eyes were crinkled in mirth and the face relaxed. His gaze rested on the sling again and he painfully recalled the haunting image of Danny lying in a pool of blood. He watched as a time worn leather watchband on the right wrist merged with maple syrup as the last of the pancakes disappeared.
"Make yourself at home," Martin croaked, brows furrowing at the nearly empty plate.
"No sense lettin' it get cold," the sated man piped, eyeing the meager remnants. "I tried to wake you," he paused, eyeing the cranky face, "You were snorin' real pretty."
"I don't snore."
"You're asleep, how would you know!" Danny defended with a sly grin. "Anyhow, it was getting cold and I didn't want all your hard-earned money being wasted." He grinned again, wagged an eyebrow and waved a piece of sausage briefly, before eating it. "No need to thank me."
"...wasn't the... word... I had... in mind."
"Not to worry, I got some oatmeal brewing. You can have that." "You're all heart" the injured man replied sarcastically, "I'll pass. My stomach's spitting fire now." He stopped when the body next to him stood and moved the chair several feet away. "I'm not gonna hurl on you!" Martin snapped, then cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. "Least I'll try not to. I'll aim low," he cautioned as Olive Oyl's voice pierced the air. "How can you watch that shit?" he noted disdainfully of the cartoon.
"Can't figure the two of 'em fightin' over the likes of her." Danny shook his dark head at Popeye and Brutus. "She ain't pleasin' on the eye and she's flatter than a board."
"It's a cartoon, Taylor," Fitzgerald grunted, "Get a grip."
"Now Wilma Flintstone, there was a figure. Tiny waist and big..."
"How'd you get into Quantico?" Martin rasped painfully of the strange logic, "More importantly, how'd you get in here?"
"You let me in a couple hours ago." He saw the blank face. "It's almost eleven. You should take some pills."
"Pills?" Martin yawned, rubbed his eyes and sighed. "I can't recall.... " Then he eyed the empty plate, "I can't believe you ate my breakfast."
Danny's devilish smile matched the mischief in his eyes as he nodded at the quart container of orange juice.
"You gonna drink that?" "Yes!" Martin defended, grabbing it, "Vulture."
"Okay, how 'bout we move this party into the living room. I'll make you some soup."
"I'm taking a shower," Martin decided, then chugged half of the juice and belched loudly and unexpectedly.
"Proud of ya!" Danny grinned and picked up the tray, "Always better to burp it and taste it than to fart it and waste it."
"Get... away... from... me." The Seattle native wrinkled his nose distastefully at his chuckling partner.
Later, when lunch was finished, Martin cleared the plates away. He cleaned up and saw the note on the fridge.
"How'd it go?" Danny asked, watching the blues staring past the note.
"Better than I thought. He seemed sincere enough," he paused, thinking on the early flight his father had taken, "You must have just missed him." He poured himself a mug of coffee and noticed Danny rubbing his eyes and flinching, his hand sliding to the injured shoulder. He saw the black bag on the floor and frowned.
"I travel lightly," Danny yawned, nodding to the couch. "I'll be fine here with a blanket and pillow."
It wasn't so much the question as the total shock in the wide blue eyes that halted the dark-haired man. He was across the room lounging in a recliner, flipping through college football games. He muted the sound and turned.
"You can't stay alone, the doctor said "
"Thanks!" Martin spat defensively, not totally sure why it was so venomous. "I don't need a fuckin' babysitter."
"Is that what you think?" Danny jerked the arm on the chair, lowered the footrest and stood up. Now he was angry. "Man, how could I have been so wrong? All that time before we knew you were safe... I felt gutshot... I thought we had something... forget it!"
Martin struggled with the internal storm. What was wrong with him? He recalled all too painfully the horrid iceberg that invaded him when he'd thought the other man dead. He watched the black bag lifted and the body closing in on the door.
"I'm sorry, Danny."
The body stopped, but didn't turn. Martin sighed, raked a hand through his hair and flinched when he touched the healing, tender area of his skull. He felt shitty, physically and emotionally. He was dizzy and nauseous, his vision was blurry at times and the memory lapses scared him a bit. Moreover, was he so far removed from trust that he was pushing away the very thing he sought?
"The futon in the spare room is pretty comfortable." He took a tentative step. "I'm not used to anybody giving a shit. I guess I rode alone too many years. Would you like to stay?"
The bag went back down and the hand left the doorknob. Martin sighed audibly, dropping his throbbing head. He didn't realize he'd cried out softly until a cold mug was in his hand.
"You're a mess, Harvard!"
He took the pills offered and swallowed, then let his bruised eyes rise.
Brown eyes met blue.
His hand shot up so fast it startled him, latching on to the offered one in a brotherhood grasp. He nodded gratefully and felt the hand press him back.
"Get some sleep."
"I'm tired of sleeping. All I do is... sleep," he yawned, his eyes drooping.
"Pretty boys like you need their beauty rest." Danny shoved the body towards the bedroom. "Pizza okay?"
Danny wandered around the apartment, restless and bored with television. He thought on the short trip into the past the tormented man had given in the diner. He sat on the wing chair by the large picture window in the living room and that's when he saw it. Frowning, he bent down and picked up a child's work of art. He winced painfully at the painstaking effort that a very young Martin Fitzgerald had rendered. He eyed the small but proud name in crayon in the corner.
"Nothing Gold Can Stay." He read the poem, noting how carefully Martin had chosen the fall colors and how much time he'd spent creating it. Every felt leaf on the border was perfectly pasted. So much love had gone into the gift. Had Victor ever seen it? Was it a part of that lost time? He thought on the frazzled state of mind his partner had been suffering since the episode in the school cafeteria. It was a wound too long festering and needed to be purged. His own shoulder pain forgotten, he now was a man on a mission.
He went into the spare room, which Fitzgerald was turning into a den of sorts. He eyed the boxes and continued past until he got to the expensive computer. He picked up a pen and began making notes on the legal pad lying on the desk. He calculated the date and time of the event, based on the brief bio he'd read on Fitzgerald. He used the computer to find the location of the school, on a private island off Puget Sound. It had closed down many years before. He read a brief history of the school and its founder. It had had strict rules and a hard curriculum to follow. You had to be a very disciplined boy to keep up with the rigors of this private school.
His head began to ache and his shoulder was beyond painful. His own painkillers were in the other room. He couldn't see straight with all that pain and decided he'd fare better with fresher eyes. He turned the PC off and found his pills, a cold soda and the sofa. Danny stretched out, pulling the afghan over him. He dozed for awhile, then sat up, eyeing the room. He heard a sound and stood, walking slowly towards the hall.
"...run... run... he's got a knife..."
"Damn!" He entered the bedroom and scowled at the empty bed, the disarrayed blankets spilling over onto the floor. "...the hell?" he murmured, hearing banging sounds, "Martin?" He padded into the room and then moved quickly. "Cut that out!" He dropped down near the closet, where the shaking form was hiding while banging on the door. "Martin!" he shouted, grabbing the sweat drenched jaw, "Snap out of it!"
"...the hell's going on?" the dazed man blinked, eyeing the very concerned set of brown eyes. His own gaze fell to the pile of shoes he was sitting in. "Aw, hell." He raked a shaky hand through his damp hair and rubbed his eyes. The dreams were getting worse since his father's visit. He was acting them out now.
Danny backed up and moved to the bed, sitting on the edge. For a few moments, there was no movement. He eyed the bare feet sticking out of the dark burgundy sweat pants and thought on a course of action.
"You need a hand?"
"No," Martin shook off the last fractured image. He inched his way out, feeling every broken rib and the bruise on his skull. He flicked a flushed face to the bed, but saw only worry there.
"I... uh... don't..." He shifted his feet, bit his lip and and rubbed his neck, "I never did that before."
"It's gotta stop, Martin," Danny attested quietly, seeing the shamed blush, "and it's me, okay? Save that pretty color for an unsuspecting lady." That got a small smile and he stood, but made no move to close in. The other man looked like a deer in the crosshairs. "I was gonna call for the pizza."
"Yeah," Martin sighed gratefully, "I'll take a shower."
He turned towards the bathroom and paused, eyeing the weary gait of his friend.
"Hey." He waited until the dark-haired man turned. "Thanks. If you hadn't been here... " his voice trailed off for a second, "I mean... you're the first person who... that bastard's been chasing me for twenty years." He slumped, his heart still feeling the horror. "Until now, I was fighting him alone."
"Then how about we kill him off once and for good?" Danny tested the water, glad when the tense agent didn't bark back defensively.
"Okay," Martin agreed, then shuffled into the bathroom. He washed his face and neck, peering intently into the glass. It had to stop, the circles under his eyes were getting worse and the acid level in his gut was on nuclear overload.
He let the hot water revive him before drying and dressing. New sweats went on and he pulled on an oversized, well-worn soft flannel shirt before shoving his icy feet into slippers. He couldn't seem to stay warm. He padded into the outer room. He made his way to the kitchen, where the other man was waiting.
"The guy said a half hour when I called, should be here in fifteen." Danny pushed a can of soda across the table. "You, uh, started to tell me in the diner." He nodded to the vacant chair and the reluctant man sat down easy. Then he saw the poem neatly standing against the wall.
"It was under the chair I was sitting in. I didn't go nosing around!"
"I know. I must have... dropped..." Fitzgerald flicked his eyes on it, "Yeah. The day before we took off... I found it... I got sick... I guess I dropped it."
"You did a great job," he lauded, "Did your dad ever see it?"
"No," he hesitated, "I don't think so."
"What happened that day, Martin? The day of the play."
Martin sighed, sipped a bit of root beer, and played with the metal tab. "It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. The play was to be at nine a.m., then a small lunch and then we'd all hit the ferry to go home."
"Ferry," Danny noted, recalling the Puget Sound location.
"Yeah, Hawley Academy. It was on a huge piece of ground in the San Juan Islands. It closed about fifteen years ago." He took another sip of soda and a short breath. "Originally, it was a mansion for about a hundred years. Admiral Horace Hawley, retired from her majesty's navy," he noted of the British import, "He visited the American West around the 1840's and loved it. He took a trip up to Canada and hit the islands on the way back. He never left. He built a monstrosity instead, your worst image of a huge gothic mansion with gables and gargoyles scared the shit of me the first time I saw it. I was five."
"Five!" Danny's eyes shot up. "How could they do that? Five? "
"My mom had... she... wasn't a strong person." He swallowed painfully as the image of a slim sandy-haired woman came up. "My dad traveled a lot and... she couldn't... handle things... life. Sometimes she'd have to go away for awhile," He said distractedly. "I didn't know until years later, she spent a lot of time in a private clinic in Sedona."
"So your dad figured a private school was the answer?"
"Yeah. Anyway, that day, during the play, a storm blew up, a bad one. There was a lot of confusion and running around. The coast guard wanted us all off the island. The school was short staffed already, due to the holiday. It got ugly: black sky, gale force winds, rough water... lots of running around. I had already been counted, they took a head tally, wrote names down and assigned you a spot in the boat. I ran back..."
He sighed, his wide blue eyes went to the poem.
"You're kidding?" Taylor rasped.
"I wanted him to be proud. I'd worked so hard on it. I was only seven, Danny."
"Yeah, sorry. Go on," he encouraged, just as a rap came on the door, "Hold that thought!"
"I'll get it, you get some plates," Martin rose slowly, "Oh, there's, uh, hot peppers and seasonings and stuff in the second cabinet over the sink."
"Looks good." Danny flipped the box open and took a slice out. He saw Martin flip the other one open and frown. "What? I got one plain, the other half sausage, half pepperoni," he saw the frown lines deepen, "uh, peppers, mushrooms..."
"Oh man," Taylor's face screwed up, "Fish? On pizza? That's nuts. Talk about disgusting. That's as bad as the ones with no sauce and broccoli on them and shit." He paused mid-bite when Fitzgerald covered his mouth and tried to hide a chuckle. "You're kidding me?"
"Nope." Martin smiled, then took a slice of plain. "Uh, actually, I like spinach, too."
"Awwwww," Danny feigned a gastro attack, "Man, I got my work cut out for me. Fish and green stuff on pizza."
The pizza was good and most of it disappeared. The remaining slices were wrapped and refrigerated. The coffee came out along with some butter cookies from a tin over the refrigerator.
They went into the living room and Danny eased himself into the recliner. Martin brought the coffee in and placed a cup by the one-armed man. He took his own to the sofa. Then he returned to the kitchen, bringing the cookies and the poem. He opened the tin and offered the top row. Danny took several, and then Martin sat down. He eyed the poem again, painfully recreating in his mind every hour he'd worked on it.
"My room was on the top floor. The power... well, it went out. Total darkness. I got lost, that mansion was like a maze. Even in daylight, you could get turned around. The thunder kicked up. Lightning flashed in through those long, gothic windows. It was awful. I ran blind, up and down stairs, around the maze-like corridors. I took a fall, must have been out for awhile."
Danny stopped munching and watched the fear slowly returning. Martin began to rock, both hands fisted, the Adam's apple bobbing furiously. The pale man's breath came in short pants and sweat broke out on his forehead.
"Slow and easy, whatever hell you lived through was over twenty years ago, Martin. You're safe here. It can't hurt you again."
"I'm not so sure," he choked, recalling the vivid dreams, "'cause reliving it every night is tearing my guts up."
"Then get rid of it," Danny pressed and waited. Finally the trembling slowed and the breathing evened out.
"I came to and panicked. It was freezing. The wind sounded like every demon from all the worst horror movies I'd ever seen. That's when I saw..."
The chopped phrase drove the lost soul from the sofa. He swayed for a moment as the pressure in his head increased.
"I'm okay," Martin gasped, taking a shuddering breath. He paced, not able to settle his jangled nerves. "I saw..."
"You saw what?" Taylor eased his own pained body from the chair and walked to the window, where night fell uneasily on the busy city. He stopped as he came next to his partner, whose face was locked in pain.
"A monster... with no face... huge," Martin's hand came up dramatically above his head, "Uh... thump... thump... thump." He took a shuddering breath and wrapped his arms around his aching chest. "You got no idea what that fuckin' sound does to me. He... was dragging his leg... or something. He had a knife."
"Jesus!" Danny hissed, eyes darting as the images formed.
"He... had a sound... like a twisted up growl, part laugh and part wolf. I was, uh, in the house somewhere... scared shitless... screaming my head off. I ran and ran. But everywhere I turned, I heard that fuckin' thumping leg. He was closing in, laughing at me, saying things about carving me up for dinner." Martin paused then, needing several minutes to get his nerves in order. He swiped the damp eyes and nodded his gratitude for the single hand gripping his shoulder.
"I panicked. I lost my bearings... couldn't figure up from down. The thunder was shaking the house. I ran the wrong way, jiggling every doorknob. I thought I'd found the back door, but I was wrong. It was the basement. I fell. I tried to get back up but he was in the doorway, so I ran and hid. Hell, it seemed like hours... me hiding and him getting closer. He stunk pretty good, I could smell his rancid breath. There were these little windows up high and the lightening hit 'em. I thought I was well hidden. Then that blue flash caught his knife, right by my throat."
"Aw, fuck. Aw, Christ, Martin." Danny jerked, stunned by the confession. In his wildest dreams he hadn't painted a picture so horrid.
"I peed myself."
"I'd have done a lot worse than that you were one gutsy little kid."
"He said things, awful things, and I ran. I got to the door... I was banging hard... and then... then..."
"I can't!" Martin turned away, staggering back to the sofa. He dropped down, resting his throbbing head in his hands.
"You have to. You can't go on like this. What happened in that basement?"
"I don't know!" Martin choked, eyes burning. "I can't remember. That's where the dream ends," he defended hotly, "You think I like this? You think I don't want it to go away?"
"Okay, okay," Danny placated, "Settle down. What is the next thing you remember?"
"Uh, nothing. I blanked the whole thing out. There's, uh, fuzzy images of a yellow slicker and a flashlight. Someone carrying me... and a helicopter. That's it. The next clear image is being in my mom's arms wrapped in a blanket. But that was a while later. I was uh... uh..."
"Yeah. For awhile."
"Who was the guy with the knife?"
"I don't know. My folks wouldn't talk about it. My dad told me that it was from hysteria. Alone in that old place, no power, the storm from hell outside. All those gargoyles on the landings and walls. He said I fell and hit my head and imagined the rest."
"But you think different?"
"I... don't know, Danny. It's so real in the dream. Every detail. How could that not be true?"
"Did you ever look into it?"
"No. My mom... it upset her too much. She'd go to pieces. It tore me up. She made me promise to bury it." He paused, his eyes narrowing a bit. "She died when I was seventeen. The nightmares stopped for awhile. I thought maybe she took them with her. But, sometimes, when the right mix comes into play, they come back. When a storm hits around Thanksgiving, I usually have the dream. But usually just the beginning part, with me lost and panicked. Until last week it had been years since I saw him... and the rest."
"Well, it can be checked easily enough." He stood, nodding to the computer. Then he saw a strange light in the blue eyes. "What?"
"What if... I mean... it could be worse. What I find out..."
"Yellow ain't your color, Harvard."
Martin found a small bit of solace in that and stood, took a breath, and went into the would-be study.
"Okay," Danny said, sitting next to the typing agent, "newspapers would have records. See if any of the local papers covered that storm. If you were lost, it might have made the papers."
"Not likely." Martin did a search online. "This was way before Adam Walsh. Back then you could find a lost car faster than a lost kid."
They did find articles on the storm, the damage, and the loss of life to some of the area towns. But no mention of the school. More articles and more frustrations. Then while Martin took a break to go to the bathroom and get some more coffee, Danny called up yet another reference to the storm. He was reading the article, not paying attention to the photo.
"What?" Danny turned, as Martin set two mugs down. The other man's finger tapped the screen. "There. Right there. Henry Mason, the caretaker."
"From the school?" The head nodded once. "So he lived nearby?"
"On the grounds."
"Is that him? Is he the guy with the knife?"
"No, Henry's bald and much too small." He eyed the grainy photo and frowned. "That's from the day before. What's he doing with the police?"
"Uh," Danny slid from the chair and let Fitzgerald take the keyboard. "It says," he read over the soft flannel clothed shoulder, "Mister Mason found the car that belonged to Karns, the male nurse who was found dead at Cinaberg."
Martin hit 'page down' and they read the article that went with the photo. The headline caught his attention.
"Police seek deranged killer who escaped from Cinaberg Center for the Criminally Insane," he voiced, his heart pounding.
"There... there," Danny pointed, "the six-foot seven hulk, close to three hundred pounds, was wounded by the security guard as he fled on the night of his escape."
"Where's the hospital?"
"I don't know." Martin printed the article, then did another search. The resulting hits came up quickly.
Danny was still watching the article come up when the choked cry came. The slim body next to him fled the room, hitting the doorframe. He glanced quickly at the screen, wincing at the ugly brute whose image appeared. Then he followed the sounds of retching and found the stunned man over the kitchen trashcan. He got cold towels and provided silent support, then eased the shaken man to a chair.
"It's him," he managed through clenched teeth. "John Harrison is the man I saw in that house," he noted of the name under the photo.
"I guess that shoots your old man's theory to hell."
"He lied!" Martin hissed, taking a drink of water to rid his mouth of the acidic aftertaste, "That son-of-a-bitch! All these years, he knew. What the hell would he lie for?" He saw Danny pick up the phone and hand it over. "No, he's not there yet. He's flying to Orient."
"You look like shit," Danny noted of the yellowish-green healing bruises on the pale skin. The dark circles under the bruised eyes were hard to look at. "Maybe we should call it a night."
"No," Martin stood and padded back to the computer, "I want to know what happened to that monster. I have to find out."
Another hour of effort went down the drain. All other articles they located just indicated that the killer was never found. The articles theorized he'd escaped into Canada.
"Well, that place wasn't on the island, but close enough. If he was running from police and they set up a dragnet on the mainland..." Martin started.
"Maybe he took a ferry or stole a boat and thought he'd hide out over the holidays," Danny concluded, "You think this Mason character is still there?"
"Hell, I don't know." Fitzgerald scratched his chin. "He'd be, oh, seventy five or so. He had an old shack. Maybe."
"One way to find out. He might have some answers."
"Not on the West Coast, it's only eight forty-five," Danny noted, "and you're stalling."
Taylor waited and watched. The lost soul picked up the poem and read it again, his hands trembling. Taylor watched the eyes darting and thinking.
He had to pursue it, hell, it was what he was trained to do, solve mysteries. This was how the other person felt, the victim. Now he knew first hand what that terror was like. He turned his head and nodded once. While his partner dialed a number, he left to get more coffee. Would this be the answer he'd sought? Would the nightmare finally end? Would the missing chunk of time that haunted him finally be resolved?
"Mister Mason? Henry Mason?" Danny snapped his fingers and moved to the door, taking the cordless phone with him. "Hey!" he whispered urgently, getting the blue-eyed man's attention, "Pick up. I think I got him!"
Martin put the mugs down and picked up the kitchen extension. He got out a pen and pulled the notepad closer.
"Yeah, who's asking?"
"My name is Daniel Taylor, I work for the F.B.I.. Are you the same Henry Mason that worked at the Hawley School?"
"What if I am?"
"You're not in trouble, sir, I am just trying to tie up loose ends in an old case."
"What old case?"
"One that involved a boy named Fitzgerald and a John Harrison who "
"I can't talk about that!" he barked harshly, "And you could be some phone nut. How do I know you're an F.B.I. agent?"
"I'll give you my work number. You call and wait for the tape to give my extension. You listen for my voice."
Both agents had exchanged a startled look at the excited tone in the older man's voice. Martin was writing, and nodded for Danny to press him.
"Okay," Henry agreed, jotting the number down, "I'm gonna check this out."
Danny waited five minutes, then checked his voicemail and Mason was on it. He then redialed and the older man had calmed down.
"You want to talk about that night now?" Taylor pressed, "It's been over twenty years, sir, and we would like to close this case out. You gave statements to the police about finding an abandoned car that Harrison stole."
"That was a long time ago. I don't remember."
"I think you do," Danny's voice got hard, "You can do this easy and answer my questions here. Or I can fly out there. Covering up a felony is a serious crime and "
"Yeah, yeah. Okay," The old man wheezed, "He promised me nobody would ever find out. He swore I'd never get in trouble, that arrogant bastard."
"The kid's father, Victor Fitzgerald."
Danny jerked his head to the kitchen and saw all the color leave Martin's face. He cradled the phone on his neck and snapped his fingers. He gave the shaken man a stern look.
His father? The last words he'd expected to hear. His father was there? How quickly? How was he involved? Why couldn't Martin remember? Why had the older man buried it all these years? He blinked when he saw Danny gesturing.
"You hold it together, understand!" he whispered and saw the head bob. "Start at the beginning, Mister Mason. Were you there the night of the storm?"
"Yeah, of course I was! I helped get the kids on the boat. Then I locked the place down, just as the power went out. Them boats damn near went down, it was an awful storm."
"So you were in the main house?"
"No, after lockdown I got to my own place."
"Well, I got a call later from the Seattle police. A boy was missing and his father was a big shot with the F.B.I. They had a record of him getting on the boat, but he never got off. It got tossed around pretty good and they thought he fell over. They couldn't do a search until the storm died down. They asked me to check the house."
"This was late on Wednesday night?" Danny asked.
"No, closer to morning, two a.m. maybe, during the night anyhow. I saw the broken windows and the back door busted open. I saw the muddy footprints big ones and blood stains. There was no power, but the cops had called me on my radio, so I ran back and called them. Told them what I saw. They said they couldn't get a boat out or a chopper up until the winds died down, but they'd be over as soon as they could. So I went back with a flashlight and starting searching. It's a huge mansion and I was alone, no light, it took time. I can't remember how long. Then I heard a child scream. Turned my blood cold. Went right through me. The echo it sounded like the scream came from within the walls. I ran and ran, but couldn't find him. I was in the kitchen when I heard the gunshot."
Danny's head shot up and he saw Martin's body jerk backwards, eyes wide with blue confusion. They were darting left and right, trying to find a picture, but the blank stare told him the void existed still.
"What happened then?" Danny urged.
"I ran down the stairs, flashing the light all around. I saw a bigger light, lying on the floor next to the body. There was blood all over."
"Martin? The boy?" Danny's voice shot up and he saw his partner shaking his head and swaying. He caught the dazed man's eyes and silently questioned. Martin took a deep breath and nodded, pulling himself together.
"No, his father. That psycho cut him good with the knife."
Martin felt like he'd been gutshot. The new information hit him rapid fire and he wasn't ready for it. He thought hard and came up blank. How long had his dad been there?
"Harrison was there?" Taylor asked, keeping an eye on the dazed body in the kitchen.
"He was dead. Shot between the eyes." He sighed heavily. "That poor kid was shaking all over, the gun was still in his hands. I took it from him and wrapped my coat around him. He couldn't talk; he was like a zombie."
Danny's eyes went to the kitchen. It was empty. He jogged closer and saw Martin on the floor, staring at his trembling hands and shivering. He juggled the phone on his neck and grabbed the other man's neck, giving it a solid tug. He nodded to the phone and remained nearby until the shocked body rose.
Martin nodded and resumed his work. The words came but there was no picture. He couldn't remember anything. His father? How did that happen? He was dizzy and the room seemed to be moving. He dropped the pen and gripped the table. He heard Danny in the background and tried to concentrate.
"Go on, Mister Mason."
"Well, I grabbed the walkie-talkie the father was wearing to call for help, but he stopped me. He told me it was official F.B.I. business and I was to forget everything I saw. I asked him why? He didn't give an answer, but those icy eyes of his scared the shit out of me. He told me I would be paid well for my silence. That all that mattered was that Harrison was dead. He warned me again about keeping silent and I have, all these years. He told me to take my jacket and bring the boy over to him. Then I was to leave... and forget everything I saw. Why are you dragging this up now? I keep to myself, mind my own business. I don't want trouble."
"Who are you?" Henry frowned at the new voice, barely audible, "Speak up, I can't hear you."
"My name... I'm Martin... Fitzgerald. I'm that boy." His voice was ragged and raw. "Until now, I never knew what happened. I've been having violent dreams about that night. I needed the answer. Thanks."
"You did good, Mister Mason. We'll be in touch!" Danny promised, leaving the room briefly to hang the phone up. Just as he left the den he heard the sound of the extension drop. He jogged to the kitchen and his partner was passed out, his head on his arms at the table. He silently chastised himself, so caught up in the chase he'd forgotten about Martin's serious head injury.
"Martin? Martin?" He shook the body and got no reply. He shook harder, not liking the angle of the healing ribs. "WAKE UP! HEY!" He pulled the body back a little and tapped the face hard. Sandy brows furrowed and the mouth twitched and then two blue slits appeared.
"I zoned out?"
"Yeah. Time for bed, Harvard. I think you won't be having that dream anymore."
Martin sighed once, long and hard, before nodding slowly. He shook his head as the old man's words returned.
"I can't believe it. My dad was there... all these years, he never said."
"Looks like you won't be short of conversation material when you hook up in a couple weeks," the dark-eyed man noted. Then he frowned when the slim body shot back in the chair, eyes wide and a darting.
"What?" he asked.
"I killed him. Jesus, I shot that bastard."
"It sounds like you didn't have a choice, Martin." He rested his hand on the troubled agent's back. "I'd say you had a damn good reason for those nightmares." He saw a whirlpool of emotion churning in the sky eyes. "You and your dad need to put it all on the table. You need to tell him about that poem, about how disappointed you were."
"He should have told me!" Fitzgerald growled, slapping his palms on the table. He winced as his head and ribs protested simultaneously. "Who the fuck does he think he is!"
"A father," Danny said quietly, "maybe protecting his traumatized child. You harness that temper. You want to end up back in the hospital? I'm not gonna... " he sighed heavily, his own injured body protesting strongly.
"Whoa!" the host rose, grabbing the swaying body, "I'm sorry, Danny. I've let you push too hard."
"Between the two of us, we have maybe two or three working parts!" Danny teased of the pale body before him and the raspy voice, "Call it a night?"
"I'll give you a hand with the bed," Martin decided, following the other aching body to the spare room.
Slowly they got the futon bed pulled out and Martin found some sheets, a blanket and a couple pillows. He shifted uncomfortably, trying to corral all the words flying around in his head.
"Yeah?" Taylor replied, sitting on the bed and gingerly taking his shoes off. He eyed the bag at his feet and frowned. "Damn."
"You forget your teddy bear?"
"I'll be missing her later," Taylor smiled wickedly, wagging his eyebrows evilly. "No, I put the pills down somewhere. They help me sleep."
"Aw, hell, Danny," the younger man winced, "I'm sorry. You're supposed to be resting. I shouldn't have "
"Not to worry," the dark-haired man yawned, "I've got my relapse team in the wings."
"Your what?" Martin grinned, then stuck his head through the doorway, eyeing the living room. He spotted the missing prescription. He maneuvered carefully to the kitchen, getting a bottle of water.
"Here," he gave them over, watching the other man slide his body into the bed after taking his pills.
"Thanks!" Danny yawned, his eyes heavy.
"I think that's my line."
The would-be slumberer heard the catch in the other man's ragged voice and looked up. He managed a weak smile at the emotive eyes. He'd once read about a person's eyes being mirrors to their soul. That was so evident in his partner's sky blues.
"We're partners right?" He cocked his head and stuck out his good hand. "You'd do the same for me."
"Yeah," Martin snagged that hand, "I just wanted to say thanks for watching my back. You went above and beyond the call. I'm grateful."
"You won't be when you get my bill," Danny grinned, "I like a line of zeros."
"Get to sleep!" Martin tossed back, making his way to his own room.
He blinked hard and sat up, eyeing the bright stream of sun pouring through the windows. His healing body was stiff and sore. He eased himself up gingerly, letting his throbbing head settle. Despite that pain and the dull ache in his chest, he felt... rested. He eyed the clock in disbelief.
"Nine thirty?" he croaked, then thought hard. It had been well over a week since he's slept soundly. His body was in desperate need of that rest and he welcomed the healing sleep. He also craved a hot bath to take the edge off the aches, then a cup of black coffee and breakfast.
By the time he dragged his sated body from the tub, the water was chilled. The whole time he was soaking he tried to put the startling words in some kind of order. He tried hard, thinking and pushing, but nothing came back. Just that awful 'thump' and the hand on his neck. He was shaving, when image in the mirror faded and another appeared. Martin Fitzgerald wearing a boy's frightened face. The child's mouth parted in terror, one word piercing the air. "Daddy," he repeated, furrowing his brows. Was he calling to his father because he was scared or for another reason? Had he heard or seen the other man? Why couldn't he remember? He blinked the image away and finished his job.
"I was ready to check for a pulse," Danny greeted warmly, seeing the first signs of healing appear, "You pretty boys need too much work."
"Jealous?" Martin shot back, pouring a cup of coffee and taking his lactase. It helped his lactose intolerant system digest milk and milk products.
"I got some bagels from the place on the corner."
"You eat?" Martin queried.
Martin stuck his head in the doorway and saw the shadows under the eyes, on a pasty face.
"Nice face." He paused, watching the dark head recline against the sofa back. "You sick?" A hand came up and wavered sideways, indicating a rocky stomach. "You heave, you leave."
"I'll try to remember that," he smiled gamely. "Go on and eat. I'm gonna chill here on the couch awhile."
He didn't remember falling asleep. He peeled an eye open, blinking past the afghan that now covered him. He saw a flurry of silver and blue on the television. Football. A game with the sound turned down. Football?
"Damn," he yawned, rubbing his eyes and reluctantly leaving the warm nest. He stood and stretched, glanced at his watch and realized it was nearly three p.m. He heard the soft tones of classical music playing and entered the spare room. He waited a few minutes, curious at the body perched near a workbench. He knew without closely looking that the job would be flawless. Fitzgerald wouldn't tolerate anything less than that. He was a perfectionist and the steady hands needed for this kind of job were akin to that. Danny's chocolate eyes moved to the shelf over the light brown head. He whistled in appreciation at the miniature replicas of famous masted ships that lined the shelves in the room.
"You feeling better?" Martin asked, without taking his eyes from his task.
"Yeah. Sorry about crashing like that."
"Why? You needed it."
Like the man he shared the room with, his thoughts were dominated by the extreme consequences of the night before. He hedged a moment, trying to gauge the profile he saw. He knew before his words left his lips, but he asked anyhow.
"You want to talk about it?"
"No." Martin paused and thought, "I need to sort a lot of shit out in my head and until I talk to him..." he flashed angrily, then buried it. He needed to heal, outside and in. A part of that process would be settled in a cabin in upstate New York. The other part was a few feet away. How do you thank someone for a healing gift? One that mended a long broken heart?
"But when I do..."
"You got it, partner," Danny exuded quietly. "They're beautiful," his dark eyes moved from ship to ship, some large and intricate, others small and sleek and just as fine.
"Thanks, my grandfather taught me," the craftsman nodded to the photo on the wall, "He was a helluva guy, a navy man all his life. He loved the sea." He picked up a piece of rigging and eyed the unfinished project. "He came to live with us when I was about ten. We were close."
"Damn, you needed a good meal even then," he teased of the skinny teenager in the photo. It was clear where the man got his emotive blue eyes. The handsome white-haired gent next to him housed the same orbs.
"He died about a year after that was taken. Losin' my mom took his fight away; the cancer took over."
"I'm sorry, brother, that had to be rough."
Danny turned and watched the steady tool guide a piece of rigging into place. Then the body rose, winced and moved away from the bench.
"I learned a lot from that old man. I still hear his voice..."
Martin broke off his thought then and moved to a small shelf under the photo. It housed a single craft, and a familiar one. Danny watched how gingerly Martin handled the ship, not missing the raw emotion in his eyes. He followed the other man to the now folded up green futon and sat next to him. The slim fingers caressed the fine wood and the Seattle native's Adam's apple bobbed furiously.
"The Bounty," Danny read the name on the side of the ship. "Great flick, Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins."
"Helluva book," Fitzgerald agreed. "Ever read the transcripts of the trial?" he asked of the true story of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh.
"You should sometime." He smiled then, his mind wandering back in time. "It helps me to relax. Whenever I get upset or anxious, I work on 'em. He taught me that, he had such strong hands, such a rich voice." He eyed the shine on the deck of the famous craft and fingered the name on the side. "It was the first thing we did together, right after he came to stay."
"You did a helluva job," Danny complimented, then backed up a bit, when the fine treasure was placed on his knees. "Hey, don't. I could break it." He eased his hand behind it, just as the slow fought words came out.
"It's the most precious thing I own," Martin managed, still feeling his grandfather's proud smile. "He wasn't afraid to hug or ruffle your hair or just walk on the beach watching the tide. He told hundreds of stories about his adventures. He was funny as hell, too." He smiled then, recalling the booming laugh. "I still miss him," he sucked in a hard breath, "He was so damn proud of me. You have no idea how much that helped."
"Yeah, I do," Danny smiled. "Them eyes of yours never lie, partner!" He nodded thoughtfully, thinking on the words, "Thanks for sharing that. I'd love to have hoisted a pint with him."
"Well," Martin turned, locking eyes with the man he owed so much, "I think he'd like that too. So from me and Blackjack Martin..."
"Blackjack?" Danny laughed, "Gambler?"
"John Thomas Martin," Fitzgerald's voice rose in unequaled admiration, "Finest Captain on the seven seas... and he had just a little bit of a temper."
"Oh," Taylor nodded, his grin wide, "so you inherited more than those eyes from that old man?"
"I've been known to have flashes of the Martin temper on occasion."
"Yeah," Taylor drolled, "I think so!"
"I want you to have it," Martin ducked his head, "Sometimes thank you is just two skinny words."
"No!" Danny nearly dropped the beautiful ship. "I couldn't take this! Martin, what you and that old man had was special. A lot of people live their whole lives without someone touching them like that. This is a part of him... of you... of that time." He handed it back, then rested a hand on the slumped shoulder. "Hey, the fact that you offered it..." he fisted his hand and tapped his heart, then nodded. He waited for the deep sigh to escape the other and chuckled. "Besides, you need to save that for little Harvard. It will look real nice in his bedroom next to his football trophies."
"Football?" Martin stood, laughed and put the ship back, "Not if takes after me."
"Not to worry, Uncle Danny has it all worked out. First we find you an Amazon goddess, six three, long legs and "
"Uncle Danny?" Martin scowled, "Gettin' kind of familiar, aren't you?"
"Somebody has to show little Harvard the ropes," he winked, then pondered. "I don't see it."
"What?" Martin followed the curious gaze over the ships displayed.
"Well you've got some of history's finest sailing vessels," he smirked, "It should be right up there with the rest." He cocked his head and saw the half-smirk forming on the other man's lips. "The S.S. Minnow." He quickly defended against the derisive snort. "Now that was a crew. Of course, I would have nearly drowned saving the women. CPR would have been necessary. First Maryanne, then Ginger..."
"You need some serious help. Olive Oyl, Wilma and Ginger." Martin shook his pained head.
"Me and Ginger would have made sweet music together," Taylor predicted, "I'd have her popping the sequins off that gown like nobody's business." He sighed, then thought again. "Of course, Maryanne could cook and I bet all that pie crust making gave her strong fingers. Be real handy for a massage in the moonlight." He turned at the snortlike chuckle and smacked the leg. "I didn't forget you partner, you and Mrs. Howell can talk shop. Lovey digs Ivy League dudes."
"Some partner," Fitzgerald laughed, and realized how good that felt. To be able to share memories and open up to a friend. He patted his grumbling stomach, "Your stomach up to food?"
Taylor stood up and eyed the clock. "We've got time for a quick snack before the girls come."
"Girls?" Martin's face screwed up.
"Yeah, you remember them. Soft and curvy, pliant in the right places and smelling fine!"
"Then I'll take a quick shower and toss some clean clothes on. I'll work up a good flush, chicks love that."
"Hey, you got any wine? Then again beer might be better with Chinese food."
"These'll do." Danny took first salsa then nacho chips out from a cabinet. He thrust the bag at his perplexed host. "Hey, don't lose that!" he noted of the pale face and bruised eyes. "See, you got a scar too," he eyed the jagged cut in the hairline. "You dog, you. Nurse city!"
The doorbell caused both to freeze in the foyer.
"Damn, it's later than I thought." Danny peered through the peephole into the hallway outside. "You keep them busy, while I'll take a quick shower," he relayed as he opened the door.
"No. Dammit to hell, Danny, WHAT GIR "
"Ladies!" Taylor greeted warmly, then 'grimaced' rubbing his sling-coated shoulder.
"Danny you should be in bed!"
"Uh... uh..." Martin stammered as a tall, stunning, long-legged brunette entered and nearly engulfed his friend.
"I'm gonna hold you to that, later," Taylor murmured, accepting her kiss. He eyed the two large bags and inhaled the wonderful aroma. "Man, I'm starved."
"We weren't sure what you wanted, so we got plenty of everything."
Martin backed up a little when the second woman entered, her fine form filling out black boots, stockings, a black leather mini-skirt and a short leather jacket. His eyes went from one woman to the other, their features and bodies identical, save the hair. The lovely entangled with Danny had long tresses, her sister had a short, spiky haircut that framed her pretty face.
"You look just like her," he squeaked, "twins?"
"The lovely Denise," Danny cooed of his date, then nodded. "and the delicious Dominique."
"You can call me Nicki," she sighed, cupping the stammering man's chin. "Honey, I think we're gonna be good friends," she pressed, "real close."
"Uh... I... didn't know..." he fumbled noting his sweat pants and loose flannel shirt, suddenly aware of his bare feet. "I would have... Danny... Chinese?" He felt his face flush when the combination of the aroma of the food and the perfumed woman invaded him. His knees buckled a bit and he felt his mouth go dry.
"Head injury!" Danny whispered loudly, tapping his own head, "A bullet wound, bad one. He needs lots of tender care. He should be in bed. The doctor said he could pass out at any time."
"Oh, don't you worry, Honey," Nicki slipped her arm around his waist and propelled them into the living room. She sat him down on the sofa and took her jacket off. "I know CPR. The instructor said I had great lungs."
"Yes Ma'am," Martin croaked, eyes wide at the 'lung' swell encased in a tight red sweater, "I can see that."
"You girls keep my man Martin busy while I take a shower."
"How about we eat first and I give you a bath later when we get home?" Denise advised, whispering in the now flushed agent's ear.
"Aw, hell," Martin sucked in air noisily. "I, uh, need to get changed. I'll be," he stood and hoped his legs wouldn't give out, "right back. There's soda, wine... make yourself at home." He got to the foyer and glared, "Danny, can I talk to you!"
"Hey, she's great, huh?"
"How 'bout a little warning!" Martin spat back, pulling his closet open and taking out a pair of jeans.
"It was a surprise!"
He heard water running and realized Danny was washing up in the bathroom. He got changed quickly, ignoring the protests of his aching body.
"You can't go out there like that!" Fitzgerald eyed the semi-naked form, clad only in his sling and a pair of black boxers. His eyes narrowed on the hem. "Home of the whopper? Modest too!"
"My bag's in the other room," he paused, his brows wrinkling. One hand came out, feeling Martin's sweatshirt. "Did you iron that?" He saw the chagrined face and howled. "You did! It's a sweatshirt. You don't iron that." He clapped the now grinning man on the back lightly. "Man, you're gonna wear me out. Fish on pizza and puttin' metal to sweatshirts. I've got a lot of work to do on you."
"I guess we have plenty of time," Martin paused with a soft smile, "partner."
"Now, you're cooking with gas!" Danny exuded.
Friday, December 13th, Manhattan
"So that's all of it?" Jack asked, eyeing the two still recovering agents across from him.
Danny was cleared for light duty starting Monday, the 16th. He'd been riding a desk all week and that news made him smile. Martin had two more weeks coming, thanks to his headaches, blackouts and ribs. Today was the first chance Jack had had to talk to the both of them together about the incident. For over thirty minutes they spilled out details, argued with each other over procedure, and exchanged a few curses, but Jack knew they were okay. They were partners now, and they'd fight and bitch with each other, but they'd found 'it'. That mystical, indefinable element that is born to lawmen who happen to bond as partners and a lot more.
"Yeah," both said and nodded.
"You know you shouldn't have gone for his gun," Jack warned the squirming blue-eyed agent. Physically, he looked better. But the scars from the hell of over twenty years before ran deep. Jack hoped this weekend away with the older Fitzgerald would help those wounds to heal.
"It was the right move," Martin defended hotly, "I'd do it again. They were gonna kill us. I heard the old man say so."
"That's very true, but that hot-dog move you pulled almost got your partner killed. Not to mention the hostage. He was a civilian. What if your shot had hit him?"
"I... I..." Martin stopped, his jaw half open. He hadn't thought of that. "I saw an opening. I reacted to..."
"You've got good instincts, Martin, and sometimes that will pay off. But this time, it wasn't the right call. If you hadn't made that move, neither one of you would have been wounded."
"No, we'd be dead." Martin spat back a little too cockily.
"Let me finish!" Jack commanded, spinning his chair and leaving it. He walked around the desk, sitting on the edge, facing the testy young man. "Instead of bleeding all over the kitchen floor, you should have been working together to defuse a hostile situation. Your rash action put every person in the diner in peril. There's no I in the word TEAM, Martin."
"Jack, it's water under the bridge," Danny tried.
"Don't cover up for him," the older man edged, "a few inches over and I'd be visiting you in the stone garden." That got a reaction, as Fitzgerald flushed in guilt. "Good. Maybe that sank in. Martin, do you remember what I told you in the helicopter about why you were chosen?"
"Good, you hang onto that while you're away. I meant every word. You think about this case and work out a more positive solution. Because you're not wearing a red 'S' under there," he tapped the cadet blue sweater, "Got it?" He flicked a gaze to Danny, who stood and nodded. He paused, wrinkled his brow and touched the back of the white knit shirt beneath Fitzgerald's sweater.
"Hey, nice, Harvard. No starch."
"Shut the hell up!" Martin shot back, pulling away, "Don't be touching me."
"You gonna be okay?" Jack asked when they were alone, spotting the heat rising in the sky eyes.
"I don't know," Martin replied of the meeting with his father, "I'm all mixed up inside, like the tide during the storm."
"It's not often you get a second chance." He spoke quietly, seeing uncertainty rising. "Use these three days with your dad to iron it all out. You tell him how he hurt you and how it affected you. It's a start."
"Yeah," Martin sighed, raking a hand through his hair, and stood. "I better get moving. I don't want to hit traffic." He paused at the door, "What you said in the chopper, Jack, it made the difference." He offered his hand and took the strong grip. "It's not much, compared to what you gave me."
"Oh, I'll think of something," Jack smiled, with a glint in his eye.
Early afternoon, upstate New York,
in a cabin by a crystal blue lake
Victor was late and he hoped Martin wouldn't be upset. He pulled the jeep in front of the well-built structure and saw a body rise from the rocking chair on the porch. He eased his form from the car and strode over, uneasy and unsure. He extended his hand, appraising the healing body. He'd looked so frail the day he left.
"It's good to see you son, you "
"Why didn't you tell me?" Martin demanded, fists clenched, "You arrogant son-of-a-bitch! Who the hell do you think you are? You had no right fuckin' with my head like that!"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"John Harrison!" the blue-eyed storm shouted, "Ring a bell?" He noted the color draining quickly. "I shot a man dead. I was only seven. You didn't think that would haunt me? All these years, all the nightmares," he raged, raising his fisted hands, his body trembling in fury. "You saw me suffer. You lied, said it was all my imagination."
"Son, you don't understand " Victor's words were cut off by a fist that sent him to the ground. He rubbed his jaw and looked up at the explosion of emotion that was his only child.
"Martin! Martin wait!" he called out, watching the young man stalk to the lake, hands thrust in his leather jacket pockets.
By the time Martin came into the house, the fire was going and dinner was ready. A roasted chicken with crunchy brown potatoes and carrots was waiting along with hot rolls and cold beer. Victor put two platters down, two bottles followed and he slid onto a chair at the pine table. He chose his words carefully, watching his wife's features on her son's face by the fire.
"You remind me so much of her, your mother."
"Don't you talk about her. She loved me!"
"And I don't?" Victor asked and winced at the derisive snort. "Please sit down. Before you judge me, you will hear my side."
"Your side?" the young agent shoved off the hearth and stalked over, not sitting down. "You lied to me, that is your side. If I weren't graced with a man as fine as Danny Taylor for a partner a friend," he corrected, "I'd still locked in Hell."
"I gave her my word."
"What?" Martin screwed his face up. His father didn't reply as he cut his meat, ate it and two pieces of potato as well. "What does that mean? Who?"
Sighing hard, the frustrated man obeyed. He ate without tasting, spearing the food like tortured test subjects in a lab.
The meal ended, Victor took the plates to the sink and ran water and suds on them. He got two new beers and sat back down, shoving one over.
"Why didn't you come to my play? Do you know how hard I worked on this?" Martin pulled the poem from under his sweater. "Weeks. I wanted it perfect... for you! I wanted you to be proud."
"I was always proud of you, from the day you were born!"
"Fine way you had of showing it!" the hot blue eyes shot back.
"I gave you the best education, good schools. I tried."
"I needed you! Not a bunch of bullies who beat the snot out of me and prick-happy teachers who lorded it over me about who my father was and how I lucky I was." He chugged the beer, swiping foam. "Lucky!" he snorted in contempt, "I was the loneliest fuckin' kid in that school."
"I was coming, Martin, to the play. That storm that hit you on Wednesday came from the east. I was stuck in O'Hare, no flights in or out. I paid a pilot a king's ransom to fly a charter, but we couldn't make it. We got as far as Coeur d'Alene," he noted of the Idaho resort, "We had to set down. I tried, honest to God I did."
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"I was afraid if I did you'd remember what happened that night. I couldn't risk that."
"The truth? You drilled that into me from the time I could crawl. Honesty and Integrity," he locked his fingers together.
Victor blew out an air of frustration and shook his head.
"When I got to Seattle, it was late, almost midnight. I went to every Red Cross shelter. You weren't anywhere. I searched high and low. Then I looked over that windy, rough water and... something happened. For the first time in my life I was scared, choked with fear. I got a cold chill in my gut, and I knew you'd never made it over. Something... I don't know what... told me you were in danger. So I made a few phone calls and got a bureau chopper okayed. I called in a few favors, no questions asked. They dropped me off. I was only in the house about ten minutes when I heard that banging sound. Then I heard you scream " his voice broke then and he dropped his head, feeling his eyes burn. "Every parent's worst nightmare. I could hear you but couldn't find you. Then I saw those boot prints in the kitchen and heard the banging again. I pulled the door open and you weren't expecting it."
"Daddy," Martin rasped, suddenly seeing a younger Victor in slow motion, a ghost-like image from the foggy past. "I fell," he felt himself tumble.
"The door, it opened inward. I didn't know you were so close. I tried to grab you, we both took a tumble down the stairs. In the fall, I dropped the gun," he rubbed his side, "I never saw him. I felt the knife, fell down hard. He hit my head. Then I heard the shot..."
"He was gonna slit your throat!" Martin blurted, seeing the image explode in full color. "God, he had... he laughed at me... he... he..." he puppeted the motions, seeing them lost in time, an arm arcing above his father's helpless throat.
"You never hesitated, I didn't even know you had the gun."
"I don't remember anymore," Martin said distractedly.
"What is the next thing you recall?"
"Uh, Mom's quilt. That old one, with the faded colors that was so soft. Her smell. Her arms around me, rocking, peaceful. I ... I... was... s...safe."
"You were catatonic for over a week. I kept you with me in the hospital. Then we went to Sedona to see your mother. I carried you inside and she held her arms open. She was in a rocker, the quilt was on her lap. She held you close, kissed your eyelids, your forehead and wrapped you up tight. She rocked and began to sing."
"Amazing Grace!" Martin shot out of the chair, wrapping his arms around his chest. He felt her so strongly it shocked him.
"Among others, she loved hymns. She had a beautiful voice. My God did she love you," he walked to his son's side by the fire. "You opened, " his voice broke, "your eyes. For the first time since that shooting. You looked at her... touched her face with your hand... brushed her tears... you said, 'Mommy, don't cry'," then he laughed a little, "then you asked to go to McDonald's. You couldn't remember any of it. You thought you'd gotten hurt in the storm." He turned the fine-featured face then, nearly getting lost in those wide eyes. "I wanted to tell you. She was so frightened, Martin. You know she wasn't strong, emotionally. She was troubled, depressed, lost. That was before we knew what we do today. The doctor... when you went catatonic... he didn't know if you'd recover. She blamed herself."
"Aw, shit," Martin felt like a mule had kicked him. He choked back tears, seeing her kind face and feeling those loving arms.
"After you went to sleep that night, we talked about it. She made me promise never to tell you. She was so scared, son. She thought if we told you you'd collapse again and we'd lose you. She was protecting you, I guess." He sighed, "I thought, maybe, when you got older.... But then, after she died, the dreams stopped and so many years passed, I didn't know how."
"They didn't stop," Martin admitted, "I just stopped telling anybody. They didn't get brutal until this case. I saw those pilgrims and Thanksgiving stuff on the walls, then that scared boy reading the poem..."
"Nothing Gold Can Stay," Victor whispered painfully.
"It grew and festered inside. The dreams were real, they terrified me caused me to lash out on my job. That damn near got me and Danny killed." He turned to the fire again, letting the flames bake his face. "If God hadn't graced me with a partner friend," he corrected, "as fine as Taylor, I'd be dead now. He gave a damn."
"I'm sorry," Victor choked, gripping the back of his son's neck, "Try to understand, Martin, how much I loved her. As you got older and stronger, she got weaker. I couldn't tell you I was afraid for her."
For awhile, both men let the hypnotic flames entrance them and they toyed with their own thoughts. Victor left first, heading for bed.
"I think," the older man said, resting a hand on his son's troubled shoulders, "that maybe Mister Frost was wrong. I hope so. I found gold the day I held you for the first time. I need to find it again and it will stay this time, I promise. Goodnight, son."
Martin remained by that fire for hours, revisiting his childhood. Was his father right? Was the poem wrong? He thought on his childhood and his father's role. A man who was guilty of loving his wife too much? Could the pressures of his demanding job and the frailties of the woman he loved been too much?
His healing body finally moved him to get some sleep. He paused by his father's bed, spotting the poem by the nightstand. He thought again on those words.
"...found gold the day I first held you. I need to find it again... again... again."
"You'd better keep your promise this time," he vowed, then found his own bed.
His body tossed fitfully, he was lost in a dream. Black water churned restlessly beneath a tattered boat. Gale force winds and driving rain pelted his tiny body like knives. He fought hard, but the crashing waves were threatening to send his seven-year-old body into the water. Then he saw a hand on the boat's side and he ran to it, clutching his poem. His father had come! He was here!' Then his face fell when the beast returned.
"Nooooo!" he moaned, twisting in his bed.
The dream shifted, he was running in the basement again, the killer behind him. The acrid smell filled his lungs and his small legs gave out. He clutched the doorknob as the beefy hand grabbed him. He saw the knife; his heart gyrated wildly.
Then the sea turned calm and the sky was a brilliant shade of light blue. A hearty sun sent rippling light onto the water, creating liquid gold. The ship was strong and sure, sailing on the breeze. He saw his new family and felt the shimmer start. He heard Jack's gruff words and the glimmer grew. Then he slipped on the deck and a hand latched onto his own, his ears catching a warm voice.
He saw another figure waiting by the helm, not sure of where to go. He caught the man's eye and saw the hand offered. He heard the gulls call, felt the breeze kiss his face and the sun cloak him. He turned back, smiled and took the hand of his father.
The worst of it seemed to be over and Victor moved from the side of his son's bed. He fixed the tangled covers before pausing. He eyed the poem across the room and felt the loving care that had gone into every gold felt leaf and crooked letter. He bent and kissed his son's forehead, then laid a hand on the sleeping man's face.
"I love you, Martin and I'm proud of you."
The soft sigh that met those words told him, somehow, the worst of the storm had passed. He sat in a chair by the bed for awhile, just enjoying the simple pleasure of watching his child sleep. He knew that they would still clash, argue and disagree. But for the first time in many years, the sun was riding high in the sky, shining brilliantly.
As brilliant as the gold leaves that framed the poem crafted by a child's loving hands.
"He was wrong, son," the older man noted of the words. He saw a shimmering light ahead and he wouldn't let it dim again.
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