Ezra first checked his rear view mirror, then doubled checked over his shoulder before he changed lanes to pass the slower moving vehicles in front of him. Even at nine o'clock, the Denver night air was warm; it had been another beautiful fall day in the city. Not that any of the six men had even noticed. The only concession Ezra now made to the heat was to loosen his tie. Like the rest of the team Seven, Ezra still wore the same clothes that he had on yesterday morning and he had no intention of taking the time to change until his teammates were located. Not even with his designer-made suit starting to droop on him.
He only had two more names on his list to check. He had spent the day driving from one small airfield to another, trying to locate a pilot who used to work for Sorenson. The man he and Buck had brought in last night had actually been very cooperative, but all he could tell them was that Sorenson was somewhere in Montana. So now all they had to do was find this other person and persuade him to give them an exact location. An entire day had been spent with this objective, and still they had nothing. Ezra just hoped Nathan and Josiah had better luck in their hunt.
Slowing for a red light, Ezra looked out the side window of his red, convertible, sports car to the black silhouette of the mountains set against the dark night sky and wished his two friends were home.
Josiah maneuvered his big Suburban pickup into the tiny parking space, then he and Nathan struggled to get out the doors without denting the vehicles parked on either side of them. This was the last airfield on their list. If they came up empty here, they were not sure what they would do.
They had finally convinced Chris, Buck, and the Judge all to go home for awhile. The strain of the last two days had been exceedingly difficult for those three men in particular. They had a task force in place, and all search and rescue teams in Montana had been put on standby alert, but until they had a location their hands were tied. Buck had been ready to fly to Montana and just start looking, but was talked out of that when he realized how big and wild parts of Montana were. Without the exact location of the lodge they had a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack rather than finding Vin and JD.
"Excuse me. Do you know if a man called Sky Henner flies out of here?" Nathan asked a lone mechanic who was bent over the engine of a plane.
"Ya, but you all just missed him. He left an hour ago. He was booked to fly a charter out."
"You wouldn't know where he was flying, or if he filed a flight plan by chance?" Josiah asked in a grim voice, then turned to whisper to Nathan, "Damn, we missed him by one stinking hour. One hour! If it wasn't for bad luck we would have no luck at all."
"Well, this time you're in luck," The mechanic said as he brought his head out from under the engine hood. "I was in the office when he was filing his flight plan, its hanging up on the clipboard right by the office door."
With a nod of thanks, Nathan rushed over to the office, ripped the paper off the clipboard and quickly read down the list of destinations filed.
"Well?" asked Josiah, trying to read over Nathan's shoulder.
"I don't know if it means anything to us or not, but tomorrow morning he is scheduled to fly to Montana. I don't know if he is going to Sorenson's or not; it just says he is going to some Lamar Lake, wherever the heck that is.
Josiah and Nathan relaxed their grim faces for the first time that day. Maybe they just got the break they needed. Getting into the truck, they looked out over the black mountains that stood above the city of Denver and silently both wished their friends were now coming home.
Judge Travis sat by the edge of the pool in a lounger, twirling a shot of cognac around in his glass while his wife chatted about her day on the patio, and dished up his supper.
Orrin never heard a word she was saying. All he could think about were the two young men out there somewhere, in the hands of a crazy man. They all knew the risks they took everyday doing their job, but at this moment that was no consolation to the judge. The danger they were in had nothing to do with either of the young agents, but because of a verdict he had made. He looked through the tall oriental trees that surrounded the patio area of his house, towards the dark mountains in the distance, and wished those young men were both safely home.
Buck stood leaning against the guardrail on the deck overlooking the green-space that ran behind their condo. He and JD often played football out there, or went for walks after work to blow off some of the stress that came with this job. Or Buck would walk. Unless JD had serious issues to discuss he usually ran circles around his roommate. Tonight, under the streetlights, he could see an old couple with walking canes strolling by with their hands intertwined. A young women jogged along the dirt path with a large dog on the end of a leash. Some teenage boys playing basketball at the paved edge of the park whistled some catcalls out to her and were rewarded with a smile. But there would be no JD goofing around outside tonight.
Anguish and frustration were written all over the normally handsome agent's face. Showing great restraint, he swore just once, then set his unopened can of beer down on the patio table and went back inside.
JD's computer sat silent in the corner of the living room, his paperwork and floppy disk's right were he left them last. Buck wandered down the hallway, stopping at the bathroom door. He could still smell the sport deodorant the kid liked to use and could see the toothpaste lid was still off the toothpaste, just where JD had left it. A pet peeve with Buck, he knew he would have too have another conversation with JD about that when the kid got home, not that it would do much good. They had been having discussions about toothpaste lids being left off and open milk jugs in the fridge since the kid had moved in almost a year ago.
Buck groaned when he saw his last disposable razor sitting in the wastebasket. That meant Buck would have to shave with his electric one again. He kept telling the kid it just didn't shave as close as his disposables, so the ladies didn't cuddle up as close, but JD would always just laugh and promise to buy him more for his Christmas stocking. JD didn't have to worry about five o'clock shadows; he just had peach fuzz that he shaved a couple of times a week. That's why Buck figured the kid could afford to get his own darn razors and why JD figured he could just borrow Buck's. Buck was always on the kid's case about that too.
"I promise I will never yell at you again over such stupid things," Buck said to an empty room, as he shut off the bathroom light and continued down the hall before stopping outside JD's bedroom door.
Buck reached for the handle, pausing before he opened it. He and JD had a rule to respect each other's privacy and stay out of the other's room, but Buck had an over powering need to be close to JD's things right now. Turning the knob, he pushed the door open with the back of his hand. Light from the hallway partially flooded the room. JD's blankets were haphazardly pulled up to cover his bed and his work clothes from his last day on the job were tossed casually in a corner of the floor, waiting to be washed. A couple of hockey posters and one of John Wayne adorned the otherwise bare walls and a few pictures of his mom and the guys sat displayed on top of his dresser. The closet door was ajar, but when Buck went to slide it shut, he realized it was so stuffed with sports equitement it couldn't close.
Reluctantly, Buck backed out of the room, closing the door behind himself and went into the dark kitchen. After groping for the light switch on the wall, the florescent bulb above the sink blinked a few times before casting a soft glow on the room. On the kitchen counter sat JD's breakfast plate, still covered with toast crumbs and a rinsed out milk glass. Images of an excited JD flooded Buck's memory. The kid had been so animated, as he talked between bites of his early morning meal about his pending fishing trip, and how much fun he and Vin were going to have. Buck had only half listened to the ramblings while drinking his strong coffee and looking at the world through his blurry sleep-deprived vision.
Finding he had no appetite, he grabbed another unopened beer from the fridge and headed back to the deck. Again leaning against the guardrail he looked over the lights of the city towards the dark silhouette of the rugged mountains jutting up against the night sky and wished his young friends could find their way home where they belonged.
Chris pulled through the ranch gate and drove up the driveway, his tires crunching over the gravel road, and parked in front of his big post and beam barn. With a tired, strained sigh he grabbed his lukewarm thermos of coffee off the dashboard and stiffly climbed out of his pickup. His mixed-breed hound dog came running out from somewhere behind the barn with his tail wagging and his rich voice baying his excitement at seeing Chris.
"Get down ya foolish mutt," Chris said pushing the jumping dog away. "Ya smell worse than last weeks garbage, what the heck did you find dead to roll in now?"
Chris walked over to the corrals where he was met with sounds of hungry horses and cattle. Pony, his own black quarter horse gelding, strolled up to the fence to be scratched before he started to eat the hay Chris had thrown into a feed manger from a bale that sat on the ground outside the corral.
In a nearby pasture Seven came trotting up to see what Chris was doing, then spooked and ran away as Chris reached out to pet the small gelding. Immediately the little bay came back and sniffed Chris's face, letting the man run his hands down his sleek neck. Life was always fun and games to the gelding; Chris was amazed at how much the little horse's personality reminded him of JD. The two were a good match; snoopy, hyper and loyal. Always wanting to be where the rest of the team or herd were, but still a little unsure as to where exactly they fit in.
Vin's horse Peso casually walked over to the two and then with his ears pinned back took a harmless bite out of Seven haunches to make him move away. Peso then took up residence beside Chris, letting sure quiet hands rub him for a couple of minutes before just turning and sauntering a few feet away to drop his head back to the pasture's green grass. Chris lips turned up into a sad smile. Just like his owner, Peso was furiously independent and liked things done on his own time.
From another corral he could hear the bawling of hungry cattle as they reminded him they too needed to be fed. With a sigh Chris entered the dark barn and not bothering to turn on any lights started to fill up the small hay wagon he dragged around for feeding. Suddenly feeling overwhelmingly despondent he slumped onto a bale of hay and ran his hands through his hair. In the back of his mind he kept thinking he needed to talk to Vin since he was the team's resident mountain man, but then it would hit him again that Vin was one of his missing men. Putting his hand in his pocket he double checked to make sure his beeper was still on as he waited word from the office on any updates. A fat tabby barn cat jumped up onto his lap as he stared out the barn doors to the dark mountains silhouetted against the black night sky and wished his friends were just able to come home.
Then his beeper went off.
Vin and JD bodies were sagging both from fatigue, and the beatings they had received from Sorenson, as they climbed the last few steps to the mountain summit. Old cuts had broken open, and new cuts from traveling through the bush at night, were freshly bleeding. Both disregarded the overcast skies that could not hide the beauty of the autumn sights that surrounded them.
With a groan, JD keeled over onto the soft green foliage and ignored the dampness that penetrated his clothes from the early morning dew. The piercing pain in his ankle had pushed so far past his pain tolerance level that his mind blessedly was now numb to it. His sock lay in tatters on his foot as JD looked at the dark, swollen mass that stuck out the end of his pant leg.
Vin was so tired it was all he could do to stagger over to the same boulder that he had sat on the first day he and JD had climbed this small mountain butte that rose up behind the lodge. Vin pulled his sweater tighter against his torso. Despite the long hard climb they had just made, the morning air was cold. Peering through some young scrub pines, he could see smoke spiraling out of the lodge's rock chimney. Warm hot plentiful food and cozy beds were waiting below for them, but unfortunately so were men with big powerful guns, who wanted to shoot them. Vin was not sure how many men Sorenson now had back at the lodge or how many were still in fighting form. In the pre-dawn haze he could see lights coming on in different rooms as the occupants inside either woke up or started to move around, but he still could not do an accurate head count.
"We need to format us a plan." JD spoke in a slurred voice from the ground, too tired to pronounce his words any clearer.
"I was kinda hoping they would just all be gone when we got here."
"And are they?"
"Nope...so I guess we do need us a plan."
Tired eyes met tired eyes, as the two worn out and gaunt agents looked at each other. "Okay, so we just have to get down to the lodge, break-in and find the laptop or phone or whatever source of communication device they have. Notify the guys, then get out of there and stay alive until the team gets here to rescue us, all without being detected. That should be a snap."
"Only one flaw with that plan, JD...we'll need a distraction of some sort. You want to be a decoy out back, while I sneak in through the front?"
"I told you once already, I am not being the decoy again. Last time they damn near shot me and my thumb is still crooked."
"I'm only hassling ya JD...hey you hear what I hear?" Vin scrambled off the rock, dropped to his stomach and peered over the side of the mountain to the lake below. JD rolled off his back onto his stomach and wriggled over to Vin. Propping himself up onto his elbows, he also scanned the lake and surrounding mountains.
The audible droning of the yellow Beaver could now be heard as it flew through the mist that covered the two mountain peaks at the south end of the lake and landed on the choppy water and taxied up to the wharf. They could make out Bill in the pre-dawn as he walked down the path from the lodge and leaped up onto the wharf. Soon he and the same pilot who flew them here three days ago strolled back up to the lodge.
Vin turned to JD, a small smile twitching at his lips.
"What...I know that smile, Vin...what are you up to?"
"You said you know how to fly, and look there's an airplane with no pilot. I'd say that's an omen."
"And I would say...you're nuts!" JD shuffled a few inches away from Vin. "I didn't say I knew how to fly, I said I have flown. As in, back in high school, maybe five times, six at the most. I never did takeoff's or landings, the school ran a program, I signed up and sat beside a pilot as he flew the small two-person trainer. He would get us up in the air and then let me handle the controls for like thirty seconds, then he would take over again."
"Well, that's six more times and thirty seconds longer than me so if we have to fly, you're the man, but we will put that in the plan B slot for now. I think you had it right the first time. We need to get down to the lodge and find you that laptop so you can contact the rest of the guys and let them know where we are."
"That leads us into the next problem...we don't know where we are!"
"Well, after we find the laptop I guess we better find something or someone who can tell us." Vin slowly rose to his feet, then pulled JD up onto his one good foot. "You want lead or drag?"
Vin cautiously worked his way down the hillside towards the lodge. Keeping to the shade and thick brush, he moved like a silent shadow gliding carefully over the forest floor. The smell of chimney smoke drifted across the water in a white haze and waves from the lake lapped onto the shoreline. In different circumstances Vin would have loved exploring these woods at this time of year. Off in the distance one of the horses stabled behind the lodge stamped impatiently while waiting for someone to come feed them. Bright red leaves falling from birch trees floated delicately to the ground in a rainstorm of color, helping to dull the distinct sound of his footsteps.
Dropping behind a log, Vin pushed lacy green ferns apart to view the lodge's back wooden porch. A man stood leaning against the screen door with a cigarette in his one hand and a rifle in the other while he talked to someone inside through the screen. The smell of frying bacon and peculating coffee permeated the area and was making Vin's stomach rumble a hungry response. The small stable and sturdy corrals stood about one hundred and fifty feet from the back of the lodge. Carefully, Vin vanished into the woods and worked his way up a moss covered rock hillside that wrapped around the back of the lodge and barn. Checking to make sure no one could see him, Vin approached the stable door and found a huge padlock locking the building up tight. He went back around to the side and found the corrals empty, all the horses were locked inside the stable tighter than Fort Knox.
JD sat slumped against the log and watched as Vin made his way back from the stable. He didn't think he had ever felt so tired, so drained out in his life.
"I can't get into the barn, they have the horses locked up tight," Vin said as he slid down beside JD.
The two jumped as the screen door suddenly slammed shut and the man with the cigarette disappeared back inside. Vin in a crotched position started to make his way to the porch when JD whispered out to him, "Vin, wait. We ain't thinking too straight here. There has to be a radio on board the plane, we don't have to risk breaking into the lodge."
"Man, we must be tired to have missed that, but we still need to find out where we are. Why don't you make your way down to the plane and try the radio. I'll check out the lodge."
"I don't like splitting up and I don't want you to go into the lodge alone. You need me to cover your back."
"JD, I appreciate that, but we really don't have time to argue about this. You go down to the plane, if I get in trouble I can move a lot faster than you, so you're a bigger help to us if you can get someone on the radio."
Reluctantly, JD nodded his head and started for the wharf.
"JD...if you hear any trouble coming from the lodge I want you to start up that plane and get the hell out of here. You got that!"
"No way! I'm not leaving without you Vin." JD adamantly shook his head.
"JD...damn it, would you stop fighting with me and just do what you're told for once!"
"Who died and made you king of this mountain? Stop bossing me around and giving me those kinds of orders!"
"I outrank you that's why I can give you orders, I am still the superior officer even out here, so you will take any damn order I give you and obey it!"
"You don't outrank me...you have more seniority than me because you got hired first. That doesn't make you my boss."
"Why am I still here arguing with you...just do what you're told." Exasperated, Vin turned back towards the porch, mumbling something under his breath about how obnoxious youth of today were.
JD glared at the retreating back of his partner. "Hell, I'm not flying out of here without you...hell, I'm not flying out of here with you. JD grumbled under his own breath as he hobbled painfully for the shoreline.
Vin pressed himself tight against the side of the smooth log structure and peeked slowly through the kitchen window. One of Sorenson's men stood alone at the stove flipping bacon and eggs in a large cast iron frying pan. Vin ducked under the window and moved through some cedar shrubs towards another window. Again peeking carefully inside, Vin found himself looking at the toilet stalls in one of the lodge's public washrooms. Vin lifted on the window and gently pushed it open. Checking around that no one could see him he pulled himself up onto the windowsill and listened to make sure the room was empty, before he climbed through. He was just reaching for the doorknob when it started to turn and the door opened.
JD hopped, skipped, and jumped on one foot, but finally made it painfully down to the shore. Finding a thick brush to hide his clothes under he stripped down to his boxers, and than slinking on his stomach left the cover of the woods, wriggled across the twenty feet of exposed rocky beach and slithered on his belly into the cold water.
The moving sky was gray and angry looking. Gusting winds formed frothy whitecaps, churning the lake up and helping to shield JD from any prying eyes watching from the lodge. Trying to keep most of his anatomy under the shelter of the water, JD swam a slow crawl towards the water soaked wharf. Relieved he finally had something solid between him and the heavily armed men, JD inched his way around the wharf and climbed up onto one of the plane's slippery floats. Checking that no one was on the beach or the lodge's balcony, JD squeezed opened the plane's door as little as possible and slithered into the pilot's seat.
The instrument panel board stared back at him. It had way more bells, whistles and peepers than the small plane he had flown in years ago. With a nervous hand, he reached for the radio. Hell, what was the matter with him, he was a communication expert with one of the best ATF teams in North America. He worked with specialized equipment worth thousands and thousands of dollars everyday, surely one small plane radio could not be that hard to figure out.
JD picked up the hand held mike, turned it to a different frequency than the one it was on, in case that was the lodge's, and flipped on the radio's on-off switch. A high pitched squeal reverberated out of the plane and across the water; JD just about dropped the mike as he madly flipped switches and buttons with his other hand trying to make the noise stop.
Hearing shouting from above, JD turned and looked out the small passenger window to see several men running down the path towards the plane.
Vin held his breath, and pressed back against the cool bathroom tiled wall, as the door swung open towards him and one of Sorenson's men came in and entered a stall. Vin froze briefly till he heard the man lock the stall, then he inched the bathroom door open and stuck his head out. Not seeing anyone in the lobby he snuck out, quietly closing the bathroom door behind him. The stairs ran straight up in front of him, the entrance to the lodge was on his right and the empty dining room was on his left. A quick glance in the dining room showed the laptop computer was gone, and the tables and chairs were back in their original places.
Hearing the toilet flush from the room behind him, Vin dashed up the stairs two at a time before the man caught him standing in the lobby. Carefully he creeped down the hallway, listening outside of each bedroom door as he moved past. He ignored the rooms he and JD had been in. He already knew they did not have a phone in them, but he checked all the other doors only to find them locked, and him with nothing pick them open with.
Vin melted back into the darkness of a hall closet and was pondering his next move, when from downstairs he could suddenly hear the sound of running footsteps and the slamming of doors. Muffled shouts reached his ears, but he could not make out the words. Hoping JD had not got himself into a mess, Vin lightly ran the stairs to the lobby and found the place silent. Approaching a desk in the corner of the lobby, he sorted through various letters that were scattered inside the only drawer. Several letterheads read the name I. Sorenson and were addressed to Lamar Lake. Smiling at his small victory, Vin decided to check out a little more of the lodge before he went to find JD. He cautiously placed his hand flat against the heavy kitchen door and peered inside; it too was vacant. Vin was just backing out when he heard Sorenson's voice crackle over a walkie-talkie that lay on the kitchen table and the sound of rushing feet up the back porch steps. Vin ran back to the bathroom and threw himself head first out the window to the shrubs below.
JD hoped they didn't hear his chattering teeth as they walked back and forth across the wharf, waiting for the pilot to examine the plane.
"I must of left it on when I landed." A voice from inside the plane hollered out.
"Are you sure?" Bill asked, his voice full of skepticism.
"Well, I can't say one hundred percent for sure, but nothing else looks like its been touched or tampered with." the pilot said as he exited from the plane onto the rolling wharf.
'Don't leave mad...just leave,' JD thought as he stared up between the cracks in the creaking boards, and felt his toes and fingers wrinkle from the cold water.
"Okay, lets go back up to the lodge. We should be hearing from Sorenson any time now." Bill walked to the end of the wharf and looked out at the water as the rest of the men moved back up the path. He scanned every ripple of water for as far as his eyes could see, then walked around the plane and checked inside it for a third time. Not satisfied, but not finding anything, he followed his men up the path, stopping and glancing back at the plane every few strides.
Hearing nothing but silence JD swam out from the air pocket that was under the wharf and cautiously checked around the edge of the wharf. Seeing only retreating backs he let out a sigh of relief and with his arm draped across part of the wharf ladder for support, closed his eyes and gathered his wits about him again.
Sorenson dropped down onto a knee and checked the footprints that had been left in the soft mud with a finger. Tanner's were still even, but getting heavier as he was wearing out and not moving as fluidly. Dunne's one shoeprint was very heavy as he tried to keep most of his weight off his injured sock-clad foot. The dampness in the prints told Sorenson that they had not been made very long ago. He was on their trail and closing in fast.
In anger, he had sent all his men back to the lodge to wait. It was apparent if he could not count on them to do the job, he was better off without any of their interference. After dropping his backpack to the ground, he slowly ran his foot-long hunting knife up and down inside its sheath; then he dug out a half dozen ammo clips for his rifle, not counting the one already in the chamber and put them in his vest pocket. With quiet intent, he slipped his finger into a small jar he had removed from his pack and applied a thick line of khaki green make-up to his cheeks that cut the scar on his face in half and than he smeared some black under his eyes.
Again he bounced the solid weight of the rifle in his hand and double-checked the knife at his side, then with a sinister spine-chilling laugh he dropped his pack to the ground and followed the agents tracks that were leading him right back to the lodge.
Vin was trying to blend in with the trees as he moved through the woods and headed for the wharf. Parting the foliage, he could see most of the men walking pretty casually up from the plane towards the balcony stairs. Only a couple of them were carrying their weapons and they were held in relaxed grips. He hadn't heard any gunshots fired and whatever had caused the men to bolt from the lodge did not seem to be of a concern now. He could only assume whatever happened, JD had not been involved. However, the kid was supposed to be at the plane, so Vin could only guess where JD might be hiding now.
Suddenly a door leading onto the balcony slammed open and the man from the kitchen emerged, "Sorenson is hot on their trail, the stupid buggers are heading right at us, straight back to the lodge!"
Vin had turned to double-back to the last place he had seen JD, when with that single shout from above, all hell broke out loose around him.