AUTHOR'S NOTE: This series is an X-over with the TV series Without A Trace, but you don't need to know WAT to read it. The idea was set off by a challenge picture LaraMee made; this picture can be seen with the first story in this series: Without a Trace. LaraMee has also made the two beautiful collages with this story and she has beta'd the story, making it a lot, lot better with her solid advice and nudges to some better English. LaraMee, thank you so very much for all you have done! My heartfelt thanks also go to Tracey for beta-ing the end result.
WARNING: This series will give a permanent disability to one of the Seven.
He couldn't move. Whatever he tried, he couldn't move away, couldn't escape. He was trapped and it filled him with dread. Because he knew they would come again, they always came again to take him back to that room.
Then they were there, grabbing him and dragging him to a door. He knew Hell was waiting for him behind that door, so he fought, he fought and he screamed with all his might, but all they did was laugh.
With a gasp he woke up, his arms still flailing around, trying to ward off the ones coming for him, a scream ready to escape from his throat. He swallowed when he saw he wasn't... there. He was safe, still in his bed. For now.
Somehow he never felt completely safe. There was always the feeling that those who had hurt him would want him back and he didn't think he could face whatever they had done to him again.
The frightening thing was that if they did come for him, he wouldn't be able to recognize them. No matter how glad he was that the memories of what had been done to him were so vague - more a feeling, a nightmare than substantial images even though the scars on his body told their own tale - it also made him more vulnerable, more than he already was.
He looked to his right, to what was standing next to his bed and shivered.
No running away. If they ever found him again there wasn't much he could do to safe himself. The truth he had been trying to deny all those long months in the hospital and now in rehab was standing right there.
A noise by the entrance made him look up. Lydia, his daytime nurse, came into the room, smiling at him.
"Hello, Kevin. Ready to get out of bed?"
No, he thought angrily, but the months of his life, the only months he could remember, had taught him protesting didn't do him any good. It hadn't at the hospital, when they had painstakingly put his broken body back together. It hadn't when one of the nurses had recited names at him until he had reacted slightly to Kevin, so they had settled on that one as his name whether he wanted it or not. And it didn't here, at the Rehabilitation Center just outside of the hospital, at the other side of a nice, green park they insisted he had to go and sit on display in for at least an hour every rotten, miserable day.
God, he hated it here! He hated the inadequate, broken body he had woken up in and he hated that effectively all he remembered was pain. The pain of all those months in the hospital, the pain of his nightmares and now the pain they put him through to teach him things he didn't want to learn, ever. He just wanted to crawl away somewhere and... and what? Die?
At least then it would be over....
Lydia pulled back the blankets, which only underscored the fact that you had no privacy whatsoever in this place, at least not when you were a patient. This time she didn't come with the bedpan, thank God.
"Brady says you should be able to go to the bathroom by now."
"Oh, really? Brady and his two good legs told you that?" he asked sarcastically. Actually, this was about the first thing that was fine by him since he had woken up all helpless about nine months ago. He hated having all his personal needs seen to by others, their hands touching him everywhere.
He grabbed for the wheelchair, pulled it closer and did as he was taught. He put his hand to the farthest arm rest, pushed himself up with the other hand still on the bed and hoisted himself into the damn thing fast, before he keeled over. He was sweating profusely and gasping before he was even in it.
He closed his eyes and leaned against the back of the chair, already exhausted. God, that hurt! It still all hurt so much, inside and out.... Screw Brady and his claims things would get better if he practiced more. Practiced more for what? For this... life? This wasn't a life.
A hand grabbed his shoulder and immediately he lashed out in panic.
"Sorry, sorry, I forgot! Kevin, Kevin, look at me!"
The name always cut through the fear, because he was very sure he had never been called Kevin before. Not by them anyway, by the ones responsible for him being here. He looked up at the nurse and sighed when he saw her stricken face.
"I just wanted to tell you I have your pain medication. Here."
He looked at the two tiny pills in the nurse's hand and almost slapped them away. This wasn't what he needed and they knew it, damn it. He needed something stronger, not these weak, little pills. But they refused to give it to him any longer; said it was habit forming.
Habit forming! Because he wanted to forget what his life was like for a few moments? Wanted to be free of the pain now and then, even if only for a little while? So what if the stronger pain medication was habit forming, it was the one thing that had kept things bearable and they had taken it away. Instead he was giving these stupid pills and they had set a psychiatrist on him, who wanted him to talk and take some stuff he claimed would help with his depression and anxiety. The only effect he ever noticed, was that it could keep his thoughts from spinning out of control. Most of the time.
In the end he didn't slap the small, white pills away. He knew it was all he was going to get and they were better than nothing at all. He would need them, because he would be wheeled to that damn training room again.
The pain relief wasn't immediate, another thing he hated about this stuff. The Demerol he had received after the morphine shots had been stopped, at least had given him an immediate rush. Not these things. And without something dulling the pain he couldn't really handle wheeling himself to the bathroom, so Lydia ended up pushing him there. She left him to pull himself on the toilet bowl to do his thing... and then he completely lost it, hanging onto the handrails for dear life, trying very hard not to fall. Trying very hard not to scream....
He didn't look at Brady when the bastard stepped inside to help him, humiliating him further. "You train, you can do this yourself in the near future," the big, black physiotherapist said softly, while he helped him back in the chair. "Come on, I'll help you get dressed as well. As soon as you have enough upper body strength you won't need any help with that either. Then I can show you how to do things on your own and I assure you, you'll be able to do a lot."
"Sure. Like taking a long hike in the mountains."
"Yeah, you could. Just have to be careful which paths you choose."
He stared at the man. "That's rich," he finally said.
"It's the truth and I intend to prove it to you."
When he was dressed, Brady wheeled him to the gym where he was placed between the parallel bars once again. There was nothing he could do when Brady put his feet in holders hanging from the bars, effectively trapping him.
Brady knelt in front of him. "I've told you a million times how to do this exercise. Try to at least push yourself up once today, all right?" When he didn't move, Brady stood up. "Why don't you even make an attempt?"
He looked away, not telling Brady what was in his mind. That he didn't try anymore because it hurt, hurt like hell. And he was so fucking tired of hurting. All the life he remembered consisted of hurting and he wanted it to stop, just stop.
But no, they had to stop his medication, only because he had taken some extra pills out of the closet when he found it unlocked.
"Don't think I don't know you stopped trying right after they took you off the Demerol and put you on Ibuprofen. God, man, can't you see you were getting addicted? If they hadn't done something, the first thing you would do once you left the Rehabilitation Center is buy more and more of that stuff!"
The self-righteous, pompous bastard!
"Only I don't have any money to buy it with, do I?" he hissed. "Not even one cent! Like I don't have a name, a life, or even my legs. I have nothing."
"You survived, man."
"For what? What did I survive for?" He was yelling now, making everyone in the big gym room turn and stare at him. Damn. He ducked his head so he wouldn't have to see the other patients staring at him, and tried not to cry. Jesus, he really made a spectacle of himself this time.
"I'm just tired of being in pain," he whispered.
"Oh, shit." Brady knelt before him again, so their eyes were on the same level. "Kevin, will you please believe me? Please! Your body has healed and if you would only train it that pain would go. I know it hurts right now, how can it not when your muscles haven't done anything for months on end? It's taken so long for you to heal, especially since you had to fight off infections and pneumonia as well. But damn it, you survived it all. You survived not only being dragged down who knows how many creeks and mountain brooks before ending up in the little lake in our valley; you also survived every damn complication thrown your way. I've seen you, seen all your wounds when I was asked to help train whatever muscles could be trained beneath the mess you were." Brady's big, black hand gently took hold of his arm and lifted it up. Then he pushed back the shirtsleeve, to uncover some of the many marks his body was wearing. One finger lingered above a burn mark, making him cringe in anticipation even though the wound was now, finally healed. Brady didn't touch it though.
"You survived everything those bastards did to you. You survived being dropped somewhere in a river to make you disappear. And then, when that pneumonia hit you so hard and a lot of us were sure you were gonna die, you survived again. I think that shows something. But now, now when your body is finally healed, you seem to give up."
Healed, what a joke.
"Now I finally see what I've survived for." He knew he sounded bitter, but he didn't care.
Brady stood up. "I think it's time you met my brother."
"Alexis wants to be the most important person in your life and if you let her, she's going to control every move you make."
" This may come as a shock to you, Carly, but I control my own life."
" I know how badly you wanted to find your mother, and so does Alexis. She's going to take advantage of that. You got to protect yourself, okay?"
" I'm fired?"
" Oh, come on, Brooke."
" No, Ridge, my sister is fired and it is not debatable. Not after the tawdry sex show she put on in front of the press and most of our loyal buyers."
" Abdominal pain, possible ischemic bowel, just went to C.T. and needs a surgical consult."
" Got those x-rays back from Mr. Wyatt."
" Oh, good. Hey, Mark, could you finish up with Luka, please?"
" Sure. What's left?"
" Exam Two, Mr. Kechevsky, rule out M.I. and if somebody could call me with the enzyme results I would like the follow-up."
"Hey, get away from him!"
"Shoot, you have to shoot!"
The door opened, but he kept his eyes on the TV screen.
"Go away, Brady."
"No can do. I missed you in the garden today."
"Yeah, well, I've decided not to play along."
Brady snorted. "That was obvious. I've never seen Leroy this angry and he's been a nurse here for a long time now."
"He was trying to put me in that damn chair against my will."
"Come on, it's the only time you get outside. Other than the training sessions you just lay here, on your bed, zapping through every channel on that stupid TV."
He bit back the sharp retort he wanted to make and instead said, "Just trying to find a decent movie."
"It's not even midday yet, there isn't a decent movie on." Brady pointed to the remote. "Give me that."
"No! Leave me alone! Just leave me the hell alone!"
Brady shook his head and smiled at him, a sad smile that didn't bring the usual twinkle to his eyes. "I can't do that. You need to be able to help yourself and until you can I'm gonna stay on your case."
"Help myself for what? So I can be put in some State Home? Far away from everything and everyone, where I won't be a bother?"
He finally looked at Brady, who stared at him with something like shock on his face.
"I heard them," he said softly, "discussing my 'case'. What did you expect, Brady? I don't know who I am, where I come from, where I lived. It means I have nowhere to go and I can't stay here indefinitely." He laughed mirthlessly. "And in a wheelchair, what can I do? What can I fucking do to make something of this life, this totally new life I find myself stuck in?"
Brady stepped closer and held out his hand to the remote control. "All the more reason not to just lay here, man. I know you've fought a damn hard battle to just survive and should be entitled to some rest, but if you don't want to end up in a Home for the rest of your life, you really need to be able to take care of yourself."
"Except I'll never walk again, so how can I ever do that?"
Brady smiled. "You'll see. My brother's coming tomorrow."
He changed channels again.
The next day he was lying on his stomach on the thick mat in the gym, feeling utterly stupid.
"Put your elbows on the mat," Brady told him.
He did, not feeling any better, only more foolish. Learning to roll from his stomach to his back, like he was some giant baby....
A memory flashed up, of the days he started to heal and had to learn everything again, even something as simple as grasping a spoon. He still remembered the pride he had felt when he had finally managed to bring it to his mouth all by himself, the rush when he realized he would be able to eat without help, even if it was only a thin kind of broth. But when he had looked up there had been no one to share that pride with, no one at all. Only the nurse and she wasn't looking, she had just turned to pick something up.
It had been a very sobering experience, to glance up triumphantly and to realize he was utterly alone. Not alone for just that one moment, but really all alone in the world. That had been before he'd realized he would never walk again, a crushing blow he hadn't been able to share with anyone either. There had been no one to rage at or cry with when the doctors had left his side, no one to take his hand and tell him things would be all right, which would've been nice even if it was a lie.
When you don't remember anyone, you don't have anyone. At least, he didn't. In all the long months he had been here, first in the hospital and then in the Rehabilitation Center, no one had walked through the door to claim him as family or a friend. No one at all.
And the police hadn't been much help either. The young officer who ran the Sheriff's Station in this small mountain town had come by to discuss his memory loss a few times. He had said he had tried all the official channels to find out who he was and had finally asked him permission to use the media, maybe get his picture on national television?
His scared reaction had put an end to that notion, luckily. Better to be alone than be found by whoever was still out there. He'd rather have them believe they succeeded in killing him.
"All right, push yourself to the side with one elbow, than the hand... that's it."
He did it, but only because lying on his back was infinitely better than on his stomach. He could at least see the room. He felt like an idiot practicing something this easy, but here he was.
"Now, again, on your elbows."
He did that too.
"And now push yourself up until you support yourself on your hands, then sit."
He tried, but when everything started to shake, he just let himself fall back again and put an arm over his eyes.
"Go to hell."
Laughter erupted beside him. "That didn't look like much," a merry voice called out. Furious he took away his arm, ready to rip into whomever was cruel enough to mock him, but what he saw stopped him. A young man, a very young man was sitting next to the mat in a wheelchair. The thin, emaciated legs told him immediately it wasn't for show or temporary. Dark brown eyes under a massive load of dreadlocks were staring at him in obvious amusement.
"Seems you finally have someone who can out-stubborn you, bro."
"I'm not convinced of that yet, imp," Brady smiled. "Kevin, meet my little brother, Andy."
He nodded reluctantly. Andy wheeled closer to him and leaned frighteningly far forward in his chair to be able to offer his hand. He looked at it for a moment, before taking it.
"Pleased to meet you," Andy grinned, then turned to his brother. "So, Mark, you ready to be beaten yet?"
"Don't you be so sure, I've been practicing."
"We'll soon see 'bout that!"
"First I've got to help Kevin back in his chair."
"That rotten thing over there? You still using that piece of shit? Man, it's from the Stone Ages."
"Maybe, but it's a very stable chair and it helps the patients build up some muscle, before they step into those fast monstrosities like you use. I see you got a new one. Again."
"Uh huh... ain't it a beauty?" Andy spun the chair around, grinning all the while. "Come on, let's go."
"Hey, hey, hey! Told you, I can't leave my patient on the floor here."
"Oh, sorry." Andy looked apologetically at him, where he was still laying flat on his back on the mat. "Guess you just started this rehab thing, didn't you?"
Brady grabbing him under his arms prevented him from having to answer, which was probably a good thing. He felt the big, strong hands lock behind his back and then the pull upwards. His shirt came up when Brady's arms slid higher and he heard Andy gasp.
"Jesus, what's that?"
"Scars," Brady said shortly, placing him in his chair.
"That's...." The youth hastily swallowed whatever he had wanted to say and his dark skin suddenly looked flushed.
Was the kid blushing?
"You're... you're the guy they found in the lake about ten months ago, ain't you? Wow, you were the talk of Ellingwood." The impish grin was back. "'Course they don't have a lot to talk about here in this half dead mountain town."
"Half dead? Why, you...!" Brady tried to cuff his brother, who twisted away just in time, chair and all. Then he wheeled backwards fast, until he was at a safe distance, laughing out loud all the time.
"You eat smog for breakfast," Brady yelled after him, "while we enjoy the fresh mountain air and hear the birds sing!"
"Smog in 'Frisco? Come on! And when was the last time you saw a decent play in that rundown theatre over on Main Street, eh?"
"Well, you don't have our mountains, ain't nothing more beautiful."
"We got the ocean...."
"Oh, come on! Admit you miss the mountains."
Andy grinned. "You know I do, bro. Why'd you think I come home so often, sure ain't your cooking. Come on, enough talk, let's shoot some hoops."
There was that incredibly fast spin again and Andy was heading for the door at a breakneck speed.
"Damn, Andy, slow down. We got patients here."
"Sorry." Another fast spin and Andy was facing them, rolling easily backwards. "I mean it, bro. I'll be careful. Hey, Kevin coming too?"
"No," he said, but Brady was louder with his, "Yep. Time he saw I've got a real celeb in my family."
"Celeb, sure. As if anyone knows anything about wheelchair basketball or that we were second in the Gold Cup this year." Andy grinned happily. "Sure made up for that disastrous Paralympics result. And I got to see Amsterdam, yeah! But who cares?"
"People should, it's a great sport to watch."
"It's even more fun to play it, bro. So what you're standing there for?"
When they exited the Rehabilitation Center through the front door, he got worried. "Brady," he hissed, "what're you doing?"
"Taking you to watch something."
"Stop it, take me back inside!"
All the answer he got was his jacket thrown into his lap. Then they were already on the sidewalk along a busy road, filled with staring people. Off course they would be staring. He dropped his eyes to his feet to avoid seeing it, silently fuming. But there was nothing he could do to stop Brady taking him wherever he wanted to. He was no more than a prisoner in this fucking chair.
At least a lot of the stares were for Brady's brother, not just him.
When some people stepped up to Andy to ask for an autograph, he finally realized the stares weren't all because of the wheelchairs.
"I thought he said no one watches wheelchair basketball?"
"Not many do, except in this town off course. But he's also one of the anchor men for Sports World, the sports program from K-SF."
That left him speechless. Andy had a job with the networks? On television? Instead of his feet he now furtively watched the young man, who had just signed his autograph for two giggling young girls, laughing and joking with them.
"There's my car," Andy called out very soon after that. He lifted the two small wheels at the front of his chair and went straight off the sidewalk onto the parking lot they had reached. Once there he raced to red car, not big, but very flashy. From the trunk he lifted a basketball, threw it up high, slammed the trunk closed and wheeled backwards to catch the ball with one hand.
"Damn it, Andy. Not on the street!"
"Ain't the street," Andy laughed, but he put the ball in his lap. Then he raced to the left where some shouting could be heard.
When Brady pushed his chair off the pavement to follow, however gently, the slight bump sent a flash of pain all through his back and upwards. He gasped.
"I got your Ibuprofen with me."
"That's... that's all right. Just no more bumps, please."
"Damn it, Kevin, you really have to start strengthening yourself! Then it won't hurt anymore. Don't you want to stop hurting?"
"That's low," he said softly.
"I know. It's just so frustrating that all you want to do is hide." Brady cut off the lecture, stating simply, "We're there."
They had entered a public basketball court, big enough to play a real game. Andy was already there, talking animatedly with some youths standing around him. He was gesturing with one hand, while the other was holding up the ball, spinning it around.
Brady placed his chair in the middle of one of the longer sides, next to a bench and put the brakes on. "Seems like it might be a game with more than two players," he said, looking at his younger brother with affection. "I think he's already sweet-talked them into it."
"And you want me to just sit here and watch?"
Brady took off his sweater and threw it beside him on the bench. "You get cold, feel free to put that on." Then he was gone to where Andy was still talking. There were greetings and pretty soon two small teams were formed.
He had been all set to be bored and cold and bored some more, but what he saw was a revelation. Andy moved around the other players with a beauty and grace that left him breathless at times. Man, how did he do that sudden, sharp turn? How come he didn't fall sideways when he leaned that far out to catch the ball? How could he be so fast? Damn, he seemed to fly over the court. And the way he moved left - right - left again, half circle, full circle, ducking when necessary and managing to give all those able bodied, athletic looking teens the slip... it was a wonder to behold.
He had no idea which team won. He didn't care. All he saw was Andy.
Finally the game ended and he watched the two brothers coming toward him, talking and laughing. Andy was watching his brother and not the pavement in front of him, like any young man would. Except Andy had to look up, way up.
"Hey, Kevin, how'd you like the game?" Brady called. Andy grinned at him and accelerated, only stopping at the last minute right in front of him, making him flinch backwards involuntarily. Damn, he had been sure for a second that Andy would bump right into him.
"Some game, huh?" the young man asked.
"Yeah." He took a deep breath, then just plunged in and said it. "You're really good with that chair."
The grin broadened. "And don't I know it!"
"How'd you do all those moves? Is it the chair?" he asked curiously.
"Nah, not the chair, although that helps. You should see my sports chair, 'specially suited for basketball. But you could do it too, even with the heavy monstrosity you're sitting in."
"Don't," he said softly.
"Don't what? You think I don't mean it? I do. I know you gotta work for it, not like me, I was fit when I started using my first chair." He indicated his legs. "Polio when I was still a little kid. My legs ain't entirely without strength and for the longest time I tried to walk with leg braces. I tell you, that first chair I finally got into was instant freedom for me."
He could only stare at the young man in front of him, who was smiling earnestly.
"It was, really. Pure freedom. With a chair I can do everything my bro can do. Fuck him, I can do even more, can't I, bro?"
"Sure... but you're still a worthless mountain climber," Brady grinned. He went behind his chair and started pushing, while Andy spun his own wheels and rode beside them, needing no one.
Needing no one at all....
"Well, you can't dive," he was telling Brady.
"Who would even want to dive? Yuk, breathing canned air while tons of water tries to crush you. Nope, not me. But I sure would win a swimming contest between us."
"Yeah, while I win everything else." And with a whoop Andy raced ahead, tossing and catching the ball from time to time. He was first at the parking lot and had already put the ball in the trunk when they got there. He rode up to the driver's side and opened the door.
"He's really gonna drive?"
"Yeah, course he is," Brady told him. "Hand gear, hand brakes, heck, it's all hand controlled. Very efficient car. And fast!"
Andy pushed himself from his wheelchair in the driver's seat in one fluent motion. Then he reached out, folded his chair deftly and lifted the resulting package over himself into the place of the passenger's seat.
"Pleased to've met you, Kevin. See you at the house, Mark. And I'll cook, I want something decent to eat," he yelled before slamming the door shut.
Brady waited until they had seen Andy drive away before pushing him back to the Rehabilitation Center. As they headed back, the physiotherapist softly said, "See? My little brother can do anything I can do."
Maybe it was an exaggeration, but Andy sure had seemed in control of his own life.
All the way back to the Rehab Center it kept playing through his head, how Andy had seemed so at ease in his chair and how he hadn't needed any help, not once. But that wasn't the only thing he couldn't shake off.
Andy had given all the indication of being a person who enjoyed life tremendously.
Was that even possible without legs?
Was it truly possible?
When they were back at the center, Brady started to push him in the direction of his room. He stopped him.
"Gym?" he asked softly. A happy laugh answered him.
"Gym it is."
The rundown hotel room wasn't exactly a place Vin liked to come home to at the end of a long day, but it was all he could afford. His money was running out.
He closed the door on the hallway with its stained carpet and peeled paint and dumped the Chinese carry out on the small, tarnished Formica table standing in one corner. Hastily he threw open the window as wide as it would go, the soft evening breeze ruffling his hair and chasing away some of the staleness, the city noise immediately assaulting his ears. With a sigh he turned, leaning against the window sill, his eyes going to the two cartons of food.
He had to eat, that's why he'd bought the stuff in the first place, but even the thought made him nauseous. Hell, he'd been feeling nauseous ever since his talk with the last of his contacts from his bounty hunting days, the one that had taken him two weeks to track down. And then the bastard hadn't been able to help him.
None of his old contacts had been able to help, to shed some light on Chris' disappearance. None of them had heard anything, no matter how deeply they were rooted in the world of theft, murder and all other things best done in the dark of night.
He didn't know what to do anymore, where to go next. None of his ideas had paid off, like nothing had panned out while he had still been with the ATF, with his friends.
He was out of options... completely and totally out of options.
With a roar of anger he swept his arm over the rickety table, sending the food to the ground. Next he found himself pacing the room, hands balled to fists at his sides while he fought the raging grief and anger that threatened to spill out.
The pacing didn't help. Neither did pounding the wall with his fist. At least the pain made him focus on the here and now again, enough to know he had better do something, or he would completely lose it. Angrily wiping his eyes with one hand he grabbed the smallest of his duffle bags and upended it, dumping out his running shoes and sweats. It took only a few minutes to change, even less to pound down the stairs and leave the hotel.
He didn't care he was running through dark, smelly alleys or dodging people on the pavement along busy streets. In his mind he was back on the track behind Chris' ranch where they had loved to run, competing to see who was fastest.
Sometimes he had teased Chris about being older, but damn, the man was in a condition many a twenty year old would envy and he could run! He remembered the first time he stayed the night at the ranch and had seen the other man put on his running shoes early next morning. Larabee had grinned at him with a challenge clear in his eyes, so he had grinned back an answering challenge and had hurried to his jeep to get his own running shoes.
Running with Chris had been a revelation and he had come to the ranch early mornings more than once, even during the week, just for the joy of repeating the experience. Never before had he met someone as devoted to running all out as he himself was. Running was always exhilarating, but even more so with someone by your side who enjoyed it as much as you did.
Ignoring the angry yells and dirty looks Vin accelerated. He wasn't running to remember, damn it, he was running to forget. To forget what a stupid fiasco this all was. Almost two months he had been searching now, ever since he had left the ATF. He had exhausted every contact he had ever made in his life as a bounty hunter and even before, but to no avail. It had yielded him nothing, nothing at all.
Ten more days and then it would be a year since Chris' disappearance, a whole fucking, empty year.
His body started to protest, muscles becoming heavy, a stitch in his side telling him he was overdoing it after having neglected his condition for too long and he knew he had to go back to the grubby little hotel. It was time to start thinking about his next step.
His resolve firm again to not give up, to never give up, he found the peace of mind to do some cooling down stretches on an almost empty parking lot, before jogging the last stretch back to the hotel in a calm, muscles relaxing trot. When he entered his room, he was jolted out of his somber thoughts by the aggravating blare of his cell phone. He had never turned it in when he left the ATF, he wouldn't have parted with it for all the money in the world. This was the number Chris knew by heart, the number he would call when he was able to and Vin aimed to hang on to it for as long as he could. JD had somehow managed to keep his phone on the 'active' list and he would continue to use all his computer and hacking skills to keep the number from being disconnected.
As always the ringing made Vin's heart jump and made him grasp for it quickly. The number display showed him it was JD. With a sigh at his own damn stupidity, he threw the phone on the bed without answering, letting it ring. He peeled off his sweaty running clothes, tossing them carelessly in a heap on the floor and disappeared into the one thing decent at this hotel; a shower that gave a hot, fierce jet of water. It was just perfect to pummel his overtired muscles and give them some relief.
When he finally exited the shower it was over half an hour later. He grabbed one of the plastic cups the hotel provided, filled it with water and settled on the bed, not even glancing at the Chinese food still on the floor in its cartons. He picked up the phone and stared at it.
No, he couldn't do it, not tonight, not after his last hope had died on him. He couldn't cope with JD, his stories and even worse, his questions about Vin's none existent progress. With a sigh he placed the phone on the small bedside table, grabbing his leather jacket before leaning back in the pillows. He took a piece of paper out of the inner pocket and carefully unfolded it. It was a magazine article he had been carrying around for quite some time now. He didn't need to read it, he knew what it said by heart.
'Missing Person's Unit Elite changes the odds. More people found since this unit started its important work'.
He already knew they didn't work old cases. Ezra had tried to get them involved the moment Vin had found the article, back then, when they were working at the ATF under Bryce. Vin still felt a deep surge of anger about the fact that this Unit hadn't been mobilized immediately after Chris had disappeared. The Unit was still too unknown and therefore mostly operating in and around New York where it had its base, despite the fact that it had been set up to work nationwide.
What was of interest to Vin though, was the fact that they had a very high success rate.
Carefully he tucked the article back into the inner pocket of his leather jacket, threw the jacket to the chair on the other side of the bedside table and turned off the lights.
After all the running he had done, he might even be able to sleep. He better, he would have a long day on the road tomorrow. It was time to leave Texas.
It was time to leave his unsuccessful hunting behind and try for a different approach.
Morning light was seeping through the crack between the curtains, falling across his eyes. That wasn't what had woken him up, though, the abrupt entrance of his doctor had.
She removed his blankets before he could mumble a good morning back at her awfully cheerful greeting. Her hands immediately went for the buttons of his pajama shirt and deftly opened it. Then those hands were all over him. He turned his head away, pretending he wasn't there. His pajama bottoms were pushed down next and he closed his eyes. At least when she checked his legs he didn't feel her anymore and with his eyes closed he could even pretend she wasn't there, examining him.
Off course there was no pretending when she made him breathe in deeply and huff the air out fast, cold metal on his chest to listen to it all. Or when she started asking about what he felt when she did certain things, or if he felt anything at all.
That was the worst question of all.
Finally it was over and he moved quickly to close the buttons of his pajama shirt himself. Damn, the last two months he had been training his ass off and still his doctor came poking and prodding. When would he finally be declared fit enough, so these examinations could stop? He closed the last button and looked at the soft green and yellow cotton, doubting he would ever have picked out something in these colors himself. Suddenly he wondered where it came from, like his clothes. He hadn't thought about it before, but nothing here in the Rehabilitation Center was standard hospital issue, probably to make them feel less like patients. After all, this place tried to teach them so that they could go and live their own lives again.
The other patients wore things they had gotten from their families, from home, but where did his stuff come from?
"Annabelle, did you buy me my clothes?" he asked his doctor.
"Hmmm?" She looked up from the chart she was busy writing on. "Your clothes? Oh, no, the hospital did. Most was picked out by Lydia." She grinned and nodded at the shirt with wild black and white print waiting for him. "Maybe next time you better go with her and keep her in check. Make sure she buys things you like."
"How the hell am I supposed to know what I like?" he asked bitterly.
She frowned. "Just look at the things hanging in the shop and go for what appeals to you, what's so difficult about that? I know there are no reference points from your past for you to fall back on, but there's nothing wrong with going with your feelings of the moment." She smiled. "Like that earring you're wearing, you must like it or why else would you still have it in?"
He fingered the small cross dangling from his right ear a bit self consciously and then stroked the small beard he was sporting to cover some scars on his chin. He had been told they would fade like most of his other scars, but for the time being he would keep the beard.
Did he like the earring? Kate, the youngest nurse around, had brought it to him after she had discovered that his ear was pierced. He had put it in, hoping it would trigger something inside when he saw himself with it in the mirror, but there had been nothing. Nothing at all. It was still the face of a stranger staring back at him. He had left the damn thing in because Kate was all excited about it, but did he like it?
"I must've worn one," he said softly.
"So? I was all for you trying on an earring to see if it triggered a memory, but why would you keep it in if you don't like it?"
"Who says I don't like it?" he asked defensively. Truth be told, he didn't, but he wasn't ready to give something up that had been a part of him before he lost his memories, the piercing being a dead give away. Still, he had been relieved there weren't more piercings on his body.
A heavy knock on the door announced Brady. "Doctor Richards, you still here? How's my favorite patient doing?"
He snorted. "Favorite, sure. Don't lie, Brady."
"He's doing fine, Mark. And he has finally developed some muscles. She put a hand on his arm and squeezed softly. "They're starting to get strong too."
"Hey!" he yelped indignantly, trying to pull his arm free.
She grinned at him before she let go and turned to Brady again. "Even though he's getting stronger by the day on your program, I still don't understand why you stopped the swimming part of it. You know how good an exercise it is for muscles that have lost their strength. The warm water is also a good muscle relaxer."
Back to the pool? Oh, my God, he remembered those torturous moments in there too well, the sense of utter helplessness while he was lying in the water, Brady's hands the only thing stopping him from....Water... he was surrounded by water everywhere, getting into his nostrils, into his ears... his mouth. Making him cold, miserably cold while it was dragging him along at a breakneck speed. Throwing him around like some rag doll.
He tried to breathe, he needed to breathe, to get air in his burning lungs, but all he did was swallow water, ever more water. Then it wasn't water at all, it was a leather cord around his neck, wound tighter and tighter until he saw stars before his eyes and he thought his lungs would burst.
Shit! He frantically pushed himself up on the bed. Even talking about the damn pool brought those nightmare images back.
"Yeah, well, he hates it." Brady wasn't looking at the doctor while he talked with her, but was looking at him. He stared back in anguish. Then Brady gave him a small shake of the head and he knew the man wouldn't do it, wouldn't drag him into the water again.
"You should reconsider, Mark. Kevin, you too, if only to learn what to do if you would ever fall into water. I know it is probably hard and could trigger some unconscious memories, but, well... it might safe your life one day."
When he didn't answer, she took another look at his chart. "I see no reason, medically, to keep you here any longer, Kevin. I think it's time for us to release you, although you should still train daily. That's very important."
Release him? He looked at Brady with apprehension. They were going to release him?
"Did you know about this? Did you tell them I was fit enough?"
Brady held up his hands and grinned. "Hey, I didn't need to tell them anything. They see how you wheel through these hallways as if you own them. They've eaten the meals you cook and Lydia's getting frustrated, 'cause there's nothing she needs to do for you anymore."
"Your last medical tests show you're healthy and I can only confirm that," the doctor said. She patted his shoulder, careful though, because sudden touches still made him cringe. "You can leave as soon as arrangements are made for where you're going to stay. I want to make sure you have a place to go to. I'm not releasing you to nothing more than the streets. If you need any help with finding somewhere to go, I know a really good Home with proper training facilities."
He let himself fall down into the pillows, trying to hide his trembling. Damn, it was going to happen; what he feared. A State Home and the distinct possibility he would spend the rest of his life in it.
But what else was there?
"No need," he heard Brady say, as if from a great distance. "I know just the place for him, where he can stay until he's got his life sorted out."
"Really? Where... oh, with you? But Mark...."
What were they saying? He looked at Brady, not understanding; sure he was imagining things.
"My home's adapted, Doctor Richards, you know that. And it has enough space, even when Andy comes to visit. He can stay as long as he wants."
"He'll also need a wheelchair, Mark. How will you do that?"
Brady smiled. "Now, Doc, don't you worry. I have my connections."
"Brady... what are you doing?" he asked, suddenly very apprehensive. This sounded too good; he just knew it couldn't be true. Why would Brady do this for him? The man didn't know him at all.
"Giving you a room, so you have time to find out what you want to do with your life," Brady told him. "I had wanted to discuss it with you first, but the Doc here kind of took me by surprise."
"I'm not gonna live off your money! You can't be making much in this job."
"I'm offering you a place to stay, not pay your way through college or something."
"And a chair.... I know those things cost a fortune."
Brady smiled triumphantly. "Not to me, they don't. As I said, it's all about having the right connections. Doc, is it all right he stays another two days, until Friday? I don't think my brother can come over before then."
"Your brother? Ah!" She laughed. "Andy, with his wheelchair fetish. He bought another one?"
"Yup. Says this last one really is State of the Art."
"So, how many has he got sitting in his basement now?"
"I don't know, might be three, not counting his basketball chair. He wouldn't part with that one for anything in the world."
She shook her head before turning back toward him. "You're one lucky devil, Kevin. All of Andy's chairs are the best. He doesn't settle for less."
"He just has them sitting in his basement," Brady said. "In fact, he's the one who offered, I didn't even have to ask. Says he's got just the chair for you, one that turned out to be for someone taller, something about the deepness of the seat. As you might've noticed, Andy ain't the tall type."
"Brady, I can't...."
"Yes, you can. Now, get out of that bed, have some fun, celebrate! Friday you're leaving this place."
He hardly acknowledged their leaving, he was too stunned.
All he knew besides some nightmare images were the Hospital and the Rehabilitation Center. Now he would have to get out into the unknown.
And even more, he would have to make something of it. It was the least he could do for Brady; for what the man offered him.
"Yeah. Yeah, I hear you, Ezra. So you're gonna talk to Chris' lawyer? No way we're gonna let those bastards get Chris' ranch."
Vin stopped his walking and looked up at the big glass sliding doors in front of him, while he continued to listen to Ezra through his cell phone. He hated how he had to be in New York just when Chris' family had decided to try and confiscate Chris' ranch.
Oh hell, he hated to be in New York period. In fucking Manhattan no less. And frankly, right now, he could do without the extra worry about what was happening in Denver.
Buck had been furious when they had met on the ranch to discuss the call he'd gotten from the Larabees' lawyer. "They never had the slightest interest in Chris, those fancy uncles, nieces and nephews," he had told them. "I guess he didn't have enough income to be part of the Larabee crowd, at least not what they considered enough income or a job with high enough standing. Not that Chris ever cared, hell, he avoided seeing them even when his parents were still alive. I'll be damned if I let them get Chris' ranch. The only reason they want it, is because of the offer that's been made for it."
It had been surprisingly easy to flush Ezra out from where he had been hiding. JD had found him; finally resorting to tracking the ex undercover agent's credit cards for his many aliases. To their surprise Ezra wasn't somewhere exotic, but still in Denver. Somehow he had managed to set himself up as part of Denver's elite and, preoccupied as they all had been, they had completely missed it.
The only thing Ezra was willing to say to his fuming friends about it when they wanted to know why he had never been in contact was "Since the underworld did not yield us any information, I was of a mind to try the upper echelon of this fair city."
Vin hadn't reacted at the time. He had waited until it was only the two of them. Then he had grabbed Ezra by the lapels of his expensive suit jacket, slammed him against a wall and told him exactly what he would do to him if he ever went undercover without backup again. Ezra laughed out loud at that and asked him about his own backup during the months of his hunt for Chris through five states.
The man sure had a way of knowing everything. Probably had let JD find him, because he already knew what was going on with Chris' ranch.
Someone stepped outside through the big glass doors, looking at him suspiciously, reminding Vin of where he was and why. "Look, Ezra, I'm sorry, but I'm there. Have to go inside; don't wanna be late on my first day. Call me when you know more, all right?"
He closed his phone and looked up at the building rising above him. It was all glass and steel and only far, far above him could he finally see something that was real and pure, the blue of the sky with a few puffy white clouds sailing across it.
Oh yes, he definitely hated being in New York.
He tugged at his uncomfortable tie and pushed his hand through his short hair. His friends would fall out of their chairs if they saw him this way, especially JD. But Jack Malone, the leader of the Missing Persons Unit Elite, had been adamant after their interview, very adamant. And if a change in his looks was what it took to get a place on Malone's team, then that was what Malone would get.
He wondered if his new boss would even recognize him.
No sense in delaying the inevitable, he told himself with a sigh. This was what he wanted, wasn't it? A place on the best team there was when it came to finding missing persons. The Elite Unit itself.
So get to it, he told himself sternly. Get it over with and learn all you can, so you can get back to what really matters, the search for Chris.
Pushing his shoulders back and lifting his chin, he headed through the doors.
When he had found the proper hallway, he saw to his dismay that Jack Malone's team was already discussing a case. Malone was standing before a white board and talking to three people in front of him. On the board behind him, Vin could see a picture of a young woman and a lot of notes scribbled beside and underneath it.
Hesitantly he walked into the room and stopped just over the threshold. Malone looked up and Tanner nodded to him. His new boss held up a finger, so Vin waited, his attention riveted on what was going on.
They were discussing the disappearance of the young woman in the picture. Vin avidly took in all they said. Soon he realized they were trying to establish every move the young woman had made before her disappearance, right up to the last sighting of her. On the white board a time line could be seen of all her activities, at least of those the team had already found out about. There was a suspicious gap of one and a half hours on the last evening she had been seen.
This was what he was here for, to watch and learn. Almost reluctantly he took his eyes off the white board, especially the time line on it when Malone turned away from his team and walked toward him.
"All right," Malone told the others in the room, "as you all know, we have a new member of the team joining us today, Vin Tanner. Let's make sure we give him the frosty welcome that all rookies deserve."
Vin had to smile at the comment. He had liked Malone from the start. He had also been damn grateful the man wasn't anything like Chris Larabee. His looks were totally different, for starters. Where Chris had been long and lean, with a shock of blond hair falling over his eyes if he wasn't careful, Jack Malone was shorter, kind of stocky, with dark eyes and short, dark hair neatly combed backwards, except right now for some spikes standing straight up at the front. Where Chris had been almost frighteningly intimidating, Vin had thought there was something almost soothing about Jack Malone during the interview they had had. Something very friendly, nice even and one would never accuse Chris Larabee of being nice. But seeing Malone stand before the white board, trying to get every angle on the case he and his team were working on, Vin did see a similarity with Chris after all. It was in the complete, intense focus both had on the job at hand.
Suddenly he was very sure that, like Chris, this was a man who didn't compromise easily, at least not when it came to the job.
His thoughts were interrupted when Jack gestured to the people in the room with him. First he indicated a short, black woman with thick hair hanging to her shoulders and a tired expression on her long oval face. "This is Vivian Johnson." Next he waved at a slender and handsome young woman with long, straight blond hair. "Samantha Spade." And lastly he nodded to a dark haired young man who was probably somewhere around Vin's own age and who was sporting a grin bordering on the mischievous. "Danny Taylor."
Vin nodded politely, although he didn't get much response. When Malone turned and left the office without a word, he suppressed a sigh and followed immediately. Behind him he could hear the start of a muted conversation.
"Two years working as a sniper and he gets this assignment?" he heard the man, Danny, ask.
"Doesn't hurt to have Orin Travis as your supporter," one of the women answered.
Oh, hell! Hastily he caught up with Malone, who was just entering the stairwell. Not that it mattered what the others thought of him. He wasn't here to make friends.
"I was surprised when Orin called me about you," Malone said while he started down the stairs.
Vin looked at the man. During the interview he hadn't felt any resentment coming from him about Travis' interference, but maybe he had been wrong. "Don't worry; he'll stay out of it from now on. I don't want any preferential treatment."
"Good, because you're not getting any." The man looked sharply at Vin, with eyes that didn't seem to miss much. Shit, another thing he had in common with Chris. "The only reason I agreed to this, was because of your exceptional record as a bounty hunter. You were very good at tracking people, weren't you?"
Except when it mattered the most, Vin thought bitterly. He decided to shift the conversation to the case, which was much safer ground. "So, where do we start with finding this young woman?"
"Right now, we don't know if she's been kidnapped or murdered, or killed herself or ran off to Rio with a dermatologist. We've got to work from the inside out. Once we find out who she is, odds are we'll find out where she is."
Malone's dark eyes bored into Vin's. "In most cases, after 48 hours, they're gone."
Vin paused, letting Malone exit the stairwell ahead of him. He had felt a chill run up his spine when he heard Malone's assessment of the case. It was too hauntingly familiar. But what had stopped him cold were Malone's last words, words he hadn't wanted to hear at all.
Chris couldn't be gone, he refused to accept that. He would refuse to accept it until he found proof. And the only proof he would accept would be Chris' body.
One way or another, he would find his friend, no matter how long it would take.
"Beautiful, ain't they?" Brady asked from behind him. He looked around at the man who had given him a place and nodded, before turning his attention back to the mountains in front of them.
They were breathtaking and ever since the first morning he woke up in the room he now occupied on the ground floor of Brady's house, he had taken his coffee and come out here, in the backyard, to watch them while the sun rose behind them. From the start something had felt wrong about that. Watching them he always, for some reason, expected the sun to come up behind him and light up the peaks from there, not glide up in front of him. It probably meant he came from the other side of the mountains, but where did that leave him? It could also mean he came from somewhere in the middle of the mountains, with his backyard situated towards the east.
Or maybe he only knew the mountains from holidays. Or his youth.
It wasn't just the beauty of the spectacular view that made him come out here, though. The first time he had sat here in his chair, looking at them, for some reason they had conjured up an image. The image of a young man with long hair standing in front of very similar mountains, leaning on a post, with one hand tucked inside the leather jacket he was wearing. It was an image that confused him, a very peaceful one when nothing else of the little he knew about his existence was peaceful at all. It made him believe the young man didn't have anything to do with what had happened to him.
If he existed at all.
Unsure about its meaning he hadn't told anyone about it, not even Brady and certainly not that shrink he had refused to see again after the last useless talk.
"I've got the day off. Wanted to go into town and see about some fishing equipment. Need a new rod. You wanna come?"
This time he swiveled his chair to look at Brady. "All the way into Ellingwood?" he asked, trying to hide his apprehension.
"Yeah. You can't keep hiding, man. You need to find a job, a place in life and you can't do that from inside a room. Better get used to people staring at you and get it over with."
He bit his lip and looked away. How did he tell Brady it wasn't that what kept him hiding? At least not since he had learned his way around in a wheelchair. He might not be as good as Andy yet, but he was getting there and he no longer felt helpless, useless and therefore ashamed. No, it was the deep fear someone might see him and recognize him. One of those who had left him like this. The fear of that had gripped him unexpectedly and hard the moment he left the safe surroundings of the Rehabilitation Clinic.
Brady knelt in front of him and grabbed the armrests. "You can't hide for the rest of your life, Kevin", he repeated. "You have to get out and face the world."
He knew the use of the name they had given him was deliberate on Brady's part. Until recently Brady had used the name as little as possible, knowing he was uncomfortable with it, but now he had been officially remade into Kevin Everblue, papers and everything. Everblue for the lake they had found him in, the lake close to this little town, where numerous creeks and mountain streams emptied in before they resumed their way together toward the Colorado River.
It was another thing he would need to learn to live with, this name.
He swallowed and nodded his assent.
"Good." Brady put a hand on his knee and looked at him earnestly. "And don't worry about strangers. If there're strangers here, we know about them. Ellingwood is that small."
He snorted. "Yeah, real small with both a hospital and a Rehabilitation Center in it."
"Those are for the entire mountain region of which Ellingwood is the main town. It only means the other communities are even smaller. Come on, we'll walk and make it into a nice day. I'll introduce you to all of my friends, who've become very curious about my new tenant."
He smiled a wry smile. "You think I'll be safer if as many people as possible know me and keep an eye out?"
"Hey, even after a year you're quite the celebrity here, the man from the lake. They just want to meet you and brag about it! Nah, you are right, they would look out for you. People still care here, Kevin, it's not like the big cities. Somehow I have the feeling you come from a big city and you've forgotten about trusting people."
He shrugged. Maybe. But he was certain he knew about mountains too. "Perhaps I don't trust people because of what happened to me."
"I guess it would be something to destroy your trust in people, even when you don't really remember it. On some level you still know what happened, don't you?"
He ignored the last remark. "Well, you, Andy and Lydia, and Annabelle too, are doing a hell of a job to restore that trust." Then he looked back at the mountains with longing. "Andy still coming this weekend?"
"Yep, that's why I want some new fishing gear. I'll hike up with you two as far as my favorite fishing spot and make camp there, while you two explore. He knows where the good paths are, the ones you can travel in a wheelchair."
"We won't be able to go very high, will we?"
Brady laughed. "Oh no, you don't! You be careful and don't let yourself be dragged into some sort of competition about who can get the highest. Andy will try and do that and you're not strong enough yet. My brother always tries to make something into a competition and he knows he's found a kindred spirit in you!" The laugh was replaced by a sad expression. "I guess it's left over from his childhood, when he was struggling with his leg braces and teased about them mercilessly."
"That must've been tough."
"It was, it was. Tough for me too, since my parents wouldn't allow me to kick the living daylights out of those boys. You know, life is strange. As soon as Andy got into a chair, he finally accepted the fact he would never walk like others. And as soon as he accepted it, the other kids accepted it too. Some of those bastards even became his best friends. Of course it helped that he could fight back a lot better from his chair. And, since he was handicapped, they always got the blame."
"I get it, I get it! Acceptance is everything!" He threw up his hands and scowled at Brady's grin. "Oh, shut up. Since you want me to wheel the whole damn trip downtown, I guess I don't have to do my exercises?"
Brady swatted at him. "Yeah, like you would wanna skip them. Get in there and start your pull ups and push ups and weight lifting and everything else, while I make breakfast. Then, after I've trained your legs, we can eat and be on our way."
Vin found it was almost spooky to see Jack Malone at work. When they talked to the boss of Maggie Cartwright, the missing young woman, Malone saw things Vin completely missed. He still blushed at the idea that the older, stiff looking man who owned the company where Maggie worked had been sizing him up. Him, Vin Tanner! After the interrogation he had been so sure the man had had a relationship with his missing employee. But Jack had immediately spotted the fact that the man's interests lay somewhere else completely. Malone had also shown an uncanny insight in analyzing Maggie Cartwright's e-mails, coming to the conclusion she had had an office affair, only not with her boss, but with one of her colleagues.
It reminded Vin of Josiah. He had seen Josiah at work as a profiler, doing his magic and now he'd seen Jack Malone do it as well. The man was good.
The man had also left him here with the boring task of watching, while some computer technician was taking a look at Maggie Cartwright's computer. Most of what had been on it was gone and Malone wanted to know why.
"She said she was having all kinds of problems with her computer," the young man behind it was telling him, pushing his glasses a bit further up his nose. "It was freezing up on her all the time, losing files, you know. Trouble with internal e-mails."
"So she asked you to reformat her entire hard drive?" Vin asked incredulously. He might not be the star JD was with computers, but he held his own and had learned some good stuff from his friend. Like finding someone's password, in this case Maggie's, so they had gotten access to amongst other things her e-mail. They discovered that everything older than two weeks had been wiped away. Malone had seemed pleased with him when he had been able to do that.
"Well," the computer technician said, "I told her I could just run a couple of systems checks, but she really wanted me to clean the whole thing out. You know, she was pretty specific about what she wanted done."
"And nothing stuck out to you as suspicious in her e-mails or files? No interoffice romance or anything like that?"
"No, nothing like that."
Vin suppressed a sigh. It was like looking for Chris all over again; trying to find the smallest thing, while having no clue whatsoever. It had been frustrating then and it was frustrating now.
He wanted to find this young woman, find her and spare her friends and family the grief he had lived with for over a year now.
He remembered something; a name that had come up in the investigation. The last person Maggie Cartwright had called before disappearing. "Oh, does the name Tom Wilkins ring a bell?"
"No. Does he work at the company?"
God, this really was maddening! He wished JD was here right now to take the damn computer apart and find whatever there was to find. He was sure the kid was way better than this tech. And he wished Josiah was here as well, pointing things out about the people who had last seen her. Or Ezra, with his clever questions, Nathan with his quiet strength, supporting them all. And Buck, charming his way past every female in this office until he had discovered everything they knew. Buck would have had no problem finding out if this woman had an interoffice relationship, he was sure of that.
Most of all he wished for Chris' silent presence beside him, the sharp eyes taking everything in and taking the young man behind the computer apart, until he spilled everything he knew without Chris having to say a single word.
He missed them, missed the team backing him up. Missed a hand laid in silence on his shoulder. Missed someone telling him, without words, that he was doing the right thing.
He squared his shoulders. No sense dwelling on it, now. Whether it was the right thing or not to join Jack Malone's Missing Person's Unit Elite, it was the only thing he had been able to think of. And he was going to see it through.
When he left the company where Maggie Cartwright worked, he took out a notebook and pencil from his pocket. One good thing about a suit, you sure had enough pockets. Hastily he scribbled down the things he had learned so far. Tonight, after work, he would call Buck and JD and see if they could do something with it back in Denver.
The one thing he wasn't going to tell them was what Malone had said about how in most cases after 48 hours the victims were gone. He just wasn't going to give any value to that statement.
The sun was shining, warming everything up and he had started to sweat, so he removed his leather jacket and placed it in the backpack hanging behind his chair. He liked that jacket a lot, the only thing from his meager possessions besides the chair that meant anything to him. It was a gift from Brady, who declared it was just the right thing to go with the earring and the beard.
Yeah, and it had nothing to do with the fact he had been staring at it longingly the first time Brady had taken him into town to shop.
It was so very similar to the one the young man was wearing in that sole peaceful image in his mind, he had stopped dead when he spotted it. But having no money, all he had been able to do was look at it.
If only he could do something for Brady in return... and for Andy too.
He sighed and rolled his shoulders.
"Is it getting too much? Did I overdo it, showing you all my favorite spots?"
"Nah, I'm good. It's a nice town, Brady."
"It is, isn't it? About time you saw more of it besides the hospital and my garden. Oh yeah, and the shopping center. We've been there twice, haven't we?"
"No need to rub it in." He squinted upwards when a shadow passed before the sun, again. "Damn, hope it won't rain."
"Doesn't matter, we're there. See, 'Pete's Outdoor World'."
He looked where Brady was pointing and nodded. No traffic. He rode off the pavement, a few turns of the wheels and he was at the other side. Putting his weight backwards, he lifted the two small front wheels up and, by giving the wheels a good, hard push he was on the sidewalk in no time. He was already at the store's door before Brady was halfway across the street.
The high threshold was no longer a barrier for him, although it was more difficult than the sidewalk, because he couldn't make speed while holding the door open. Still, his arms were powerful enough now to get him over it. Brady followed almost immediately.
The store was old. The creak of slightly warped wooden floorboards and the faint smell of kerosene and heating oil told him that. It was well-stocked; he saw every item he could think of when it came to camping or hiking in the vast wilderness all around them. Tents, tarps, sleeping bags, camp stoves, compasses, lights, outdoor clothing, hiking boots, fishing rods, lures, nets, storage boxes, binoculars, knives. Behind the counter he saw an impressive display of rifles amidst the other hunting equipment. Leaving Brady at the fishing rods, he went to the counter and gazed at the weapons.
Damn, he longed to hold one.... It sure would make him feel a lot safer.
A man and a boy of about eighteen were looking at one of the weapons, holding it in various positions. The man would show the boy, who would mimic what he had done.
"Rifle's for the boy?" he asked, curious.
"Yeah, he's going on his first hunting trip with me. Not just a tag along anymore," the man answered without looking behind him at who spoke, all his attention on the rifle.
"That's a beauty, but you might want to consider one with a synthetic stock for him. It's lighter, but tough and the weather won't affect it."
"Synthetic stock?" This time the man did look at him. When he saw who had spoken, he didn't say anything more, just stared. The boy was staring as well, shuffling his feet nervously.
He bristled at those stares but decided to ignore them, the only defense he had been able to come up with so far. Refusing to back away, he nodded to one of the rifles still in the display cabinet. "Like that one. Rigid action, simple and speedy firing pin fall and precise breeching, which makes the bolt action reliable and accurate."
The man eyed him and then the rifle with doubt. "Really? Only, it's a bit above our price range."
He shrugged. "It'll be easier on the boy, the kickback's easier, too."
The man put the rifle he was holding down on the counter and looked at the other one again. "No harm in holding it, I guess."
"I'll take it out for you." An old man he hadn't noticed stepped forward from the shadows, key in hand, and opened the glass door. "It's one of the best."
Again the man hefted it, looking it over before giving it to his son.
"Wow," the boy said. "It is lighter. But don't that mean it's not so good at shooting?"
They were both looking at him and suddenly he felt a bit self- conscious about having butted in where he didn't belong. He looked at the old man for guidance, but the wrinkled face was unreadable.
All right then. "It's not as shoulder breaking as the other one, but damned accurate. And it can fire bullets heavy enough to kill deer," he stated. "That's what you need, accuracy. That's what kills."
"Does it come with a scope?"
"Don't you want to pick out your own scope?" he asked, puzzled. "And if the boy's just starting, a red dot scope would certainly help a lot." He looked at the boy. "You ever shot anything before?"
The boy bristled at the question. "I've practiced with my Dad and I'm a good shot!"
"But you never killed a living, breathing animal before, did you? You don't want to wound it, that's cruel. You want to kill it in one clean shot. Red dot scope helps with that."
The sudden crestfallen look at the boy's face felt good. At least he had made the boy think about what he was going to do. He nodded at them and swiveled around to find Brady and forget about hunting, about shooting living creatures just for fun. Or about how he seemed to know weapons so well.
He somehow couldn't imagine being a hunter, but then, how could he know so much about rifles?
Brady was standing in a remote corner full of fishing gear, a rod in his hand. Smiling ruefully, he wheeled himself through the aisles and up to his friend. Actually, when you thought things trough, fishing was the same thing. Only fish weren't as cute as a rabbit or a deer.
"Nice one," he commented on the rod Brady was holding. Then he spotted something behind his friend and wheeled around him to pick it off the rack.
"Wow, a helium rod. Damn, you can cast with this all day long."
"You can?" Brady took it out of his hand and felt it. "That's a light rod!" When he saw the price tag, he put it back with a sigh. "Might be awesome, but I'm not gonna spend that much on a fishing rod, while basically you can fish with just a stick and some twine."
"Oh, really?" an amused voice behind them asked. When they turned, the old man was standing behind them.
"Hey, Pete," Brady greeted him. "Kevin, this is Old Pete, the store owner and one heck of a chess player. Never beat him yet. Pete, this here is Kevin. I'm here for a new fishing rod."
The man raised an amused eyebrow. "You don't say? And you?" Suddenly two attentive, grey eyes were looking at him. "Do you know as much about fishing rods as you do about rifles? Brady, what's your price limit?"
Brady gave it and Old Pete took out some rods, putting them side by side in front of the racks.
"So?" Brady asked. "You gonna tell me something about them, give me some advice?"
"Nope, I want to know what your friend thinks."
"Me?" He looked at the old man with apprehension, not understanding this game. The old man just looked back at him with keen interest and he couldn't sense any malice.
He looked at the rods, at the old man again and back to the rods. Taking them in his hands one by one, he studied them.
"This one," he said and handed it to Brady.
"Oh? Why?" Old Pete asked seriously.
"It's light. Not the lightest of these, I know, but I think it's the most sensitive in the lot. You can use it with small lines and small lures, or with a heavy line. See the drag system, Brady? And these tapers? It's a really good rod and it feels strong. You need that if you want to catch the big ones."
Brady looked at the old man. "That's what you'd recommend too?"
"For you, yes. This is a high quality rod and for someone as big and strong as you, it's perfect. You'll like it."
Brady's eyes lit up. "Great, I can't wait to try it out this weekend! I'll take it."
"Good choice." Then the old man looked at him again and raised an eyebrow. "You sure know about rifles and fishing rods."
"Yeah," he said, a bit uncertain. "More about the rifles though, I think."
He didn't answer. It was Brady who broke the silence.
"Rifles? What are you two talking about?"
"Your friend here just helped me sell a rather expensive rifle, to Duncan no less. For his son."
"Duncan? Who's always so tight with his money?"
"Yeah." The two of them shared an amused glance before Old Pete turned back to him.
"What else do you know about firearms? Hunting rifles aren't the only ones I sell."
He looked towards the counter, perplexed. They were the only ones he had seen.
"They're hidden under the counter. I sell them, but I don't have to like doing it. It's a sad world where people feel the need to arm themselves for safety's sake. Do you know handguns?"
While he was talking, Pete had walked back to the counter and now he was producing more and more handguns from a locked cabinet beneath it. He wheeled up, unable to resist. Taking up one he expertly removed the empty casing, put it back in and checked the safety.
"You handle them like a pro," Pete said with admiration.
"Guess I do." It was eerie how familiar it felt to hold a gun. He put it down and took up another one. Again he checked to see if the casing was empty, checked the safety and this time he aimed it, careful to aim it away from the other two men.
Looking up at the display case with rifles, he realized that he definitely knew firearms. He knew them very, very well.
The elation of finding something he knew was short lived though. What the hell would he be able to do with this knowledge? Become a cop or something, while in a wheelchair? Suddenly angry again about the whole situation he was in, he placed the gun back on the counter and wheeled himself hastily to the door. An elderly couple was just coming in and, thanks to them holding the door open, he was outside a lot quicker then he had gotten in.
Great, just great! Of all the things there were, he had to have knowledge of something as dubious as firearms.
"Kevin?" Brady's voice asked behind him. "Kevin, are you all right?"
He looked up into the concerned eyes of this man who had done so much for him without having to, and suddenly he was worried.
"What if I was a criminal, Brady? What if what they did to me was some pay off between gangs or something?"
"Because you know firearms? A lot of Americans know firearms."
He held Brady's gaze, trying to make the man understand. "I know everything about the weapons Old Pete showed me and when I held those guns, I knew I could hit anything I wanted with them. They felt like... like they belonged in my hand, Brady. What's that supposed to tell me?"
"I don't know and I don't care. What matters to me is who you are here, now."
"I tried to turn to drugs in the hospital! I have a lot of trouble staying away from those bottles of whiskey you've got, too."
Brady's eyebrows rose. "You haven't been drunk that many times. Not as much as I expected you to be and only when Andy and I are right there, drinking with you."
He looked away. God, he really wanted to drink himself unconscious every evening, but he couldn't, it was no way to repay Brady for what he was doing for him. It didn't change the fact he desperately wanted to hit oblivion every single day, especially before going to bed, where he knew the nightmares were waiting.
"Don't think I haven't seen you eyeing those bottles, Kevin," Brady said softly. "Tells me a lot about the kind of man you are, that you're not giving into it 'cause of me. A lot. I don't care about the knowledge of weapons showing up, I care about the character I see inside of you. I know you don't see it that way yourself, but I'm damn proud to have met you."
He stared at Brady, stunned.
Brady grinned. "While you try catching flies with your mouth, I'm gonna pay for that fantastic fishing rod and then we head on home, how 'bout that?"
"It'll be all right, Kevin, you'll see."
He stared after Brady's broad back heading back into the store, wishing he could share the man's optimism.
Morning in New York was nowhere near the same as morning in Denver. No matter that he had lived in a rundown apartment in the most insidious part of the Mile High City, the mountains had still been nearby. He could smell them on the morning air. He could see them suddenly when he turned a corner. And always he knew they were there; close, so he could escape to them when he needed to.
Here, in New York, there was nothing of nature, nothing but what was manmade and it suffocated him. He had planned to take the subway to work this morning, but when he had stared down the stairs into the unnatural cavern before his feet, he hadn't been able to walk into its gaping maw. So again he had found himself in a cab, staring at streets so full and busy it made his head spin.
Now, sitting in the office with the others of Malone's team on the second day of his new job, his head was spinning again. But this time it was because of the sudden turn Maggie Cartwright's case had taken. A ransom e-mail had been sent to her mother, complete with a picture of the young woman, all tied up and holding the New York Times of yesterday in her bound hands.
Looking at that picture, printed out and taped to the whiteboard, he felt lost in this case. It made no sense to him. As far as they all knew the young woman had left her apartment on her own to disappear into thin air. But someone had taken her, the proof was right there.
Like Chris had been taken....
No, this wasn't about Chris; it was about a young woman they had to rescue. They just had to; she looked so forlorn in that ransom picture, so lost and lonely it tore at his heart.
Who knew if Chris was somewhere looking and feeling the same... or had been....
He had to stop thinking about Chris! This was about saving Maggie Cartwright.
"Her mother got the e-mail at 4:22 this morning," Jack Malone was saying. "It's pretty straightforward. One million dollars by 5:00 p.m. That gives us less than ten hours."
He turned away from the board and walked to the conference table. "What have we got on the ransom note?"
"The e-mail was bounced all over the world," Samantha Spade told them. "Our computer tech's on it."
"All right," Malone said. "Let's talk theories."
Soon it was clear they had enough suspects. There was the man Maggie Cartwright had had an affair with at the office and who hadn't wanted to leave his wife for her. He could be covering up for murder. Then there was the man she had called right before she left her apartment and disappeared, and who was conveniently in London right now. The doorman of her apartment became a suspect as well when Vivian found evidence that he had sold drugs to Maggie. Even her father, divorced from her rich mother ages ago and in need of money, was considered someone they had to look into very carefully.
God, this was so different from his ATF work, this digging into the lives of what seemed to be decent, law abiding people. Not at all like going after what you knew were criminals to begin with.
Yes, it definitely made his head spin.
With an oath he pushed the weights up again, stretching his arms far above him. They trembled, but he managed to hold them there for all of two seconds before having to lower his arms. He had to take a couple of deep breaths before he felt ready to try again. Just when he prepared himself to push the weights up once more a shadow fell over him.
"Damn it, Kevin! What do you think you're doing?"
He looked up in Brady's angry face and shrugged. "Thought you wanted me to train hard?"
"Train hard, yeah. But you gotta be careful, idiot, you can't overdue it! Your body ain't that strong yet."
"I've been training for almost three months now; I think I can handle a little more weight."
"You really go from one extreme to the other, don't you? First you don't wanna do anything, next you try to undue all your work by overexerting yourself. Can't you just for once do what's right for your body?"
Angry he dropped the too heavy weights and grabbed the wheels of his chair. "Damn you, Brady, what do you want?"
"Just go to Old Pete and listen to what he has to say."
"What?" He stared at Brady. "What's that got to do with my training?"
Brady smirked. "Nothing, I'm sure. So, are you going to see Pete, just like he asked this morning over the phone?"
"I... I don't know. I mean, I don't really know him."
"I do, Kevin. Don't worry, he won't bite. And the store's not that far from the Rehab Center."
He sighed. It was as Brady had told him the day before, he couldn't hide himself forever. His reluctance to go back to Old Pete's store on his own made him realize that his fear to be seen by the people who had once tortured him ran deep. Despite what he now could do in his chair, he still felt vulnerable. And yes, he hated all the stares, all the pitying stares he got, there was that too. It was ridiculous, why should he care what other people thought about him? But there it was.
"All right, can we get on with your training session the way it's supposed to go?" Brady asked. "I have another patient waiting for me. The beautiful Alicia, now there's something to look forward to! I can do with a bit of that after staring at your ugly mug."
He scowled. "Have you looked in the mirror lately? I guess not, you'd scare everyone including yourself."
Brady's smile was downright smug. "Ah, but she specifically requested me. So she can't think too badly about me, now, can she?"
"Some people have odd tastes."
"Hi, Alicia. Kevin here was just talking about you."
"What? Damn, Brady!" He quickly looked behind him, but no one was there. When he turned back to glare at his friend, Brady was sporting a grin from ear to ear. Before he could say anything, the look on his friend's face became serious and a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.
Friend... why had he thought of Brady as his friend just now?
"I can go with you if you really want me to, Kevin, if you don't mind waiting for my lunch break."
He suddenly saw it in Brady's worried eyes; his willingness to help him once again. God, yes, Brady really was his friend. And come to think of it, so was Andy. Two people who for some unfathomable reason had decided to care about him.
He had to swallow heavily when it struck him like a hammer that he was no longer alone. This man had reached out to him and now he was no longer alone.
"Th... thank you," he whispered.
"You're welcome. Are you all right?"
That brought a smile to his face. "Yeah, I think I'm better than all right. Thank you, Brady."
"What? All this just because I'm going with you?" Brady looked slightly alarmed now. "I didn't know it was so important to you, Kev'. If I had, I would've offered to come along first off."
"No, that's all right. You don't need to come. You're right, I should stop hiding." Still smiling he wheeled to the next stop of the program, the table on which Brady always tested and trained his legs. His grin widened when he saw the puzzlement on his friend's face. When Brady saw him looking back, the big black man spread his arms wide.
"What just happened?" he asked dramatically.
He laughed outright. "Just you, Brady, just you happened."
There was no answer, only that puzzled look and then Brady's smile came on, big and brilliant.
"You know, Kevin, you've got a great laugh."
It was his turn to look puzzled.
"You do, really. And it's very good to finally hear it. Very, very good. Come on, let's work those legs."
Vin was mad. Four thirty and still no trace of Maggie Cartwright. And here he was, stuck in an empty office at the company she worked with, doing nothing about it.
He didn't care if Danny Taylor was pissed because he had found out the alibi of Maggie's ex-lover wasn't as watertight as Danny had proclaimed it to be. He did care his so called new colleague had run off leaving him here where he could do nothing for the young woman.
Since Vin was the one who found the hole in the alibi of Maggie's colleague and one time lover, he had been the one sent to interview the man. An interview he wasn't particularly proud of, because he had gotten nowhere with it. No confession, not even a slip of the tongue, nothing at all.
Neither had any of the others on Malone's team gotten anywhere with their interviews of the rest of the suspects. They had nothing on any of them and it was eating at Vin, because time was running out for the young woman; 5 p.m., the time the ransom money had to be delivered, was getting closer and closer.
When the ex-lover didn't crack, Vin had phoned the technician, Bartholomew Higgins, who had worked on Maggie's computer for them the day before. He ordered the young man to retrieve all of Maggie's ex-lover's e-mails. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be something to nail the man with, there had to be! Or Maggie Cartwright would be lost.
Then suddenly he and Danny had been sent to Maggie's company to talk to the computer technician face to face by Jack Malone. He still didn't know why.
When he and Danny got to Higgins' office, the technician wasn't there. A huge 'Out to lunch' sign was hanging on his door.
"Four thirty is a bit late for lunch, don't you think?" Danny had asked.
"Yeah, no kidding."
"I'm going to check this out, you wait here." Without another word Danny had walked away, leaving him standing in the office all on his own.
Damn them all for treating him like some rookie who didn't know what he was doing, all of them, except Jack Malone. If Danny Taylor couldn't handle it when he made a mistake that was his business. Right now Vin couldn't care less. All he wanted was to find Maggie.
A woman walked by and he stopped her.
"Excuse me. Do you know where Bart went for lunch?"
She smiled at him. "He usually goes home. He only lives a couple blocks away."
"Thanks. Could you give me directions there, please?"
Not bothering to call anyone from the team with an update, he walked out of the building a few minutes later. He wasn't going to wait on that information about the e-mails any longer; there had been enough time wasted already.
It wasn't hard to find Higgins' apartment following the directions he had been given. After he rang the doorbell, the computer tech stared at him from behind the small opening of the chained door.
"Hey, Bart. I'm sorry to bother you at home, man. I've got some more questions about Maggie's computer. Mind if I come in?"
"No, that's all right." Higgins opened the door and motioned for Vin to follow him inside. He preceded Vin through the hallway and into the living room, while he was explaining. "I wasn't feeling too well, so I just figured I'd come home for the day."
"Well, this shouldn't take long," Vin said, taking in the apartment. "I was just wondering about that bit sector retrieval I asked you to work on...." His eyes fell on a backpack sitting right in the middle of the living room floor. Ah hell! It was Maggie Cartwright's backpack, the one they had seen her with in pictures back at her place. And on the surveillance tape of her apartment building, leaving with it, never to be seen again after that.
God, he had been so stupid!
Pain erupted at the back of his head before he could think of anything to do and everything went black.
It had been an interesting day, to say the least.
Sitting in the garden, holding a cold beer, he listened to Brady making supper for a change, something he had taken over from the day he had started living here. It had been the least he could do to thank Brady, doing the household chores and cooking the meals.
But not today, today he had been home later than Brady.
He smiled as he watched the peaks before him glow in the light of the sun setting behind him and felt... satisfied. Hopeful even. Yes, hopeful that his life had taken a turn for the better.
The view before him matched his mood. It was breathtaking, especially after a day of constant, light rain. The clouds had broken about an hour ago and the sun had resumed its reign, but still everything had that moist, clean smell and around the peaks he could see a glowing halo.
It had been a crazy day today. He had a job. He actually had a job!
When he arrived at the store, Old Pete had told him he had been impressed with his knowledge the day before, especially when it came to firearms. He had shown him all the weapons in the store and asked if he knew enough about them to sell people the one they really needed. Or talk them out of buying one if he felt that was the better action.
Then they had looked at everything else in the store and he had discovered he knew a lot about what was in it. Enough to suggest he had at least been hiking in his former life. What he didn't know, Old Pete felt certain he would pick up easily.
"It's your firearms knowledge that's most important to me, Kevin. It's not a knowledge that's easy to come by and it's dangerous enough that I need someone I can trust with it."
"And you would trust me?" he had asked incredulously. "Why? You don't even know me." He swallowed his pride and confessed to the old man, "No one does, not even me. I've got amnesia."
Old Pete had stared at him for a few moments, not in the least surprised. So that was common knowledge as well in Ellingwood? Damn, the locals seemed to know everything about him.
He stared back, not giving an inch, until finally a smile lit up the creased features of the old man.
"I trust Brady," Pete said, "and I trust my own judgment. The job's yours if you want it."
"But... I'm in a wheelchair." He stared up at the things stored too high for him to reach.
"So? People can get those things themselves, it's knowledge they need. The most important part of this job is talking with people. That, and the sell of course. I definitely need you to sell my stuff."
He had insisted on trying it out the rest of the day, but in the end he had accepted Old Pete's offer. He found he could live with the stares and it felt good, damn good, to do something useful. He had already prevented a young couple from hiking into the mountains with foolishly inadequate equipment. He made sure they understood the dangers of hiking up there before they left the store.
What Old Pete offered him was a golden opportunity, a job close enough to go to without needing transportation. And a chance to start paying off all those damned hospital bills. He'd make sure something went to Brady as well, for rent if nothing else.
He enjoyed his beer while he listened to the banging and cursing coming from the kitchen. And for the first time since he woke up in Ellingwood's hospital, he felt like his life might be going somewhere after all.
Sitting there in the evening breeze, surrounded by the beautiful mountain peaks and staring up at the moon slowly rising in the evening sky, he realized something else.
It was the first evening here that he didn't crave the strong liquor inside Brady's bar.
Vin sighed when he entered his hotel room. For a while he had thought he could stop hunting for better accommodations; that he would be thrown off the unit tonight.
God, he had been so stupid! He'd almost gotten Maggie Cartwright killed with his actions. Luckily for them both Malone had already targeted Higgins as the one who held their missing person. His deduction had been based on the fact that the man knew Maggie a lot better than he claimed. The team had also discovered that he was leaving the country soon. Jack and Samantha had burst through the door of Higgins' apartment before anything worse could happen to him than having his head caved in with a baseball bat.
They had found Maggie still alive, tied up in the bathtub, shaking and very, very afraid. She had planned to leave her unsatisfying life and go to Nepal. It was the one place she had been truly happy during a vacation. It was something she had talked about with Higgins while the two of them were getting high. Those talks had given her the courage to finally do it. She had come to Higgins to thank him and say her goodbyes, only to find that he expected to go with her. It wasn't what she wanted; she wanted to go on her own but when she had told him so, things had gotten ugly.
He almost made it a lot worse, busting into the apartment, God, if Jack and Sam hadn't arrived when they did....
Malone had been angry about what he'd done, but he hadn't fired him on the spot either. The man had even sent Danny with him to the hospital.
Danny hadn't said much. He just made sure things went all right in the hospital and then drove him to his hotel.
It had been strange, very strange. No guys to rally around his bed, making fun of his injury and the fact he was lucky it was his head, since that was the part of him he didn't use anyway. No fire spitting blond team leader, taking said head off because he had been as stupid as a goddamn rookie. No frantic medic poking him, just to be sure he really was all right. No escort home, crashing on his sofa and drinking beer, teasing him about the fact he couldn't have any because of his pain medication.
No one at all. Just him and his morbid thoughts, feeling very much alone.
He had just decided to go to bed, the noise of the television too much for his aching head, when the phone rang. It was JD, all exited as usual.
"We've been doing what you suggested, Vin. We've been going over everything Chris did right before his disappearance. Me and Josiah have gone through all our files and put everything we found in a timeline the way you described. Man, it sure makes things clearer, doesn't it?"
"I know," he said, falling on the couch. He wasn't really up to this.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, just a headache. We found the young woman that was missing."
"Really? That's great! You cracked your first missing person's case! Wow, why aren't you out celebrating? Doesn't your new team do that?"
Vin winced when he heard the words 'your new team'. As far as he was concerned he only had one team, even though it didn't exist anymore.
"I don't know, JD. I uh... I hit my head, so I came home early." The last thing he needed was his friends being worried about him back there in Denver, where they could do nothing about it.
"Oh. Is it bad?"
"Damn it, I told you I'm all right. Now, can we get back to what you called me for?"
"Sure. Sorry." A much more subdued JD told him about the gaps they had in the timeline. "Some we think we can figure out, but the most important gap is Thursday evening, the evening before Chris disappeared. We don't know where he was then. Probably at home, but we don't know for sure. Buck remembered calling him on the ranch for something and not getting an answer. So he called Chris' cell and he says that at the time he thought it sounded like Chris was in a bar or something. But we can never be sure about that now, can we?"
"I remember. We were trying to find out where he was that evening back then as well."
"Yeah, we were, weren't we? But, well, you know, since we didn't find out then...." JD's voice trailed off. Then, more forcefully, he said, "But don't worry, Vin. We'll keep on looking. That timeline's a great idea and it definitely makes it all a lot more structured."
"Good. Thanks, JD." Disconnecting the call, Vin rubbed his head, disliking the false cheer he had heard in the young man's voice. Damn, he wished he hadn't answered the phone.
He sighed and went to the window of his hotel room to look at the lights that were New York City. A year ago he would have laughed at anyone who suggested he would wind up in this place, but here he was.
Life... it sure was unpredictable. Him in the city he had disliked with a vengeance ever since he first visited it. And Chris... who knew where Chris was and what he was doing?
Staring up at moon, he hoped that somewhere, anywhere, his friend was staring up at the same moon as well, alive and healthy.
Lost III: All That Man Allows