Big thanks to Karen, who cheered me on and kept the story moving.
The mall was crowded with bargain seekers that Saturday afternoon. JD was dodging and weaving his way toward the electronics shop. He needed a new memory card for his computer and he wanted to look into a new fan for it, to keep the parts from overheating because he tended to leave it on for long periods of time. He just managed to avoid a young mother with an umbrella stroller and bumped into someone else.
“Excuse me,” he said automatically before getting a good look at the stranger. “Jeremy? Jeremy Dotson?” he asked incredulously.
“JD! Is it really you? What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in forever!” Jeremy exclaimed.
The two young men wove their way over to a bench in the middle of the wide corridor and sat down. JD took advantage of the moment to study the man who had been one of his best friends back in Boston. Jeremy still had the mop of curly red hair that had been his trademark in high school. He was dressed casually, in Dockers and a Polo shirt, but wearing a pair of scruffy, loosely tied sneakers.
“So, what are you doing here in Denver? I looked for you a couple of months after your mom died and the landlord said you moved away,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah, I decided I needed a change,” JD replied. “I heard about a job opening out here and had to give it a shot.”
Jeremy looked around before settling his gaze on JD again, “Listen, I have to go, I’m running late. Can I call you? Maybe we can get together while I’m here.”
Confused at his friend’s sudden change of mood, JD dug into his pocket and came out with a scrap of paper. Jeremy handed him a pen and he hurriedly scrawled his cell phone number down.
“I’ll call you. It was good seeing you again,” Jeremy said as he got up from the bench and darted through the crowd to get to the exit.
A few hours later, JD cursed as his cell phone rang. He had both hands full, holding the new computer fan in position and trying to coax one of the tiny little screws into starting so he could use the screwdriver he had clenched in his teeth.
“Oh, hell,” he complained when the screw slipped from his fingers. He grabbed the phone, flipping it open as he groped for the screw. “Hello?” he mumbled.
“JD?” Jeremy asked.
Quickly dropping the screwdriver into his lap, JD responded, “Yeah, sorry, I had something in my mouth.”
“Oh, it’s Jeremy … I was wondering if you’d like to get together this evening, maybe grab a bite to eat?”
“Yeah, that sounds good. Where do you want to meet?” JD asked as he picked up the small screw and set it back in the bowl he was using for the loose pieces.
They worked out the details and JD hung up. He would have to hurry if he was going to get cleaned up. After he picked up all the trash from his purchases and stuffed it in the can in the kitchen, he headed for the shower. Buck was out for the evening with one of his lady-friends and wouldn’t be back until the next day, so JD didn’t bother calling him to tell him where he was going.
JD parked his bike and secured the helmet to the clip beneath the seat. He shrugged out of his leather jacket and stashed it in the saddlebag. Raking his fingers through his hair, he headed for the door to the small, family-run Italian restaurant. He spotted Jeremy right away and made his way over to the small booth.
Over a massive plate of spaghetti with spicy meat sauce, JD listened as Jeremy went on and on about the girl he had met. Darcy had introduced him to her family and he was traveling across the country with them. JD barely managed to get a word in, but he listened with unfeigned delight as Jeremy extolled the girl’s virtues. By the time they had finished their meals, JD had been invited to go with Jeremy to meet Darcy.
“Are you sure they won’t mind?” JD asked. “It’s after nine,” he added, looking at his watch.
“It’s fine! Come on, you have to meet her,” Jeremy begged. “I’ll drive.”
“I … uh, brought my bike. I’d rather not leave it,” JD protested.
“Okay, you can follow me, it isn’t far.”
It wasn’t far but it was in a pretty shabby neighborhood and JD almost wished he had left the bike at the restaurant. Jeremy seemed to realize his reluctance to leave the neon-green Kawasaki Ninja on the street and offered to let him put it in the garage.
With his bike safely parked and secured, JD again dragged his fingers through his hair to settle it back from his face as he followed Jeremy to the front door. The first thing he noticed was the drop cloth and scaffolding in the large, open living room.
“Jeremy!” a woman’s voice called out as they made their way toward the dining room at the back of the house. A young woman with long, blonde hair surged forward and caught hold of the young man. “And who is this you brought with you?” she enquired.
“Darcy, this is my friend JD. I couldn’t wait for him to meet everyone,” Jeremy explained. “JD, this is Darcy. And over there is Monica and Renee. And by the fridge is Thomas and Rick.”
JD smiled a greeting at each of them while wondering if he was supposed to believe they were all related. Before he could even think about it, the basement door opened and a half-dozen more twenty-something men and women joined them. More introductions were made and JD found himself with a perky little redhead pressed to his side.
“You aren’t seeing anyone seriously, are you?” she asked, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder and tucking her fingers into his back pants pocket. “I’m Joanie, by the way,” she said.
The entourage moved to the basement where an assortment of beanbag chairs lined the walls. JD was steered past a row of coolers filled with an assortment of canned sodas in ice water. Joanie pressed a can of Dr. Pepper into his hand and dragged him over to a corner. When he looked around for his friend, Jeremy dropped into the beanbag chair next to him. He pulled Darcy down into his lap and gave JD a bright smile.
“So, this is your family?” JD asked. He shifted nervously as Joanie sat next to him and popped the tab on his soda.
“We are all family,” Darcy replied, “for we are all Children of Adam.”
“Where did you and Jeremy meet?” JD asked, trying to ignore the way the redhead was nuzzling against his shoulder.
“He stopped to help us when our van broke down on the side of the road,” she said with a brilliant smile. “He was my knight in shining armor.”
“More like rust and primer,” Jeremy countered. “You remember that old Gremlin I used to drive, don’t you?”
For the next hour, JD listened as Darcy and Jeremy explained how they had been traveling from place to place. Something about the story gave the young ATF agent an uneasy feeling but it wasn’t anything he could put his finger on. When he finished the soda, Joanie brought him another. Darcy began asking JD questions about his family, seeming very interested when he told her that he was all alone except for the men he worked with, who were like family to him. She seemed nonplussed by his statement that Buck was like the brother he’d never had growing up and pressed him on what it was like growing up in Boston with Jeremy.
Gradually, the din in the basement faded, as a number of people left, presumably for bed. JD realized that it was late and thought he should be heading home. Joanie protested when he pulled away from her, giving him a pretty little pout that made him seriously consider staying longer. He swayed when he got on his feet and his vision was slightly blurry.
“I need to …” he searched for a polite euphemism. “Use the restroom,” he finished. “Then I really should be going home.”
“Come on, I’ll show you the way,” Joanie offered, once again plastering herself to his side and steering him across the room.
The water swirling around and around in the commode made JD feel queasy and he staggered out of the bathroom, keeping one hand on the wall for balance.
“JD, man, you’re too wasted to drive. Why don’t you crash here on the couch? You said you didn’t have to be anywhere tonight,” Jeremy said.
It sounded reasonable, so JD allowed them to lead him to the couch. He offered little resistance when Joanie began removing his shoes and socks but he stopped her when she went for his belt buckle. He also refused to let her to take his wallet, keys and cell phone. When he toppled over onto his side, someone threw a blanket over him and he dropped almost immediately into a deep, sound sleep.
Someone was shaking him and JD’s mind slowly crept up from the depths of sleep. He blinked several times to clear his vision of the gritty feeling and slowly sat up.
“What? Where am I?” he asked, looking around the small, windowless room. He was lying on a small cot that, other than the commode in the corner, was all the furniture the room contained. His eyes were drawn to the gray garments he was wearing and he looked up at the stranger standing over him.
“Who are you? Where’s Jeremy?” he asked.
“It’s time for morning reflection. Initiates may not speak until after breakfast,” the stern-looking, slightly balding man replied.
“Initiates?” JD repeated in confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Where is Jeremy? And where are my clothes?”
“If you are unable to remain silent, you shall have to remain here for your reflection,” the man said, ignoring JD questions. He turned and left the room.
JD launched himself at the door just as he heard the lock engage. He twisted the knob and rattled the panel in the frame in a futile effort to escape. Finally, he gave the door a solid kick, which only served to bruise the bottom of his bare foot, before turning his attention to the rest of the room.
The cell, for that was the only word that fit, was roughly 8x8. The walls were concrete. A single bulb set in a fixture in the ceiling provided the poor illumination and there was no switch inside of the room. The commode was like the ones in jail cells, with a water fountain on the top. There was simply no way out.
Some time later, the door opened and Joanie stepped in with a tray in her hands. She was dressed like JD except that her clothing was a lighter shade of gray. JD leapt to his feet and grabbed for the door but it was firmly wrenched out of his hand by someone on the outside and locked again.
“I brought you your breakfast. Brother Thomas felt that you needed additional time to reflect,” Joanie explained as she put the tray on the bed.
“Where am I?” JD asked.
“All of your questions will be answered in time,” she replied as if by rote. She looked down at the tray again, as if making sure everything was as it should be before moving toward the door.
JD immediately blocked her escape and demanded in a loud and angry voice, “Tell me where in the hell I am!”
Joanie cringed slightly before she replied, “All of your questions will be answered in time.” She side-stepped around JD and tried to get to the door.
Not usually prone to violence, especially against a woman, JD barely hesitated before grabbing the girl and pushing her across the room and up against the wall. Immediately, the door burst open and three young men surged into the room. JD managed to hit one of them with a hard-flung right before the other two were able to pin his arms. The one he’d hit shoved Joanie out of the room then turned and stepped closer with his hands clenched into fists. JD kept his eyes on the man’s face so as not to give away his next move. When the man was close enough, JD lashed out with one foot, catching the man squarely in the balls. He went down with a gasp and lay on the floor, cradling his groin. The man holding JD’s left arm shifted position and slammed a pile-driver of a fist into his gut. Before he could even recover his breath, the man hit JD in the chin hard enough to chip a tooth and slam his head against the concrete wall.
Kyle let go of the initiate’s right arm and the younger man slid down the wall, unconscious. He and Jerve reached down to help Roger to his feet and out of the room. Kyle went back and picked up the tray of food, deciding that the new initiate didn’t deserve to eat.
When JD wakened next, it was with a groan. His head and stomach throbbed in sync with his heartbeat and he was cold from lying on the concrete floor. Rolling carefully to his hands and knees, he made his way onto the bed, noticing belatedly that they had taken away the tray. He curled up on his side, knees drawn up to ease the pain in his gut, and tried to figure out his next move.
Adam Traxler, Father Adam to his followers, studied the young man on the monitor before reaching out for the leather case on the desk. He flipped it open and studied the information printed on the laminated ID card. He was displeased that Jeremy had brought the Fed into their midst but determined to convert him. John Daniel Dunne would accept his teaching or he would simply vanish, like all the others. His converts were told that the missing had been taken up immediately into Paradise as soon as they began to believe because he didn’t want them to slip back into their evil ways.
“Brother Kyle, I need to see you,” Father Adam said, raising his voice just high enough to reach the men standing at attention in the hall outside. Immediately, the big, burly young man entered and bowed respectfully.
“How is Brother Roger?” Father Adam asked.
“He will be alright … eventually,” Kyle answered. “He’s still in the infirmary.”
“Very good. I have decided on the punishment for our new initiate.”
JD was on his feet when the door opened, his fists held up and ready to take on anyone who got too close. A muscular red-head leapt at him and JD popped him in the jaw but that was all the defensive moves he would get in as two more men grabbed him and caught his right wrist in a hammer lock. They drove him to his knees and then to his stomach. JD tried to kick when he felt them tying his feet together but one of them landed a knee on the back of his thigh hard enough to end his struggle. His hands were also tied before he was dragged upright between them. The red-head drew back and plowed his fist into JD’s gut, doubling him over, before grabbing him by the hair and jerking him upright.
“Father Adam has decided your punishment,” he sneered. “And I hope I am the one chosen to administer it.”
JD was dragged down a short, narrow corridor and up some steps. From the markings on the walls, he knew he was in some kind of bunker. A couple of minutes later, he was driven to his knees. A hand in his hair forced him to look up at a tall, handsome, imposing man.
“Where in the hell am I? You can’t keep me here against my will, you know! Who are you? Where is Jeremy?” JD shouted.
“I am Father Adam and this is The Doorway to Heaven,” the man replied. “You will be initiated into The Children of Adam.”
“I don’t want to be initiated into your weirdo group!” JD announced hostilely.
“Nevertheless, you will be initiated. And since you wrought physical violence against your brothers, you must be punished.”
The circle of wide-eyed young people parted and JD glimpsed some kind of medieval torture rack. He struggled as his escorts lifted him and dragged him closer. He was placed on the table, belly down, and strapped in place.
“You can’t do this, you crazy bastard! I’m a federal agent! Let me go!” JD yelled as a strap was tightened across his ankles.
“Foul language is not tolerated,” Father Adam said gently. He nodded to one of the other men, who stepped forward with a gag that he tied around JD’s head, muffling any further outbursts.
“Because you injured Brother Roger, it is his privilege to administer your punishment. Since he is unable to at this time, he has chosen Brother Phillip.” Father Adam motioned for the young man to come forward and accept the cane pole. “Since you raised your foot against your brother, your punishment is twenty strokes across the soles of your feet.”
Phillip bowed his head, accepting the cane pole and the order for the punishment he was to mete out. He strode to the end of the table and gripped the pole in both hands. He checked his swing, making sure that none of the others was in the way, and laid into the bound initiate.
JD screamed as the first blow landed across the tender arches of his feet. The second struck the balls of his feet and his toes and he screamed again.
The beating seemed to go on and on. JD screamed until he was hoarse. He fought the straps that held him immobile for their torture. Finally, it was over. JD lay on the table, trembling intermittently. The straps were loosened and he was helped to turn over and sit up. JD’s feet throbbed as the new position allowed more blood to flow into the damaged tissue. He shrugged off the hands that were steadying him and glared when Father Adam stepped in front of him, almost daring him to lash out with his feet again. But JD didn’t think he wanted to go another round with the cane pole so he sat very still.
Father Adam reached out and gently passed his hand over JD’s head. “We love you, Brother. We only punish you so that you will not transgress against your brothers and sisters again. We hate your actions but we love you very much,” he said gently. “You will be returned to your room to reflect upon your sins.”
A different pair of young men escorted JD back to his cell. They carefully placed him on the bed and removed the gag and rope from around his wrists. One of them, a fair-skinned blond, wet a cloth and wiped JD’s face, clearing away the tears and soothing the chapped skin around his mouth. He then wet the material again and wiped JD’s wrists. When that was done, they backed out of the room and left him alone again.
As he lay in the chilly room, JD tried to come up with a plan of escape. He shivered and wrapped his arms around his torso, wishing for a blanket or even a sheet to cover up with but the mattress was bare. Since he was so greatly outnumbered, the only thing he could come up with was to cooperate with his captors until they slipped up and then he would get away.
When JD tried to get up to use the toilet a few hours later, he discovered just how effective caning the soles of his feet was in preventing him from escaping. He could barely stand and walking was excruciating. He was just reaching for the lever to flush the toilet when the door opened behind him.
“Joanie!” JD gasped, swaying unsteadily on his tender feet. She hurriedly set the tray down and reached for him, helping him take three steps so he could sit down on the bed. In keeping with his planed cooperation, he added, “I’m so sorry about what happened earlier. I never meant to hurt you. It’s just that being in this small room is getting to me.” He glanced around and shuddered for dramatic affect.
“All the new initiates stay in these rooms until Father Adam thinks they’re ready to join us. If you follow the rules and participate in reflection, you’ll be out of here in no time,” she explained, giving him a smile.
“What exactly is reflection?” JD asked.
“It’s when we all gather in the main room and each person reflects upon their actions and considers how they could better serve The Children.”
“There are children here?” JD asked in a panic.
“We are all Children of Adam, JD,” she patiently explained.
“Okay, I get it now. So, where are we? This is some kind of underground bunker, isn’t it?” he pressed.
“This is but one of our shelters. Father Adam has many places for his children where we are safe from outside intrusion.”
“But, are we still in Denver?” JD asked.
“All your questions will be answered in time,” Joanie answered, looking around the room and fumbling with something around her wrist.
JD noticed the beaded bracelet that encircled the girl’s arm and he wondered at its purpose.
“You must eat your supper. I will be back in 15 minutes to collect your tray,” she said, rising and moving to the door.
“Thanks,” JD said, giving her a genuine smile. After the door closed, he lifted the cover on the plate and surveyed his meal.
The small pool of brown gravy held slivers of meat, along with a few chunks of potatoes and carrots. Next to the brown gravy, there was a rounded mound of rice. Completing his meal was a small cup of reddish-colored jello.
“At least it’s warm,” he murmured, picking up the spoon and digging into the food.
Buck closed the door and tossed his keys on top of the entertainment center. He glanced around the apartment before heading for the kitchen. He pulled the refrigerator open and grabbed a can of root beer.
“JD!” he called back into the living room, thinking his roommate was in the bedroom beyond. When he didn’t get any reply, he walked toward the small room and rapped on the door. “Kid? You in here?” he asked, pushing the door open and glancing around. He saw the computer shell lying open on the desk, screwdriver and screws in a bowl on the panel JD had removed to access the interior of the computer.
“Huh, maybe he had a date or something,” Buck wondered aloud. He carefully closed the door and went upstairs to change.
Joanie came back to collect the tray and JD tried to convince her to sit with him for a while but she told him that she had work to do and then evening reflection.
“Could I go? To reflection,” he asked, putting on his best eager and hopeful expression.
“I’d have to ask Father Adam,” she replied. “It’s up to him.”
“Please?” JD begged. “I really need to reflect on my actions today.”
In the end, JD spent the next couple of hours sitting on the bed, staring at the door that didn’t open. It was cold in the room and he wrapped his arms around his ribs, trying to hold in his body heat.
Buck waited until the voicemail recording kicked on before hanging up the phone. He had been trying to reach JD all evening. He called Casey, only to find out that she and JD had broken up. He listened to her commiserate about the dating scene for several minutes before he asked her to call him if she heard from JD. His next call was to Vin, to see if he and JD had gotten together.
“No, I haven’t seen him all day,” Vin replied. “He told me he was gonna fix his computer. Have you tried his cell phone?”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Buck asked sarcastically. “It goes to voice mail.”
“Maybe he met someone and he’s hanging out,” Vin suggested. “He probably turned his phone off.”
“He’d better not have turned his phone off, Chris’ll kill him,” Buck replied.
“He’s probably having a good time and forgot all about it.”
Buck hung up the phone and sat on the couch, staring around the room. Something felt wrong. It was so unlike JD to stay out and not call. Finally, Buck slipped on his shoes and went for a drive.
JD finally gave up on getting out of the room and tried to fall asleep. The cold made it hard. He had just drifted off when the door opened and two young men burst in. They rousted JD and made him sit up on the bed so they could talk to him about being a Child of Adam.
“Father Adam takes care of us. He sees to all our needs,” the blond enthused.
“We work in the harvest fields, gathering the young people to Father Adam,” the brown-haired youth added.
“He’s going to deliver us into paradise,” the blond added.
JD nodded wearily. His new friends had been going at it for several hours. He listed to the side slightly and his shoulder touched the cold concrete wall. Jerking upright, he stared blankly at the others in the room. He noticed that the blond was sitting on a small piece of carpet and had a blanket around his shoulders. The brown-haired youth had a blanket wrapped around him as he sat, cross-legged, on the other end of the bed.
“Hey, you guys think you could get me a blanket?” JD asked hopefully.
“Initiates aren’t allowed any privileges,” the blond said. “Besides, a little cold helps to remind us that the world is a cold, cruel place for unbelievers. But the warmth of The Children of Adam warms body and soul.”
“Then, could you guys leave so I can get some sleep?” JD asked.
“Father Adam wants someone with all new initiates all night,” the brown-haired one replied. “And Father Adam knows what’s best.”
Buck parked his truck next to JD’s car and made his way up to the apartment they shared. He had been by all of the places his roommate liked to hang out without success. He rang JD’s cell phone every 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes leaving messages and sometimes just hanging up in frustration. He trudged through the loft, turning on all of the lights and looking for clues as to where his young friend had gone.
Collapsing on the couch with a tepid cup of coffee, Buck looked at the clock. It was four in the morning, too early to call Chris and voice his concerns. He knew Larabee would tell him to go to bed and stop being a mother hen.
The long day caught up with him and Buck’s eyelids slid closed and stayed that way. The cup of coffee slid from his hand, spilling what remained in between the couch cushions.
When Brad and William left, JD immediately curled up and went to sleep. He was exhausted. His dreams were unusually vivid and seemed filled with smiling faces wearing blindingly white garments and vacant expressions.
Per Father Adam’s instructions, the new initiate was only allowed a couple of hours of sleep before he was wakened. This time, it was the slightly balding man again.
“It is time for reflection, Initiate,” he intoned.
“Five more minutes,” JD mumbled blearily.
“Now!” the man shouted, striking the bed frame with something that clanged loudly.
JD managed to open his eyes, hoping that it had all been a bad dream. Reality rudely intruded as he blinked up at the man standing over him. His body ached when he started moving and he groaned.
“Silence, Initiate,” the balding man prompted in a menacing hiss.
JD glared up at the man but held his tongue. Gingerly placing his feet on the floor, he winced. It took him a couple of moments to work up the courage to put his weight on his bruised and battered soles. He made his way over to the commode and emptied his bladder, smiling at the volume of noise the action caused. He flushed and rinsed his mouth before taking a long drink from the fountain. Finally, he turned to face the man and gestured for him to lead the way.
It was difficult to keep up with the man’s long strides on his tender feet but JD managed. He was led to a rusty steel door that opened into a dimly lit room. All of the young people he had seen before were standing on small, white mats with their hands folded and their eyes closed. The man pointed to the vacant mat and JD moved to stand on it. Immediately, he flinched at the rough texture, it was like standing barefoot on dried peas.
A pleasantly scented smoke wafted around the room, reminding JD of spring flowers. From behind mostly-closed lids, he surveyed the room and the young people in it. There were no windows and no other doors, save the one he entered by. The area was lit by candles placed strategically around the room. From the curtains of melted wax, JD could tell that the room had been used for some time.
The pebbled surface of the mat took its toll and JD began to shift his weight from one foot to the other. He silently wondered if anyone would notice if he stepped off of the mat and stood on the bare floor. Just as he was about to test out his question, the door behind him opened and Father Adam swept into the room.
Father Adam was resplendent in painfully white tunic and pants and he moved to the front of the room without hesitation. It was then that JD noticed the waist-high table. Father Adam lit several candles before he spoke.
“Be seated,” he ordered. “My children, I know that you have all reflected upon your actions and are ready to do whatever you can to do better today. I shall select a small group of you to go out and try to harvest again. It is very important that we save as many souls as we can before we enter Paradise.”
JD looked around and saw that every eye was riveted on the man at the make-shift altar. He spotted Jeremy and stared at him in the hope of getting his attention. Surely, he reasoned, his friend would help him get out if he could just talk to him.
The droning, sibilant voice rose and fell hypnotically for some time before Father Adam was finished. JD found himself struggling to remain awake. Finally, they were ordered to rise for dismissal.
As the other young people began to file out of the room, Phillip and another man JD hadn’t interacted with appeared at his side.
“You have been assigned to work with us this morning,” Phillip explained. “Come, and we will take you to breakfast with us.”
Breakfast turned out to be a bowl of thin, watery Cream of Wheat and a piece of dry toast. JD carried the meager offering to the nearest table and sat down, eager to be off of his feet. There was a pitcher of water and several glasses on the table, so he filled one and dipped up a spoonful of the cereal.
“Is there any sugar?” he asked, making a grimace at the taste.
“Initiates aren’t allowed any kind of privileges,” Phillip replied as he tore open a small white packet and sprinkled the contents into his bowl.
“I suppose butter is a privilege too,” he murmured in frustration.
But hunger flavored the cereal enough that he was able to eat it and Sean, the other man with Phillip, graciously offered to take his dishes to the wash bin for him. JD thanked Sean for his kindness.
The work for the morning consisted of stringing beads onto wires for bracelets. The beads had to be strung in a certain order and with each one he strung, JD was told to repeat aloud, ‘I am a Child of Adam.’
Sean refilled JD’s glass with cold water. His breakfast had done little to take the edge off of his hunger and JD had been drinking the water for the temporary full feeling it gave. He was woozy, but he blamed it on the lack of sleep.
The tedious, repetitive nature of the work lulled JD into a relaxed state. It was warmer in the work room than his cell, so he was having trouble staying awake. Phillip nudged him every so often, keeping him from falling asleep.
Buck came awake with a start. The coffee cup slipped from his fingers and fell to the carpeted floor with a muffled thump. He scrubbed his hands up and down his face and blinked blearily at the clock. It was 5:42 in the morning, plenty late enough to call Chris.
The phone rang several times before Larabee answered, mumbling sleepily, “This had better be important.”
“Chris, I’m worried. JD wasn’t here when I got home last night and he still isn’t home,” Buck said, the words coming faster as he got to the end of his breath.
Squinting one hazel eye at the brightly-lit blue numbers on his clock, Chris replied, “Buck, it’s only a quarter to six. If he stayed all night with someone, it’s too early for him to be home.”
“He isn’t answering his cell phone,” Buck countered.
That was the one rule that Chris absolutely, positively would not bend on, that the entire team have their phones on them, and turned on, at all times in case of emergency. Tossing off the blankets, Chris swung his legs out of bed and raked the fingers of his free hand through his bed-mussed hair.
“Alright, call the others. I’ll meet you all at the office in an hour or so,” Chris said.
At ten past seven, Chris Larabee stepped off of the elevator and crossed the small, marble-tiled lobby to the offices of ATF Team Seven. The door was unlocked and the smell of fresh coffee was thick in the air. His men were gathered around two computers.
“Well?” he asked, by way of greeting.
“He used his credit card at Computer World yesterday at 2:20 in the afternoon,” Vin replied.
“His phone is turned off but the GPS records its location as being right here,” Ezra added, pointing to the blinking red dot on the map that filled his monitor screen.
“Buck, you, Nathan and Josiah take the GPS site. Vin, Ezra and I will go to the mall and see what we can find out there. Call us as soon as you have anything and we’ll do the same,” Chris said. Scarcely five minutes later, two vehicles left the underground parking lot.
“I am a Child of Adam,” JD said, sliding a red bead on the end of the wire.
“That’s enough for now,” Phillip said, taking the wire and placing it gently in the tray with the rest. “It’s time for reflection.”
“Didn’t we just reflect this morning?” JD asked wearily.
“We have reflection four times a day,” Phillip replied, “before each meal and before bed. Come on.”
JD’s feet were still very tender and he limped slowly behind the other two men. He also studied the hallway as they walked, memorizing the path. When they took their places in the reflection room this time, JD found himself near the front of the room. Instead of standing on the textured mat, he was told to kneel and fold his hands together, keeping his elbows at shoulder level.
This new position quickly burned off any energy JD had and grew painful. Every time he thought about lowering his arms or shifting his knees off of the mat, the tall, balding man would walk past him and glare.
JD lost track of how long they remained there, kneeling on the mats, but suddenly, Father Adam was there, lighting the candles on the altar.
“Rejoice, my children! Three new initiates have been added to our ranks!” the charismatic leader exclaimed. “Three bright, beautiful souls will be saved when we take our places in paradise.”
The droning voice went on and on and JD found himself swaying slightly with each beat of his heart. His arms felt so very heavy that he didn’t think he could continue to hold them up but, at the same time, they felt oddly disconnected.
Rising to go to lunch, JD noticed bloody spots on his knees but his mind was too fatigued to figure out what had happened. He shuffled along, bracketed by Phillip and Sean, into the dining room.
Lunch was a rounded dipper of rice, a ladle of lima beans and a slice of bread. JD was so exhausted that he could barely maintain the coordination to eat. He tried to focus on what was being said at the table near the far wall. He had heard someone say something about the new initiates.
Buck leapt from the passenger-side seat of Nathan’s Jimmy before the medic had even had a chance to put the hazard lights on. JD’s bike lay on its side on top of a boulder at the bottom of a very steep ravine. Josiah quickly leapt out to catch hold of Wilmington’s arm to keep him from climbing over the guard rail.
“Let me go!” Buck shouted, “I’ve got to get down there!”
“You will wait until we get some kind of rope on you so you don’t fall and break your damned neck!” Josiah replied, using his best intimidating tone of voice.
Nathan popped the hatch on the Jimmy and grabbed a neatly coiled bundle of rope, a rappelling harness and a box of flares. He passed off the rope and harness and began laying out the flares to warn any cars that came along so that they didn’t accidentally hit his vehicle.
While Buck was adjusting the harness, Josiah shook out the rope. He would act as belay for the younger man, making sure he didn’t slip and fall as he climbed down to the bike. He fed the rope under and over the guard rail and handed the end to Buck.
The kid at Computer World remembered JD because they had talked about an RPG that they both enjoyed. He confirmed that Dunne had come in alone and left the same way. Vin thanked him and went in search of Chris and Ezra, who were trying to secure the mall’s security recordings.
“It will take a couple of hours to make copies of all of the last 24 hours,” the man at the security desk explained. “We have 40 cameras in the public areas, as well as cameras for the individual stores.”
“We’ll wait,” Chris growled.
“Have you had any trouble here in the last day or so?” Ezra asked.
“What kind of trouble?” the man asked. “We’ve always got a shoplifter or two and packs of roving teenagers all over the place. We had a couple of lost kids, but they were just playing hide and seek in the clothing racks.”
The afternoon project was to finish the bracelets from the morning. Sean demonstrated fitting the little brass collar on the wire and attaching the catch. With each completed bracelet, JD was to repeat, ‘I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil.’
JD squinted at the copper wire and slipped the brass collar in place. He fed the clasp onto the wire and bent the wire back through the collar.
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil,” he said as he smashed the collar and laid the finished product aside. Every couple of bracelets, he reached down to scratch his knees, ignoring the blood beneath his fingernails. He was so tired that he could barely think beyond the simple, repetitive task he had been given. Another glass of water was placed next to his work area and he paused to drink it, hoping it would help him stay awake.
JD groped in the plastic bin for the next bracelet, only to find it empty. Thinking he was finished, he folded his arms and laid his weary head down on them. A few minutes later, Phillip was there, shaking his shoulder and shouting at him to wake up.
“Come on, Initiate, you haven’t completed your work for today,” Phillip said. “Come with me and I’ll show you what to do next.”
The finished bracelets were placed on another table and JD was positioned in between the other two young men. The table was taller, forcing them to stand to do the work. Sean folded a scrap of colored paper into a small, clear Ziploc bag. JD had to wrap the bracelets around his fingers to make them small enough to go in the little bags, which he passed on to Phillip to close and place in another bin. The phrase for this stage of work was, ‘All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished.’
Josiah, Nathan and Buck stood aside as the tow truck driver brought the battered Ninja up from the bottom of the ravine. They hadn’t found any blood or any other signal of foul play on the bike. The helmet was lying several yards away from the boulder, cracked from impact on the rocks.
Nathan had called Chris to explain the situation to him and related to the others that they had the disks from the mall and were heading back to the office to begin reviewing them. The bike would be delivered to the ATF forensic laboratory to be checked thoroughly for any clue as to where it had been and what had happened to it.
Buck was a mess. He blamed himself for not calling Chris earlier. He was convinced that if he had raised the alarm earlier, JD would now be safe and sound. He paced along the guard rail, staring into the ravine. Search and rescue was on its way to survey the area in case JD had been injured and disoriented and wandered away.
Ezra checked the time stamp on the disk and started watching the feed from the security camera. So far, he had watched two other disks but hadn’t seen JD on any of them. He was running them at half speed, meticulously scrutinizing each and every face. He stopped the action for a moment, to take a sip from the cup of coffee he had gotten when he got up to get another disk.
Rolling his shoulders, Chris reached out to rewind the images in case he had missed something. He took a deep breath and pressed the button to stop the video. His eyes were starting to ache from staring at the screen for so long.
“I’ve got him!” Vin announced. He slowly rewound the images until he caught JD coming out of Computer World.
“I’ve got him too,” Josiah announced. As soon as the rest of the team had gotten back to the federal building, they had been put to work viewing the disks.
“Me too,” Nathan added, having taken the disk immediately after Josiah’s.
The five men gathered around Vin’s monitor, watching as he advanced it frame by frame until JD turned the corner at the end of the corridor. He had a bag in his hand and there didn’t appear to be anyone following him.
Buck clenched his teeth as he watched the technician dusting JD’s bike and helmet for prints. There hadn’t been any skid marks or scuffs on the guard rail to indicate the Ninja had hit the railing before going over. That only left someone bodily hefting it into the ravine. The oil pan was busted and the muffler was crushed. The gas tank was badly dented and the left front fork was cracked.
After reviewing all three of the disks with JD on them, they went back to the images of JD and the young man he had apparently spoken with before he left the mall. Nathan zoomed in and enlarged the young man’s face before sending the image to the printer. He sent the photo through the facial-recognition software program.
Vin, Ezra and Josiah scoured the disks, following the young man who had spoken with JD. It was tedious work, since the man moved up and down along the corridors, speaking with other people.
“Evil must be vanquished,” JD murmured as he stuffed the last bracelet into the little bag. His feet hurt so badly that he couldn’t hold back the tears of misery that kept welling up in his eyes. He was tired and light-headed and could barely concentrate.
“You have finished the task, Initiate,” Phillip announced. “You have an hour before evening reflection. Sean will escort you back to your cell so you can rest.”
JD blinked at Phillip, not fully comprehending what he had said. Sean took him by the arm and turned him away from the table. He allowed the other man to guide him, unable to even recognize the path they took to his cell.
Sinking onto the cot, JD was asleep before his head even touched the mattress.
All too soon, a rough hand was shaking JD from sleep. He rubbed his fists against his eyes, trying to resolve the blurry shape standing over him.
“Come, Initiate,” the balding man ordered, “It is time for reflection.”
“I don’ wanna,” JD whined miserably. “I jus’ wanna sleep.”
Before he knew what was happening, hands gripped him and pulled him out of bed. He was forcibly relocated to the reflection room and placed on his knees on a mat. The balding man slapped JD’s cheeks until he was alert enough to remain upright on his own.
The silence stretched on and on while JD struggled to stay in position. His knees burned and the pain was sharpened when he tried to move them on the mat. Just about the time he wanted to give up, Father Adam arrived. He swept through the room and lit the candles, looking down on them with a benevolent smile.
“My beautiful, beautiful children,” he began, “You are doing a wonderful job of harvesting new believers from among the evil that surrounds us. I know that you will continue the work during my absence.”
“You’re leaving?” a stricken female voice asked.
“Only for a short time,” he replied. “I must go and visit your brothers and sisters in other cities. While I am gone, I have appointed a council of elders to oversee the work here.”
A kernel of hope blossomed in JD’s weary brain. If Father Adam was going away, it might be possible to convince someone to help him escape.
Josiah set down the box of take-out food he had picked up from Inez. They had been looking at the disks from the mall all afternoon and were in the process of trying to run down the identities of the people who interacted with the young man they had seen talking to JD. Ezra and Nathan had already taken several pictures to some of the mall shops to see if anyone could identify them. A loud crash from the other side of the room startled him.
The facial recognition software had run through all of the available databases and came up empty on the man who had spoken to JD. Buck was glaring at the screen, his hands still clenched into the fists he had used to sweep his coffee mug off of the desk.
Chris hurried out of his office and took hold of Buck’s arm. He opened his mouth to speak but Wilmington cut him off with a terse, “I’m alright. Leave me alone.”
“We’ll find him,” Chris said.
“But will it be in time?” Buck asked, sounding as lost as Chris could ever remember hearing him sound. He sank into the desk chair and Larabee moved to give the tense shoulders a firm squeeze.
They sat together in the conference room, staring at the pictures plucked from the security disks, trying to piece it all together. It seemed like the red-haired man was mostly approaching teenagers, kids who were unlikely to be in any database.
After supper that consisted of macaroni and cheese and applesauce, JD was taken to another large room where all of the ‘children’ were seated on cushions and beanbag chairs. He was steered to a plain piece of cardboard and told to sit down. Father Adam led them in a long-winded prayer.
“Since I have to leave you, I wanted to just sit and talk with you tonight,” Father Adam said. “I want to hear your plans for increasing the harvest of souls.”
One by one, each of the assembled youths extolled their plans for bringing the lost into the fold. Several of the young girls announced that they were going to recruit outside of the local skating rink. Kyle and Roger said that they were going to hang out at the recreation center and some other boys were going to the skate park where the older teens liked to hang out.
There was an awkward pause when it came to JD and the boy sitting next to him started to speak but JD cut him off.
“I plan to make lots more bracelets so that my brothers and sisters can give them out to potential initiates,” JD said haltingly.
The applause started slowly, on the other side of the room, but gradually spread until all of the young people in the room were clapping. Father Adam studied the weary young man for a minute before he nodded his approval.
For some reason, the applause made JD happy. He listed slightly toward the young woman sitting on the other side of him and, to his delight, she wrapped her shawl around him. The discussion went on around the room, with several more pledging to help JD make bracelets for new initiates.
Afterwards, when Father Adam closed with another long-winded prayer, JD was escorted back to his cell. The girl with the shawl, Molly, wished him pleasant dreams as they parted.
Just as he was about to drift off to sleep, JD became aware of crying coming from the other side of the cold concrete wall. His heart went out to whatever poor, misguided teen they had managed to lure into their tangled web.
It was quiet in the office as Vin continued to scan through the stack of disks from mall security. He felt certain that there had to be a way to identify the teenagers they had pulled from the hours and hours of footage. Stopping the playback, he leaned back in his chair and scrubbed at his dry, burning eyes. A soft snore intruded on his awareness and he glanced over to where Nathan was stretched out on the floor near the filing cabinets. Buck was asleep on the couch in Chris’ office and Ezra was grabbing 40 winks on the couch in the conference room.
Chris lifted the coffee carafe and filled his cup. Like Vin, he was certain that they were missing some incredibly obvious means of identifying the teens that the man had approached at the mall. He stared out the window into the dark, his eyes picking out the lights of an airplane taking off from the airport in the distance.
Sitting at his desk, Josiah glanced over at the monitor on Ezra’s desk, which was still running facial recognition on the people from the mall. He had ejected a disk from his computer and replaced it with another and was waiting for it to cue up to the correct time stamp. He was running the images backwards, looking for anyone the man may have spoken to before meeting up with JD. He had, so far, tracked him up and down the mall corridor and was now switching to the food court footage.
The muffled crying kept JD from falling asleep for a long time but he did finally manage to reach slumber-land. Too soon, someone was there, shaking him awake and dropping a pile of clothing in front of him.
“If you hurry, you can have a shower before reflection,” Sean said.
The very thought of standing under a stream of hot water was like a shot of adrenaline and JD bolted upright in bed. He quickly moved to use the toilet before grabbing up the pile and turning to follow the other young man from the room.
It was obvious that the shower room had been added as an afterthought because of the PVC pipe attached to the walls above the curtained-off partitions. JD placed his clean garments in one of the stacked milk cartons along the wall and unselfconsciously stripped. He stepped behind the shower curtain and turned on the water. A grungy plastic cup had been attached to the PVC with what looked like a twist-tie from a bread bag and it held a new-looking safety razor and a bar of soap.
“Here, you forgot your washcloth,” Sean said, sticking his hand past the curtain.
JD took the washcloth, cringing at the rough feel of the material, and held it under the stream of water to get it wet. He lathered his body as quickly as possible before washing his face. The single-blade safety razor pulled at his whiskers but he managed to give himself a passable shave without nicking his face. He used the bar soap to wash his hair and hurriedly rinsed off when Sean called to him that he needed to get out.
The new garments were just a shade lighter than the ones he’d had on but JD didn’t really notice. Sean steered him to the mirror and gave him a comb for his hair, then hurried him on to the dining room.
Breakfast was a little more palatable, a bowl of oatmeal and half an orange. Although not normally a coffee drinker, JD was sure that he could use a cup or three. Too little sleep and not enough food was taking a heavy toll on his energy. He washed down the meager meal with two glasses of water from the pitcher on the table.
Nathan placed the box of donuts and pastries on the counter in the kitchen next to the bag of assorted fruit he had picked up for breakfast. He had several bottles of juice and a small carton of milk to wash it all down. Josiah and Vin were resting on the couches while Buck and Ezra reviewed the disks from the mall. Ezra got it in his head to try to spot the man on one of the exterior parking lot feeds and was intently staring at his monitor, a mostly untouched cup from Starbucks near his right hand. Chris was already in a meeting with Travis, updating him on the situation.
“You know I’ll have to call in the FBI,” Orin said.
“That’s fine as long as they understand that we are still running the investigation,” Chris countered with finality. “This is one of my men and I will not sit on the sidelines.”
“You know that isn’t possible,” Travis argued. But he knew that a confrontation would only lead to his best team going vigilante and he couldn’t have that. “You will give them copies of all the data you’ve compiled so far,” he ordered.
Copies, not the original data, Chris realized, meant that the judge was allowing them to continue with their investigation.
“Thank you,” Chris said.
JD’s new co-workers were introduced as Lyle and Keith. They were still assembling the beaded bracelets. He easily fell back into the familiar routing, reciting the requisite phrase ‘I am a Child of Adam’ with each bead he slid onto the thin wire.
By mid-morning, they had completed the first part of their quota of bracelets. As a reward, they returned to the dining room, where they each had an apple or a banana. JD quickly devoured the banana, staring longingly at the rest until Lyle suggested that they move away from the source of temptation.
“Can we go for a walk?” JD asked as innocently as possible.
Keith immediately agreed with the suggestion but Lyle was more hesitant.
“I don’t think Father Adam would want him wandering around,” Lyle said.
“But we have always been allowed to show the initiates around,” Keith argued.
JD was excited when Lyle seemed to waver in his resolve, until another group entered the dining area.
“What is he doing in here?” Roger demanded angrily.
“We completed our quota, so we are taking a break,” Lyle responded.
“You know the rules! New initiates are to be kept working! And they are not allowed treats between meals!” Roger shouted. “If you finish early, you should go to reflection.”
JD tried not to groan at the thought of added time on his knees on the roughly pebbled mats. He kept his head down and hoped that the larger man did not seek revenge for his earlier attempt to escape. He also desperately hoped they didn’t have to go to reflection.
“Hey guys?” Vin called out while staring at the image frozen on his monitor. “I think I figured out a way to identify one of the kids!”
“What have you got?” Chris asked as he hurried to Tanner’s desk. Immediately, the other four crowded around to have a look.
“See this girl? I followed her backward from where she made contact with the suspect and it looks like she made a purchase,” Vin extended one finger to the screen, “She didn’t have a bag when she went in there.”
Laying the grainy picture on the counter, Ezra asked the cashier if she recognized the girl. The young woman shook her head, stating that she had not been on duty that day.
“Is it possible to see if there are any credit card receipts for the minutes preceding the time stamp?” Nathan asked.
“I … don’t know. I would have to ask the manager,” she replied hesitantly.
“Please, miss, a friend of ours is missing and this girl might know something,” Ezra pressed. “It is most urgent.”
The woman relented and pulled out a binder with a computer print-out of the previous days’ receipts. There was only one credit card purchase around the time shown on the picture and Ezra copied the name and numbers down.
JD’s hope was dashed as Lyle and Keith escorted him to the reflection room. Roger followed them and roughly manhandled the ‘initiate’ onto the mat. JD was careful not to let his anger show, knowing that it would give the bully a reason to light into him.
“Recite the litany!” Roger ordered. “All of you!”
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished,” Keith repeated obediently. JD and Lyle immediately joined him.
The monotonous, repetitive phrase was hypnotic and JD’s mind began to wander, even as his lips continued to move to the required words. His arms and shoulders ached from the strain of maintaining the position.
One by one, the others arrived, quickly assuming the position and joining in the chant. By the time Phillip arrived, they were all speaking as if one voice. He quickly lit the candles and raised his hands, signaling for silence.
While not as long winded as Father Adam, Brother Phillip was also possessed of a compelling speaking voice. He admonished them to be watchful of each other and to support one another. He ended their reflection with a prayer and dismissed them to lunch.
The material of JD’s pants stuck to the blood on his knees as he limped painfully to the table with his tray. He picked at the bland, tasteless rice. The peas and carrots were only barely warm and he began to wonder if they were doing it deliberately to punish him. He refilled his glass with water and gulped it down for the temporary feeling of fullness.
Ezra and Chris went to the address for the credit card, leaving Buck at the office in a fit of pique. Wilmington had demanded to go along, earning himself a firm but gentle correction from Larabee. They wanted the girl to voluntarily give them the information, not have it intimidated out of her by Buck’s fearsome countenance.
Teresa Zeman lived in an apartment not too far from the mall. Her mother looked decidedly unhappy to have a pair of ATF agents at her door but she invited them in and offered them a cup of coffee, which they politely declined.
“We only need to know what you remember about this man,” Ezra said, sliding the photo of Teresa and the suspect across the coffee table.
“I don’t know who he is,” she said.
“He spoke to you for almost ten minutes at the mall two days ago,” Chris added.
“Teresa Michelle! You told me you didn’t go to the mall!” her mother scolded.
“Please, ma’am, this isn’t the time,” Chris interrupted, “It is important that we find out what this young man said to your daughter.”
It took some careful coaxing to get Teresa to admit that the man had invited her to a party. She forcefully repeated that she had told him ‘no’ and that she hadn’t taken the business card he tried to give her.
“What was his name?” Chris pressed.
“I don’t remember!” she replied.
By the end of evening reflection, JD was exhausted. He lay on his bed, listening to the sobbing coming from the cell next to his. He had asked about the girl, he assumed it was a girl, and was told that it wasn’t any of his business. Hearing her despondent cries, he found himself wiping tears from his own eyes.
Two days passed with no further information on the case. They had tracked down five other teens that had been approached by the man and all they had learned was that his name was Jeremy or Jerry and that he was inviting them to a party. A couple had taken the business card but had thrown it away because they couldn’t go for whatever reason.
The FBI was doing no better. They went over all of the data and suggested that JD had possibly met with foul play but they would continue to search.
Josiah and Nathan reasoned that the suspect was part of a group, since several of the people he talked with also seemed to be working the crowds at the mall. They had printed up pictures and distributed them to the shops and to security at the mall.
Two more days passed, each a carbon copy of the one before. JD made bracelets and repeated the phrases they taught him. He did his best to fly beneath the radar, not wanting to invoke Roger’s wrath. Finally, on the third day after Father Adam left, Sean offered to take him outside to show him the gardens where they grew the vegetables they used to round out their supplies.
JD stood at the edge of the garden and looked around. He had been correct about their shelter being an old bunker but there was nothing to tell him how far he was from Denver.
All too soon, Sean was telling him that it was time to go back to work. JD reluctantly followed him back to the entrance. When they got to the door, Sean stepped back to allow JD to pass him. He never saw the rock that connected with the side of his head as he crumpled to the ground.
JD ran as quickly as he could in his bare feet. He hadn’t made it too far when he heard the first shouts of alarm. Fear gave him an added jolt of energy and he burst out of the trees onto the rutted logging road that led up to the bunker. He looked right and left as he ran, desperately seeking a place to hide. An unexpected rut in the road caught him off-guard and he fell, skinning his hands and knees.
The logging road curved as it went down the incline and JD nearly fell again. His heart was beating like a trip-hammer and his vision was growing blurry as he gasped for breath. The undergrowth was too thick for him to try to go into the woods, so he continued along the only clear path left for him.
His flight was ended all too quickly. The six-foot tall gate was topped with barbed wire and secured with a heavy chain. He fumbled with the lock, hoping against hope that it would break and grant him freedom. Once, twice, three times he struck it with the rock he’d forgotten to drop when he bolted. Flecks of rust fell but the lock held firmly. He heard footsteps and turned around, clutching the rock as he faced his captors.
They spread out in a semi-circle around JD and slowly closed in on him. He knew that he would only get in one or two good hits before they overpowered him and he didn’t want to hurt any of them, really. The rock slipped from his fingers as he surrendered.
With his hands tied behind his back, JD was forced to walk back to the bunker. He knew that they were going to punish him and he was afraid. He fought against the tears that prickled in his eyes and he wondered if he would never see his friends again.
Sitting alone in his cell, JD trembled. They had left his hands tied when they pushed him into the small room. He sat on the edge of his bed, hunched over and rocking slightly. For some reason, he found himself chanting the repetitive phrases and found them strangely comforting.
Chris glared at the FBI agent. With all of their resources, they were still no closer to finding his man than they were when they first got the case. Larabee knew that, with every hour that passed, the odds of finding JD alive were diminishing.
“We have identified this girl,” Agent Singer explained. “Her name is Joanie Morganthal and she was reported missing almost three months ago. She called her parents a month ago and told them not to worry about her; that she was with some group called The Children of Adam.”
“What do you know about that group?” Chris asked.
“Not nearly enough, unfortunately. They are one of a handful of groups that claim status as religious organizations. It is a legitimate group; they run camps for inner-city kids in New York City and Houston. But they also have a large membership that is fluid, not staying in one place for any length of time. They travel around, seeking out the disenchanted and unemployed,” Singer explained.
“But JD doesn’t fit that description,” Chris countered. “He is most definitely employed and not at all disenchanted.”
“Which is why we are confused. Is it at all possible that his interaction with this Jeremy person is what led to his disappearance? I mean, we could be expending a lot of time and energy barking up the wrong tree.”
JD tried to be brave when they came for him, determined to take his punishment like a man. He knew that his friends had occasionally taken a beating at the hands of the bad guys they were trying to bring in and he wanted to be as brave and stoic as he was sure they had been. He did alright until the crowd parted in front of him and he saw the table again.
“No! Please! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone! I just want to go home! I won’t tell anyone about this place if you’ll just take me back to Denver! Please?” JD begged as he was forced to the center of the room. But his plea fell on deaf ears and he was lifted bodily and placed belly-down on the cold, stainless steel surface. Straps were secured across his body before his hands were released and brought around until they were straight above his head.
The room was silent but the tension in the air was thick. JD raised his head and saw Joanie and Sean standing quite close. Sean’s forehead was wrapped with thick, white gauze and an ugly bruise peeked out from under the bandage.
“Sean! Please! I didn’t mean to hurt you!” JD shouted. Someone stepped up to the table and tied a length of cloth around his mouth so that he couldn’t talk any more.
Nervous anticipation made JD tremble. He remembered how it felt when the cane pole first struck his tender soles. He had just about psyched himself up for the beating when someone stepped up and began tearing the tunic and trousers from his body. Suddenly, he realized that it wasn’t going to be just the bottoms of his feet that they were going to beat and he began to struggle.
The first blow came across the small of his back and JD went rigid. The next landed across his thighs. He realized, through the haze of pain, that there were two of them, one on each side, administering the blows. JD fought against the straps and screamed until his throat felt like he had swallowed broken glass but the punishment continued. Finally, he heard a voice calling out, pleading for them to stop and he realized, as the darkness threatened to overwhelm him, that it was Sean.
Buck sat in the saloon Friday afternoon. He had managed to get away from Josiah, whom Chris had appointed as his babysitter for the day. All of the clues to JD’s whereabouts were gone cold and there were no new pieces of information coming in. None of the others who had been at the mall with Jeremy and Joanie had turned up again, leaving the FBI to think that they had moved on. He swirled his thumb through the condensation on the side of the beer bottle he held. No matter how many times they told him, he would never believe that it wasn’t his fault that JD was still missing. If he had acted on his first instinct, instead of delaying, they would have found him by now.
Chris stood near the bar, watching Buck as he fiddled with the beer bottle. He had never known Buck to find solace in a bottle, his way was more to find a warm female body to lose himself in, but JD’s absence was seriously affecting the normally gregarious man. He signaled the waitress to pull him a draft and slid a five onto the polished wood surface. He took the frosted mug and made his way across the room.
“Mind if I join you?” Chris asked.
Buck looked up and shrugged noncommittally. He really didn’t care, as long as his friend didn’t try to console him. If he did … well, Chris Larabee would find himself remembering why Buck didn’t let himself get angry.
Vin and Nathan were playing a game of one-on-one at the recreation center. Tanner whipped his head around, slinging sweat from tendrils of hair as he backed the medic out of his way and jumped to take the shot. Chris had ordered them out of the office and told them not to return for a couple of hours. The whole team was on the verge of collapse, running on coffee and adrenaline while they checked and rechecked all of their leads.
Josiah sat in his suburban, scanning the group of teens hanging out at the skate park and comparing them to the photos from the mall. He had been so disappointed at how easily Buck slipped away from him after lunch but Chris didn’t seem angry about it, he just told Josiah to go for a drive. The skate park had been one of the locations the FBI pegged as a likely site for The Children to try to gather new disciples, so he had driven over there. One of the teens looked familiar but he would have to get closer to be certain. Pulling the keys from the ignition, he slipped out of the vehicle and sauntered casually over to the pay phone.
Sitting at the red light in front of the corner pharmacy, Ezra happened to glance over in time to see a familiar face entering the building. He flipped on his turn signal and eased the Jag into the parking lot.
The girl was standing at the perfume counter when Ezra entered the store. He walked up behind her and pretended to be interested in the men’s cologne display next to her on the counter. When she moved further into the store, he maintained a discrete distance. He observed her stuffing small items into her jeans but he wasn’t interested in busting her for shoplifting.
Darcy was oblivious to the man following her around the store. When she had stolen as much as she thought she could get away with, she made her way to the front of the store. She tossed a pack of gum on the counter and spilled a handful of mixed change to pay for it. After raking the spare coins back into her change purse, she crumpled the receipt and headed for the door. A man came up behind her and grabbed her by the arm, propelling her toward a forest-green Jaguar parked near the doors. She struggled until she felt the cool touch of metal around her wrists.
Ezra put the handcuffed girl in the back seat of the car and turned around to reassure the cashier and customers who had rushed out that everything was alright. He showed them his ID and badge and asked them to go about their business. Walking around the car, he slid in behind the wheel and started the engine.
“Where are you taking me?” Darcy asked.
“Some place where we can talk,” Ezra replied calmly. He drove back toward the federal building, turning onto an empty parking lot about four blocks away. Shutting the engine off, he got out of the car and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.
Chris pulled his cell phone off of his belt and glanced at the caller ID. “Larabee,” he said by way of greeting.
“I have picked up one of The Children of Adam,” Ezra replied.
“Where are you?”
“About four blocks from our office.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Chris said as he prepared to end the call.
“Chris, wait!” Ezra said quickly, “Are you absolutely certain that taking her to our office is the correct course of action?”
Larabee slid back into the booth, confusion wrinkling his forehead, “Why do you ask?”
“Because, if we take her to the office, the FBI will most certainly be made aware of her presence. If they take possession of her, they will go by the book. She will get her one phone call and our young friend will almost certainly be dead by the time we get his location out of her,” Ezra explained.
Sitting across the table from Chris, Buck struggled to make sense of the one-sided conversation. From the tight set of Chris’ shoulders, he knew it had to be about JD and he was eager to find out what was happening.
“Then where do you suggest?” Chris asked.
“I still have the keys to the home of one Everett Sanderson.”
“I’ll call the others and meet you there.”
Chris rose from the booth, moving through the sparse gathering of patrons toward the door. Buck followed behind him as if tethered by an invisible cable. He held his questions until Chris started the truck and backed out of the parking space.
“Well?” Buck asked.
“Ezra picked up one of the ‘Children,’” Chris answered, sneering the word like a curse, “and he’s taking her to a safe house.”
“Does she know where JD is?” Buck asked.
“I’ll bet you my right nut she does,” Chris growled, pulling into the passing lane and accelerating to well above the speed limit.
The beating was brutal. JD was only barely conscious when the rain of blows finally stopped. Several pair of hands reached out to release the straps and ease him off of the table. JD was aware of motion, of being moved, but he was unable to do anything more than draw shuddering breaths, there was no fight left in him.
When they finally allowed JD to slump to the floor, it was in a small, dark cell. He hurt so badly that he wished for the oblivion of unconsciousness but it managed to remain tantalizingly just out of reach, kept away by the waves of pain washing over his body. He curled into a fetal position, keeping his bruised forearms tucked tightly against his ribs.
The darkness and the unceasing cold did almost as much to break JD’s will as the beating and near starvation. When he wakened some time later, he began to pound on the door, begging to get out, promising never to try to run away again. When he was too weak and too exhausted to keep that up, he sank into the corner, wrapped his arms around his legs and began to rock, murmuring the phrases he had been taught over and over.
When JD awakened next, he was in a different room. A young woman with curly blonde hair was seated near the foot of the bed, cutting something from a piece of paper. JD tried to move, just to turn his head and look around but it hurt and a groan of pain escaped his lips. Immediately, the girl laid her work aside and came to kneel next to him.
“Try not to move, Brother. Your body is still healing.”
“Where am I?” he asked, not recognizing the raw, croaking voice as his own.
“You are in the infirmary,” she replied as she offered him a straw.
The people who tended to JD were unfailingly gentle with him but they never stopped reciting the doctrine of The Children to him. They told him over and over that he would suffer worse pain if he went back to his former life. And JD, who remembered only too well the small room filled with darkness and pain, would shudder and vow never, ever to go back.
On Friday, JD was allowed out of bed for the first time. Two of the young men helped him to the showers and waited for him to come out. They helped him to dry off and dressed him in garments that were very nearly white. He was escorted to morning reflection and given a swatch of carpet to kneel on. There were tears rolling down his cheeks as he silently mouthed the mantra in his head, ‘I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished. I am a Child of Adam. …’
For breakfast, JD was given a bowl of oatmeal sweetened with honey, a banana and a piece of toast. When he lifted his glass, he found it filled with milk. After breakfast, he returned to work, making more of the beaded bracelets. When Sean came in to check on the group’s progress, JD went to his knees at the other man’s feet, weeping and begging for forgiveness. Sean knelt down beside the penitent JD and gently wrapped an arm around him.
JD’s energy began to flag around mid-morning and he was excused to return to the infirmary. Instead of going to the infirmary, he went to the reflection room and knelt in his place on the carpet square. He was still chanting when the others were dismissed for lunch.
Darcy was handcuffed to a kitchen chair. She had remained quiet during the drive over, only the occasional whisper passing from her lips. Ezra was sure it was some kind of doctrine. He heard car doors slamming and got up to look out the window, his lips set in a tight line while he moved to open the door for Chris and Buck.
Buck stared at the blonde girl for all of a few seconds before he launched his interrogation with, “Where the hell is he? Where is JD?”
“All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished. You will be vanquished,” Darcy recited, keeping her chin tucked to her chest.
“What have they done with him?” Buck shouted. When the girl continued her litany, he reached out and gripped her chin, forcing her head back. “You ain’t seen evil yet, little girl! But you will if you don’t tell me what you and your friends have done with JD!”
“I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam,” Darcy whispered as she clenched her eyes closed and struggled against the handcuffs that held her to the chair.
“Buck, take it easy,” Chris urged, reaching out to place his hand on one of Wilmington’s tense shoulders. He was fully prepared for what came next.
“TAKE IT EASY?!?” Buck shouted. “Her friends have got JD and they’re doing God knows what to him and you want me to take it easy?”
Josiah arrived next, slipping into the room and quickly surveying the situation.
“She’s just a kid, Buck,” Chris said, his tone even and controlled, “And screaming at her isn’t going to help.” He reached out and pulled Wilmington’s hand away from the girl’s chin. “Come on, let’s go make a pot of coffee, it’s going to be a long evening.”
After the evening reflection, JD was moved to another cell in the bunker. The new room had only a bed in it but it was warm and there were blankets and a pillow for him to use. He was still standing there, marveling over the situation when Joanie stopped in the doorway.
“You’ve made it! You aren’t an initiate anymore!” she said joyfully.
“What does … what does that mean? What happens now?” JD asked, suddenly anxious.
Joanie moved into the room and took him by the arm, guiding him so they could both sit on the side of his bed. She gathered both of his hands in her smaller hands and smiled as she explained.
“It means that you’ve passed the test! You’ve been accepted as one of us. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to go with us to gather new initiates.”
“Is that all we do? I mean, isn’t there other work?” JD asked.
“Well, there’s also tending the gardens and working in the kitchen but working in the harvest field to bring new souls to Father Adam is so rewarding!” she replied enthusiastically. “And soon, very soon, we are all going to paradise with Father Adam!”
Something about her words stirred up a bubble of alarm in JD’s mind but he pushed it aside. He was tired and he needed to rest if he was going to complete his quota of bracelets the next day. Joanie slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her. JD waited for several minutes before he got up and went over to assure himself that it wasn’t locked. He nervously turned the knob, holding his breath as he pulled. The panel opened easily and he smiled, closing it carefully. He shook out the quilt that was folded neatly on the foot of the bed and crawled beneath it, sighing deeply as his aching body began to relax. There was no sobbing coming from the next room to keep him awake and JD immediately drifted into a deep, sound sleep.
Nathan arrived with Vin, both having stopped to pick up supplies. Vin carried the pizza boxes directly into the kitchen and spread them out on the counter. Nathan carried his contribution to the refrigerator. They had both noticed Buck sitting dejectedly at the kitchen table and Vin offered him first pick of the pizza.
They all tried talking to the girl, who refused to even give them her name, but she continued to chant softly, rocking within the confines of the restraints. Buck flew into a fit of rage twice and had to be held back to keep him from taking hold of her. Josiah was able to get a little more out of her, but it was only vague Bible references to the coming end of the world and going to Paradise with the believers.
Throwing a pizza crust into the box, Chris studied his oldest friend. Buck was tense and angry, a truly dangerous combination. His anger was fueled by his concern for the young man who had become a brother in all but blood. Chris didn’t know how much longer they could hold the girl. By Monday, Orin would be looking for them to be in the office and they couldn’t leave her alone at the safe house.
“Would you like a drink of water?” Nathan asked, kneeling in front of the blonde. She looked at the bottle of water and licked her lips but shrank from it when he brought it closer to her face.
It was close to two in the morning. Chris had sent the others to get some sleep while he watched over the girl, who was slumped bonelessly in the chair, asleep. Something about the fact that she was sleeping while he and the others were worrying about JD annoyed the team leader and he got up from the overstuffed chair where he had been sitting. He padded silently across the room and flicked the girl on the ear, hard. She startled awake, jerking upright in the chair and looking around the darkened room fearfully.
“Where are they holding JD?” Chris asked in a low, menacing voice.
“I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam,” Darcy whispered. She was more than a little frightened of the blond man.
“JD isn’t a child of Adam! He’s my friend and I want to know where he is!” Chris hissed. “And if he’s been hurt, so help me God, I will see to it that you and your little friends pay!”
The sound of footfalls on the carpet made Chris turn to find Ezra standing by the counter that divided the living room and kitchen. The southerner met his gaze calmly before doing an about-face and moving toward the coffee maker. Five minutes later, Chris was again seated in the overstuffed chair sipping a scalding cup of coffee and glaring balefully at the girl.
Saturday morning dawned and JD was awakened by the sound of someone knocking lightly at his door. He sat up in bed, looking around at the new room again with awe. The door opened and a blond teenager peered inside.
“It’s time for morning reflection,” he called out.
“I’ll be right there,” JD responded, pushing the blankets back and setting his feet on the floor. He yawned and stretched, scratching at the scruffy hair growing along his jaw line. He would have to ask about getting a razor after reflection.
Taking his place in the reflection room, JD closed his eyes and began to mentally review his actions from the previous day. He was ashamed that he lacked the energy to complete his quota of bracelets and silently vowed to do better. As he was reciting the soothing litany of phrases he had learned, there was a disturbance at the back of the room.
“No! No! I don’t want to be here!” the young woman protested as she was forced to kneel on the rough mat. The intimidating balding man, whose name JD had yet to learn, drew back as if to strike her and the woman became silent. She seemed to curl in on herself and began to whisper the chant.
JD returned to his own reflection. Every so often, he would hear the woman sniffle and a feeling of disquiet stirred in his heart. As soon as they were dismissed, he got up from his mat and tried to make his way back to her.
“Where are you going?” Joanie asked, catching hold of his hand and pulling him toward the wall. “I was just coming to tell you that you’ve been moved to another work station!”
“Another work station?” JD repeated questioningly. “What am I going to be doing?”
“Making tracts to hand out. It’s really easy and we can talk while we work,” she answered enthusiastically. “Father Adam is supposed to be back today!”
After a shower and shave, JD joined the others in the dining room for breakfast. He noticed that the young woman who had disturbed reflection was seated at the table where he used to sit. He had been given permission to sit with Joanie and Phillip’s groups at another table. JD watched the woman as she poked disinterestedly at her Cream of Wheat and he felt guilty about the sweetened oatmeal he was having.
Assembling tracts consisted of collating the three pieces of paper and placing a staple in the corner. JD quickly fell into the rhythm of the work and began filling a box with the completed products.
The loud crash of a door being ripped from its moorings woke Chris early Saturday morning. He rolled from the bed, grabbing his weapon from the nightstand, and made his way into the hall.
Josiah dropped the spatula and grabbed for his gun, jerking it out of the holster clipped to his belt and aiming it at the front door. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nathan and Vin coming down the steps, both with their weapons in hand.
The coffee cup slipped from Buck’s fingers, missing the table he had been about to set it on. He shot to his feet, his right hand going around for the weapon tucked into the back of his pants.
Ezra stepped out of the bathroom, releasing a plume of steam. He had shaving cream on one side of his face and a damp towel lying across his shoulders but he had his gun, primed and ready.
“ATF! FREEZE!” Buck shouted, leveling his gun on the man in the doorway.
Two men, dressed in black assault gear, stepped into the living room, M16 rifles held ready to fire. Emblazoned across their vests were large white letters announcing them as members of the FBI. Two more men, similarly dressed, slipped past the first two, followed by a familiar figure wearing just the Kevlar vest over his street clothes.
“Agent Singer, FBI. Where is Agent Larabee?” the man asked.
Stepping out of the hall as he shoved his gun into the back of his jeans, Chris glared at the other man. He briefly made eye contact with each of his men and they lowered or holstered their weapons. Josiah turned the burner off under the skillet of potatoes he had been cooking and turned on the exhaust fan.
“What are you doing here, Agent Singer?” Chris asked.
“I ran across a report this morning that seemed to indicate you might have captured one of the Children of Adam. I was curious as to why you hadn’t brought her in so I had one of my people locate your cell phone,” the FBI agent replied snidely. “Imagine my surprise at finding that you were here, instead of at the federal building where you should be when interrogating a suspect.”
“We just wanted to find out where they’re holding JD and we didn’t want to take a chance on her calling one of the group and blowing the whistle,” Chris explained.
Crossing the room to where the blonde girl sat, staring up at him with wide, frightened eyes, Agent Singer scowled. He gestured to one of his men, who immediately passed off his weapon and moved to kneel behind the chair. In seconds, he had the girl’s hands released from the chair and had secured them in front of her.
“You’re lucky I don’t haul the lot of you in for kidnapping!” Singer threatened.
“But she knows where they’re holding JD!” Buck protested.
“And you think this is going to persuade her to tell you?” Singer asked. He looked disgusted at the plastic under the chair and the dark, wet stain on the girl’s jeans. “Travis is going to hear about this,” he snarled.
After watching the FBI agents escort their only link to JD out of the safe house, Buck turned on Chris angrily.
“What in the hell are we going to do now?” he shouted.
An excited murmur reached into the small room where JD and the others were assembling leaflets. Father Adam swept into the room, looking radiant in his blindingly white garments. He greeted each of them warmly, enfolding them in his arms lovingly. When it was JD’s turn, he timidly rose from his seat.
“I see that you have made it past initiate,” Father Adam said as he wrapped his arms around JD. “You will be with us in Paradise,” he whispered.
“I am a Child of Adam,” JD replied.
As Father Adam went on around the room, JD sank into the metal folding chair and reached for another pile of leaflets. Something about the way it felt when the taller, older man held him was stirring a feeling of unease. He remembered when his friends had similarly hugged him and the warmth and camaraderie of the moment washed over him.
“All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished,” JD whispered.
“What?” Peter asked.
Startled out of his reverie, JD gasped softly, “I … I was just thinking.”
That evening, during reflection, Father Adam reported on the other groups of Children that were growing larger and larger. His voice was hypnotic, lyrically rising and falling, drawing them in as he lovingly wove his verbal spell.
“Very soon, my children, we will open the Doorway and enter into Paradise,” Father Adam announced. “We must begin the preparation.”
Sunday morning saw the remaining members of Team 7 at the Larabee ranch. They had been forcibly turned away from the interrogation room where the blonde girl was being held. They had fingerprinted her and identified her as Darcy Whitelaw, from a small town near Indianapolis. Her parents had reported her missing over 8 months earlier after she failed to return from a revival being held at a small, empty church on the outskirts of town. They had been contacted and were on their way to Denver.
Agent Singer assured Chris that, if the girl should reveal the whereabouts of his man, he would be in touch. Otherwise, they were forbidden to have any contact with her.
The mood was somber as they cleaned up after lunch. Buck had hardly eaten anything, pushing his food around on his plate until Josiah took it from in front of him and scraped it into the trash. Wilmington left the table, going outside to lean against the corral rails and stare up at the mountains in the distance.
From his place on the porch, Chris watched his friend. He had been on the phone off and on all afternoon Saturday and several times already that morning, trying to find anyone who could put pressure on Agent Singer to get them access to Darcy. He pulled every string he could think of, begging for help. He imagined that there were phones ringing all over the capitol.
“We’ll get him back,” Vin said, leaning against the porch railing next to Chris.
“I know,” Chris replied. “But what kind of shape is he going to be in when we do?”
Both men were surprised when Wilmington strode away from the corral, heading for the vehicles parked in front of the house.
“Aw hell,” Vin groaned as he turned to follow Chris through the house.
“Gonna need help,” Chris announced to the others, yanking the front door open and flinging the screen door back. He quickly crossed the porch and bounded down the steps. Buck was at his truck, pulling the door open and getting ready to slide behind the wheel when Larabee got to him.
“You’re not going,” Chris declared, grabbing the door to prevent Buck from closing it. Vin, Buck and Nathan quickly moved in behind him, waiting anxiously to see what would happen next.
“She’s going to tell me where he is if I have to beat it out of her!” Buck growled, jamming the key in the ignition and starting the engine. He pulled on the door, scowling at Chris’ hand that prevented him from slamming it like he wanted. Tromping down on the gas, Buck raced the engine.
Ezra hurriedly started the engine of his Jag and maneuvered it in behind Buck’s truck, praying that he wouldn’t back into it. He shut off the motor and leapt out, moving to join the others crowded around the open door of the truck.
“Move it or lose it, Ezra!” Buck warned, grabbing the stick and putting the transmission into reverse.
“Buck, don’t do this. Travis will take your badge if you go down there,” Chris said.
“I don’t care! We have to find him before they-” his voice caught in his throat, unable to speak of the horrific things he imagined they would do to his friend before they killed him.
“We’ll get him back. You just have to be patient,” Vin said.
Sunday morning, right after breakfast, Father Adam called all of them together for an announcement. He explained that he had been gifted with a vision and that it showed him one more thing they had to do before following him into Paradise.
“My children, you must each take a mate. As God ordered Noah to take into the Ark two of every animal, I must take my followers two by two. If there is someone among your group that you wish to join, please go and take their hand. If we must, we will complete the pairings when the other groups arrive,” Father Adam explained.
A small hand intruded upon his and JD turned to find Joanie at his side. She smiled up at him and he couldn’t help but smile back.
One by one, the couples were blessed by Father Adam. He instructed them to make bracelets for each other, using whatever design was pleasing to them; that would become the symbol of their unity. When the couples left the reflection room, those who remained paired up as many they as could, leaving three of the young men without a mate.
Joanie and JD completed their bracelets, fastening them on each other’s wrists. They kissed, JD pulling Joanie into his arms and cradling her. He felt a brief flash of guilt, but it was quickly buried as his new mate pressed against him. They had been blessed by Father Adam, but he admonished them that they were not to share intimate relations until he told them to.
Monday morning, the members of Team 7 shuffled listlessly into their office. After they managed to coax Buck out of his truck, he had proceeded to get falling down, stinking, roaring drunk. In deference to the Texas-sized hangover he was suffering, they cut out all unnecessary noise. Vin stood on Nathan’s desk and disconnected the inter-office speakers that pumped Muzak throughout the building.
Chris powered up his computer and started reading the assorted memos that he had received. He forwarded a couple of court reminders to Vin and Ezra and noted them on his electronic calendar. He acknowledged receipt of a notice from accounting, telling him that his expense vouchers were due in by Wednesday. He whittled down the list until he was left with just one. Drawing a deep breath, he clicked on that final memo.
The message was short and sweet. It read ‘My Office - Immediately!’ and was electronically signed by Orin W. Travis.
Orin’s secretary glanced toward the small couch opposite Travis’ office door. Chris took a seat, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and pressed his palms against the sides of his head. He had screwed up and he knew it. Now it was time to pay the piper.
When the buzzer on the secretary’s desk buzzed, Chris looked up expectantly. She nodded to him, flashing a sympathetic smile. He crossed the carpeted office and reached for the door knob. Drawing a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped into the room.
“Sit down,” Orin snapped. Chris took a seat in one of the desk chairs facing Travis’ desk. “I want you to know that I understand what you’re going through,” Orin offered gently. “But that doesn’t excuse your flagrant violation of that young woman’s rights.”
Chris swallowed the argument that leapt into his throat at the hard look on the other man’s face. He dragged his eyes away and stared down at the hand that lay clenched in his lap.
“I know that I have often given you leeway in how you do your job. That was my mistake. Now I have to decide how to respond to the request that Agent Singer has made and the charges he wants to bring against you.”
“I take full responsibility for the actions of my team. It was my decision not to turn the girl over to the FBI,” Chris stated.
“Somehow I doubt that you made that decision in a vacuum, Chris. You had five other men with you, men who knew the rules as well as you do. As I said, I do understand. JD is a member of your team and a friend and you don’t want to sit on the sidelines,” Orin said. He stared into the weary hazel eyes and his determination wavered for a moment. “But I have to agree with Agent Singer. You have clearly violated Miss Whitelaw’s personal rights. Her parents have agreed not to seek charges against you as long as you are disciplined.” He saw the flash of anger light the hazel eyes and continued to speak, “Your team is on suspension for the rest of the week, without pay. You are not to have anything to do with the search for Agent Dunne-” he raised his voice over the protest that Chris was making.
“You can’t do this! We have to find him!” Chris shouted, coming to his feet and closing the space between himself and the desk.
“Don’t make me have to double it,” Orin warned.
Chris opened his mouth. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Travis to take his job and shove it up his ass but something held him back. He remained, standing stiffly over the polished mahogany desk, shuddering with the need to smash something.
“Dismissed,” Orin said calmly.
The furious team leader made it all the way to his office before he let go. He kicked the waste basket, which hit the wall and bounced back at him like a ball. He kicked it again, and again. Finally, he picked it up and slammed it against his door, shattering the ribbed, frosted glass that filled the upper half.
“I gather that Travis has been advised of our activities?” Ezra asked.
“Pack it in, we’ve been suspended,” Chris replied angrily.
Buck rose slowly from his chair and turned toward the door. He didn’t say anything and his expression remained one of pained weariness. Vin turned to follow him, not wanting to risk Wilmington taking a run at Travis and getting himself fired.
Ezra slipped something out of his computer and slid it into his pocket as he powered down the tower. He picked up his briefcase and followed the others out of the offices. Just because they were on suspension didn’t necessarily mean their hands were tied.
The tension in the elevator was such that no one else would get on with them as they descended to the parking garage. Before the doors opened, Ezra made a suggestion,
“Josiah’s house is within reach of a wireless tower, making it harder to trace an electronic incursion into their computer network.”
The bunker was fairly quiet on Monday, as many of the Children went out to try to gather more believers. JD saw the newest Initiate, who was bracketed between two of the other young women. He was surprised to see a beaded bracelet around her wrist, indicating she had been chosen as a mate. Knowing that the woman couldn’t know any of the young men well enough to choose any of them, he realized that she had been chosen, that she would be forced into a relationship with someone she barely knew. That bothered him and drove him to seek Father Adam.
Brother Roger and Brother William were standing guard outside of Father Adam’s office, which was nearest to the exit to the bunker. JD approached them and made his request to see Father Adam. William went in to ask, leaving JD with Roger, who glared at him while there was no one else there to see.
The door opened and Father Adam beckoned JD to come in. He stepped past the intimidating Brother Roger and slipped into the room, closing the door behind him.
“Sit down, my son,” Father Adam said, gesturing to one of the folding chairs that faced the table he was using as a desk. “What did you need to speak to me about?” he asked.
“I just don’t think I understand something,” JD hesitantly began. “The new Initiate, Kelly, she’s wearing a bracelet.”
“Yes? Why is that a problem for you?”
“She doesn’t even know anyone here yet. How can she be paired with someone she barely knows?” JD asked. He fingered his own bracelet, realizing that he had only known Joanie for a handful of days.
“Sister Kelly had a mate chosen for her, someone who is strong in belief and can help her along the path to enlightenment,” Father Adam explained.
“But suppose she doesn’t … like him,” JD continued.
“She will learn to love him, just as I love each of you and just as you love your mate,” Father Adam replied. He could see that the young man was struggling with his beliefs. “Perhaps you should spend a day in the reflection room,” he suggested, ringing the buzzer to bring William and Roger into the room. “Please escort Brother JD to the reflection room and see that he gets an initiate’s mat, he needs to remember all that we have taught him.”
JD tensed as the two muscular men took hold of his arms and drew him to his feet. He knew better than to resist. He managed a final, pleading gaze at Father Adam before he was pulled from the room.
The pebbly surface of the mat dug into the tender skin of his knees as JD’s weight bore down on them. He kept his hands folded and at shoulder height, staring at the single candle on the altar as he recited the litany they had taught him. When he shifted on the mat, new needles of pain dug into his knees, bringing tears to his eyes. The others joined him for the midday reflection but he was not allowed to leave with them when they were dismissed. Joanie hung back until Roger forced her to leave.
Once all of them arrived at Josiah’s, Ezra set up his laptop and inserted the disk he had made from his office computer. Several tension-filled minutes later, the FBI logo appeared on the screen.
“How are you doing that?” Nathan asked, backing away from the laptop like it was going to bite him.
Ezra ignored the question and began rapidly typing a series of commands into the directory file. He quickly ejected the first disk and inserted a second. More commands were typed until a small mouse icon scurried across the screen. Within seconds, a file appeared.
“That’s the feeb’s file on that Whitelaw girl,” Vin exclaimed.
Buck nudged Vin aside and began to scour the words on the screen. When he got to the bottom, he placed his hand on Ezra’s shoulder and Standish advanced the page.
They both saw it at the same time. Chris backed away from the group gathered around the laptop and whipped out his cell phone. He had punched in six numbers when Josiah held out another phone.
“That is my personal Blackberry. It has a scrambler on it, in case we are being monitored,” Ezra explained without looking away from the document he was still reading. Darcy had admitted that the group was going to be recruiting in Boulder, Brighton and Longmont. Peripherally, he was listening in on the call Chris was making.
“Jack, Chris, listen, I need a favor from you. Yeah, I know, but this will clear all the markers I’m holding at one time. I need a box van, untraceable. It has to have out of state plates. Today. Yes, I’m serious. Can I come pick it up? Three? Okay, I’ll be there.”
Disconnecting the call, Chris addressed his team, “I’m going to pick up a van. If we spot JD with any of those people, we’ll have to do a snatch and go. Vin, will you drive me up and follow me back with the van?” He paused just long enough to see Tanner nod. “Josiah, can you round up a couple of mattresses for the van?” Sanchez immediately nodded. “Nathan, you’ll need to gather whatever medical supplies you think we’re going to need.”
“What exactly are you planning to do?” Nathan asked.
Josiah interrupted Chris to provide an answer, “If they have JD out on the street, and if they have broken him to their way of things, he will, in all likelihood, resist us if we approach him.”
“Sounds like you’ve had some experience with this,” Buck said, pinning the older man with an intense stare.
“My father used to do a few deprogramming sessions a year when I was a teenager. The Moonies were big back then. He occasionally brought me along to help,” Josiah admitted.
“You really think he’ll resist?” Buck asked, struggling to wrap his brain around the idea that JD wouldn’t be relieved to see them.
“I said ‘if’ they have broken him, Buck. I’ve seen kids fight their own family when the brainwashing is deep enough.”
“But JD’s not like that,” Buck protested.
“Buck, do you remember Patti Hearst? She resisted her captors until they finally broke her and she ended up helping them rob banks,” Josiah explained.
“But that was Stockholm Syndrome!” Buck said.
“What kind of supplies do you think we’ll need? And where are you planning to take him to de-program him?” Nathan asked.
“Take him? What do you mean ‘take him’?” Buck asked.
“Take it easy,” Chris warned, stepping up to block Buck’s path to Nathan and Josiah.
Buck angrily deflected the arm Chris put out to block him. He took a step closer to the other two men, drawing breath to repeat his question when Ezra interrupted.
“The FBI thinks that JD will be taken to Longmont. It ties into something the young woman told them. But there’s a memo here …” Ezra’s voice tapered off suddenly.
“What’s it say?” Buck asked.
“That they are not to try to force Agent Dunne to accompany them if he doesn’t want to go with them,” Ezra replied.
“Why?” Buck roared. “He’s been kidnapped and held against his will!”
JD’s hands dipped below his shoulders and it hurt too much to raise them again. He had been kneeling on the rough-pebbled mat for the better part of the day. He was hungry and thirsty and tired. He had been repeating the litany until it was just meaningless noise. His head dipped toward his chest.
A hand caressed the back of his head and JD flinched. Someone dressed in startlingly white clothes knelt in front of him, gathering him in close.
“My precious, beautiful child,” Father Adam crooned. “You must stop resisting and accept our love for you.” He rocked JD gently, absorbing the twitches of muscles held in one position too long. “All is as it should be. You will be with us in Paradise.”
Melting bonelessly into the supportive embrace, JD closed his eyes. He could still see the single candle, its image burned onto his mind. Other hands touched him and he whimpered, clinging desperately to the one who had been comforting him.
“Peace, child, they are here to help you,” Father Adam soothed.
“I am a Child of Adam,” JD whispered as his hands were pried from the older man’s clothes. “All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished,” he continued as he was carried back to his room.
Gentle hands sponged the blood from his knees and tucked him into bed after coaxing a cup of warm broth down his throat. JD drifted off to sleep, still faintly murmuring to himself.
Chris returned with the van and Josiah was ready with mattresses to pad the floor and walls. Nathan had his kit in the back of his Jimmy. Josiah sat all of them down and explained what was going to happen when they grabbed JD. Buck, while vehemently denying that his roommate would be anything less than pleased to see them, sat and patiently listened to everything that was discussed.
Because they didn’t know which town JD might be sent to, they split into pairs. Vin and Josiah would cruise around in Tanner’s jeep in Boulder, Chris and Buck in Longmont in the van and Nathan and Ezra in Brighton in the Jimmy. If they spotted JD, they would contact the others and follow him until the entire group arrived.
“I was able to secure us an isolated cabin,” Vin announced. “One of my contacts in the rangers keeps a little place up here for hunting,” he explained, pointing out the site on the map.
“We’ll need to go set it up,” Josiah said.
“I thought as much. He’s meeting us at the truck stop on 25 in half an hour,” Vin replied. “We’d better get moving.”
“I still don’t understand why we have to take him all the way out in the middle of nowhere to do this,” Buck protested on the drive to the cabin. Chris and Vin were riding in the van, which was loaded with the things Josiah felt they would need when they got there.
“Because we have to keep him off balance until we get through to him,” Josiah explained. “If they have truly brainwashed him, he will do anything to return to them. Or he may try to hurt himself, forcing us to take him to a hospital where he can escape.”
A couple of hours later, the cabin was ready. They had cleaned out one of the rooms, moving all of the furniture into the other room. Boards had been placed over the windows and Vin disconnected the wires from the wall sockets, leaving only the single overhead light with current. They placed a mattress from Josiah’s spare bedroom in the floor. Chris changed the knob on the door to the room so it only opened from the outside. Ezra and Nathan brought in groceries and stocked the cabinets for several days’ meals.
By the time they got back to Denver, it was dark and they all needed to rest. Their vehicles were gassed up and ready to go. They would set out at first light to begin cruising the streets looking for JD.
JD awakened to find something warm weighing down his arm. He raised his head and saw a mop of red hair. His shoulders and knees hurt, reminding him of the day spent in the reflection room. The need to move forced him to waken Joanie.
Her eyes sprang open and Joanie immediately reached out to caress his cheek. “I’m so glad you’re awake,” she said. “You were crying out in your sleep.”
Sitting up on the side of the bed, JD scrubbed at his stubbled face. He had only a vague memory of his dreams and it left him feeling anxious and a little afraid.
“I’ll be right back,” he told her as he left the room and headed for the restroom down the corridor. He seriously debated taking a shower and shaving but he didn’t want to leave his mate alone that long.
The bed was straightened to almost military perfection when JD returned to his room. Joanie rose from where she was seated on the foot of the bed and wrapped her arms around him.
“I can’t wait until Father Adam gives us permission to lie together,” Joanie whispered.
JD reached up and removed her arms from around his shoulders, gathering her hands in his and guiding her back to the foot of the bed.
“You said that I cried out in my sleep. What was I saying?”
“You kept calling for Buck and telling him you needed help. Who is Buck? Is he one of your friends?”
JD suddenly remembered parts of the dream, of running from Brother Phillip and Brother Roger, both of whom were wielding cane poles. The bunker was a never-ending maze of tunnels and corridors that seemed to stretch on forever.
“Is he an unbeliever?” Joanie pressed.
“No! … Yes … I don’t know,” JD replied. “My friends are not evil.”
“All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished,” Joanie prompted.
“My friends are not evil!” JD shouted.
Armed with a thermos of fresh, hot coffee and having eaten one of Josiah’s Spanish omelets, the six men split up and headed out to begin their search. Chris and Buck had one of the new, disposable cell phones that they had picked up on the way home from the cabin, their ATF issued phones having been disabled and left at Josiah’s. Vin and Josiah had the other one while Ezra and Nathan would continue to use Ezra’s Blackberry.
Even though they had virtually untraceable phones, they still planned to send only the barest amount of information in case they were somehow being monitored. Each team was also equipped with a GPS and they would text the location in latitude and longitude.
Vin and Josiah started near the mall in Boulder. Because school was out for summer vacation, they figured it was the most likely place for the Children to try recruiting. Most of the mall shops were still closed but they were able to speak to the security officers who patrolled the area. They showed pictures of JD and the other members of the group and asked the officers to call if they saw any of them.
Chris and Buck drove the streets of Longmont, looking for any groups of young people. Like Vin and Josiah, they had gone to the mall and asked if anyone who worked there had seen any of the people in the pictures. Buck turned on the charm and told them that JD was his little brother and that they just wanted to talk to him. They also stopped at a video game store, where a lot of kids were already hanging out and spoke to the people who worked there.
Ezra and Nathan drove the streets of Brighton, intently studying any groups of young people that they saw. When their scrutiny was noticed by the local cops, they were quick to assure them that they were only looking for their missing friend. They cruised the local parks and around the high schools, any place where a group of young men might gather for a game of basketball.
Around midday, Josiah noticed a group of young people handing out leaflets. Although none of their faces were familiar, Vin decided to see what kind of information they were handing out. Stowing his gun and badge in the glove box, he leapt out of the Jeep and began to mingle with the crowd along the sidewalk. A pretty brunette quickly sidled up to him and began her pitch.
“Have you ever heard of the Doorway to Heaven?” she asked.
“I’ve heard of Stairway to Heaven,” Vin replied, giving her an engaging smile. “That’s a song,” he added.
“Would you be interested in coming to a party? We’re having a little get-together on Friday night,” she said.
“Oh really? Where?”
The girl handed him a leaflet. As soon as Vin had hold of the paper, she reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a small Ziploc bag. She caught hold of his hand and secured a beaded bracelet around his wrist.
“That will get you in,” she explained.
JD and Joanie were sent to work in the kitchen that day. After making and serving breakfast, they had to make sandwiches for the groups that were going out into the harvest fields. When they were finished with that, they started working on lunch for the others.
Kelly was escorted into the dining area by Brother Roger and Sister Cherie. The blonde woman had dark circles under her eyes and her hands shook almost uncontrollably. When JD took a pitcher of water to her table, he noticed that the bracelet Kelly was wearing matched the one on Roger’s wrist. He remembered what Father Adam had said, that Kelly was chosen by someone strong in belief to help her along the path. It only took one glance at the way Roger looked at the girl to see why he had chosen her.
Feeling sick about the situation with Roger and Kelly, JD quickly returned to the kitchen. He was in such a hurry to get away that he didn’t see the tall, intimidating, balding man until he bumped into him.
“Watch where you’re going!” the man snarled as he finished pouring a clear liquid into the large water cooler.
“What’s that?” JD asked, eyeing the container.
“The water here lacks vitamins and minerals,” the man explained. “So Father Adam has me add them to the water.”
The kitchen staff joined the others for reflection and JD was greatly relieved to see that he was allowed to return to his carpeted mat instead of the one that dug into his knees. But he found it difficult to concentrate on his actions when so many other thoughts were swirling through his mind. He found himself dwelling on his friends, the ones who were supposed to be so evil. Although he knew that Buck’s view on the world was not what Father Adam would deem to be appropriate, JD knew that Buck would never do anything deliberately to hurt him.
One by one, he thought about the men he worked with. Josiah was someone JD could talk to and know that he would get honest answers. Nathan, the most settled of them all, was the one whose life he most wanted to copy. He had visions of getting married, buying a home, raising a family.
Ezra was someone JD felt close to for reasons he hadn’t yet fully figured out. The southerner was the one he could count on to offer him another perspective on things without judging him. He was also part of the terrible trio who was responsible for so many of the pranks around the office. Ezra had a wicked sense of humor and was very patient in playing out practical jokes.
And then there was Vin. Except for Buck, Vin was the closest thing JD had ever had to a brother. Vin was the one who rode dirt bikes with him, played one on one basketball and took sky diving lessons with him. Even though Vin had already had experience jumping out of an airplane, he was the one who went along when JD expressed the desire to learn. And, of course, Vin was the only other one who would go on all the wild rides at the amusement park with him. Those were the people Father Adam insisted were evil, the ones he wanted to strike from JD’s life. And he just didn’t think he was ready to give them up.
That night, the team gathered at Josiah’s to go over what they had learned that day. They had gotten the same flyer in all three communities, the one advertising a party, but only Vin had been given the beaded bracelet.
“She said that this would get me into the party,” Vin explained, fingering the beads before lying the bracelet on the table.
“Maybe we should try to get a few more of them,” Chris suggested.
“You don’t mean to try to get into their party, do you?” Nathan asked.
“If it’s the only way to get to JD?” Chris replied, “I think we should try.”
“It’s obvious that they are targeting the younger people,” Josiah announced. “I watched them for a couple of hours and they only gave the bracelets to the teens and young twenties.”
“I’m only a few months older than he is!” Ezra protested.
“Same here,” Nathan added, “But all they gave me was a flyer.”
“You two carry yourselves different,” Vin explained. “They’re after people they can influence. They know that the two of you would never buy what they’re selling.”
“If that’s what it takes, I can be influenced,” Ezra stated. The look on his face convinced the others that he clearly had something in mind. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
“Where are you going?” Chris asked.
“Shopping,” Ezra called over his shoulder as he went out the door.
They should have remembered that Ezra was a chameleon. When he came down the stairs the next morning, each of them had to look twice. Vin was first to see him and he nudged Chris, who was reading the paper. Josiah turned around with a cup of coffee and stopped, staring slack-jawed at the southerner. Nathan and Buck each noticed the stunned profiler and turned to see what he was staring at.
Ezra was wearing a scruffy, tie-dyed tee shirt with a band logo on it and a pair of stone washed jeans with holes in the knees. His hair wasn’t styled, just washed and finger-combed around his face. But the thing that made the transformation so stunning was his posture. Ezra always carried himself proudly, always moved with the grace of a ballet dancer. But the man standing in the kitchen doorway was slouched, looking very much like the kids who hung out at the community center in Purgatory.
“Where did you get that outfit?” Chris asked, being the first to recover his voice.
“I simply availed myself of the selection of goods at the second-hand store run by the local Catholic parish,” Ezra replied.
“Uh, Nathan, you might want to hang back when Ezra tries to make contact,” Josiah offered. “I’ve noticed a pattern in the selection of recruits and I don’t think you’d be very welcome, if you get what I mean.”
It took a few seconds for Nathan to make the connection. When he did, he sank back against his chair. He saw the contrite looks the others were giving him and decided to try to lighten the mood.
“Heh,” he exclaimed, holding out his arm and turning it to look at both sides, “Would you look at that? I’m black!”
A horrified silence fell over the room for a moment until Buck shattered it with a laugh. It was the first positive show of emotion Wilmington had displayed since JD disappeared. He reached out and gave Nathan a friendly shove.
“I knew there was something different about you,” he replied. “Never woulda figured it out if you hadn’t pointed it out for me!”
JD took the bowl of oatmeal and a piece of toast but he passed on the glass of orange juice the woman tried to give him. He took his dishes and sat down, pointedly ignoring the glass of water Joanie poured for him.
“Is there something wrong, JD?” Joanie asked.
“Nope, just not thirsty,” he replied, digging into the warm, sweet cereal. He kept his eyes on his bowl so he missed the pointed looks being exchanged between Phillip and Roger.
Spending the morning pulling weeds in the garden, under Brother Phillip’s watchful eye, was still the best of all work. JD remembered when his mother had a small garden in a raised bed on the balcony of their apartment. He had loved eating the fresh, warm tomatoes.
The morning sun was hot and JD mopped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his smock. He bent down to pick up the small basket he was putting the weeds into and moved it farther down the row. When he got to the end, Phillip offered him a canteen of water.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” JD said. He moved to the next row and began pulling weeds out of the rows of sweet corn.
Midday reflection was about to begin when there was a disturbance at the rear of the room. Roger and Cherie were trying to force Kelly to kneel on one of the mats. Kelly was resisting, kicking and clawing at both of them. Roger drew back, fully intending to slap her full in the face when JD grabbed his wrist. A foot planted high on his calf caused his knee to fold and Roger wound up on the floor with JD holding his arm in a hammer lock.
“What is the meaning of this?” Father Adam asked, storming into the room to stand over JD and Roger. “Release him at once!”
JD let go, springing back when Roger would have liked to take hold of him. “He was going to hit her. You don’t ever hit a woman,” he explained.
Roger came to his feet and moved to tower over JD. His hands were clenched into fists and his shoulders heaved with every in-drawn breath.
“He has no right to tell me what to do with my mate!” Roger shouted.
“Then he shouldn’t be hitting her. If he really cared about her-” JD countered. Suddenly, JD realized that Father Adam was looking at him sadly. “It isn’t right!” he protested. “No man should ever raise his hand to a woman!”
“Take him,” Father Adam ordered.
“NO!” Joanie cried out, struggling to be free of the hands that held her back. “JD!”
JD struggled fiercely against the hands that took hold of him. But he was swept along like leaves in a swift current, helpless to do anything more than roar his frustration.
They wrestled him onto the table and began securing him with thick leather straps. In spite of the cooler temperatures in the underground bunker, JD’s skin was damp with sweat and he managed to jerk one of his feet free. He lashed out and heard a grunt of pain when his heel connected with someone’s jaw. He also managed to pull one of his hands away before they secured it and he drove the heel of his hand into the bridge of Roger’s nose, feeling the satisfying crunch as the bully fell away from the table, bellowing in pain.
So as not to alarm the Children of Adam, the teams switched places. Ezra and Nathan took Boulder, hoping Ezra would be able to pick up one of the beaded bracelets. Vin and Josiah went to Longmont and Chris and Buck went to Brighton.
The streets of Boulder were practically deserted when Ezra and Nathan arrived, allowing them a chance to familiarize themselves with the area. They watched as the town came to life, businesses opening, people leaving for work, mothers walking their little ones to the park to play. The older teens wouldn’t be up and about until closer to midday.
For some reason, Buck was more upbeat since they began a more active search for JD. He was much less tense as he sat in the van, waiting for the people of Brighton to be up and around. He and Chris shared a thermos of coffee and a small bag of bagels with cream cheese.
Vin and Josiah got caught in morning rush-hour traffic after an accident turned the freeway into a parking lot. By the time they got there, the Children had already arrived and were mingling with the young people hanging out at the arcade. Vin slipped out from behind the wheel and jogged over, falling in with the group. He challenged one of the boys to a game of air hockey and soon had a mob standing around the table cheering.
Nathan dropped Ezra off and circled the block. They had seen the curly-haired young man that JD bumped into at the mall. The entire group got off of a public transit bus, leaving the ATF agents wondering how they got from town to town. By the time he got in position to watch, Ezra had already infiltrated the group and was talking animatedly with their suspect.
“My friends just don’t understand me,” Ezra lamented. “I feel like there’s something more I should be doing but I don’t know what.”
“You should meet Father Adam. He could help you find what you’re looking for,” the curly-haired young man explained.
“My name is Ethan. What’s yours?” Ezra asked.
“I’m Brother Jeremy. These are my brothers and sisters. Would you like to meet Father Adam? I’m sure he could help you find your way.”
Some thirty or forty minutes later, Ezra got back in the Jimmy. Around his wrist was a beaded bracelet. They continued to watch discretely until the group broke up around four and got back on the bus.
Father Adam was upset. He had thought that the young ATF agent was a believer but it appeared that he was still resisting their programming. He would give the young man one more chance to become a believer or he would have to sacrifice him.
They didn’t even bother with the gag since Father banished all but those administering the punishment from the room. He even ordered Joanie locked in her room for the duration.
JD fought the restraints, even though he knew it was pointless. He screamed obscenities at them as they tore away his tunic and pants.
“You won’t get away with this! My friends will find me and they’ll make you pay!” JD shouted as he saw them getting ready to administer the first blows. His struggles made him glisten with sweat, which only served to make it sting worse each time the cane pole came down across his back. He screamed until he was hoarse and still the blows fell. Not even his hands and forearms were spared the brutality.
A gentle hand ghosted over his head and JD flinched away from it. But the hand remained, stroking over his sweat-soaked hair and speaking softly.
“You are a Child of Adam. You are a Child of Adam,” the insidious voice repeated.
“I am a Child … of Adam,” JD whispered hoarsely.
JD was barely conscious as he was lifted from the table and settled on his knees. Firm hands dug ruthlessly into his shoulders, keeping him upright as his arms were stretched out from his sides. Another hand tangled in his hair, forcing his head back. Cool water trickled down his throat and he swallowed it by reflex. The water tasted funny and it roused him slightly. He moaned, turning away from the lip of the cup being held to his mouth.
“Who are you?” Father Adam asked.
“JD … Dunne,” he replied.
Another blow struck his tender shoulder blades.
“Who are you?” Father Adam repeated.
“JD … Dunne,” he answered again.
Another blow caught him just below his shoulder blades, stealing his breath and making him try to pull away.
“Who are you?”
“A Child of Adam,” JD murmured.
This time, a gentle hand caressed his cheek and lifted his face. Another cup of cool water was held to his lips and he drank.
“Who is evil?” Father Adam asked.
“Unbelievers,” JD replied, his pain-fogged brain finally beginning to remember the doctrine he had been taught.
“Who are the unbelievers?”
“The unbelievers are evil,” he replied. He immediately realized that wasn’t the right answer as another blow landed across his shoulders.
“Who are the unbelievers? What are their names?” Father Adam shouted.
“Not Buck,” JD protested, tensing for the pain he was sure was coming. “Not Buck.”
“Is he a believer?” Father Adam challenged.
“He’s my friend,” JD sobbed as he began to feel disoriented.
“Who are the unbelievers?” Father Adam shouted.
It went on like that for what seemed like forever. JD sobbed and pleaded brokenly that Buck wasn’t evil and each and every time he said it, they struck him. Finally, exhausted and unable to stand it anymore, he spoke the words they wanted to hear.
“Buck is an unbeliever. Buck is evil. Evil must be vanquished,” JD sobbed.
Father Adam made him repeat it over and over, until it took the place of the other doctrine they had taught him.
Finally, they lowered his arms and someone passed a cool, damp cloth across his face. JD was shaking uncontrollably when Father Adam gathered him into his arms.
“I love you, my child. I’m sorry I had to punish your actions but I love you,” he said, gently kissing the top of JD’s head.
“I love you,” JD echoed, even as he slid into unconsciousness.
Returning to Josiah’s at the end of another fruitless day of searching, the team compared notes. Ezra had scored another bracelet, meaning two of them could possibly get into the party on Friday night in the hope of finding JD.
Vin flipped the pizza box closed and leaned back on the couch, stretching his legs out under the edge of the coffee table.
“If we go into that party, we can’t eat or drink anything,” he announced.
“You think they’re drugging them?” Nathan asked.
“I’d bet my Jeep on it,” he answered.
“Not much of a bet, is it, Ezra?” Chris teased.
“Indeed, the bet would have more weight if you were to wager something of value,” Ezra replied. “Were you able to learn anything more from them? They were exceptionally evasive in response to direct inquiries.”
“They were telling me about some doorway to Heaven or something,” Vin said around a mouthful of pizza.
“Do you mind? I would rather not see the product of your mastication,” Ezra announced, wrinkling his nose and turning away.
“They wouldn’t tell you where their hideout is?” Buck asked.
“I didn’t ask,” Ezra replied without thinking.
“You didn’t ask?” Buck repeated, his voice rising. He came to his feet and strode across the living room to stand over the end of the love seat where Ezra was sitting. “You didn’t ask?” he said again, glaring down at Standish.
“Buck?” Chris said, putting down his beer and starting to get up from the recliner.
“I didn’t ask either,” Vin interrupted. “I didn’t want to spook them.”
Chris shot a relieved smile across to Tanner, settling back in his chair only when he saw Buck’s tense shoulders loosen. Josiah reached out, sliding an arm around Wilmington and steering him back to the rocking chair he had been sitting in.
JD was returned to his room and Joanie was allowed in to tend to him. She gently bathed his bruised and battered body, and carefully applied arnica gel. At least two of his fingers were broken and Father Adam sent Malachi in to set them. The tall, intimidating, nearly bald man frightened Joanie. She pressed into the far corner of the room while he tended to JD’s fingers.
“Make sure that he drinks plenty of water,” he reminded her as he left the room.
Joanie rushed across the room and fell to her knees, carding her fingers gently through his long, dark hair. She lightly stroked his bruised hand before laying her head down next to his shoulder and closing her eyes to sleep.
Thursday saw the teams trading again. Chris and Buck took the jeep and went to Boulder, needing a change from riding around in the windowless van. Vin and Ezra took the van to Brighton, not intending to engage the group unless JD was with them. Nathan and Josiah cruised Longmont. It was hot and they had to keep moving to keep the Jimmy from overheating.
“That’s the man JD met at the mall,” Ezra said, gesturing toward the tall, curly-haired man who was chatting up a pair of what looked to be high school students.
The ATF agents watched as the young men and women accepted the bracelets that were pressed upon them. Ezra used the camera on his phone to record as many of the faces of the Children as possible. When they returned to the office, they would run the images through the missing person’s registry to see if they could identify any of them. Some of them undoubtedly had parents who were wondering where they were.
Chris was studying the group of young people mingling on the sidewalk in front of the small tattoo shop when Buck suddenly stiffened in his seat.
“Stop, stop!” Buck called, unbuckling his seatbelt as he started to open the door.
A cacophony of car horns sounded when the jeep suddenly lurched into the bus stop and came to a halt with a squeal of brakes.
“Buck, wait!” Chris called. But he was too late. Wilmington was already on the sidewalk and jogging back toward a group of young people standing around in front of a small sandwich shop.
His heart was in his throat as he hurriedly approached the group of youths. He strong-armed his way through until he reached the small table they were clustered around. The raven-haired man looked up at him, startled.
It wasn’t JD.
“Sorry, I thought you were someone I know,” Buck mumbled as he slowly backed away from the table. “Sorry,” he repeated.
Chris was standing on the sidewalk next to the jeep, watching as Buck strode back to him. He could tell that his friend was badly shaken. Wilmington slid into the still-open door of the Jeep and fumbled with his seatbelt.
“It wasn’t him,” Buck said dejectedly.
“I’m sorry,” Chris replied, reaching through the open window to rest his hand on Buck’s shoulder. He glanced back at the group of young people, some of whom were staring at him, and sighed. “We’ll find him,” he promised Buck, giving the tense shoulder a firm pat before withdrawing his hand and walking around to get behind the wheel again.
JD spent his Thursday in bed. He was suffering from muscle spasms that sent bolts of pure agony along his aching body. Joanie stayed at his side, coaxing him to eat and gently changing out the hot-water bottles she had brought to try to ease his pain. Quite unexpectedly, she began to talk.
“Brother Jeremy was here yesterday. He asked after you,” she said.
“Is he still here?” JD asked. He sincerely hoped that his friend would help him.
“No, he only stopped to pass along some news. There are de-programmers cruising the harvest fields. He thinks they took Darcy.”
“De- … programmers?” JD repeated, straining to sit up so he could see her eyes as she talked.
“Yeah, they snatch believers and return them to their evil lives,” she explained, shuddering. “Father Adam says that it would be better that we kill ourselves rather than allow the evil to corrupt us again.”
Remembering his Catholic upbringing, JD frowned, “But suicide is a mortal sin.”
“He said we will be forgiven if we kill ourselves rather than allow them to return us to our former, evil ways,” Joanie replied.
Some time later, JD was awakened to find Brother Malachi and Father Adam standing beside his bed. A cold wisp of fear curled around his heart as the intimidating, balding man helped him to sit upright on the side of the bed. He trembled as he sat there, looking up at the two imposing men.
“I have good news for you, child,” Father Adam said with a smile. “Tomorrow you will be going out with some of the others into the harvest field.”
“Tomorrow?” JD repeated.
“I want to show you that I trust you, my child. It will only be for a few hours. The time grows short and we must try to collect all of the souls we can before we enter Paradise.”
The wisp of fear squeezed and JD spat out the words that leapt into his mouth, “But Joanie said there are people out there who will try to take us away!”
“You won’t be alone. Your brothers and sisters will be there and they will protect you, just as you will protect them. You will be given different clothes in the morning,” Father Adam explained, “So that you will blend in with the unbelievers.”
“Eat and rest yourself,” Brother Malachi added.
After they left the room, JD carefully settled back into bed. For some reason, the very thought of going into the city filled him with hope … and with fear and dread.
Ezra was already matching his photos to people listed on the missing person’s website when Chris and Buck arrived at his condo. The team had moved from Josiah’s after seeing agents from another team in the area. Someone had already gotten them sandwiches from the local sub shop and there was cold beer in the refrigerator.
“I’ll be glad when this is over and we can go back to eating regular meals,” Nathan grumbled.
“Only because you have someone at home to cook for you,” Vin countered.
Chris tried not to crowd Ezra as he looked over his shoulder at the images on the monitor. It was from a website set up by parents who were looking for their missing children. There were pictures of the missing person, along with any notes from their family. Most were apologetic pleas for the child to return home but one caught his eye.
“Please come home, your father hasn’t long to live … cancer,” Chris read aloud.
“He isn’t in any of the pictures I’ve taken so far,” Ezra replied. “However, this young woman and this young man,” he opened the tabs at the bottom of his screen, “are with the group we saw today.”
“We love you and want you to come home,” Chris read next to the picture of a smiling, blonde high school student.
That night, Buck stood on the balcony of the loft he shared with JD and he stared toward the mountains in the distance. There was no guarantee that his roommate would be at the party that the team was planning on crashing the next evening and they would be left with no leads. He knew that Ezra had contacted several of the families of the ‘Children of Adam’ and that some of them were arriving to try to convince their wayward kids to return home. He also knew that some of them were going to do what he was hoping to do, forcibly remove their loved one from the group, if necessary.
It was going to be pandemonium.
JD opened his eyes the moment Joanie tapped lightly on his door. She slipped into the room and carefully placed a stack of clothing on the foot of the bed.
“Sleep good?” she asked. Father Adam had made her return to her room after final reflection, telling her that they both needed to rest up for the next day.
“Yeah, pretty good,” JD replied, groaning softly at the ache in his back and shoulders. Brother Malachi had given him two tablets of something for pain as he was leaving final reflection.
“A hot shower will make you feel much better,” she said, raking her fingers lightly through his hair.
JD rose unsteadily to his feet and slipped his arms around Joanie. He buried his face in her hair and sighed.
“Oh! I made you something,” she said, pulling out of his embrace. She held out another beaded bracelet. “Yours was broken when …” her words trailed off and she looked away. “May I put it on you?” she finally asked.
JD allowed her to fasten it around his wrist. She wrapped her hands around his, taking care not to jar the splint on his broken fingers. JD raised his other hand and tenderly stroked her face before leaning in to kiss her.
Taking his place at morning reflection, JD knelt. His head swam with the pain of his sore muscles as he tried to assume the correct position. It hurt to raise his arms and he was unable to hold back a soft grunt of pain. He looked around anxiously, hoping he hadn’t disturbed any of the others. JD trembled when he saw Brother Philip rising from his mat and coming across the room.
“You needn’t hold the position if it is too difficult,” Philip whispered. “Allow me to help you.”
Even sitting on his bottom was painful but JD found that chanting the phrases that had been literally beaten into his head helped to distract him from the pain.
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Buck is an unbeliever. Buck is evil. Evil must be vanquished. Buck must be vanquished. I am a Child of Adam,” JD whispered over and over.
The team met at Ezra’s the next morning. They would spend most of the day watching the ‘Children’ as they invited more people to their party. Chris doubted that they would bring JD out, he just hoped that Dunne would be at the party. For Buck’s sake, he prayed that they would find JD.
After breakfast, JD showered and dressed in the new clothes Joanie had brought him. The jeans were a little loose but there was a belt to cinch them up. The tee shirt was soft and didn’t irritate his tender back. He picked up the flannel outer shirt and carefully threaded his arms through the sleeves. Sitting on the side of his bed, he looked at the socks and sturdy hiking boots that were all that remained for him to put on. He knew that there was no way he could get them on without help.
Sipping coffee, Ezra and Josiah watched the group of young people milling around on the sidewalk. They were cheerfully handing out tracts and bracelets to the youths coming out of the fast food place across the street. After about an hour, the manager came out and asked them to move along.
Father Adam hugged each of them as they got into the large box truck. When it was JD’s turn, the older man gently embraced him before cupping his face and staring into his eyes. “Watch after your brothers and sisters, child,” he reminded.
“I will, Father Adam,” JD promised.
“Do you think they’ve really brainwashed him?” Buck asked suddenly, after nearly an hour of silent contemplation.
“I don’t know,” Chris answered. “But we’ll get him back.”
“What if he’s happy with them?” Buck asked, watching as the group of older teens frolicked on the corner at the end of the block.
“He was happy before,” Chris replied.
JD repeated the phrases that all of the others in the box truck were chanting. He hissed as the vehicle hit a pothole, throwing him bodily against the side wall and making his back throb. At his side, Joanie gave his hand a squeeze.
Some time later, the truck slowed to a stop. The back doors opened and the Brother Philip pointed to them, one by one, until about a third of them had gotten out. He reminded them of the pick-up time and sent them on their way. The next time it stopped, JD was apprehensive at seeing Roger in his group when he was chosen. Joanie and another young man helped him to his feet and steadied him as he climbed down to the ground.
“We’ll pick you up at 4:30,” Philip reminded them. A city transit bus rolled to a stop at the corner and he motioned for them to get on it.
Vin shifted in the van’s driver’s seat and took another sip from the large, Styrofoam cup of Dr. Pepper he was holding. Nathan had gone into the little deli on the pretense of getting sandwiches so he could get a look at the group of young people who had gotten off of the transit bus. He came out a few minutes later.
Tanner shifted from his slouched position; something in the way Nathan moved told him that they had finally hit pay dirt.
JD and the others rode the bus for several minutes. Sean came down the aisle, handing each of them a bag of tracts and bracelets. When the bus stopped, they all got off and went into a small deli. The young girl behind the counter greeted them warmly, taking the paper bags that held their lunches and putting them in the cooler. JD noticed the man at the counter, paying for sandwiches, but his attention was quickly diverted by Joanie, who pulled him over to a table to sit down.
The cell phone rang and Buck nearly leapt from his seat. Chris grabbed it and studied the information in the text message. Immediately, he punched the co-ordinates into the GPS unit sitting on the dash. He was still waiting for the unit to calculate the location when his other cell phone rang. Without taking his eyes from the GPS, he flipped the phone open and held it to his ear. The call had been forwarded from his ATF-issued cell.
“Larabee,” he said.
“Agent Larabee, this is Agent Singer. I don’t have much time. Your man has been spotted in Longmont. He’s at a deli on Main Street near 3rd.”
Chris looked over at Buck, his eyes widening in surprise, “We’re on our way.”
“Just remember, he has to go voluntarily or it’s kidnapping,” Singer said.
“Yeah, I remember,” Chris replied, snapping the phone closed and ending the call.
Ezra picked up his Blackberry and looked at the text message displayed. He immediately transferred the coordinates to the GPS application and told Josiah to hang on.
Josiah placed one hand on the dash as the Jaguar sped backwards out of the parking space and then immediately reversed direction and flew into the street. He cringed at hearing the low-slung car’s muffler grinding on the pavement.
Traversing the narrow side streets, Ezra soon reached the highway on-ramp. Midday traffic was mercifully light.
“Text Nathan that we’re at least ten minutes out,” Ezra said, not taking his eyes from the road. “See if he knows how long until the others arrive.”
JD and Joanie were paired with Sean and Katie. They left the deli and turned onto 3rd street. Sean urged them to cross the street and head for the local youth center. When they got there, they approached several teens who were leaning against the fence watching some others playing basketball. Sean looked pointedly at Joanie, who had done harvesting before, and she took JD by his uninjured right hand, pulling him toward the group of girls watching from the other side of the asphalt court.
“Hello, I’m Joanie and this is JD,” she announced, “May we talk with you for a few minutes?”
Vin and Nathan watched from the van as JD and the redhead approached the group of teenage girls. At first, the girls seemed leery of the pair, until JD reached into his bag and brought out something in a small square bag. After another couple of minutes, the girls were giggling and holding out their hands to JD.
The black Dodge rolled to a stop behind the van and Buck immediately flung off his seatbelt. When he tried to open the door, it was locked. He tried several times before turning to glare at the driver.
“We have to wait, Buck,” Chris said firmly.
Buck’s eyes cut to where Larabee had his finger on the electronic door lock. He leveled a glare at Chris that would have melted glass.
“The FBI are watching, we have to be careful,” Chris said. He hadn’t told Buck who was on the phone earlier.
The Jaguar purred into a parking space across the street and the six men nodded to each other. Text messages flew back and forth as they discussed how they were going to get to JD without alerting any of the other ‘Children’ on the basketball court. Nathan sent that he was pretty sure that only one of the young men was part of the group, the rest were just potential recruits.
JD looked up from where he was chatting with the group of girls. He glanced at the van and at the glossy black hood parked behind it. He looked over to where Sean was talking with a couple of younger teens. There was something about the black vehicle that made him both excited and anxious at the same time.
“Excuse me,” he said, stepping away from the girls. He moved toward the corner of the fenced-in area, staring at the hood of the truck.
“He’s coming!” Buck announced, as if Chris couldn’t see it with his own two eyes. “Let me out!”
“Wait,” Chris countered, flicking his gaze at the other young man Nathan had pegged as being part of the group.
Unable to open the door, Buck slammed his thumb on another button and rolled down the window.
The darkly tinted window rolled down and JD got a look at the man inside. His heart clenched as he turned around and began to run away. He grabbed Joanie and pulled her toward the exit on the other side of the court, the one that let them in from the alley side of the building.
“They’re going to take me away!” he cried out.
The Jag leapt out of its parking space with a squeal and the thick smell of burning rubber. It fishtailed at the corner before finding traction and shooting up toward the mouth of the alley.
“He’s running!” Nathan shouted. Immediately, Vin pulled away from the curb and headed for the other end of the block.
When he saw JD running away, Chris grabbed the steering wheel with one hand and the ignition key with the other. In an instant, the passenger door shot open and Buck leapt out.
“Damn it, Buck! Get back in here!” Chris yelled. Seeing that Wilmington wasn’t going to stop, Chris threw the transmission in gear and pulled away.
Seeing the sleek, black car blocking one end of the alley, JD turned and ran the other way. His muscles protested every step but he wasn’t going to let them catch him. He heard the gate crash against the fence and dared a look over his shoulder.
“No! No! No!” he yelled, putting on a burst of speed. Just then, the van appeared at the other end of the alley, blocking his escape. He saw Sean and Katie running behind Buck and slowed down.
Vin eased the van into the alley and Nathan got in the back to open the sliding door. In the rear-view mirror, he saw Chris turning in behind him. Beyond JD and Buck, he saw Ezra’s car, slowly closing on the others. Josiah had gotten out and was walking alongside of the car.
Buck didn’t understand why his friend was running away from him. Didn’t he understand that they were there to rescue him? Taking several more steps closer, he called out to JD, “It’s all over, kid. We’re here to take you home.”
Sean turned to Katie and instructed her to go call the police. He knew that they couldn’t take JD if he didn’t want to go. He just had to figure out a way to keep them from taking him until the cops got there. Seeing a loose picket on the fence, he grabbed it and wrenched it free.
Joanie stumbled when her foot landed wrong in a crack in the alley. She cried out in pain and grabbed JD. Looking over her shoulder again, she saw that Sean was advancing on the mustached man, intent on preventing him from making a grab for her mate.
Cornered, and seeing the pained expression on Joanie’s face, JD knew he was trapped. He looked toward the van that was slowly inching toward him and back at Buck. His heart knew that Buck wouldn’t hurt him but some part of his brain was screaming at him that the man was evil.
“Come on!” JD shouted, pulling Joanie toward the chain-link fence. “I’ll help you over!”
Buck was so focused on JD that he didn’t see the young man coming up behind him with the fence picket in his hands. He took another step, moving closer as he saw that Nathan had exited the van and was coming up from the other direction.
“Don’t do it son,” Josiah called out to the man about to strike Buck.
Whirling around, Buck raised his arm just as the young man swung. The fence picket struck his forearm, missing his head. Buck gripped the thin piece of wood and wrenched it out of the younger man’s hands, throwing it back toward the fence it had been pulled from and quickly blocking the uppercut that would have impacted his ribs.
JD pushed Joanie toward the fence and tried to heave her over it but his aching back protested. He turned around when he heard another voice talking to him.
“Just take it easy now,” Nathan soothed. “We don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Buck slammed his fist into the younger man’s jaw, sending him stumbling backward to fall on his ass. Trusting Josiah and Ezra to watch his back, Buck jogged over to JD.
Nathan caught Buck’s eye and nodded. Slowly counting to three, both of them leapt for JD. Nathan managed to get hold of his right arm but JD flung himself back into the six-foot high fence. Buck caught JD’s left wrist.
Pure, unadulterated terror powered JD’s struggles. The voice in his head was screaming at him to escape, overpowering the quieter voice in his heart that was singing in relief at being rescued. Hurtling his body against the fence, JD sprung forward. His left arm slid free of Buck’s grasp and he flung it at Nathan, forgetting about the broken, splinted fingers on that hand.
Buck lost hold of JD’s wrist and tried to wrap his arm around his waist instead. He leaned in close, trying to thread his arm over JD’s left shoulder. JD cried out in anger and fury, lashing out with his foot and catching Nathan high on his inner thigh.
Josiah paused long enough to see that the young man wasn’t a threat before running to help the others with JD. He was amazed that, in spite of his shorter stature and thinner frame, JD was able to hold his own against his taller, heavier teammates.
Joanie saw that the mustached man was getting the upper hand against JD and she launched herself at him, leaping on his back and pulling his hair with both hands.
In the Jag, Ezra knew that he needed to do something to delay the arrival of the local police. He grabbed the cell phone he kept for emergencies, dialed the number for the Longmont police department and gave them something else to do.
While Ezra was talking to the Longmont dispatcher, the young man who had attacked Buck rolled over and climbed to his feet. Groping along his belt, he pulled out the small blade he kept for emergencies. Taking off at a dead run, he launched himself at the men trying to capture JD.
Josiah grabbed the girl and pulled her off of Buck. She shrieked and began clawing at his arms while pummeling his shins with her heels. He turned her away from the others and struggled to contain her without hurting her.
Sean raised his hand and prepared to plant the short knife blade in the mustached man’s back. He was just about an arm’s length away from his goal when Joanie screamed.
In the midst of trying to free herself from the brawny graying man, Joanie saw Sean getting ready to stab the man trying to restrain JD. No matter what Father Adam said, she couldn’t believe one of her brothers was going to kill a man.
“Sean! No!” Joanie screamed.
The girl’s scream caused Josiah to let go of her and lash out to intercept the hand about to plant a knife in Buck’s back. Using the young man’s own momentum, Josiah spun him around, bringing his wrist up and applying pressure until the blade fell from his hand. Josiah put his foot on the knife and shoved the young man away from the others.
Sean turned around and saw that the mustached man and the Negro had JD almost into the van. He held out his hand and called out, “Joanie, come on!”
The girl hesitated, looking from the struggling JD to the other young man. Finally, with an anguished sob, she darted back toward the basketball court.
“Let me go, Unbelievers!” JD screamed as he was manhandled toward the open van doorway. “Let me go!”
Nathan climbed through the open door and gestured for Buck to lift JD so they could get his feet into the van. JD realized what they were going to do and he lifted one leg and pushed away from the vehicle.
Josiah stepped up behind Buck and helped him force JD into the van. The next time JD put his foot against the van; Josiah grabbed his ankle and pushed it off of the side of the vehicle. Deprived of anything to brace himself against, JD was propelled into the van.
Buck rolled when he realized that he and JD were falling. He landed hard on his side, still struggling to maintain his grip on his young friend.
“Let me go, Unbelievers! Sean! Help me! You can’t do this to me!” JD screamed.
After making sure that Nathan had hold of JD’s legs, Josiah swung the van door closed and thumped on the side. Immediately, Vin shifted the transmission into reverse and waited for Chris to move the truck. Ezra had pulled down the alley and was waiting for Josiah to return to the Jag.
“Let go of me, Unbelievers!” JD yelled, still working to free himself from Buck’s embrace. He could hear Buck’s voice, soothing in its evil, trying to calm him down.
“It’s alright. We aren’t going to hurt you. It’s alright, JD,” Buck said. He really wanted his friend to calm down so they wouldn’t have to restrain him.
Nathan grabbed the ankle cuffs and fell across JD’s legs so he could fasten them in place. Once that was done, he shifted around to try to put the cuffs on JD’s wrists. The medic blanched at the bleeding furrows JD was digging into Buck’s forearm in his frantic attempts to get free.
The instant that the back-up lights on the van lit up, Chris backed the Dodge out of the alley. The van immediately began backing up until Vin could get out of the alley. The van didn’t accelerate away quickly, but smoothly rolled down the street.
Josiah opened the passenger side door of Ezra’s Jag and flung his tall frame into the low slung seat. “Go, go,” he urged.
“There is no need for panic. I have given the local law enforcement something to keep them busy for a while,” Ezra replied as he smoothly pulled out behind Chris.
“What kind of something?” Josiah asked.
“Well, let’s just say that there will be a bomb scare on the news tonight and leave it at that, shall we?” Ezra said with a tense smile.
“You can’t do this to me! Let me go, Unbelievers!” JD continued to scream and struggle.
Nathan got one handcuff on JD’s right wrist and was trying to secure his left when he jarred the splint. A ragged scream of pain burst from JD’s mouth and he jerked his head back and caught Buck hard on the chin. Nathan quickly secured the other hand while trying to see how badly Wilmington was injured.
“Hang on back there!” Vin called out as he turned and accelerated onto the highway heading south.
“Buck? Buck, we need to roll him,” Nathan said, picking up the thick, lamb’s wool-lined leather belt that would secure JD’s hands to his waist.
Buck shook his head to clear the fog from the blow to his chin. He pulled his arm from around JD and forced him over onto his stomach. He helped Nathan fit the belt across JD’s lower back and stuffed the flat end under JD’s hip. Getting up on his knees, he helped to roll JD back so the belt could be buckled and attached to the handcuffs.
“Okay, let him go for a minute,” Nathan suggested.
JD struggled to sit up, using his feet to push back against the wall of the van behind the driver’s seat. He was shaking all over as he glared at the two men kneeling on the other side of the van.
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished. You will be vanquished. I am a Child of Adam,” JD chanted.
Buck sank back against the wall and cupped his aching chin. He stared at his roommate, frowning at the stream of words that slipped past his lips. He caught Nathan’s concerned gaze and nodded to indicate that he was okay.
Some forty-five minutes later, the caravan of vehicles arrived at the cabin. Vin leapt from the van and ran around to open the sliding door. He flung the door open and took a good look at JD. Vin was shaken by the fear and revulsion he saw in the younger man’s eyes.
Josiah, Ezra and Chris popped out of the other two vehicles and rushed to the van. They stared at JD, who was rocking and whispering to himself.
Chris stepped back and began to issue orders, “Ezra, you and Vin go and get the room ready. Buck, come with me, we have to get rid of the van.”
Buck flashed Chris an incredulous look. He turned to look at JD again, his hands reaching toward his young friend and pulling away in confusion. He wanted to help, he just didn’t know what to do.
“Come on, Buck. The others will take care of him,” Chris urged.
“Don’t hurt him,” Buck said, turning to Nathan.
Inside the cabin, Vin gave the room a final, thorough check. There was nothing JD could use as a weapon against himself or his friends. Out in the main room, Ezra primed the water pump and opened the taps on the faucets to flush out the lines. He went to the cabinet and took out the coffee and the can opener to start a pot of coffee.
Josiah sat down in the open doorway of the van and spoke to JD. “We’re going to take you into the cabin now, son,” he explained. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
JD pulled his feet up closer and shrank back against the mattress padding the wall. “I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam,” he chanted, so quickly that the words were barely recognizable as English.
Nathan moved closer and reached for JD’s shoulder and the younger man flinched. Josiah slowly stretched out his hand and took hold of JD’s ankle.
“NO!” JD screamed, lashing out with his feet and struggling to raise his hands. “Father Adam! Help me!”
Standing several yards away from the van, Buck strained to get to JD. Chris held him back, mainly by simply standing at his side. Buck hated seeing them handle JD like he was some wacked-out junkie on a high. He watched as Nathan threaded his arms under JD’s and laced his fingers across the struggling young man’s chest. Josiah wrapped his arms around JD’s legs and lifted him from the van.
JD bunched his body and launched his legs against Josiah, trying desperately to get loose. In his mind, they were taking him for more punishment with the cane pole. Tears of frustration leaked from his eyes as he continued to struggle.
As soon as they had JD clear of the van, Chris and Buck moved to take the extra mattresses out so they could take it back. Buck stared toward the cabin, long and hard, before sliding behind the wheel of the van.
Ezra opened the door and held it as Nathan and Josiah struggled through it with JD. He felt badly at seeing the younger man so frightened and distraught. He watched as the van and Chris’ truck pulled away before closing the door.
Vin held the bedroom door open so Nathan and Josiah could put JD on the mattress. The younger man struggled, squirming and backing away until he was crowded in the corner. He again drew his knees up and began rocking.
Standing on the opposite side of the room, Nathan spoke softly to Josiah and Vin, “We need to get a blood sample and document his injuries.”
“What injuries?” Vin countered, turning to study JD critically.
“He has a splint on his right hand. I need to check to see what kind of damage was done and see if it needs to be reset after the struggle.”
“How are we going to do that when he won’t let us touch him?” Vin asked.
“I need both of you to step out and let me have a word with him,” Josiah interjected.
Nathan drew a breath to protest but it died on his lips. He remembered that, of all of them, only Josiah had any kind of experience with deprogramming someone. He nodded and, after looking at JD again, turned to leave the room.
“Good luck,” Vin said as he followed Nathan out and closed the door.
“I am a Child of Adam. I am a child of Adam. I am a child of Adam,” JD repeated over and over. He looked up as Josiah came to stand near the mattress and the chant faded away.
“Hello, JD,” Josiah said as he folded his tall, muscular frame down to the floor. “I know that you know who I am.” He watched as the younger man’s hazel eyes flitted to the door and back to his face. “You aren’t going anywhere until we have a good, long talk.”
“I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam,” JD repeated, focusing his eyes on his knees and rocking.
“JD, we aren’t going to hurt you,” Josiah said gently. “I want to take those handcuffs off. Will you allow me to do that for you?”
JD studied Josiah for a long time before he unclenched his legs and let them stretch out in front of him. He was still trembling but the tremors were much less violent. He watched as the large hands reached out to insert the small key into the locks on the cuffs that secured his ankles. He flinched when those same hands reached for his wrists.
“What happened here?” Josiah asked.
“They’re broken,” JD replied.
“How did they get broken?”
“I am a Child of Adam. I am a Child of Adam,” JD began to chant.
“Alright, you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. Will you allow Nathan to look at them?”
“All unbelievers are evil. All unbelievers are evil,” JD added.
Josiah carefully unbuckled the belt and tugged it from around JD’s waist. “Is that want Father Adam taught you? That unbelievers are evil? What are we supposed to believe?”
In the front room of the cabin, Ezra poured and distributed cups of coffee. Vin accepted his and carried it to the window that looked out over the small porch. Nathan set his cup aside and went to the first-aid kit. He found the bag of foam-padded finger splints and a roll of medical tape. He stared longingly toward the door to the bedroom and sighed.
Buck let his mind wander as he drove back to the lot where they would drop off the van after removing the plates. He thought about the way JD had looked at him and he felt his heart break. No matter how long it took, he would stick with his little brother until that look was gone from his face.
Chris looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure Buck was still behind him. They couldn’t risk being seen dropping the van at the interim parking lot. As soon as they parked it, they would remove the plates and get the hell out. He would call Jack and tell him to pick it up as soon as possible. It would go in a car crusher to insure that they were not connected to it in any way. He still didn’t know what to make of Agent Singer’s call.
Josiah leaned back against the wall and stretched his legs out in front of him. He had been trying for the better part of an hour to get JD to talk to him but all he had gotten was the repetitive phrases.
“You know, I never told you about the time I was in India with my father when I was about 16,” Josiah began, “I had never seen such poverty. But those people with their simple ways taught me more than I could ever have learned about the strength of the human spirit. In spite of tremendous hardships and almost overwhelming tragedies, they managed to hold on to their beliefs.” He glanced over to see that JD appeared to be listening. “I saw an old woman walking along the side of the road with a young man and I asked my father why she was following him and he explained that the woman had lost all of her children and she had no place to go, so the young man had ‘adopted’ her. Now, the young man, he didn’t have much to offer her besides a straw mat to sleep on but it was enough for the woman.”
“Now you, my young friend, are like that woman. You have been ‘adopted’ by a group of people who care about you,” Josiah said, looking at JD.
“I am a Child of Adam,” JD replied.
“Yes, and you are also a member of this team and there are six men who care about you very much,” Josiah countered.
“But all unbelievers are evil,” JD softly protested.
“How do you know we are unbelievers? Did someone tell you that we didn’t believe?”
“Buck is an unbeliever. Buck is evil,” JD replied.
“I think someone has misled you, son. Buck believes very strongly in a good many things. He believes in you.”
Working his hands in his lap, JD remembered the caning. He remembered how Father Adam insisted that Buck and the others were evil because they were unbelievers. A small, whispering voice reminded JD that he really didn’t know what he was supposed to believe in, that all he knew was the simple doctrine they had made him memorize.
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished,” JD repeated.
“What does that mean, JD? Can you tell me what Father Adam taught you? Maybe if I understood it, I could explain it to the others so they could believe.”
‘The evil ones whisper sweetly in your ears as they try to corrupt your soul,’ Father Adam’s voice hissed. ‘And they will lead you astray with their pretty words and false promises.’
“I want to go home,” JD said.
“And where is home?” Josiah asked.
“B-back to Father Adam and the others. W-we’re going to go to P-Paradise,” JD answered.
“How are you going to get there, JD?”
“Father Adam s-says we’re going through the D-d-doorway.”
“Where is the doorway?” Josiah pressed. He knew he had to keep JD talking in order to get to the bottom of whatever the cult had taught him.
“Only Father Adam knows where the Doorway is. He is going to lead us.”
Buck and Chris returned to the cabin in Chris’ truck. They hurried inside and looked around expectantly. From the glum expressions, they figured that Josiah hadn’t made any headway with JD. Nathan sat on one of the kitchen chairs, the splints and tape still lying on the table. Vin was sitting on a stool near the fireplace, carefully peeling the bark from a green stick he had gone into the woods to find. Ezra was seated on the couch with a complicated game of solitaire spread out on the coffee table in front of him.
Pouring a cup of coffee, Chris stared at the door to the small room. Josiah had explained to them that he would have to spend a while with JD, learning what doctrine the cult had trained into his head.
Trying to distract the others from staring at the bedroom door, Ezra powered up his laptop and found some banal programming for them to watch. As the hours passed, the team settled into positions around the computer. Ezra got up from time to time to stir the pot of chili he had started. Vin and Buck were sharing a bag of chips and dip. Chris finally got up and went to the door, opening it and peering into the room. JD was still sitting in the corner on the mattress and Josiah was talking to him about something, in a voice pitched too softly for Chris to hear. He closed the door and returned to the others.
“Well?” Buck asked, leaning forward expectantly.
“They’re just sitting in there. Josiah’s talking to him,” Chris replied.
“If that’s all they’re doing, why can’t I see him?” Buck asked.
“You know what he told us,” Chris said with as much patience as he could manage.
It was a real bone of contention for Buck, sitting out here with the others while his friend was sequestered away in the barren bedroom with Josiah. Buck was closer to JD than any of the others and had been ever since he had taken the homeless young man under his wing when he first arrived in Denver. Josiah had explained it all to them but it still didn’t seem possible that two weeks with a cult could wipe away over 4 years of living and working and playing together.
“And we took mates because Father Adam said we had to go into Paradise in pairs,” JD explained. “Joanie is my mate and you’ve taken me away from her. What if she can’t get into Paradise now?”
“I don’t know, JD. In all my years of reading the Bible, I’ve never seen a verse where it says that we have to enter in pairs,” Josiah answered.
“Oh, it isn’t in the Bible,” JD said, “He saw it in a vision.”
The early evening television programming was interrupted by a breaking news report. The reporter stood in the foreground; in the background, several police cars and ambulances filled the street.
“The disturbance began when a group of parents stormed the building where they maintain that their children are being held against their wills by a group known as The Children of Adam. When the police arrived, they attempted to separate the two groups. Several of the members of both groups were taken into custody before the young people barricaded themselves in the house. The parents maintain that many of those inside the house are minors. Police officials are waiting for a negotiator from the FBI to arrive on the scene,” the reporter said. As he turned to look back toward the house, the camera angle widened to show the cluster of parents, many of them in tears, surrounded by police officers. The video feed cut to earlier footage, showing one of the fathers being placed in the back of a police car.
“It would appear that my calls to the parents were successful,” Ezra said, turning the volume down on the laptop as the news continued.
“You told them where the party was being held?” Nathan asked.
“No, but I may have suggested that they employ another teenager to garner the information for them,” the southerner replied.
Josiah estimated that he had been sitting with JD for nearly six hours and his aching behind told him that it was time to get up and move around. His bladder was also screaming at him. He thought he was making headway. JD was at least willing to talk about the doctrine he had been taught and was responsive to Josiah’s suggestion that they discuss it more at length. The only thing he hadn’t succeeded to do was to convince JD to allow Nathan to look at his hand.
“JD, I’m going to get a drink and use the restroom. I’m going to ask one of the others to come in and sit with you for a little while,” Josiah explained. He saw the way the younger man tensed up and he reached out to give his shoulder a squeeze. “Remember, they all care about you,” he said.
Nathan looked around the instant he heard the door open. He was washing up the dishes from the meal they had just finished. They had saved some for Josiah and JD, keeping it in the crock-pot on the lowest heat setting.
“I need someone to go in and sit with him while I hit the john,” Josiah explained. Without waiting for a response, he darted into the small bathroom and closed the door behind him.
Buck was on his feet in an instant, beating Nathan, who stopped to dry his hands. He burst into the room in typical Buck fashion, loudly and boisterously.
“Hey kid! I’ll bet you’re glad to be free! I gotta tell ya, I was worried about you something awful,” Buck announced as he moved to sit on the mattress opposite his friend.
JD closed his eyes and was instantly struck with the memory of the caning. He raised his feet and began to push back against the wall. He accidentally jarred his hand and a gasp of pain slipped out.
“What is it? JD? What’s wrong?” Buck asked, shifting from his seated position to his knees and reaching out to the younger man. “It’s alright. You’re safe now,” he added.
“No!” JD yelled, lashing out with his foot and catching Buck in the chest.
Wilmington was caught off guard and fell backwards, getting tangled in his own feet. He reached out, seeing JD trying to bolt past him, and managed to grab him by the ankle. JD fell, putting both hands out to break his fall.
A thud and a scream of pain brought the rest of the team into the room. Josiah rushed out of the bathroom, his hands still wet, and pushed his way through the bottle-necked group in the doorway.
JD was pressed into the far corner of the room, cradling his injured arm and rocking himself. Buck was kneeling in front of him, trying to get JD to let him see his arm. Nathan edged closer, his medical training and natural empathy driving him to try to help his injured friend.
“What happened?” Nathan asked, kneeling next to Buck.
“He started getting upset and I just tried to get him to calm down. He kicked me and then jumped up like he was going to make a run for it so I grabbed him and he fell,” Buck explained.
“I am a Child of Adam. All unbelievers are evil. Buck is an unbeliever. Buck is evil. Evil must be vanquished. Buck must be vanquished,” JD mumbled. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and began to repeat the chant.
JD couldn’t have hurt Buck any worse if he had taken a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Added to the guilt he was still feeling over not sounding the alarm sooner when he realized his roommate was missing, JD’s words were like pouring salt in an open wound.
Chris and Josiah both saw the effect JD’s words had on Buck. Ezra and Vin, who were still blocking the doorway, exchanged matching looks of shock and sadness.
“Alright, everyone out,” Chris announced as he reached down to take hold of Buck’s arm and help him to his feet. He expected to meet resistance, … he was mistaken.
Buck surged to his feet, shrugging off Chris’ hand and pushing past him. He shoved Vin and Ezra out of his way as he left the room. Chris nodded to the two younger men, sending them after Wilmington.
“Let’s give him a minute to calm down, Nathan,” Josiah suggested.
The medic looked up at Sanchez in disbelief. “I need to have a look at that hand,” he insisted. “If it isn’t set properly, he could lose the use of those fingers.”
“Nathan,” Chris said in a commanding tone.
“No! Not this time! He’s hurt and I need to check him out!” Nathan protested hostilely.
Buck stormed through the cabin and out the front door. He angrily confronted the first solid object he encountered … Chris’ truck. Letting the rage take over, he drove his fist into the quarter panel.
It was like watching a boxer going at it against a heavy bag. Buck’s fists flew, fast and furious, against the semi-yielding material. Vin and Ezra were stunned momentarily but quickly recovered and surged forward to try and stop their friend from hurting himself any more than he already had. Vin got there a half-second sooner than Ezra and took hold of Buck’s shoulder. Ezra grabbed him from the other side and they muscled him away from the truck.
“What did they do to him? How could they make him hate me like that?” Buck asked. The pain from his split knuckles reached his brain and he winced, slowly uncurling his fists.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Vin argued. “He’s just confused.”
“Let us take you back in the cabin and see about icing your hands,” Ezra suggested.
Chris was itching to order JD to let Nathan look at his hand and Josiah knew it. He caught the team leader’s eye and nodded toward JD.
Shooting an ‘are you sure?’ look at Sanchez, Chris took a deep breath and spoke with all the authority he used during a mission. “Agent Dunne, you will let Nathan examine your hand immediately,” he ordered. He saw the shudder that wracked JD’s body before he meekly uncurled his arm and held it out.
“I need my bag,” Nathan announced.
“Tell me what you need,” Josiah countered.
“The finger splints, roll of tape and scissors,” Nathan replied as he gently probed the bruises on JD’s fingers and hand. His touch lightened when JD hissed and tried to pull away. “I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more careful,” he said. Josiah returned with the requested items, keeping the scissors safely in his hand until needed.
Ezra filled a bowl with ice and water and carefully carried it to the coffee table. He darted into the bathroom and returned with a towel and washcloth. Vin coaxed Buck into placing his hands, one at a time, in the ice water. Buck hissed but kept his hand in the bowl until Ezra motioned for him to take it out so he could dry it.
“I’m afraid that some of these are going to need a stitch or two to close them,” Ezra said as he gently blotted the bloody knuckles with the washcloth.
“Ah hell, Ezra, I hurt myself worse than this learning to shave,” Buck protested, slowly flexing his fingers and wincing as his knuckles started bleeding again.
Nathan taped the splints together and wrapped several layers of tape around JD’s hand to try to keep the fingers straight. He was concerned that they would start to heal wrong and have to be re-broken later. After he finished wrapping JD’s fingers, he noticed what looked like a bruise concealed by the long-sleeved shirt. When he tried to unbutton the sleeve to have a look, JD pulled his arm away and curled it to his chest.
“You should let me give you something for the pain,” Nathan said. Without waiting for a response, he went to the door, which Josiah had propped open with a chair earlier. He went to his bag and shook two pain pills into his palm and grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator.
While Nathan was gone, Josiah and Chris brought JD to his feet and took him back to the mattress in the other corner. The settled him away from the wall but JD immediately scooted back into the corner.
“Here, take these. They’ll help with the pain,” Nathan said, sinking to his knees and holding out the tablets and bottle of water.
Something about the water stirred in JD’s memory and he shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I don’t want it.”
“Take the pills!” Chris ordered. He hated seeing the pain that JD was suffering on top of being confused and afraid.
JD reluctantly took the pills and washed them down with a swallow of water. He stared up at Chris as he did; wanting to show that he was doing as he was told. Josiah sat down next to the mattress and handed JD a bowl of chili with grated cheese and Fritoes on top, just the way he usually ate it. Although he was hungry, Father Adam’s voice was roaring in his head, reminding him that the evil ones would try to corrupt him by any means possible, even by being kind to him. He started to refuse but he caught the hard look in Chris’ eyes and reluctantly picked up the spoon.
Nathan excused himself to check on Buck, having seen the others tending to his hands. He nodded to Chris and Buck, closing the door as he left the room.
About half way through the bowl, JD’s coordination began to falter. The medication was strong and he had taken it on an empty stomach. He barely recognized when Josiah coaxed the spoon from his hand and eased him away from the wall to lie down.
Chris waited until they were certain that JD was deeply, soundly asleep before he knelt on the mattress. Starting with the hiking boots, he untied the laces and tugged them off. When he removed the socks, he noticed what looked like bruises on the pale soles of JD’s feet. He looked at Josiah, who was carefully slipping JD’s arm out of the sleeve of the flannel shirt.
“Look at this,” Josiah whispered. He straightened JD’s arm, allowing Chris to see the bruises that mottled the fair skin.
In less than ten minutes, they had stripped JD to his boxers and both of them were absolutely furious. The bruises started at the younger man’s shoulders and continued to the soles of his feet. From the deep purple and black of the bruises, they knew that the beating had occurred recently. There were also thin lines of scabs, indicating that the wounds had broken the skin.
“What would make marks like that?” Chris whispered.
“A hose?” Josiah suggested. “Something that would flex when it hit,” he offered, pointing to where the bruises wrapped around JD’s ribs and thighs. “We need to document this.”
Chris nodded and went to the door. Ezra must have been waiting because he had scarcely touched the door when it opened. “I need a camera,” Chris said. Ezra nodded and turned away.
Buck winced as he watched Nathan drawing the needle up to tie off the last stitch in his knuckle. He only had a mild, topical pain killer and it didn’t do much to take the bite out of the procedure. Vin was assisting, wiping away the blood that insisted on leaking out and obscuring the wound. He glanced up when Ezra walked past them and out of the cabin, returning a few moments later with something in his hand.
Taking the camera from Ezra, Chris closed the door. Josiah was still sitting on the mattress beside JD, gently carding his fingers through the long, ebony hair.
It took them about ten minutes to document all of the bruises on JD’s body, using Josiah’s hand in place of a measuring square. When Chris was done, he slipped the memory card out of the camera and tucked it into his wallet. Going to the door again, he asked Ezra for JD’s pajamas from Buck’s overnight bag. The soft cotton material was dark blue, which only served to heighten the younger man’s pale complexion. Josiah shook a blanket out over JD and sighed aloud.
“I want to get the bastards that did that to him,” Chris said.
When Chris returned to the other room, Buck was waiting for him. “How is he?” Buck asked. “Nathan said he’s worried about his fingers.”
“He’s sleeping right now,” Chris replied. He glanced down and saw the gauze wrapped about Buck’s hands. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Raising one of his hands and turning it to look at the bandage, Buck shook his head. “I guess I lost it for a little while,” he admitted.
Chris’ phone chirped softly, indicating he had received another message. He had turned the ringer off because he didn’t want to be disturbed while he was with JD. Pulling the phone out, he flipped it open to see that he had missed 11 forwarded calls from his other cell phone. Pushing the appropriate button, he listened to the first message. He had barely heard all of the first line when he turned and strode over to where Nathan was sitting with Ezra and Vin, watching the news on the laptop.
“Nathan, you need to hear this,” Chris said, handing him the phone.
“What is it?” Buck asked. When no one answered, he grabbed Chris and jerked him around so they were face to face. “What is it? Has something happened?”
“It’s from Agent Singer. He says that they ran toxicology on the kids who were taken from the cult house and that they were drugged,” Chris said, still waiting for Nathan to say something.
“It’s a mild hallucinogenic drug that lowers a person’s mental resistance and makes them more pliable,” Nathan explained. “It was given in very low doses, from what they found in the kids at the hospital.”
“Will the pain pills hurt him with that in his system?” Buck asked.
“No. He’ll be fine. The drug should be metabolized in 36 to 48 hours if there is no further exposure.”
“Alright, we need to get some sleep. Josiah and I will take the night shifts. We can see how he does with Vin and Ezra in the morning,” seeing Buck open his mouth, Chris spoke again. “For the time being, you need to steer clear of him.”
With Josiah sacked out in a sleeping bag across the room, Chris sat next to the mattress and watched JD sleep. He knew that this whole mess was taking a tremendous toll on Buck and it was hard to watch his friend suffer. Vin had pulled him aside to tell him about the damage to the truck, assuring him that the dent popped right out when he hit it from the inside.
While everyone else was sleeping, Ezra took the laptop and made contact with some of his friends. He got updates on the youths who had been rescued from the cult. His lawyer friend was representing the parents who were arrested, working on arranging a plea agreement that would get them out of jail and back with their loved ones. Unfortunately, several of the parents were forced to release their children to return to the cult after they called the police from the hotel they had been taken to for deprogramming. When he finished with his correspondence, Ezra shut the computer down and made his way to the sleeping bag on the mattress he was sharing with Vin. Nathan and Buck were sleeping in the other tiny bedroom.
Warmth and a soft mattress encouraged JD to go back to sleep but he had to use the bathroom. He rolled over and reluctantly opened his eyes.
JD’s terrified screams brought everyone awake. Buck plowed past Nathan, elbowing Vin and Ezra out of his way as he hurried into the room. A series of loud thuds was followed by muffled cursing when Josiah tried to get out of his sleeping bag and tripped.
“I’ll be good! I’ll be good! I didn’t mean to do it! Please don’t hurt me!” JD begged as he shrank from Chris’ hands.
“JD! Stop it!” Chris shouted. Instantly, the pleading wails stopped and JD sat, staring up at Chris and shuddering.
“Easy, Chris,” Josiah warned. “It’s most likely a night terror. He doesn’t know where he is or who you are.” As he spoke, Josiah slowly crept up on the mattress and reached out to the lost and terrified soul. “You’re safe here,” he said.
The room was dark, lit mainly by the light shining through the open door. To JD’s mind, he was back in the initiate room and his clothing was black as pitch. He shied away from the man dressed in dark clothes and leaned toward the graying man wearing the lighter colored garments. Wrapping his arms around the man’s chest, he burrowed into the welcoming embrace.
Josiah rocked JD, ghosting his hand over the dark hair and down his back, until all of the tension faded from his body and his muscles went slack. He looked up and found himself drawn to the sad expression on Buck’s face.
“This is only until we get him back,” Josiah whispered, “You know that, don’t you?”
Despair washed over Buck and he turned away without responding. Trudging back into the other room, he collapsed on the mattress and pulled the open sleeping bag up over his shoulder. He turned toward the wall and clenched his eyes closed.
“The rest of you should try to rest too,” Chris urged. Vin and Ezra immediately turned and left the room but Nathan stayed.
“I just want to make sure he didn’t jar those fingers,” Jackson explained.
After Nathan was satisfied that JD hadn’t done any further damage to his fingers, he left the room and returned to bed. As he lay on the mattress next to Buck, he felt compelled to say something … he just didn’t know what.
“You go ahead and get some sleep, I’ll stay up with him,” Josiah offered.
Chris wearily nodded, scrubbing at the stubble on his face before crossing to pick up the sleeping bag and shake it out. He lay down on top of it in case he had to move quickly.
JD slept until well into the morning. Nathan and Vin were up early, making breakfast for everyone. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee brought Buck out of the other room but the expression on his face did not encourage friendly communication. At the soft knock on the bedroom door, Nathan let Josiah out to use the bathroom.
“He’s sleeping soundly,” Josiah mumbled as he passed through the kitchen.
The soft knock on the door woke JD and he lay very still. As he looked down at the dark material that covered his arm, his heart sank. He must have done something really bad to deserve such a display of his sinful state.
After he was moved into the new room, Darcy brought him new clothes. She was overjoyed that he was no longer an initiate. She explained that the lighter the color of the garment, the closer one was to spiritual perfection. That was the reason Father Adam wore such blindingly white clothes.
When he rolled over, JD saw that the door hadn’t closed all the way. Daring to raise his head enough to check on Chris, JD realized that he might be looking at his only chance to escape his friends and return to Father Adam and the others. Easing the blanket back, he silently climbed to his feet and approached the door.
Nathan pressed a cup of coffee into Josiah’s hand. “I’ll have your eggs done in a minute,” he added.
Just then, the bedroom door opened and JD stared out at them. His eyes darted from one person to the next before he shrank back from the doorway.
“Need the bathroom?” Josiah asked.
Buck’s head came up at Josiah’s words and he stared at JD. When his roommate faded back into the room, Buck sighed.
There were too many of them, too close for JD to try to get away. He glanced toward the door Josiah had indicated when he mentioned the bathroom and saw that there was a window he could climb out of. The smell of food made his stomach growl and his mouth water and he wondered at the wisdom of running away on an empty stomach.
“JD? Are you going to the bathroom?” Josiah asked.
Nodding, JD slipped past the men in the kitchen and darted into the bathroom. He closed the door and examined the knob for a lock but there wasn’t one. His bladder was sending him urgent messages so he turned from the door to take care of his personal business. While the toilet was flushing, he fiddled with the latch on the window and tried to push it up. There was a screech of noise as the sash protested and the door behind him burst open.
“Get back in the bedroom!” Chris ordered sternly.
Larabee had been about to pour himself a cup of coffee when he heard the bathroom window being raised. Nathan and Vin leapt up from the table and ran out of the cabin in case JD was already trying to get out. He saw JD take another look at the open window.
“Now!” Chris shouted.
JD saw the others approaching from around the corners and realized that there was no way he could escape. Sighing in resignation, he let go of the window and turned to face the man in the doorway.
“All unbelievers are evil. Evil must be vanquished. You will be vanquished,” JD said, feeling a thrill at seeing Larabee’s expression tighten.
“Who are you to judge me?” Chris asked angrily.
“Chris, don’t challenge him,” Josiah reminded. He had warned all of them that any challenge to JD’s new doctrine would only entrench in deeper in his mind.
Father Adam told them that evil would back down in the face of pure belief. JD realized that they had dressed him in the color of deepest sin to try to corrupt him. Fixing Chris with a glare, he walked back into the other room. Once inside, he peeled off the offending garments and flung them back out the open door, leaving him clad only in his boxer shorts.
Josiah laid his hand on Chris’ shoulder and squeezed, “He’s just doing what they told him. If you respond with anger and violence it will only reinforce what they told him would happen. Don’t let him provoke you.”
As hard as it was for him, Chris took a deep breath and pushed away the anger he felt. He knew that Josiah was right. He stared at the open door for a long moment, then nodded.
“I just need some coffee. I can’t think straight right now,” Chris replied.
Vin and Nathan came back into the cabin, both looking toward the darkened bedroom.
“Vin, why don’t you have a try sitting with him?” Josiah suggested. “Don’t argue with him. Don’t try to make him question what they taught him. Just try to be his friend.”
“That last part is easy,” Vin said with a grin.
The tension in the small kitchen area slowly waned. Chris sank into one of the chairs as Josiah poured him a cup of coffee. Nathan moved to the stove and dished up some of the fried potatoes Vin had made and added a couple strips of bacon. He set the other skillet back on the burner and broke two eggs into it.
“I’ll have your food in a minute,” Nathan said. “Over easy, right?”
Buck pushed away his partially empty plate and got up from the table.
“Where are you going?” Chris asked.
“Out,” Buck replied without pause.
Chris started to get up but Josiah shook his head. “Let him go for a walk, clear his head. He’s having a hard time dealing with all of this,” the profiler explained.
Nathan slid a plate of food in front of Chris and another one in front of Josiah. “Should I take JD his plate?” he asked.
Vin had entered the darkened bedroom slowly. He flipped on the light and saw JD sitting in the corner on the mattress with the blanket around his shoulders.
“Hey, JD. Mind if I sit down?” Vin asked. He saw the flicker of surprise that crossed the younger man’s face before he nodded.
Settling himself on the mattress and leaning back against the wall, Vin tried not to stare at JD. He sat quietly, waiting for JD to say something, anything that would start a conversation between them.
Any thought of conversation was swept away when Nathan opened the door and brought JD his breakfast. JD took the plate, looking warily at the food before setting it on his lap.
“Here, Buck said this was the kind you liked,” Nathan said, holding out a dripping bottle of juice. When JD hesitated to take it, Nathan asked, “Is there some other kind you like?”
“This is fine. Thank you,” JD said, carefully taking the bottle and setting it next to his leg. He continued staring up at Nathan until Nathan turned and left the room.
A heavy, awkward silence descended. JD stared at the plate without making any attempt to eat. Vin, who had already eaten, felt compelled to speak.
“It’s good. Try it. I found some wild green onions growing around the cabin and I used them in the potatoes.”
JD hesitantly picked up the fork and stirred the potatoes around a little. In spite of the hunger gnawing at his belly, he was reluctant to eat.
Vin thought he knew why JD wasn’t eating and he reached out to pluck a couple of the little cubes of potatoes from the plate. He popped them into his mouth and chewed them, “If you don’t want them, I’ll eat them.”
For some reason, the thought that Vin would eat his breakfast was enough to make JD dig into the food on his plate. He remembered being hungry as an initiate.
A smile pulled at Vin’s face as he watched JD finally begin to eat. While JD was eating, Vin noticed the line of bruises on his forearm. He hoped that they weren’t caused by the struggle to get JD into the van or into the cabin.
“You want me to take that?” Vin asked when JD had finished his meal. JD picked up the plate and held it out for him to take, allowing the blanket to slip off of his shoulder.
Vin couldn’t contain his anger at the sight of the bruises that adorned JD’s shoulder and side. “What in the hell did they do to you?” he asked. Setting the plate in the floor next to the mattress, he reached out and pushed the blanket farther down JD’s back.
Suddenly, JD was afraid. Vin had exposed the proof of his sin, that JD had raised his hand against one of his brothers. He shrank away, trying desperately to pull the blanket back. He could almost feel his soul being torn apart and he knew he would be denied entry into Paradise with the rest of the Children. With a wild cry of despair, he dove past Vin and grabbed the fork from his plate.
When JD cried out and shot past him, Vin awkwardly launched after him. He managed to catch hold of JD’s wrist as his hand closed on the handle of the metal fork. Using his greater weight, he pinned JD and tried to force him to let go of the fork without hurting him. They rolled over so that JD was on top but Vin managed to keep both hands wrapped around JD’s wrist. He dug his thumbs into the tendons of JD’s wrist until he was forced to let go of the fork. As soon as he heard the fork clatter to the floor, Vin heaved JD off of him and rolled away. He came up on his knees and faced the younger man.
“What were you going to do with that, stab me? I thought I was your friend, JD,” Vin scolded gently.
JD scooted back into the corner and looked at Tanner. The hurt and confusion on his face affected JD deeply and he felt his throat tightening. He reached out and caught the corner of the blanket and pulled it into his lap.
“Why, JD? I would never do anything to hurt you,” Vin continued.
“They … they hurt me … because I s-stopped one of them … from hitting … a woman,” JD stammered, wrapping his arms around his ribs and rocking in misery.
Vin edged closer to JD until they were facing each other. Vin slowly slid his hand around JD’s neck and drew him in until the younger man’s head rested on Vin’s shoulder.
Buck left the cabin and walked down the rutted road until he came to a game trail that angled off through the woods. He followed the trail to where a massive old oak had fallen across it. Sitting on the tree, he considered what was happening to his friend.
Growing up, Buck had always wanted a brother. He saw how his friends resented their younger siblings but he envied them having someone who was always there.
JD had come into his life at a time when Buck was at a crossroads. He had finally seen that Chris was going to be alright, that he was turning from his suicidal rage and loss. The job with the ATF was satisfying but Buck needed something more. He needed to be needed. And there was John Daniel Dunne. He arrived in Denver with all of his worldly possessions packed into an aging Ford Escort. The kid had no place to stay and precious little money. His mother had died, leaving him all alone in the world. He was perfect.
There had been none of the little ‘living with a roommate’ awkwardness between them. JD was genuinely easy to live with. They shared a common interest in cars and motorcycles. They loved action movies and macaroni and cheese.
Something walking through the woods snapped a twig and Buck looked around. He saw a doe browsing on the tender bark of a tree. Buck sat absolutely still and watched until she moved on.
Glancing at his watch, Buck realized that he had been gone for the better part of an hour and he knew the others would start to worry. Drawing a deep, cleansing breath, he got up and started back to the cabin.
Josiah finished his breakfast and poured another cup of coffee. He was confident that Vin would be alright with JD for a little longer. He moved into the living room and sat down next to Ezra to watch the news on the laptop. There was only a passing mention of the standoff with the Children of Adam as the last of the parents were released from jail.
“So, you never did tell me what you told the Longmont dispatcher that was more important than a kidnapping,” Josiah said, keeping his voice pitched low so that Chris didn’t overhear.
“I may have intimated that there was a bomb set to detonate on the other side of town,” Ezra replied.
“What happens now?” Nathan asked as he sat down with another cup of coffee.
“I’ll go back in and start talking to him again in a little while. He needs time to think about what we talked about last night,” Josiah explained.
“How much longer?” Chris asked.
“I can’t give you an exact time frame. Leading JD to realize that he was brainwashed isn’t something that can be rushed. If I push him too hard, he’ll dig in and resist. The drugs they were giving him should be out of his system. He’ll be able to think more clearly and that will make the process move along,” Josiah explained.
They all looked up when Buck opened the door and stepped inside. He looked at Chris and nodded to let the team leader know he was alright.
Nathan opened the door and looked in on JD and Vin. Tanner was sitting up against the wall with Dunne lying next to his legs. Vin was lightly stroking JD’s head as he lay there.
“Could you bring me a cup of coffee, Nathan? And maybe another bottle of juice for JD?” Vin asked softly, his hand never stilling on the younger man’s head.
Nathan nodded as he bent down to pick up the plate. He looked around for the fork until Vin held it out to him. They exchanged a look and arrived at an understanding.
“And could you bring my spare tee shirt?” Vin called at Nathan’s back.
“You’re going to have to talk to Josiah, you know,” Vin said when Nathan closed the door. “He can help you work through what happened.”
“I know,” JD replied. He was miserable about the way he had been acting toward his friends. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the hurt on Buck’s face. “I wonder what will happen to the others?”
“I don’t know. Ezra tipped off some of the parents and there was a confrontation,” Vin replied. JD nodded but said nothing else.
Nathan brought the requested items and set them on the floor next to the mattress. He tried to get a look at JD but wasn’t able to see much more than his head.
“How does your hand feel, JD?” Nathan asked. He waited patiently until he heard the softly spoken reply.
“It hurts some but I’m fine.”
Nathan smiled at hearing the familiar phrase. “I’ll bring you a pain pill,” he said, turning to leave the room.
JD went to sleep after taking the pain pill. Ezra came in to sit with him, bringing the laptop so he could make contact with his lawyer friend. He had ‘borrowed’ the memory card from the camera and uploaded the pictures of JD’s injuries. The attorney was going to use them as proof of the kind of ‘persuasion’ the cult used to break its members. Ezra carefully cropped the pictures so that JD’s identity was protected.
While Ezra was sitting with JD, Vin pulled Josiah aside. They left the cabin and walked into the woods. Josiah remained silent, sensing that Vin needed to organize his thoughts before he spoke.
“They caned him,” Vin announced suddenly.
“I know, we saw the bruises,” Josiah said.
“They beat him until he said that Buck was evil. It was because he stopped one of them from hitting a woman, something he knew Buck wouldn’t approve of.”
“It’s deeper than that. JD’s mother taught him right from wrong. He would never stand by and allow a woman to be abused. It just goes against his upbringing,” Josiah explained.
“Then he doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of,” Vin countered.
“But he feels that he let Buck down by letting them break him.”
The two teammates continued to walk while talking about how to help JD.
Buck rested his elbows on the hood of the truck and stared out at the woods. He was frustrated over not being able to talk to JD. He wondered if Ezra would let him take the Jag and go back into the city. Another pair of elbows joined his on the hood and he looked over at Chris.
“How are you doing?” Chris asked.
“I’m alright,” Buck answered by reflex.
“You make a bad liar,” Chris teased.
Sighing in frustration, Buck turned to lean against the grill, “I’m not doing any good here. I might as well go home so I don’t keep upsetting him.”
“I never figured you for a quitter.”
“I’m not quitting, I’m just …” Buck shook his head. “I don’t know what to do. I’m not helping him by being here.”
“Buck, … we’re gonna get him back. And when we do, he’s going to need you more than ever.”
“I hope you’re right, Old Dog,” Buck said.
Josiah and Vin returned to the cabin and went to work helping prepare lunch for all of them. Nathan fired up the grill and they took turns cooking burgers and brats. Buck and Chris stirred together some potato salad while Ezra continued to sit with JD. Chris looked in on them to find that they were playing cards. JD looked up at the team leader then looked away.
There had been some awkwardness when JD awakened and found Ezra sitting with him. He pulled the blanket up and scooted to the far corner of the mattress.
“I trust you had a pleasant nap?” Ezra asked. He had been playing solitaire on the laptop and set it aside. “Nathan brought you some more juice. It’s not as cold now but I can get you some ice if you would like.” He offered out the bottle and JD carefully extended his arm, taking care to keep the blanket in place to cover the bruises on his forearm.
“What are you playing?” JD asked, tilting his head to look at the computer screen.
“Solitaire. It’s the only thing I can play without a mouse,” Ezra replied, picking up the laptop and showing it to JD before closing it and setting it aside. “Could I interest you in a game?”
“What do you want to play?” JD asked.
They ended up playing rummy. JD wiggled and shifted until he could arrange the blanket the way he wanted while Ezra shuffled and dealt the cards.
Several hands later, JD worked up the courage to ask, “Vin said you called some of the parents. Why did you do that?”
“Because they deserved to know what happened to their children,” Ezra replied.
“How many of them got out?” JD asked as he carefully rearranged his cards.
“Less than a dozen of those over 18 were rescued but all of the minor children were removed from the house.”
“How many minors?” JD asked.
“Twenty-three,” Ezra answered.
JD shuddered at the thought of 23 innocent teenagers going through what he went through. He discarded the eight of hearts and waited for Ezra to make his next play.
“Their parents were very glad to have the opportunity to get them back,” Ezra said, picking up the eight and laying it down with the six and seven. “Those who got their older children out are having a rough time of it.”
“Who got out?” JD asked.
“A young woman named Melody was reunited with her family and they have since gone home to Memphis. A man named Justin has been returned to his home in Maine. I don’t have the names of any of the others. It seems that some of them took new names when they joined Father Adam,” Ezra explained.
They played a few more hands of cards before Josiah opened the door and announced that lunch was ready. He invited Ezra and JD to join them in the other room. JD shook his head, pulling the blanket up to cover himself. Josiah tossed a rolled-up bundle of clothing onto the bed. JD unrolled the cream-colored long-sleeved shirt and jeans that he recognized as being his own. He gratefully brought the garments to his chest and smiled up at Josiah.
Josiah had cautioned them all, except Ezra, not to ask JD anything about his time with the cult and to answer his questions as simply and as honestly as possible. He encouraged them to talk about normal things, sports, case files, the fishing trip they had planned for the end of the month.
JD came out of the bedroom looking very timid. He stepped into the kitchen and looked around at his friends, who were trying very hard not to stare. The delicious aromas from the food on the counter made his mouth water.
There was some awkward shuffling around as they tried to figure out how to fix plates without crowding each other. Nathan took charge by handing out the plates and nudging them into a line. He stood by the refrigerator, handing out drinks as his friends filled their plates.
JD tugged at his sleeves and tried to hide behind Vin as he went along the counter getting his food. Vin paused at the silverware drawer, picking out a fork for himself and handing one to JD. When JD hesitantly took the fork, Vin reached out and ruffled his hair.
Moving into the other room, they each found a seat. Buck hung back until JD sat down, then chose a spot as far away from him as he could get.
“This is really good, Nathan,” Josiah said, holding up the thick, juicy burger.
“Oh yeah,” Vin groaned around a large bite. He had put a thick slice of tomato, lettuce and onion on his burger.
“Brats are damned good too,” Buck added.
“The potato salad is good too,” Ezra said. “Although it could have used a little more salt.
“It didn’t need any more salt,” Nathan countered.
“I’m with Ezra, it needs more salt,” Josiah added, getting up and retrieving the shaker from the kitchen counter. “What do you think, JD?” he asked, offering the younger man the salt.
“It’s … it’s fine,” JD said, glancing up at Nathan then back at the plate balanced on his knees. He shoved another fork full of the potato salad into his mouth as an excuse not to talk.
The group fell into an awkward silence. They continued to devour the excellent meal but any semblance of normal conversation between them was gone. As soon as JD finished his plate, he excused himself and went back to the bedroom.
“He can’t even be in the same room with me!” Buck complained, dropping his plate on the coffee table and throwing himself back in his chair.
“It isn’t you personally,” Josiah said gently. “He’s struggling with what was done to him, with the doctrine they beat into him.”
“Beat?” Buck echoed.
Josiah and Chris glanced at each other before both turned to look at Buck. Vin, Ezra and Nathan looked away guiltily.
“You knew about it and you didn’t tell me?” Buck asked, looking at each of his teammates, “You all knew about it?”
“I’m sorry, Buck, I didn’t want to upset you any worse than you already were,” Chris replied. “There isn’t anything we can do about it now except be supportive.”
“How bad?” Buck asked. When no one answered, he repeated much louder, “How bad?”
“They caned him,” Vin blurted out, “from his shoulders to his ankles.”
Buck leapt to his feet, fists clenched. He wanted to hunt the bastards down and pound them into the ground like tent stakes. He was also furious with the others for not telling him sooner. Unable to stand there for fear of saying something he might come to regret, he turned and left the cabin.
“Well, that went well,” Ezra announced, breaking the silence that had befallen the group.
“I’m gonna go check on JD,” Vin said, taking his plate out and setting it on the counter before going to the door. He knocked and announced himself before entering the room.
“You alright?” Vin asked, moving casually to the mattress and sitting down.
“I’m fine,” JD replied.
Vin noticed the cards and picked them up, shaking them out of the box and tapping them against his thigh and cutting them to shuffle. “Wanna play?” he asked.
“Sure,” JD said, scooting closer.
Buck walked around for close to two hours before he returned to the cabin. He half-expected Chris to come looking for him. Instead, Chris was waiting on the porch when he got back.
“You alright?” Chris asked, handing Buck a cold beer.
“You should have told me,” Buck replied.
“I know. I was wrong.”
“How bad is it?” Buck asked.
“Come on inside and I’ll show you,” Chris answered. He followed Buck into the cabin and went to the laptop sitting on the coffee table. One by one, he brought up the pictures they had taken of JD’s bruised and battered body.
The fury was building in his chest again and Buck’s hands closed into fists. He drew back, fully intending to sweep the laptop, with its painful images, into the floor. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore and reached with a trembling hand to carefully lower the screen.
Buck got up from the couch and walked out of the cabin again. He strode up to Chris’ truck and drew back but the white of the bandage on his hand stopped him. Bracing both hands against the quarter panel, he stared down at the gravel between his feet.
Josiah made a big pot of stew for supper. Ezra had picked up some fancy frozen rolls that, when baked, filled the cabin with the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was comfort food for the profiler, who had many fond memories of his mother making the very same meal.
“Food is about ready,” Josiah announced. He tapped on the bedroom door and made the announcement again. Vin and JD dropped their cards and began raking them together right away.
It wasn’t as awkward when they gathered to collect their bowls of stew. Josiah put all of the hot rolls into a big bowl, lined with a clean dish towel, and put it on the coffee table, along with the bowl of butter and a knife. Buck was first in line, having abandoned the idea of a burger when he finished his brat at lunch. He accepted the bowl Josiah handed him and brought it up to inhale deeply of the aromatic steam.
“You’d have made somebody a great wife,” Buck teased of the graying man. Josiah’s response was to pop him on the ass with a dish towel as he walked away.
Once again, the group assembled in the small living room, each jockeying to get a seat near the basket of rolls. This time, Buck and JD ended up sitting kitty-corner of each other.
Ezra grabbed one of the rolls and tore it in half before dipping it into the rich gravy in the stew and blowing on it. He then popped it into his mouth, his eyes closing as he savored the various seasonings and flavors.
“My compliments, Josiah, this is truly wonderful,” the southerner announced.
Mumbled compliments came from each of the others, around healthy bites of rolls and stew. It had a slightly spicy aftertaste, courtesy of the whole peppercorns that had been crushed into it. The meat was tender and the vegetables cooked to just the right stage, not too soft but not undercooked.
Buck tore another piece off of a roll and used it to mop up the last bit of gravy in the bottom of his bowl. His breath caught when JD grabbed the other piece and copied his actions. It was something so completely normal that he dared to hope.
When all of the bowls were empty and all of them were leaning back in their seats and relaxing, JD finally worked up the courage to speak.
“I’d like to talk to all of you … about what happened to me,” he said. Nathan paused in gathering up the bowls and silverware, setting them on the corner of the counter and sinking back into his chair.
“Go ahead, son,” Josiah gently encouraged. He suspected that it was no accident that JD was sitting close to both Vin and Buck.
“I bumped into a friend at the mall,” JD began. Unconsciously, he started to fiddle with the splints on his fingers, scraping at the tacky residue from the tape. “He called me later and invited me to have supper with him.”
Bit by agonizing bit, JD recounted his first days in the bunker. Buck’s hands tightened where they lay on his thighs until he would have bruises. When he spoke of them caning his feet, Buck’s hands clenched into fists. Josiah and Nathan exchanged a glance, both of them understanding the significance of rendering the ‘initiate’ unable to escape.
“They made me kneel on this little mat,” JD continued, his hands moving to his knees and kneading the small, tender scars. He explained how he had spent his days making the beaded bracelets, reciting the mantra they taught him.
Both Vin and Ezra’s faces warmed at the mention of the bracelets. Chris’ eyes drifted to his duffle bag, where he still had the one they had removed from JD’s wrist.
JD’s voice broke when he spoke of the caning he received after trying to run away. He scrubbed away the moisture that built up in his eyes and went back to picking at his splints.
“And then they locked me in a cold, dark room,” JD said softly. Just the memory of it was enough to make him shiver.
Vin looked around the room and pointed to Chris’ jacket that hung on one of the ladder-backed chairs. Nathan grabbed it and passed it around.
Something soft was draped across his shoulders and JD pulled it closer, looking at Vin through tear-filled eyes with gratitude.
On and on, JD slowly, painfully dredged up and recounted his days at the bunker. His teammates were silent, stunned by the methodical, calculating way the cult had broken down JD’s resistance. They knew that the water had been drugged, but the beatings and ritual had done most of the damage. When JD commented on how relieved he was to get the nearly-white garments, they realized why he had thrown off the royal blue pajamas.
“I just couldn’t let him hit her,” JD explained, speaking of Kelly. “Could I?” he asked, turning to Buck with his question.
“Of course you couldn’t,” Buck answered, his throat tight with emotion.
JD broke down as he tried to tell them about the final, worst beating. He curled over his thighs, wrapping his arms around his knees and hiding his face as he shook with silent sobs.
Buck shot a panicked look toward JD, receiving a nod as permission from Josiah to comfort the younger man. Buck slid off of his chair and gently wrapped his arms around JD. He rested his forehead against JD’s shoulder and spoke soothingly to him.
One by one, the others moved so they could touch JD, letting him feel their supportive concern for him. After several minutes, Josiah gestured for them to step outside and let Buck work his magic with JD. They slipped silently from the cabin and stood on the edge of the porch, watching as the sun dipped below the tops of the trees, shrouding the cabin and its small clearing in shades of soothing gray.
Some time later, Buck opened the door and asked Nathan if he could get JD a pain pill. Once the pill was washed down, Buck helped JD to his feet and led him to the bedroom. JD was so worn out from his emotional revelations that he dropped off to sleep almost immediately after beseeching Buck to stay with him.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Kid,” Buck assured him, grabbing the sleeping bag and stretching out on it next to the mattress on the floor.
“Is he going to be alright?” Chris asked, as Josiah sat next to him on the porch and handed him a beer.
“With counseling,” Josiah replied. “He’s already taken a huge step toward being alright.”
The group slept soundly that night; which was fortunate, because there was still more unpleasant business to attend to come the dawn.
Vin stretched and slowly opened his eyes. It was early in the morning but he knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Scooting out of his sleeping bag, he silently padded over to where he left his sneakers by the door. He carried them outside with him, sitting on the edge of the porch to put them on. Making use of a tree, he began a series of stretches and warm-up exercises. Several minutes later, he set off down the rutted road for his morning run.
Nathan stirred almost a half hour later. He got up and started a pot of coffee. Chris and Josiah agreed that it would be beneficial to move JD to the ranch, to complete the deprogramming in familiar settings.
The smell of coffee pulled Ezra from sleep. He pawed through his duffle bag and found a clean change of clothes, then headed into the bathroom for a shower.
Chris heard the shower come on and decided that he might as well get up. Nathan, bless his soul, handed him a cup of coffee as soon as he stepped foot out of the small bedroom he had shared with Vin. He was surprised that Tanner had managed to get up and out without waking him. While he was leaning against the kitchen counter, he noticed that he had a message on his cell phone, which he had plugged into the charger the night before. Flipping it open, he frowned at seeing Agent Singer’s name and number displayed.
The overhead light flipped on and Chris called into the room, “Get up, get dressed, we’re out of here in ten!”
Buck and JD sat up and looked at each other in confusion before following the team leader’s command. They grabbed clothes and pulled them on, each taking a turn in the bathroom to do their business. Ezra was already out and dressed, dragging his fingers through his still-wet hair. Nathan shoved a cup of coffee at each of them, along with a cereal bar as they went out the door.
“Where are we going?” Ezra asked.
“Garden of the Gods. The amphitheater,” Chris answered.
Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah piled into the Ram, leaving JD and Buck to ride with Ezra in the Jag. The higher-clearance truck made better time on the deeply rutted road and soon was out of sight.
“What is it? What happened?” Vin asked.
“The Children of Adam committed mass suicide this morning,” Chris replied, the muscle in his jaw twitching with barely-controlled anger.
Once they reached the blacktop road, Ezra easily closed the distance to the Ram. He glanced in the rear-view mirror and noticed the uneasy look on JD’s face.
JD noticed that Ezra was watching him and tried to school his face into what he liked to think of as his poker face.
“What do you think happened?” Buck asked.
“I wouldn’t hazard to guess but I’m certain that it isn’t going to be good,” Ezra replied.
The rest of the drive was made in anxious silence.
A variety of law enforcement vehicles lined the entrance to the park, growing more dense as they got closer to the amphitheater. News vans packed one side of the parking lot, a sure sign that something terrible had happened.
Chris pulled into the first available parking space and leapt out of the truck, flashing his badge at the state trooper coming toward him at a jog.
“Oh, okay, go ahead,” the trooper called out, moving on to the next vehicle.
Ezra pulled in next to the Ram and got out, displaying his badge to the trooper and rushing to catch up with the rest of the team. When they got to the entrance to the amphitheater, Agent Singer and Orin Travis were waiting for them.
“Chris, gentlemen,” Orin greeted.
JD’s view was blocked by Buck and Ezra, so he took a couple of steps to his left and peered around them. What he saw made him gasp as his knees turned weak.
“Oh God!” JD murmured.
Those two softly-spoken words were enough to bring all six of his teammates’ eyes around to see what had provoked him.
“Oh God, no!” JD cried out as he started toward the cluster of people gathered in the center of the amphitheater.
The coroner looked up in surprise as the young, dark-haired man darted past him. He stepped out of the way as several larger men followed on the heels of the younger man.
“Joanie!” JD cried, as he was clothes-lined by a police officer, bent on preserving the crime scene. “Let me go!” JD yelled, trying to shake off the restraining arm. Another arm wrapped around him and bodily pulled him back several feet.
Buck dragged JD back away from the body of a young woman while Chris showed his credentials and asked for information. Nathan had stopped to talk to the coroner, who gave him his best guess on what had happened.
“Let me go!” JD growled, trying to push Buck’s arms from around his ribcage.
“Take it easy, JD. We’re too late,” Vin said, moving to block JD’s view of the woman.
“You gotta let me try!” JD argued.
Altogether, ninety-eight young men and women had taken their lives some time in the early hours of Sunday morning. A battered pewter chalice lay some feet from what appeared to be the last one to drink from it. Judging from the positions of the bodies, it had been a fast-acting poison.
JD was devastated. He watched them lift Joanie’s body and put it into a body bag. Chris persuaded the coroner to allow him a moment to say goodbye to the young woman before she was loaded into the bus that had been brought in to transport the bodies. JD was surprisingly dry-eyed as he identified as many of the young people as he could. He paused over another of the women, prompting Buck to gently ask who she was.
“Her name was Kelly,” JD said. He chewed on his lip for a moment before he added, “She was the one I kept Roger from hitting.”
Buck didn’t need any help recalling what had come of JD’s attempt to protect the young woman. He hoped she hadn’t suffered.
“Why Buck? Why did he do this to them?” JD asked.
“I don’t know, Kid, I just don’t know,” Buck answered, steering JD out of the way as the troopers arrived to move the body.
Chris pulled Orin aside and filled him in on what JD had said about his time with the cult. Travis immediately asked that JD come in and give an official statement.
“Not yet, Orin,” Chris replied. He glanced down to where Buck was leading a shell-shocked JD away from yet another body bag. “He isn’t ready right now.”
“Well, he at least needs to give a description of the leader to the FBI so they can start looking for him,” Orin said.
“You mean that evil son of a bitch got away?!” Chris asked, his voice rising in anger.
“From what we’ve been able to determine, there wasn’t anyone over the age of 30 down there. We really need JD to give a description of this Father Adam,” Agent Singer interjected, having heard Chris’ angry outburst.
“It doesn’t matter. JD isn’t in any condition to deal with any more of this,” Chris said. “I’m taking him to my ranch. I’ll call you when he’s ready.”
Agent Singer drew a breath to protest but Orin’s hand on his shoulder prevented him from speaking. He watched helplessly as Larabee gathered his men and left the amphitheater.
JD walked somberly back to the parking lot, safely shielded from the press by his team. Chris steered him and Buck into the back seat of the Ram with Josiah, motioning for Nathan to ride with Ezra. The smoked-glass windows would protect JD from the media as they left the parking lot.
Buck draped his arm across the seat behind JD, letting his hand rest lightly on JD’s shoulder. He was worried about the all-pervading sadness that had taken hold of his young friend.
“Let it out, Kid,” Buck softly urged, but JD remained silent and dry-eyed, staring at a point just beyond the windshield.
By the time they arrived at the ranch, it was well after noon and their stomachs were reminding them of the meager breakfast they had consumed. Nathan and Ezra stopped to pick up food for all of them on their way in.
Buck coaxed JD out of the truck and steered him into the house. When he tried to get his roommate to sit down on the couch, JD pulled away, moving to the sliding door and out onto the deck. Buck followed, hating that he was so helpless in the face of this newest attack on JD’s healing psyche.
JD sat down on the edge of the deck, letting his legs dangle over the side. He felt tired and empty. He kept seeing Joanie’s face as they zipped the body bag closed. A tiny little voice inside his head whispered that it could as easily been him, if his friends had not stolen him away from the group. He couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad one. The only thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t think he could stand the pain he was feeling much longer.
Standing on the other side of the sliding door, Josiah watched Buck and JD. He knew that the gregarious ladies man would never believe it, but he was doing exactly what JD needed just by being there. Buck was seated next to JD on the deck, not talking, but just providing a reassuring presence. The guilt JD felt over surviving when so many of the others died would take a while to get over. But he had the support of his friends and they wouldn’t give up on him.
Nathan and Ezra arrived and Ezra tooted the horn to summon help hauling in the groceries and fast food they had picked up. Vin’s eyes widened at the ice cream, packed in dry ice, that Ezra handed him. Chris took the case of beer and soda and piled a couple of the bags of bread and other perishables on top before carrying it into the house.
Hearing the sliding door open, Buck looked over his shoulder. Vin mimed shoveling food into his mouth and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Hey, they brought lunch. What do you say we go see before Vin and Josiah eat it all?” Buck asked.
“You go ahead,” JD answered, “I’m fine.”
Buck looked back at Vin and Vin nodded. A couple of minutes later, he reappeared with a pizza box lid filled with an assortment of food. He hooked one of the small tables with his foot and dragged it over, setting the food down so he could hand off the cans of soda he’d tucked into the tail of his tee shirt.
Just when Buck thought Tanner was going to go back in the house, he sat down, cross-legged, by the table and began to eat. There were toasted ravioli and cheese sticks, along with breaded jalapeños around a large bowl of marinara. There were hot and mild wings, as well as spicy barbeque wings. Several pieces of pizza rounded out the offerings.
Vin grabbed a wing and began eating, making a production out of getting every morsel of meat off of the bones and licking his fingers noisily. Buck’s head cocked slightly as he watched but finally he realized what Tanner was doing. Joining in, Buck grabbed a slice of pizza and dipped the corner in the marinara.
“This is really good,” Buck mumbled around a mouthful of food.
It might have been the smell of the food or the sounds his friends made as they consumed it but JD realized that part of the ache in his gut was his stomach protesting its empty state. He took a deep breath and caught a whiff of the hot wing sauce, which flooded his mouth with saliva. Finally, he lifted his leaden arm from his lap and reached out to take a wing from the top of the pizza box.
Buck and Vin’s eyes met and they smiled.
When the last jalapeño popper was gone, Vin pressed his palms against the deck and stretched. Then he gathered up the empty cans and pizza box and got up to carry them to the trash.
“It was good, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah, it was. Thanks,” JD murmured softly.
Inside the house, the rest of the team was watching the news coverage of the tragic deaths of so many young people. Many sobbing parents were shown in the background, alongside of images of their children in graduation photos, birthday photos, and video. There was also footage of the standoff from Friday night. The reported alluded to the possibility that it was just that confrontation that drove the group to their unfortunate end.
Ezra got up quickly and left the room. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the cult had just claimed another victim. Chris rose and followed the southerner out the front door, catching up with him beside his car.
“Running out on me again?” Chris asked.
A cold jolt of shock ran through Ezra and he turned to stare in disbelief at the team leader. His mouth opened and closed, like a fish out of water, while his brain tried to come up with a suitable retort.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Chris said, letting Ezra off of his own hook.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t what Standish wanted to hear. “How can it not be my fault? I sent those people to that party to retrieve their children! Because of my interference, that insane bastard took them all out and killed them!” Ezra shouted. He took a step closer to Chris and jabbed him in the chest with his finger, “I may as well have been the one holding the cup for them to drink from!”
Chris took a slow, deep breath as he looked down on the smaller man. Ezra’s upper lip was dotted with sweat and his nostrils were flaring, a sure sign that the southerner was deadly serious about what he was saying.
“You can’t know that for sure, Ezra. JD said that Father Adam was planning to take his followers to Paradise. He always planned to kill them. What you did allowed some of them to be saved.”
“But he killed them,” Ezra protested, his hand falling to his side an instant before he turned and put his fist through the driver’s side window.
“Damn it all to hell! What is it with you people and punching things?” Nathan growled as he ducked back into the house to grab a dishtowel. He shot off the porch and took hold of Ezra’s wrist, checking for glass before wrapping his bleeding knuckles.
Ezra hissed and tried to pull his hand away. The veil of rage and guilt faded, only to be replaced with the insistent throb running up his arm. He looked down at the broken window and back up at the two men standing over him in confusion.
“You’re going to the hospital with this one,” Nathan said, taking the southerner by the elbow and steering him toward the Jimmy.
“I’m going with them,” Chris announced to Josiah, who was waiting on the porch.
“That isn’t necessary,” Ezra protested, trying to pull away from Nathan and head back toward the house.
“You’re getting that hand X-rayed and I’m going to make sure you do what the doctor tells you to do,” Chris countered.
With the team leader glaring at him, Ezra sheepishly allowed Nathan to help him into the back seat. He had to admit that his hand was really, really throbbing. Josiah appeared beside the vehicle, holding out a gel ice pack and a larger towel. Ezra gratefully accepted both and carefully lowered his injured hand into the ice pack, wincing as he did.
Vin looked around, surprised to find the living room empty, when he came in with the trash. Josiah rushed past him, grabbing the ice pack from the freezer and a clean towel from the basket sitting on top of the dryer in the utility room. Vin dropped the cans in the recycling bin and the pizza box in the trash can before following Josiah out the front door.
“What happened?” Vin asked, when Josiah returned to the porch and Nathan pulled away from the house.
“Ezra put his hand through his car window,” Sanchez replied. “Some newscaster just announced that Father Adam killed his followers because of the confrontation at the party.”
“Aw hell,” Vin murmured. “As if we needed any more guilt around here.”
“Amen to that, brother,” Josiah agreed. “No more watching the news until this is all over,” he added.
JD continued to sit, staring out at the horses in the field. He leaned to the right, just enough to brush his shoulder against Buck’s. His throat hurt and his chest felt tight and strange.
Buck noticed the shallow breaths and slipped his arm around JD’s back and drew him in closer. He remained silent, waiting for JD to speak. Eventually, the younger man leaned more heavily into his side and his shoulders shook with sobs. Buck ran his hand up and down JD’s back. Finally, JD’s sobs tapered off and Buck dug into his pocket for his handkerchief.
After he dried his eyes and blew his stuffy nose, JD rolled the linen hanky into his hand and laid his head on Buck’s shoulder. A few minutes later, the familiar sound of a motorcycle on the blacktop had JD pulling back to look at his friend.
“By the way, did you ever find my bike? I followed Jeremy to a house on the outskirts of Purgatory. It might still be there and-” JD began.
“Sorry to be the one to tell you this but your bike is busted all to hell, Kid. It looks like they tossed it over the guard rail. I’ve got your jacket and the other stuff from the saddlebags but the bike and helmet were a total loss,” Buck explained.
Arriving at the hospital, Chris helped Ezra out while Nathan parked the Jimmy. As soon as they reached the waiting room, a nurse directed them to an exam room. She quickly took a set of vitals and rushed out of the room, returning a few minutes later with a syringe of medication for pain.
Dr. Marlow strolled in moments later. “Well, what have we here?” he asked, looking over the top of his narrow reading glasses.
“He put his hand through a car window,” Nathan replied.
“On purpose?” the doctor asked.
“No, it was more a fit of rage,” Ezra answered lazily.
The doctor gently picked up the bruised and swollen appendage and carefully felt along the bones. Almost as if he had summoned it with his mind, an orderly arrived with the portable X-ray machine.
They settled in to wait for the orthopedist to come down to examine Ezra’s hand. Fifteen minutes into the wait, Chris figured that he aught to call and let the others know what was going on.
As soon as Chris was out of earshot, Ezra sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The shot the nurse had given him had dulled the pain so much that he forgot and put his hand on the mattress for balance. Immediately, he hissed and gingerly brought it up to his chest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Nathan asked.
“I need to make use of the facilities,” Ezra drawled.
Nathan helped the southerner to his feet and began to steer him to the door.
“I’m quite sure I can manage this on my own,” Ezra protested. “I am, after all, ambidextrous.”
Once out in the hall and free of Nathan, Ezra turned and headed for the staff entrance that was down the hall from the ER. Unfortunately, he was concentrating so hard on hiding his ‘infirmity’ that he didn’t notice the man standing at the bank of pay phones.
“Where are you going, Ezra?” Chris said, having ended his conversation with Josiah to follow Standish.
Startled, Ezra spun around and swayed dizzily. “I am merely trying to find out what is taking so long,” he answered, pasting on his best ‘innocent’ expression.
“Come on, get back to your room,” Chris urged.
Forty minutes later, Nathan got up and stretched. “I’m going to get some coffee. Can I bring you back a cup?” he asked Chris.
“Yeah, that would be good. But only if you get it from the doctor’s lounge, I don’t want any of that vending machine crap.”
“I would also like a cup,” Ezra added.
“Not until the doctor sees you. If they have to surgically set that hand, you can’t have anything on your stomach,” Nathan explained.
“Wonderful,” Ezra groused, laying back and covering his eyes with his left arm.
A few minutes later, there were loud shouts from the waiting room, followed by the sound of glass breaking. Chris got up and went to the door to see what was happening. He saw two DPD officers struggling with a prisoner. It was pretty obvious that the man was on something, as he was oblivious to the nasty gash on his head and the blood running down from the wound on his shoulder.
“Stay right there!” Chris told Ezra before he slipped out of the room.
Ezra raised his arm just enough to give the team leader an exasperated glare before lowering it and tuning out the ruckus in the hall. He heard the door click when it closed and counted slowly to ten before sitting up.
The disturbance with the prisoner provided ample distraction for the southerner to slip out of the room. He was almost to the doctor’s lounge, barely five yards from the exit when he was caught again.
“Mr. Standish, what are you doing out of bed?” she exclaimed. “Dr. Harper will be along any minute to see you!” She took him by the arm and steered him back to the room.
Chris was just returning to the room when the nurse brought Ezra back. “Do you think we could get a gown for him?” Larabee asked.
Meanwhile, those back at the ranch were lounging around in the living room, watching a movie on DVD. Chris had insisted that they not watch anything on the broadcast channels in case something about the incident with the cult members should come up. JD lay on the couch, listlessly gazing at the screen. Buck watched from the recliner, worry about the younger man writ large across his face. Vin was sprawled out on the loveseat, his long legs hanging over the armrest at one end. Josiah sat in the other recliner, also worrying about JD. The death of the cult members was hitting him hard.
JD’s eyelids grew heavy and each blink was fractionally longer than the one before until finally he was asleep. Buck waited several minutes to be certain that JD was fully asleep before he kicked back in the recliner and relaxed. Josiah also drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the younger man was safely resting in the arms of slumber. Vin was the last to succumb to the early morning, the stress and the full tummy. A chorus of soft snores accompanied the movie to its very end.
He was lost and confused. JD stumbled across the parking lot. He looked down in horror at the dark clothing he was wearing and the blood dripping from his hands. He looked around and saw a red-headed girl darting past a tall rock formation.
“Hey! Help me!” he called after her. A heavy thud answered his request and he hurried after her. When he rounded the corner, he saw her. She was lying on her back, staring up at him with wide, accusing eyes. Blood poured from the gruesome gash across her throat. JD sank to his knees and reached out to help her, only to stop and stare in horror at the knife in his hand.
“No,” JD murmured, turning away from the television. “No,” he whimpered.
Vin wakened immediately and rolled off of the loveseat. He crawled over and gently placed his hand on JD’s back. He could feel the rapidly beating heart and panicked breaths.
Father Adam stood over him, looking down and nodding. He then stretched out his arm and pointed. JD followed the gesture and saw the rest of the Children. Kyle and Roger were holding a young, blonde girl between them while Sean gripped her hair and pulled her head back, baring the slender line of her throat. JD looked up at Father Adam in supplication, holding out the knife.
“Don’t make me do this,” he begged. But Father Adam reached down and drew him to his feet. JD tried to resist but the older man was too strong. “No, please!” JD whimpered as he was made to stand in front of the blonde. “NO!” he screamed as Father Adam forced his hand, with the still-bloody knife, out to slash across her throat. “NO!” JD repeated.
JD thrashed on the couch and rolled over, lashing out with his clenched hand to connect solidly with Vin’s nose. Tanner sank back, his hand coming up to catch the blood running down his upper lip. Josiah and Buck, wakened by JD’s scream of denial, tumbled out of the recliners and moved toward the couch.
Opening his eyes, JD saw only Vin with blood dripping from his hand. He let out a horrified scream and vaulted over the back of the couch. Staggering away from the bloody tableau, he bumped into the wall.
“It’s okay, JD. Calm down!” Buck soothed. He slowly moved around the couch, holding out his hands to try to block the path if the younger man should try to bolt.
Josiah knelt beside Vin, digging his handkerchief from his pocket. He helped Tanner to his feet and followed him into the bathroom.
Buck carefully reached out and laid his hand on JD’s shoulder. He gently enfolded his young friend into his arms. JD shuddered as the remnants of the nightmare dissipated. He wrapped his arms around Buck and sighed.
The orthopedist examined Ezra and studied the x-ray for several minutes before he spoke. “You are a lucky man, Mr. Standish. Other than the split knuckles, you didn’t manage to break anything. You did, however, severely strain some of the ligaments. I’m going to put your arm in a brace to immobilize your hand to give things time to heal,” he explained.
It was still another forty minutes before they were finished with the splint and got the prescription for pain pills filled. Ezra scowled balefully at the sling the nurse settled around his neck to support the black, nylon and Velcro splint. The nurse gave Ezra a printed page of instructions which Nathan promptly snapped from his hand.
Buck held on to JD until the younger man pulled away. “You want to talk about it?” he asked, tilting his head and studying the troubled hazel eyes.
“It was just a bad dream,” JD said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Vin and Josiah returned to the living room and JD barely looked at Tanner before turning away, ashamed.
“Damn, JD, you pack a helluva whallop,” Vin commented, trying to lighten the mood in the room. He walked up to JD put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and gave him a little shake to loosen him up. “Next time I have to wake you up, I’ll know to duck,” Vin teased. He held JD’s eyes until JD finally smiled.
Around eight that evening, the phone rang. Chris took the call in the kitchen so as not to distract the others, who were watching a movie. When he came back several minutes later, he dropped into the recliner, rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his forehead into the palms of his hands.
Buck grabbed the remote and paused the DVD player. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“That was Travis on the phone. He wants to see all of us in his office tomorrow morning at ten,” Chris replied.
“How did he sound?” Vin asked.
“Not like a happy man,” Chris said. “I have a feeling things are about to get ugly.”
“Damn,” Buck breathed, “I hate ugly.”
They took two vehicles to the office the next morning. Ezra rode with JD and Nathan in the Jimmy while the others rode with Chris in the Ram. The air in both vehicles crackled with nervous energy. JD had tossed and turned all night, his dreams alternating between the horrific scenes at the amphitheater and various images of their futures if they were dismissed from the ATF. His knee bounced frenetically and he chewed his nails to the quick.
Ezra’s knee also bounced, although not with as much energy as JD’s. He fiddled with the brace until Nathan prompted him to leave it alone.
Buck looked over at Chris and saw the tense muscle along his jaw. He knew from long experience that his friend was only barely restraining his temper and he hoped that Travis didn’t push him over the edge.
Vin stared out the window, watching the scenery go past. To the casual observer, he looked calm and relaxed. But one had only to look into his pale blue eyes to see the torrent of emotions just below the surface.
Josiah tried, yet again, to pray but he couldn’t hold a thought long enough to complete a single prayer. He knew that the situation was about as bad as it could be and he wondered if they would have jobs by the end of the day.
Orin’s secretary saw them stepping out of the elevator and immediately picked up the phone. “They’re here, sir,” she said. To Chris, when he strode up to her desk, she said, “Go right in.” Team Seven walked past her like men going to the gallows.
The office was lit by the bank of windows that ran the length of the room. Because of the location, the view was of the mountains in the distance, the same vista that Chris had in his office four floors down.
“Gentlemen, please take a seat,” Orin said. Punching the button on his phone, he announced that he was in a meeting and for all of his calls to be held.
Chris surveyed the table before choosing his seat. Buck immediately claimed the one next to him and Vin the one opposite. JD took the seat next to Buck, naturally. Nathan sat next to Vin and Ezra took the chair next to him, leaving Josiah at the foot of the table. Orin couldn’t help but feel that the arrangement was deliberate.
Taking his seat at the head of the table, Orin studied each of the men seated before him. Larabee, Wilmington and Tanner looked ready to do battle. Jackson looked anxious, his gaze constantly turning to the injured members of the team. Dunne and Standish looked like they would rather be any place other than where they were and Sanchez … well, the team profiler held his gaze steadily and unflinchingly.
“Gentlemen, I called you in to discuss the recent string of events,” Orin began. “Certain information has come to my attention and I am forced to act on it. While I understand that you thought you were doing right in kidnapping Agent Dunne from Longmont, I cannot abide in the deliberate misdirection of the officers dispatched to the scene.” His gaze rested heavily on Standish for a moment before he continued. “And then there is the matter of the location of The Children of Adam’s party being leaked to the family members and the resulting standoff with the police,” again he looked to the undercover agent before continuing. “I am left with no choice but to suspend Agent Standish pending a review of the circumstances-”
“That’s not fair!” JD shouted as he came to his feet. “He was just trying to rescue me!”
“Sit down, Agent Dunne!” Orin ordered. “Now!”
JD sank into his chair and scowled at Travis.
“The rest of the team is restricted to investigation and office duty until the situation is resolved. Agent Dunne is on sick leave pending his release, psych evaluation and re-qualification. Agent Standish, please turn over your badge, ID and weapon before leaving the building.”
Ezra stood and reached into his pocket to get his badge and ID case. He flipped it onto the tabletop and removed his gun, holster and all, slamming it down on top of the leather case. It was immediately joined by five similar ID cases and holsters. JD looked around, slightly bewildered because he had neither gun nor ID case to surrender. His weapon was at home, locked in the gun safe, and he had lost his badge and ID when he was kidnapped.
Orin’s secretary looked up in surprise as the members of Team Seven filed past her and headed for the elevator. She turned slowly to see her boss leaning heavily on the door frame, looking as if he’d aged ten years in the last twenty minutes.
Once back in the parking garage, JD clenched his uninjured hand into a fist and slammed it down against the top of the Ram’s tailgate. His fury was unabated, however, and he lashed out with his foot, kicking the concrete pillar the truck was parked next to. The others left him alone until he raised his splinted hand and started to drive it into the pillar.
“I think that’s enough,” Chris said. Instantly, JD’s tirade ended and he turned to stare at them. “I don’t want to spend another afternoon at the hospital,” Larabee continued. “Not when we have things to do.”
“Like what?” JD asked angrily. “We’re all out of a job! What do we have to do? Go down and file for unemployment?”
“It’s a start,” Chris said, reaching out to wrap a hand around the back of JD’s neck and steering him toward the Jimmy.
“All of you didn’t need to quit on my account,” Ezra said as the group moved toward the vehicles.
“All for one and one for all,” Vin announced. “We were all in on the rescue, we’ll all share the blame.”
Somehow, it made JD feel better that the others were willing to stand behind Ezra the way they did. But, on the other hand, it gave him something else to worry about. All the way back to the ranch, he worried about how he was going to make his car payment. That started him thinking about health insurance, which spiraled into car insurance and credit card bills, not to mention what he contributed to groceries and utilities at the apartment he shared with Buck.
Vin, who had decided to ride back with Nathan, noticed that JD’s breathing sounded funny. He reached across the bench seat and took hold of Dunne and realized that he was hyperventilating.
“Easy, kid, take it easy,” Vin soothed.
“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked, taking his foot off of the accelerator.
“He’s gonna pass out if he doesn’t calm down,” Vin replied.
JD realized that he felt dizzy and nauseous and he reached for the button to roll down the window. With the breeze blowing across his face, he was able to relax and his breathing slowed to a normal speed.
“You alright now?” Vin asked.
“Yeah, sorry,” JD replied, “It just all got to me all of a sudden.”
Monday afternoon was tense at the ranch. Chris called some friends and put out the word that his team had quit rather than let Ezra take all the blame for the cult disaster. Ezra contacted his lawyer friend and they had a long talk, followed by a longer session on his laptop. Josiah made and received several calls until he got the one he wanted.
JD was standing in the stall with his mare, giving her a thorough brushing. It allowed him to think about something other than how he was going to pay his bills. He finished with her body and moved on to her mane, carefully working to remove the burrs that she had picked up out in the pasture. He heard someone come into the barn but didn’t raise his head to see who it was, he would find out soon enough. It was beginning to rankle him just a little that they followed him around like they were afraid he was going to hurt himself or something.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that mare look that good since that time you entered her in the show down in Silver Springs,” Josiah said, leaning against the gate and rubbing her velvety nose.
“Guess I’ll have lots of time to devote to her now that I’m unemployed,” JD replied.
“I don’t think it’s going to take that long to straighten the situation out, do you?”
JD paused, the metal comb caught in the mare’s mane above a large tangle. “We quit, Josiah. How long will it take us to find jobs? And me like this,” he held up his splinted fingers. “You should have left me where I was.”
Josiah immediately opened the stall gate and stepped inside, moving to stand as close as he could to JD without actually touching him, “If we had left you there you would be dead, son. And I don’t know that any of us could have lived with ourselves if that happened.”
Staring at the metal teeth of the comb above the tangle, JD fought against the emotions that were churning in his heart and head. He was relieved to be alive and guilty because they had all given up their jobs because of him. He loved the guys for caring enough to save him and hated that they were in this predicament because of him. He blamed them for making him feel bad, then felt guilt for blaming them. Around and around, the emotions threatened to overwhelm him.
“They’re having a memorial service for all of them at the amphitheater on Wednesday,” Josiah said softly. “I thought you might want to go.”
Sniffling, JD nodded. Then he reached for the comb and went back to working the tangles from the mare’s mane.
Tuesday morning, Orin called and invited Chris to come into the office to talk about the situation. Chris asked if he had changed his mind about Ezra and Travis said that he hadn’t. With that, Chris told Orin to call him when he came to his senses.
Wednesday dawned warm and sunny. JD was awake off and on all night, unable to truly rest because of the nightmares and guilt that kept him on edge. The guys were treating him as much like normal as they could, they just couldn’t help that they were a bunch of overgrown mother hens. JD took the glass of chocolate milk Vin made him and went out on the deck to take in the sunrise.
Around noon, Buck took JD to the apartment so they could change into suitable clothes for the memorial. Vin drove Ezra and Nathan to their places since Ezra couldn’t drive. Josiah drove home to change and Chris picked him up there before swinging by to get JD and Buck. They went by Ezra’s and followed the Jag to the highway.
The parking lots were full and the park was running a shuttle to take people to the amphitheater. Chris was almost grateful for the anonymity that it provided him and his teammates when he saw the cluster of television vans parked along the road.
JD’s steps grew slower as he got closer to the entrance. He felt a hand settle on the small of his back and looked around to see Buck watching him with concerned eyes. The rest of his friends surrounded him, providing him with protection from the cameras pointed their way.
They found seats at the end of a row in case JD needed to get out quickly. All along the front of the theater, huge floral arrangements were being placed, along with pictures, candles and a variety of stuffed animals.
It was an agonizingly long service, punctuated by muffled sobs as one of the speakers mentioned the deceased cult members by name. The various ministers, pastors and priests spoke reassuringly to the family members about forgiveness and God’s grace. After a couple of familiar hymns, the service ended. JD remained in his seat, slowly shredding the tissues Ezra was handing him as tears flowed down his cheeks. Josiah and Chris proved to be more than adequate at keeping anyone from interrupting JD, no matter their good intentions.
Through the blur of tears, JD noticed a woman with curly red hair standing in front of one of the floral arrangements, the one that sat behind the picture of Joanie. At her side, a younger girl stood, shaking with tears. Suddenly, JD was on his feet, moving against the crowd that was trying to exit the amphitheater.
Buck realized that JD was headed for the stage and steered him toward one of the inner aisles that wasn’t as crowded with people trying to leave. He struggled to keep up, as JD was able to dart through smaller gaps in the crowd. He reached the stage in time to hear JD ask the woman if she was related to Joanie.
“She was my daughter,” the woman replied. “Who are you? Did you know my Joanie?”
Before he could answer, someone called his name and he turned to see Darcy struggling to get through the crowd. She broke free of the restraining hand of a man JD took to be her father and ran over to him.
Buck stepped up to block Darcy’s path and she stared up at him for a long moment before she recognized him.
“You … you’re …” she stammered, shrinking back slightly when the rest of the team moved up and closed ranks around her and her father.
“Do you know these men, Darcy?” the man asked.
“They’re the ones … who got me out, Daddy,” she answered.
“Then I owe you a debt of thanks,” the man said, holding out his hand for Buck to shake, “I’m Jonathan Whitelaw, Darcy’s father.”
Darcy took a hesitant step toward JD and spoke, her voice a hushed whisper, “Jeremy didn’t make it. I’m so sorry, JD, I know he was your friend.”
Joanie’s mother gave a startled gasp, “Why didn’t you get my daughter out too? She was a good girl! She didn’t know what she was getting caught up in!”
JD swayed, caught between what felt like opposing forces determined to rip him apart. He took a step back and felt a hand settle firmly on his shoulder. He tried to come up with a response but every time he opened his mouth, he couldn’t get anything out.
“Excuse us, JD has had a long morning,” Josiah said, steering the younger man away from the two groups. Chris, Buck and Vin immediately moved to protect JD from behind, while Vin and Ezra parted the waters in front of them.
Once safely back in the truck, JD shuddered. Buck wrapped an arm around him, intending to draw him in close, until he realized that JD was resisting. Buck then shifted his arm to the back of the seat and kept his hand resting on JD’s shoulder.
When they got back to the ranch, JD retreated to the small bedroom he had been using and threw himself down on the bed. He felt empty. He thought he should feel sorry that Jeremy was dead but what he felt was more like anger. And seeing Darcy at the service, alive and smiling, only made him feel worse. Why had she survived and not Joanie? It just didn’t seem fair.
Kicking off his shoes, JD rolled over and pulled one of the pillows from under the spread and wrapped his arms around it. He kept mulling over the situation, growing more and more angry with each pass. His hand clenched into a fist and he began to pound on the pillow, harder and harder.
Buck cracked the door open and watched JD. He was worried that the memorial service might have been too much, too soon. Since he could only see the back of JD’s head and part of his shoulder, he took the shaking to be tears. When the motion became more violent, he eased the door further open and saw that JD was punching the pillow he was holding against his stomach. Flinging the door the rest of the way open, he quickly went to JD’s bed and sat down, raking his hand firmly down the back of JD’s head and giving his neck a squeeze.
“Aw, Kid, I’d give anything for this not to have happened to you,” Buck murmured softly. “You don’t deserve to go through this.”
JD tried to collect himself when he realized Buck was in the room but he was beyond control. He continued to drive his fist into the pillow and also began to kick at the wall. He felt Buck’s hands on him, lifting him and repositioning him but he couldn’t open his eyes for fear of seeing the pity and disgust he knew his roommate must surely feel for him.
Buck maneuvered JD around until he was able to slide across the bed and lean against the wall next to the headboard. He pulled JD up and settled him against his chest, capturing his fist and holding it until he stopped trying to hit with it.
The rest of the team sat in the living room, watching the newscaster describing the memorial service. The cameras had been allowed to film only the clergymen’s faces, not the mourners. Finally, Josiah looked around and noticed that Buck was gone. He had thought that Buck was only going to the bathroom and he got up to go check.
Josiah saw that Buck was on the twin bed with his arms wrapped around JD. As soon as he got close enough, he heard the wracking sobs. Buck’s total attention was focused on JD for several moments but, when he finally looked up, he mouthed the word ‘water.’
When Josiah returned a few minutes later, he handed Buck a bottle of water. Buck drank a good part of it before handing it back in exchange for the washcloth Sanchez had in his other hand. He gently wiped JD’s sweaty forehead and cheek before laying the cloth on the side of his neck. Josiah put the bottle on the nightstand and slipped quietly from the room.
JD wakened some time later to steady, deep breaths and a soothing heartbeat beneath his ear. His right arm was kind of numb and pressed against something. His left arm was also being held in place. Instantly, he became frightened and tensed up.
“Shh, it’s okay, Kid. Ol’ Buck’s got you, you’re safe,” Buck murmured.
Relief washed over him and JD sank back into the welcoming darkness of sleep.
“Do you think we should wake them up? They haven’t eaten anything since breakfast,” Nathan asked of Josiah.
“Right now, I think it’s better to let them rest,” Josiah replied. He knew that JD’s sleep had been in fits and snatches the night before and that Buck had been up and down with him.
About forty-five minutes later, the pair emerged from the bedroom. Buck looked a little worse for the wear but JD looked a lot better. After a quick pit stop in the bathroom, JD headed for the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
“Hungry?” Chris asked.
“Starving,” JD mumbled around the end of the sweet pickle he had dug out of the jar. “What are we doing for supper?”
“Nathan is making us his mama’s special lasagna,” Vin announced, also plunging his fingers into the jar in JD’s hand and fishing out a pickle.
“Okay,” JD replied, digging into the jar for another pickle.
Thursday was a topsy-turvy, emotional rollercoaster. JD was fine for the most part, until something would remind him and he would sink into depression again. Buck stayed close, until JD lashed out at him and told him that he felt like he was being smothered. Ezra was also uncomfortable and irritated, growling at anyone who got close. Nathan scolded him for not wearing his sling and the southerner told him to keep his nose out of other people’s business. By supper that night, they were barely speaking to anyone.
On Friday, Chris decided that giving them all something to do would keep them from each others throats, so he assigned them each a ‘chore’ that was appropriate for them. He sent Buck and Vin to the barn to clean the stalls and Josiah and Nathan along to rearrange the hay loft for the next shipment of fresh bales. He gave Ezra the task of filing all of his bills and paperwork that had been piling up in his small home office. He told JD to get ready to go help him pick out new flowers for the beds out in front of the house.
Buck immediately puffed up to argue but a stern look from the blond had him swallowing his protest. Josiah realized that Chris was deliberately separating Buck from JD and knew that it would be good for them, in spite of how the mother-hen was taking it. JD pulled on his shoes and raked his hair back and announced that he was ready.
On the drive into town, Chris took the back roads. It gave him more time to observe JD, who was staring out the window with an ambiguous look on his face.
“You’re going to have to talk to someone about all of this, you know,” Chris said.
“I know,” JD replied.
“I’d like you to get started next week.”
“No hurry,” JD said, “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
“But you’ll do it anyway,” Chris said, glancing over at JD as he slowed down for a curve in the road.
“Might as well, since our benefits run out at the end of the month,” JD replied tartly.
“JD, you didn’t have to quit with the rest of us and you can still go back to Travis and tell him you want your job back.”
“Not without the rest of you,” JD said.
“You know we won’t let him railroad Ezra. This is just to give everybody a chance to cool off and for the media buzz to die down.”
“Okay,” JD said, “If you say so.”
Chris didn’t want to pick a fight with JD so he let the subject drop. They arrived at the small nursery a few minutes later and got out of the truck. The owner immediately came out to greet them but JD was already moving toward the tables filled with bedding plants. While exchanging pleasantries with the owner, Chris watched the younger man. JD lingered over the small, darkly colored violets and the pansies.
“Those were Sarah’s favorite,” Chris said, catching up with JD. “Why don’t we get a flat of those pansies and one of the four o’clock’s,” he suggested. JD nodded and began arranging the plants, choosing different colors, until he had two flats full of flowers. Chris picked up a few bags of fertilizer, mulch and potting soil with plant food in it and had them loaded in the truck bed. As they were standing at the register waiting to pay, Chris noticed that JD was staring at one of the flowering bushes. “Those are pretty too,” he said, hoping to get JD to open up.
“My mom used to bring those in and put them in vases so that the whole apartment smelled of them,” JD said.
The owner of the nursery came to the counter, dusting off his hands from having loaded the bags into the truck and Chris pointed at the bushes JD had indicated, “I’ll take three of those, too.”
JD turned, his mouth hanging open for a moment. “You don’t have to do that,” he said.
“I know, I want to,” Chris replied, smiling as the other man set the plants on the counter.
With the plants safely situated in the back floorboard of the truck and the bushes in the bed, Chris and JD returned to the ranch.
Meanwhile, Buck and Vin worked to clean the stalls. Josiah’s gelding preferred to do his business in one corner, as did Peso, but the other horses seemed not to care and it took longer to clean those stalls. Buck wheeled his barrow out to dump it and filled it with fresh sawdust from the lean-to. As he worked, he worried about what Chris and JD were doing together. He hated that he and JD had gotten into it the day before and he silently vowed to try to give the kid room to heal.
It was nearly an hour before the truck rolled up the driveway, just as Vin was returning with the last load of sawdust for the stalls. Josiah and Nathan were just about finished rearranging the hay bales and everyone had burned off some of their excess energy.
Ezra transferred the papers from his injured right hand to his left and dropped them into the appropriate folder in the drawer. It was slow going, with only one working hand, but cleaning stalls and moving hay bales would have been impossible. As he worked, he wondered how Chris was doing with JD. When he heard the truck coming up the drive, he closed the drawer and looked at the newly-clean desk top.
Chris saw Buck coming across the lawn and he smiled. He knew that the mother-hen needed to check on his chick. JD had one of the flats of flowers resting on the arm with the splinted fingers and was getting ready to carry it to the porch.
“Looks like you got the easy job,” Buck called out. As he got close enough to see the flowers, he added, “Those were Sarah’s favorites.” He saw the bushes Chris was unloading and smiled, “My mom used to grow those when I was a kid.”
“Mine too,” JD replied cheerily.
“Some would say you’re still a kid,” Chris teased, reaching out to ruffle JD’s hair.
The front screen door opened and Ezra stepped out. “You get all that filing done?” Chris asked, propping his hands on his hips.
“It was mostly envelopes and advertising,” Ezra replied.
“Then get down here and help us with the flowers,” Chris ordered. “Buck, you and Vin need to check the fences on the west side. Nettie said she has one of my cows over at her place. Josiah and Nathan can take the trailer and go get it.”
By lunch time, Buck and Vin had found and fixed the break in the fence, Nathan and Josiah had brought the escaped bovine back and Chris had helped the two injured members of his team to plant the flowers. While Ezra and JD were scattering mulch in the flowerbeds, he dug the holes and planted the bushes.
Nathan came out on the porch and announced that they had the makings for sandwiches. Everyone lined up to use the hose to wash their hands. JD realized that he couldn’t get his splints wet and stood there helplessly looking at Buck as he held the hose.
“Here, Ezra, will you hold this for a minute?” Buck asked. He then handed Standish the hose and took hold of JD’s hand. In seconds, he had removed the worst of the dirt, except for that stuck under his nails. When he took the hose and handed it back to JD, Ezra smiled.
“If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to wash my hand with soap,” Standish said. He stood up from the brick wall that surrounded the flowerbed and turned toward the steps.
Buck started around the house to shut off the water. He had just placed his hand on the spigot when he heard a very southern-sounding wail of protest. Racing back around the corner, he saw that JD had sprayed Ezra’s behind with the cold water.
“I was just getting the dirt off of your pants, Ez,” JD said with a stuttering giggle.
Ezra stared indignantly at the younger man for a moment before retreating into the house. If it had been Buck holding the hose, he would have given him a thorough tongue-lashing but he couldn’t bring himself to scold JD.
“Have a little accident out there, Ezra?” Josiah asked sardonically.
“Don’t give up your day job,” Ezra replied as he moved past the graying man and went to change clothes.
The sandwiches were filling and washed down with a beer before the team settled down to rest for a while. Almost immediately, Vin and Buck were nodding off. JD yawned slouched down a little deeper into the couch.
Chris considered letting everyone sleep and he leaned back in the recliner. Just as he was about to drift off, the phone rang. Drowsy eyes opened as he got up and moved to take the call.
“Larabee residence,” Chris said, leaning against the wall.
“Agent Larabee, this is Agent Singer. I wanted to be the first to let you know that we found Father Adam. We got a tip that he was using an old bunker in the mountains as one of his hideouts. He killed himself.”
“That’s news, at least,” Chris said.
“There’s more. I know that your man was suspended because the powers that be think he was partly responsible for pushing Father Adam into killing his followers-”
“How do you know that?” Chris asked, his eyes automatically going to the southerner.
“It’s all over the agency that he’s out on his ear,” Singer replied. “We found papers at the bunker indicating that he had planned all along to kill them that day. It was the date that his daughter died of meningitis. We spoke to a psychiatrist who had been treating him and he thinks her death made him unbalanced.”
Chris turned to find six pairs of curious, concerned eyes fixed on him, “That was Agent Singer. They found Father Adam in a bunker in the mountains, he’s dead.” They all turned to see some undefined emotion scroll across the expressive hazel eyes. “He said they also found proof that he always intended to kill his followers on that date, it didn’t have anything to do with the standoff at the party.”
Relief flooded Ezra and he took a couple of steps back until his hip rested against the back of the couch. Whether or not he got his job back, he wouldn’t have to carry the guilt he had been feeling about all those young people’s deaths.
JD was stunned. Something inside him lurched and he staggered back, bumping into Buck, who was standing behind him. He felt hot and cold and nauseous, all at the same time.
“Kid? You alright?” Buck asked.
“Yeah … I’m, uh …” JD suddenly covered his mouth with his hand and took off for the bathroom.
Travis called a couple of hours later, “Chris, I just got a call from Singer and, based on what he told me, I’ve decided to reinstate Agent Standish. He and Agent Dunne will remain on sick leave until Standish is released for light duty and Dunne has a complete psychological evaluation and is released for light duty. I expect all able-bodied members of your team in the office Monday morning.”
“I’ll discuss it with them,” Chris replied.
“What do you mean by that?” Orin asked. His voice sounded peeved.
“Just that you suspended one of my agents without even discussing it with me! You tried to prevent us from going after one of our own! Instead of allowing us to help with the investigation, you tried to shut us out! Now you just expect us to come at your call. My team has been through hell! I’ll let you know if we’re coming in on Monday!” Chris shouted before slamming the receiver down.
Sighing in irritation, Chris turned around to find Josiah leaning against the counter looking at him.
“You know we have to go back,” Josiah said.
“I know,” Chris replied. “But it won’t hurt for him to worry about us for a change.”
Chris broke the news to the others over supper, “Travis wants every able-bodied member of the team in the office on Monday. He’s cancelled Ezra’s suspension.”
As expected, Buck protested, “It’s too soon!”
“It’s our job!” Chris countered.
“But JD needs more time! I’m not going back there until I’m sure he’s gonna be okay!” Buck yelled, coming to his feet and glaring angrily at the team leader.
“I don’t need you hovering over me, breathing down my neck all the time!” JD shouted.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s not let this situation disintegrate into something ugly. We recovered JD from the arms of those cultists and we have our jobs back,” Ezra interjected.
“What do you mean ‘you don’t need me hovering over you’?” Buck shouted. “I’m just trying to take care of you after what those religious fanatics did to you. Or have you forgotten?”
“Forgotten? How could I forget? Their voices are still inside my head! I hear them all the damned time! Unbelievers are evil! Evil must be vanquished! Do you know what it’s like? Seeing their faces every time I close my eyes?” JD yelled.
“Take it easy, JD,” Vin soothed.
“Easy?” JD repeated, his voice rising to a screech.
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Chris shouted, slamming his fist on the tabletop and causing the dishes to rattle. “Everyone sit down and shut up!”
Vin, Buck and JD slowly sank into chairs, looking sheepishly at Larabee.
“Now, I only told Travis that we would discuss it. Anyone who is not ready to return will be placed on sick leave. I understand if you want to take a few more days and unwind. JD will be attending mandatory counseling sessions starting Monday,” Chris looked at the youngest member of his team and saw him swallow his protest.
Saturday morning, Chris suggested that they take a ride to exercise the horses and clear their minds. The weather was pleasant and the familiarity of the routine immediately smoothed any tensions that had appeared between the teammates. Pony and Peso played up, baring their teeth at each other and bumping their shoulders in spite of their rider’s attempts to stop them. Nathan’s steady gelding followed along calmly while Buck’s gray kept stopping to browse on the grass growing along the trail. Chaucer pranced along, his tail held high, trying to make his way to the front of the line. Josiah’s mount was content to bring up the rear, his head hanging down and his eyes drooping. JD’s mare sauntered along in front of Josiah, maintaining space behind the others.
Josiah nudged his gelding into moving up alongside of JD’s mare and glanced over at the young man. “You have the look of someone with a lot on his mind,” he offered casually.
“Just thinking,” JD replied.
“Anything you want to share?” Josiah asked.
JD stared at Buck’s back as if he longed to talk to his roommate. He chewed on his lower lip and fidgeted with his reins. “I just wonder if I’ll ever get over what happened,” he finally said. “I mean … will I ever be able to close my eyes and not … hear them in my head?”
“I know it’s hard to believe right now but there will come a time when you won’t hear them anymore. It’ll take time and patience but it will happen,” Josiah said. He saw JD stare after Buck again and added, “I’m sure he would like it if you rode up there with him.” He smiled when JD clucked to his mare and urged her to move along the trail until he was alongside of Buck.
By Sunday evening, they had all decided to return to work. JD would spend the day with Ezra, who would drive him to and from his counseling session. JD protested that he could drive as well himself but Chris was adamant that his wounded teammates be together to protect each other’s back.
Everyone returned to their own homes Sunday night. Buck announced that he would drop JD at Ezra’s on his way to work. It was good to sleep in their own beds for a change.
Monday morning, everyone was up and in the office bright and early. It was strange, being there without JD and with no expectation of Ezra showing up. Chris instructed them to detail their involvement with the cult, starting with Buck’s call alerting them to JD’s disappearance.
“I gather you have not had a suitable breakfast this morning?” Ezra asked of JD after Buck dropped him off.
“I had a breakfast sandwich from McDonalds on the way over,” JD replied.
“Then sit down and I will make you something much more enjoyable.”
JD was tense and anxious all morning. He tried to read the paper but couldn’t concentrate for any length of time. He turned the TV on and tried to watch but he couldn’t stay focused on anything and kept changing the channel until Ezra asked him to stop.
Ezra tried very hard to be patient with JD but his patience had definite limits. When JD started channel surfing, Ezra finally had to say something to him. JD immediately looked hurt and Ezra felt guilty.
The counselor’s office was in a large professional building. Ezra parked the Jag at the far end of the parking lot so it wouldn’t get dinged and escorted JD to his appointment. The office was tastefully decorated in dusky blue with forest green accents. A large, salt-water tank divided the room and provided a distraction.
JD took a seat and his knee immediately began bouncing furiously. He rifled through the magazines for a few minutes, then settled back in his seat and began biting his nails. When the receptionist called his name, he leapt up and nearly tripped over his feet.
“Just fill these forms out, Mr. Dunne, while I make a copy of your insurance card,” she cheerfully explained.
It was nearly 15 minutes after JD finished filling out the forms before his name was called again. He got up slowly, looking back at Ezra like a man facing a firing squad. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and made his way to the office door.
“Hello, JD, I’m Dr. Bachman. Come in. Have a seat,” the tall, slender man said as he indicated the comfortable overstuffed chairs placed around the homey office.
When JD returned at the end of his session, he looked considerably more relaxed and for that, Ezra was grateful. He had a folder of papers in his hand that he kept a tight hold on but he was otherwise very relaxed.
“Shall we swing by the office and visit our comrades?” Ezra asked.
“Yeah, that’d be good. Buck’s probably going crazy right about now,” JD said.
“Why is that?”
“Because I left my cell phone at your place,” JD replied.
Just then, Ezra’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. “Then this is, no doubt, for you,” Ezra said, handing the phone to JD.
The first few days of their new routine went fairly smoothly. Nobody pressed JD about what he was discussing with the therapist; he shared only what he wanted to share. Buck was curious about the papers JD carried around with him but he would never invade his friend’s privacy by snooping.
When JD picked up the mail, there was a letter with an Indianapolis postmark. Quickly dropping the other envelopes on the kitchen counter, he opened the letter. It was from Darcy.
“What’cha got there?” Buck asked, seeing the page in JD’s hand.
“Oh, it’s a letter … from Darcy,” JD answered, distracted by the cramped, cursive script.
Buck waited, worried about how his roommate would take getting news from the girl.
“She says she’s still in therapy but she’s doing well,” JD explained. “She’s attending church with her family. She says they’re praying for me.”
Before Buck could say anything else, JD folded the letter and tucked it back into the envelope. He ran his fingers over the fine linen paper for several moments before he carried it into his room and closed the door.
JD stared down at the paper, his hand tightening on the pen until it cramped. Every time he saw the therapist, there was another page of questions for him to answer. Most of them were inane and he didn’t see how they had anything to do with what had happened to him but some were harder to complete. The most difficult questions were the ones that dealt with his religious views. He and his mother had attended church religiously, he smiled at the thought, until he had to start working to support them. He had been baptized and had his first communion at the same church. The questionnaire wanted to him to write down his definition of several words and concepts and the fourth one on the list was ‘unbeliever’.
It was his first day alone since his rescue. The team had to provide backup for team two and Ezra had been called in to go over his testimony in an upcoming court case. Rather than sit in the waiting room at the lawyer’s office, JD had pleaded to be allowed to stay home by himself. There had been something of an argument between Buck and Chris over the idea but they finally agreed.
The sound of a key being inserted in the front door caused JD to scramble to gather up his papers and shove them back into the folder where he kept them. Buck came in, carrying bags from the local sub shop and JD leapt up to grab drinks for both of them.
Buck laid out his day in great detail, most of it consisting of squatting behind some bushes waiting for the deal to go down. The bad guys gave it up without firing a shot, truly a first for most of them.
While he was finishing his sandwich, JD’s eye fell on the folder and he glanced over at Buck, who was crumpling his paper wrapper and the soda can he had emptied. JD swallowed and opened his mouth to speak, losing his nerve at the last second. But Buck had noticed and sank back into his seat.
“Did you want to ask me something?” Buck asked, his own eyes darting to the ever-present folder and back to JD’s face.
“I was just wondering … did you go to church when you were a kid?” JD hesitantly asked.
Buck was truly startled by the question and sat silently for several seconds, trying to organize his thoughts.
“Never mind, you don’t have to tell me,” JD said, crumpling his own paper wrapper and jumping up to throw it in the trash can in the kitchen.
“JD, wait,” Buck said, getting up and catching hold of the younger man’s arm. “I was going to answer, I just had to think about it,” he added. JD warily sat back down and Buck continued. “My mom and I moved around a lot when I was a kid so I went to a lot of different churches. But I know she had me baptized when I was born. She said she drove to three different churches before she found one that would do it because she wasn’t a member.”
“So you don’t … didn’t … belong to any particular religion,” JD said hesitantly.
“No. I just went to whatever was closest or I went with my friends, if they went to church. Most of the time, I just went to vacation Bible camp or whatever they called it. It was mostly fun and games but they always told us a Bible story at the beginning or the end. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just something the therapist wants me to do. Don’t worry about it,” JD said, getting up and taking Buck’s trash to the kitchen along with his.
Concerned, Buck got up and followed JD into the other room. “Maybe it would help if I knew what the question was,” he suggested.
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” JD said more forcefully.
Buck saw the look on JD’s face and felt that his friend found him lacking. Church was a touchy subject for Buck because he hadn’t had the continuity that other people had in their religious upbringing. His mom had told him that God was different things to different people and that it was more important to believe in Him than to try to figure out what each church was teaching. He had enjoyed the summer Bible camps because they incorporated fun and games and crafts instead of endless preaching about things a boy had little interest in.
That night, JD tossed fretfully in his sleep. He was back in that room, where they beat him, and they were asking him about Buck. JD told them that Buck was his friend and that he was a good person but they just kept pressing him. When he couldn’t bear another blow to his tender back, he told them what they wanted to hear.
“Buck is an unbeliever!” JD shouted. “All unbelievers are evil. Buck is evil.”
From his bedroom, Buck heard JD cry out and he tumbled out of bed. The words he heard when he got to JD’s door nearly broke his heart.
“Buck is an unbeliever!” JD repeated. “All unbelievers are evil. Buck is evil.”
Pushing the bedroom door open, Buck moved to stand beside the bed. He flipped on the bedside lamp and studied JD’s face, which was glistening with sweat.
“Buck is an unbeliever,” JD murmured.
Sitting carefully on the bed, Buck placed his palm gently on JD’s forehead.
“But he’s my friend,” JD whimpered.
“Aw kid, what did they do to you?” Buck whispered.
JD’s eyes opened and he gasped, tensing beneath the hand resting on his head. “Buck? What are you doing in here? Did I wake you?”
“You were having another nightmare.”
Grasping desperately at the vestiges of the dream, JD sighed in resignation. Buck withdrew his hand and JD covered his eyes with his forearm.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Is this because of what you were trying to ask me earlier? About my going to church when I was a kid?” Buck pried gently. “Because it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God, JD, it just means that I didn’t follow any particular doctrine growing up.”
Removing his arm from over his eyes, JD pushed himself up until he was able to lean against his headboard. “You believe in God but you don’t believe in church?” he asked.
“Not really. I mean … I went to lots of different churches. I was confused a lot of the time. My mom grew up Methodist. Chris was raised Catholic. Sarah was Lutheran. I guess I just never saw the difference,” Buck explained. “But I do believe in God and I believe in Heaven. And I sure as hell hope I get there because I really want to see my mom again.”
All of a sudden, JD was overcome by tears. Buck moved closer and pulled JD to him, guiding JD’s head to his shoulder. He rested his cheek against the top of JD’s head and passed his hands up and down his back until he cried himself out.
If his life had depended on it, JD couldn’t have said what it was that caused him to go to pieces that night. It might have been that Buck had voiced the very fear that had been hammering at JD ever since the whole mess with the cult started. More than anything else, JD wanted to be assured that he would see his mom again.
Buck cornered Josiah the next morning and discussed the situation with him.
“What is that therapist doing to him that tears him up like that?” Buck asked.
“I don’t know for sure,” Josiah replied. “But I would hazard a guess that he is helping JD to examine his religious beliefs. It’s a necessary part of helping him resolve what happened to him.”
“But I don’t know anything about what he believes! I’ve only been to a handful of Catholic services!” Buck protested.
“Is he asking things that are specifically Catholic in nature or just asking you what you believe?” Josiah asked.
“I don’t know. He asked me what church I went to growing up. But something has him back to chanting that bullshit they beat into him again!”
“Have you asked him what he’s discussing with Dr. Bachman?”
“Yeah, and he always says he doesn’t want to talk about it,” Buck replied. He raked his fingers through his hair in a gesture of pure frustration.
Ezra was just about to turn the page in the paperback he was reading when JD came out of the counselor’s office and charged right on through into the hallway. After casting a questioning glance at the receptionist, who raised her eyebrows and raised her shoulders to show she didn’t have a clue, he closed the book and rushed out after JD.
By the time Ezra reached the hall, JD had already stepped into an elevator and was gone. Luckily, another one opened right away and he hoped that Dunne wouldn’t leave the parking lot. When he exited the building a few minutes later, he found JD standing next to the Jag with his palms pressed to the roof and his head down. Dodging the cars that were moving past the building, he hurried across the lot.
“JD? Are you alright?” Ezra asked without crowding his coworker.
“Can we just go?” JD asked, his voice strident with emotion.
Silently, Ezra walked around to the driver’s side and unlocked the doors. JD got in and fumbled with the seatbelt with trembling hands. Several minutes into the drive, Ezra decided to broach the subject.
“I gather your appointment with the counselor didn’t go as well as you’d hoped?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Ezra,” JD replied testily.
The pair lapsed into an uneasy silence for several minutes until JD realized that they weren’t headed toward either his apartment or Ezra’s condo.
“I think you missed the exit,” JD said.
“I thought we’d just go for a drive,” Ezra replied.
A half hour later, Ezra turned onto an overgrown, rutted gravel road that curved upward into the hills. JD suddenly sat up straighter, looking around with an expression of apprehension.
“Wh-where are we going?” JD asked.
“You’ll see,” Ezra answered.
It was a long, slow drive. Ezra was very careful with his car and he didn’t want to break a tie rod or puncture the transmission pan on the rutted road. Finally, he slowed to a stop facing a tall gate.
Realization dawned on JD and he broke out in a cold sweat. The chain and lock were gone from the gate but crime scene tape was stretched across it. He swallowed; feeling like his heart was crawling up his throat.
“I thought you might like to take a look around,” Ezra offered.
Something deep and compelling urged JD out of the car. He eased the fence open just enough to squeeze through, thinking that it would have been nice if he could have done that a month ago.
Ezra followed JD through the gate. It was the first time any of the team had been up here since Father Adam’s body was found. About a hundred yards up the winding, overgrown path, they came to a clearing.
The opening to the bunker stretched out of the ground like a gaping maw. JD’s breath caught in his throat and he turned away. The garden that he had tended was still there, but the native plants and weeds were quickly taking over. He walked over and knelt down, brushing his hand lightly over the plants.
Patience was something Ezra had developed over the many years of working undercover for the FBI and the ATF. He watched as the younger man sank to his knees at the edge of what had been a small garden.
“They brought me out here once and let me tend the garden,” JD explained softly. “It was the first time they let me out after I hit Sean …”
Ezra bit his tongue to keep from saying anything, letting JD tell it in his own time. He watched as the younger man gently pulled small weeds from around the plants and stacked them in a pile next to his knee.
“That was the second time they caned me,” JD continued.
For the better part of two hours, JD slowly worked his way around the garden while he laid out his captivity. Ezra stayed close, the small digital recorder in his hand aimed at JD in the hope of recording his statements. Finally, JD’s head hung down and his shoulders shook with silent tears.
“JD-” Ezra began, moving to kneel next to the younger man.
“And everyone seems to think I should just forget it, like it never happened!” JD shouted.
“No. That isn’t what anyone wants you to do,” Ezra replied calmly. “You did what you had to do to survive what must have been a horrible experience. We only want to help you put it in perspective so you can move on.”
“How?” JD asked, shifting on his knees and looking around him anxiously. “How do I just shut it off? How do I forget what happened here?”
Ezra paused. He knew JD was at the point where he was most vulnerable and the right words could give him a big push toward recovering his emotional equilibrium.
“JD, when I worked in Atlanta, there was this case. I was undercover with a white supremacist group. It was a long, long assignment. I had to go to marches and participate in activities that were truly horrific. It took me almost two years to get the information I needed to bring down the leaders of the group. They were getting weapons from local army bases, stockpiling them for an all-out war.”
JD looked over at Ezra and tried to imagine him as one of those hateful, racist bastards who had no respect for any minority. He replayed scenes from the office where Ezra and Nathan had worked in close proximity and he hadn’t noticed any hostility or discomfort between them. He had been at the youth center in Purgatory and watched Ezra entertain groups of Hispanic children. His actions weren’t those of someone who felt he was better just because of his color.
“When the case was over … I had a hard time letting go. I had spent two years spouting hate and prejudice and it was pretty deeply ingrained,” Ezra said, turning away from JD and staring toward the horizon.
“But I was only here for two weeks,” JD argued.
“Two weeks, two months, two years, it doesn’t matter, JD. You had to conform to their expectations in order to survive. It’s normal. You’re having a hard time separating from that persona. That’s normal, too. You don’t have to justify it or even understand it. All you have to do is put it aside and know that, if you had to, you could put it on again, like a shirt that you don’t really like.”
“You mean, like that sweater Buck gave you for Christmas?” JD asked, with a hint of a smile curling his lips.
“Exactly like that,” Ezra agreed with a smile of his own.
They stayed there for another hour, just watching the clouds drift by and enjoying the scenery. Finally, JD sighed deeply and turned to Ezra.
“You know, I think you’re right. I survived something terrible but I don’t have to let it rule my whole life. I’m going to miss Jeremy and Joanie and the others but at least I’m alive to remember them,” JD said.
“And we are very glad that you survived,” Ezra replied, giving JD a warm, caring smile.
They had almost reached the blacktop road when JD’s cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and grinned as he flipped it open, “Hey Buck, what’s happening?”
“Where in the hell are you?” Buck shouted. “Your doctor called and said you left the session upset and angry and we’ve been trying to find you for a couple of hours!”
“I’m fine, Buck,” JD said, looking over at Ezra when he snorted softly. “Ez and me are on our way back. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you.”
“Back from where?” Buck asked.
“I’ll tell you when I see you,” JD repeated.
That was the turning point for JD. He accepted that there was nothing he could have done to prevent The Children from dying. He let go of the guilt that had been weighing him down and he began attending church with Josiah again. He still had to see the counselor, but he was making excellent progress. A couple of weeks after the splints came off of his fingers, he was released to light duty, unarmed, but light duty.
Ezra was also released to light duty about the time JD was and the pair returned to work on the same day. Vin scheduled time for both of them at the firing range to test their proficiency. JD did very well, in spite of the slight pain. Ezra aced his proficiency on the first try.
It was quiet in the office that morning. Ezra and Josiah were in court, giving testimony on the Perkins case. Vin and Nathan were engrossed in something on their computer screens and Buck was on the phone with Becky or Bambi or whatever her name was.
“JD, could you come in here for a minute?” Chris called out from where he stood in his office doorway. JD leapt up and entered the office. “Close the door and have a seat,” Chris said as he sat down behind his desk and flipped open a folder lying next to his keyboard, “I just got your psychological evaluation back from the department shrink.”
Anxiety washed over JD and his knee began bouncing like mad.
“He reviewed your statement regarding the events surrounding your time with the cult and the reports from your counselor, as well as the tests that you completed here in the office,” Chris stated, keeping his eyes on the paper in front of him. He paused, letting the tension build.
JD surprised Chris by suddenly leaning forward in the chair and speaking, “Before you tell me anything, I want to apologize for the way I acted at the cabin.”
Meeting the sincere expression on the younger man’s face, Chris nodded, “I never blamed you for anything you said or did, JD.”
JD’s hand drifted up and he found himself chewing on his thumbnail as he waited for Chris to drop the bomb. He hoped that the shrink had given him the green light to return to full duty but he was starting to worry over the team leader’s continuing silence.
Out in the bullpen, Buck’s attention was divided between the call with Betty and Chris’ closed office door. He told Betty that he would call her back and hung up, tossing a crumpled paper toward Vin’s desk to get his attention. The sharpshooter looked up and Buck nodded his head toward Larabee’s office. Vin shrugged, he didn’t know any more than Buck did.
The oppressive silence was broken by a rebel yell worthy of an old west movie. JD snatched the door open and shouted across the bullpen, “I’m back to full duty!”
Chris stood behind JD, smiling at the joyous announcement. He had made the young man squirm for a full two minutes before breaking the news to him. Standing in the doorway, he watched as Buck, Vin and Nathan hurried over to pound on JD’s back and shake his hand. Ezra and Josiah arrived while the congratulations were still being shared and they also took their turn with JD.
A loud whistle silenced the joyous gathering and all six men turned to look at the team leader.
“Travis gave us the afternoon off and lunch is on me. Let’s go!”
Post Script: I had started this story well before Winnie began posting her story “Cult”. I held off on posting it until hers was done and posted. Although similar in plot, I think it is sufficiently different as to stand on its own. Great minds think alike?