Comments: Thanks to Nancy, who quickly noted how easy it would be to substitute Vin in the place of the detective EC played on Criminal Minds. This first scene is a direct rip-off from that program (which tells you how long ago I started this thing). And special thanks to Teresa, for catching my mistakes - in spite of her ambivalence about the ending :)
It had been years, but there were some things that time really couldn't erase. The tingling in his fingers, the heavy weight in his chest, the nausea, the cold sweat, and the inescapable panic as the air was sucked from his lungs – all waited for him, he knew, as soon as he allowed himself to succumb. As soon as he was alone.
But Vin tightened his grip on the small hand held secure within his own and pushed on. Later, he'd have to deal with it, but there were greater concerns now.
“Please don't make me go,” the small voice beside him begged, and he had to stop for a moment to be certain he hadn't said it himself; that he hadn't slipped back in time to a similar moment on a similar sidewalk under horribly, cruelly similar circumstances.
He looked down into pale blue eyes and saw his own fear reflected back at him. “It will be okay,” he lied, hating himself for the deception.
The child swallowed and raised his eyes to the small brick home that would become his temporary shelter. Thirty feet of pavement lay between them and the entrance, but Vin knew it looked like miles to his companion.
A door opened then, and a small, thin woman with graying hair and a hesitant smile stepped out onto the porch. “It's alright, Jonah,” she said. “You can come in.”
It wasn't alright, of course, but there was little else to say. Mere words could never lessen the heartache of a boy who'd been wrenched from his home, who'd lost everything he'd ever known.
Every journey starts with the first step, Vin reminded himself, and he took it, but Jonah remained stiff and still. “Let me stay with you,” the boy whispered.
The words echoed in Vin's head, escalating the pounding of his heart. Weren't they the very same words he himself had spoken nearly a quarter century ago? Hadn't he pleaded with Sergeant Miller to stay with him? To keep him safe?
Kneeling on the cracked cement, Vin laid a hand on each of Jonah's small shoulders. “He won't come back,” he said. “You’re safe here. I promise.”
Jonah's chin quivered, but he sighed and nodded before stiffening his spine and turning towards the woman. Moments later, he entered the home without looking back.
Vin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing his legs to hold, his stomach to settle. Nothing more he could do now except keep his promise. And he couldn't do that if he collapsed like a ninny on the sidewalk, if he allowed the shadows to take control, the panic to win. But the far too familiar feeling of being watched refused to be held back any longer: he was out there . . . waiting.
It was miles back to his jeep, thirty feet having multiplied into thirty thousand, and he wasn't sure he could make it. But he did make it, and he even managed to turn the key in the ignition, though his hands shook so badly he could hardly hang onto the wheel. He made it around the corner and half way down the block before his vision turned gray at the edges and his breath started coming in loud, harsh pants.
Vin tried to remember what he'd been taught, but it had been a long time since he'd had to work himself through a panic attack. Chris and the boys had seen to that; Team Seven was the best therapy he'd ever had. It was enough, he reminded himself, they were enough. Think about Buck's laugh and Ezra's wit and Chris . . . think about Chris.
But it wasn't Chris he saw in his mind, it was Jonah - hiding in a closet, hands over his eyes, knees drawn up, his mother's lifeless body mere feet away. His mother . . .
He couldn't breathe, the air wouldn't come. The monster would find him this time and he would die there, in his car - only blocks from the child he'd promised to protect.
Chris figured he could live to be a hundred and still not catch on that glaring at a phone and demanding it to ring didn't work. Especially when the caller he was waiting on was Vin. His friend should have been back an hour ago from his trip to drop off the boy at the foster home, but not only was he overdue, he wasn't answering his damn phone.
In reality, Vin shouldn't have been involved in the exchange at all; only his familiarity with the system had allowed him to finagle his way into that little chore. And it was a mistake. Chris had felt it in his gut. But Vin had been the one to find the boy in the closet, and he hadn't let loose of him since.
He was about to pick up his phone and try Vin again when Josiah stuck his head in the door. “Chris? You got a minute?”
Chris ushered the man in with a wave of his hand, almost grateful that he'd have something to occupy his mind while he waited on Vin.
Josiah sat with a heavy sigh but he didn't waste time getting to his point. “I think it was a set-up, Chris. You and Vin didn't stumble on a homicide – you were meant to find that poor woman and her son.”
Chris massaged his temple, determined to hold off the headache that threatened. He didn’t care at all for the direction Josiah was heading, but ignoring him wasn’t an option - especially since he’d had the same niggling doubt. “Go on,” he prodded the older man.
“I don't know for sure, but it's awful similar to what happened to Vin twenty-five years ago. And Ezra's snitch denies making the call that took you two to that home that night. I did some research and -” Josiah paused and leaned forward in his chair, his brows creased in a deep frown, “- and they never did find him for sure, the man that killed Vin's mother. That case was never officially solved.”
Josiah was wrong. Chris had read the files not long after Vin joined the team, though he'd never told Vin that. “It was,” he argued. “The prime suspect was killed in a shoot-out a few weeks after it happened.”
As was the Sergeant who had apparently taken a personal interest in Vin. From what Chris had been able to determine, the officer was the one who had found the five-year old Tanner hiding under his mother's bed. Vin never talked about the man – Chris wasn't even sure he remembered him – but he couldn't help wondering if Vin's life might have been easier had his self-appointed savior survived.
“Prime suspect,” Josiah repeated. “You know as well as I do that doesn't mean anything.”
“They quit looking,” Chris reminded him. That particular horror in Vin's life was long over, it had to be. There couldn't be a connection now, not after all this time. “You’re reaching, Josiah. There’s nothing to tie this to Vin.”
“There’s more than you think,” Josiah countered.
“The time and manner of the woman’s death, her personal circumstances - she was a nursing assistant, struggling to make ends meet, just like Vin’s mother. And this . . .”
Josiah slapped a picture of Jonah on the desk. The boy had an easy, big-toothed grin framed by deep dimples, and his sky-blue eyes seemed to dance off the page. A different child than the sad, sullen little boy Chris had gotten to know over the past few days. Then Josiah placed another picture of another little boy next to Jonah’s - and Chris stifled a gasp. “That’s Vin, isn’t it?”
Chris swallowed. “So Jonah favors Vin. There are a lot of single mothers struggling to take care of their kids and even more blue-eyed little boys.”
“You’re right. And maybe it's nothing. But Vin is involved in this, whether you like it or not. He won't walk away from that boy, and I’d sure like to know what he’s getting into. I don't like the way my gut is kicking up, Chris - it just doesn't feel right.”
“Shit,” Chris mumbled as he gave in and reached for the Extra-Strength Tylenol. Try hard as he might, he couldn't deny that warning bells were ringing loud and long in his own head. “What do you suggest we do? Homicide has the case. And Vin was never able to identify his mother's killer – so why would he come back now? If he is alive, if it is him, what could he possibly want?”
“I don't know. But with your permission, I'd like to look into it. Unofficially.”
“Yeah, alright,” Chris agreed. He didn't want to believe there was anything to it, but if he’d learned anything from the past, it was that nothing could be taken at face value.
“I might need to talk with Vin – might need to see what he really remembers,” Josiah continued.
It was a matter of respect, Chris knew, that Josiah was asking permission to delve into Vin's private life; respect for both him and Vin. But as much as he appreciated the gesture, it was unnecessary. “Do what you think is best, Josiah.”
Josiah headed for the door, but he paused and added, “Vin stuck by me when I was accused of murder. He never doubted me. I won't hurt him, not if I can possibly help it.”
Chris nodded in acknowledgement, though he wasn’t really thinking about Josiah hurting Vin - he was thinking about everything else that could hurt Vin. Like a deep, dark memory turning his friend inside out after all this time. Or a sad, little boy getting under Tanner’s skin, goading him into a pit of guilt and despair because Vin couldn’t possibly give the kid what he really needed. Or a psycho-killer, coming back to finish what he’d left undone twenty-five years before.
He knew the route Vin had taken to drop off Jonah, so Chris reached for his keys and headed out the door. He wasn’t going to get any work done, anyway, not until he had Tanner dead within his sights. Buck called out to him as he left, but he didn’t reply; there was no point in worrying the others just yet.
Gray clouds blotted the sun and it was cool for September, but Chris left his window down anyway. The chilly breeze provided a welcome distraction as he turned down a picturesque lane lined with small brick homes and ancient shade trees. This wasn’t so bad, he thought - surely a boy could have an okay life here. But he caught himself before he fell too deeply into that trap. It was tempting to shrug it off, to make himself believe that it was easier for a six-year old kid to lose everything in his life than for a grown man.
Shaking his head, he shifted in his seat and reminded himself that there was little he could do for Jonah - Vin was his concern now. Rounding a corner, he drew in a breath when he noted Tanner’s jeep parked haphazardly with one front tire resting on the curb.
Pulling up behind the jeep, he quickly jumped out and prepared himself for the worst. But he was spared - this time - although something was definitely wrong, that was evident by the way Vin sat rigidly in the driver’s seat, staring vacantly out the window.
“Vin? Vin, you okay, Pard?” he called out as he cautiously approached the battered jeep. The window was down, the soft breeze lifting Vin’s long hair off his collar, but if Tanner heard him, he didn’t show it.
Checking first to see that Vin wasn’t holding a loaded weapon in those deadly hands, Chris leaned in closer and said again, “Vin? You okay?”
He must have gotten through that time because Vin slowly turned his head towards him. Chris was saddened, though not surprised, to see that his friend’s eyes were red-rimmed. “Aw, Vin,” he said as he reached a hand through the window frame and squeezed his friend’s shoulder, “it’ll be alright now.”
“He - he’s watching me,” Vin whispered. “He’s back.”
In spite of his earlier conversation with Josiah, that was the last thing he expected Vin to say. And even though he was determined to believe that Josiah was over-reacting and Vin was being oddly paranoid, he instinctively turned his eyes to the surrounding landscape. Nothing seemed out of place, and if someone was watching, he was well-hidden amongst the manicured shrubs and fading summer gardens. It was obvious Vin wasn’t in a frame of mind to take his word for it, however, so he offered the only option he could think of at that moment. “Let’s go back to the office, we’ll talk about it there. You can ride with me.”
Vin pulled in a deep breath. “But Jonah . . . you think . . .?”
“He’s as safe as he can possibly be right now, Vin. His foster parents, Tom and Nancy Schaffer, are both retired from the Denver PD. That kid won’t walk from one end of the house to the other without someone knowing about it until this guy is caught,” Chris reminded his friend.
Vin once more turned his gaze to the glass in front of him and said dully, “You’re right. It’s me he wants, anyway.”
“Well, he’ll have to go through me and five other men I know to get you.”
With a slight nod, Vin seemed to pull himself together. “I’m okay now,” he said. “I’ll see you back at the office.”
Against his better judgment, Chris allowed Vin to drive away. But he remained on the street corner for several more minutes, perusing the surrounding area once again. He’d meant what he said - if the bastard was out there, he wasn’t laying a finger on Vin without going through the formidable team seven first.
And if he wasn’t - if Vin’s imagination was working overtime - well then, Chris reluctantly acknowledged, he had an entirely different problem on his hands.
He was a lunatic. That was not news to him, of course, but now Chris knew it, too. Vin splashed cold water on his face and prayed the others wouldn’t see the evidence of his earlier relapse into insanity. Chris wouldn’t tell on him, of that he was certain. But there was no denying it any longer - the man Chris Larabee called his best friend was certifiable.
“Stupid,” Vin growled at himself in the mirror. “How could you be so stupid?”
The eyes that looked back at him were tired, but no longer red and swollen, and he’d managed to school the fear and panic that hid below the surface. He took a deep breath and headed for the bullpen, fully aware that every word he said and every move he made would be scrutinized by his teammates. They knew that the circumstances surrounding the gruesome discovery of Jonah’s mother had hit him hard, even if they didn’t know exactly why.
Vin had never shared the details of his own tragedy with the team; they all had their crosses to bear, after all. Not a one of them had been blessed with an easy past. And besides, past was the operative word, wasn’t it?
He reminded himself of that again as he entered the office and headed for his desk. His mother was dead, her killer was dead, Jonah’s mother was dead, and there was nothing he could do about any of it.
Thankfully, the office was nearly empty. He had no idea where the others had gone, and he didn’t much care. Only Josiah was present, and he appeared to be so engrossed in something on his computer screen that he barely looked up when Vin entered.
Moments later, Chris followed him in, and Vin tried hard to act busy, to avoid his gaze. But even after three years working together, he still hadn’t learned exactly how to do that - Larabee could always reel him in with a single glance. With a slight tip of the blond head, Vin knew what was expected of him, so he got to his feet and followed Chris to his office.
“You mind if I ask Josiah to join us?” Chris asked before Vin had cleared the door frame.
Vin barely had a chance to register the request when Chris added, “It’s him or . . .”
McKinsey, Vin completed in his head, the resident psycho-MD for the bureau. “Fine,” he answered tersely, not liking that Chris was playing his trump card so early in the game. Vin would sooner square off with a hyped-up grizzly than tangle with McKinsey and Chris knew it.
Vin tried to steel his nerves for the interrogation he was certain was coming, but he barely gave Josiah a chance to sit down before he jumped in to defend himself. “It was a panic attack. That’s all. I used to get ‘em sometimes. And Jonah -” He swallowed and took a breath - “and Jonah brought back some bad memories, that’s all. Nothin’ more than that. Nothin’ more t’ discuss.”
Chris sat on the edge of his desk and peered down at Vin. “You said he was after you. What made you think that?”
Vin shifted uneasily in the chair that faced Chris’s desk. “I told you - it was a panic attack. That’s how they work. Make you think things that aren’t real.”
He figured Josiah would chime in any time now and give Chris the official, technical version of a panic attack, but Josiah merely sat up straighter in the chair beside him and said nothing at all, while Chris continued, “Vin, if you believe your life is in danger -”
“I don’t,” Vin cut him off.
“I’m not so sure,” Josiah finally spoke up, though he kept his voice low, ground down to an almost whisper.
Vin turned towards him sharply. “What?”
“There are some - similarities - between you and Jonah. I’ve been doing some research, Vin, and I’m not certain that -”
“No!” Vin shouted, startling even himself. Jumping to his feet, he turned to Chris and asked, “Don’t we have a case we’re supposed to be workin’ on? I thought Ezra had made headway with Sharpton. Shouldn’t we be talkin’ about that?”
Chris held his gaze. “I’d like nothing better than to pretend this hasn’t happened, Vin. Turn a blind eye and move on. But you and Josiah both having bad feelings about all this? No chance in hell I’m ignorin’ that. So why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk it out rationally.”
Rationally? Vin nearly laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of that suggestion. Who could find anything rational in the death of a young mother? How the hell could anyone make sense out of a child’s life being ripped out from under him? But he didn’t argue; that was one learned response he hadn’t forgotten. The sooner you give them what they want, the sooner they leave you alone.
Josiah rose and gripped Vin’s shoulder gently. “How much do you really remember, Vin? I don’t want to bring you more pain than you obviously already have, but maybe there’s something here that could help us get this guy. Something only you know that could help Jonah.”
Well, that was a hit below the belt, Vin thought derisively; using Jonah to gain his cooperation. Get him to talk about things he never talked about, never - things he didn’t even think about because he was five years old, damn it. What was he supposed to remember? “This ain’t our case,” he spat. “No alcohol, firearms, or tobacco here so there ain’t no ‘us’ gettin’ this guy.”
“Sit down, Vin.”
He hated when Chris did that - gave orders without even raising his voice. Hated even more that he automatically obeyed. Sometimes it was like Chris had some weird power over him. Sometimes he liked it - in a stupid, perverse sort of way. But not now. “I don’t wanna do this,” he whispered, lowering his head as he took his seat.
“Here’s what I know,” Josiah said.
Vin let the words slide over him, but he couldn’t hold onto much more than the fact that both mothers were nursing assistants, single moms, good moms . . .
“So you see, Vin, the circumstances of the killing - along with the fact that you and Chris were lured to that house - lead me to believe that you are more than a random participant. Someone wanted you, specifically, to find Jonah.”
Chris cleared his throat. “Why did you say he was after you, Vin?”
“It’s nothin’. I just - I thought I felt someone watchin’ me, that’s all. It wasn’t real. It’s nothin’.”
“I don’t believe you,” Chris said flatly. “I’ll ask you again - why did you think someone was after you?”
“Because I’m crazy, okay?” Vin huffed. “Been that way ever since it happened. Thought he was out there, watchin’ me. Been to more shrinks than I can count and the only thing that changed all that was - was you.”
He wished he could snatch the words back; he’d admitted too much.
But it didn’t matter anyway because Chris replied softly, “I know.”
Of course Chris knew - hadn’t the man been able to read him from that first moment? And whether Chris realized it or not, he’d saved his life; thrown out the life vest and the other five men had pulled him in.
“Have you ever seen him, Vin?” Josiah asked, his voice as soft and smooth as silk.
“Never?” Josiah pushed. “Not even when it happened?”
“You were in the room, weren’t you?”
“Yes. I guess so. Why does it matter now?”
“Did you see it happen? Did you see his face? His hair? Anything?”
Josiah was relentless, and Vin looked for Chris to come to his rescue. But Chris only met his plea with a silent demand: answer him.
“I was under the bed. I didn’t see - God, Josiah, I was five years old! What the hell do you want me to say?”
“Did he know you were there?”
“You obviously read my file. You read the reports. You probably know more than I do.”
It was true. Vin had never done the research. They told him his mother’s killer died in a shootout along with Sergeant Miller and he didn’t have the heart - or maybe the guts - to look into it further. Every time he was certain he was being followed, watched, spied on, he reminded himself that it couldn’t be so, that the nightmare was long over. That’s what they all said, the therapists, social workers, foster parents, teachers; the list was endless but every single one of them said the same things, promised the same things.
Josiah wasn’t finished. “Wait a minute - you were five?”
“That’s right. I knew that,” Josiah muttered. “I guess I’d forgotten. But - ”
“Jonah’s six,” Chris cut in. “This isn’t a copy-cat killing.”
Vin wasn’t sure if Chris actually believed that, but it was clear he wanted to.
“They got it wrong, Chris,” Josiah said with a slow shake of his head. “The papers reported that Vin was six. That’s what the killer knew to be true. If he was looking to repeat the incident, he’d look for a six-year old boy.”
“Why the hell does it matter?” Vin asked. Heat flushed his face. This had nothing to do with him. Nothing. I didn’t see anything. I don’t know anything. It’s all just a terrible coincidence. Let it go.”
He stormed out of the office then, determined to put distance between himself and his friends and, more importantly, between the past and the present.
Josiah poured himself a tall glass of wine, though he really wanted something stronger. Vin’s expression when he’d left the office earlier that afternoon continued to haunt him.
What if he was wrong? Maybe it would be for the best if he did what Vin asked, if he let it go.
But after taking a seat next to the fireplace, he reached for his laptop. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop searching for something else, something more to tie the two cases together.
It didn’t make sense, he had to admit. If the man who murdered Vin’s mother was still alive, why come back now? Why show his hand after twenty-five years?
Josiah mulled the murders over in his mind. It was unimaginable - slitting a woman’s throat. Had Jonah seen? Had Vin? He prayed not, but he couldn’t help picturing it in his mind: a helpless child, hiding in fear in a closet or beneath a bed, hearing and knowing. The thought sickened him, so much so that he slammed his wine glass down on the table.
“Why?” he mumbled aloud. “Why now?”
And that was when it occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, now wasn’t the first time - or the second. Maybe there had been other times, other mothers, other boys. Maybe this had been going on for twenty-five years . . .
There was surely a way to find out, but how and where to begin? He had no idea -but fortunately he was personally acquainted with a high-tech genius. “I need a favor, JD,” he said after dialing the young man’s cell.
“What?” JD groaned, obviously annoyed.
The kid had a date tonight, Josiah remembered belatedly. But this was more important, even if the rest of the team didn’t realize that yet. He’d barely gotten to the point of his call when the young man groaned again. “Look, I know Chris and Vin found the victim and all, but it’s not our case. Homicide’s handling it, Josiah. I’m sure they’re looking at all the angles.”
“The only angle I’m concerned about is Vin’s,” Josiah snapped, his temper flaring. It was bad enough that he had to swallow his pride and ask for JD’s help, he wasn’t in the mood to deal with attitude.
JD sighed. “Well, without dates or locations - trying to narrow down murders to single women with little boys -”
“Dates . . . locations . . . never mind, JD, I got it.”
“Got what? Josiah? What does this have to do with Vin?”
Josiah left the questions unanswered and disconnected the call. His mind turned; he knew the places Vin had lived and he could estimate the time periods. Vin said he’d felt as if someone was watching him for most of his life.
Maybe, Josiah thought with a sudden tightness in his chest, maybe someone was.
Chris was sure this was a bad idea initially, but he might have been wrong. Vin actually smiled for the first time in two weeks, and he was certain he’d heard Jonah giggle out loud once. He watched them now from his deck. Vin’s devil-horse was acting downright docile - a fact he was sure Vin would never let him forget - as he was led around the corral with the young boy on his back. Vin held onto the reins and from what Chris could make out, kept up a constant litany of soothing talk, though whether it was meant for beast or boy couldn’t be determined. Probably both, Chris thought with an inward smile.
He knew that Vin hadn’t had a lot of time to spend with Jonah, but he talked to him almost every day. Nettie seemed to think that Vin developing a relationship with the child was a wonderful idea, that it would be “healing for them both.”
Yeah. Right. Chris remained unconvinced. What happened when Jonah was finally released from protective custody and adopted by another family? Like Vin, he had no living relatives that counted, apparently. But that was where the similarity ended. Thanks to social networking, offers for a home were pouring in daily. Of course, Vin said they were all crazy people, and some of them probably were. But unlike Vin, Chris trusted that eventually Jonah would be placed in a good home. And what would happen to Vin then?
Borrowing trouble, not unlike Josiah, he scolded himself. Sanchez had said nothing more about the murders since the day he’d confronted Vin in the office. The homicide detectives were supposedly following up on a few leads, but nothing pointed to Vin being involved in any way, and as time passed, Chris felt more certain that Jonah’s and Vin’s cases were exactly what Vin had said - a terrible coincidence.
And for today, anyway, Vin and Jonah were enjoying a beautiful fall day at the ranch, so Chris pushed his worries aside and ambled towards the pair. “You guys getting hungry?” he called out as he approached the corral.
Vin tilted his head towards Jonah, who nodded shyly.
“I reckon so,” Vin replied, turning the pair towards the barn.
When they came to the gate, Vin effortlessly lifted Jonah off the horse’s back, and a look passed between them. Chris felt his heart break a little, though he couldn’t decide if it was for Jonah and Vin - or for himself and the son he’d lost. Memories had a habit of hitting hard at the most unexpected moments.
Perceptive, as always, Vin asked, “Chris? You okay?”
Chris shook it off and replied, “Yeah -” But his sentence was interrupted by the sound of an approaching vehicle.
Vin cocked his head. “Were you expectin’ Josiah?”
“No,” Chris replied with a shake of his head. Unlike Buck, Josiah always called before he came out, especially on a Saturday afternoon. Something was up. “Why don’t you take Jonah inside to wash up?”
“Alright,” Vin answered slowly, though he kept his eyes on Josiah’s truck and didn’t make a move.
A small voice beside him broke the spell. “What’s wrong, Vin?”
Vin immediately squatted to the child’s eye level. “Nothin’. He’s a friend. It’s okay.”
Jonah reached for Vin’s hand as Josiah stepped out of the truck. “He’s big,” the boy whispered, “like the man in my house. I wanna go inside now.”
Chris met Vin’s eyes. As far as he knew, Jonah had denied seeing the killer.
“Jonah, what man?” Vin asked.
“I wanna go inside, Vin. I wanna go now,” the boy pleaded.
Vin swallowed. “Okay. Come on.” He held on tight to Jonah’s hand and started for the house, but he turned back and met Chris’ eyes once more.
Chris wanted to reassure him, but he couldn’t make the lie come to life, so he turned to face Josiah, instead. “Josiah? Did we have an appointment I forgot about?”
Sanchez narrowed his eyes as he approached. “I need an appointment to speak with you now? I must have missed the memo.”
“It’s not a good time,” Chris replied, though not with the authority he’d hoped to project. He couldn’t quit thinking about Jonah’s words - and Vin’s face.
The only saving grace in this entire horrible affair was that Jonah saw nothing. After Vin found the boy in the closet, he’d pulled Jonah’s head tight against his chest and carried him out so that he couldn’t see his dead mother. The boy had called for her, though - screamed for her - and Chris was certain he’d never forget the pitiful sound. Kept him awake at night - and not just because of Jonah. He couldn’t help wondering about Vin, about how it might have happened twenty-five years ago. And he prayed with what little faith he still possessed that Sergeant Miller had somehow managed to spare Vin in the same way Vin had spared Jonah.
“That was Jonah, wasn’t it?” Josiah asked, pointedly ignoring Chris’ dismissal.
“Yeah. And before you say anything, Nettie thinks this is a good idea.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything negative, Chris. Vin’s appointed himself to look after the boy, and he’s probably exactly what the kid needs. It just that - it just makes what I have to tell you even harder.”
Chris felt his stomach drop. “What are you talking about, Josiah? What did you find out?”
“Vin’s mother was probably the first. And so far, Jonah’s is the last. But - but there were others in between.”
“Others? Other murders?” He didn’t want to believe it, but he knew all along it was a possibility. Robbery wasn’t the motive, so something else had to have driven the killer - and a serial killer was never beyond the realm of possibility. But was Josiah really implying that this was the same guy from Vin’s past? “Hold on. Back up - are you saying you found evidence that this is the same killer?”
“I’m saying I identified a pattern - with a common thread - that makes me believe there is a very real possibility that the man who killed Vin’s mother also murdered Jonah’s. And I’m saying there were others - at least four others - in between.”
“A serial killer,” Chris mumbled, trying to catch up but not getting past the haunting sound of a terrified little boy’s screams for his mother. “I assume you’ve shared what you learned with homicide?”
“Of course. But I don’t think you understand, Chris. The common thread is - it’s Vin. Every one - every murder - is tied to Vin.”
No, Chris thought, no. “That makes no sense. That can’t be true. Vin would know . . .”
Josiah’s sigh was mournful. “The murders took place years - and miles - apart. No one put them together. But when I got to looking, I found that similar murders occurred in locations at times when Vin was nearby. The only explanation is that the killer followed him. For years. For twenty-five years. Vin said he thought he was being watched - and I believe he was.” Josiah leaned forward and said softly, “Chris, Vin’s personal boogeyman is real.”
“No,” Chris said, out loud this time. And maybe if he said it enough, it would make it true. “No. No. It can’t be. Why would he do that? Why would anyone do that?”
“Why would anyone slit a young mother’s throat?”
“You’re the profiler - you tell me!”
“Anger won’t make this go away, Chris, but if that’s what you need to do, get it done and move on. We’ve got to get this guy because I think he’s done toying with Vin. That’s why he brought Vin to Jonah’s house - because he’s ready for Vin to know.”
Except Vin didn’t know - yet. And with a sinking heart, Chris knew who had to be the one to tell him.
Jonah gripped his hand all the way into the house, and even when Vin turned him towards the bathroom, the kid didn’t let go.
“It’s okay. Go on and wash up before lunch,” Vin prodded gently.
But Jonah held on for dear life and said softly, “Is he coming in?”
Vin tilted his head towards the window. He could see Chris and Josiah talking with bent heads, but neither one appeared to be heading their direction. “No. I think he just needed to talk to Chris and then he’ll leave.”
Jonah peered at Vin a moment, apparently gauging the truth in his statement, then pulled him towards the bathroom. “I like peanut butter and jelly,” the boy stated casually, letting go of Vin long enough to hold his small hands under the running water of the bathroom sink. “And chips. Do you think Chris has any chips?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Vin tried to act like everything was cool, but his gut was gnawing at him. Had Jonah seen more than they originally thought? And why was Josiah here? What were him and Chris talking about?
As Jonah reached for a towel, he looked at Vin again. “My mom always left the bathroom light on.”
There was something there, in those innocent blue eyes. A question? No - an opening, Vin realized with a sinking heart. Jonah was ready to talk, and Vin felt woefully inadequate to have this conversation. But he sat on the edge of the tub and pulled Jonah to him. “Did you see the man that night? The man who hurt your mom?”
Jonah blinked and nodded. “I heard the window break. Mom told me to go to my room and hide, but I was scared. So I hid in her closet.”
“And the bathroom light was on?”
Vin took a breath and tried to keep his voice even, though for some inexplicable reason, his hands were shaking. “What did you see, Jonah?”
“He was big - like that man outside.”
Jonah turned towards the door, as if half expecting Josiah to burst in, but Vin gripped his shoulders and turned him back to face him. “What happened next? After he came in the house?”
“He pushed my mom down on the bed. She was crying. Did your mom cry, too, Vin?”
Vin startled at the unexpected question. Did she? Surely she had, but he couldn’t say for sure. He didn’t remember. He didn’t want to remember. Ignoring the question, he asked again, “What did you see?”
With a shake of his head, Jonah mumbled, “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”
The boy stiffened in Vin’s arms as the sound of the back door closing was followed by footsteps in the hall. Instinctively, Vin tightened his hold on the child’s shoulders until a familiar head appeared in the doorway.
“Everything okay in here?” Chris asked.
Jonah looked up at him. “Do you have chips?”
Chris grinned, though Vin noted that the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “With Vin as my best bud? Trust me, kid, I have every kind of junk food ever invented.”
Ten minutes later, the kitchen table was loaded down with an assortment of sandwiches, fruit, and three kinds of chips. When Chris brought out the Oreo’s, Vin raised a brow. “You been holdin’ out on me, Bud,” he accused his friend. “You always tell me you draw the line at anything with frostin’.”
Chris leaned towards Jonah and said in a low tone, “A man’s got a right to his own stash. But I’ll share with you.”
Jonah smiled and brushed a long strand of hair from his eyes as he reached for a cookie. But he paused before taking a bite and looked thoughtfully at Chris. “Did you know me and Vin are orphans?”
“Yes, I did.”
Vin could feel Chris looking at him, probably hoping he would take the cue and follow up on the opening the boy had provided, but he couldn’t find the words. Conversation in general seemed to dry up after that, along with Vin’s appetite.
They hadn’t even fully cleared the table when another car pulled into the drive. The plan was for Vin and Chris to take Jonah back to the Schaffer’s house, but the couple apparently changed their minds. Something was going on, and although Vin was irritated at being left in the dark, he had a hunch that in this case, ignorance might truly be bliss.
Chris had opened the door before Tom Schaffer even had a chance to knock. Vin started to head in that direction, but Jonah pulled him back into the kitchen. “You said I could stay the whole day,” the boy reminded him. “You said.”
“I know,” Vin replied, as he strained to overhear the conversation going on in the next room. He could just barely make out Tom’s voice saying, “In light of the new information, we thought it best . . .”
Jonah tugged on his arm. “Vin? Do I have to go back now?”
Alarm bells went off in Vin’s head, and he dropped to his knees at the boy’s side. “Why? Is something wrong? Aren’t they nice to you?” Are they hurting you? Hitting you? The list of questions went on in his head, and it took several seconds for him to realize that Jonah was looking at him strangely.
“They’re okay,” Jonah answered slowly. “Miz Nancy gives me ice cream and she sits with me when I get scared at night. But she don’t believe me.”
“What do you mean? What doesn’t she believe?”
Jonah drew closer to Vin and whispered, “That he’s watchin’ me. I know he is. I can’t see him, but I know he’s there.”
Vin’s blood turned to ice. He knew he should reply to the boy, but he couldn’t force a sound from his throat.
Just then, Chris called from the other room, “Vin? Jonah? Can you come here, please?”
Instinctively, Vin reached for Jonah’s hand and led him to the living room.
Tom Schaffer stood in the doorway, sporting a worried frown. “Sorry to cut your day with Vin and Chris short, Jonah, but something’s come up. I’m afraid you need to come home with me.”
Vin felt the boy’s penetrating gaze scalding his face, but he couldn’t bear to look at him, nor could he find the words to put things right.
Five minutes later, Jonah and Tom had loaded up and pulled out. Vin stood in the drive, watching them leave, determined to put off whatever Chris had to tell him for as long as possible.
But Chris was having none of that. He moved beside Vin and said gently, “We have to talk, Vin. Let’s go inside.”
It must be bad, Vin thought, trying to steel himself for what was coming. Wooden legs carried him back to the house, and instinct alone forced his body into the oversized chair in Chris’s living room. Chris took a seat on the adjacent sofa, sighing deeply and scrubbing his hands through his hair. Vin knew the gesture well, knew the signs, and he reminded himself that it couldn’t be all that bad. Couldn’t be because his mother had been dead a long, long time and nothing Chris could say could make that part of his life any better or any worse.
“So get on with it,” he finally blurted, ready now to hear it all.
“Vin, I don’t - I don’t know how to say it. It’s - you - you’re my friend.”
Best bud, Chris had said to Jonah, and Vin had felt warmed by the designation. So he let Chris off the hook. “Josiah found out something - something that ties what happened in my past to Jonah. He thinks it’s the same guy, right?”
Chris nodded, but that didn’t appear to ease the weight off him much, which left Vin puzzled. How much worse could it be?
“You think he’ll come after me? That what’s got you all tied up in knots? Because that don’t seem to be his thing. Seems like he gets his kicks killin’ defenseless women.”
“You were right, Vin,” Chris said slowly. “All this time, he was out there. And he was watching you.”
Vin thought he might laugh because really, what could be more ridiculous? He’d spent his entire life convincing himself that he was the crazy one. There was no insane maniacal killer after him. No watchful eyes. No monster under his bed. No scarred face staring at him from behind window shades or leafy shrubs or knotty holes in pine fences.
But before Vin could even begin to take in what he’d been told, Chris added more. “And there were others,” he said. “Josiah found four other murders of young women that occurred between the deaths of your mother and Jonah’s - and all left behind a six year-old son.”
Vin shook his head. “I don’t get it. How did Josiah figure that out? Thousands of murders happen in this country every year, what ties me and Jonah with the others? What’s the common link?”
That did it. Now he knew Chris had lost it - and Josiah, too, from the sounds of it. “That’s crazy. I can’t be the link. Don’t you think I’d know something like that? I know I ain’t exactly the smart one in the bunch but-”
“Stop it,” Chris snapped, though there was little heat to his words. “You know how I hate it when you imply that you’re somehow less intelligent than the rest of us.”
“Well, I must be downright stupid, Chris, if you’re telling me that some homicidal maniac is out there murderin’ people under my nose.”
“He followed you. Took his time choosing his victims. You couldn’t have known - you were a kid on the run most of those years. It wasn’t like you were out there googling the news every night.”
No, he wasn’t. Spent most of those years just trying to survive. And that didn’t change much as an adult between his stints with the Rangers, the Marshals, and now the ATF. But still - it just didn’t make sense. It couldn’t be true, he had to have misunderstood. “What - what are you sayin’, Chris? You’re gonna have t’ spell it out for me.”
“The killer followed you from place to place. He looked for victims that matched you and your mother. Josiah thinks he got off on that first experience, and he tried to recreate it over and over again. It appears he lost you when you got back from your time with the Rangers - probably found you again when your name made the news during that hostage situation last spring.”
Vin remembered that incident well. He’d been asked to help a SWAT team out - to make a difficult shot - which had proven to be the key to ending the situation. Chris had been livid when his name was plastered all over the news.
“But - but you’re sayin’ I was followed for years? For most of twenty-five years? How could I not know that?”
“You did know.”
Vin’s breath caught in his throat. “No, no,” he choked. It wasn’t true. It was his imagination; his fears taking hold. Chris and Josiah were wrong. Had to be wrong. Because if they weren’t, if the guy was still out there, then Jonah -
“Oh God, Chris - I think he’s watchin’ Jonah now!”
Chris stiffened. “I’m afraid that’s a very real possibility, Vin. Josiah thinks he’s trying to find a way to end it - maybe using you and Jonah both.”
“What are we gonna do? I mean we can’t - I can’t let Jonah live that way. Lookin’ over his shoulder all the time, just waitin’ for the monster to - to -”
And that’s when it hit him - why Chris was so worried about how this news would affect him. Because it all started with him. Which meant, in some intangible, immeasurable way, he was partially responsible for what had happened to four other families he never knew and one little boy he was beginning to know well. He groaned and put his face in his hands. “If only I’d known - if only I’d asked questions, paid attention, done something. I didn’t even look into my mom’s murder. Just took what they told me and walked away. How am I ever gonna look Jonah in the eye again? I could have stopped this, I could have -”
“There was nothing you could have done.” Chris leaned forward and gripped his arm. “You listen to me, Tanner, you are not responsible for any of this. You’re a victim - just like Jonah and anyone else this lunatic picked out. But the good thing is, we know what we’re looking for now. And Josiah thinks he’s getting tired - maybe even wants to be caught. He obviously wanted you to know what he’s been up to.”
“No,” Vin replied with a slow shake of his head. “No. This is all wrong. They got the guy. Sergeant Miller was killed keeping his promise to me.”
“That case is being re-opened, as well.”
“I don’t wanna know this,” Vin mumbled, not even realizing he was speaking aloud. Didn’t Chris get it? His entire life was a lie. “Josiah should have let it go.”
“Josiah cares about you, Vin. He feels he owes you for your faith in him when he was accused of murder. He couldn’t let it go - and he was right. Jonah has to be the last. You know that.”
Of course he knew that. But he couldn’t help feeling that he’d failed somehow. Failed Jonah, failed his mother, failed himself.
“We can get him this time, Pard,” Chris said, “ because remember - you’re not alone anymore. And neither is Jonah.”
“Yeah,” Vin replied weakly. And he did take some comfort in that fact - for Jonah, at least.
But when his tumultuous thoughts settled for a brief moment, it wasn’t Jonah that came to the forefront of his mind, it was Sargent Miller, the man who’d died believing he was protecting him.
Died in vain.
By the time his flight landed, Josiah felt like he’d made the round trip from Denver to Texas on horseback. Every muscle ached from spending hours in uncomfortable airport chairs while he endured one flight delay after another. The Texan detectives were more than capable of re-opening the case involving the death of the young Sergeant who had befriended Vin, but Josiah felt the man’s widow deserved a personal visit. And if he learned something that would help him get the killer in the process, well that was just icing on the cake.
He hadn’t planned on liking the woman so much, though. Debra Miller had a few years on him, though she looked younger, and she’d never remarried. She was pretty enough to give Maude a run for her money, in fact, but that wasn’t what he found so attractive about her. It was the way her eyes went soft when he mentioned Vin. Josiah found out that the Millers had actually applied to be foster parents for Vin before the officer was killed. His first thought was how different Vin’s life might have been had the officer survived; his second was how different his own life would be without Vin a part of it.
He wasn’t surprised to see Vin waiting for him at the baggage claim, even less so to find his friend’s constant shadow hovering nearby. Josiah cocked his head towards Chris, who merely shrugged in return, before turning to Vin.
“What happened?” Vin pushed, ignoring Josiah’s outstretched hand.
“Good to see you, too, Vin,” Josiah teased. It wasn’t good to see him, not looking like he did - drawn and pale and uncharacteristically edgy.
Vin frowned but didn’t argue when Chris steered them all out the exit of the airport. “We’ll talk in the car,” he said, to Vin’s obvious annoyance.
Josiah had planned to apologize for misplacing his cell phone charger and leaving them hanging as to the results of this journey, but decided the words would be wasted. Vin only wanted to hear one thing - and even though Josiah had enjoyed his visit with the widow, he was no closer to finding the elusive killer. Two weeks had passed since the day he’d gone to the Larabee ranch to share what he’d learned; two weeks during which Vin had worked himself into a near-frenzy over the situation. Josiah suspected Vin’s agitated state had nearly as much to do with the reality of his past as the danger of the present.
Jonah was a consideration, too, of course. Chris said Vin made a habit of stopping by the Schaffer house on his way home every night after work. It seemed like a good idea at first but they were all having serious doubts now. Vin was attached to the boy - and vice versa - and there was still too much uncertainty about the future for that to be wise in any way, shape or form.
“Well?” Vin prodded as the men finally climbed into Chris’s truck.
“She’s an interesting woman,” Josiah began.
“And?” Chris snapped impatiently, apparently equally anxious for news.
“And she doesn’t know anything that will help us. Sergeant Miller received a call that night and left the house shortly after dinner. Debra didn’t know who called or what was said. She was told her husband had cornered a local drug dealer near an abandoned gas station. Gunfire was exchanged, and both men died. They found the knife that, uh - well, there was evidence at the scene that tied the dead man to your mother, Vin.”
Vin was incredulous. “So Sergeant Miller went alone?”
“He called for back-up, which arrived moments too late.” Josiah paused and held Vin’s gaze. “He cared deeply about you, Vin. Debra said they had already set the wheels in motion to become your foster parents. Bill Miller was determined to find the man who killed your mother, and when he got that call, he didn’t hesitate to act.”
“I don’t - I don’t even remember her. Hardly remember him. Hell, I hardly remember my mom,” Vin muttered.
“You were a child,” Josiah reminded him unnecessarily.
Chris took up the conversation then, filling Josiah in on the progress - or lack thereof - that had occurred on the case since he’d left town. Once again, the mysterious killer had seemingly disappeared into the landscape. Chris didn’t say the words, but he didn’t have to - the trail was growing cold, and if the guy they were looking for followed his usual pattern, he wouldn’t strike again for several years. Except, Josiah reminded himself, it was different this time: their perpetrator had made sure Vin knew what he was doing.
“I’ve gotta head back to the office,” Chris said, interrupting Josiah’s musings. “You mind if Vin crashes here with you tonight?”
Josiah was going to give his immediate approval, but Vin loudly objected. “How long you gonna babysit me, Larabee?”
“As long as it takes, Tanner.”
Josiah expected the argument to continue, but Vin let it drop. It occurred to him that maybe Vin didn’t really want to be alone, that maybe he was afraid. As much as Josiah hated to admit that about his normally fearless younger friend, he was glad he’d have the opportunity to talk with him alone. It was his fault, after all, that Vin’s foundation had been shaken; the least he could do was help the man get on even footing again.
An hour later, when he entered his living room with two cups of hot chocolate, he found Vin sitting on the sofa, vacantly staring at the television.
Vin looked up him and smiled briefly as he reached for the drink. And if Josiah had wondered how to broach the subject, he needn’t have bothered - Vin did it for him. “You know how many hours I spent in therapy, Josiah?” he asked. “How many different ways the shrinks tried t’ tell me I was crazy? Can y’ guess how many panic attacks I worked myself through in the last twenty-five years? How many times I wanted t’ just die and be done with it so I’d never, ever have t’ feel that way again? And he was there all along. It was real all along. And that ain’t even the worst of it.”
“What is the worst of it, Vin? Tell me.”
Vin looked at him with watery eyes. “I didn’t even try. I’ve spent my adult life working in some kind of law enforcement - I know better. But I never even asked the questions - never even gave it a thought.”
“You think Chris would’ve done that? He’s still lookin’ for the man that murdered his family and he’ll never give up. Never. But I didn’t even start. I didn’t even try. My mom - the only person who ever loved me - and I didn’t care enough t’ make sure that her killer was taken care of. And other people paid the price. People I don’t even know. Kids - like Jonah.”
“Hold on, Vin,” Josiah said gently. “First of all, you had no reason to ask questions. As far as you knew - as far as anyone knew - the case was, for all intents and purposes, closed. Secondly, other people died because of a sick, serial killer, not because of you. And last, but certainly not least, your mother is not the only person who ever loved you. Whether or not you believe it about the rest of us, you surely know that Chris Larabee would give his life for you.”
Vin blinked away a tear. “I know.”
“Let me ask you this, Vin - do you think it’s Jonah’s obligation to find his mother’s killer?”
“Of course not,” Vin scoffed.
“Cut yourself the same slack.”
Vin appeared to ponder that for a moment, then asked, “What about the other victims? The other boys? Do you know what happened to them?”
Josiah had hoped Vin wouldn’t ask that question, but was frankly surprised it had taken this long for him to get to it. “Two were taken in by family and appear to have adjusted well.”
“And the other two?”
“One is in prison - and the other committed suicide when he was fifteen.”
Vin abruptly rose to his feet. “Think I’ll turn in,” he mumbled. But he turned back to Josiah before leaving the room. “She really said they were gonna take me in?”
Josiah was confused for minute about the change in conversation, but then he caught on. “She did. Sergeant Miller was crazy about you - wanted to adopt you right off.”
“I think I know how he felt. I been thinkin’ that maybe Jonah - maybe he could come live with me. I mean, you know, when this is over.”
Josiah knew that wouldn’t be best for the boy, but he couldn’t bear to dash the hope in Vin’s eyes, so he replied, “Maybe so. Let’s just find the bastard first.”
Vin nodded, but he didn’t add anything more before heading up the stairs to the guest bedroom.
“Yeah, we just have to find the bastard,” Josiah muttered to himself.
The idea had been niggling at his brain for some time, but he’d stubbornly pushed it aside. It would be wrong to use a child to capture a killer - and there was no way Vin would agree to it. Yet, still, it seemed like the only way to force the man out in the open. Move Jonah openly, publicly, make it easy for the bastard to follow and hard for him to hide. Josiah wasn’t convinced that the killer had transferred his fixation from Vin to Jonah, but if their guy was watching Jonah, then he already knew the best way to get to Vin was through the boy.
He might have dozed off, because it seemed like only seconds later that he heard Vin bounding down the stairs. By the time he got to his feet, Vin was out the front door. Josiah rushed after him, pausing only long enough to grab his weapon on his way out.
The temperature had dropped, Josiah realized as he stared out into the empty street, but the cold chill that swept over him seemed to come more from the inside than from the icy air. The inky blackness weighed heavy; it was a moonless night, and the lone street lamp on his block had burned out months before. His heart sped up, adrenalin kicking in at the sudden awareness of danger.
“Vin!” he bellowed, his deep voice splitting the oppressive silence like a sharp blade. “Vin!” he called again as he rounded the corner of the house. Nothing and no one, only more darkness, more stillness, until he tripped over a stump and cursed aloud.
As he pulled himself to his feet, he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Holding his breath, he remained still, though his heart bounded in his chest. Pounding on the pavement soon changed to the crunch of dried leaves in the grass, and whoever was out there was closer now. Close enough, in fact, that Josiah could hear him panting for breath. His fingers curled around the butt of his gun, and he prayed he was invisible in the dark shadows of the night.
And then a voice whispered, “Josiah?”
Releasing his breath, he muttered, “Shit, Vin, you scared the devil out of me. What the hell is going on?”
“You see him?”
“I can’t even see my own two feet,” Josiah complained. “Who am I looking for?”
“Him, damn it!” Vin’s voice was laced with panic.
Josiah took a breath and gathered his wits. “Okay, okay, tell me what you saw.”
“I saw him! I was standin’ at the window in your guest room and he was in the street, lookin’ up at me.”
“I’ll call it in,” Josiah said as casually as possible. His heart, though, was sinking. There was no possible way Vin could have seen anything out of that window, not even a shadow.
“No! That’ll scare him off! We’re wastin’ time - you go around that way and I’ll -”
“No, Vin. You’re not going after him alone and neither am I. Come on, we’ll check it out together.”
To his relief, Vin didn’t argue. At least, not until thirty minutes later when Josiah suggested they give it up and go back inside.
“No, Josiah, we can’t stop now! He’s out here - I know it.”
“Vin - we’ve been round the block a dozen times. There’s no one here.”
“You callin’ me a liar? Or maybe you think I’m crazy, huh? Is that it?”
“I think you’re tired,” Josiah replied calmly. “And if you did see someone, he’s long gone. Let’s get some sleep and figure this out in the morning.”
Vin sounded more like his six-year old friend than the dangerous man Josiah knew him to be when he replied in a small voice, “I saw him. I did. He’s still here. He’s still after me.”
Wrapping an arm around Vin’s shoulders, Josiah steered his friend towards the house and soothed, “It’ll be okay. We’re gonna get him this time. We won’t give up until it’s done.”
He could only pray, as he led an exhausted Vin up the stairs, that it wouldn’t take another twenty-five years.
“It’s just a dry spell,” Buck reiterated for the tenth time. Good God, these friends of his were really starting to irritate him. Just because he’d run of out women to take to the Denver Nuggets game. Besides, he wanted Jonah to be his “date”. The kid was a breath of fresh air and he came with no expectations and no strings attached.
JD giggled - or it might have been Casey - Buck didn’t look up from his hot dog to check.
“Yeah, just a dry spell,” Jonah mimicked before stuffing a french fry in his mouth.
Vin, who was sitting on the other side of Jonah, snorted but thankfully kept his opinion to himself.
Jonah swallowed the fry and added, “Buck has lots of girls - except some of them are mad at him ‘cause he don’t wanna buy the cow.”
Buck didn’t have to look to know that Larabee, who was sitting on the other side of Vin, was smirking at him when he asked, “What have you been telling Jonah, Buck?”
“Buck didn’t say nothin’,” Jonah quickly explained. “I just heard JD talkin’ about how Buck can’t keep gettin’ the milk for free and some day he’s gonna have t’ buy the cow or else girls are gonna get mad and that’s why none of ‘em want to go to the ballgame with him. But I’m glad because now I get to go.”
Chris grinned broadly, and Buck seriously wanted to wipe the damn smile right off his friend’s face. And he might have, if there wasn’t a kid present. Chris knew it, too, because he didn’t miss a beat when he said, “We’re glad, too, Jonah. And don’t worry, we’ll all come again. It’ll be a long time before Buck commits himself to a good - cow.”
Buck rolled his eyes. As far he was concerned, this whole evening had gotten out of hand. He and JD were supposed to be double-dating to the ballgame, but when his date cancelled and several other women he knew were ‘unavailable’, he decided to take the boy, instead. Of course, Jonah went nowhere without his self-appointed guardian angel, Vin, and Vin went nowhere without his perpetual bodyguard, Chris.
“Well, looky here!” Buck exclaimed, skillfully changing the subject. “It’s half-time already. Anybody need anything? Drink? Food? Bathroom break?”
“Yeah,” Jonah replied, “I do.”
“Do what?” Buck tried to clarify. Jonah’s answering frown implied that the answer should be obvious. “Okay, kid,” he said, reaching for the boy’s small hand. “I’ll take you.”
Jonah met his gaze and held it for a long moment. But in the end, the child shook his head and reached for Vin’s hand, instead.
Apparently it had become second-nature for Vin to assume the parent role, because he didn’t bat an eyelash as he led Jonah to the aisle and down the steps. Chris stood to follow, but Buck stopped him with a wave of his hand. “I got this one,” he said.
Chris looked like he wanted to say something, but he just nodded and sat back down.
It was crazy, like always, as lines formed outside the restrooms. Ten thousand people were trying to pee at the same time, but most of them were women lined up across the hall, so at least Buck had something to look at while he waited. By the time his turn came and went, Vin and Jonah were already out the door and back out in the hall. Buck had just come up behind the pair when he saw Jonah raise his hand and point straight ahead.
Before Buck could get a handle on what was happening, Vin picked the boy up, shoved him into his arms, and took off running through the crowd.
“Vin! Vin! Vin!” Jonah screamed at the top of his lungs.
Buck tried to call out, too, but all that came out was “Oof!” as he took a small, but sharp, elbow to his ribs and a painful kick to his groin. “Now hold on - calm down, kid - what the -? Where did Vin -? I said, calm down!”
But Jonah continued to cry, twist, and hit in his efforts to escape Buck and go after Vin.
“Help!” a shrill voice suddenly screeched in Buck’s ear. “It’s a kidnapping! Someone stop him!”
“What? Where?” Buck asked, turning in a circle with the still squirming child in his arms.
“Someone get security!” another voice yelled.
“Let me go!” Jonah cried. “Let me go with Vin!”
“You are not taking that child!” a chorus of female voices shouted, accentuating their demand by pummeling Buck with their handbags.
“Ouch! Stop that! Now just hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. I didn’t - hey - Jonah, hold still! I didn’t take -”
“What the hell is the problem here, Buck? Where’s Vin?”
“Chris! Can you please tell these people that I didn’t steal this kid!”
“It’s alright!” Chris shouted as he pulled out his badge and flashed it at the growing crowd. “I’ve got it.”
It took several seconds for the crowd to disperse, though Buck noted that a trio of women hovered near-by, eyeing him suspiciously. It probably didn’t help that, although Jonah had stilled, he was now sobbing hysterically.
“Jonah, what’s going on?” Chris asked. When Jonah didn’t respond, Chris gently gripped the young boy’s chin and turned his tear-stained face towards him. “Jonah! Where did Vin go?”
“I - I saw him!” the child hiccuped. “The - the big man - he was here - he was right there - by the - by the popcorn. And Vin went after him and now he’s gonna be dead, too!”
Chris’s face went white, but he didn’t waste a second. “Buck - have JD and Casey take Jonah back to the Schaffer’s. Call the others. Tell them to get here. Now.”
“No! I want Vin!” Jonah wailed.
Chris bit his lip, and Buck could see him battling the urge to race after Vin with the need to comfort the boy. “Jonah, Vin’s going to be fine. I promise. I’m going to go find him right now. But I need you to be brave now and do what Buck tells you, alright?”
Jonah immediately quieted, and it was like looking at a miniature Vin when the boy lifted his chin and met Chris’s eyes. Chris nodded in response to their silent communication and took off without looking back.
Just that quickly, the tears stopped - though Jonah’s voice trembled when he said, “Put me down, Buck. I’m not a baby.”
No, he wasn’t. In fact, in the span of seconds, the terrified child seemed to have aged ten years.
It wasn’t right, Buck thought sadly. A little boy should be able to come to a ballgame with friends without being traumatized. They had to catch this guy and soon, otherwise what kind of life would the kid have? Looking over his shoulder all the time, always wondering and waiting . . . living in fear.
With a sinking heart, he realized that the life he was imagining for Jonah had already happened - to Vin.
Chris couldn’t explain how or why, he just knew that one minute he was sitting there enjoying the half-time show and the next his heart was in his throat. As he raced towards the restrooms, he heard a child wailing, and he knew it was Jonah. The stoic six-year-old hadn’t so much as whimpered, not since the horrible night his mother was killed and Vin had found him in a closet. And yet, Chris knew that cry as if it belonged to his own son. And he knew there was only reason that boy would scream bloody murder - something had to have happened to Vin.
But what? And how? The Pepsi Center had a capacity for nineteen thousand people - and probably half of those were out walking the halls at that very moment. He had no problem spotting Buck and Jonah in the crowd, though.
It would have been comical under any other circumstances: Buck was holding the squirming, squealing child while half a dozen women of various ages and sizes beat him with their purses. Apparently, they thought Buck was abducting the boy, and Chris couldn’t exactly blame them with the way Jonah was acting.
Vin was nowhere in sight. Not then and not twenty minutes later when Chris had pushed his way through the crowd and rounded the entire arena. He’d tried Vin’s cell, to no avail, and had alerted security. But the reality was that Vin and the man he was after - if there was a man - could be anywhere inside or outside the arena. Even if the place was empty, it would take hours to search every corridor, every storage area, every nook and cranny.
“Damn it, Tanner,” he mumbled as he stopped a moment to stare out a large plate glass window onto the street below. Why hadn’t Vin waited, called, texted, something to let him know what was happening so he could help? Obviously, Vin wasn’t thinking clearly - hell, there were times Chris wasn’t sure if he was thinking at all. Since the night Vin spent with Josiah, when he’d been certain he was being watched, Tanner had gone off half-cocked repeatedly. It was becoming the norm now for Vin to swear the killer was nearby, and to take off after him with little or no warning.
This time, though, it was Jonah who made the connection. The only problem with that was that Jonah had yet to give anyone a real description of his mother’s killer. So whether the boy could truly recognize the man was a mystery.
But one thing was certain - there was a killer out there. And he had tailed Vin, committed gruesome murders, and still managed to stay under the radar for twenty-five years. So maybe Jonah really did see his mother’s killer, and maybe Vin wasn’t over-reacting.
And maybe he’d kill Tanner himself if his friend didn’t contact him like now. That thought had barely left his head when he felt the vibration of his phone. The message from Vin was cryptic: “G2”.
He immediately called Buck. “He sent me a message, Buck. Check out section G2.”
“G2? Chris that don’t make sense. The sections are by number. G would be the row and 2 would be the seat. There are hundreds of G2’s.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever. Just find him!”
“I don’t think that’s what Vin means. I think it’s a floor - a basement level or something,” Buck explained.
Chris gave himself a mental slap; Buck was right. “I’m heading down,” he said, knowing without asking that Buck wouldn’t be far behind.
The stairs were quicker and closer, and no one noticed or made any attempt to stop him from entering the stairwell. The lack of security inflamed his unease, but he reminded himself that the killer couldn’t have gotten in the building at all with a deadly weapon. Unfortunately, that applied to him and Vin, as well.
The doors off the stairwell were labeled, so he easily identified G2 when he had descended two flights past ground level. The heavy stairwell door opened with a loud clang but there was only silence in the dark halls on the other side. Whatever purpose this level served, apparently no one was working there at the moment. It occurred to Chris that he was looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack; the stadium took up massive ground, and if this floor covered even half that space, he could be searching dozens of dark rooms and dimly lit hallways.
His instinct was to call out for Vin, but he stifled the urge and pulled himself back against a wall to listen, instead. The only sounds he heard were his own ragged breaths and the pounding of his heart. In spite of the cool air in the lower levels, perspiration moistened his collar, and his skin felt hot and cold at the same time. It was ridiculous, he told himself, this was likely nothing more than another wild goose chase. He’d find Vin tense and pale, literally shaking in his boots, but he’d be fine. They were chasing shadows - or men who were suspicious by their size alone; Jonah still couldn’t be in the same room with Josiah.
It didn’t feel that way this time, though. It felt like someone was there, right under his nose . . .
The vibration of his cell phone nearly gave him a heart attack, and he chided himself as he pulled it out of his pocket. Vin had left him another message: “next time”.
Next time? What the hell did that mean? He didn’t have time to ponder it because just then he heard the squeak of a rusty hinge as a door was opened. He quickly moved down the hall and rounded the corner in the direction of the sound. The corridor was dark but a sliver of light shown from the doorway of a room a dozen yards ahead.
He’d never felt more naked without his gun than he did at that very moment, and as he inched his way towards the open door, he was acutely aware of the odd shadows and the absence of sound or movement. Holding his breath, his empty hands fisted at his side, he edged his way to the doorway and peered inside. It was a storage room with rows of mostly empty shelves, just barely illuminated by a single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. Five steps in and he saw nothing, but his heightened senses picked up a sound of someone breathing - or moaning.
Vin would be down in a corner somewhere, he told himself, suffering another panic attack. But he took it slow as he cautiously made his way between the rows of shelves. It wasn’t a shock to see Vin sitting on the floor, deep in shadows at the end of the fourth row, and even then, he didn’t rush to his friend’s side because he knew he wasn’t hurt. Vin had just texted him, after all.
Footsteps sounded in the hall - Buck and probably an army of security guards - but Chris still took just long enough to verify that no one else was in the room before he finally dropped to one knee at Vin’s side.
Vin looked up at him, and Chris immediately saw that he was wrong. Vin was hurt; a steady stream of blood dripped from a nasty cut above his left eye.
“Shit, Tanner!” he exclaimed under his breath. “What happened?”
“Ch - chr -ris?” Vin somehow managed to slur his name into a least three syllables. Shaking his head as if to clear it, he winced and added, “I dunno. Someone hit me - think I fell on one of these shelves.”
“Alright, let me see,” Chris ordered. He gently palpated the back of Vin’s head and found a lump on the back of his friend’s skull. His gut cramped up at the realization that if the maniac could get to Vin and Jonah in the middle of an NBA basketball game among a crowd of almost twenty thousand people, nowhere was safe. “Did you see him?” he asked with bated breath. Maybe they’d get a break out of this, anyway.
But Vin shook his head. “Not his face. Not clear enough t’ do any good, anyway.”
“Okay, don’t worry about it. Help’s on the way - Buck’s leading the cavalry.”
Vin suddenly sat up straight. “Buck? But where’s Jonah? Who’s got Jonah?”
“Hey, take it easy. He’s fine. JD and Casey took him home.”
“He doesn’t have a home,” Vin mumbled. “I’ve gotta go see him. He’s probably scared.”
“He will be if he sees you looking like this. We’ll get you taken care of first. Can you stand?”
“Yeah,” Vin replied, but he clearly needed help getting up.
Chris hooked an arm under Vin’s shoulder and hoisted him up, noting as he did so that Vin’s cell phone was on the floor. As he reached to pick it up, he said, “You’re right. We’ll get him next time.”
“Huh?” Vin asked, apparently still befuddled.
“The text you sent me - ‘next time’.”
Vin blanched. “I didn’t send that.”
Chris pulled his hand back and reached for his own phone instead. “I’m getting a crime lab in here. Maybe the bastard finally left us a clue.”
Vin had one of those stupid Droids, a cell that was difficult to operate on a good day and virtually impossible to text with gloves on. All they needed was one print - and the hope that sometime, somewhere, their killer had been arrested before.
Vin’s head hurt, but he wasn’t about to complain. Not after he’d stupidly struck off on his own again. One helluva speech was likely coming from Chris, and he knew he deserved every word of it. But every time he thought he saw, or heard, or even just had a feeling that the killer was nearby, he seemed to lose all reason. Jonah’s petrified face at the arena was more than enough to set him off this time.
And this time, he’d been right to follow - his aching head was the proof. The throbbing matched his racing heart, in fact, as he made the now-familiar trek up the sidewalk to the Schaffer house. He wasn’t going to breathe easy until he saw Jonah with his own eyes; until he held the boy close and promised him - one more time - that he would be safe. As long as Vin drew breath, he was determined to make that the truth.
Just then the door opened, and Jonah came running down the steps to greet him. Vin stooped low and wrapped the child in his arms, and for the first time, he had an inkling of all that Chris had lost. How, he wondered, was his friend still functioning at all? Chris had lost Adam at nearly this age - his own son. Jonah was nothing to Vin, not really, and yet, he couldn’t imagine how he’d go on if anything happened to this child.
After several moments, Jonah pulled back and his small hand gently traced the bandage over Vin’s eye. “He hurt you.”
“Not bad,” Vin replied. “Mostly I was just clumsy.”
But Jonah shook his head. “He hurt you. And next time you’ll be dead like our moms.”
“You think Chris will let that happen?” Vin asked.
“You’re his best bud,” Jonah replied. But his sad eyes locked on Vin’s when he added, “But even Chris can’t stop him. No one can.”
Vin gripped the boy’s shoulders. “You’re wrong about that, Jonah. Because it’s not just me and Chris. It’s Buck, JD, Ezra, and Nathan, too. And Josiah - who is big and strong and a very, very good friend.”
Jonah swallowed. “I know. You’re the Magnificent Seven.”
“Who told you that?” Vin asked.
“Everybody knows that, Vin,” Jonah said, rolling his eyes.
Just then, a black truck rolled up to the curb. Chris jumped out, followed by Josiah, who was carrying a squirming, black and white puppy in his arms.
Jonah stiffened beside him at the sight of Josiah, and Vin reminded him, “He’s a friend, remember?”
A friend with a gift, apparently.
“What’s he got?” Jonah whispered.
“I don’t know. Let’s go find out,” Vin whispered back.
“Hello, Jonah!” Josiah called out as he approached. “I was wondering if you could do a big favor for me?”
Never taking his eyes of the dog, Jonah replied softly, “What kind of favor?”
“Well, you see, this little guy needs a friend. I picked him up at the shelter yesterday, and I’m afraid he’s a bit much for me to handle. He needs someone a lot younger with a lot more energy to take care of him.”
Jonah frowned as he looked up at Vin. “Is he asking me t’ take the puppy?”
“I think so,” Vin replied. “What do you think about that?”
Finally meeting Josiah’s eyes, the boy asked, “Is he an orphan, too?”
Josiah nodded. “He is.”
Jonah turned to look at the house before turning back to Josiah. “I don’t really live here. And I reckon I’d have t’ get permission from Ms. Nancy and Mr. Tom first.”
Vin hid his grin, though he noted that Chris wasn’t quite so successful when he spoke. “I reckon you’re right about that, Jonah. But Josiah called ahead and your foster parents said it’s fine for you to have the dog if you want him.”
“What do you think, Vin?” Jonah bit his lip as he looked at Vin hopefully.
“I think you should go over there and thank Josiah for your new friend.”
For a few moments at least, the joy in Jonah’s eyes matched that of any other six-year-old who had just been given a new pet. Vin thought he’d never heard anything quite so sweet as the giggle that erupted from Jonah when the puppy wriggled in his arms and immediately licked his face clean.
“Come on, let’s take him inside,” Josiah said.
To Vin’s relief, Jonah eagerly walked up the sidewalk beside Josiah, peppering the man with one question after another, “What’s his name? What’s he like to eat? How come his ears are so big? Does he ever stop licking?”
Vin was about to follow them when Chris gripped his arm. “Let’s talk a minute,” he said.
“I know, I know,” Vin sighed. “I gotta stop goin’ off by myself. That it?”
“No,” Chris replied, “that’s not it. We got a good print from your phone - and a face to go with it. He was arrested for assault several years ago, though the charges were dropped. Went by the name of Neil Mason. Of course, we don’t know yet what name he’s using now, but it’s a start, Vin. A lead.”
With a shake of his head, Vin replied, “I don’t know, Chris. Seems like the only way we’re gonna get him is t’ smoke him out.”
To Vin’s surprise, Chris agreed. “Josiah and I were talking about that on the way here. Josiah thinks the killer wants to reveal himself to you. And if he was willing to risk attending a major public event to get close to you and Jonah, we think we’d have a good chance of luring him out if you two went somewhere a little more private.”
“No! You’re not usin’ Jonah like that. I can’t believe you’d even consider it.”
“You know I’d never put a child at risk, Tanner. Give me a little more credit than that. But we can control the circumstances this way. Make sure you both are safe and get the guy once and for all. We need to end this now, before he slips off the radar for another five years. I know you care for Jonah - we all do - and none of us are going to let anything happen to him.”
“I think that - that I love him, Chris. I know it ain’t right - he ain’t mine. But from that first minute, I just - ah hell, I can’t explain it.” He hadn’t meant to say that; didn’t even know until that very moment that it was true.
“You don’t have to explain it. I get it. But Vin, if you mean what you say - if you love him -you’ve gotta do what’s best for him. Jonah has to get this behind him if he’s ever gonna have a normal life.”
“I know that! I want it as bad as he does. When this is over, me and him can have our own home.”
Vin noted the look of sadness that softened the lines on his best friend’s face, and it confused him. Did Chris think he wasn’t good enough to be a father to Jonah?
And when Chris finally spoke, his voice was oddly tender. “You really think that’s best for Jonah?”
“What are you sayin’? You think I can’t do it? Can’t raise a boy on my own?”
“I think you’d be a great father, Vin. But you and Jonah - you’re tied to each other by a terrible tragedy, and you always will be. I just wonder if it wouldn’t be better for him to have a fresh start with a - a -”
Vin supplied the words for him. “A normal family.”
Chris looked down at his shoes, mulling over his response, though Vin was already certain he didn’t want to hear it. Finally, Larabee met his eyes again. “You know what we do. How dangerous our work is. If he lost you -”
“Shut up,” Vin snapped. “I don’t wanna talk about this anymore. And I’m not talking about usin’ Jonah as bait, either. It’s me he really wants, so if we set anybody up, it’ll be me.”
He stormed off to the house then, inexplicably angry. Chris was right, of course, like always. But couldn’t Larabee let him have his dream for a little while longer? Couldn’t he pretend, for now at least, that the happy ending he envisioned for himself and Jonah had a shot?
The anger was forgotten, however, when he stepped inside the door and saw Jonah and his puppy rolling on the floor, both squealing with delight. Vin gave Josiah a look that he hoped conveyed how truly grateful he was.
He’d do anything for this child, he realized then. Anything. Including giving him up, if that’s what was best . . . and giving up his life for him, if that’s what it took.
How do I get myself into these things? Ezra asked himself as he resolutely ignored the distinct ‘dog’ smell emanating from the rear of his car. No sooner had he asked the question than he reminded himself of the answer: he was accompanying Vin, Jonah, and the pound puppy, now named “Clifford” - presumably in deference to Jonah’s favorite book about a big red dog, though his dog was neither big nor red - on an outing to the dog park because Chris Larabee demanded it.
Their leader was too busy agonizing over every minute detail of the set-up taking place later that evening to play his usual role of bodyguard to the pair. The potential danger to Vin loomed large in everyone’s minds, and if Chris had his way, his friend would be plastered to his side until the last possible moment. But Vin had other ideas; he was determined to spend time with his pint-sized friend and, to Ezra’s dismay, Clifford. Really, Josiah should have been given this assignment, given his intimate acquaintance with the animal - not to mention the usual state of his vehicle.
Nothing to be done about it now, Ezra conceded, cringing at the suspicious sound of scratching coming from the back seat. That annoyance soon receded to the back of his mind, however, when Jonah began speaking in an obviously troubled manner.
“What’s going on Vin? Why are you and Ezra taking me and Clifford to the park?”
“What? Can’t a man spend some time with his friends?”
“Not this early on a work day. You told me you can’t come over during work times, remember?”
“Well, today’s special.”
“Why? Why is it special?”
“'Cause my mean old boss let me off early, that’s why.
“Chris ain’t mean to you ever. And that’s not why. I know it’s not.”
“Please don’t do it, Vin.”
“Do what? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Don’t lie. It’s a sin - my mom told me so. You’re gonna go after him tonight, aren’t you? That’s why you came to see me today. Because it’s gonna be the last time.”
“Last time? No way. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“No you won’t. You’ll be dead.”
“Listen to me, Jonah - we’re gonna get him this time. And you won’t have t’ be scared anymore.”
“I’m not scared!”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with bein’ scared sometimes,” Vin said gently.
“I’m not scared,” Jonah reiterated. But Ezra heard the slight quiver in his voice when he asked, “Are you scared, Vin?”
“What? No - I - I’m not scared because nothin’s gonna happen to me. Chris and the boys will see to it.”
“He’s real big and he’s real mean. And he’s sneaky. He doesn’t make no sound at all. He just comes right in and kills you. That’s what he does.”
Ezra did not consider himself the emotional sort, but the conversation he was currently overhearing was tearing him up inside. No six-year-old child should have such personal experience with a deranged killer.
“He’s not gonna kill me. I’m gonna come back.”
Ezra heard the hesitation in Vin’s voice when he replied, “Yeah, I promise.”
“You mean it? ‘Cause I don’t want anything to happen to you ever. Me and Clifford wanna come live with you so please don’t die, okay?”
Vin’s voice was very low now, but Ezra could still make out the words. “I want that, too.”
Ezra blinked away the sudden moisture in his eyes, undoubtedly caused by the canine odor permeating his senses. It would all work out, he told himself. Jonah was too young to understand. And Vin would be fine. He’d survive this night and many more nights to come.
And when it was all over, Ezra would confess what he’d done. It was the right thing to do, even if Vin might not see it that way at first; might never see it that way.
Ezra had read about Extreme Adoption, a program based in St. Louis that used private detectives to find distant relatives for children in the foster care program. The program was making a name for itself due to its high success rate in placing children with family members who previously may not have even known of the child’s existence. As was the case for Jonah . . .
Ezra hired the private investigator with the best of intentions, but now that a distant cousin of Jonah’s mother had been found, he was plagued with doubt. He couldn’t decide if it was good or bad that this person was, by all accounts, a loving mother who was willing and able to give Jonah a good home.
How on earth was he going to tell Vin?
At that very moment, the man in question had apparently put the troubling conversation with the child aside as he stepped out of the car. With boyish enthusiasm, Vin led both boy and mutt to a large fenced-in field with a gate on each end.
Ezra carefully studied the surroundings; except for a smattering of trees, the dog park was wide open. It was mid-afternoon, but the skies were overcast and the air chilly, so with the exception of a young man throwing a frisbee to his golden retriever, they had the park to themselves.
The only potential problem Ezra could see was the deep woods at the back of the property, just north of the second gate. He rolled around the idea that he should station himself at that end of the park, but quickly dismissed it. There was no doubt that Vin would avoid leading the play to that end of the field. And as had become the custom for all of them, Ezra had been keenly aware of their surroundings at all times. If someone followed them, he’d done so by making himself invisible.
As additional insurance, Vin had all but put up a billboard stating his intention to go off by himself later that evening. The plan was for him to escape to his humble abode - if one could call a beat up old camper an abode - in the wilderness. Hopefully, the madman would see his opportunity to get Vin alone and take it. Of course, in reality, Vin would be far from alone. But even though seven to one were normally good odds, none of the men were under-estimating the cunning of the devil they were after.
But that all seemed very far away as Ezra sat on the park bench and watched his teammate throw a tennis ball high into the air. The dog chased the ball and the boy chased the dog, and the game was strangely entertaining, considering the play varied little from one throw to the next. In fact, the delight of the mutt and the child were contagious, and Ezra soon felt more relaxed than he had in weeks.
They were about fifteen minutes into their outing when the ball took a wild bounce and flew over the fence into an adjacent field. When Vin, Jonah, and even Clifford looked at him imploringly, Ezra got to his feet with a sigh and headed off to scout out the missing ball.
He couldn’t say why he looked up when he did as he traipsed across the grassy lawn, but something made him turn his head towards his companions in the nearby field. Something had obviously happened, though he couldn’t quite decide what it was. Clifford and the golden retriever were suddenly running hell-bent for the far end of the field; something had to have called the two canines in that direction. The young man called out to his dog and was ignored, while Jonah immediately gave chase.
As Ezra raced back to the open gate, he heard Vin calling out for the boy and the dog in desperation. It probably looked ridiculous, Ezra thought as he ran; he was chasing Vin, who was chasing Jonah, who was chasing the dog. His eyes, he reluctantly acknowledged, weren’t as good as they used to be, but there was no doubt that Clifford had disappeared through the gate and into the woods at the far end of the property. And Jonah would follow, just seconds ahead of Vin.
Seconds - that’s all it would take for the killer to snatch the boy - and Vin, too, if that’s what he had in mind. In his peripheral vision, Ezra was aware of the other young man now running, too, though the golden appeared to be heading back to his master.
It seemed to take forever to reach the gate, like a dream where everything moved in slow motion. He called out for Vin, for Jonah, and even for Clifford when he reached the woods, but no one answered him. His heart pounded as he stopped for a moment, gripping his knees to catch his breath. Either he was terrifically out of shape, or shear fear had stolen his breath. But no, he assured himself, there just wasn’t time for all three of his companions to disappear completely.
Ten steps into the forest, and he realized that one, at least, was accounted for. He saw the dog lying still on the grass. With his heart in his throat, he quickly knelt and placed his hand on the pup’s stomach. Feeling a slight movement, he got to his feet just as the young man with the frisbee came up behind him.
“Oh man, what happened?” the man said, kneeling in the dirt beside the unmoving animal. “Poor little guy.”
Ezra shook his head. “I don’t know and I don’t have time to find out.” Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a hundred dollar bill and thrust it in the young man’s hand. “Will you take him to a vet? Have him bill me for any additional charges. Here’s my card.”
The young man nodded. “Sure. Okay. But where did the kid go? And the other guy?”
“I don’t know. Just - please - take care of the dog.”
Five minutes later, Ezra had alerted the authorities and he’d searched the immediate area. But as he suspected, there was no trace of Vin or Jonah.
There was only one thing left to do: make the worst call of his life.
That day, that terrible day when his life went to hell, Chris had no clue. No inkling, no bad feeling, no intuition at all that when the phone rang, it would be the worst call of his life. His wife and child were already dead and gone, and he’d been completely oblivious, wrapped up in his job, as usual. Blindsided. No fucking clue.
He’d told himself he’d never be taken by surprise like that again. It wasn’t possible. And in truth, when he picked up the phone in his office and Ezra told him in a stilted, halting voice that both Vin and Jonah were gone, the gut-wrenching disbelief and denial lasted only seconds.
He’d spent two solid days planning for every possible complication to the plan for that evening. Every possible means the killer might have to follow Vin, every remote place he might hide, every weapon he might use, every action he might take, every word he might say.
But the bastard moved too soon.
And he should have known. What was he thinking, letting Jonah and Vin go to a dog park with only Ezra for back-up? He could tell by Ezra’s voice that the man was blaming himself, but he was the only one. Chris knew he had made a terrible strategic error in thinking their culprit would wait for that evening.
By the time he reached the scene, they’d found Vin’s gun and cell phone lying on the ground in the heavily wooded area just outside the dog park. They found tire tracks, too, and Ezra seemed to once again find fault with himself that he hadn’t arrived in time to see the vehicle. In fact, Standish was a blubbering mess, going on about the damn dog. Chris had to send him away just so he could think.
But even then, even after he’d sent Ezra to debrief Buck and Josiah, he couldn’t form a single coherent thought. Gone. Vanished. His ‘best bud’, and the child he adored. In the hands of a monster.
What would Vin do? Or more importantly, what wouldn’t Vin do? There was no doubt in his mind that Vin would sacrifice himself for the child. Any of them would do the same, but perhaps not so deliberately, so desperately. He should never have allowed Vin to get so close to the boy, but even as he thought that, he knew there was no other way it could have gone. Vin’s and Jonah’s shared experiences bonded them in a way that very few others could even hope to understand. Chris had to acknowledge that even as much as he and Vin cared for each other, understood each other, their pasts were very different.
Or were they? Loss might come in different forms, but it was still loss. As Chris stood in the woods, trying to think how the killer might react, he suddenly realized they’d been going about this the wrong way. They’d found the killer’s face, a name he’d used, and ever since they’d tried to move forward, tried to trace his path from the death of Vin’s mother.
But maybe they needed to look the other way. Maybe they needed to look backwards to understand what the monster planned next. Maybe at one point in his life, their killer was the child under the bed.
Loss was loss . . .
Josiah had started down that path. Had tried to get inside the killer’s mind. But even he had been caught up in what Mason got from Vin, specifically. Where the fixation began and why, and where it would go from here.
Chris quickly moved back to the parking lot where three of his men were clustered.
“Josiah - I’ve been thinking. Isn’t it likely the killer was a victim himself as a child?”
“Yes - yes, of course, that’s certainly a possibility but -”
“But what?” Chris snapped. “What’s taking so long? We’ve got a name and a face, for God’s sake! We should know his life story by now!”
Josiah bit his lip and answered in a quiet, calm tone that only made Chris more frustrated. “It’s not as easy as they show on TV. He’s stolen so many identities over the years - laid a virtual maze for us to get through. Finding out where he came from, where he started, is just not as easy as it sounds.”
Chris took a deep breath. Going off the deep end wouldn’t get Vin and Jonah back. “It’s our only chance. If he’s all about recreating pivotal moments in his life, maybe he’s going back to the beginning. If he’s really trying to end it, as you’ve proposed, Josiah, doesn’t it make sense? Wouldn’t he end it where it started?”
Josiah narrowed his eyes and nodded slowly. “Vin was the first, Jonah the last - so yes, yes, you could have something there, Chris. I could see him using that logic. Take them both to where it all began for him - and end it there.”
End it there . . .
Josiah didn’t say the words, but Chris knew what he meant. They’d all be dead: the killer, Jonah, and Vin.
“Get JD on this,” Chris demanded. To hell with those CSI hot-shots who were supposed to be solving the case - if Vin was one of their own, he bet those guys would be a lot further along. “Josiah, you and Nathan work with him. Put it together, figure it out.” Turning to Buck and Ezra, he added, “You two canvas the neighborhood. Someone had to have seen this guy hanging around the dog park with no dog. Maybe they saw what he drives, too.”
Both men nodded and started off, but Ezra turned back to him. “Chris, I’m - I’m sorry.”
He should have rose to the occasion and let Ezra off the hook, but the image of Vin with his throat slit wouldn’t leave his head long enough for him to form the words. He hoped he managed at least a nod of acceptance, though he couldn’t have sworn to it.
As Buck and Ezra moved on, it occurred to him that he’d given everyone except himself a job to do. He nearly had to tie his hands and feet together to keep from hopping in his truck and driving aimlessly through the city in the desperate hope that his and Vin’s so-called connection would lead him to the pair. The only comfort he could find in the situation was that, as far as they knew, their killer hadn’t killed a child, or even a man, for that matter. Maybe, when push came to shove, he wouldn’t be able to follow through with his plans. After all, he’d spent twenty-five years following Vin, he had to feel something for him.
Then again, it wasn’t uncommon anymore to hear about parents killing their own children. What chance did Vin and Jonah really have with a madman?
And there was another problem - Vin’s recurrent bouts with panic attacks. Just the vague shadow of the monster had sent Vin into near-paralysis. How would Tanner react when faced with the real thing? If that happened, there might only be one person who could get his friend through it - Jonah.
With a sinking heart, Chris reluctantly acknowledged that his best friend’s fate may well rest in the hands of a six-year old boy.
He knew the face. Chris had sat him and Jonah down together to view the mug shot when they got the prints off his phone. The man had aged, but the face was the same.
Jonah had become physically ill when he’d seen the mug shot; had leaned over and thrown up in the wastebasket next to Josiah’s desk. But Vin had felt nothing at all. The face on the screen had nothing in common with the shadows in his mind, save a scar on his cheek. Always, the monster in his mind had scars on his face. So maybe he had seen him at some point - maybe he’d seen more than he remembered. Maybe much more.
It didn’t really matter anymore. Nothing really mattered when Vin headed into the woods and found Jonah kneeling on the ground next to his dog - with the monster right behind him. A second later, the knife was at Jonah’s throat, and Vin would do anything, including throwing his gun to the ground, though his instincts, his training, and his common sense told him to do otherwise. Hell, at that point, he’d have put a bullet in his own head if it would have kept Jonah safe.
He knew it was a mistake to get in the car, knew he was losing his opportunity to act. But the guy - Mason, was it? - had six inches and a hundred pounds on him. And when he said, “I’ve never killed a kid, but I got no problem making him the first,” Vin knew it was true.
They’d been driving for hours now, and the gas gauge was dropping, though not fast enough. Vin had given up on the hope that Ezra had seen the jeep as it pulled out of the wooded area or that the car was stolen. No one had seen, no one knew what to look for. So he kept driving and waiting for his moment. It would come. Mason had to be growing tired, holding the knife so tightly against Jonah’s throat as he barked out directions to Vin. “One slip,” he’d said as they started out, “one wrong turn, and he’s dead. It only takes a second to slit a throat.”
The boy, though, had said nothing at all. Vin had tried hard to catch Jonah’s eye as he drove, but the child sat like a stone, showing no emotion, his eyes vacant and lost - much like the killer who held him so tightly.
But no, there was no comparison, and there never could be, Vin assured himself, though his stomach rolled. Jonah was just in shock, his young innocent friend could never turn into a monster, never.
But the very notion of it wouldn’t leave his head, the thought twisting into something dark and ugly until his hands started to shake on the wheel. Somehow, he’d managed to sit calmly next to his living, breathing nightmare for the last three hours, but it was Jonah’s vacant eyes that broke his heart and stole his breath. Next would come the tunnel vision, the roaring in his ears, the heart palpitations, and he wouldn’t be able to stop it. It was going to happen, it was happening . . . he couldn’t hold on to the wheel, he couldn’t catch his breath . . .
And then, in the nick of time, he felt a soft, gentle touch on his arm, barely there at all. Jonah’s small hand, caressing the skin of his wrist just below the cuff of his jacket, telling him with his touch that it was alright; he was alright. The boy comforting the man, and Vin knew he should lower his head in shame but he was too relieved to care.
As his breath gradually evened out, he turned his eyes towards the pair in the seat next to him. Mason was watching Jonah’s gesture in a trance, though his arm remained tightly around the boy’s neck, the knife impossibly close to the slender throat. He wouldn’t hurt him, though. The longer Vin watched, the more certain he was that the monster wouldn’t hurt the child.
And now that he really looked at that man, he realized Mason was just that - a man. Not a monster, not a shadow in the dark, but a man of flesh who could hurt and bleed.
He had a chance, a chance to end this. To avenge his mother’s death, to ensure Jonah’s future, to make sure that no child ever suffered at the hands of this man again. Clearing his throat, Vin said his first real words since the entire incident had begun, “Let him go. He’s just a kid. And we both know this is between you and me.”
Icy blue eyes met his own. “He is you,” Mason replied.
If he lived through this, Chris would likely ream his butt for provoking the guy, but the surroundings were becoming more desolate and the sun was setting. He had to act now. So he said, “No. He’s not like me at all. He’s older than I was.”
The killer looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head. “He’s six. Like you. Like me.”
Like me? Something clicked then, but Vin didn’t have time to work it out. “Not me,” he pressed. “I was five. You screwed up, man. All these years, you got it wrong.”
The response was predictable. “You’re lying!”
Vin shook his head. “The papers were wrong. My birthday’s in May, a month after - after my mom died. Check my license.”
“No. No. That’s not possible. That would ruin everything! Everything!”
“Ain’t no reason t’ see this through now. Not with Jonah, anyways. Might as well -”
“Shut up!” Mason roared, pushing Jonah to the floor and lunging for Vin.
Vin immediately slammed on the breaks and swerved to the side of the road. He saw the knife coming at him in his peripheral vision, and he threw up an arm to block it. The sting of a glancing blow to his cheek barely registered as he grappled with a man twice his size in the small confines of the front seat. Jonah was somewhere in the mix, too, cowering on the floor with no chance to escape. Vin could only pray the child wasn’t being pummeled by stray feet and limbs.
Vin knew how to fight dirty and he was strong, but it quickly became evident that he was overpowered. When his head smacked painfully against the window of the driver’s side door, he saw stars and heard Chris’ voice in his head, chastising him for taking stupid chances and going against everything he’d been taught. The knife was up against his throat then, Mason’s breath in his nostrils, and the last thing he would see would be the ugly scar on his killer’s cheek - ironically, on the same cheek in roughly the same spot where Vin had just been cut.
Chris would be so pissed when they found him dead.
“No! No!” a small voice screamed, reminding both men they weren’t alone in the car.
Something changed in the killer’s eyes, and before Vin could even register the movement, he felt the blade sink into his side.
“That’ll slow you down,” Mason said. He looked down at Jonah and added, “I’m not gonna hurt you, but you give me any trouble, and I’ll finish off your friend. You understand?”
The game had changed, Vin realized. Now that Mason understood his mistake - now that Vin no longer matched whatever sick incident he’d been trying to recreate - he was expendable. It was all about Jonah now. The killer would use Vin to keep Jonah in line until there was no longer a reason to do so. And then what? What sick plans did he have for Jonah after that?
The very real possibility that Mason would take Jonah with him, turn him into another crazy monster, took away all other thought. And so he was caught completely off guard when Mason was suddenly standing outside the car, jerking on the driver’s side door.
“Get out. We’ll walk the rest of the way,” Mason demanded. He held Jonah by the arm this time, though the knife remained in clear view.
Vin caught Jonah’s wide eyes and nodded his reassurance before moving to comply. The forgotten wound in his side pulled, and he gasped. It would slow him up alright, but probably not flat out kill him. At least, not right away. He’d bleed to death eventually, he figured, noting that he’d left enough of a stain behind in the car to give Chris heart failure.
He stumbled a bit as Mason moved them off the main road into the nearby woods, and Jonah took his hand and squeezed tightly. Just that quick, Vin regained his perspective - Jonah wasn’t going anywhere with their captor. The landscape was quickly becoming more rugged, the hillsides steep and treacherous. If it meant throwing both himself and Mason over a drop-off to free Jonah, that’s what he’d do.
From the very beginning he’d known it might come down to this - sacrificing his life to save Jonah, just as Sargent Miller had done for him. But this time, the killer would be dead, too. The circle complete.
After three hours of nothing, it all came together at once. Buck found a neighbor who had spotted a suspicious man hanging around the dog park in a battered black jeep. The homicide detectives finally tracked their killer back to his original name, and JD discovered that the man’s mother had indeed been murdered when he was also six years old.
The killing had taken place at a cabin near Salida, not more than three or four hours ride to the southwest of Denver. Travis had assured Chris that the appropriate authorities were on it and to stay put, but Larabee wasn’t taking any chances.
And now, as Buck stood outside the abandoned jeep on the desolate country road, he was thinking Chris might have done the right thing in commandeering a helicopter to take them to the site. Peering through the driver’s side window while Chris caught up with the officers on the scene, he shook his head at his grim discovery. “Chris? Come take a look,” he said.
Chris looked irritated at the interruption, but he hurried over to the vehicle.
“Blood,” Buck said flatly, moving aside so Chris could see for himself.
“Driver’s side,” Chris mumbled, “could be Mason’s.”
Buck winced. “Be kind hard for him t’ drive and keep both Vin and Jonah in line, don’t y’ think?”
“I think we don’t know who’s hurt or how bad and right now it doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot.”
Buck knew what Chris was thinking - if Mason wanted Vin or Jonah dead, they’d be lying in that jeep with their throats slit. But that clearly wasn’t what the killer had in mind. No, they would suffer first. Nothing would be clean or easy or quick - and as horrible as that might be for the two victims, at least it gave their rescuers a chance to get to them before it was too late.
“It’s almost dark, we don’t have much time,” Buck muttered without thinking.
“You think I don’t know that?” Chris snapped.
Of course, he knew; Chris had probably begun measuring the seconds of remaining daylight the moment they arrived to an empty jeep with blood on the seat.
At least they knew where they were going, Buck reminded himself. It still wouldn’t be easy, however. The cabin had been deserted for years and was likely overgrown with vegetation. They had a general idea where it was, but if they had any hope of taking Mason before he could harm his captives, they’d have to travel most of the way on foot.
Buck looked around at the surrounding countryside. Mile after mile of rocky ground and thick brush - and they weren’t the only ones traveling by foot. “It wouldn’t take much for a man to get lost out here - especially with a child and an injured -”
“We don’t know Vin’s injured,” Chris quickly cut in. “Could be anyone. Could be nothing but a scratch.”
Buck cleared his throat. “My point is that we’re shootin’ in the dark here, Pard - or we will be in about half an hour. We can’t afford a mistake, so we gotta let the experts take this one. I know you hate it, but Search and Rescue are here, the locals, the FBI . . . you gotta let them do their jobs, Chris.”
“They don’t know Vin like I do.”
Buck pulled his hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “I know that. Pretty much everyone knows that. But you don’t know this area like they do. They know the terrain, the climate, the trail -”
“Shut up, Buck. Let me think.”
Buck wanted to tell his old friend he could think all he liked, but it wouldn’t change the situation. They didn’t know the area, and the trail of blood on the ground was barely visible amongst the leaves and rock. Within less than an hour, even that clue would be impossible to spot. Chris would have no choice but to tag along with a more experienced team and - hopefully - keep his mouth shut.
It turned out that wasn’t a problem. In fact, as they made their way through the brush and pines, Buck became more concerned about Chris’ ominous silence. Powerful forces were coming together in that volatile brain of Larabee’s, and Buck could only pray the man held himself together long enough to see this through.
He’d recognized the guilt in Chris’ eyes the second the call came through from Ezra. Wasn’t his fault - wasn’t anybody’s fault - but Chris always did have trouble putting things like this in their proper perspective. Add that he’d grown too fond of the boy, and the abduction exploded into a gut-wrenching double-punch.
“Hold up!” The command came suddenly, and Buck nearly stumbled against Chris’ back. The order was given by Tim Simmons, a local sheriff who was outranked by practically everyone involved in the search, but he was given authority because he knew the area like the back of his hand.
“We’ll split up here,” Tim said. “Break into teams like we planned. Larabee, you’re with me.”
The men all did as they were told, but Buck hesitated. He and Chris had been delegated to different teams, and he didn’t like it. He felt much more comfortable watching Chris’ back - literally and figuratively.
“Chris!” he called out as they joined their respective groups.
When Chris turned back to face him, he wanted to tell him to keep his head, hold his temper, watch his back. But the expression on his friend’s face was so desolate, all he could manage was a weak, “They’ll be alright.”
Chris nodded and moved on.
“Please let it be true,” Buck prayed. Casting his eyes to the darkening sky, he added, “After twenty-five years, ain’t it time for the good guys to win?”
I don’t wanna die. The realization hit Vin sharp and unexpected as he stumbled through the brush in the waning hours of the evening. Maybe it was the small, soft palm he held in his own calloused hand that prompted the thought. Or maybe it was the incessant hum of Chris’ voice that wouldn’t leave his head - “best bud”. It didn’t change anything, this new-found appreciation for life. It was no secret he would forfeit his chance for another day if the job called for it. Any one of the seven would do the same - Chris even seemed to be asking for it sometimes, a notion that had tied Vin up in knots on too many restless nights.
But now that the time had come, he didn’t want to let go. Mason walked only feet behind him and Jonah. The trail had become steeper, more treacherous. Vin’s strength ebbed with each step, though the pain in his side remained mercifully dull and distant. He wasn’t sure if the graying of his vision was due to the trail of blood he left in his wake or the descending sun. But it all added up to one opportunity that had to be taken soon, now even, if he was to have any hope of ending this at all.
It would be a long fall, and Jonah would see it all. The boy would be lost for a time, but Chris would find him. Vin was as certain of that as he was of his own name. But what could happen to the child in the meantime? The risks were great. Bears, mountain lions, a sudden freeze, or Jonah may fall himself. The image of Jonah hurt and alone caused Vin to loose his footing, and he stumbled to his knees.
Mason yanked him by the arm, pulling him to his feet again. “Get up. We’re almost there,” he said.
Now, do it now.
But Jonah tugged on his hand, forcing Vin to meet his eyes. “Don’t leave me,” the boy whispered.
We’re gonna need a new plan. Chris’ voice again, as clear as if he was standing over Vin’s shoulder, whispering in his ear. It was true - he’d have to find another way to end it.
“I won’t leave you,” Vin promised, though he feared the choice was well be out of his hands.
Vin felt the sharp point of the knife dig into his shoulder blade, a warning to keep quiet, though their captor didn’t speak. It wasn’t until they reached a clearing of sorts, that the man made any sound at all. A strangled grunt left his throat then, as if Mason had been physically struck.
It was more dark than light now, and Vin had to strain to make out the crumbling structure of an old cabin, well-hidden amongst overgrown shrubbery and trees. He turned to face his captor, and even in the shadows, he could make out the pain etched on the man’s face.
It had happened here. Whatever terrible event that led to years of murder and heartache for so many, had begun right here, Vin thought.
And it would end here.
Mason gripped Jonah’s shoulders and pushed him forward, breaking the boy’s hold on Vin. “Go on,” he ordered, “get inside.”
For the first time, Jonah’s eyes filled with tears as he looked back at Vin.
“Do as he says,” Vin told the child, his voice as steady as his racing heart would allow.
But Jonah stood fast with a glare of defiance even Larabee would admire. “No. I’m not leaving Vin.”
Mason raised his fist, and for one terrible moment, Vin was sure he would hit the child. But instead of striking out, the monster reached down to gently stroke Jonah’s hair. “Alright,” he said. “We’ll all go inside. Better for it to happen there - where you can see.”
It was clear that Jonah didn’t understand the implication, but Vin did. Mason planned to kill him in front of the boy. He couldn’t let that happen, but a wave of dizziness nearly brought him to his knees again. Pressing his hand to his side, he felt the sticky wetness of his still-oozing wound. What chance did he have? He was going to die - and Jonah would never recover.
Once again, he heard Chris speak to him - I ain’t gonna let that happen. “Good God, Larabee,” Vin mumbled, “I need you here, not in my head.”
“He’s comin’. I know he is,” Jonah whispered with the absolute faith of a child.
Vin knew it, too, but the question was - would he get there in time?
Moments later, Vin and Jonah sat huddled together in the corner of the cabin, awaiting their fate. In spite of the deplorable conditions, Mason managed to get a fire going in the old stone fireplace. Vin was grateful for the heat; Jonah wouldn’t freeze at least. And although the light from the fire threw odd shadows on the wall, it seemed to comfort the child.
In fact, Jonah had remained calm and eerily quiet - until he noted the blood staining Vin’s clothes. The boy’s eyes were wide when his trembling hand brushed against Vin’s side. “You’re bleeding bad,” he said softly.
“It’s alright. It’s not that bad.”
Jonah shook his head. “I know what it means. You’re gonna die.”
For Jonah’s sake, Vin could only pray he wasn’t lying when he replied, “No, I’ll be okay.”
“Is Clifford dead?”
The question caught Vin off-guard, though it shouldn’t have. “I don’t know. Maybe. I think so. I’m sorry, Jonah. But we’ll get you another dog when we get home.”
“I don’t want another dog.”
“And I don’t want another mom and I don’t want another house and I don’t want you! I don’t care if you die!”
Mason suddenly appeared, standing over them with the long blade gleaming gold in the firelight. “Soon, my boy, soon.”
Vin gripped Jonah’s hand as he sat up straight and demanded, “And then what? What will you do with him? Turn him into a monster like you? Is that what you want?”
“What I want,” Mason growled as he pulled Vin up by the neck and slammed him against the wall, “is to feel again. The first and last time I felt anything at all was that night, in your mother’s bedroom. Do you remember? Did you feel it, too?”
The monster’s hot breath stung his nostrils and Vin gagged. “No. No.”
“I don’t believe you. You saw just like I did. Like he did,” Mason said, tipping his head at Jonah. “He took my mother right here, in this room, and I have held each moment close, played them out again and again - though none were as perfect as that night with you and your mother.”
Vin’s stomach rolled and he wanted to vomit, but the monster’s hands remained around his throat, and he could barely pull in a breath.
“Tell me,” Mason snarled, “tell me what you saw that night - tell me how you felt. Tell me how you’ve made it through every pitiful day since.”
But Vin couldn’t speak as Mason’s hands tightened around his throat. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes, and he could barely make out Jonah’s voice from the roaring in his ears. “I didn’t mean it!” the boy cried. “Don’t die, Vin! Please don’t die!”
Or was that voice his own? It was so dark and cold, there on the floor beneath his mother’s bed. The headboard snapped against the wall and the old rusty mattress frame squealed and rocked above him as she fought the monster, as she begged for her life. “Please don’t die, please don’t die,” he’d whispered in his cocoon. One last valiant struggle, one final scream, and then it was silent, until . . .
“Did you like it? Do you want to see?”
Mason’s face, twisted and scarred, silhouetted in the small space between the bed and the floor.
Had he looked? Had he seen? Maybe - but as Vin’s mind returned to the present, Mason apparently grew impatient with him. The monster gripped his throat tighter, and through his blurred vision, Vin easily made out the shiny blade of the knife hovering inches from his throat. Instinct or simple desperation kicked in, and he fought back with all his might.
Vin was overpowered. He barely felt the impact when Mason flung him against the wall. And finally, mercifully, he felt nothing at all.
“We’ve got to go in now!” Chris whispered hoarsely, not caring that his desperation was easily detectable.
They’d all heard Mason howl in rage, and now Jonah’s cries cut through the darkness and tore at Chris’ soul. He didn’t know what was happening, but he knew that seconds more might be too late for Jonah. For Vin.
He refused to believe that they were already too late for Vin.
There was no argument. The command was given, and the team converged on the small cabin. It took seconds only, but how long did it take to slit a throat? If Mason heard, if he knew, he could kill his captives in a flash.
There was something so very wrong with that, Chris thought - not for the first time - that a vital, necessary, irreplaceable life could end so quickly, so unquestionably, so finally. It was just wrong.
He’d promised the team leader he’d stay behind - let them do their jobs. “You know you’re way too close to this one to go inside, Larabee,” the man had said. Chris couldn’t even remember his name, let alone his title. He’d placed Vin’s life in the hands of an unknown, mostly because Buck had been pushing at him, fraying his already thread-bare nerves.
He’d promised, but he had no intention of keeping that promise. Vin was his man - his friend - and he’d do what he had to do, by God.
Or would he? He found himself strangely rooted when that call was finally made to storm the structure. The men were stealthy and nearly invisible in the night, and Chris could easily have followed, but something held him back. An image flashed through his mind: Jonah’s mother with her lifeless limbs and unseeing eyes . . . her blood soaking the sheets and spattered on the bedside dresser, the floor, the walls. Dear God, he couldn’t bear it - he could not see Vin like that.
But before he could even fully process that thought, Mason stormed out of the cabin. He held Jonah in front of him with the knife pressed against the boy’s throat. A sudden beam of light hit the madman in the eye, and he flinched and backed up, but still managed to keep the boy tight against him.
Chris heard the team leader call out, telling Mason to let the boy go, but he couldn’t catch hold of anything other than the surety that Vin was dead - had to be dead or he’d be there, crawling out the door if that’s what it took to keep Jonah alive. But there was no sound from the cabin, no sign of movement, no sign of life.
It was over in seconds. A shot rang out and Mason went down. For one wonderful moment, Chris thought Vin had made that shot, had to have been Vin, to be so precise and so sure in the dark of the night with a small child as a shield.
He heard someone say as he moved forward on wooden legs, “Great shot, Tom. Too bad you couldn’t have done that last week when that buck was standing right in front of you.”
A chuff of a laugh, “You’re never gonna let me forget that, are you, Tim?”
Shut up! Chris wanted to shout. It was normal after a tough situation to ease the tension through banter - his team had done the same a thousand times. But he didn’t want to hear another word or another sound until he knew for certain that Jonah was alright and that Vin was alive.
Another man, a paramedic maybe, rushed towards the boy, though he stayed at arm’s length when Jonah remained stiff and silent. Even when Chris approached him, his heart in his throat, the child didn’t bat an eyelash. Jonah’s eyes were dark and empty.
“Jonah?” Chris called out softly, cautiously.
Finally the boy turned towards him, but still he didn’t speak or move.
Chris was torn. He wanted to rush inside, to know. But Jonah needed him, Vin would want it no other way. So Chris stooped low and said again, “Jonah? Are you hurt?”
Jonah shook his head.
Chris gently eased the child into his arms. “It’s alright. It’s over. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
It wasn’t true, of course. The man was dead, his reign of terror ended, but the nightmares would plague his victims for the rest of their lives. And if Vin . . .
“Need some help in here!” someone hollered from the cabin.
For the first time in what felt like hours, Chris took a breath. There would be no need for help if Vin was dead. He rose to his feet, Jonah still wrapped in his arms, and headed for the door to the cabin.
The medic stopped him. “Give the boy to me. I need to check him out.”
But Jonah shook his head vigorously and buried his face in Chris’ neck. Chris swallowed and held on a little tighter. “No. He needs to be with me right now.”
He took another step towards the cabin then, but a man inside stopped him. “You’re not comin’ in here with him. That poor kid’s been through enough - he don’t need to see this.”
Chris’ stomach dropped. “See what? I thought - I thought Vin was - was - is he alright?”
“He’s alive, but he’s -”
“Chris? Is Jonah okay? And Vin?”
Buck had come from behind the cabin, along with what seemed to be a dozen more men. The area was suddenly flooded with light and commotion. Chris turned his eyes just enough to make out Mason’s shattered brains on the ground near his feet, and he pushed Jonah’s head deeper against his neck. The officer was right - the boy had already seen far too much.
“Vin,” Chris choked, “I don’t know . . .”
Buck nodded and dashed inside.
“Mr. Larabee? I really need to check out the boy,” the man beside him said again.
Of course he did, but Jonah’s legs were wrapped so tightly around Chris’ waist, it would take a pry bar to work him loose. “Give him some time, okay?”
That time turned out to be an hour later when Jonah, still entombed in Chris’ arms, finally fell asleep. They were on a life flight to Denver by then, and as the boy finally relaxed in his arms, Chris gently turned the small body so the medics on board could at least do a cursory examination.
He seemed fine, they said, their voices barely audible in the thrum of the helicopter blades. Chris nodded, relieved, though not surprised. It was Vin he was most worried about, and it tore him up that he couldn’t be with his friend now. They’d loaded Vin up on a different chopper and taken off before Chris had even made it to the loading site with Jonah. He knew from what Buck told him that Vin really was alive, though he was unconscious and bleeding from wounds to his side and his head. There was a lot of blood, Buck had said, but his throat wasn’t cut. Chris had gone weak in the knees on hearing it. A cut to the side was survivable, unlike -
Chris stopped his line of thinking right there. He put the image of Jonah’s poor mother out of his mind. That could have been Vin - but it wasn’t. Thank God, it wasn’t.
And now it was time to focus on healing. But as he looked down at the battered but still so beautiful boy in his arms, he realized that would be so much easier said than done. Vin loved the boy. And now, especially now, he’d have no choice but to let him go.
Josiah knew that he would never comprehend how someone could be more merciful to an animal than to a human being, but for Jonah’s sake, he was grateful that Clifford had been spared. Mason had merely sedated the dog with a piece of tainted meat. The golden retriever - obviously older and wiser - had evidently sniffed out the offending chemical, but Clifford had not.
“Well, we all learn the hard way,” Josiah said, patting the dog affectionately on the head. “I bet you won’t make that mistake again, my friend.”
Clifford responded with a well-placed sloppy kiss just as the doorbell rang. Josiah was still wiping his hand across his mouth when he opened the door to Ezra.
Ezra had barely cleared the doorway when he asked anxiously, “Well? How is he?”
Josiah wasn’t sure if he meant Vin or Jonah, but he went with the most obvious. “Still unconscious, but -”
“Not Vin,” Ezra snapped. “I’ve already talked with Nathan. I’m talking about Clifford. Dr. Sanders said his appetite might be affected. Has he eaten for you?”
Josiah frowned. “Dr. Sanders?”
“The vet! For crying out loud, Josiah, I told you all of this. Did you pay no attention to the instructions I gave you?”
Josiah’s mouth twitched, but Ezra was too busy staring at the dog to notice. “He’s fine,” Josiah said. “And you can touch him, you know.”
Ezra blushed. “That’s not necessary. I just - the dog is - I was merely concerned that - oh, never mind. Shall we go?”
“We shall,” Josiah replied, no longer bothering to hide his smile. But as he headed for the door, a sudden thought struck him. “Hold on, Ezra,” he said as he reached for the leash.
“You don’t seriously think you can get that dog into the hospital?” Ezra scoffed.
“Nope. But I seriously think you can.”
The dog was exactly what the boy needed; Josiah’s only regret was that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. It had been a little over a day since Jonah and Vin had been rescued, and though the boy was fine physically, he’d yet to say a single word. Even Chris couldn’t coax a syllable from the lad.
An hour later, Josiah sat in silence at Jonah’s bedside. Buck had gone to check on Chris - who by all accounts had worn a path between the intensive care and pediatric units. Jonah didn’t look at him, let alone speak. He was about to go find out what the hell had happened to Ezra when the man entered the room, carrying the frisky pup.
“How’d you get him in?” Josiah asked with a broad grin.
“I have my ways,” Ezra replied smugly.
There was a story there, but it could wait. Josiah took Clifford from Ezra and moved to the bed.
Jonah turned his head and blinked. “Clifford?” he asked, his voice trembling.
“That’s right,” Josiah said softly.
Jonah finally met his eyes. “He’s not dead?”
Josiah sat the dog on the bed. “Nope. He’s just fine.”
Clifford made quick work of cleaning Jonah’s face, while the boy wrapped his arms around the dog and clung for dear life. Like all good dogs, Clifford knew immediately what his master needed, and he curled into the boy’s arms and lay contentedly. After a few moments, Jonah whispered, “Vin was wrong. He was wrong about a lot of stuff.”
Josiah turned to Ezra, who read his mind. “I think I’ll see if I can find Buck,” Standish said as he headed out the door.
“You wanna talk about Vin, Jonah?” Josiah asked, keeping his voice soft and low.
Jonah narrowed his eyes. “He promised me.”
“I know he did.”
“He said the man wouldn’t hurt me.”
“He tried very hard to protect you - you know that don’t you?”
Jonah looked away. “He said he wouldn’t leave me.”
“Vin didn’t -” Josiah stopped there as a sudden realization hit him: Jonah believed Vin was dead.
Josiah knew that the boy had been told that Vin was alive, just as he’d been told his dog would be waiting for him. But he didn’t believe them - and why should he? Hadn’t they told him from the start that he was safe? That the demon who killed his mother would not return for him?
Slipping into the hall, Josiah quickly snagged a pint-sized wheel chair. When he returned to the room, Jonah looked at him strangely.
“We’re gonna take a little ride,” Josiah whispered conspiratorially. “But Clifford has to be our secret. You think you can hold him on your lap and hide him with a blanket?”
The boy was clearly puzzled, but he nodded and climbed into the chair with the pup in his arms. Josiah wasn’t sure he could pull this off, but he had to try. The suspicious lump on the child’s lap held amazingly still, but Jonah was just too small to sufficiently camouflage the pet. Fortunately, the seven had inundated their young charge with a menagerie of stuffed animals, which Josiah placed strategically in the chair.
“There,” he said. “As long as Clifford keeps quiet, we should be good.”
“Where we goin’?” Jonah asked with a spark of interest that gave Josiah’s heart a sorely needed lift.
He didn’t know what he was thinking, really; they’d never allow a child in to see Vin - with or without a dog smuggled on his lap. But somehow he had to get the message across to Jonah that Vin was still with them, still fighting.
Though the last was a bit questionable. The head injury was serious enough to warrant concern, but didn’t explain why Vin had yet to regain consciousness. Josiah suspected brother Vin was just hiding out, healing up in his own way in his own time. The man had enough to process to stay inside his own mind for a good month, at least. But with Chris hard-lining worry straight to his ulcer and Jonah needing him, surely Vin would come around any time now.
He made it halfway down the hall when a nurse called out to him. Josiah tossed over his shoulder that they were going for a ride and kept on going. At the elevators, they came upon an unexpected godsend - JD.
“Hey - where you guys goin’?” JD asked.
Clifford whined in response, and Josiah made a quick decision.
“We’ll be right back for Clifford, Jonah,” he said as he handed the now wriggling blanketed bundle to JD.
“What? What’s he doin’ here? Josiah?”
“Take care of him for me - we’re gonna see Vin,” Josiah replied. He pushed the wheelchair into the elevator just as a nurse came around the corner.
“You can’t have a dog up here!” she hollered.
As the doors closed, Josiah heard JD stutter, “I didn’t - he - the dog isn’t - Josiah!”
Josiah chuckled as he and Jonah rode the elevator, but his good humor was short-lived. The moment the doors opened, he saw Chris, Nathan, Buck and Ezra standing in the hall, talking with Vin’s doctor. Their expressions said it all, and his stomach fell. Had he made a mistake bringing Jonah here?
Chris obviously thought so, because his gaze pinned Josiah where he stood from thirty feet away.
“Chris is sad,” Jonah said in a low voice. “Vin was his best bud.”
“Still is,” Josiah mumbled.
He paused a moment, but in the end, he decided that whatever was going on with Vin, Jonah deserved to know; he’d been a part of this from the beginning. By the time he reached his friends, the doctor had headed off in the opposite direction.
“Josiah? Who gave you permission to bring Jonah here?” In spite of trademark glare, Chris sounded more weary than angry.
“No one. I just thought -”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” a nurse interrupted, “but children aren’t - oh wait - is that Jonah?”
Everyone knew, of course. The horrible story had led the news ever since Vin and Jonah had been found. Josiah nodded.
The nurse bit her lip. “Okay,” she said finally, “maybe it will work.”
Josiah cocked a brow. “What’s she talking about?”
Chris looked away so Nathan answered. “Vin’s not comin’ around like he should.”
Josiah immediately put two and two together - the nurse thought Jonah could bring Vin out of his current state of unresponsiveness. That kind of thing only happened in movies, Josiah thought - and not very good movies at that. But before he could even bring it up for discussion, Jonah had slipped from the chair and softly padded into the room where Vin lay.
“Is he dead?” Jonah asked to no one in particular.
Chris had immediately followed the boy inside the room, and he was first to respond. “No. I promise you he’s not dead.”
“Don’t wanna hear any more promises,” the boy mumbled. But he said nothing more as he moved to the bedside.
Josiah moved to stand behind Chris, and he felt rather than heard Ezra, Buck and Nathan follow suit. He felt bad then that he’d left JD behind with the dog; seemed like they all should be there for whatever event was about to occur.
Jonah reached out and put his small hand over Vin’s. “He’s tired,” he said. “He don’t sleep very good. He has bad dreams.”
It was as simple and as complex as that, Josiah thought. He’s tired . . . he has bad dreams.
Jonah focused on Vin for a few minutes, then abruptly turned away. “Can I go see Clifford now?”
Chris had obviously hoped for the fairy tale ending because he was visibly disappointed when the brief encounter ended with no change in Vin’s condition. But he hid it well when he faced the child and said, “Sure. Buck, will you take him back?”
“I’ll do it,” Ezra offered. He huffed as he passed by Josiah, “Honestly, Josiah - you left the dog in the care of JD? What were you thinking?”
“I’ll go, too,” Josiah said, ignoring the dig. But he paused long enough to grip Chris’ shoulder and speak in his ear. “He’ll be okay. Jonah’s right - he’s tired.”
Chris nodded but remained silent, his gaze now fixed on his friend in the bed.
While Vin slept on, Jonah returned to his room with Josiah and Ezra. The boy ate the happy meal JD had brought with him, and it was good enough - Jonah had turned a corner, the child psychiatrist declared. Later that afternoon, Jonah was discharged to his temporary home with the Schaffers.
It was near midnight when Josiah got the call. Vin was awake. Chris’ message was short and puzzling: Vin knew who he was and where he was, but he didn’t ask how he’d been found, what had happened to Mason - or anything at all about Jonah.
He’s letting go, Josiah thought. And it was incredibly unfair. Vin’s foundation had been shaken to its roots, and only the love of a child had seen him through. But no longer - Jonah’s only chance was to start fresh, far away from dark, deadly memories and the man who shared those terrible experiences; far away from the man who loved him.
She seemed nice enough, Chris thought. Jonah had stood next to him during the entire visit, silent and still. It was only after his mother’s distant cousin left the Schaffer home that Jonah turned to Chris with disinterest. “Am I going to live with her now?”
“Would you like that?” Chris asked, feeling totally out of his element. Troubled kids weren’t exactly his forte. And considering how he felt about Jonah - not to mention Vin - he figured he was the last person who should be there. But Jonah refused to see the woman without Chris, so there was no choice in the matter.
Jonah scooped Clifford in his arms and headed for his bedroom, pointedly ignoring the question.
Nancy Schaffer looked at Chris with something far too close to pity. “He misses Vin,” she said. “Even if he hasn’t said the words. Maybe . . .”
Chris shook his head. “Vin’s not in any shape to deal with Jonah yet.”
“Physically? Or emotionally?”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Chris moved towards the door, muttering, “Take your pick.”
It should be over, he told himself as he opened his car door and slid inside. The bad guy was dead and gone. Vin was about to be discharged from the hospital with nothing more permanent than a scar on his side and a smaller, matching version on his cheek. Jonah was not only safe, he had a decent shot at a very good home - with family, no less - thanks to Ezra.
It should be over - so why did it feel like it was just beginning? He thought back to that evening when Vin finally awoke. Maybe it was because Vin was becoming more restless, or maybe it really was that sixth sense they shared, but Chris found himself standing mere inches from Vin’s face when he finally opened his eyes. Vin’s first word was, “Chris?” - and Chris knew then that his friend would be fine. Eventually.
“What do you remember?” he’d asked hesitantly, half afraid to know the answer.
Vin’s voice was raw when he replied softly, “All of it.”
After that, there was a blur of doctors and nurses poking and prodding, but through it all, Vin never asked about Mason or Jonah. Another hour passed before Chris finally got him alone and he blurted it out in a rush: “Mason’s dead. Jonah’s fine.”
Since that night, Vin had never asked. He knew about Jonah only because Chris had given him a daily update: Jonah’s home. Jonah took Clifford for a walk. Jonah smiled today. Jonah has family . . .
Jonah has family. Chris would never forget the look on Vin’s face when he told him, and at the moment, he thought he might just have to shoot Ezra. But the moment was brief; Vin pushed whatever he was feeling back deep inside and said nothing.
That was three days ago, and since that time, Vin had made a slow, but unremarkable recovery. He was being discharged with far more consideration to his mental well-being than his physical status. Adding to Chris’ worry was the fact that Vin didn’t even try to object to the psychological referrals and appointments he’d be forced to endure.
The man in question was sitting on the edge of the bed when Chris arrived at his hospital room. Vin was fully dressed for the first time in a week, and if Chris squinted and turned his head just right, he could almost believe that his friend was normal. Whole.
“You ready to go, Pard?” Chris kept his voice deceptively light, though he didn’t much like the pallor of Vin’s face or the slump of his shoulders. Normally, Tanner would be bouncing on his heels, ready to blow the hospital scene regardless of any lingering pain or fever.
But Vin didn’t get up or even look up when he replied, “Yeah.”
“You got your walking papers?”
Vin said again, “Yeah. “ But he still didn’t move.
Chris was running out of questions, and he couldn’t get a read on what was going on with his friend at the moment, so he held his tongue and waited.
Long minutes passed before Vin raised his eyes and spoke again. “Did you like her?”
Biting his lip, Chris considered his answer. What did Vin really want to hear? That the woman was horrible and there was no way Jonah would be leaving with her? Or that she was wonderful, and that Jonah had a chance for the family that Vin never had? But he quickly decided to give Vin what he needed to hear - the truth. “Yes, I did. She had kind eyes. And she didn’t push him.”
Vin nodded. “So when?”
“I have no idea. I’m not sure it’s settled yet.” Leaving the door open, in case Vin still wanted a shot.
But if that was what Vin had in mind, he didn’t say. Instead, he pulled himself to his feet, what little color remaining in his face bleaching out at the action. Chris instinctively reached out and gripped his arm to steady him, and he was almost disappointed when Vin didn’t even try to pull away or shrug him off.
“It’s time for me t’ see him,” Vin said then, his voice paper-thin.
“Wait ‘til you’re stronger. He’s not going anywhere.” Yet, Chris added in his mind.
Vin dipped his head. “Put it off long enough. Time for us both t’ face up.”
It was an interesting choice of words, but Chris chose not to dig any deeper. If Vin was ready, he’d go with it, get it done. It was at that moment that it hit him: he wanted Jonah to go. He cared for the boy, but wrong or right, he cared for Vin more. And he was certain the only way to get his best bud back, was for Jonah to be out of sight - and out of mind.
He was good at building walls. A master brick-layer. Of course, Chris was pretty good at blasting right on through, but Vin figured if he kept his mouth shut and his eyes averted, he’d be safe. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Chris - he did. With his very life. But until he figured out how to slow down the roller coaster in his head, he wasn’t letting anyone else - even Chris - on for the ride.
He’d get through it. No doubt about that. Everything he thought he knew and understood about his past had changed, and yet, in the end, nothing in the present had really changed at all. His job, his friends, his home - everything that made up his everyday life was exactly as it had been.
Except for Jonah. The boy was a new addition, and he’d managed to stir up all kinds of feelings Vin never even knew he was capable of having. It seemed ridiculous now that he’d ever thought he could keep Jonah - adopt him, raise him, love him. No, Jonah should get as far away from him as possible - and the sooner, the better.
“You sure you’re ready for this?”
The question took Vin by surprise, and he pulled his head up to see how far he and Chris had traveled. To his dismay, they had already pulled up to the curb in front of the Schaffer house. Vin shook his head, but the fuzzy feeling didn’t pass. Between the persistent headache and low-grade fever, his confusion was probably understandable, but it didn’t make him hate it any less. Better for him to be on top of his game for this little charade, but it couldn’t be helped. Jonah needed closure. Soon. Now.
He answered Chris’ question by opening the car door and stepping onto the sidewalk. His side pulled, but he ignored the twinge. He was damn lucky to be alive and he knew it. It was no thanks to him that he and Jonah had survived to have this forthcoming conversation. No thanks to Chris, either, to hear him tell it. Vin knew better; knew it was his “best bud’s” relentless prodding that led to the revelation of Mason’s past and, ultimately, to the cabin.
He and Chris were half-way up the sidewalk when the front door of the small ranch house swung open. Jonah stood behind the screen door, his form obvious, but his expression hidden by the screen. Vin’s heart sped up and his tongue seemed to swell to twice its normal size.
Fortunately, Chris didn’t have that problem. “Hey, Jonah,” he said, “look who I found!”
Jonah pushed against the door slowly, deliberately, like he couldn’t decide what his next action should be.
Vin stood and waited, uncertain himself, until Jonah met his eyes. And just that quick, he was on his knees and Jonah was in his arms. He wasn’t even sure which of them had moved or if they both had. He knew he was crying, blubbering like an idiot on the sidewalk. It was all he could do not to break down in great gut-wrenching sobs. Chris’ hand was on his shoulder, and he was pretty certain that point of contact was the only thing holding him together.
It was so unfair. All of it.
He’d told Chris the truth that night when he first woke up - he did remember all of it. Every horrible moment spent in the monster’s presence, including that very first night, twenty-five years ago. All of it. And Jonah would remember, too. If nothing else, if he could do nothing else for this child, Vin would make sure that Jonah wouldn’t have to look at him and be reminded of it every day; that he’d have a new life.
“Don’t cry, Vin. It’s okay.”
Jonah’s small voice brought him to his senses, and he quickly wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I know,” he choked. “I’m fine. Just happy t’ see you is all.”
“Come on. Let’s go inside,” Chris said, gripping Vin by the elbow. His voice shook a little, and Vin broke his own vow to look his friend in the eye. Larabee looked purely miserable, and Vin knew then that he was wrong. His life had changed - as had the lives of everyone who cared about him. This wasn’t something any of them could tie up in a box and walk away from.
Clifford greeted Vin the moment he entered the house, and he had to wipe away another tear. He’d thought for sure the dog was dead. The little pup wagged his tail excitedly while he licked Vin’s hand.
“Clifford missed you,” Jonah breathed.
Scratching behind the dog’s ears, Vin whispered in return, “I missed him, too.”
There was an awkward silence until Nancy Schaffer announced that she was fixing hot cocoa for everyone. Chris looked like he couldn’t decide whether to stay or go, so Vin made the choice for him. “Have a seat, Larabee,” he said.
Chris took the chair by the window, so Vin took the couch and tried not to groan when he sat down. Everything ached, but he suspected that had more to do with his ruptured heart than his health in general.
Jonah sat next to him and pulled Clifford on his lap. Vin had thought for days about what to say, but he couldn’t form a single word. But once again, he was rescued when Jonah offered, “A lady came to see me. She wants me t’ go live with her.”
Vin swallowed and looked at Chris, but his friend kept his gaze focused on the window - staying out of it, giving Vin and Jonah the space he thought they needed.
“What do you want?” Vin finally asked, dreading the answer.
Jonah tugged gently on Clifford’s ear and replied in a low voice, “I wanna forget. I don’t wanna think about him anymore.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Jonah met his eyes, then dipped his head to kiss his puppy on the nose. Clifford returned the affection, and Jonah sighed. “She has a big yard with a fence for Clifford. He’d like that.”
“He would,” Vin agreed.
“You’d come see me, right?”
“Every chance I got,” Vin lied.
And Jonah called him on it. “I told you it was a sin to lie, Vin,” he said softly.
Chris turned his head abruptly at that, apparently surprised at the boy’s insight.
But Vin knew he couldn’t fool the six-year old. “Gonna be harder for you to forget when you see me, Pard. But I told you I’d never leave you, and I meant it. That’s not a lie. If you ever need me - ever - I will be there.” He pulled the boy close and whispered in his ear, “I would do anything for you, Jonah. Anything. And that will never change.”
Jonah looked him steadily in the eye before hugging Vin’s neck and murmuring, “I love you, Vin.”
Somehow, the words slipped past the swelling in Vin’s throat. “I love you, too.”
On cue, Nancy Schaffer returned with a tray loaded down with mugs of hot cocoa and cookies. Vin couldn’t swallow a single bite, and he noticed that Chris didn’t do much better, but Jonah did just fine.
This was what he wanted, right? For Jonah to move on?
Still, his heart weighed him down so far, he couldn’t even get to his feet when Chris called an end to the visit. He was suddenly so tired. Thank goodness Chris caught on; he hooked Vin by the elbow and pulled him up, then led him to the door.
Jonah gave Chris a high-five slap of his palm and said, “See ya, Chris!” before turning to Vin and wrapping his arms around his waist.
Vin thought he might have tussled the boy’s hair, might even have told him good-bye, but everything felt numb and far away. He was back in Chris’ truck by the time his wits came back, and he chanced a glance at the door. Jonah stood there, behind the screen, with Clifford in his arms. He raised his hand and waved, then turned away.
Vin knew he would never see him again.
“Vin -” Chris started as he turned the key in the ignition.
But Vin cut him off. “I can’t go back there. I can’t.” Tears filled his eyes again, but Chris didn’t call him on it.
Instead, his friend just replied softly, “I know.”
Vin leaned his head back and closed his eyes. It was over. Nothing left to do now except go on living. And maybe, someday, that would be enough.
Jonah knew he wasn’t supposed to get into the drawer with the big knives. His new mom had warned him about that when she caught him looking once. “Don’t touch those,” she’d said. “You could hurt yourself.”
You could be dead, Jonah wanted to say. But he didn’t.
She wasn’t there now, though - she was busy giving his new baby brother a bath. She wouldn’t know.
Jonah picked up the long knife with the narrow blade and held it up in the ray of sunlight that streamed through the kitchen window. It glowed. He liked it.
He saw his reflection in the dining room mirror as he stood there, holding the knife. There was something wrong, though - something missing.
It hurt, but not bad, when he made the cut on his cheek. Now he’d match Vin. Now he’d match *him*. The blood on the knife was red and shiny. It sparkled in the light.
And he liked it . . .
“Vin? Vin! Wake up!”
Vin woke with a start - nearly banging his head against Josiah’s when he suddenly sat up. “What? What happened?”
Josiah’s voice was light, but Vin could easily read the concern in his eyes. “You fell asleep on the couch. Seemed like you were having a nightmare, so I woke you.”
Vin pulled a hand across his face. “Yeah. A nightmare.” But it seemed so real . . .
“Chris says the steaks are about ready - think you could eat?”
With a nod, Vin pulled himself to his feet. “Just gonna wash up.”
“Okay. Sure you’re alright?”
Nodding again, Vin made his way in a fog to the bathroom. It was only after he’d splashed some cold water on his face that he felt like he was well and truly awake. He caught his reflection in the mirror, automatically zooming in on the scar on his cheek. It was barely noticeable, according to his friends. Minor surgery to make it go away completely, Nathan had informed him. But some sick part of him wanted the reminder of who he might have become - and how dangerous anger and bitterness could make a man.
Or a boy . . .
Just a dream, he reminded himself as he made his way out to the deck. The guys were all there; Buck and JD throwing a ball in the yard, Nathan and Chris arguing about the proper way to cook a steak, and Ezra and Josiah deep in discussion while finishing off a bottle of wine.
Chris frowned at him for a minute before handing the tongs to Nathan and walking towards him. “You okay? You look - troubled.”
Vin shrugged. “Bad dream.”
“Well, maybe this will help. It came for you today.” Chris picked up the envelope on the table and handed it to Vin.
It was a letter from Jonah. He and Vin had been exchanging letters - the old fashioned kind -every week or so for the last two months. But they were getting fewer and farther between, and Vin knew it was only a matter of time before they stopped altogether.
This time, there was a picture enclosed: Jonah and Clifford, sitting on the patio of their new home.
Buck and JD bounded up on the deck about that time, and all of the men gathered around to view the picture.
“Aw, he looks good, don’t he?” Buck said with a wistful smile. “Sure do miss that kid.”
“I bet you do, Buck,” JD teased. “Wasn’t he about the last date you had?”
“I keep telling you - it’s just a dry spell!” Buck accentuated his comment with a playful swat to JD’s head.
“Clifford looks quite healthy,” Ezra noted.
“And happy,” Josiah agreed. “By the way, Ezra, you never did tell us how you smuggled the dog into the hospital that day.”
“Well,” Ezra began, “suffice it to say that I used something none of the rest of you possess.”
“Money?” Nathan asked, far too seriously.
With a roll of his eyes, Ezra responded, “I was referring to charm. You gentleman lack the skills of tact and diplomacy, and you wouldn’t understand subtlety if it bit you in the buttocks.”
Buck didn’t buy it. “Yeah, uh-huh. How much did it cost you, Ezra?”
Vin had no idea what they were talking about, and he didn’t care. Was there something wrong with that picture? Something about Jonah’s eyes . . .
“Vin?” Chris came up behind him and put his hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“He look alright to you, Chris? I mean - really look at him.”
Chris took the snapshot in his hands. “He looks fine. Happy. And everyone tells us that’s so. Why?”
“Nothin’,” Vin replied with a shake of his head. “It’s nothin’.”
“The nightmare’s over, Vin,” Chris said. “Jonah’s got a happy ending. And for the first time in your life, you’ve got a chance for that, too. There are no more monsters waiting for you.”
Chris was right. The only monster he needed to vanquish was the one in his mind.
Taking the picture from Chris’ hand, Vin made his way to the kitchen and clipped the snapshot with a magnet to the refrigerator door. Every time he came to this kitchen, he’d see Jonah and Clifford, and he’d remember that in the midst of tragedy, he’d found something precious. He rubbed his thumb over the small face of the child and took a breath, then turned around and headed back outside in search of six friends - and one happy ending.
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