by Laurel

Character Focus: All

Language: A little cussing

Summary: Suspend your disbelief and remember, our boys are connected.

Remember, I own nothing, my cat and my dog have officially taken over ownership of me.

Chapter 1:
The sun was just beginning to rise over Purgatorio as Vin ran through the streets. Purgatorio, known for its late nights and later mornings was quiet as the dawn sky slowly lightened to day. Judging by the color of the clouds and the subtle pinkish gray hues there was a storm coming. Fall brought an abundance of change in the weather; cool autumn nights gave way to dry hot days, hint of frost tinged the nearby mountains while the valleys filled with fog from the overnight dew.

No matter the temperature, dew point or barometric pressure Vin loved to run in the early morning hours. The streets were quiet, too early for the kids to yet be out, especially since it was Saturday and they didn't have to catch school buses. Most of the people that enjoyed, or at least specialized prowling the streets at night were already back in their homes or places of business or wherever and for just this short period of time, Vin had the streets seemingly all to himself.

This was an unusual weekend for Vin, normally he would head out to Chris' ranch to do some work at the ranch, ride Peso and enjoy the tranquility of the quiet Colorado mountain air. This weekend, however, he planned to stay in Purgatorio. His jeep was long overdue for an oil change, new plugs and the tires needed to be rotated and his motorcycle similarly was in need of a tune up. Vin intended to complete both those tasks this weekend and had already picked up the necessary items to complete them.

Chris had reminded him as they parted company on Friday, if he needed any help, to give him a holler or, if he got done early and felt like hanging out at the ranch, to come on up, no need to call ahead.

Vin had thanked him and told him one never knew what would happen and that, if he didn't see him over the weekend, then he would see him bright and early on Monday.

As Vin ran on through the empty streets he reveled in the feeling of being free and strong. He liked the feeling of his heart beating, his feet smacking the pavement in a tireless rhythm, his lungs expanding with each breath he took. As often happened, the route he had intended to take had lengthened as he got warmed up and despite the gusty wind that was beginning to pick up and bring with it the promise of rain, he continued on his run.

He crossed the street and started up the hill that went past the old cemetery and the church that was boarded up from a fire last year. When he reached the top of the hill he turned right and continued down a couple of side streets, few of the buildings in this section of Purgatorio were occupied. Some of the buildings were condemned, some stood empty and some had inhabitants but they were further up. Most of these buildings wouldn't shelter anyone unless the weather drove them to it and since the temperatures hadn't dipped below 40 degrees yet, no one was seeking shelter in these buildings, come mid-winter; it would be a different story.

A sound reached Vin's ears. He slowed his pace and then stopped, cocking his head to catch the sound. There. He turned his head again to catch - There. What was that? His mind rapidly ran through a recognition program of sorts that all human brains seem to possess trying to match up the sound he heard with its source. Come on, he thought, just once more and -

Gotcha. It was the cry of a child.

Vin stood stock still as he realized what was making the sound, now he needed to pinpoint the source. Stepping up to the front of the rambling old house Vin cautiously tested the steps that lead to the porch, finding them secure he carefully peered into the windows, most of which have been cracked or completely shattered. For several long minutes he peered into the dim rooms from the porch but saw and heard nothing.

Feeling a gust of wind rustle through his hair he begins to think that perhaps he just imagined it and turns to leave, no sooner does he turn away and step one foot off the porch when the plaintive cry reaches his ear.


Whirling around Vin strides confidently to the door and tries the doorknob, it turns easily in his grasp, and he stands back as the door opens inward creaking and moaning on hinges long unused to movement. Stepping inside the house he waits a moment for his eyes to adjust then he steps into the front room and carefully scans the interior. There isn't much to take in, some blankets, threadbare and well worn from rats or moths lie in a pile in a corner, a couple of milk crates are scattered carelessly, waiting for the colder nights when they will become chairs for those seeking shelter. A pile of newspapers, a few pizza boxes and dozens of bottles lay strewn on the floor, likely evidence of the downtrodden that would have passed this way last winter.

Continuing his search of the interior Vin found himself in what was left of the kitchen, someone had lifted out the kitchen sink, there was a space where a stove and a refrigerator had once resided but neither were there, the counters were heavily coated with droppings of mice and worse, cupboard doors were open or missing, the pantry door was gone and the door leading to the basement hung crookedly on its hinges.

Vin stepped closer to the basement and felt an icy draft sweep through him. Shivering he peered down into the depth and realized that there was some sliver of light down below, probably from half windows sitting at ground level. Turning away from the basement he sought to continue his search of the first floor when the breathy whisper of a child's sob reached his ears again. Damn. The child would have to be down in the basement, he thought.

Vin didn't like closed spaces, everyone who truly knew him knew that about him. Still, Vin being Vin just couldn't allow a little claustrophobia keep him from helping a soul in need, especially a child. Straightening his shoulders he stepped back to the top of the stairs, grabbed the railing that was amazingly sturdy, and stepped on the first step, gingerly.


Breathing out fully, relieved that the step had held him he placed another foot on a step and then another slowly working his way down the staircase all the time gently and encouragingly calling out to the child that everything would be okay. He was here to help.

Halfway down the steps a violent shove between Vin's shoulder blades sent him tumbling down the remainder of the steps where he crashed into the wooden railing at the small landing near the bottom, the landing was a stop and turn point for a 90 degree turn and then the final descent down three more steps to the basement floor. Vin, however, careened right through the small landing, crashed through the wooden railing and sprawled silently on the concrete floor, head connecting soundly with the floor while his body lay twisted and crumpled on top of the pieces of wood.

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Sharp pain ripped through Chris' shoulder mid-swing. Nearly dropping the ax he stopped and set the ax on the ground and breathed deeply while rubbing his shoulder trying to ease the pain.

I'm getting old. Pain gone Chris went back to splitting wood. The sun was just up, he had a steaming thermal mug of coffee off to the side, horses were out frisking around in the soft morning air, the barn chores were complete and Chris was working up a pretty big breakfast appetite as he worked on the pile of wood he intended to split and store away for the winter.

He wasn't sure what had gotten him up so early this morning whether it was the crisp autumn air or the promise of showers and gusting winds the weather forecasters were predicting for the afternoon, either way, he was well on his way to completing his list of outdoor chores for the day and would be able to safely work on the indoor ones once the inclement weather hit.

He worked steadily on the pile of wood, splitting logs and tossing them just inside the shed for ease of stacking later. This wood was well dried and aged from some felled timber from storms the prior year, he and Vin had hauled it in from the woods of Chris' property and used chainsaws to cut it into manageable sizes to speed the aging and drying time and left it in the pile waiting for an ax.

With Vin in Purgatorio working on his jeep and motorcycle, Chris decided this was as good a time as any to split and store as much of it as possible. Truth be told, it was a great cardiovascular workout and he knew he wouldn't need to run at least this day. Another hour passed and Chris finished up the pile and then began the process of stacking the wood. After another hour or so he completed that and was completely soaked with sweat not to mention famished.

Heading into the house he stripped down, stepped into the steaming shower and enjoyed scrubbing his lean and well muscled frame clean. Remembering the pain in his shoulder from earlier he stayed under the steaming spray, switched the shower head to pulsing massage, he'd never let Buck know about this little luxury, and stood still letting the pounding spray massage the sinewy muscles that rippled across his back and shoulders and down his arms.

Feeling not only clean but refreshed and relieved of any aches and pains Chris turned off the water, toweled his hair and body dry, wrapped the towel around his lean waist and hips and prowled into his bedroom where he pulled on a clean navy blue t-shirt, hah, Vin, my entire wardrobe is not black, he thought, pulled on his underwear and a clean pair of black jeans, thick black cotton socks covered his feet and a black and navy blue checked long-sleeve Henley completed his outfit.

Twenty minutes later he was cleaning up from a ham and egg omelet, bacon, toasted English muffin and orange juice, wiping the last part of the counter clean and leaving the dishes to air dry in the rack he pulled on his work boots and headed out to the barn to stack some hay. Halfway across the yard he noticed that Pony was shaking his head and nickering worriedly. Changing direction in mid-stride Chris headed to the large paddock where the two horses had been contentedly grazing since before 6:00 a.m. that morning.

As he got closer he noticed the broken fence board, beyond was Peso, standing to the side nickering repeatedly. Pony kept circling around him nuzzling his shoulder and then bending his neck to sniff at Peso's rear leg. Chris slowly opened the gate talking quietly to the two geldings who watched him approach. What Chris thought was unusual was that Peso stood still and allowed him to come all the way up to him, usually the spirited animal would kick up his heels and gallop away only to circle back around once Chris had taken Pony into the barn.

Chris gently took Pony's halter and eased him away from Peso and then took a good look at Peso's right hindquarter. Well, Chris thought, that answers the question as to who had kicked through the fence board, Peso had a four inch long but thankfully only about an 1/8th of an inch thick sliver of wood stuck in his stifle.

Taking Pony by the halter he led him to the gate and, no surprise, Peso followed slowly. At the gate he grabbed the lead ropes and attached one first to Pony and then reached back to Peso who stood quietly as if waiting to be cared for. Opening the gate he led the two horses into the barn, putting Peso on cross ties and Pony in his stall, Chris went to the tack room and grabbed the first aid supplies and got ready to extract the piece of wood from the gelding's leg.

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Awareness flooded back suddenly and rudely to Vin. One moment he was floating painlessly, blissfully unaware of anything, the next moment he was assaulted with pain that mercilessly pounded his head. Each beat of his heart was like an assault upon his body; his left shoulder felt like someone had stuck an ice pick in it and then his leg chimed in.

He had enough to deal with with the crushing pain in his head and the black spots that swam in his vision and the pain in his shoulder that throbbed with every breath he took, but, when he tried to untangle his limbs one of which was still resting - if that's what it could be called - on the landing above him the other was bent at the knee at least on the same level as the rest of him, that's when a fresh agony ripped through his body.

Squeezing his eyes shut and breathing slowly through the agony he managed to regroup enough to move his right arm enough until he was able to feel down his leg.


The moment his hand lightly brushed the chunk of wood impaled in his leg a shudder ran through his body and Vin knew he was going to be sick. Jerking upright and twisting to the left Vin threw up, there wasn't much to come up as Vin liked to run before breakfast but there was a little water and then he was wracked with some dry heaves for several minutes until they stopped.

He fell back, this time all of him landing in a crumpled heap on the cold, damp concrete floor. He lay back with a groan barely able to process all the signals his body was sending him, the fiery lance in his leg competed with the thundering drumbeat in his head which in turn competed with the stabbing motion in his left shoulder. Damn, he thought, broken collarbone.

Worthless little runt, nothing but a mamma's boy! Took a little fall and you can't do nothing but lie there and moan. You'll never amount to anything.

Vin blinked his eyes rapidly trying to clear the dark spots that danced in and out of his vision. That voice. He knew that voice. Hadn't heard it in many a year, didn't want to ever hear it again. Looking straight up the stairwell he saw the silhouette of a man, a man ;he knew from long ago, a man he had been told was dead, gone forever.

Vin's last thought as the darkness closed in around his vision and slipped back into the blissful void was that his father had pushed him down the stairs.

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Josiah stood and looked through the window at the boy sitting by himself watching the other children sitting in a circle listening to the story being read. Father Spence tapped him on the shoulder to attract his attention.

"Did you hear what I said, Josiah?"

"I'm sorry, Father, what?"

"I said that's Tommy, he was brought here with his mother after she told the hospital staff that his father pushed him down the stairs. Poor boy was kept in the hospital for over a week with a concussion. Fortunately, at only seven years of age, somehow he didn't sustain any broken bones, but that poor boy has certainly got a broken heart, and a lot of broken trust."

Josiah studied the boy without pity, without anger, no; anger would be for the father who did that, pity, well pity was something Josiah had learned didn't do much good. Instead, as he studied the boy he was struck by the resemblance; the similarity. Lord, give me strength, Josiah thought, as this boy looks like Vin at about that age.

Josiah had once seen a picture in Vin's apartment of him and his mother, the boy in the photo was barely five but the huge blue eyes in that photograph were the same ones he saw through the glass in the room in front of him.

Despite all his years in law enforcement and volunteering at shelters he still felt his heart tear a bit whenever an innocent came across his path that had been wounded. Leaving Father Spence Josiah slowly opened the door into the room where all the other children were gathered in a circle listening to a story and, with a gentleness that belied his size he slowly approached the young boy and then folded himself until he sat on the floor, close enough that the boy could hear him, yet far enough away that he could not touch the boy.

Softly he began to speak and without looking straight at the boy, rather choosing to let his peripheral vision guide him, he noticed the boy change from watching him with fear, to watching him with wariness to finally watching him with curiosity. The morning story time flew by and Josiah never moved, never noted the hardness of the floor or the ache in his back from sitting in such an uncomfortable position, rather he only noticed that as the time went on the little boy slowly moved closer and closer to him until finally he sat with his shoulder lightly touching Josiah's.

It was moments like these that Josiah understood why he came to the shelter and reached out to the battered and abused; trust, if he could give them back some trust that had been cruelly ripped away, then he would have the strength to come back another day.

Chapter 2:

Cold. Sore. Tired. The next time awareness returned to Vin all he could seemed able to wrap his mind around was the physical sensations, he felt the cold concrete floor under his back, his right leg throbbed and he felt that his running pants were wet where the wood stuck out of his skin, he knew it was bleeding but couldn't tell how badly.

His head continued to pound ceaselessly with his heartbeat which was both painfully distracting and yet, oddly, something he could ignore eventually due to the regularity of the sensation.

The cold and damp feeling of the basement caused him to shiver, a reaction he instantly hoped he would be able to control in the future as the slice of pain where his collarbone was broken caused him to gasp for air and then left him breathless as the pain was so great he wasn't able to actually breathe after that initial gasp. As his world was starting to grey around him from the inability to breathe he finally felt the horrific pain decrease and he was able to draw breath again.

The boys are never gonna let me live this one down, he thought wryly. Can't even take a jog without turning it into a dang search and rescue situation; since nobody is gonna be looking for me, I'd best get myself out of this mess. Kid crying in the basement, sheesh, Buck will be joshing me about that for awhile.

Fumbling with his good arm he managed to reach his cell phone that was clipped to his waistband. For once he'd actually remembered to take it with him when he went for a run, and he knew the battery was fully charged as he'd seen to that before he went to bed the night before and had checked it before taking it with him -- fully charged.

Now, Vin thought, if it managed to survive the graceless fall down the staircase - wait a minute, did I fall?

A blurry vision flashed through his brain of looking back up the staircase and seeing the silhouette of a man, a man that reminded Vin of - Nah, must be dreaming or something. My pa, the no good so and so who run out of me and ma 'fore she died, he's gone. Chris and Josiah did some searching a couple of years ago and got proof. He died about eight years back.

Tanner, focus, your cell phone, call for help.

Unclipping the phone from his waist he flipped it open, all the lights came up, the battery level showed it at full charge. Hitting the call button he began to dial, he got 9-1 - and then the phone beeped, No Service.

Damn, damn, damn. I just had all the bars lit up, Vin thought. Pushing the call button he saw all the bars light up and he began to dial again; just as before he managed to get 9-1 - when the phone beeped, No Service.

Cussing in Spanish Vin tried again...

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Ezra was puttering, Ezra never puttered but it was a drizzly Saturday now nearing the noontime hour and Ezra was, in fact, puttering. He had a Mozart CD playing in his multi-disc player, but it was set to single play so instead of randomly switching from CD to CD he was enjoying some of Mozart's middle works. He found it soothing along with the backdrop of the shower that had begun barely 15 minutes ago. It looked to be a somewhat damp and drizzly day but truth be told Denver was in desperate need of some rain.

He leaned back from his desk and sipped his second cappuccino for the day. Decadence is what it was but he decided to enjoy it, he would never tell anyone that his plans for today included writing a letter to Maude, that task had just been completed, and then - What?

Ezra set his mug down and swiveled in his chair to stare at his CD player that had just switched from Mozart to his Beethoven CD of Fidelio, Beethoven's one and only opera. Ezra could see from his chair that the light for random selection was not lit on the player, picking up the remote that he had placed on the desk when he sat down earlier he aimed it at the player and pressed the button for the B CD holder, obediently the CD player stopped, switched decks and once again the sound of Mozart filled the air.

Ah, now where was I, Ezra returned to his idle thoughts, yes, I will never tell that now the only 'task' that lies ahead of me this weekend since I've completed my letter to Maude is to listen to Mozart and anything else that draws my fancy and read; a relaxing weekend, why I may at some point just rest and watch the rain fall. There is nothing more peaceful and pleasant than listening to the soothing drops of ---


Once again Ezra's musings were interrupted by the abrupt click, silence, shuffle and then the sounds of Beethoven's opera, Fidelio, once again filled the air.

Darn thing is malfunctioning, hmmm, top of the line they say, well. Picking up the remote, again, Ezra pressed a button and once again the player obediently stopped, clicked, shuffled the deck and the sounds of Mozart's string quintet once again began to play.

Leaning back Ezra closed his eyes and listened to Mozart and in between heard the soothing sounds of the early fall shower and, breathing deeply, he inhaled the smell of the cleansing rain.

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Vin could hear the rain falling, turning his aching head slowly he saw the rain falling through a small window that had lost its glass long ago. He was looking up at the window that was across the basement and watched the drops plunk into the ground and seemingly bounce back up.

Carefully he breathed through his nose; Vin always loved the smell of rain at the beginning of a storm, this time however, instead of the scent of a cleansing rain all he smelled was a musty odor he knew emanated from the damp concrete of the old building.

Holding back a shiver he felt trying to run through his body he tried to began to gather his thoughts on how he could best extract himself from this situation.

Tanner, he thought, you're just going to have to get up, climb those stairs and get up away from these concrete walls. He had tried several more times to dial out but each time he tried he was only able to partially complete the dialing of the number when the phone would inexplicably beep and show No Service where service had been only moments before.

Clipping his phone securely to his waistband, Vin decided it was time to slowly, carefully gather his strength and his body and begin the task of getting out of this basement. He closed his eyes and took stock of his body, he thought and felt the position of his feet, legs, arms, back and then began to think of which part of him to move first.

Having made his decision he opened his eyes and began. Taking his left leg he slowly propped it against the base of the stairwell, completing that maneuver with minimal discomfort he prepared himself for the next step which he knew would be quite a bit less comfortable. Bracing his right forearm on the floor and using his left foot as a pivot point he carefully pushed upwards a bit and then rolled onto his right side trying to keep the movement controlled as he didn't want to impale the piece of wood any further into his right thigh.

The second he raised himself upward and simultaneously turned a hot flash of agony erupted along his left collarbone, crying out in pain Vin forced himself to complete the movement and then he collapsed partially on his right side. He felt the end of the wood touch the concrete floor and that sent shock waves through his leg and then through his entire body causing another cry of pain.

Tears of agony streamed down his face as he forced his left leg in front of his right and pressed downward a bit trying to ease some of the pressure on his right leg. Unfortunately the position he was now in was unbearable for his broken collarbone and he not only felt but heard the grinding of the bones as the fracture destabilized more.

Afraid the break would become compound and he would risk additional blood loss and shock by having the bone pierce his skin Vin pushed back with his left leg and right forearm and landed heavily on his back.

The agony brought on anew by the failed attempt to move and now the uncontrolled return to his back left him breathless from the pain, heart racing as his system struggled with the pain and shock, and he wasn't able to control the shiver that once again coursed through his body which only added to his misery.

Vin could feel that he was slipping away from awareness and just before he did he felt a warm breeze gently caress his cheek and was certain he heard a gentle whisper before he slipped back into unconsciousness - You're a Tanner.

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Buck spun around at the sound of the woman's shriek and the call of a familiar name.

Expecting to see Vin and some lovely damsel in distress he instead saw a streaking yellow blur that barreled past him in full pursuit of a teasing squirrel that waited until the last moment before it dashed up the tree and stared down balefully chattering loudly at the leaping, barking yellow lab.

The sound of running feet caused Buck to turn around again to finally see the 'damsel in distress' as she brushed by him and ran to the dog. As the lab was more concerned with trying to climb the tree, she was easily able to grab his collar and clip the leash to it.

Walking back towards Buck, dragging the reluctant pup, the woman stopped in front of him.

"Sorry about that, sir. I hope you didn't get too startled by Tanner running into you like that. He gets so excited whenever he sees a squirrel and since he's not yet a year old he hasn't yet gotten the message that when I say Wait, I actually mean it."

"That's quite all right, miss, just glad you caught him before he ran out into the street."

"Yes, me too, good thing he gets so focused on squirrels that he just can't seem to leave them be. My name is Vivian and this, well, this is Tanner."

Buck shook her hand gently and then looked down at the dog who was sitting quietly at his mistress' side with his right paw raised. Smiling Buck couldn't help but shake the dog's paw.

"We just moved here from Texas, little town called Tascosa on the panhandle, anyway, there's so much for him to see and do and with all the wonderful trees he just can't help himself. Well, I should be letting you go, I've got my raincoat on and Tanner just loves the rain but you - you're getting all wet. Thanks for being so understanding."

Buck couldn't believe that the lady was gone in a flash. He'd barely had a moment to get over the dog's paw shaking and the girl was gone, truth be, she was about as young as Casey and thus, alas, a bit too young for him - wait a minute. Dang, all this standing in the rain has got me a bit fogged in the head. I am not old, and if she's Casey's age well then that means she can drive and vote and drink and everything so - oh, hell, there she goes.

Buck felt like a fool as he watched the young woman wave to him as she drove past in her battered jeep. He stood there waving until long after she was gone, hmmm, Tascosa did she say? I've heard of that before.

Walking the final few soggy steps to the door to his apartment building he opened the door and stepped inside. Entering his and JD's apartment he realized how wet he really was and heading for the bathroom, dried himself off, changed clothes and then put on a pot of coffee and settled down to watch the college football game that was already underway. Texas A&M was playing and he didn't want to miss it. He had a bet with Vin and he was sure he was going to collect big.

Chapter 3:

A crash of thunder brought Vin around. Blinking his eyes to clear them he managed to focus on his surroundings, damn, the basement and the stairs. As his eyes cleared unfortunately so did his head and he became acutely aware of his surroundings.

A flash of lighting illuminated the interior area; it didn't improve anything. Vin fumbled with his watch on his left wrist, managed to remove it and held it over his face, 2:30 in the afternoon. The realization of the time caused a stab of fear in Vin's brain. Trying to think back to the events of the day he realized with more than a little fear he had probably been lying here for close to seven hours, not good, not good at all

Although the memory of his attempt at moving had returned to his mind, along with the pain of his injuries, Vin decided that he was going to have to try again only with a few modifications. First of all, he was going to have to remove the wood from his leg. Vin knew that if he could extract that he would be able to handle rolling onto his right side, although he knew his left shoulder wasn't going to be very pleased with him.

Concentrating on one thing at a time Vin managed to get his right hand underneath his leg and lift it enough so he could see the wood sticking from his thigh. It looked like he would be able to get a good grip on the wood, so he lowered his leg and thought about what would happen after he got the wood out; his leg would bleed probably heavily since the wood was, in essence, keeping the wound closed, fine time for him to be out and about with running pants and not jeans which would have required him to wear a belt.

Suddenly a gust of warmish wet air swept through the basement through one of the broken out windows, the air current carried with it a piece of material that landed on Vin's chest. Startled he could only stare at it for a moment, it looked like a lady's scarf.

Vin reached down to touch the material and was surprised at how soft and amazingly clean it looked, there was a hint of --- must be dreaming there, Tanner, it almost smells like apples, he smiled to himself. Better get this wood out, and out of here before I start thinking anything else.

Bracing himself mentally he grasped the piece of wood, took as deep a breath as he dared and pulled as hard as he could. A scream of pain tore from his throat as the wood ripped free of his leg. For almost a minute Vin could do nothing but gasp for air trying desperately not to throw up, not that there was anything inside of him to throw up.

As the dizziness and nausea receded Vin fumbled with the scarf until he managed to fold it in half and drape it over his leg so that the loop was on the outside of his leg, wriggling his left foot underneath his right knee he managed to drape the scarf's loop over his foot and then drag the scarf under his leg, lifting up his left foot he was then able to gather both ends of the scarf with his right hand.

Tying a loose knot he dropped the longer of the two ends of the scarf down between his two legs, drew his left foot up, stood on the end of the scarf and tugged as tight as he could. Placing the piece of wood that had formerly been impaled in his leg into the knot of the scarf he began to twist it around and around until the scarf was wound tightly against his leg thus stemming the flow of blood.

Exhausted Vin lay back, phase one was complete. Allowing himself to rest for a moment he listened to the gentle patter of the rain falling allowing the soft noise to sooth him. The warm breeze that had graced him only minutes before was replaced by a sharp cold gust of wind that whipped through the basement. Following the sound of the wind a flash of lightening split the sky followed by a crash of thunder.

For a moment Vin smelled something else on the air, the scent of apples forgotten he was now assailed by the odor of stale booze. It was a smell that Vin disliked normally, in his injured and still somewhat queasy state it was even worse. Once again the thunder crashed through the air and a flash of lightening crackled and over the sounds Vin was sure he could hear another sound, a laugh, a cruel, drunken laugh - his father's.


JD was sitting at Nettie's kitchen table working on Casey's notebook. She had asked him to add some extra memory as well as tweak some of the maintenance and system settings. These were all incredibly simple tasks and he had completed those around lunchtime.

For lunch they enjoyed a simple yet filling meal of sandwiches and some of Nettie's homemade soup and he had decided to check Casey's security software as well as clean up her hard disc. It had started to rain while they were eating lunch so all were quite willing to spend the rainy Saturday working on long neglected indoor chores.

For Nettie that meant culling through her wardrobe and finding items to mend or donate or in some cases both. For Casey that meant catching up on some letters to friends, problem was any of the friends she kept up with by letter she did via email and since JD was working on her computer Casey found herself sitting next to him watching him work and soaking up the information he was sharing.

At that moment what JD was trying to work on wasn't working and the only information he was sharing was that he was quite bewildered as to the problem. For the past 30 minutes or so he'd been getting a system error report that continued to flash across the screen. He'd reboot it in safe mode, he'd reboot it in normal mode, he unplugged the power and removed the battery as well as removed and replaced the memory cards and nothing worked.

Each time the system came up and right before it hit the C prompt to take it to its normal start up procedure the same error code flashed on the screen and remained there:


There was no explanation for it.

Casey had been quiet watching JD work. She knew he loved to talk about his work and loved to explain what he was doing and despite his rapid speech he was amazingly patient and thorough in explaining and teaching. She had asked him a few questions but since he liked to talk as he worked she'd learned to just sit back and watch and listen and usually her questions would get answered along the way.

Now they were both just staring at the screen, both lost in thought. Casey had been secretly imagining that what was on her computer was a secret code. She didn't broach it to JD because she knew he would tease her which didn't bother her in the least but also because she couldn't imagine what the point would be in putting a 'secret agent' code on her computer would be in the first place. However, after sitting there with no other explanation she'd decided, what the heck, might as well match it up with the simplest code there was and have a little fun.

Matching each number to its corresponding letter in the alphabet she quickly spelled out what the 'code' said.


JD looked over as he saw her writing on a piece of scrap paper she had in front of her. He read the letters out loud and then looked at Casey.

"Secret agent code?"


"Why not, I haven't got any explanation for it. Okay. Florestan"

Just then Nettie walked through with an armload of folded clothes that she set on the counter.

"Florestan? Ah, that's the hero of Beethoven's one and only opera, a lovely opera; in fact, I think it's playing at the Proctor's for the next week. I should call Vin."

JD and Casey looked first at Nettie and then at each other and then both burst out laughing.

"Why --- why would you call Vin?"

JD asked gasping for breath as he convulsed with laughter.

"Now, JD, don't you go laughing. My Vin has a great attachment to that opera and he'd be thrilled to go see Fidelio with me."

"Fidelio?" Casey asked.

"Yes, my dear." And Nettie's face softened as she remembered the time when Vin had first learned about Beethoven and his opera Fidelio. Nettie pulled up another chair to the table and began to tell the tale.

"When Vin had been in my class for about a month, I made it clear to him that I knew he was smart and that there was no way I was going to tolerate barely passing work from him when I knew he could do so much more. So, I told him that he would come and work with me, three nights a week and I would bring dinner, and he would bring his work and we would work and that was all there was to it."

'Course Nettie wasn't about to let on that she had more than guessed by then that Vin, who was in his mid-teens at the time, was living hand to mouth on the streets and likely didn't have a place to go and get dinner most nights much less have a place to sleep, so she made sure she stuffed him good and full those nights and always had to send him out with extra food 'so as not to go to waste' as she would tell him.

She also did all her tutoring right in her school room in the community center and since they would work until well past 11:00 o'clock at night, she would drive him to her little house, a few blocks away, and have him sleep in the little room outside her house above her garage. It wasn't much but it was snug and dry and had running water and electricity.

Shaking her head to bring herself back to the present Nettie took up the thread of her story.

"Anyway, one afternoon he appeared for our tutoring session and I had Beethoven's opera, Fidelio, playing in the background. As I was talking on the phone when he came he just sat down, pulled out his books and then sat patiently waiting and listening. After I hung up the phone, he asked me how it was that I could listen to something that was being sung in a foreign language. How I could enjoy that if I couldn't understand what was going on.

Well, I started telling him that when one goes to the opera the music and the acting along with the singing tell the tale and the words can be in any language and you would understand it. I explained that Beethoven only wrote one opera but that it is considered quite excellent and in this opera Fidelio is a made up person, the name being rooted in Latin for faithful and that it was really a story of how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named "Fidelio", rescues her husband, Florestan, from death in a political prison.

A few months later a travelling operatic group came to Denver and presented Fidelio and I took Vin and he told me afterwards that I was right, he understood the story completely even though he didn't understand the words being sung.

I think he was even more impressed by Beethoven's ability to write the fabulous musical scores not only to Fidelio but in all his works, especially since much of Beethoven's greatest achievements were written after he had become profoundly deaf.

In Vin's eyes Beethoven became somewhat of an unlikely hero as here was a man who followed his passion no matter what obstacles came his way, and he did it not even for his own enjoyment as he could never fully appreciate the artistry and richness to his music but did it because those that heard his performances could."

JD and Casey sat quietly while Nettie talked and when she stopped they just stared at her thoughtfully until she roused herself, wiped the tears that had filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks and then stood up muttering something about getting back to her Saturday chores and enough of this idle chit chat.

JD was startled to learn something so intimiate about Vin's past and something so unusual and as he stared at the computer that continued to flash


he kept repeating in his head, Florestan - Florestan - Florestan.

What did it mean?

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Confused. That was the best way to describe Vin's mental state at the moment. As he lay on the damp floor trying to gather his strength after removing the shard of wood in his leg he had been reviewing all that he had experienced so far: the cry of a child that didn't seem to exist, a push, shove, trip, he wasn't sure that had sent him crashing to the bottom of the stairs, a blurry silhouette of a man that resembled what he remembered of his father, a warm caress of a breeze, the soothing sound of his mother's voice, the warm comforting scent of apples and the cruel, chilling laugh of his drunken father.

As Vin lay shivering yet still panting from his exertions only moments before he wondered what did it all mean?

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Nate sat in the darkened theater enjoying the fact that he could sit quietly and hold Rain's hand; the opera being acted out on the stage was not as bad as he had thought. She had been after him for years to expand his mind and try the ballet or opera or the symphony and they had done two of the three over the past couple of years and he found he did like the symphony very much, ballet was a bit less to his liking although he did appreciate the athleticism of all the dancers but he had managed to stay away from the opera imagining it to be nothing more than fat people screaming in a language he didn't understand.

Rain being Rain refused to let up and, when the Proctor's Theater advertised that Beethoven's Fidelio was coming, she bought matinee tickets and made a date with her husband. When she asked him out on the date giving him flowers and a box of candy along with the invitation, he couldn't say no; she was just too cute.

So, not wanting to be completely lost during the performance he had mentioned his upcoming plans to Ezra who offered to lend him "a CD of an exceptional performance" to help familiarize him with the music. Nathan had been listening to it all week, in his car, at his desk, disguising it as a CD of a medical conference presentation, not wanting the others to rib him about 'becoming cultured.'

The more he listened, however, the more he began to understand the subtext and now watching the drama unfold he found that he was drawn into the emotion and time ran away. He was amazed when the curtain came down, the lights came up and people started rising and moving towards the exits.

He looked at Rain and found her gazing at the program which had full color photos of all the lead singers and little bios on them. He had been particularly amazed at the fabulous tenor who had sung Florestan's part and as he peeked at the program he saw that was the singer that Rain was reading up on.

Feeling him move closer Rain looked up and saw Nathan trying to read the program so she obligingly moved it closer to share between them.

"Nathan, look at his picture, with those blue eyes, and the long hair he wore for his part as a prisoner, he looks so like Vin, even his name, Vincent. They say when he returns to his home town he is greeted with a parade and cheers of "Vin, Vin, Vin" he is so adored."

Nathan looked at the picture and, noting the similarity, he laughed out loud, "We could use this to tease Vin or better yet, blackmail him the next time he thinks up some trick to pull on either of us, can you imagine if I posted copies of this all around the shooting range and let it be known that our crack sharpshooter is also a famed operatic performer."

They left the theater laughing and were still laughing about the thought of having something to rein in the team's practical joker when Nathan dropped Rain off for her shift at the hospital. Reminding him that she had someone arranged to bring her home after her shift ended at midnight she kissed him good bye and dashed into the hospital dodging the raindrops.

Nathan decided to return Ezra's CD to him and tell him about the performance so he turned onto the expressway to get out of the downtown area and headed towards Ezra's. As he drove through the steadily falling rain he saw lights flashing ahead and realized a traffic sign had a message posted, as he got closer the read the message not thinking much about it.


Nathan didn't know where Florestan Avenue was so he quickly dismissed the message. Another mile on another sign was lit up as he approached it and as he got within reading distance he noted the message:


As he was getting close to the turnoff to Ezra's neighborhood he had only a moment to think that that was an odd message to display, why not name the 'trouble' that would be more helpful to motorists, he gave the name, Florestan, only a passing thought as he reflected on the amazing coincidences in life.

Flicking on his signal he took the exit and made the series of turns that brought him to Ezra's home. Parking his car he grabbed the CD and then dashed to the covered entrance way and pressed the bell for Ezra's place and waited.

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Waiting was something he was good at, normally. Snipers need to have patience and discipline, need to be able to wait until the right moment presents, need to be able to wait for long periods of time, on the razor's edge of action and then be able to turn it all off and stand down having never been called into the final act.

Now, however, the waiting was something Vin was increasingly struggling with. He had been waiting, hoping for a return of some strength to his body, waiting for a diminishing of the constant throbbing pain in his body so that he could move on into phase two which was to include standing up and beginning the climb back up the stairwell.

Deciding that waiting was taking too long and that it was time for action Vin decided to make a move. Bending his legs, gasping for air as the movement awoke fresh agony in his thigh, and pushing off of his right arm Vin managed to push up off the ground until he was in a sitting position.

Sharp daggers of pain pulsed in his head and collarbone but he gritted his teeth determined to ignore them long enough to maneuver his body until he was leaning against the wall. Having accomplished that he decided that phase two was now complete and that phase three would now be the part where he stood up and began the climb up the stairs.

Resting his head against the concrete wall he shifted slightly trying to find a more comfortable position. Clutching his left arm to his chest with his right he felt some of the tension on his collarbone ease.

Chris, sure could use your help right about now, Vin thought and tried to imagine what Chris was doing right now out at the ranch. Usually Vin was able to clearly picture the ranch, the horses, Chris working but this time as he tried he found his thoughts muddled and chaotic as if a whirlwind was stirring them up.

Deciding it best to rest a moment or two to gather his strength before beginning the trek up the stairs and out of the concrete confines that had obviously messed with his cell phone reception Vin went back to what he had been doing and waited.

Chapter 4:

Ezra was enjoying the classical station having given up on his CD player which was constantly changing over to his Beethoven CD when the lilting strains of the concerto were interrupted by the strident blaring of the emergency broadcast signal.

Ah, yes, he mused, real life intrudes as we are constantly reminded of the need for security and emergency updates. Expecting to hear the usual voice saying..."This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System" Ezra was surprised that all he heard was silence and then the station returned to music only this time it was playing a selection from Fidelio.

Before he had time to process that it was the fifth time that piece had interrupted another selection he was disturbed again by the buzzing of the intercom. Stepping to the intercom system he pressed the Talk button.


"Hello, Ezra, sorry to drop by, it's Nathan."

"Ah, Mr. Jackson, I'll buzz you in."

The buzzer sounded, Nathan grabbed the door and entered the secured foyer that gave access to the quartet of condos one of which Ezra lived in.

Walking to Ezra's door he was about to reach out for the doorbell when the door open and Ezra ushered him inside.

"What brings you to my domicile on this lackluster day?"

"I came to return your CD. Rain and I went to the performance today at Proctor's Theater. It was excellent and I was able to understand and appreciate the music so much more because of listening to this all week."

Nathan pulled from his coat pocket the CD of Beethoven's opera and handed it to Ezra. Ezra took it and blanched as he realized what it was. Staring at Nathan he opened his mouth as if trying to speak but no sound came out. Concerned Nathan reached out to take him by the arm afraid the man might fall he had gone so pale in the face.

"My dear, Nathan, this - I -"

Turning away Ezra strode to his CD player, clicked open the changer and rapidly removed all of CDs. To his astonishment the slot that had repeatedly switched on interrupting his Mozart CD was empty.

Feeling more than slightly dizzy Ezra swayed a bit. Nathan stepped up behind him, grasped him gently by the elbow and led the stunned man over to the chair. Squatting down in front of him Nathan felt for his pulse and found it racing.

"Ezra, what's going on, do I need to call for an ambulance?" Nathan had his cell phone out and was about to press for 911 when Ezra's hand on his arm stopped him.

"No, my good man, it's just the most amazing...ah, never mind. I'm sure I was just imagining things."

"Ezra, I don't believe for a moment that it, whatever it is, is nothing, nor am I leaving here until you tell me what's going on, what were you imagining?"

Nathan used the tone of voice he saved for only the most serious of times. Not one to overreact to a situation Nathan was nonetheless highly concerned at the clammy feel of Ezra's skin, the rapid pulse and the pallor of the normally tanned, unflappable agent.

"I don't suppose there would be something like 'doctor/patient confidentiality' that we could impose here, Mr. Jackson."

"Hmm, we go from my dear Nathan, to my good man to Mr. Jackson, now I know you have something that you're hiding. I tell you what, I'll make a deal with you." Nathan smiled inwardly as he saw the familiar light return to Ezra's eyes at the mention of a deal.

"You tell me what you think you heard or think happened, or whatever it was that had you so shaken by my handing you that CD and, if it is in no way a health concern to you, I shan't breathe a word of it to anyone.

Ezra thoughtfully turned the offer over in his head and then said, "And if what I mention causes you to think that perhaps I'm going crazy -"

"Ezra, I've always thought you were crazy so that isn't a serious health concern, now get on with it, why did you nearly go into shock when I handed you that CD. I thought you liked Fidelio?"

"I do, I do very much. The oddest thing today while I was putter - erh, putting some things in order. I was playing a Mozart CD and no less than four times that CD player suddenly stopped playing, shuffled the CDs and then I - I -"

Ezra stopped unable to continue.

"You what, Ezra, come on, what happened next?"

"IswearIheardBeethovenplay." Ezra mumbled and jumbled the words so quickly Nathan had to replay it again in his mind and then suddenly he got it.

"You swear you heard Beethoven play? You mean this CD, this one that I just brought you?" Nathan held Ezra's hand up that still clutched the Beethoven CD that Nathan had given him.

"Shhhh. Yes, that's what I said." Ezra whispered looking around him.

"Who are you looking for? There isn't anyone but you and me and we're inside your place, what's going on with you? Sheesh, and here I thought it was something serious."

"You're not going to tell anyone, right, Nathan, that was the deal, and an honorable man does not go back on his word."

"Calm down, Ezra, calm down. I'm not going to tell anyone - unless you don't behave next time I tell you to."

Looking both relieved and chagrined at having someone having a hold over him Ezra got up and walked over to his CD player and slowly filed all the CDs back in their slots, including the Beethoven CD.

Nathan watched his defeated posture and began to chuckle. "This is too good; with one opera I've got something on you and on Vin that will keep you both in check for some time."

"What do you mean you've got something on me and Mr. Tanner over this opera; will you be so kind as to share your good fortune with me?"

"I'll tell you, but I'd better not find out you use this without me 'cause if that were to happen then I'll tell everyone about your little haunted CD player, you hear me?"

Ezra affected a hurt expression which Nathan merely scoffed at.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, you're innocent and all that. All right. Look at this."

Nathan produced the color program from the opera and flipped to the page he and Rain had been peering over earlier.

"Why that man bears a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Tanner, 'course his hair is much more refined than our Vin but ---"

Nathan interrupted him excitedly. "You should have seen him, Ezra, Vincent I mean." Nathan jabbed a finger at the photo. "This guy's name is Vincent and he has a wig of long hair because he plays the part of Florestan in the opera ---"

Ezra looked up as Nathan abruptly stopped speaking and stood still with his mouth hanging wide open. This time it was Ezra who reached out a steadying hand concerned for his colleague's sudden apparent state of shock.

"Vin, Vin, Vin. Nah, couldn't be." Nathan mumbled after a few moments.

"What couldn't Vin be, Mr. Jackson?"

Without answering Nathan pulled out his cell phone and dialed information, and then he asked for the number for the city's department of public works, upon receiving that information he dialed the number and was connected to the phone menu of departments. Anxiously dancing from one foot to the other all the time being warily watched by Ezra he finally exclaimed 'Aha' when told what number to hit for an emergency and was instantly connected to a dispatcher who asked the nature of his emergency.

"My name is Nathan Jackson, I'm an ATF agent and I want to know what the trouble is on Florestan Avenue that you have a road sign alert for."

Ezra listened carefully to the one-sided conversation. His curiosity was already awakened by Nathan's intense focus and at the mention of the name Florestan the hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he shivered as he felt a flash of cold steal over his skin.

"I see," Nathan was saying to the dispatcher. "There is no road sign alert anywhere in the City of Denver at this moment, you say? Well, thank you, must be - can you tell me where Florestan Avenue is located which part of the city?" Nathan listened, his eyes going wide as he stared at Ezra stunned.

Ezra watched barely able to control the shiver that threatened to shudder through his frame. "What, Mr. Jackson, where is Florestan Avenue?"


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Hell, Vin thought. Waiting is getting me nowhere. Summoning his waning strength Vin pushed his back against the wall and levered himself up using his left leg as a brace. Once he was upright he leaned to the right and grasped the column that was a short distance away and then agonizingly lurched over to it until he was practically hugging it.

After steadying his stance and slowing his breathing again he took another hesitating step this time to the left which brought him to the base of the stairs.

Okay, here's the deal, he thought. One step at a time, don't think about the fact that there's a total of 18 of them, take it one at a time.

Holding his left arm tight to his chest Vin reached out with his right arm and grasped the right-side railing high enough that his entire forearm could lay flat on the rail. Then he pressed down as hard as he could all the while pulling himself upward so that he placed minimal pressure on his right leg and as he 'hopped' up one step he was also able to minimize the jolt to his collarbone.


Taking a moment to breathe Vin was gathering his strength to tackle the next step when an icy blast swept down the stairwell and wrapped around him chilling him to the bone.

Fighting the urge to shiver knowing the agony that would occur if he did he repeated his previous actions and tackled another step.


This time the result was a dual blast of icy air from above and through the windows at the basement level. Vin heard the thunder rumble and roar louder and closer and heard a sizzle as a blast of lightning struck somewhere close outside.

Having made his decision Vin was not to be deterred, in fact, the icy wind and the worsening storm only strengthened his resolve to get himself out of this basement and to safety.


By now Vin was panting with the exertion and bleeding from his lip having bitten down trying to keep from crying out in pain. Somewhere some therapist would have quite a field day with him not wanting to cry out in pain, like there was anyone to hear if I did, he laughed painfully to himself in his head.


Suddenly the wind ceased, the thunder and lightning halted and the rain silenced. Vin was about to tackle the fifth step and stopped, amazed at the absolute stillness in the air.


Damn it, he thought, there it is again, that dang child's cry.


The plaintive cry was followed by the soft sobbing sounds of a child in distress. Vin gave it only a momentary thought before resolutely grasping the railing and pulling himself up another step.


The reaction was immediate, wind whirled down the stairs at him blowing papers and dust, thunder and lightning roared and crackled through the air and the sound of the pouring rain sounded like the roar of Niagara Falls.

In Vin's mind a soft voice urged him faintly onward, "You're a Tanner."

"I know, ma, and I'm gonna get myself out of here."


Chapter 5:

Chris had been working on his computer balancing his checkbook, paying bills and completing some case reviews, all mundane tasks but necessary and perfect for dreary days, even Saturdays. By the time he finished all those it was mid-afternoon. Clearing his lunch dishes from his desk where he had eaten his meal he headed out to the barn to check on the horses, especially Peso's injured leg.

Walking across the yard he noticed the dark clouds bunching over Denver in the distance and saw some flashes of lightning, it was getting to be more than just a drizzly day. After checking the horses, picking out their stalls, freshening their water, tossing them each another flake of hay he took Peso out of his stall, unwrapped the leg and cleaned the wound again, there was a slight amount of heat and some swelling so he ran cold water over the area for about 20 minutes, recleaned and rewrapped the injury and settled the horse back in his stall. Chris only paid passing interest to Peso's complete compliance throughout the treatment.

Walking back out Chris checked the sky again and was surprised to see that the dark clouds now with significant lightning flashes continued to mass over Denver in the distance and didn't appear as if the storm had moved at all. Curious at the unusual weather Chris headed to his office and switched his computer back on and then checked the local weather radar trying to get an idea whether the storm was headed his way or not.

There were a few outdoor chores he hadn't completed due to the rain and they would hold but, if a violent storm was coming, he wanted to at least secure a few items. Surprisingly when the weather radar screen came up all it showed was the normal green for rain, and a light amount at that, such that he was currently experiencing. There was no forecast for any severe weather nor was there any record of any such weather currently in the Denver area, at least not according to the radar.

Chris decided he'd give Vin a quick call to see if his friend could give him an up close and personal view of the weather. Grabbing his phone he dialed Vin's apartment first, knowing that Vin wouldn't be working on either his jeep or his motorcycle in this kind of weather since he had no inside place to work on them.

After five rings Vin's answering machine clicked on and Chris left him a quick message to call when he got in. Then thinking perhaps Vin was crazy enough to be outside in this bad weather he dialed his cell phone. A twinge of unease crept across his skin as he heard the familiar discordant beep and then the recorded voice of the operator coming on - "We're sorry, the cell phone customer you are trying to reach is currently not in the area."

That made no sense to Chris whatsoever so he hung up and then tried again. This time the recording was about halfway through its message when a loud eruption of static burst in Chris' ear and he heard silence and then the rushing sound of wind, a crackle of lightning and then the sound of a voice calling---Cowboy---

Shocked Chris almost dropped the phone. He pulled it back and stared at it and then pressed it firmly to his ear hoping to hear more but all he heard was the sound of the recording rattling off its message again "We're sorry, the cell phone customer you are trying to reach is currently not in the area."

Chris listened in vain to the recording three more times but nothing happened. Damn. Grabbing his gun, badge, wallet, truck keys and jacket Chris headed for his Dodge, climbed in and headed to the city, lights flashing accelerator hard to the floor.

The voice was a woman's, a woman's voice with a noticeable Texas twang and she had called him Cowboy. Who was she and where was Vin?

Pressing the gas pedal harder to the floor Chris hit speed dial on his phone.

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The lightning, wind, thunder and rain continued to assault the house and although Vin was protected from the rain, the wind was tearing at his clothes and the thunder was deafening, the flashes of lightning were helpful in that the house was plunged into full blackness but the flashes were irregular and nearly blinded Vin when they occurred so unprepared for them were his eyes.


Needing to stop for a moment to catch his breath Vin decided to try his cell phone to see if he was far enough above the concrete walls of the basement. Unclasping his phone from his waist he waited for the darkness to be illuminated by a flash of lightning, when that happened he quickly hit the speed dial attempting to reach Chris.

Once again nothing happened, no bars, no sign that there was a signal not even the LCD light came on to show that the phone was working.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Vin leaned his head down on his right arm that was once again braced on the handrail, cell phone grasped in his hand and attempted to calm his breathing and organize his scattering thoughts. Another crash of thunder reverberated through the body and rumbled in his chest such was the intensity and he wearily and painfully straightened up prepared to tackle yet another step.

As he was securing the phone at his waist a crash of thunder coupled with a downward burst of air and blinding flash of lightning startled him and unbalanced him from the force of the wind, the phone slipped from his fingers as he grabbed for the railing to save himself from falling backward.

The cell phone fell between the steps to the basement floor below. Not paying it any further mind as it wasn't working anyway Vin concentrated on rebalancing himself and then pushed and hopped his way up another stair.


This time when the crackle of thunder rumbled through the air Vin thought he heard another smaller crack after the echo died away.


Feeling the handrail wobble under the pressure of his weight Vin stopped momentarily and waited for a flash of lightning to illuminate the area. He didn't have long to wait and the resulting flash clearly showed the source of the smaller creaking and snapping sound he thought he had heard, the railing was detaching from the wall. In a moment Vin was going to lose this support.



Vin felt the railing give way and barely managed to fall face first into the step in front of him, throwing out his right hand he managed to catch hold of the step and stop his fall. With nothing on the right side to hold onto and his left arm out of commission Vin faced seven more stairs to overcome to free himself of the basement.

Another fork of lighting crackled through the air and seemingly struck the house, the structure shuddered and the air filled with a sizzling sound as if massive sparks were erupting from the strike.

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Ring. Ring. Ring.

Nettie grabbed the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Ms. Nettie."

"Well, Josiah, good afternoon, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I was at the Community Center this morning, well, actually only just left a little while ago so I guess that makes it most of today since it's mid-afternoon, anyway, there was a young boy there that only recently arrived. His name is---

"Tommy, yes, I've spent some time with him, heartbreaking truly it is."

"I know, it never gets any easier. Anyway I was wondering if you and I could compare notes about the boy. I managed to make a little headway with him today, got him to sit quite close to me during storytime and even got him to look at me once or twice."

"I'd say that's quite a good bit of progress, Josiah. The only thing I know about the young boy is that his father was quite abusive, and as such he doesn't trust men at all, especially tall men like yourself."

"Yes, there doesn't seem to be much information on him at all, Father Spence did mention that he was picked up from a rundown home, in Purgatorio, I think the name of the street is Florestan - yes, Florestan Avenue."

At the mention of that street Nettie drew in a sharp breath that had Josiah on the alert.

"Did you say Florestan Avenue?"

"Yes, Nettie, is everything all right?"

The silence unnerved Josiah.

"I don't know, funny thing is JD was here most of the day, only left a little while ago and he was working on Casey's computer, kept getting an error code, Casey got to playing 'secret agent' and decoded the numbers and they spelled out the word Florestan. I heard them talking and mentioned that Florestan is one of the main characters in an opera which happens to be a favorite of Vin's."

"An opera? Fidelio? The one that's playing at the Proctor's for the next two weeks?"

"That's it exactly. Well, JD, Casey and I didn't give it anymore thought except I'm going to call Vin and ask him if he wants to go. We haven't seen it in several years. But that's neither here nor there, you didn't call for a discussion of opera and Florestan and Vin's secret hidden admiration for Beethoven, now let me check my calendar and we'll set up a time to meet about young Tommy."

After setting time for the following week Josiah disconnected the call and continued his drive home. As he drove he couldn't help but repeat parts of his conversation with Nettie; Vin liked the opera. Hmmm. Well, not that he was that surprised, Vin hid an amazing array of talents and interests.

As he drove his thoughts switched to the young boy he had spent time with tat the community center. Remembering how much the boy had reminded him of the picture of Vin a bit younger than that he again found himself chuckling over the idea that Vin liked opera, perhaps he'd ask him to tell him about it.

As if on cue Josiah found himself stopped at a red light directly in front of the Proctor's Theater. A huge screen was projecting advertisements for upcoming events and for the current show that was playing. Josiah watched idly hoping to see ticket prices and times thinking maybe he would take in the show when all of a sudden the screen dissolved into an image of Vin and a young woman in period garb.

Startled Josiah looked again and realized that it wasn't actually Vin but rather the image of the actor portraying a part. A small slide show scrolled on the screen showing images of the actors giving their real names and then showing the name of the character they portrayed. Josiah felt a chill creep up his spine as he realized that the actor that resembled Vin at first glance was portraying Florestan in the opera.

Not a man to ignore prophetic messages Josiah signalled and then pulled his car to the curb and sat with the engine idling while he sorted the events of the day. Carefully filtering his thoughts he pieced together the hurt little boy, his conversation with Nettie, the name of the opera character, Florestan, as well as the uncanny resemblance of the actor to Vin, and then the final piece that clicked it all together was the reappearance of the name Florestan, first as the location of where the abused little boy had been found and now as the character in Vin's favorite opera played by an actor that, when dressed in period garb with long hair befitting a prisoner during that time, looked so much like Vin.

Reaching under the passenger seat Josiah pulled out a street map for the City of Denver, checking the index and then turning to the indicated page he located the location. See that it was in Purgatorio sealed the prophecy as far as Josiah was concerned.

Turning his car he pointed it in the direction of Purgatorio. He noted with increasing unease that the rain shower he was currently in was nothing compared to what he saw massing ahead of him, the sky in the direction of Purgatorio was a roiling mass of black clouds filled with lightning and showing all signs of a torrential downpour being unleashed.

Grabbing for his cell phone he hit the number to dial Vin and waited, after several rings the line clicked to the recorded message indicating the customer was not in the service area. Cancelling the call to Vin Josiah hit another speed dial number and while that call was going through he reached for the dashboard, flicked on his rotating red light and pressed harder on the accelerator as cars dutifully moved aside allowing him to pass.

Chapter 6:


Vin managed to gain one more step but the cost was much higher than he anticipated. Left with no handrail to grasp he had thought he might gut it out and gain the final seven steps by hopping up them. One hop was enough to prove to him that wasn't going to work. His head pounded, his ears filled with a roar from the pulsing pain in his skull, his eyes watered and his vision blurred and the resulting gasps of pain only intensified the sharp agony in his left shoulder where his collarbone moved and broken ends ground together from the movement.

Blinking through the tears and the fuzzy vision he looked at the six remaining stairs and knew that even, if he could will himself to hop up them, he would not have the strength to make his way through the house and onto the street where he could only hope someone would stop to help him but in this section of Purgatorio, not only were there not many people, those that were around were unlikely willing to help him.

Opting for the less dignified and hopefully less painful move Vin lowered himself to the stairs and eased his body into a sitting position.


That action, he realized, helped him to gain another step. Now sitting so that he was looking down into the basement he could grasp the handrail that he had held when he had initially started down the stairs oh so long ago.

Stretching his right arm above his head and back he grasped the rail and pulled while pushing with his left leg against the stairs and in so doing, managed to gain another step.


Deciding momentum was on his side he repeated the action and moved upward again.


It was then that the flash of lightning shattered the darkness and he could see the basement below, the very basement that he had been laying in barely a half hour earlier. Water, foaming, swirling, angry water filled the basement and seeped over the stairs. Vin knew that even if the ground was saturated enough to flood the basement there was no way this much water could have accumulated in the basement in the span of the past several hours.

As he watched in amazement the water level rose again; it was already above the tenth step. Gathering his energy once again Vin hoisted himself higher.


M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7

JD grabbed his cell phone before the first ring ended. Bringing it up to his ear he scowled when all that reached his ears was static and then silence as the phone cut out. Figuring it had been a wrong number he hit the caller ID button and was shocked when a familiar line of numbers was displayed: 6-12-15-18-5-19-20-1-14

"What the hell?"

JD nearly dropped the phone as it suddenly lit up and began to ring a second time. This time when he pressed the Talk button a familiar voice reached his ears.





"Look to your left and wave."

JD looked and saw Josiah's Suburban coming towards him at a fast clip, red bulb flashing on the dashboard.

"What's going on, what's happened?"

"I don't know, son, hit your light, swing around and follow me."

JD hit his light, flicked his signal, checked the traffic on the road and pulled a U-turn expertly swinging around and trod on the gas pedal to catch up to Josiah's Suburban.

"Josiah, something weird happened a moment ago."

"Let me guess, something to do with Florestan?"

"How'd you know?"

"JD, look at the sky over Purgatorio."

JD looked further ahead, his eyes widened and his pulse quickened as he saw the circle of swirling black clouds massed over Purgatorio, all around it the sky was gray and a fine line of rain appeared to be falling but underneath the black clouds sheets of rain poured and flashes of lightning sparked through the air.


"I tried calling the others, cell phones seem to be going hairwire. Got through to you finally but only 'cause you appeared right in front of me."

"What's going on?"

"No idea, but my bet is Vin needs us."

"I'm right with you."

JD's fear vanished as the adreneline of the moment started to pour into his system. He set his cell phone down, keeping the line open to Josiah and gripped the steering wheel determinedly. He wasn't familiar with all the street names in Purgatorio but he bet one of them was named Florestan.

M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7


The foamy black water was licking at Vin's shoes as he gained another step, there was only one more to go and he would be free of the basement, no cell phone to call for help but he'd feel better having some air and space, even if it was filled with lightning and howling wind.

Gathering himself for the final upward thrust he felt the stairs on which he was resting shift and in horror he saw the entire structure had come free from the main floor of the house. Throwing all of his energy into one movement he pushed off the falling stairs and managed to grasp the molding of the door frame and pulled himself free of the basement.

Sprawled on the floor he kicked and pedalled backwards, ignoring the stabbing protests of pain from his leg and collarbone and cleared the basement completely so that he was plastered against the cupboard in the kitchen staring at the gaping hole that led down.

Eighteen - plus.

Gasping for air, dizzy from pain, pulse racing from the rush of adreneline Vin stared as the murky black water came over the edge of the stairs and began to stretch towards him only to stop. Amazed Vin watched as the inky wetness began to recoil on itself and then began to ebb and flow as if it was fighting whatever force was pulling it back into the basement.

The battle was fought for several moments until a moan sounded softly through the air and then built and built in volume and intensity until it reached a screaming pitch so intense Vin had no choice but to press his hands to his ears trying to block out the painful noise.

Suddenly the screeching wail ended and the entire structure seemed to shudder as silence came over the house, even the thunder, lightning and pounding of falling rain ceased. Vin watched transfixed as the inky water stilled and then just as suddenly as it had appeared it began to recede.

Breathing a sigh of relief Vin looked around him and for a moment he thought, not only do I think I'm going crazy, I know as soon as I tell the boys about this, they'll know I'm crazy.

The thought had barely passed through his mind when Vin heard a high-pitched keening that started out low and then built. As the sound increased he felt the house shudder and shake. As the few items left in the house began to fall from the counter onto the floor Vin clawed to his feet and began stumbling down the hall to the entrance.

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Buck had been alternately watching the football game and dozing as the rain fell steadily outside. He had been particularly impressed with the quarterback for Texas A&M. The kid was a junior and had only this season taken over the starting position. His name was Gavin Florestan and he hailed from Denver so he was a hero in most of Denver's eyes. Buck liked him 'cause the kid was smart and scrappy and seemed able to fire the football with amazing accuracy, picking his receivers and delivering the ball to them through the tiniest window of opportunity.

The game was a good one too, both teams had strong offense and defense and the game was in the final minutes of play with Texas having the ball and driving hard trying to get into field goal range as the score was tied. With a patience and maturity that most young quarterbacks don't show as they don't have the experience, Gavin, found an opening where one didn't exist and fired the pigskin through it into the capable hands of his favorite receiver who secured the ball and sprinted towards the end zone. Texas A&M only needed to gain about 20 yards to put them securely in field goal range but instead the combined effort of quarterback and receiver saw the team scoring another touchdown, breaking the tie and chalking up a major victory.

Buck leapt to his feet cheering just as loudly as the fans in the stadium onscreen and the jumbotron in the center of the stadium started displaying replays of the play that brought about the winning touchdown, Buck leaned into the screen eager to see the ball thread between two opposing players and just as that image appeared on the screen the jumbotron picture shifted to static and then words began flashing in giant capital letters


Shocked Buck almost fell onto the couch as he stepped back quickly, his legs bumping into the couch behind him. Shaking his head and checking his beverage consumption, one beer, one soda he rubbed his eyes and looked again. Again the jumbotron picture was displaying various angles of the throw, the catch and the touchdown in slow motion. As he watched the picture dissolved and giant block letters flashed at him:


Unable to speak and barely able to process what was happening Buck heard his cell phone ringing. Fumbling for the phone he had left on the coffee table Buck managed to wrap his hands around it never taking his eyes off the screen but the message did not repeat.




"Yeah, I think there's trouble, I'm speeding your way, we gotta ride."

"I'll be ready, I think I know where we have to go."

Chapter 7:

Nathan and Ezra stepped from the vehicle and stared in awe at the sight before them. The two men had had no difficulty in ascertaining just where on Florestan Avenue they needed to be; they simply zeroed in on the swirling mass of clouds, driving rain and flashes of lightning.

Once there Nathan parked as close as he could and the two men were awestruck at the fearsome sight in front of them. Both men had seen violent storms before; neither had ever seen one seemingly sitting on top of one single structure. As they stood there processing the sight before them a huge gust of wind slammed the structure causing the shutters and windows to shake.

Over the din Nathan shouted at Ezra, "What now?"

"I am without a satisfactory plan!"

"My cell phone still shows No Service, how about yours!"

"The same!"

The two men exchanged looks and simultaneously shrugged. Without an idea of what was going on or why they needed to be here, both men started across the street trying to get closer to the shuddering structure.

No sooner had they gained the opposite side of the street when the honking of horns and the screeching of tires reached their ears over the roar of the wind. Both men, bracing each other as the wind's intensity had increased upon reaching the curb in front of the house, turned to look towards the new noise and saw Josiah's and JD's vehicles, lights flashing, jerk to abrupt stops right next to Nathan's car. In seconds the four men gathered in the middle of the street.

"Brothers, I dare say we'll discuss later what brings us to this center of anger and violence; has anyone been able to reach Chris or Buck or by chance Vin?" Josiah bellowed above the noise of the storm.

"No, our phones say No Service, Ezra and I were just about to try and get into the house."

JD shook his head in wonder looking at the house being battered by the violence of the storm that seemed focused solely on its structure. Crazy as it sounded and even would look to any onlookers, he committed himself to going forward and finding a way into that house, there was no doubt in his mind Vin was inside.

Josiah looked at JD and saw the determination shining in his eyes and gave him a short nod before looking to Ezra and Nathan who in turn gave him short nods. Spread four wide the men crossed the street, stepped up onto the curb, climbed the steps to the porch and were blasted backward by an unseen force that threw them not only off the porch but with enough force that landed them in a tangle of limbs back in the middle of the street.

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Buck was hopping from one foot to the other as he waited at the curb for Chris. After hanging up with Larabee he had grabbed his gear and headed outside. He wasn't sure how far away Chris was but wanted to be ready to dive into the truck. Now that he was aware there was something wrong - a fact confirmed by Chris' urgent call - he was anxious to get a move on.

In the three minutes he had been jumping around outside waiting on Chris Buck had dialed all the other members of the team and had received the same recorded message indicating the cell customer was out of the area. Buck was just about to dial Chris' cell when the man in question came screeching around the corner, black Ram lurching wildly through the turn, tires squealing, the smell of burnt rubber filling the air.

As the truck approached Buck saw Chris lean across and then the passenger door swung open. Buck leapt into the truck as it slowed, didn't stop, pulled the door behind him so that it closed with a loud bang and strapped himself in as Chris was once again heavy on the accelerator.

"I was about ready to drive myself."

"Hell, Buck, not fast enough for you."

"Why'd you wait so long to call, if you knew there was trouble, you could have told me where and I'd have been there by now."

"I been trying for the past 40 plus minutes. Damn near broke the sound barrier driving so fast, cell phone only connected five minutes ago, damndest thing."

"Yeah, well, I tried calling the rest of the team, no joy there, did manage to memorize the route to Florestan Avenue."

"Florestan what?"

"Avenue, we're headed to Florestan Avenue - wait a minute, you don't know that?"

"Nope, only know there's trouble and Vin needs us - which way?"

With Buck navigating and Chris driving the two men made quick work of the trip and managed to arrive at the house that was the center of nature's fury in time to see their four teammates repelled from the house and land in a heap on the street.

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Inside the house Vin had managed to crawl and claw his way to the front door which was wide open, however, his attempt at exiting the house was as unsuccessful as his colleagues' attempt to enter. The moment his hand met the seemingly open air of the doorway he felt a barrier. Amazed he looked at the opening carefully and saw his view of the outside ripple and distort as if he were looking through water that had been disturbed. Trying again he had the same experience as the first time, he could clearly see out but there was some sort of barrier, nothing that he could see that blocked him.

Leaning against the door frame in exhaustion Vin closed his eyes as he tried to gather his thoughts. Hearing the howling of the wind intensify and the sound of the shutters rattling against the side of the house he opened his eyes to investigate what more the storm could be doing to the house.

Squinting through the sheets of rain that the wind was driving nearly sideways he made out figures in the street, one, two, three - there were four forms climbing to their feet in the street and he saw two others rushing to help them, the street was lit by the flashes of lightning as well as hues of red that, as Vin continued to peer out the door, he realized came from police lights.

His brain began to orient itself to the six men outside and Vin realized with a rush of relief that left him lightheaded that the six men were his friends, whatever power that seemed to hold this house in its spell was not able to keep his friends from him. Help was here; he was not alone. As he watched the six men gathered together in the drenching rain, and then as one they headed towards the house.

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This time when the men reached the porch there was no barrier, no force thrusting them back; with the addition of the remaining two members of the team 'the house' let them onto the porch. No sooner had they all reached the porch than the front door of the house slammed shut, blocking Vin from their view. Just as suddenly the shutters slammed shut on all the windows like dominoes, one after the other the shutters locked away the windows.

Josiah drew a deep breath of alarm as he saw the number painted on the door, 72 Florestan.

"Boys, I think I know what's going on!" He shouted above the din of the storm and Chris, Buck's and Nathan's fists hammering against the door and shutters.

"STOP!" He roared trying to get their attention.

It worked. Even the storm stilled and silence reigned. A quick glance at the sky told Ezra that the storm had not dissipated, it was merely swirling all around them and they were in the proverbial 'eye of the hurricane.'

"I know, or at least I think I know what's happening." He repeated now that he had their attention.

"Enlighten us quickly, Mr. Sanchez, I fear the fury of the storm will fast resume."

"I met a boy today, his name is Tommy—"

At the mention of the name the house emitted a horrific groan. The men looked at Josiah willing him to talk faster.

"His father was abusive and Child Services ultimately took the boy from the father. Actually 'cause of the mother they took the boy away and the father is dead, he died here."

"Wait, Josiah, are you saying the house is haunted?" JD exclaimed.

"It's possible."

"I thought you didn't believe in stuff like that, being spiritual and all." Buck said, amazed they were even listening to this, he could see Chris drinking in every word.

"Spiritual minded people are aware that not all is light, in fact, Buck where there is light there is dark, where there are shadows, rejoice for a shadow means the light is near. Look around you, the storm is centered here, I bet each of you in some way were sent something, some sign."

Looking around he saw awareness appearing in the others' faces and watched as they all exchanged looks of amazement.

"Well, my sign, now that I understand it, is a little boy I met at the Community Center this morning. His father used to hurt him and the story that I got from Father Spence after I spent time with the boy is that the little boy's father pushed him down the stairs causing him injuries and that's when the mother finally got scared enough and filed charges and got away."

"Okay. So what does this have to do with Vin?" Chris asked still trying to pull the door from the doorframe.

"I don't know just yet, Chris, but here's the other fact I found out about Tommy's father. The day after his mother brought him to the hospital and reported what had been happening the police had a warrant for his father's arrest. They came here to serve the warrant and arrest him on child endangerment and found the front door wide open. Upon entering the house and searching they found the father at the bottom of the basement stairs, his neck broken. He'd fallen, or been pushed or threw himself, no one knows. His death remains open, filed under mysterious circumstances."

"Are you saying Vin killed him; Vin came here and pushed Tommy's father down the stairs?" Chris asked incredulously, trying to understand where Josiah was going.

"No, but I saw Tommy and he looks exactly like Vin did at that age, we've seen the picture of Vin and his mom, granted, Vin's a couple of years younger but Tommy has the same eyes, the same facial structure, hair, he and Vin could have been twins were there not 20 years separating them."

"All right. So Vin looks like this little boy, Vin is hurt, right I only saw him briefly but the fact that he didn't come running out to us, didn't call, he was holding his arm funny, he had something tied around his leg, he's hurt, so Vin's hurt, Josiah, are you saying that the soul of Tommy's father is holding him hostage?" Nathan couldn't believe he'd just said those words out loud.

"Yes, and we were all summoned here by someone or something to get him out."

"So we need to figure out how to do it, all right, men. Put it together, what brought us here: Josiah, you told us your clues, anything else?" Chris didn't understand things spiritual and wasn't about to try to figure them out now, he did understand things procedural so he decided to fall back on that and get the pieces on the table.

"Yes, I called Nettie to talk to her about Tommy. I mentioned this street address and that's when she told me about Fidelio." He looked to JD and saw the excitement and awareness growing in the bright young agent's eyes.

"Yes, yes, I was with Nettie and Casey working on Casey's computer, a code kept coming up and Casey figured out that it spelled Florestan which got Nettie telling us about the opera 'cause that's the name of the hero in Beethoven's Fidelio."

"And Rain and I went to the opera today, Fidelio of course, and the man who played Florestan looked so like Vin with his long hair from being in a prison and his blue eyes, even his name is shortened to Vin back in his home town."

"And I lent you my CD for Fidelio so you could be prepared and it never occurred to me until you got to my house and returned it that there was no way my CD player could have changed from Mozart to Beethoven since you had it but that kept happening."

"Well the only sign I got was ---"

"What Buck." Chris growled this was not the time for holding back.

"Well, I was watching the Texas A&M game and the jumbotron flashed -" Buck stopped looking embarrassed.

"Flashed what, Buck!" Chris grabbed his friend by the shirt front.

"It flashed a message: Buck help Florestan Avenue, and then you called and so - so here we are."

"Chris, what was your message?"

Chris paled as he realized all the signs he had received, "Vin is hurt, my shoulder hurt this morning, Peso got hurt in the leg, Nathan didn't you say you think Vin has injuries like that?"

As Nathan nodded he realized he was right. "Then I saw the storm and tried to call Vin and his cell didn't work so I tried again and there was - there was something, a woman's voice said 'Cowboy' and that was it."

"A woman? Josiah, is Tommy's mother dead?" Buck asked.

"No, she's at the community center with him."

"Then who—"

"Ezra, quick, a summary of Fidelio." Chris urged.

"Leonore, his wife, dresses as a man, Fidelio, and enters the prison to rescue her husband, Florestan, who has been held prisoner for political crimes. It's the story of the undying faithfulness of a woman to save the man she loves above all."

"And who loves a man above all if not a wife?" Josiah asked.

"A mother." Buck answered confidently.

"Vin's mother is telling us to be here. Find a way in. She brought us here, she must need our help or she would have gotten him out herself, spread out, keep each other in sight and find a window, a door, a crack anything that gets us in that house."

The six men spread out and surrounded the house, each one keeping another in his line of sight so, if something happened, he could signal for help and the signal would be passed along.

The storm that had thus far been swirling above them but no longer buffeting them or the house began to swell in intensity and once again the men were battling the wind, driving rain the sound of the lightning and thunder and --- there was something else.

JD stopped and smelled the air; he could smell more than the scent of rain and the lingering burning odor that happened when lightning struck nearby. He could smell --- apples?

Apples and cinnamon.

Moving forward he realized the smell was getting stronger and stronger and suddenly he was washed in the smell of it. It was everywhere and he looked and saw he was standing in front of the kitchen door.


Apple Pie.



Buck looked at him sharply and as JD waved frantically he signaled to Nathan who signaled to Josiah and so on and in moments the six men stood in front of the kitchen door.

Chris reached his hand forward, grasped the doorknob and turned.


Entering the house was like entering a mini tornado, the floor was strewn with broken items and dust and water and bits of glass and paper whirled through the air. The six men kept their hands up in front of them to ward of flying debris from hitting them in the face and head, however, their hands and exposed skin still began to sport various cuts and nicks from the debris.

The chaos of the mini tornado was at a glaring contrast to the delicious aroma of apples and cinnamon that also filled the air and swirled around the men.

"Don't you guys get it?" JD yelled above the noise, ducking as a bottle flew at his head only to smash into the wall behind him as he ducked out of its way.

"Mom and apple pie! It's got to be Vin's mom that led us here that's the smell, apples and cinnamon! I always think of mom when I smell that."

Looking around he noticed Buck nodding his head in agreement.

Ezra for his part didn't agree but that, he decided, was for a different time and place; right now they needed to get to Vin and get out.

Plowing forward, one after the other, the six men made their way to the front of the house. As they crossed in front of the doorway leading down to the basement they couldn't help but look down knowing that that's where Tommy's father had been found. Each was shocked to see not the bottom of the basement stairs, or even a stairwell leading down into the dusky interior but rather they saw foaming water lapping almost evilly right at the threshold as if it could go that far but no further.

Shaking off the apprehension that could easily lead to terror they moved forward faster until they reached Vin.

Chris reached out to Vin who was slumped on the floor, leaning against the wall. Gently he tapped his friend's cheek and called out softly to him.

Nathan quickly checked and found a pulse, a little faint, a little thready. Vin's skin felt cold, he was soaked to the bone and there was evidence of a bloody injury under a scarf tied around his right leg.

"Vin, come on pard' it's Chris and the boys." Chris gently cupped Vin's chin and lifted his face up a bit.

Vin's eyes fluttered open at the touch and the sound of his friend calling out to him.

"Took - ya' - long - enough."

Chris smiled, Vin had a bit of cussedness in his tone, that was a good sign.

"Yeah, well, we'll talk about that later. Right now, we got to get you out of here. Do you think you can stand if we help you?"

Vin gave a weary nod. Pulling his belt off, Nathan quickly strapped it around Vin's left arm and snugged it tight to keep Vin's arm braced against his chest. Nathan and Chris gently eased him to his feet; Chris staying on Vin's right to help him keep his weight off that leg, Nathan steadying him on the left, careful to touch his waist and stay away from his arm.

Nodding to the rest, Chris moved Vin slowly forward, Josiah took the lead followed by Ezra, JD and Buck with Nathan, Vin and Chris bringing up the rear. The men didn't attempt to go through the front door; instead they retraced their steps back towards the kitchen, passed by the snarling swirling water that filled the basement.

Now that the seven men were together they felt as if they were enveloped in a pocket of air or a bubble that protected them. They easily moved through the debris swirling in the kitchen and they were surrounded by the scent of apples and apple pies. Yes, they felt protected.

Following slowly with Vin Chris hazarded a glance behind him feeling intense heat. Amazed he saw flames bursting out from the walls, the ceiling the floor behind them. Urging Nathan on they practically carried Vin who staggered badly and began to shake from cold or shock. Chris slung Vin's right arm over his shoulder practically lifting him off the ground and Nathan supported him as best he could from the left.

Vin moaned once, "Mama," and then was limp letting Chris and Nathan support his weight.

Josiah reached the kitchen door and just as he was about to slam it open it blasted open and away from the house. Stumbling outside he turned back quickly assisting one after the other out of the house. When all were out they stumbled and ran as fast as they could as they tried to put as much distance as possible between them and the structure.

The wind roared faster and a screaming reached their ears from the tornado that seemed only centered on the burning structure that was rapidly being engulfed in the flames. The men were flattened to the ground by the wind blasting at them and in an instant the house disintegrated with the force of the wind outside of it and the destruction of the fire within.


Later that night six men were gathered in the hospital room of the seventh. Vin looked a little better now that he was cleaned up and bandaged, had an IV dripping fluids and a mild sedative into his system.

Buck chuckled softly as he stepped near Vin's slumbering form and peered down at his friend who was almost completely wrapped in blankets.

"Most amazing thing ever, you know?" He said turning to look at the rest of the team.

"Want to add something else to the weirdness column?" JD asked.

"What's that, JD." Josiah encouraged.

"Tell, them Chris, about Peso that is."

Chris looked at the others, "I called Charlie Peterson, told him there was an emergency and asked him to check the horses and check Peso's injury and treat it again. Well, he called me back and said what injury?"

The rest of the men looked at him with heightened interest.

"I told him, the right hindquarter, I bandaged it before I left. He told me that he saw the bandages, took them off and there was nothing, not a mark, not a scar, not a gouge, hole, scrape, piece of hair out of place, nothing. Said Peso just turned his head and watched him calm as can be. 'Course he also said as soon as he took all the bandages and stuff off and moved away Peso kicked out with that leg and dented the back of his stall."

The men chuckled, Peso had a temper when he wanted and usually that temper spiked higher anytime he was being fussed over.

The men were silent each lost in their thoughts of what they had seen or heard or felt and knowing that no one outside of their brotherhood would ever believe them if they breathed a word of it to anyone and thankful that all the others were somehow a part of the secret.

Vin mumbled a bit and muttered from the bed, Chris leaned in and was sure he heard the word, Mama. Smiling a bit he tucked the blanket a little tighter around Vin and then sat back, keeping his hand resting on Vin's right shoulder.

Back at the soggy, smoky ruins of 72 Florestan Avenue the firemen finished coiling up their hoses, stowing their equipment and head out to return to the station. They'd responded to the 911 call by a bunch of ATF agents to a structure fire and arrived in time to finish soaking down the structure so that it didn't send any sparks into the nearby trees.

The day had been fairly wet so most everything around the burning house was damp and unlikely to catch fire. Still the chief kept a pumper truck and a team on site to finish soaking everything down, pull apart any piles and make sure the area was secure.

It was now going on midnight and the site commander finished his inspection and deemed the site safe. As the truck pulled slowly away from the curb leaving the soggy, sad remains behind a gust of wind laden with the hint of apples and cinnamon wafted almost teasingly over the structure, circling and dancing above the opening in the ground that was what was left of the basement.

Below ground, in the basement a small whirlpool of water burbled to life and rose up as if seeking to reach the warm apple scented air, then it receded once again content to lurk beneath the surface and wait.



October 2007