The Saturday evening before…
“Talk to me.” Chris cradled the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he forked over the steak on the grill with one hand and spiced the meat with the shaker in the other.
“Yeah, Buck?” He turned down the heat and stepped away from the grill to distance himself from the sizzling sirloin as he took the phone in his hand to listen more intently. Buck’s voice sounded strangely subdued.
“I think something’s happened to JD.”
Chris resisted the urge to sigh impatiently because Mother hen was worried again.
“He was supposed to be home by now.”
“It’s only 7:30. Maybe he’s at Casey’s.”
“He’s not. Casey’s got an assignment due next week and needed to work on it tonight. I called. Nettie said he phoned Casey this morning to say he couldn’t make it but he never phoned here.”
“Maybe he went out for supper?”
“But he told Nettie he’d be here…”
Chris frowned as he turned the grill off to end the noise of cooking meat. He was missing something here. “Buck, from the top.”
“I stayed at Tricia’s last night. When I got home this morning, JD was gone.” Buck had to be worried. It had taken him a month to get a date with Tricia and now he wasn’t even taking a second to comment on his conquest. “I figured he’d gone to Mass…”
“Gone to Mass?”
“Yeah, you know, church. He goes about once a month, something to do with a promise to his ma. Anyway I figured he’d gone to Mass before going over to Casey’s for lunch. He’d talked about maybe them going for a ride on his bike this afternoon but he was going to be back here for supper. When he didn’t show I called Casey’s; she was working on her assignment so I talked to Nettie. Nettie said JD had phoned about noon and told Casey he wasn’t feeling well and that he was going to stay home. But he’s not here, his bike is gone and there’s no note and no message on my cell or the machine.”
Chris suddenly had a bad feeling. Mia was away for the week. She went back to the reservation with Kody to visit family, so he’d invited Vin out to help repair the gate to the exercise corral. It was Peso, after all, who’d taken offence to it and kicked it off its hinges. Vin had said he had some work to do on his bike but that he’d likely be out Sunday to help. Chris had laid out a couple of steaks expecting him but he never showed. He hadn’t called, which in and of itself wasn’t all that unusual, but it wasn’t like Vin to pass up a free meal.
“Buck, I’ll call Vin. You get a hold of the others. We’ll meet at the office in half an hour.”
“Before you go to the office, stop by JD’s church and see if anyone remembers if he was at the Mass this morning.”
“I was planning on doing that anyway.”
When Chris wasn’t able to get a hold of Vin via his cell phone, Chris went straight to Vin and Mia’s place. Elderly Mrs. Cassidy next door told him Vin had left on his bike about noon the day before. She hadn’t seen him since.
It was nearly ten o’clock by the time Chris strode through the
office doors. He pushed his hand through his hair, in the all too familiar
gesture of worry, as he advised the others that they were now looking
for two missing agents. Expressions around the room became even grimmer
with the news. Few words were spoken as the team settled into the task
of searching for their missing friends.
Josiah got to it first. “It’s JD’s cell number!” reported Josiah after reading the telephone’s display. He looked up at Chris standing in the conference room doorway. Chris nodded to Josiah who picked up the receiver.
“You’re gonna want to put this call on speaker,” the voice was raspy, the tone arrogant.
“Okay, just a minute.” Josiah shot an urgent look at Chris that told Chris that it wasn’t JD on the telephone.
“Ezra,” ordered Chris, “we need a call trace!”
Ezra dove to phone on his desk and called in the request for a call trace.
Josiah waited five precious seconds while the rest of them crowded around the conference table before he hit the speaker button. Then Josiah carefully placed the receiver back into its cradle.
“Go ahead.” Josiah told the caller just as Ezra joined them.
There was silence and then a muffled noise that Chris recognized as a fist impacting with flesh.
“Talk,” the raspy voice ordered. “Tell ‘em you’re okay.”
The static that echoed from the conference phone speaker seemed to fill the room as something rubbed up against the mouthpiece of the caller’s phone, a moment later the soft “poo-tah” as someone spat, more static warbled from the speaker phone. Again Chris listened in agonizing helplessness at the sound of another heavy blow.
Chris jumped as Buck unexpectedly dropped with a thump onto his hands onto the conference table. There was no mistaking the owner of the anguished cry. It was JD.
Buck stared at the speakerphone, his eyes wide with the horror of what he was imagining was happening at the other end of the phone.
Again the speaker echoed as they heard a new voice distant and slurred, “What’s the time?”
“Long enough,” replied the raspy voice.
“So long ass…” The line went dead.
No one moved. They waited hoping the call would resume again. Instead, everyone was startled by a sudden loud dial tone.
Josiah reached over and hit the disconnect button. Chris raised his head to find Josiah, Nathan and Ezra staring intently at him. Chris could see the same questions he had in their eyes. This didn’t make sense! There was no indication as to what the caller wanted, no demands. Nothing! Only the confirmation that they had someone. They now knew that whoever it was had JD. Did they have Vin too?
Buck continued to stare at the phone, as if willing it to tell him where JD was. Chris spat out a curse and ran his hand through his hair again. ‘What the hell was going on here?’
The heavy silence that had descended was abruptly shattered by the shrill ringing of Ezra’s telephone.
Ezra darted out the door of the conference room and scooped up the receiver before it rang a second time. “Yes, yes, thank you, officer,” he replied to the caller. Hanging up the phone, he returned to the room. “Trace managed to triangulate the call to the suburb of Aurora. Specifically to within a six square block radius of the intersection of Wilson and Highway Seven.”
“That’s the new subdivision going in just North of the highway out to my place.” The others crowded around as Josiah pointed to the intersection on the outskirts of the city on the area map pinned to the conference room wall. He frowned. “It’s a neighbourhood designated residential, mostly houses with a few mini-malls, schools and churches.”
“Any vacant buildings out there?” asked Nathan as he studied the streets in the area Josiah indicated.
“No, just homes built close together. Families are moving into them almost as soon as the houses are ready.”
“How about light industrial or warehousing,” asked Chris.
“No, nothing like that. Like I said, just suburbs.”
“Anything unusual going on in the neighbourhood?” Buck’s voice sounded strained. From the look of him, Buck was struggling to focus on the job.
“No,” Josiah shook his head thoughtfully, “and it’s likely we would have heard; the residents have already started a neighbourhood watch program.”
“Are there any structures removed from the immediate vicinity where illicit activity might be conducted unobserved by the neighbourhood inhabitants?” queried Ezra.
“No… wait a minute! The New Millennium Fellowship Church is here.” He pointed to a corner three blocks away from the edge of the development. “They decided to build now because the surrounding area is slated to begin family dwellings next year. The Church is under construction. In fact they just finished roofing the building last week and it’s far enough away that no one might notice if anything was going on.”
Chris felt all eyes train on him as he squinted up at the map and the corner where Josiah indicated the Church was. It wasn’t much; their next move was his call.
“It’s all we’ve got right now,” said Chris, his voice grim. “We mount up! Nathan, Josiah, you’re with me. Buck, Ezra, you’re staying here.”
“Buck, you’re too close to-”
“Like hell! JD’s out there!”
“Buck, I gave you an order-”
“Mr. Wilmington?” Ezra cut in smoothly casting an uncertain glance first at Chris, then at Buck. “Buck, if the perpetrators do call back, I think it would most beneficial to JD’s state of mind if you were here to talk to him.”
Chris watched as the quandary Ezra had presented played across Buck’s face: to wait for another possible call, or to gamble on what Buck knew to be a long shot at best and go check out this church. Ezra had neatly averted a dangerous test of wills between himself and Buck.
“Ezra, contact Travis and advise him of the situation,” ordered Chris.
“Will do, and, Chris…?” Ezra’s request was obvious.
“I’ll call, Ezra. Whatever we find, I’ll call.”
What they found was JD, cuffed, bloody and unconscious on the dirty, cement floor just inside the worship of the church. He lay in a dusky pool of moonlight that bathed the interior of the church as it shone through the huge silhouetted cross that hung in the centre of the peaked three storey window.
Twenty feet away, in the shadows of the narthex, down on one knee, was Vin. He was as close to JD as he could get, straining to the limit of his handcuffed arms, watching over their youngest in mute desperation.
“He’s very lucky.”
“Lucky?” Buck’s snort was loud and sarcastic.
“Steady stud,” cautioned Chris, only to end up on the receiving end of an accusing look.
Buck turned his ire back on the doctor. “How the hell do you call what’s happened to that kid lucky?”
“Because he’s alive.” The doctor levelled a hard look at Buck. Then the man sighed heavily before rubbing his hand over the greying stubble on his chin. The gesture spoke of the doctor’s fatigue. “Look, I know the beating looks bad but there is relatively little damage considering. Some broken ribs, a minor concussion, the obvious bruises and contusions, and that’s all.”
“…And that’s lucky,” said Buck contemptuously. Chris wanted to deck Buck for his insolence.
“Whoever did this used brass knuckles; they could have easily killed him if they had wanted to.” The doctor’s angry tone of voice and a glare that rivalled one of Chris’s in its intensity put Buck back in his place. Chris felt Buck shudder beside him at the Doctor’s candour. “I’d say you’re dealing with pros,” the doctor concluded.
“Pros, Doc?” Asked Josiah, his deep steady voice provided a measure of calm to the situation.
Now that they knew JD was going to be okay it was time to work the case. They had a mystery to solve. They had yet to figure out what was really going on here. How qualified was this doctor in assessing JD’s injuries? If what he said was true, why did the perps hold back from seriously injuring the kid? What was it they wanted?
“Professional muscle,” replied the doctor.
“What experience have you had with professional muscle, Doctor?” Chris was somewhat sceptical of the doctor’s conclusion. They had used JD’s own phone. They had stayed on the line long enough for the call to be traced and they had left a witness. This did not feel professional to Chris.
“Eight years working Emergency in East LA, you learn a thing or two about beatings.” There was an angry edge to the doctor’s words.
“Sorry Doc,” said Chris, “we have to understand just what it is we’re dealing with here.”
The doctor nodded his acceptance of the apology. “It been a long night for all of us.” The doctor’s fatigue was showing. “All I’m saying is based on my experience it could have been a helluva lot worse.”
“Can we see him?” Asked Buck respectfully.
“The nurses tell me you guys are regulars here, and that one of you is a certified EMT.” The doctor seemed to ignore Buck’s request.
“I am,” replied Nathan.
“If you’re willing to look after him, you can take him home in a couple of hours.”
“No problem, that’s S O P for us.”
“So the nursing staff tells me,” commented the doctor dryly. “Come with me, I’ll brief you on what you need to watch out for.” He looked at Buck before asking, “You’re Buck?”
“He’s been worried about you. Come on then.”
Chris clapped Buck on the shoulder.
Buck looked over his shoulder at Chris. His eyes narrowed slightly before he roughly shrugged off the comforting gesture, turned away and followed after the doctor.
“Oh hell! What’s he doing home at this time of day?” Del cursed when she heard the familiar rattle of the battered old suburban as it made its way up the quarter-mile driveway.
Del hurriedly tried to disentangle herself from dusty job of powdering the dogs against the ticks prevalent in the bush this time of year. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever was an unnecessary and cruel way for an animal to die.
Josiah’s early arrival home wasn’t why she’d cursed, though. It was one of Josiah’s favourite tricks to undo her bra hooks through the back of her shirt and leave her struggling whenever she was elbow deep in some mucky mess or other.
“Hey, Del.” Josiah barely even glanced in her direction on his way by the kennel.
“Hey, yourself. How’s our boy doing today?” she called after him. He never even broke stride, just kept on walking toward the house.
“Seems to be healing,” he called over his shoulder briefly before climbing the steps and disappearing into the house.
“Lord Almighty, what’s happened now,” she wondered, dropping her gloves as she hurried after him. No hug, no kiss, no teasing, no tickle … something was wrong.
The usual greeting was a giant hug that knocked the ever-present Broncos ball cap off her head, and a kiss on the mouth that would travel across her cheek so he could nibble for a moment on her ear before traveling down the back of her neck. It would be about then that Rosie would lend her opinion with a “Yeeuch!” With a parting tickle to her mother’s ribs, Daddy would then turn his attentions on his daughter and chase her until he caught her and swung her up in the air before blowing “raspberries” on her tummy, all the while Rosie screaming and laughing in delighted protest. After growing up in a family that was staunchly religious in its coldness to one another, Josiah was not about to let a single day go by that he didn’t let his women folk know just how much he loved them.
Today there had hardly even been a hello.
The back door opened directly into the tiny kitchen. The fridge door stood slightly ajar. When she tried to close it she found she couldn’t. The door bumped up against the crisper drawer filled with beer. It was sitting open just enough to keep the fridge door from closing. It was easier to grab a beer quickly if the bottles were neatly stacked in a drawer rather than stuck here and there amongst everything else in the fridge.
Something is definitely wrong here, thought Del grimly as she grabbed a beer for herself and pushed the drawer shut with her foot before closing the fridge door. “The big guy just isn’t that absent minded.”
Del followed the trail of his discards through the snug living room. The worn Nikes, the jean jacket, then the ring with his dog tags and keys stacked predictably on top of the small black folder that held his badge and I.D. were left in their usual spot, on top of the barn board wall unit that held the TV, a few books and Rosie’s toys. Finally, gun and shoulder holster were left hanging on the doorknob of the door leading to their room.
Del was shocked. Something was really wrong; even if Rosie wasn’t home from school yet, the gun was always locked away, first thing.
She found him in the sun porch. Trying to act nonchalant, she slid into the sturdy old rocker that had been Del’s maternal great-grandmother’s. Until recently it had been in Rosie’s room. It had been moved out to make room for the Barbie dollhouse, a gift from her Uncle Ezra.
Ezra had been somewhat concerned with Rosie’s lack of interest in the more traditionally feminine pursuits of young girls and had given Rosie a Barbie dollhouse on her last birthday. In true Standish fashion, however, the house was one of the most exclusive items the Barbie Corporation sold. It stood six inches taller than Rosie and three feet square. There were three full floors within, a circular staircase, curtained windows and even a secret passageway. One wall swung open to allow easy access inside to arrange furniture, dolls, doll clothing, doll dishes and so on. In Rosie’s case, however, the house accommodated her figurines of horses and dogs, while Barbie lay ignored on the floor of her clothes closet… until Uncle Ezra came to visit.
The rocker sat beside a huge, aged, overstuffed chair that Josiah had brought with him. A flea market treasure that he’d picked up twenty years before. There was just no room in the house for it, so it had been relegated to the sun porch. Though the maroon leather covering was cracked and worn, Josiah had been loath to give it up - it was one of the few pieces of furniture that his big frame fit into comfortably.
“Not sure,” he said before tipping back the bottle and taking a long swig of the amber ale. He cradled the bottle with both hands and watched her as she took a drink of her own beer.
He rarely brought the job home with him; the men, often, the job, not if he could help it. This time the job was the men, at least Vin and JD anyway. She knew this kidnapping was having a profoundly negative effect on the whole team, and that this case in particular was nagging at her husband because people he cared for had been hurt.
He held the half-full bottle tapping it absently with his index finger as his gaze wandered across the back yard down the dip of the hill to the river. “JD made it in today. He stayed long enough for the de-briefing and then Buck took him home. The bruises sure are colourful but he says he looks worse than he feels.”
Del snorted gently and shook her head. “Why am I not surprised?” she said dryly before taking another sip. “You know that boy would say the same thing if someone had just separated his head from his neck and handed it to him.”
Josiah gave a gentle chuckle and nodded in agreement before taking another long swallow from the brown bottle.
“What did JD say happened?”
“He remembers walking down the street toward his bike after Mass. He parks one block over, next to the Edison building. It’s easier to turn onto West Avenue from there to catch the freeway out to Casey’s than use the parking lot at St. Andrew’s, but the street is completely deserted on the weekends. Then next thing he remembers he’s handcuffed and blindfolded. The perp holds a cell phone to his ear and tells him to talk to Casey. At first JD refused but then the perp gave him her address and threatened to have her join him.”
Josiah paused for a moment before continuing in a low whisper, “It was after he talked to Casey that they laid the first beating on him.”
“Oh lord.” Del dropped her eyes hoping to hide the distress she knew he would see there for the young man her daughter looked upon as her favourite playmate. “How many?”
“JD’s not sure.” Josiah sighed deeply. “Vin says three.”
Josiah took another drink from his bottle. Del sat and let the thought of JD bound, blind, with no way to defend himself, beaten again and again. Del was no lightweight, she’d seen her share of injustices and cruelty, but even so she shivered in spite of herself.
“What about Vin?”
“Saturday, Vin was heading home from Gabriel’s Bike Heaven when his motorcycle died on him. He remembers a car stopping behind him and a male voice asking if he needed help and that’s it until he woke up in the church with a helluva headache. He figures the sun was just rising based on the light inside the church. He guesses it was about four hours before they brought JD in.”
“Any leads as to the bastards who did this are?”
“We got a report this morning, Denver PD found two bodies last night. They’d been shot. Vin I.D.’ed them based on their height, weight and clothing. They wore balaclavas the whole time, he never saw their faces.” Josiah drained the bottled before continuing. “Peter and Anthony Nichols, a real sweet pair who made a living as hire thugs… but they’re dead now so it’s not likely we’re going to find out who hired them.”
Josiah reached down to set his empty beer bottle on the floor and then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and rest his chin on the intertwined fingers of his hands. “Del, JD and Vin’s kidnapping doesn’t make any sense from beginning to end or anywhere in between.”
He frowned as he descended deeper into his thoughts. “Why kidnap them and then not make any demands? The Nicholls brothers were muscle for hire, not kidnappers, and why beat up JD and leave Vin to watch? Who murdered them and why? None of this makes any damn sense.
Just to add to this mess, the team’s not working well. Buck and Chris are mad as hell at each other. Chris because Buck threatened Vin. Buck because Chris took after him in defence of Vin, he figures Chris is happier that it was JD and not Vin that got hurt. Vin’s feeling guilty for not finding a way to help JD, and is pissed at Chris for the way he treated Buck.
And JD,” Josiah shook his head ruefully. “JD’s putting up a front. He’s saying if he took the beatings to spare Vin then it was worth it. That’s only adding to Vin’s guilt.” Josiah sighed heavily. “After the briefing I talked to him alone, just to see how he was really doing. He’s wondering why he was beaten and Vin wasn’t. The trauma from the beatings has got JD thinking crazy things, like did Vin do something to get out of being beaten. Then in the next breath JD’s ashamed for even thinking something like that of Vin.
Nathan’s worse than ever, down on Buck for letting JD coming in so soon and looking at me to find a way to help Vin with his guilt. I thought Ezra was okay until he drank a whole cup of Vin’s coffee this morning and never even noticed that he’d done it!” Josiah kept his elbows on his knees as he dropped his hands and rubbed the palms together slowly. “Lord love us, let’s face it, the way to upset everybody the most is to pick on the youngest of us. That boy is such a damn mix of naivete and hard knocks.”
Josiah straightened up in his chair and turned to look at his wife. “I would have bet it’d be damn near impossible to get in between us but this case is doing it. The trust between four key agents is just blown all to hell and the rest of us aren’t thinking straight.”
Del shook her head. “Men! Why can’t they see what’s right in front of them,” she thought to herself as she finished off the last of her beer before commenting. “Maybe that’s why it was done.”
“What?” He caught her gaze with his own.
“Sounds to me, big guy, like someone’s playing with you boys.”
She watched his eyes as the clouds of confusion swirled within the blue depths. ”Look at the bunch of you right now, mad at one another, not talking, fighting between yourselves. You’re no damn good as a team in this condition.”
The blue depths cleared as the clouds of confusion suddenly disappeared. “Someone’s screwing with us on purpose?”
“It sure seems that way to me.”
He back pedalled through his thoughts. The kidnapping may not make any sense except that the result was that the team dynamics had been shot to hell. It was so simple why hadn’t he seen it? He paused a moment then shook his head before leaning over and planting a quick kiss on his wife’s lips. Sitting back again he gave her a long admiring look. The woman never ceased to amaze him and not just because, for some reason beyond his understanding, she had given him a second look six years ago, but because she had a way of seeing things so clearly.
“You might just be right, Delancey Cowper. Someone has very neatly driven a wedge in middle of this team just where it would do the most damage.”
She smiled. “I knew you’d figure it out, big guy. How about another beer?” She rose from the rocker as she asked.
“Sounds good.” He caught her wrist before she turned to leave. He tugged gently on her arm pulling her down toward him. He gave her another kiss. Then he stood and took her in his arms. Their kisses deepened. Their tongues duelled for a moment before Del drew away from him. Looking up at him she gave him a lazy smile. He looked down into the smoky hazel gaze that held his.
“When’s Rosie’s school bus due?” he asked thickly.
A horn blast from the bottom of the driveway answered his question.
Del chuckled. “We’ll pick this up again later. In the meantime, you better put your gun away before she gets here.”
“My gun?” a slow smile curled his lips at the innuendo.
“The one you left hanging in the hallway,” replied Del firmly.
“Yes, boss.” He pulled her to himself again. “Just remember where we left off.”
“There’s no fear of that,” she replied in that silky tone he had come to know so well. They shared another long kiss before Del eased herself out of his arms. Del sighed deeply before slipping back into the house to greet Rosie home from school.
He followed her back into the house and scooped up the gun and holster. His thoughts wandered back to the case as he locked them away. The implications of this were sobering. A team that wasn’t functioning well was vulnerable. “Sonuvabitch!” he swore to himself. He’d never let Del know, she’d figure it out soon enough on her own anyway, but the thought that someone knew them well enough to do this much damage to the team scared the shit out of him.
Whoever was responsible for this had a pretty intimate understanding of the relationships within the team and the habits of its members. Things like the fact that JD usually only went to Mass the third Sunday of the month. Where Vin would go to get spare parts for his bike after his motorcycle’s sudden problems on Friday.
What Del didn’t know was the other coincidences that had been preying on his mind. This happened on a Sunday. JD was abducted after Mass. Vin was on the way back from Gabriel’s Bike Heaven. They had been found in a church. The number of religious aspects of this incident nagged at him. He hadn’t told her what the Crime Scene Unit had found in JD’s jeans pocket when they had gone over his clothing. JD had been adamant that it wasn’t his; a medallion depicting Raphael the Archangel. Raphael, whose name meant “Healer of God,” the patron saint of the blind and guardian angels.
Most of all it bothered him that the New Millennium Church was a location
that only he of the seven would be aware of. He couldn’t shake the
feeling that this case was pointing right at him.