***September 11, 2023***
Alexandra Eames Goren groaned, then opened her eyes to complete darkness. Startled, her heart suddenly hammering, she abruptly sat up; the slightly yielding yet firm surface which had supported her back grunted in discomfort.
"Bobby?" and her hands patted either side of her legs to discover a second pair framing hers.
"Were you expecting someone else?" was his strained reply.
"After last night, I wasn't certain." She winced as she flexed her stiffened neck. "Where are we?"
Behind her, Robert Goren warned, "I'm not sure. But whatever you do, I wouldn't move."
*Three hours earlier*
It was still warm on that September Saturday evening when they emerged from the Italian restaurant, replete with beef and cheese ravioli (him) and chicken marsala with a side of penne pasta (her). The Scranton main street was filled with chattering couples and groups of friends occupying outdoor tables at several cafes. Crowds entered and exited restaurants, bars, and other businesses along the thoroughfare. The desk clerk at the Scranton Hilton had recommended Innocenzi's for an excellent meal, and they now concurred with her.
Alex loitered at the window of the jewelry store next door, an illuminated front window display of necklaces and other baubles brightening and reflecting what her husband saw as a still-elfin face (she merely saw the visage that she cosseted daily with almond oil, lightly sketched with mascara and blush between a soft frame of hair). "Aren't those pretty! Check out the earrings," she said, indicating a set of sapphire stones dangling from a gossamer chain. "Although I'd be afraid that chain would break."
Bobby, topping her by a good ten inches despite her heeled sandals, chuckled as he peeked over her head. "Is this an idea for an anniversary gift?"
"Not at that price," she said, and when he read the tag, his eyebrows arched in alarm. "I certainly love you that much, but my credit card would shriek."
"I don't need earrings to know you love me. Besides, this is not a jewelry store for ordinary joes like us," Alex chuckled, taking his arm as they walked on.
She was secretly glad there wasn't a bookstore, or she would have lost Bobby for at least an hour. Instead, they hit an independent coffee shop called "Grounds for Joy," and enjoyed simple cups of coffee and a slice of coffeecake each, having abstained from the oversized sugary cakes displayed with pride in the bakery case at Innocenzi's. While they finished their dessert, Alex leaned back in her seat as he unwound himself from the old-fashioned iron café chair and stretched, then regarded her as she tipped her head at him, smiling. "What?"
"I like your hair longer," she said, and he self-consciously rumpled his silvering curls even more. "So what about it? Want to walk a little more? Or is it time to head for the room?"
He shrugged as they strolled out of the coffee shop, glancing up and down the street, unwilling to call it a night. Then a taxicab pulled up to the curb, a green Toyota Camry with the logo of the Green Cab Company, a local outfit whose cabs they had also seen at the convention center.
"Hey, mister, you need a ride?" the driver asked hoarsely. "I haven't had many fares today and I could use the business."
They exchanged glances. The cab looked clean, and they would need to be up early the following morning to check out and make their train. Bobby tilted his head to ask the bulky driver, "Scranton Convention Center?"
"Yessir," the driver answered. His curiously raspy voice sounded as if his throat had been injured. "I've finished my dinner break and looking for another fare. The name's Jack Daehder. Feel free to hop in."
Bobby's eyes flicked to the cab driver's ID card posted prominently on the dashboard; the face on the permit matched the bearded giant in the driver's seat, which satisfied him, and he opened the rear door so that Alex could slide inside with him following.
"And you're going to the Scranton Hilton?" Daehder confirmed.
"Yes, thank you," Alex said.
The man looked squashed in the front seat of the Camry; his bulk spilled partially into the center section of the front seat like a circus strongman trying to fit inside an IKEA cupboard. His long ash-blond hair was tied in a ponytail fastened with a red thong, and even on this warm night, he was wearing a light hoodie.
"You folks here on vacation?" he asked curiously in the painfully throaty voice as he pulled into traffic. As he did, he rolled up all the windows and tapped at some buttons on the dash, and Alex said, "You don't have to put the AC on for us. It isn't a bad night out."
Then she added, "We've been to a writer's conference at the Hilton. We saw one of our favorite crime writers speak today," relaxing in the clean seat.
It was only partially true, as Bobby found Mario Obbligato's work too fraught with invented dangers. Alex, conversely, enjoyed the escapist, over-the-top plots she usually avoided in other crime novels because the lead character, a sharp, sarcastic woman lieutenant, was a favorite of hers.
"Kinda muggy for me," responded the driver. "A writer's conference, eh? I'm not much of a reader. You two writers?"
"We're hoping to be," Bobby said, tongue-in-cheek, because he could scarcely believe that Alex's editor Holly Lewin had asked to see the handwritten childhood memoir ("dumping all my resentments on paper," he'd described it to Alex) he dashed off during COVID-19 lockdown and then encouraged him to turn it into a book. She was working on both manuscripts now, his and Alex's NYPD memoir that she was calling Ice Blue.
Alex blinked, detecting a whiff of sweetness in the filtered air, then blinked several more times. It smelled as if the cab driver had committed overkill with air freshener. Her eyes began to itch from the odd, unidentifiable scent in the car, so she reached for the switch to lower the back window. The control buttons were locked.
"Excuse me," Bobby said, seeing her hand fumble at the door, "could we have the windows down again? It's a little stuffy back...here..."
"I don't think so, sir," the driver said stolidly, his raspy voice now muffled.
"Look, just stop then," Bobby said, alarmed. "Let us get out. We...don't-" Now he blinked himself, suddenly feeling sluggish and dizzy. His eyes began to itch and blur just as he saw Alex slump against her seat. "Eames?"
And then his head went backward against the rear seat as well.
"We're sitting on the ground?"
She sniffed deeply. "In a forest somewhere?"
"I would assume so. I have my back to some type of tree, from what I can feel. Definitely not a birch, or it wouldn't be digging so hard into my back."
"I can't see anything, pretty much dark against dark."
"There's only a crescent moon tonight, which doesn't help." He added regretfully, "Remember all those books I've read? Not many of them have been about woodcraft."
"And, as I told you once, I was never a Girl Scout. Is there any other reason not to move besides not being able to see?"
"If someone thought it worthwhile to drag someone my size dead weight, they might have also been thoughtful enough to set us next to a ravine or another steep incline."
Alex expelled a breath. "The 'someone' had to have been the cab driver. Are we just out of practice and should have seen that one coming? Closing the windows- Could it be someone we helped convict, taking revenge? But why here, in Scranton of all places? I don't recall a Jack Daehder, either...such an odd name we would have remembered it. Although if he were after us specifically, he wouldn't use his real name. I didn't think he looked familiar, but then I didn't see much of his face."
"What I saw of his face didn't look familiar, nor did his ID card. I didn't recognize the voice, either, although the gurgle in his throat was unusual. It sounded as if he had damage to his throat."
He felt her shift her body in a vain attempt to spy something in the darkness. "Do you think we're deep in a forest? Maybe it's just a park?"
She did. A light breeze was blowing, just enough to make the leaves rustle as it did those on the two big maple trees in their backyard. Crickets chirped both close to them and in the distance. She could smell leaf mold, pine, soil, and other undefinable "green" scents. "No car sounds or city sounds, no truck or car exhaust or road smells. I get it. So...where?"
"There you've reached the final expertise of my woodcraft."
She realized that whoever had transported them had propped Bobby up next to the tree and then placed her right in front of him in a "V" made by his legs, and it made her skin crawl to think that maybe whoever had done so had run hands over her bodyor his. Or perhaps that was just a bug crawling on her, and she couldn't decide which creeped her out more.
"So best course of action is to stay put until it's light enough to make out where we are," she sighed. "Are you comfortable?"
"No, 'Mr. Daehder,' or whatever his name is, apparently thought I was capable of doing a split," he sighed.
She patted his legs again. "Ouch. He thought you were Baryshnikov." Here she shifted her weight so that she rested on her right thigh, her head pillowed on his chest and her legs straight out, and he could reposition his legs with a groan of relief.
"What's our move at first light?"
"Take the lay of the land. Maybe we're off a deserted stretch of road and there will be more traffic in the morning. Hopefully we can figure out which way is north..."
She patted herself suddenly but without hope. "No phone."
"Already checked. No phones. No wallets. Thankfully we left our keys at the hotel."
"Credit cards. Crap."
"If we get out of this I can deal with the credit card ordeal."
"At least what medications we're taking aren't things we need to stay alive, like a diabetic."
She felt his legs flex uneasily.
"I know, we're city kids..." The reference made her take a quick, sharp breath; her left hand swiftly searched her right wrist. With relief, she realized her beloved R❤A bracelet was still in place, proving that the perp's motive hadn't been robbery. Her Fitbit lit up as she moved her left arm.
"It's only 1:30-" she groaned.
"Get some sleep, Eames," he said softly, using her surname as an endearment as always, kissing her forehead and enfolding her in his arms.
She wanted to ask how he thought she could sleep in their predicament, but Bobby was soft and warm, the chirp of the crickets was lulling; he smelled still of the Hilton's oatmeal and ginger body wash and she was so exhausted...
Soon his head was nodding over hers as well.
. . . . .
"What do you mean they didn't call?" Mike Logan asked abruptly, his face drawn in a scowl from being awakened early on Sunday morning.
"Well, they didn't, Mike," Sharon Kovacs told him via speakerphone, plainly worried. "That's why I called you."
Alex Eames was all about order. If the pair were away, she phoned Sharon each night to make certain she had everything she needed, and to ask after her little budgie, Bandit. Sharon's usual response to the latter was to hold her smartphone up to the bird's cage so Alex could say goodnight to him. "She always says good night to the little guy," she had explained to Logan. It was how Bobby and Alex rolled; they always were grateful that she was willing to house- and pet-sit, and she always was, because even as small as their house was, it was larger than her studio apartment, and between them, they had a great collection of DVDs and books. The best thing, however, was being able to walk to work at the Dark Crystal instead of having to drive from Bethel daily.
"What's the hotel name again?" Logan asked.
"The Hilton Convention Center in downtown Scranton," Sharon said after a minute. "But I've called both Bobby's and Alex's cells and both of them went direct to voice mail. Maybe they got in late from some type of writers' party and didn't want to disturb me, but-"
The "but-" bothered him, too. "Except on holidays, they're two of the least party animals that I know," Mike scoffed. "Although at this writer's conference thing, I suppose either of them could have been talking into the wee hours, especially if there's someone Bobby knows there. A lot of ex-cops and ex-FBI agents have hit the book circuit. There was a mystery writer there they wanted to meet, wasn't there?"
"Mario Obbligato," Sharon said, "who writes the New York noir thrillersyou know, that character Alex likes, Abby Holtzer."
"Yeah, I've read him. Saw him at a book signing in the Village once. All talk...hold on."
In a moment he was back. "I'm still getting voice mail on both phones at this time of the morning, too. Weird."
Sharon considered. "Should we worry?"
"C'mon, kid, I was NYPD. I always worry. Look, you keep the mutt and the featherhead safe. I'll make some calls."
. . . . .
He came awake with a start, heart pounding. "Alex?" His disorientation increased when he saw himself surrounded by trees and underbrush, the gradually lightening sky barely visible between the trees. Then he remembered...the coffee shop. The taxicab. The trap. The woods.
At least it was morning.
Alex sat upright now, just in front of him, the back of her dress unkempt with fragments of leaves and dirt. "I'm so glad you suggested not to move."
In disbelief, his eyes fell on what she'd already discovered, arranged in a half-circle around them about six feet away from Bobby's size thirteen Doc Martens.
"Aren't those things illegal?" she added in a hushed voice.
"They don't exactly look new," he answered, looking one by one at the rust-pocked, grim-looking steel bear leghold traps they might have unwittingly walked into in the dark. "Get up, but be careful. I don't know if your legs are numb, but mine are."
Alex pivoted, rolling on her knees. She ran quick, caressing fingers over his stubbled cheek, then used his shoulders to lever herself upward as she tottered to her feet. Even as flexible as she was from her morning jogs, stretching her legs was painful. "Ow."
She saw Bobby's face flush with fury, but he wasn't responding to her exclamation; his gaze was still fixed on the traps. "Son of a bitch. Not only was this planned, but it was planned well ahead of time."
"Is it personal?"
"Unless some motherfucker is re-enacting 'The Most Dangerous Game.'" She knew how angry he was simply from his vocabulary; he had never been much for invectives, except when aroused.
Once she was securely on her feet, she stepped aside so that he had room to twist himself awkwardly on his knees, then rise slowly, using the oak tree he'd been propped against for support. With teeth clenched, he nodded at one of the traps. "That would have done enough damage to me. It would have shattered your ankle, left bone sticking out, leaving it to go septic. A particularly unpleasant death." His face was half-grim and half-exhausted, his eyes going black with anger.
He surveyed the space around them, identifying a thick fallen branch just in reach between one of the traps. Cautiously, he squatted to pick it up, then, approaching from the side of each leg trap, rapped the strike plate smartly, snapping them all.
"My Army survival training," he said grimly, "is starting to kick in. This is just the opening salvo. We have to assume that everything in front of us and most probably to the side of us, is compromised."
"Booby-trapped?" she asked, eyes already casting between the trees.
"And could be anything. More traps, trip wires, deadfalls."
She took a breath. All she wished for was some peace and quiet. She was still exhausted and knew Bobby must be as well. As if he knew what she was thinking, he added, "Whomever it is thinks he has us. We haven't eaten or drunk anything for at least twelve hours. We probably didn't sleep well. He's counting on us to be careless."
"You think he'll come back?" she asked.
"Always the possibility he'll come to check our 'progress.' Possibly with a weapon to finish us off if we've managed to survive. These days there could even be a drone checking up on us." He yawned, ignoring his growling stomach. "All right. The sun is at our right; so we're facing north if we go forward." He swooped an arm out again, grabbed a likely-looking branch for her, and then another with a forked end. "Hmn. Never know when we'll need...there! I was right. Look ahead, a little to the left of straight on."
Alex was a foot away, but could clearly see what he pointed out: a silvery thin horizontal glint in the sun. "Is that a trip wire?"
"Let's see. Stand back here with me," and once they were side by side, Bobby used the long forked branch to prod the filament.
With a crisp snapping sound, a pointed spear about six inches long made of a thin tree branch sped about three feet in front of them and bounced off a tree trunk.
"Not good on wood, but good enough for flesh," he said. "I think I know this guy. Not just a prepper, but a survivalist. Probably brought up that way. Father or an uncle taught him woodcraftwhich is a good thing to know if you're reasonably sane. A bad thing if you hold grudges. And a good way to get rid of city slickers in the forest."
"I can see this is going to be a wonderful morning," she answered cynically as she watched the feral expression on his face, his anger channeling into potential action.
"I gotta take a leak," he said abruptly, curling his lip, and, stepping away from her, he unzipped and deliberately anointed one of the traps.
"If you help me balance," she answered grimly, "I'll do the same," and kept her word by squatting over another snapped trap.
Alex spotted the next trip wire, then a third; both rigs fired the same type of sharpened stick, one which barely missed them, almost clipping the edge of Bobby's left trouser leg.
"If this is a revenge gambit, who do we know who had outdoor expertise to rig stuff like this?" she panted as they halted to reconnoiter for the next trap.
"Most of our arrests were people who wouldn't be caught dead out here," he observed. "Check there. Is that a wire?"
"Maybe. How about the kid who was killing the abortion doctors?"
"Griscom? I can't imagine he was paroled." He prodded with the stick, to no reaction. "Now, this could be a dud. Or it could be a fake, to fool us. Or it could be some other type of rig..."
"What are you doing?" she said as he prepared to kneel. "Stop."
"I'm going to crawl forward. Statistically the odds of my getting hit by something should be less if I'm flat on the ground."
"Statistically, since I'm smaller, let me."
"Don't you wrap me in cotton wool, Bobby Goren!" Her voice was like a slap.
"All right," but she heard the fear in his voice. She was afraid herself, but that had never stopped her previously. With a regretful sigh at the state of the blue-and-green floral print dress she wore, she crossed her legs to lower herself into a sitting position, then shifted to her knees into a crawl position only to have him say, "Eames...for this to be safest, you have to do it like a Marine."
Logical. With a set of her jaw, she was face-down in the dirt, and he handed her the forked stick. "Crawl up slowly, close enough to poke it." He squeezed her hand. "Be careful."
"You stay up out of the line of fire," she ordered firmly, scorching forward with hands and forearms, pushing with her toes, until she could prod the visible trigger with the branch. There was a crack and swish, and the stick was jerked from her hand, to sway ten feet overhead in a snare rope.
"This bastard thinks in clichés," she said cynically. "So what do you think? Is our next gauntlet more trip wire, or more snares?"
When he didn't answer, she looked back at him. He was still staring at the snare with a pale face.
. . . . .
The connection was marred by static, but clear enough that the skepticism was evident. "So you have a couple of writers who disappeared," was the bored response of the police officer at the other end of the line.
Logan glared at the cell phone he held, as if he could somehow transfer his annoyance to the jerk at Scranton police headquarters, then said, irritated, but voice level, "Not 'a couple of writers.' officer. A couple of ex-NYPD detectives. Veterans of the Major Case Squad. Then one became an NYPD captain. The other is an FBI agent."
"I thought you said he was retired."
"He says he's retired. And then every FBI suit who addresses him calls him 'agent' as if in present tense."
"Well, maybe you ought to call the FBI," the officer said, flip.
"What was your name again?" Logan asked grimly. "Sergeant Marquand? Well, maybe I will. And I'll certainly mention your name as being...helpful."
He abruptly hung up on the Scranton officer, a scowl on his face. His steady girlfriend, a slight redhead who worked at the main branch of the New York Public Library, emerged from the bedroom, fully dressed. On Sundays, she usually went to Mass, then visited with her best friend Laura Castillo, who was undergoing chemo. He generally slept in since it was strictly girl talk time and he hadn't voluntarily darkened the door of a Catholic church since he was a boy. "Any word?"
"The Scranton police are a bunch of losers," he said, reaching out and squeezing her hand. "I probably won't be here when you get back. Hold the fort, babe. I'll keep you updated."
Carla Antonacci kissed his cheek. "Sure you don't want me to come with?"
Logan grimly responded, "Don't know if I'll be going anywhere, and when I'll leave if I do, or how long I'll be gone. You like your job; no way I'm screwing that up for you. Tell Laura hi for me. Hope she's doing okay."
"Good luck then. And Mikekeep your temper."
Distracted, he waved farewell to her as she exited their Brooklyn apartment, then punched a new sequence of numbers into his phone.
"Good morning," he said when he finally reached an operator. "My name is Michael Logan, and I'm a friend of Agent Robert Goren. I believe he and his wife may be in danger. I need to reach Special Agent Penelope Saltonstall, and I'm pretty certain this is an emergency."
. . . . .
She was back on her feet, slapping herself to dislodge dirt, leaf mold, and a carpenter ant from her clothing. Her face wore a scowl. "Bobby?"
He answered in the same quiet tone she'd used. "I've already got another snare spotted ahead." He paused, brushing mud off her chin with a roughened hand. "And what looks like a cabin or shed."
She craned her neck to look around him, seeing only a small vertical portion of an aging structure. "Not someone's home? We could call for help..."
"I wouldn't count on it. This scenario was set up so we wouldn't find help easily, and if we managed to avoid the snares and the spears, another test would be next. But there could be something we can use in there. Let's disable the snare up ahead."
She discovered a fresh stick nearby; with it, they triggered the next snare and then padded cautiously ahead. One moment Bobby was treading evenly in the lead, at the next, Alex had jerked him back, his back striking a tree and the bark scraping flesh from his right cheek where he had turned too quickly in reaction. He gasped and exploded, "What the hell-" and then saw a thick-roped noose swaying over his head.
She reached up and touched his bleeding cheek. "I'm sorry-"
He laughed grimly, "For saving me?"
She fished out the large white handkerchief he always carried in the left front pocket of his trousers, dabbing at the raw flesh. "Here, put some pressure on it." Then she pivoted on one foot to check out the opposite side of the tall, sprawling fir tree that blocked their view. "You're right, it looks like a cabin or some type of shed."
"No sign of roads or even a driveway," he said regretfully. "If this is someone's cabin, it's probably just a camping spot, probably for hunters."
"But," she said, brightening, "there could be stored food or water."
With his free hand, he smoothed her hair, brushing away leaf mold. "Which we automatically have to assume is compromised."
"Even canned food?" she asked in disappointment.
"As we learned in survival training, anything can be compromised. We found some canned foodstuffs and opened them. The trainers had inserted ipecac in it. I thought I had puked my lungs out I was so sick."
"Damn. And if there's any stored water it could make us sickor kill us. How long is it you can survive without water?"
"About 72 hours. And it's twelve since we had any sort of drink."
Alex was desperately thirsty already. "On the news last evening they talked about a good chance of rain sometime this morning. Couldn't we find something to catch rainwater in?"
"Maybe," he said, watching the rope still swinging back and forth, the arc of movement almost exhausted, but he was still considering the calculation of the whole event. What were the chances of a container or containers having been left behind, and if so, uncompromised? But there were other ways...
"All right," he finally said, with forced confidence, "let's try to make it to the cabin."
There was an exposed leg trap to skirt, and a snare in plain sight. Bobby regarded the second item with suspicion.
Alex said, "I know this one. We're being lured into a false sense of security."
"Don't you know it."
Finally, the entire cabin was in full view. It was small, square, and battered, barely larger than the shed in their backyard, with a solid yet scraped and dented door and a single glass window so dirty that neither could see inside. "Probably an old hunting cabin, unused any longer. A couple of bunks. Maybe some canned food."
"So they brought water in?"
"More likely they brought beer," he said cynically.
"I'd settle for that if it were safe."
. . . . .
Goddamn it, Logan thought, if only I had some of Bobby's confidential numbers I might get someone to pay attention! After two hours of holding his iPhone in a death grip and either being transferred or on hold, his blood pressure was probably soaring. He was so tempted to punch a wall of the apartment, except Carla would give him hell if he did for wasting the security deposit.
"Look," he said in frustration to the next person who picked up the line, "I don't know how to stress how important this is. I think Agent Goren is in big trouble."
Penelope Saltonstall said quietly, "I'm listening, Mr. Logan."
. . . . .
They had paused too long in contemplation at the cabin door, and she finally had to break the silence. "What do you figure?" she asked, taking in the battered, almost grey wood of the wide-board doors of the cabin. There was a metal knob encrusted with rust holding the door shut.
"Our perp won't disappoint. There has to be a trap here," Bobby said wearily. "Stand to the side."
She flanked one side of the door, he the other, and he reached out to turn the doorknob, only to find he didn't have enough purchase at that angle to get it to twist.
"Alex," he said with a dry mouth, "I'm going to have to stand in front of the door to open this up."
"Let me," she said.
"The knob won't turn. It needs my strength."
"My hands are strong, Bobby, and if Daehder set this up he could be aiming at someone taller."
He looked at her bleakly. "Alex, of the two of us-"
"No!" she said sharply. "I know what you always think. Don't you say it. It's not true, and it's never been true. Of the two of us, neither is worth more than the other."
And before she could lose her nerve, she stepped in front of the door, squatted, ducked her head with gritted teeth, and twisted the knob with both hands.
The sharp clap of a gunshot made her flinch, but she remained head down, and a bullet swished three inches over her head. Tears of anger and frustration squeezed from her eyes as she collapsed into a kneeling position, and Bobby went to his knees and crawled to her, pulling her into his arms. They remained there, both trembling for a few minutes.
"I did get the door open," she finally said faintly.
"Courage of a lion," he murmured, then loosed his grip on her and crawled away from the door. When he stumbled to his feet, he walked as stiffly as an old man, but ripped a limb from a tree with angry energy. "Eames, get away from the door. Now."
She sat there, crumpled in a heap, and now he begged, "Alex...please-"
Alex looked up at him, swallowed, nodded gravely, and moved out of his way. Once more, he approached the side of the door, then pushed it open with the tree limb. Another gunshot rang out, and Bobby yanked off his shirt and waved it before the opening like a matador's cape. This time there was no report.
"My turn," Alex said softly and returned to the doorstep on her hands and knees.
"Keep your eyes on the floor," he advised, knowing she wouldn't stop. "If there are cracks between the floorboards there's a chance something sharp might be wedged there. Razor blades. Broken glass."
"What a charming idea. Just like a horror flick." She reached out a hand gingerly only to have something keen-edged and nearly invisible prick her thumb, raising a small bead of blood. "But I see what you mean."
He peered around the doorframe, rattled. "Are you okay?"
"Not a scratch," she fibbed, then spotted the shard of glass that had wounded her. When she looked ahead of her, she saw numerous other deadly, nearly-transparent shardsand another trip wire.
"This shit just loves his trip wires," she said crossly. "Where's the Y branch?"
He observed the wire, then said, "You're going to have to stay in the doorway to get it. Back out and let me."
"I can do it. What side should I hug? The right side, since the majority of people are right handed?"
"But he set the trip wire from inside," Bobby reminded.
"Ah, good going, Sherlock." She paused. "But if he's left handed?"
"Please let me do it?"
"I'm a smaller target," she reminded.
Silently, he passed her the Y-shaped stick and, hugging the left side of the doorway, picking out the glass shards in her path, she crawled forward the minimal amount until she could tap the trip wire with the fork of the branch.
Another spike let fly from the rear of the cabin, shooting toward the right side of the door as she faced it and swishing past Bobby's thighs. He gave a feral grin. "Murderous SOB."
She rolled on her back and looked up. "Great. There must be another trip somewhere in here: there's a big rock suspended from the roof beam."
Bobby peeked in, face darkening. "He'll find out I'm a murderous SOB when I catch him."
"Only if I don't find him first."
Alex Eames did not make oaths lightly.
He ran the branch he held inside the door as far as it would go. "Do you see a trip for it?"
"Nope." Her eyes returned to the setup in the roof beams, but her eyes were so gritty she could barely follow the web of filaments. "Can you peek in and give me a second set of eyes?"
He took a breath. "All right, I'm coming in."
After craning his neck around the doorway to observe the suspended rock hung in a net hammock, he sidled inside the structure, back to the doorframe. He looked down at her, her soiled face twisted up at him as he took step by careful step inside, and gave a wry smile. "You're gorgeous when you're playing commando."
"Just call me G.I. Jane."
Once inside the doorway, he examined the rock more carefully. "I'd watch for a trigger, but I believe that's supposed to be a figurative Sword of Damocles, waiting to cut our Gordian knot in half."
. . . . .
The Amtrak train from New York had scarcely come to a halt in Scranton before Logan was at the stairs, waiting to disembark. When the conductor rebuked him for leaving his seat early, he snapped curtly, "I'm on police business," so reminiscent of his old days on the NYPD that the man didn't even ask for an ID. He came bouncing off the stairs and onto the platform, surveying the crowded station to find his contact only to have stride up to him a wide, squat man who looked like the human personification of a .38 slug with dark curly hair, dark eyes, and an olive complexion, wearing a dark suit and tie with a white shirt.
"FBI," Logan thought immediately, and the man thrust out a hand. "Thuringer, Marcus. FBI field office Hartford. You're Bobby's friend Mike."
"Yeppers, that's me." Logan squinted at him. "Hartford? How the hell did you beat me here?"
"In my off hours I'm a pilot," Thuringer replied. "The minute I got off the phone with Penelope I called Windsor Locks and had my Cessna 180 prepped. It was ready by the time I got there, I filed my flight plan, and here I am. I've pulled agents and police from the local area. They're canvassing the hotel and the taxi drivers who hang around outside. Let's go."
"The local police?" Logan asked. "Is there a clown working this called Marquand? Because I want a word with him..."
. . . . .
She was about to lift herself off the floor when Bobby said, "Stop. You've taken your turn being the target. My turn."
"You make it sound like we're playing handball. Should I get up at all, coach?" she asked sourly.
"Don't get shirty, Alex," he responded gently. "We just need to take our risks one at the time, so one of us can look after the other. Just relax. Spot me. You've got a different angle."
He started at the door and worked anticlockwise around the room, an easy task since it was minimally furnished, with a small, square roughly-built table under the dirty window. A double wooden bunk bed was against the far wall. The back wall held one more handbuilt table, with a stack of six cans of beans and a can opener on top. Seeing them, his stomach cramped, then growled.
"Looks like a trap to me," she said dully.
"Yeah." The table under the window was clear of trip wire. The bunk looked clear until he ran his fingers lightly over it. "Tiny glass shards," he said. "Nasty." He brushed them aside, then pressed his hand against the boards; they cracked ominously. "This would break under your weight."
"Stop!" Alex said as he turned to move toward the cans. He froze instantly. His shadow had changed what she sawor didn't seein the scant light streaming through the cabin window. "I swear I see-"
"Fishing line. Can you get against the wall? And mind the rock." And once she'd made herself as flat as possible against the near wall, he backed up and prodded the trip line.
Cleverly strung from sturdy but rusted meat hooks in the ceiling, confirming Bobby's suspicions that the cabin had been used by hunters, the rock swayed, but did not fall, but something fluttered from it. Paper. It landed at Alex's feet and she plucked it up.
"Asshole," she hissed after reading it and reversed the paper so Bobby could see the message. In crude block letters was scrawled "Scared yet?"
. . . . .
Marquand was indeed there, and Logan took great delight in two minutes of chewing him out while Thuringer threaded his way between his suited agents and the Scranton uniformed police along with plainclothes detectives who had descended on the Scranton Hilton.
"We got anything?" he asked a stocky blond woman who was tapping out a message on her computer.
"We might have," Monica Kepler responded briskly in a contralto voice. "There are two foot officers, one of the Scranton detectives, and two agents canvassing the taxi stand down there. Harris thought it might be prudent to talk to them. We have Eames' phone records and it seems she called an Uber rather than using a local taxi to go out to dinner. The taxi people hate the Uber/Lyft people."
"Takin' away our business!" Jerry McCloskey fumed when Logan and Thuringer talked to him. He was a well-built Black man in his forties, wearing a pressed Oxford cloth sport shirt and tailored jeans. "I keep my cab clean and my company doesn't allow junkers on the street. Hate those private ride guys."
"Got something!" Kepler said, hurrying up to Thuringer. "This place is covered with cameras. Surveillance shows your Goren and Eames in a tan Escalade, Pennsylvania plate YEG-4402, at about 1700 hours. Desk clerk on duty said she recommended an Italian restaurant to them, Innocenzi's, on the main drag."
"Popular place," McCloskey grumbled. "I could have gotten them there easy. Bet the Uber took a long way around to charge them more."
"How'd you like to do us a favor then?" Thuringer proposed. "Take us there now."
. . . . .
Alex sighed at his face. After checking the table for possible traps, Bobby retrieved the can opener and opened one of the tempting pork and beans, only to find it redolent with the reek of gasoline. When he examined the can, he could distinguish where a pinpoint hole had been drilled into the bottom, then blocked with what looked like a minute bit of petroleum jelly. He was squinting now, with the aftereffects of too little sleep and nothing to drink.
"Old survivalist trick," he said, sliding down next to her in the safe corner she had created by picking out glass shards one by one from between the boards.
"Survivalist? Did they decide not to eat?" she asked in a cranky voice, trying to rouse some saliva.
"Oh, they want to eat their own food, but don't want anyone else to eat it. These would be 'extra foodstuffs' they put out to deter the competition."
"You can't be serious," said Alex.
"Logically, if you're in that type of survival situation, the kind the more gung-ho of these groups plan for, it's deathly serious. We're not just talking about a couple of days' power failure, but total collapse of society. No supermarkets or food deliveries. No supply trucks. You store enough foodstuffs or die of malnutrition unless you can somehow raise or find some food. You've saved enough to eat for you, your spouse, two children, the dog. Perhaps a little extra to allow for spoilage. Maybe you've decided to save Aunt Minnie and Uncle Fred, too. You must protect the food supply for six humans and a dog."
"So everyone else has to starve."
"If you want to survive."
"Where do you read such ghoulish things?"
"Any website talking about survival situations. If you want really radical stuff, 4chan."
"I don't even know how to find 4chan. Does it take black incantations?" When he gave her a wry smile, she finished, "So to survive the end of the world, you'd have to become a killer deliberately or by omission."
He shrugged, and she asked, "What now?"
"I'd give a million for a plain glass of water out of a faucet. At this point, even from Flint, Michigan."
She snorted, then stiffened. "What's that?"
"Thunder!" he said after a minute. "You saw the weather report. Was it supposed to rain substantially? Or just a light, quick storm?"
"Tell you the truth, Bobby, I really don't remember," she said, pushing her hair away from her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"S'okay. I'm not operating on all cylinders, either. But I gotta idea." She smiled a little as his weary voice slipped into its old Brooklyn vernacular. Carefully, stiffly, he rose, then helped her to her feet. She had missed a few glass shards and the resultant bloody scratches on her legs made him grit his teeth and glower. Alex hastened to say, "I'm all right, Bobby. It just stings."
"What if-" He almost had uttered, "What if there's poison on that glass?" but clamped his jaw shut in time. Alex chewed her lower lip, eyes fixed on his face.
"What if," he said instead, "this guy wasn't as smart as he thought he was?"
"You're such a bad liar, Bobby."
They made their way gingerly outside. What sky they could see was now clouded over and menacingly dark.
"If it rained hard enough, could we get water from that?" she asked, noticing how tightly he gripped her upper arm.
"We would need a container-"
. . . . .
Innocenzi's had security cameras, to Logan's relief, and they crowded around the far wall to replay the video from the previous night: Mike Logan, Marc Thuringer, Monica Kepler, and the ill-fated Sergeant Rufus Marquand, who was standing as far away from Logan as possible. But they were disappointed: they only saw Alex and Bobby arrive at the restaurant, then, not quite two hours later, leave out the front door and turn left.
"So they window shopped awhile, I betcha," Logan said, restlessly chewing a stick of gum. "Let's canvas."
"You looking for those two?" asked Innocenzi's owner and manager, a nervous-looking tall woman in her late 40s. "I remember them, and their server is on duty today."
Logan looked so eager that Thuringer asked to see the server, a short elderly man in his early 70s. Logan joked with him to put him at ease. "Man, your kids still got ya working, buddy?"
Aurelio Montoya laughed. "No, man. I just can't stay home. Boring there."
He remembered Bobby and Alex: "The so-tall man with the pequeña mujer with the pretty eyes. He was a good tipper. But I couldn't talk them into dessert. The lady said our desserts were beautiful but 'too rich' for her after the 'wonderful meal.' They might have gone to the café, and there's also a little ice cream place around the corner."
Thuringer looked at Logan with a small smile. "Now we canvas."
Grounds for Joy also had cameras and recordings in a cramped box of a room that reeked of coffee and cinnamon.
"There they are!" Thuringer barked suddenly, freezing the surveillance recording. They watched as a green Toyota Camry with the Green Cab Company logo pulled up to the curb. Then they saw Robert Goren react to something and approach the carit appeared as if he were chatting with the driver.
"Hold up," Logan said suddenly. "When we saw the Uber at Innocenzi's, wasn't there a green Toyota Camry behind it? Where's that video?"
Kepler swapped the disks; when they reviewed the portion of the earlier recording of the Uber drop-off at Innocenzi's, they spied a green Camry following the tan Escalade. The crowd had been thicker then, so no logo was visible, but they caught a glimpse of the license plate, ZZM-9026, as it continued up Main Street.
Now they swapped disks again, returning to Bobby opening the door of the green Camry, gesturing Alexandra Eames ahead of him. She entered, he followed, and the car started to drive away. Thuringer froze the recording again to note the license plate: ZZM-9026.
"Did you see that?" Logan exclaimed.
"I did indeed," Thuringer responded. "Mr. Toyota ZZM followed them from the conference center. I'll bet he was hoping to pick them up earlier."
"Excuse me...I know I'm a little on the shit list right now. But-" said Marquand, who privately reminded several of the group of Homer Simpson with more hair, and Logan gave him such a black look that he paused for a second, but persisted. "That dude is back at the Sheraton, or was before we headed here. I saw his car there when I was canvassing earlier."
"C'mon...he's that stupid?" was Mike's exclamation, and Kepler, unruffled, headed off the conversation by asking Marquand to telephone the search party back at the hotel to hold the driver of the taxi, if he was still there, which partially mollified Logan as they hurried back to the convention center.
Two uniformed officers had the man in custody when they arrived. He was a seemingly shortsighted, bearded man well over six feet tall with blue eyes and crudely-administered prison tattoos. The hoodie he'd worn the previous night was gone and he was in a sweat-stained Gold's Gym t-shirt and frayed jeans, emphasizing broad shoulders and a barrel chest. They had seated him, wrists handcuffed before him, in a folding chair now set behind a folding table, and his scarred yet nimble, hammy fingers drummed upon the table surface, and muscles played in his upper and lower arms. Logan gave him a sour look. Workouts in the prison gym, he thought cynically; get 'em fit so they can overpower the guards.
What drew everyone's attention, however, was that the man's neck was raggedly scarred as if sawed at with a chain, a recent wound still red and raw in the deepest cracks.
"Man," Logan asked without preamble, "who worked you over? Hope you got that looked at."
"Cellmate," the man said in a raspy voice, "before I got paroled ten days ago. Dude got special treatment and the guards looked the other way. Look, why am I here? I just been usin' my sis's cab; she's away with her kids visiting our cousins and said I could use it to make some cash for myself."
"Nice of her," said Thuringer smartly, "but I bet you didn't tell her what else you were going to use it for. Or that you used a fake cab license." He stood across the narrow folding table before the seated suspect, keeping eye contact as Bobby always did. "You've been a busy boy since you got released. Already got your driver's license renewed, so that part of the gambit was nice and proper. Except that it wasn't." He sat down opposite the man, opening a thick file folder. "Mr. Stoppard. Oscar Stoppard. Your father's Amos, and he's quite well known to the Scranton police and the Lackawanna county cops."
"Man, I renewed my license the minute they released me. I knew I couldn't get any kind of job without it. Then Sandy headed to Boston for the weekend, and said I could try to make some cash with her cab. I haven't done anything wrongokay, except for the fake cab license, that was wrong. But some people do look at them. I wouldn't get any business if I used Sandy's license." Then he rasped resentfully, "As for my dad, he only did what he wanted to do on his own property. You know that if you read his filesbut oh, I forgotthis ain't a free country anymore. You snowflakes want us to say goodbye to-"
"You can do as you please on your own property," Kepler interjected firmly, heading off what sounded like a political rant. "Unless it's poaching off the Federal land next to yours."
"Animals came onto our property!" Stoppard retorted.
"Never mind that," Thuringer said brusquely. "We're not here about poaching. What did you do with the two passengers you picked up at 8:05 p.m. last night? We know you had only three fares, so you must remember them: a man your height with a beard, over six feet tall, with a shorter woman."
"The big tall dude and the teeny woman?" Stoppard shrugged. "Dropped 'em off at their hotel."
"Try again," Logan interjected before Thuringer could speak. "The hotel exterior is lined with surveillance cameras. We saw you come back with no one in your car, two hours after you picked them up at Grounds for Joy."
The man eyed them. "Those cameras everywhere now?"
Logan got in his face. "Just about. So the question is: where are Special Agent Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames?"
The man's eyes bulged. "What did you say?"
Now Thuringer leaned forward. "The 'big tall dude' you kidnapped, Mr. Stoppard, is a Federal agent. You are, as they might say, 'in deep shit.' However, if you tell us where these two people areand they had better be unhurtthe FBI might be slightly kinder to you."
Stoppard protested, his voice now like a panicked rusty gate, "Federal agent? But he told me they were just a couple of people who'd testified against him. His partners who-"
Logan said smoothly, "And who would 'he' be, Mr. Stoppard?"
And when he heard, Mike Logan said, "That son of a bitch."
. . . . .
The thunder rumbled closer now and the wind picked up. Alex said wryly, "If it rains, I suppose we could go out there face-up and open our mouths, like baby birds."
Bobby ruminated. "If it rains hard enough-" Then he grinned through the grime on his face. "I have an idea."
He turned to the table to snatch the can of beans he'd opened. "Dump this out. Get every bean out. If it rains hard enough, we can rinse them out and still maybe have some to drink. It might still have the gasoline stink, though. We'd have to see."
They formed an assembly line, Alex discarding the beans around the corner of the cabin and him opening the remaining cans. He wiped out the cans with his now-ragged handkerchief, then they set them out in a gap between the trees several feet from the cabin door. Returning to the building, he regarded himself, then her.
"I have an immediate idea if it rains hard enough, but it's going to taste terrible."
"I'll chance it. How can I help?" she asked.
"Take off your dress," he instructed, as he stripped off his shirt.
"If we get a good downpour, these may help to solve our water problem for a little while."
"By swapping spit?" she asked lightly, because he was now barechested, and she stepped forward with her dress over her arm, feeling a little self-conscious to be in the middle of nowhere with just a sheer slip covering bra and panties, with a wary eye still on the suspended rock. She rested her head against his warm chest as he put his arms around her.
"I had a dream last night about the letter I wrote, requesting a new partner," and he could hear the fretfulness in her voice, even though the missive had been written almost 20 years earlier. "And watching you in the courtroom."
"Strange time to dream about that," he said softly. "I was watching you, too, that day. You were honest when you wrote the letter, and honest with both Cleveland and Carver when asked about it. Don't you know that's one of the things about you I found the most appealing? You didn't prevaricate. You spoke your mind. I always knew where I stood."
"And," she said, voice partially muffled by his comforting bulk, "if I don't prevaricate now and wonder if we're going to survive this, will you contradict me? We could be anywhere-"
"We could-" And here they could hear the wind starting to lash the trees, and thunder rumbled above. "But I will contradict you. I don't think our perp drove that far out of his way. I think we're somewhere outside Scranton. But how far outside I can't tell."
A fat raindrop splattered Alex's head. "Great, the roof's not even waterproof."
"At this point, that's an advantage."
Curious, she followed him outside, where the rain was now beating down hard. "Careful, hold on to your dress," he warned as he held his shirt into the now-sheeting rain and it billowed in the wind. She was even more amazed when he stepped out of his shoes, his light grey socks stark against the black dirt, and set them in front of him. As it continued to pour, he bent his head back, ignoring the flood in his eyes and catching the water in his mouth. She did the same, keeping a tight hold on the dress as the rain drummed down.
"Watch," he finally said over the thunder and the flash of lightning and the lashing of the trees, taking the now-sopped shirt and twisting it over his open mouth as if it was freshly washed but needed wringing out, and a trickle of water flowed from the fabric into his mouth. Alex laughed now, her mascara making thready stripes down her face, and she imitated his motion with her dress so that welcome fluid dribbled into her throat.
"Keep wringing your dress!" he urged and flapped the shirt back out to catch the rain until it was sopping, then squeezing it out repeatedly as the rain continued to pelt down, turning his silvered brown hair into long wet strings down the back of his head. She followed his lead, tossing wet cords of hair away from her face as she repeated the process with her dress. He was right, it did taste terrible, with a bitter aftertaste from the sizing and the dye, but it was potableshe was grateful for each small mouthful. Even after her initial thirst had been slaked, so long as it rained she kept soaking the dress and wringing it out, drinking it, as he did, as if it were more precious than rare wine.
Sometime during the process, she saw him dip to pick up the previously contaminated cans, swishing rain out of them to rinse them, then returning them to their places to collect whatever more water they could.
The rain finally slackened, then dwindled to sprinkles, and they squeezed the last drops from the fabric, sucking at the seams where it had accumulated the most, and the storm finally rumbled on, the sun peeking out finally a half hour later.
Bobby handed her a shoe, one of his solid Doc Martins. The soles had absorbed much of the rainwater, but there was still some accumulated liquid, and though she mimed a disgusted face at him, she downed the contents, as he did with the rainwater in the second shoe. Then she looked down at her open-toed sandals and bare feet smeared in mud. "Never thought I'd be glad for those size thirteen shoes," she said with a smile, and they melded their soaked, begrimed bodies next to each other for comfort. She chuckled, "Well, thankful for size thirteen shoes for a different reason."
Then she bit her lip. "Like I should be thinking that at a time like this."
"It's a survival instinct, too," he said comfortably. "Like making love after you attend a funeral."
"So," she said, looking up with her jaw set, "what else can we do to survive? Can we forage anything? Mushrooms?"
"The most obvious solution, except my mycology skills are practically nil. Now my Uncle Sal...I remember some great mushroom paella from Uncle Sal's foraging expeditions. I...wouldn't trust your life or mine with my memories of his observations. We could have a good meal...or go on a 'trip' that would put LSD to shame...or end up dying in the middle of the woods as our organs shut down one by one, with stomach cramps, sudden blindness-"
"I'm convinced, Bobby," she said dryly.
"There are acorns," he said, gathering a trio from the mud. "During times of famine both Native Americans and European explorers ground them up for meal." He snorted. "Even if one of us could catch a lame squirrel I can't imagine how we would skin it."
Alex said, "One of those pieces of glass?"
He arched eyebrows, considering. "If there's one large enough...still, we'd have to catch the squirrel-"
"How about leavesare they edible?" she asked, indicating the branches waving overhead.
"They might satisfy a growling stomach for a while," he admitted, "but in survival training a few mouthfuls of leaves sent us after better game. But we were equipped with hunting knives."
"What did you end up eating?"
"Rats." And when she made a face, he grinned broadly. "You'd be surprised how good a nice plump rat tastes after you haven't eaten anything but leaves and berrieswe had survival manuals to identify the safe berriesfor two days."
"Shhhhh!" she said. "Listen!"
. . . . .
"In there," Stoppard said, pointing out a barely-visible path to Thuringer. The cab driver looked on the verge of panic as the line of police cars and unmarked vehicles that had followed the SUV he was confined in halted outside the state forest. "There's an old hunting cabin there. I left 'em within walking distance. But...mister-"
Logan said sharply, "That's 'Special Agent,' mister."
Thuringer said, "Leave it be, Mike. What did you want to tell me, Mr. Stoppard?"
"I already told you," Stoppard said in a frantic voice, "I booby-trapped the whole place. The Weasel said these two were his partners, and they went back on him. I figured-"
"He lied," Logan exploded. "He got you to do his dirty work for him. Nobody can do anything to him; he's a lifer. But he threatened you and you knuckled under, and now you're going down if anything happens to either of them."
As they exited the SUV, Stoppard struggled against his cuffs, and Thuringer grabbed his arm on one side, one of the Scranton officers on the other. "Do as you're asked and we'll take into account he threatened you and your sister and her kids. Make trouble and there's no negotiation for you. How do we get to this cabin? Linzer, can we get the chopper in the air?"
"You give me the word," said one of the Scranton detectives. "You want it up now?"
"Yes," Thuringer said, then his cell rang. He looked at the screen, then answered. "Thuringer. Yes, Penelope. We're in the area. Have to go the rest of the way on foot. Our Mr. Stoppard here, though, says he thoroughly booby-trapped the area he left them in. Projectiles, snares, bear traps. The works."
Logan's eyebrows arched as Penelope Saltonstall's oath came through loud and clear from the other end.
"Sir," Linzer reminded, "we need to prepare for the possibility-"
"Bullshit!" Logan barked. "Goren's a brain and Eames is streetwise. It should still serve them out there. I'm not believing anything until I see it." He slammed the duffel he'd been carrying down on the hood of the nearest police car, kicking off his shoes fiercely and yanking on thick-soled hiking boots. "I spent $150 on these damn things, and they'd better to be worth the bucks."
Once he had finished tying the boots, he stuck his face back into Stoppard's. "Which way, asshole?"
"Don't you 'Mike,' me, Thuringer. I don't answer to you." Here he wheeled on Stoppard, "Now, assholewhere?"
Stoppard, gargling in panic, pointed at a trail emerging from the trees a few feet ahead.
"You want a walking stick, Logan?" Thuringer asked dryly.
"Yeah, and a canteen. And some food, since this moron poisoned what he left," Logan said bitterly.
Kepler handed him a backpack. "Two quarts of water in there, and some protein and fruit bars, Mr. Logan. A first aid kit. And a yelper you can set off."
Mike hefted the pack on his back. "Where are the dogs we were supposed to get?"
"Delayed at a home collapse," she replied.
"Jesus, I should have brought Bobby's collie. Sam would have had him found by now-" Logan grabbed the walking stick, glared at the trail, and finished, "I feel like fucking Survivorman," before turning to plunge into the woods. As he did, the clap of helicopter rotors against air sounded, and Logan wheeled briefly to make a thumbs-up.
At that moment they heard a faint, bloodcurdling woman's scream.
Logan froze, then bellowed, "Where's a medic? I need one to go with me."
He strode back toward the FBI agent, his face white. "Maybe Bobby didn't tell you everything, Thuringer. Alex Eames snarks with the best of them. She talks tough to perps and sweetly to kids, takes shit from no one, and, dear God, if you cross her, she will crush you. But Alex Eames does not scream. So if she's doing it now, something's either happened to her or to Bobby. I need a damn medic with meor have him or her follow."
"Get P.A. Stevenson," Kepler shouted, waving at the personnel behind her. "Now! Get going, Logan. She'll be right behind you."
And he vanished between the trees.
. . . . .
"Is that-" A smile crossed her wet face. "It sounds like a helicopter. But there isn't much of a gap in the trees here."
Bobby pointed to a larger patch of sunlight instead. "How about down there?"
Alex slipped her still-wet dress back on and handed Bobby his shirt. "Where's the Y stick?"
He pulled on the shirt without buttoning it, then snatched both the Y-ended branch and the second long tree limb from the side of the cabin. Thus armed, they made their way gingerly toward the patch of light. She stopped him at one point, and they both flattened against a tree while she prodded at a shining bit of string. Yet another knife-sharpened tree branch spear flashed to their left.
Alex spit, "Fuck him-"
The helicopter sounded as if it were almost overhead. Sweeping his eyes ahead rapidly, Bobby detected no threats and stepped into the circle of sunlight-
Then he doubled over. "Shit!" Then, "Alex! Watch out! Shit!"
Horrified, Alex took it in at once: Bobby bent over, grabbing his right leg just over the long slim tree branch impaled in his calf.
"Stop!" she barked. "Don't-"
"I'm not..." he gasped. "I'm not pulling it out. Oh, Christ that hurts-" He staggered against a tree, then slipped to the ground at the foot of it. Alex's mind blanked as she rushed to his side, helping to ease him down, grimacing at the rounded spear of wood thrust out from the leg of his now-frayed and muddy trousers. His face was a rictus of pain and he was trying hard not to gag. "I'm sorry, Eames...I didn't see anything-"
"I know. I didn't either. Just breathe," Alex said, squatting beside him, shutting down her emotions yet comforting him with her hands. "Deep breaths, Bobby. It's okay."
"If...if there aren't anymore t-traps, you should be waving at that helicopter, not sitting here with me," he wheezed.
"I-" But she realized he was right. She yanked her damp and shredding dress back over her head, found the center of the small clearing, and began waving frantically, half an eye on Bobby. She saw his face relax slightly, his eyes focused on her, and she knew he was trying to distract himself from the pain. "Good boy," she whispered to herself, then looked upward. She could see the helicopter now, almost overhead; she whipped the dress back and forth like a semaphore flag as strongly as she could manage, for her whole body was trembling now.
She turned her attention back to Bobby. He was still looking at her, but his eyes...his head was tilted just a little to the right. "Bobby?"
When he didn't answer, she threw the dress on the ground and slicked off her slip to toss in the center of it, like a blue-green-and-white bullseye, then ran back to him. His head was wobbling, his eyes unfocused.
When he spoke, it was as if his tongue was swollen. "I...thick...somethin' on th'...sper," and Alex's eyes flashed down to the impaled stick.
"Drugged?" There was a lump in her throat and she could barely speak. She didn't dare broach the word "poison."
"Yah," he said, then his head fell forward.
The last thing Bobby Goren heard was Alex Eames' scream.
. . . . .
"You need to be in bed, Ms. Eames," the nurse told her sternly.
Alex, wrapped up in Mike Logan's jacket with a spare shirt from his duffel underneath, was seated at the edge of a plastic bucket chair, her feet swallowed in a pair of Logan's change of socks, her hands in a death grip on each side of the chair, the chair shoved as close as it could be to the hospital bed. "Bullshit."
"'Scuse me," and Logan skirted the armed guard at the door to the hospital room, coming around the nurse with a steaming hot mug in his hands. "Eames. Drink this, hon."
The word reached her sleep- and pain-fogged brain and she almost retorted, but one look at Logan's haggard visage and she could forgive the "hon."
"How did you find me?" she had wept in his arms as Jamila Stevenson worked on Bobby while two more people with stretchers approached through the woods.
"You're predictable, Alex, thank God," he'd replied, holding her tightly. "Sharon called me Sunday morning to tell me you hadn't called Saturday night to say goodnight to the featherhead."
Now she sipped at the hot cup, then looked disgusted. "This isn't coffee."
"It's soup, Ms. Eames," the nurse told her. "You need the nourishment."
"Bobby-" she said, and the hand holding the cup trembled; Mike steadied it with one hand.
"Bobby," he echoed, "is going to wake up, find out I didn't take care of you, and murder me. So for Christ's sake, sip the soup, willya, and save me from Death by Berserk Federal Agent."
She snorted, swallowing the chicken broth with micro-diced carrots and tiny pastina, her eyes never leaving Bobby's pale face. He was wired and tubed, two IVs, one with D5W and another with an antibiotic, an oxygen cannula in his nose, heart monitor wires snaking from under his hospital gown, breathing so very shallowly that it frightened her.
"C'mon, Alex," Logan coaxed. "The doctors say he's doing okay. They just have to get the junk out of his system. Lie down, let Ms. Fischer here help you clean up-"
Bobby's eyelids fluttered, and Alex sat up straight. "Bobby?"
"Ems," he rasped thickly.
"Bobby-" She thrust the mug into Logan's hands, then reached between the bed railings and lay her hands on his right forearm.
"'Lex," he tried again.
"I'm here, Bobby," and Logan knew she would have crawled into the hospital bed and bled every ounce of her strength into him if it were possible.
His eyes slit open briefly and he mumbled, "Eamz...be...good."
"You, too?" and then she leaned her head against the bed railing, her strength finally spent.
. . . . .
He squinted one eye open, then the other, wincing at the light.
Hospital bed. IVs. His feet in contact with the footboard of the bed due to his height. Beeping. Heart monitor? Just past the edge of his peripheral vision, someone at his right was reading from a tablet.
"Eames?" he croaked.
The tablet lowered. "Asleep. Check left."
He turned his head to see the broad couch under the window that converted into sleeping space for what hospitals now called "care partners." Alex practically had the blanket over her head, but he recognized what was peeping out with relief.
"Robert," said the tablet owner somberly, "sometimes you are more trouble than a barrel of monkeys."
He gave a weak choking sound that passed for a chuckle. "Hi, Boss Lady," he rasped in irreverent imitation of his former FBI partner Karin Hirahara. "Cab driver?"
Penelope Saltonstall answered mildly, "The debriefing about Mr. 'Daehder' can wait."
"That…wasn't his real name," Bobby insisted.
There was a sardonic chuckle from the doorway. "Dog with a bone, Agent Saltonstall."
Bobby met Mike Logan's amused face, taking in the shadows under his eyes and the ragged condition of his clothes. "You-"
"I am never going into the woods again," Logan said grimly. "No camping, no hiking, and maybe not even a picnic in a National Park. Give me concrete, diesel exhaust, dog shit on the sidewalk, and bumper-to-bumper traffic, baby."
He wanted Bobby to laugh and was rewarded with a twitch of a smile.
"Speaking of dogs with a bone," Saltonstall chided. "He was on the phone two hours and thirteen minutes before someone connected him with me. Lost his temper a couple of times, I was told. But persistent. Sure you don't want a job, Mr. Logan?"
"Hey, we're at 'Mike' by now. And nope." His face sobered. "Lennie knew when to give it up, and I made the right decision."
"May I interrupt…t-the mutual admiration society?" Bobby asked wearily.
"All right. Logan...Mike...is the reason the entire little escapade didn't go off as planned-"
"Wait," Logan said. "Credit where it's due. Sharon's the reasonor if we go back far enough, Alex."
"Mike, quit playing with my head. It hurts, I'm hungry, and that d-damn beeping is driving me crazy."
"Your IV saline is done," Saltonstall said, and Logan finished, "Yeah, nurse will be in after she helps the patient next door."
She continued, "Your kidnapper thought no one would miss you until Monday evening, and no search would begin until Tuesday. By that time, he figured either one of his traps would have dispatched you and/or Alex, or you'd be dying from dehydration. He's not…an overthinker, and he was driven by panic for family members."
"Except Sharon called me early Sunday morning because Alex never contacted her Saturday night. 'Alex always calls to say goodnight to Bandit,' she told me." Logan grinned. "So maybe you need to give the featherhead an extra portion of seed."
Bobby's chuckle sounded more like a croak. "I'll buy him an Amazon truck full of millet."
The conversation paused when the charge nurse came in to silence the IV pump. "You look a little more chipper, Agent Goren."
"I am. Water? Please?"
"I'll get you some ice chips. I think Dr.. Walters will probably let you eat this morning now that you're awake and your stats are good. But he needs to check you first."
"What did I get hit with?"
"That's for the doctor to talk to you about."
Bobby opened his mouth to protest, then sighed. "Is the damage-" and he let the sentence hang.
"That I was told I'm safe to divulge," the nurse smiled. "You only had one dose and we got to you not soon after you took the dosage. There's no harm to your system and the wound should heal cleanly," and here she bent over him to emphasize, "so long as you do as we say."
"Yes, ma'am," he said obediently.
"I'll get you those ice chips," she responded briskly and left.
He eyed Saltonstall. "Was it Xylazine?"
"Yes," she said. "How did you know?"
"Big problem with it in Philly. The dealers mix it with fentanyl. Causes nasty wounds when you shoot up with it too many times. Figured it might bleed over into other Pennsylvania urban centers."
Saltonstall quirked an eyebrow and Logan just smiled.
"Your driver's name was posted as 'Jack Daehder,' correct? Run that surname backward," she instructed.
Bobby blinked. "Jack...Redh-" Then he groaned. "Jesus. John Testarossa."
"So..." came Alex's voice from under the window, "Mike Stoat was behind this all along?"
Now Bobby's grin, dry white lips and all, was genuine. "Ten points to Griffyndor."
A different nurse came in with a cup of ice chips. "Shall I lift your head, sir?" he asked, motioning to the bed controls.
"Yes, please," he said gratefully, and in another moment he was blissfully allowing the chips to melt into his parched mouth.
"As I said, Mr. 'Daehder' isn't an overthinker," Saltonstall continued. "His true name is Oscar Stoppard, and his father Amos and the rest of the clan are well known by every branch of law enforcement in this part of the state. Not just run-of-the-mill harmless preppers, but out-and-out survivalists, but they have mostly kept to themselves except for occasional bouts of poaching on posted land. One sister turned her back on the family completelyit was her cab Oscar was using. In the past, unfortunately, according to his sister Sandy, Oscar developed a slight addiction problem, which drove him to need extra money, so he began dealing weed and some minor tranquilizers. Someone turned him in and he was sent to prison."
Alex sat up. Someone, Saltonstall, she presumed, had brought her a shirt and shorts, both of which were too big for her. "He's small peanuts, though. How the hell did he hook up with Stoat?"
"Patience, Captain Eames," Logan teased.
"Broken pipes," Saltonstall explained, "in minimum security. You know how overcrowded and outdated the facilities are. Now, lifers should have been required to double up with lifers, with the minimum security prisoners kept together, but it appears John Testarossa's...uh, I believe the word is 'goombas'-" and Logan let out a "Ha!" behind her. "...his compatriots felt our Mr. Stoat did the big guy enough favors that he should receive a little extra-special treatment in the Big House. Incidentally, you'll be happy to know that your rescue has served a good purpose: Warden Delameire is now taking a much closer look at some of the more...um...favored prisoners, including Stoat, and their living conditions. They searched Stoat's cell last night and found all sorts of delightful contraband, including a cell phone, the chain he so nicely throttled Mr. Stoppard with, and some rather tasty foodstuffs, including cheesecake. Stoat is now on a restricted dietwith those chubby cheeks of his, you would have thought he was dining at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse nightlyand two guards have been suspended pending indictment.
"What made your unique weekend possible," she continued dryly, "were two unrelated events that came to an intersection point. One was that another one of the guards, totally blameless in the contraband problemso far as we know, that isis a trainee named Philip Bartos, who lives in Waterbury. He decided to eat something different one Sunday over a month ago, and tried out a very well-reviewed restaurant and bar. He happened to be sitting at the bar having a Fox Farm 'brewski' and an order of teriyaki wings and 'Rhode-Island-style clamcakes, a specialty of the house,' listening while a very tall man with a VanDyke beard'elderly dude,' the kid called him-"
Bobby spit ice chips back into the cup.
"Sorry," Saltonstall said blandly. "'Elderly'? I wonder what that makes me. The fellow with the beard was talking about his upcoming trip to Scranton with his wife for a writer's conference. The bartender was very chatty to Mr. Bartos about the man afterward...talked about the Wizard and Princess Ozma, otherwise Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames. You might want to advise Carmella to be more circumspect in the future. But...what's done is done. Bartos thought it crazy that a couple of ex-cop wannabe writers would 'waste their time' at a pub quiz."
"I won't dignify that with a response," said Bobby dryly.
"Bartos was assigned to the lifers' cellblock and in the habit of chatting with Stoat. Stoat fascinated him, he said. Totally amoral. Incidentally, he works nights and is attending college classes during the day. Psychology major. In any case, he thought the two ex-cops would be a funny story for Stoat. He has also been 'advised' to be more circumspect in the future, or he'll be looking for another position."
"In the meantime, whoever's been allowing Stoat to have his little privileges couldn't have John Testarossa's pet cop share a cell with another lifer. He might be harmed. Instead they put Mr. Stoppard with him, because the guards knew Stoppard's past and that he was harmless. The two guards on suspension turned a blind eye while Stoppard was bullied and threatened, plus Stoat had help from his friends on the outside by means of that cell phone. They were told to keep tabs on Stoppard's family. In turn, they made sure to make Sandy Stoppard...nervous, but also made certain that nothing they did could be tracked by the police. So word kept coming from Sandy to Oscar that she was being watched or her kids were being watched, but there was no proof of it."
Logan added, "She also told us that Stoppard's dad always considered him to be a loser...'strong but stupid,' the sister said the father called him. Slow, 'dumb' in school, only good at one thing: he could set snares and traps like nobody's business. He was used to being bullied, put down. Easy game for Stoat and his Weasel buddies. That's what Stoppard knew Stoat as, 'the Weasel.' Fitting, huh?"
"So, these 'outside guys,'" Alex said, "they followed him? Made sure he was doing as he was told?"
"Definitely," Saltonstall answered crisply. "When he left prison, it was with a smuggled burner phone. They'd call him and compliment him on his work. Knew what stores he bought his supplies in. And they got him that driver's licensehe didn't renew it himself at all as he told us. A kindness, they told him, for being a good cellmate for the Weasel. Got him the Xylazine, too. You see, you two were supposed to be Stoat's partners, who 'done him wrong.' Alex was Stoat's fiancé-"
Alex mimed a retching noise and sticking a finger down her throat.
"-who had been stolen by his best buddy Bob-"
"Spare us," Bobby said abruptly, his voice unsteady again, the result of his undercover sortie with Stoat as fresh in his mind fifteen years later as it had been when it occurred. Alex's icy face when she had found out he had kept the assignment a secret from her was still branded on his brain, and the memory sent a sharp stab into the pit of his stomach.
"In any case," Saltonstall concluded, watching his face pale and then color, "Stoppard knew about betrayal. His own friends turned him into the police for his sinsthey wouldn't provide him with weed on a discount."
"My heart bleeds," said Logan dryly. Bobby dropped the empty ice cup on the bed and said nothing until Alex padded forward with a solemn face and brushed his still rain-rumpled hair back with a tender hand. He looked up, searched her face, and she bowed her head until their foreheads met. She murmured something neither Saltonstall nor Logan could make out, and they saw his tense fingers relax.
Logan, at least, was relieved when Dr.. Walters walked in.
. . . . .
Penelope Saltonstall, Mike Logan decided, was magic. By the time Bobby hobbled out of the hospital on Wednesday, his bills had been taken care of, and she'd arranged for a car to drop Logan off at Carla's apartment in Brooklyn and then continue to Milbury with the Gorens. Appointments were made with Bobby's doctor for follow-up care of the wound. He slept most of the way home but did request the driver make one stop before heading to the house. Alex laughed until she cried.
It wasn't quite an Amazon van full, but, Bobby noted with satisfaction, Bandit did enjoy the millet.