Chapter 29

Around ten in the morning, Carl asked for his wife.  “Are you sure?” the nurse asked.  “I can’t have you getting all upset again!”

“Positive,” Carl smiled.  “Thank you.”  The woman gave him a doubtful look but left, and in a few minutes Bethany stood in the door.  “Come in,” he said.

She sat in a chair near the bed and said nothing.  Carl said, “I just want to say a few things.  First is that if you want a divorce, I’ll gladly give you one.”

Bethany paled and asked, “What if that is not what I want?”

“Then we’re moving here to be closer to our family,” Carl said.  “And if there are any more secrets I want to know them now, or at least when I’m feeling better, because if I find out later that there’s more, I’ll have no choice but to leave you.”

Bethany nodded.  “There isn’t anything else,” she said.

“I want you to take some time to think about it, and I’ll ask you again.  I don’t care if you secretly bought something or did some little thing … but if there’s something I should know, I expect you to tell me,” he said with a nod.  “And I want you to tell me the name of the man who hurt my daughter….”

“Carl,” she whispered, “please!”

“WHICH ONE OF OUR NEIGHBORS DID IT?” he asked.

“Carl, he’s dead!” Bethany said.  “What’s the use?”

“No more secrets, that’s the point, Bethany,” he said.

“I was just trying to protect,” she began.

“I know you were trying to protect her, I just don’t understand why that involved keeping this from me,” he fumed.

“I WASN’T PROTECTING JUST HER!  I WAS PROTECTING YOU!” she said, unleashing a wave of heartfelt grief.  “I was protecting YOU!”

“I’m not a lunatic, I wouldn’t have killed him,” Carl said, misunderstanding.

“It’s not that, dear,” Bethany said, beginning to cry.  “I think you might have killed him, though….  It wasn’t a neighbor, Carl….”

Carl could feel his pulse quicken.  “Just tell me,” he said.

“Your brother,” she said.  “It was your brother.  I told him if we never saw him again, we’d let it go.  That’s why he wouldn’t answer your letters, or return your phone calls….”

Carl began to cry now.  “You’re right,” he whispered, choked up.  “I would have killed him….”  He felt the bed depress and leaned over into Bethany’s arms, shaking.  The nurse looked in with a frown, but checking his numbers left without comment.

“You still should have told me … when she started to have trouble.  We could have helped her,” he whispered.

“I know,” she said.  “I’m so sorry….  I’d just … I’d been lying for so long and I didn’t want to lose you.”

***

Alan grabbed Billy’s hand and they walked into the Nordstrom main entrance.  Alan clearly knew his way around the big department store and led Billy over to the customer service center.

“Hi,” he said with a smile, “I called this morning and made an appointment with a personal stylist!”

Billy looked at him, confused.  He’d never had that experience.  “Name?” the woman asked with a smile.

“Alan Prince,” he replied with a smile.

She looked him up and asked, “Will you be needing any special assistance?”

He knew she was wondering about his braces.  “No, I’ll be fine, but a handicap accessible changing room would be helpful.  The more room the better.”

“Very good,” she said.  “Your stylist for the morning will be Maria!  She’ll be here in just a few moments!”

“Thanks,” Alan said.

As they walked away from the counter to wait, Billy asked, “So what’s the deal?”

“They’ve got people here who help you find things you like and put together new wardrobe selections….  It’s nice, but especially for me.  Once she figures out what I like, she’ll bring the clothes to me, rather than me having to browse the whole store,” Alan explained.

“Ah, yeah I see why that would be helpful for you,” Billy said.

“Well, it would help guys like you too,” Alan teased.  “Help you keep up with the style, in case you don’t get all the fashion magazines!”

“Yeah, I’m pretty much jeans and t-shirts, or sweat pants,” Billy said, shrugging and blushing.

“Some of us just have to work harder to look good,” Alan smiled and squeezed Billy’s muscular arm.

“Whatever,” Billy said, rolling his eyes.

Soon a young woman emerged and held out a hand.  “Hi, I’m Maria!”

“Alan,” he replied, shaking her hand, “and this is Billy!”

“Nice to meet you,” she smiled, sizing them up.  “So, Alan, you’re looking for a few outfits for spring semester….  Mostly casual?”

“Yeah, stuff for school, but not too casual,” Alan replied.  “And no shorts,” he added.  “Maybe something dressier to go out in too….”

“What about you, Billy? Can we get you anything?” she asked.

“Uhm, no,” he smiled, blushing a little.

“Alright,” Maria smiled.  Then she led them over to the changing area and Alan claimed a big, open dressing room with a little wheel-chair symbol on the door.  Billy sat in a big comfortable chair in the lounge as Maria brought outfit after outfit for Alan to try on and model for Billy: while he suspected most anything would look good on Alan, he could tell Maria was an expert.  So Billy watched with little surprise as the little pile of clothes grew and grew.

After they’d been there for nearly two hours, Alan pulled Maria aside and whispered, “One last thing….  Pick out something really nice for my friend to try on … something he could wear on a nice date.”

Maria smiled and said, “I thought of something for him the first time I saw him that you’re gonna love!”

Alan came out and sat next to Billy and said, “Hope you’re not too bored?”

“Getting to see you in all these hot clothes?” Billy teased.  “No way I’m bored.”

They chatted a bit until the woman returned and said, “Billy, you’re up!”

“What?” he asked.  “I … no, I’m not….”

Alan put a hand on his arm and said, “PLEASE?”

Billy glared at him good-naturedly and took the clothes, stepping into a free dressing room.  Maria stood with Alan chatting, until Billy called, “SERIOUSLY?”

“Just be a sport, Billy,” Maria called.

A few minutes later, a very nervous looking Billy stepped out in his socks.  He was wearing a semi-formal suit in a brownish tan, with a bright blue shirt and a deep blue tie.  “Well?” he demanded when neither Alan nor Maria said anything.

“Uhm,” Alan said.

“WOW!” Maria added.

“Get some brown dress shoes, socks and a belt to go with it,” Alan said, sending Maria off.

“Hey,” Billy said, “what about me?”

“You look amazing,” Alan said, putting a hand on his arm.

“But I can’t afford this and I won’t let you,” Billy began.

“Won’t let me?” Alan laughed.  “Just think of it like this: I’m not buying it for you, I’m buying it for me.  You wear it and I get to look at you!  Now you have to take me out!”

“I was gonna take you out,” Billy blushed.

“Someplace NICE!” Alan laughed.

“Are you sure?” Billy asked, blushing.

“My dad charges $400 an hour, and I got a full scholarship,” Alan said.  “Besides, my parents spoil me a little,” he added with a wink.  After Maria had outfitted him with the appropriate accessories, Billy changed back into his street clothes and then helped Alan go through the keep pile to decide which ones he’d actually be buying.  Besides Billy’s outfit, Alan kept five full outfits for himself and a number of additional items.

Billy’s jaw nearly bounced off the floor when he saw the total, but Alan just handed Maria a platinum card and asked, “Is there any way to get this delivered to the hotel?”

“We’ll just take it back before we meet the guys,” Billy said.

“Okay,” Alan shrugged with a smile.

When it was all packed up, there were four big bags and a garment bag, and they all got piled on Billy, while Alan smiled at him with an I-told-you-so grin.  Outside they caught a cab and loaded their merchandise in the trunk, and headed for the hotel.

***

The GPS directed Eric to turn right and he found himself on a long dirt driveway.  He could just see the lake in the distance so he turned off the annoying little box that was announcing, “You have arrived at your destination.”

They drove slowly up the drive and Eric suddenly slammed on the brakes.  “Mother fucker!” Eric declared.

“What?” Ryan asked.

“The chimney,” Eric said, pointing to the smoke curling from the top of the cabin.  “Someone’s here….”

“It could be family,” Ryan cautioned.

“Could be,” Eric allowed, pulling out his cell phone.  He could call Andy and clear that up.  “Shit, no service!”  Leaving the car running, he reached for the door.

“You are NOT going in there!” Ryan said.

“It’s probably friends or relatives, like you said,” Eric replied.  “But I’ve got my gun.  Just stay in the car!  I’ll signal all clear….”

“Eric, let’s go … we’ll call Fielding!” Ryan begged.

“I’m just going to go take a look,” Eric said.  “If I call them out here and its nothing….”

“If it’s something and you,” Ryan began.

“I’LL BE FINE!” Vickers said, laughing to reassure the young man.  Then he was gone before Ryan could try to reason with him again.  Ryan reached over and locked the door, and watched as Vickers slipped up on the little cabin.

Vickers peeked in the window and saw nothing, so he slipped to the next window.  From that vantage point he saw a figure lying in bed, still sleeping.  But he could tell it wasn’t Robert: the blond hair gave it away — this was Connor.  Moving again, he saw that the cabin was otherwise empty, so as quietly as he could he moved to the door and slipped inside.  His goal was to secure Connor and then lie in wait for Robert to return.

Cocking his pistol, he walked over to the bed and reached with his other hand for his cuffs.  With a quick flick of his wrist, he closed the cuff over the sleeping boy’s wrist and attached the other end to the metal frame of the cot.  It wouldn’t stop him but it would slow him down.  Connor never stirred.

Outside, Ryan began to worry.  He’d gotten no all-clear and Eric had entered the house without knocking.  That was not good.  Hesitantly, Ryan looked around for a weapon and saw only a big limb just off the driveway.  Ryan reached for the door handle and unlocked the door, stepping out and reaching for the limb.

He’d taken about six steps toward the cabin when strong hands grabbed him from behind and he felt the cold thin blade a knife at his neck.  “Shhhh,” he heard in his right ear, followed by a chuckle he would have guessed came from a handsome man under other circumstances.  “Let’s go see what your friend’s getting up to,” Robert whispered.

***

“So, did you guys have fun?” Paul asked as they all sat down for lunch at a little Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the hospital.

“Will you wipe that silly grin off your face, Paul?  It’s distracting,” Alan said with a mischievous smile.

“Sorry,” Paul grinned some more.

“But yes, I did enjoy spending some of dad’s money,” Alan winked.  “I always tell him that I only spend the blood money!”

Paul laughed and said, “Your dad doesn’t defend THAT many bad guys!”

“Is that a comment on how my dad picks his clients or how much I spend on clothes?” Alan asked, laughing.

“I’ve got a guess,” Billy said, elbowing Alan gently.

Laughing, Paul added, “I’d say a little of both!”

“How’s your grandfather, Jim?” Alan asked, changing the subject.

“He’s doing better….  He told us in no uncertain terms this morning that we weren’t to spend all our time hovering in the hospital, so this afternoon we’re gonna go hang out at Edwin’s and play with Jonathan,” Jim said.  “And I guess we’ll do some more of that each day, but maybe we can have SOME fun too!”

“Playing with Jonathan is fun,” Paul teased.

“You know I think so, Paulie,” Jim said, leaning into the boy.  “But I mean vacation fun!”

“I want to go the art museum tomorrow,” Paul said.  “Who wants to come?”

“Of course we’ll come,” Alan laughed.  Then blushed and looked at Billy.  “I mean I’ll come!”

Billy smiled and put a hand on Alan’s on the table and said, “We’ll come!”

Paul’s grin grew again to embarrassing proportions, prompting Alan to warn, “PAUL!”

“WHAT?” Paul giggled.  “It’s just SO exciting!”

“Yeah,” Billy smiled, surprising them all, “it is….”

“REALLY?” Paul asked, practically bouncing on his seat.  Billy blushed in answer to his question.  “Cause you guys are REALLY cute together!”

“Let the guys go out on a date or two before you start hearing wedding bells, Paulie,” Jim teased Paul, making both Alan and Billy blush fiercely.  Now Jim arched his eyebrow briefly at Billy and smiled.  “Or not….”

***

“What’s your partner’s name?” Robert asked as he walked Ryan closer to the cabin.

Ryan didn’t say anything until he felt a slight increase in the pressure of the knife against his neck.  “Vickers,” Ryan said softly.  “Eric Vickers….”

“ERIC!” Robert called loudly.  “Come out with your hands up!” he added, snickering lightly in Ryan’s ear.

“Robert?” Eric called, peering out the window.  His heart caught in his throat when he saw Ryan in the lunatic’s arms, knife treacherously close to the young man’s neck.  “What do you want, Robert?”

Connor woke on the bed and panicked at the presence of the strange man with a gun and at finding himself in cuffs.  “Who are you?” he asked timidly when he realized there was no escape.

“Police!  Now shut up!” Eric hissed.

“Bring Connor out and we’ll make a trade,” Robert said.  “Then, I’m gonna take your car and we’re gonna leave….”

“I can’t let you leave, Robert,” Eric called.

“Owww, fuck!” Ryan yelled as a little trail of blood began to trickle down his neck.

“Next time, it’ll be more serious,” Robert called.

Eric walked over to the bed and uncuffed the boy.  “Get dressed,” he growled.

“And Connor!  Grab our bags!” Robert yelled.

A few minutes later, Connor was dressed and had their things ready.  “If he does anything to Ryan, I’ll kill you both,” Eric whispered, before nudging the boy in the back with his revolver.  “Go slow.”  Then he yelled, “Coming out!”

“Slow and steady,” Robert said as he came face-to-face with Vickers for the first time.  “Throw away your pistol,” Robert added.

“Not gonna happen,” Eric said.

Robert began slowly backing toward Vickers’ car with Ryan.  “Then follow me,” he said.

Slowly the two pairs worked their way over to the car.  “What now?” Eric asked.

“Connor, load the car,” Robert said.

Connor moved despite the gun at his back and Eric moved to keep the boy covered.  “Robert, how do you see this ending?” Eric asked.

“Get in the car, Connor,” Robert said, and the boy did as he was told.  “Back seat….”  Robert looked at Eric and said, “We’re going to drive away, and you’re going to let us!”

“How’s that?” Eric asked.

“Because if you take the time to try to stop me, your boy here will bleed to death,” Robert said.

“What?” Eric asked, but even as he was speaking, Robert’s hand moved with speed, slicing into Ryan’s wrist deeply.  Then with a powerful shove, he pushed Ryan toward Eric, who dropped his gun to catch the young man.

Robert was already behind the wheel and putting the car in reverse before Eric’s mind overcame the shock of what had happened.  Eric elevated Ryan’s arm and ripped the belt from around his waist, wrapping it around Ryan’s forearm and pulling it tight.  The flow of blood slowed to a trickle, but Eric was faced with a real problem.  He needed to call for help, and his cell hadn’t worked.

“Ryan, can you keep your arm elevated for a few minutes?  I need to find a place with cell reception,” Eric asked gently.

“Yeah,” Ryan said, his voice labored.  “Hurry….”

Eric held his phone up and walked down to the lake.  Just at the water’s edge, his phone went from a red circle with a slash through it to no bars.  “Here goes,” he said to himself and called Fielding.  Reception was spotty but the call went through.  “FIELDING?  CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

“Barely,” Fielding replied.

“We came up to Paul’s boyfriend’s cabin, Fielding, and they were here,” Eric said.  “But they’re gone now.  He cut Ryan’s wrist, Fielding.  We need LifeFlight now!”

“Give me the address,” Fielding said.  Eric rattled it off and Fielding repeated it back to him.  “How did they get away?”

“Took my car,” Vickers said.  “I had to save Ryan….  I couldn’t stop them….”

“Help is on the way, buddy,” Fielding said.

Eric ran back to Ryan, whose arm now lay on his chest.  “Hold on Ry,” Eric whispered, grabbing the bleeding arm and lifting it high again.  Eric took off his shirt and ripped a piece of the fabric and wrapped it around the wound tight and then moved the belt higher on his arm and tightened it as much as he could.  He kept it elevated and applied as much pressure as he could, holding Ryan’s wrist with both hands and whispering, “Hold on….  Just hold on!”

Eric listened for the helicopter, praying with all his might, but all he heard was the eerie silence of a winter woods.

***

After lunch, Andy and Sean picked up the four boys and drove to Edwin’s house.  They all went in and Alan got to meet Jonathan for the first time.  The little boy really hammed it up, enjoying the attention the four ‘big boys’ were giving him.

“How’s Carl?” Edwin asked Andy as the boys played.

“Much improved,” Andy said softly.  “He and Bethany have been talking and it looks like they’re gonna make it.”

“Good,” Edwin said.  Then, answering the unasked, “Still no word from you know who….”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Andy laughed grimly.  “I held on to hope for SO long that in the end, I just shut myself off from everything … except Jim.”

“I can definitely feel the impulse,” Edwin said.  “But I’m no good alone….”

“You’ll never be alone now,” Andy laughed, nodding at Jim who was flying his little brother around the room.  “And Carl and Bethany are moving closer, I understand.”

“Oh?” Edwin asked.

“I guess it’s still sort of a secret, but I know they want to be closer to their grandchildren,” Andy said.  Shortly, he asked, “Edwin, do you mind if we leave Jim and Paul here and take the other boys to the movies?”

“No, of course not!  While they’re entertaining Jonathan, I can get on the phone and keep up with all the work I’m missing,” Edwin smiled.  “They can stay as long as they want and come back any time!”

“Thanks,” Andy said with a smile and nudged Sean to go collect the boys.

***

The distant thumping sound of the helicopter’s rotor flooded Eric with emotions, but the craft seemed to take forever to settle on the flat ground near the cabin.  Eric waved frantically and yelled to get their attention, and soon the two men in red jumpsuits ran toward him with a gurney and some equipment.

One of the men grabbed Ryan’s elevated arm and asked, “This is the only wound?”

“Yeah,” Eric stammered.  “There is a nick on his neck but it’s nothing….”

They quickly transferred Ryan to the light gurney and began moving toward the helicopter.  “I’m coming with you,” Eric said.

“Sorry, sir, there’s no room,” the other medic replied.  “He’s stable but we’ve got to go….”

Eric nodded, and stepped back, shaking his head.  As he watched the plane fly off, he murmured to himself, “COME ON, FIELDING!”  While he waited for the man, he paced around impatiently, and controlled his urge to go back into the cabin and investigate.

Fielding only arrived about thirty minutes after the helicopter took off, followed shortly by two squad cars.  “Secure the cabin for the crime scene boys,” Fielding told them.

“What about you?” one young cop asked.

“I’ll take Detective Vickers’ statement on our way to the hospital.  Tell the boys that this was Ryan,” he added.  “Get in,” he said to Vickers.

They drove in silence for a minute or two, and Fielding broke it by calling dispatch and asking what hospital Ryan was being taken to.  When he realized his destination, he turned around and headed for the more distant hospital in the capital.  “They took him to General Hospital,” Fielding said.  “They got the bleeding staunched enough that they decided to take him there.  The surgeons will do a better job repairing the wounds….  And they know he’s one of us.”

“Thanks, Fielding,” Vickers said with a deep sigh.  “Can you go faster?”

“You know that since this isn’t an emergency call, I’m not supposed to use my siren,” Fielding said.  But seeing the look on Vickers face, he reached for the switch and turned the blue lights on.  “How long?” Fielding asked.

“What?” Vickers asked, absently.

“How long have you and Ryan been … together?  You and he have really only been going out since you got suspended,” Fielding asked.

“Yeah, really,” Vickers said.  “But he’s the first person I’ve really cared about in a long time, Fielding.  I’ve never been this scared in my entire life….”

Fielding sat, uncomfortable, for a moment.  “I’m sorry, Vickers.  Ryan’s a good guy, good at his job and good with people….  I hope he’s okay.”

Vickers looked out the window and said, “Thanks,” with a voice thick with emotion.

***

Edwin stepped out of his office and said, “Something’s come up at the theatre, boys.  I can call the nanny….”

“We’d be happy to watch him until you get back,” Paul smiled, answering for both of them.

“Are you sure?” Edwin asked.  “I’ll probably be a couple of hours and….”

“We’ve got your cell number,” Jim said.  “We’ll be fine!”

“Thanks,” Edwin said.  Then, kneeling down, he said, “Daddy’s running to work buddy.  You be good for your big brother, okay?”

Jonathan ran to his dad and hugged him.  “Okay, daddy.”  Edwin smiled and stood to walk to the door.  “Is mommy coming home with you today?”  Paul felt Jim stiffen next to him as Edwin stopped dead in his tracks.  The man didn’t turn for a few long moments.  Then he turned and knelt down and waved the boy over.  “Why are you crying daddy?” Jonathan asked.

“Buddy, mommy….  I don’t know when mommy’s coming home, sweetheart,” Edwin said, picking the boy up and holding him tight.  Paul put a hand on Jim’s back as he saw Jim’s face twitching almost imperceptibly.  Jim pulled away and walked into the kitchen, putting his elbows on the counter and propping his head up as he leaned over and cried.

A moment later he heard Paul enter and walk over to him, and began weeping as he felt the boy’s slight arms snake around his waist to hold him.  “I’m sorry, Jim,” Paul whispered, laying his cheek against Jim’s strong back.

“I just … it makes me SO ANGRY,” Jim whispered, “and I don’t have any release for it!  I just want to break something, or … I don’t know….”

“I know how that feels,” Paul said.  “Everything that I’ve been going through, and trying not to let on to my parents how bad it was for me….”

Jim turned around and wrapped his arms around Paul.  “When we get back to the hotel tonight, I’m going to hit the gym, Paulie,” he said.  “Hard.”

Paul nodded silently against Jim’s chest and squeezed the boy tight.  A few minutes later Edwin carried Jonathan into the kitchen.  “I’m going to run in and come straight home,” Edwin said softly.

“We’ll be FINE!” Jim said with a forced laugh.

“I know, but,” Edwin began.

“There’s no time like the present to get on with it,” Jim smiled, wiping his face.  “Want to makes smores while daddy goes to work, Jonathan?” Jim then asked with an excited voice.

“Great,” Edwin laughed.  “Get him all sugared up and then you guys get to go to the hotel tonight!”

“Yep,” Jim smiled and grabbed Jonathan, who was reaching for him.

Edwin kissed the boy once more and said, “Daddy’ll be home real soon, sweet boy!”

“Okay,” Jonathan said with a smile before turning to play with Paul over Jim’s broad shoulder.

***

Robert drove north quickly about fifteen miles to a gas station.  Pulling over, he said, “Come on, we’ve got to switch cars.  It won’t be long before they’ll be looking for this one.”  Connor nodded numbly, and watched Robert scan the parking lot.  It was not that busy and pretty exposed.  “Shit,” he said.  “We’ll wait a few minutes and if a car doesn’t come along we’ll have to go somewhere else….”

Connor sat silently for a minute more before saying, softly, “You saved me….”  Robert looked at him with a questioning look.  “You could have left and been long gone.”

“No,” Robert said.  “First off, that cop may be smart, but I wanted to show him he’s not THAT smart.”  Then, sighing, he added, “Plus, it’s more fun with you around.”

Connor smiled despite himself and said, “What about the clerk’s car?”

“Trading one stolen car for another doesn’t help us all that much,” Robert said, and then he got what Connor meant, “unless it doesn’t get reported stolen….”

“If we just lock up the store and turn the closed sign, it’ll be a while before anyone realizes.  And by then we can trade it in again,” Connor suggested, beaming proudly at the approving smile he was receiving.

“Drive the car around back and hide it as best you can,” Robert nodded.  “Then meet me inside….”

Connor came around and took Robert’s seat as the boy strode magnificently toward the gas station’s door.  At last Connor tore his eyes away and pulled the car up to the curb and then up onto the grass, dragging the bottom on concrete.  Then he pulled it around behind the station, which backed up to a wooded area.  Hiding the car was no issue — there was no way to see it from the road.  He grabbed their stuff and put it on the ground, ready to go.  Then he hurried inside.

“Where is he?” Connor asked, finding the place relatively untouched.

“He’s in the back,” Robert said.  “Nothing to draw attention.”  Then he stopped and went behind the counter and opened the cash register, emptying it of its cash.  “May as well help ourselves,” he smiled.  “Grab some food and beer.”

When they left, they had some bags.  Robert locked up and then they loaded the car and took off down the road, away from the cops who’d eventually be looking for them.