Chapter 24

        Monday was a long day for Libby and Johnny. The girl clung to the fire chief, seemingly afraid to let him out of her sight. Johnny realized how much the incident from the evening before had not only terrified Libby, but had finally brought to the forefront of her mind what their ultimate fate would likely be.

        As for Johnny, he could no longer fool himself into believing he had a bad cold. There was no doubt what he really had was pneumonia. Whether or not he had the start of it back in Eagle Harbor he wasn’t certain. Possibly with a couple days’ rest like he was supposed to have prior to the change of plans that came his way thanks to his kidnapper, Johnny might have gotten over the cold with no serious ramifications. Or at worst, if he’d still been feeling bad by the time he returned to work on Saturday morning, he would have simply stopped at Eagle Harbor Medical Clinic and seen his physician, Mark Benson. Mark would have been given him a prescription for an antibiotic, maybe a shot a of penicillin, a sucker for Trevor, instructed him to take a few more days off work despite Mark knowing his patient would ignore that order, and then would have sent him on his way. But Mark Benson wasn’t available to Johnny at the moment, nor was any doctor, which meant his fever was climbing higher and it was getting harder to breathe.

        Well, I suppose dying from pneumonia beats being shot in the gut or stabbed to death. Geez, wouldn’t it just piss that bastard off royally if he came in here and found me dead on the floor before he got a chance to kill me himself?

If it hadn’t been for Libby, Johnny might have given up on the will to live right at that very moment. But as long as the little girl was with him, Johnny had no choice but to do his best to protect her.

        Some help I’ve turned out to be to her, Johnny thought as he watched the girl color. He smiled at her when she pointed to the squirrel who had just whisked down the chimney and sat on the hearth with his tail twitching in nervous rhythm. He studied the pair as though he couldn’t figure out why they’d invaded his territory, and was wondering when they’d be leaving.

        “Acorn can sure go up and down that chimney real fast.”

        “Yep, he sure can.”

        A harsh bout of coughing on Johnny’s part scared Acorn away. He flew up the chimney as fast as he’d flown down it. Johnny returned his attention to Libby and watched her color. He plucked the black crayon out of the Crayola box because it still had a sharp tip, grabbed the Barbie puzzle box to use as a hard surface, and asked Libby to tear a clean page out of her book.

        “One that has a lot of room to write on it around the picture, Olive Oyl.”

        “Why?” Libby asked as she began leafing through the pages.

        “Because I wanna write your grandpa a note.”

        Libby looked up with the first glimmer of hope to her eyes that Johnny had seen since the man attacked her the previous evening. “Do you think he’s gonna find us soon?”

        “Yes, sweetie,” Johnny lied. “I do.”

        Johnny was grateful that Libby didn’t appear to be interested in what he was writing. When he finished, he folded the paper into the fourths, wrote ‘Roy DeSoto’ on the outside, and stuck it in the right rear pocket of his jeans where his wallet usually resided.

        Libby looked up at the man when his movement jostled her. “Uncle Johnny, I think your head’s bleeding again.”

        Libby stood. They’d used a rolled up towel to try to staunch the flow of blood from the gash that had been reopened. They’d had some success, but the slightest movement on Johnny’s part started it bleeding again.

        “I know. I guess it could use a few stitches.”

        Libby retrieved the towel and gently placed it against Johnny’s head.

        “My mom will put them in for you. And because you’re Uncle Johnny, she won’t even send you a bill. Do you think you have a concussion, too?”

        Johnny cocked an eyebrow at the girl. “Well, well, well, Doctor Sheridan, I don’t think I need your mother. You can probably put those stitches in yourself.”

        “No,” Libby giggled. “My grandma’s trying to teach me to sew, but I’m pretty hopeless. I’d get ‘em in crooked for sure.”

        “You’ll learn.”

        “I guess.”

        “Your grandma sewed a lot of things in her day. Even for me.”

        “She did?”

        “Yep. She made me a couple of real nice shirts one time for my birthday that I still have, and made more than a few Halloween costumes for me and your grandpa.”

        “I can’t imagine my grandpa dressed in a costume for Halloween.”

        “Then I’ll have to show you pictures, because I’ve got some.”

        “Neat.” The girl carefully lifted the towel to take a peek. It looked like the bleeding had stopped again. She sat down on the floor next to Johnny with the towel still in her hand. “So, like I asked before, do you think you have a concussion?”

        “No, I don’t think so. I’m fine, sweetheart.”
        “You don’t sound fine. I think you’re pretty sick.”

        “You are by far, Miss Sheridan, not the first woman who’s tossed that phrase at me,” Johnny teased.

        “Never mind. I was only joking. Don’t worry about me, Olive Oyl. I’ll be fine.”

        “Are we gonna get outta here tonight, Uncle Johnny?”


        “Like last night. Can we try your plan again?”

        “Honey, I think he’ll be on guard when he comes back tonight. It would be foolish for us to try anything.”

        Libby looked at the floor so Johnny wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. “Oh.”

        Johnny reached an arm out and pulled her against his side. “Sweetheart, don’t cry. I’m not going to let him hurt you again, I promise. And one way or another, I’m going to do my best to get you out of here.”


        I wish I knew, Libby. God, I wish I knew.

        Rather than voice his hopeless thoughts, Johnny cupped the child’s face and looked into her light blue eyes, vowing, “I will, Libby. I promise I will.”


        Olivia Sheridan got out of her prison that night, but not in a way John Gage had planned.

        When Libby heard the key in the padlock at ten o’clock she sidled closer to Johnny, if such an action was possible. The girl’s protector pulled her to him and assured softly, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I won’t let him hurt you.”

        Johnny could smell the food before it was brought into the cabin.

        Oh, joy. McDonald’s again. If I live through this, I’ll scream at just the sight of the Golden Arches.

Evan smiled as he shut the door behind him. He held his gun in one hand, and the food tray in the other. The battery operated lantern Johnny had used to attack Evan with the evening before sat a few feet in front of the captives shining brightly. Evan nodded toward it.

        “Well, well, well, I see you learned your lesson last night, Uncle Johnny, and you’ve finally decided to be a good boy.”

        “Go to hell.”

        “Tsk, tsk, tsk. You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you, Gage.”

        “Okay, I won’t. I’ll do whatever you want, just let the girl go.”




        Johnny took as deep of a breath as his weary lungs would allow. He hated the thought of begging, but if it would earn Libby’s freedom he would.

        “Please. Please let her go. Let’s take her to her grandfather’s home like I suggested the other day, then you can do with me what you want. Please.”

        “I thought you had more balls than that, Gage. I can’t believe I’m hearing you beg.”

        “For her release I will, if that’s what it takes.”

        “Well, good try, but no dice. You humbled yourself for no reason. How does that make your Redman’s pride feel?”

        “It doesn’t make me feel one way or another because I did it for Libby.”

        The man eased himself to the floor, being careful not to upend the food.

        “You’re quite noble, I’ll give you that. And I guess, if I had been lucky enough to have an uncle when I was a kid, you’d be the kind I’d pick. But, you see, I never had an uncle. My father was an only child like I was, and my mother’s only sister never married. That’s too bad, though, because it would have been nice to feel like I belonged to someone besides them. Oh, but I forget. You’re not the DeSoto children’s real uncle, isn’t that right? You’re just, what. . .a fake uncle? And not even that for a good number of years now because it’s your fault that oldest boy. . .Chris, is a cripple. Your old friend Roy tossed you out of his life after that little incident, didn’t he?”

        Johnny refused to answer the man. Libby looked up into his face.

        “What’s he mean, Uncle Johnny? Did Grandpa get mad at you because Uncle Chris can’t walk?”

        “It doesn’t matter, Libby. It happened a long time ago.”

        “But not so long ago that it doesn’t still hurt, right, Gage? I can hear the pain in your voice.” Evan smiled at Libby. “Yes, Angel, your grandpa got mad at Uncle Johnny because your Uncle Chris can’t walk. You see, it’s your Uncle Johnny’s fault that Uncle Chris is a worthless cripple.”

        That comment brought fire to Libby’s eyes as her hands curled into tight fists.

        “He’s not a worthless cripple! He’s really smart, and he has his own business, and he’s. . .he’s. . .he’s a great guy! And I don’t care what you say, it’s not Uncle Johnny’s fault that my Uncle Chris can’t walk! My mom would have told me so if that was true!”

        Evan laughed. “You are a little spit-fire when riled. I like that in a girl. I like it indeed. Now come over here and get your supper.”

        Libby’s bravado left her as quickly as it had arrived. It was one thing to yell at the man from the safety of Uncle Johnny’s side, and quite another to have to go near him. The memory of the last time she was close to him was all too clear.

        “No. No. . .I’m. . .I’m not hungry.”

        “But I’m sure Uncle Johnny is.”

        “No, Uncle Johnny’s not,” Johnny said in a voice that was so hoarse his words sounded even harsher than intended.

        “Well, I can tell Uncle Johnny’s thirsty, Angel. And I have a nice, cold drink here for him. It’s not Coke because I thought that might be too hard on his throat. It’s apple juice. Nice soothing apple juice. Don’t you at least want to come get it for him?”

        Johnny shook his head at Libby. “I don’t need it.”

        “Gage, I’m not playing around anymore. Send the kid over to get the food and send her over now.

        “If you want us to have the food so badly, then I’ll come get it.”

        Evan aimed his gun at Johnny’s forehead. “No deal. The girl. You send the girl, or I guarantee you within five minutes time she’ll think last night was a Sunday School picnic compared to what could be in store if she doesn’t obey me.”

        Johnny weighed their options, which were few. He had no choice but to send Libby to get the food. However; if the bastard so much as touched her, then Johnny decided he’d die right then and there trying to free her from his clutches.

        “Go on, Libby. Go get the food, honey.”

        Libby’s eyes filled with tears. “But--”

        Johnny bent and put his mouth to her ear. “I know you’re scared, but I won’t let him touch you. I promise. We need to do what he says right now. Now go get the food and bring it back here, sweetheart. I know it’s scary, but you have to do it.”

        Libby gave a reluctant nod. She felt like she was standing on two rubber bands, rather than her own legs, as she pushed herself to her feet. She walked across the room like she was venturing out on thin ice. She tried to keep her body from shaking, but couldn’t hide her trembling hands when she reached for the food tray that was offered her.

        “You’re just as beautiful as your mother, Angel, did you know that?”

        Libby didn’t like the way the man said that, or the way he smiled at her. But in order not to make him angry, she nodded.

        “Now you be a good girl and take that food over to your Uncle Johnny. He’s pretty sick, isn’t he?”

        Again, Libby nodded.

        “I bet that apple juice will feel good on his throat. And it will be good for him, too, don’t you think?”

        Libby gave another tiny nod of her head.
        “All right now, you go over there with him and sit down to eat.”

        The ten year old was more than happy to be given permission to return to Johnny’s side. She didn’t like it that the man was staying in the cabin with them. The other times he’d given them food he’d always left before they started eating, but she was too hungry right now to let his presence stop her from opening the bag. They hadn’t been fed after the previous evening’s upset, so all Libby had eaten today was Ritz crackers and granola bars. For as nauseating as Johnny was finding the smell of McDonald’s food, Libby thought it was heaven.

        It was easy to tell which drink was Coca Cola and which was apple juice. Libby pulled the Super Sized cup of juice from the tray and handed it to Johnny.

        “Thanks, Libby.”

        “You’re welcome.”

        The girl pulled the rest of their food from the bag while Johnny took big gulps of the cold liquid. He was hot, and the water he’d been drinking throughout the day just hadn’t been quenching his thirst the way this ice filled drink was.

        Johnny shook his head at the French fries and Big Mac Libby held out to him.

        “Just leave mine in the bag.”

        “But you need to eat.”

        “I will later.”


        “I will later, Olive Oyl. I promise.”

        Libby didn’t think that was a promise Uncle Johnny sounded like he intended to keep. She wished her mother were here. Her mother would know what to do in order to make Uncle Johnny feel better. Her mother could even get him admitted to Rampart Hospital if that’s where he needed to be for a few days, and then he could rest at their house when he was released. They had three bedrooms, and only two were used, so Uncle Johnny could have the guest room all to himself and Libby would be his nurse.

        “Go ahead and eat, Libby,” Johnny instructed as he took more sips from his straw. He kept his eyes on their assailant, who seemed content to just sit and watch them.

        What the hell is he up to now?

        Johnny had to admit the man’s scrutiny unnerved him. He got a sinking feeling this just might be their ‘last supper.’ He fought to keep all emotion off his face. For one thing, Johnny wouldn’t allow the bastard the satisfaction of knowing he was terrified, and for another, he didn’t want to scare Libby.

        Less than three minutes passed before Johnny realized just what his attacker was up to. A violent stomach cramp caused his drink to fly from his hands as his body automatically doubled over.

        You asshole! You goddamn asshole!

        Whether Johnny was swearing at himself, or his assailant, he wasn’t certain. All he knew, in-between the horrific waves of pain that were turning his mid-section inside out, was that the drug he’d been given on Thursday night via injection had been put into his drink.

        The room spun widely as Johnny hit the floor and pulled himself into a fetal position. He could feel blood running through his hair again, and knew he must have reopened the gash that had already been reopened too many times. He heard Libby calling out his name, than heard her cries change to screams of terror. He lifted his head to see her being scooped from the floor. He lunged his feet out despite the pain it caused him, but came no where near being able to knock her attacker down.

        “Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny! Help me! Help me! Uncle Johnny, please help me! Please! You said you wouldn’t let him touch me! You said you’d take care of me! Please! Please help me! Oh, Uncle Johnny, please! Please!”

        Libby’s screams built to a crescendo that echoed around the cabin while Johnny flopped on the floor like a fish out of water in an attempt to pull his tortured body upright. Long after Evan Crammer had locked the cabin door and fled into the night with Libby, Johnny still heard the girl pleading with him to save her.

        “Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny! Help me! Help me! Uncle Johnny, please help me! Please!”
        Johnny rocked back and forth on the right side of his body with his left arm wrapped tightly around his violently cramping stomach. His right fist pounded the floor boards in frustration and anguish until the skin was torn open and blood trickled down his arm.

        Oh, God, why? Why? Why did you let me fail her? Why didn’t you let me keep my promise to her? All I wanted to do was get her back to Roy. That’s all I asked. Oh, God, why? Why?

Johnny tried not to think of what as happening to Libby at that very moment, but his mind couldn’t push away the images of other little girls who had been raped, and then murdered, by the man the police only knew as the Kankakee Killer.

        When Johnny finally allowed himself to scream, it wasn’t because of the intense physical pain assaulting his gut, but rather because of the intense pain assaulting his heart.

Chapter 25

        Roy was still up roaming the house on Monday evening long after Joanne went to bed. He didn’t even attempt to lie down with her. He knew he’d only keep her awake with his tossing and turning until he finally gave up on trying to sleep.

        It was eleven o’clock when Roy shut the television off and headed for the computer room. He grabbed his cell phone from the kitchen counter so he’d have it in the event one of his children tried to call using that number. It was the only phone in the house that wasn’t tapped, simply because cell phone calls were difficult to trace according to Quinn Dailey, and therefore the only one that Roy and Joanne could have a private conversation on. Not that Roy was expecting a call from any of his kids. John had phoned while Roy and Trevor were in the swimming pool to get his nightly update on the situation regarding Libby, and shortly thereafter Wendy had called to say she and Chris had gotten Jennifer to leave Station 51 at a relatively early hour, and that no, there was no further news regarding Libby and Johnny.

        Roy shut the door to the room and flicked on the light. He had no desire to read tonight, or sit at the computer for any reason, or look through old photo albums. He was exhausted. He was exhausted and he wanted this nightmare to end.

        The man plopped down on the day bed and thought of the child sleeping in the room down the hall. He and Joanne had agreed they wouldn’t tell Trevor he was returning to Alaska until Thursday morning. Roy had no idea if that was the right thing to do or not. He tried to guess what Johnny would prefer they’d do, but because he hadn’t been in contact with Johnny during these years since he’d become a father, Roy was forced to admit he had no frame of reference on which to base his decision. He finally decided to go by his gut instinct. Trevor was so much like Johnny that Roy had a feeling the boy would be extremely upset upon being told he was going home without his father, thereby making it nearly impossible to calm him down. Besides, Roy could hardly bare to dash Trevor’s hopes. If nothing else why not give him two more days to believe that somehow, Johnny would return to Alaska with him.

        Thirty minutes passed with Roy sitting in that room staring at Libby’s face amongst the pumpkins on the computer screen. His thoughts weren’t that different from those Joanne had several hours earlier in the kitchen. Eventually this had to come to an end one way or another. How would they go on without Libby in their lives? How would Jennifer go on? Losing Brandon had almost destroyed her, but it had almost destroyed Roy as well. No one knew that. The one person he might have confided in; Johnny, wasn’t in his life to talk to when Branny passed away. For the rest of his family, most especially for Joanne, Jennifer, and Libby, Roy had to be strong. He didn’t know if he had it in him to bury another grandchild. He didn’t know if he had it in him to put up another pretense of strength and stoicism. After Brandon’s death Roy had come to understand why no one wanted to outlive their children or grandchildren. That’s not the way it was supposed to be. Your children and grandchildren were supposed to outlive you. Or at least that was every parent’s hope.

        I never fully understood what Johnny must have gone through when he lost his first wife and little girl. Was I sympathetic enough when I first found out? Did I. . .did I say the right things? Or did I just take for granted that he was past the bulk of the pain because it had happened eleven years earlier? After that day in the White Rock cemetery he never spoke to me of Kim and Jessie again, and I never attempted to get him to. Now I realize that even today, thirty-three years after their deaths, it must still cause him pain to think of them. It must still hurt him when he remembers the baby daughter who died in his arms. I’m glad he’s got Trevor. He deserves a child like that little boy.

        The ringing of his cell phone brought Roy out of his reverie. He picked it up, hit the ‘talk’ button, and said, “Hello?”

        “Grandpa! Grandpa, please come get me!”

        Roy shot off the couch.“Libby!”

        “Grandpa, please!”

        “Libby, where are you? Libby, sweetheart, tell me--”

        A man’s voice came over the line next.

        “Roy DeSoto?”

        “Yes?” At first Roy wondered if it was Johnny’s voice he was hearing, but quickly discounted that possibility when the man spoke again.

        “Listen to me, and listen good. If you don’t want this pretty little girl to get hurt, you’ll do exactly what I say, got it?”

        “I got it.”

        “All right. In two hours I want you to meet me at the San Celemente Observatory. Do you know where that is?”

        “I do,” Roy acknowledged of the planetary observation center all his kids had been to on school field trips. Roy had helped chaperoned the trip John’s class went on when the youngest DeSoto was in the fifth grade.

        “There’s three parking lots. Meet me in the southwest corner of the one labeled C.”

        “Will I get my granddaughter back if I do?”

        “DeSoto, you’re in no position to bargain, so just shut up and listen. If you tell the FBI or police about this call, I’ll kill the girl. If anyone follows you, I’ll kill the girl. If you’re wired, or bugged in anyway, or bring a cell phone along, I’ll kill the girl.”

        “But they’re watching my house. If I drive away in one of my vehicles then they will follow me.”

        “That’s your problem, not mine. If you want Olivia back safe and sound you’ll come up with a plan that gets you out of there undetected.”

        To prove his point, the man did something that caused Libby to scream.

        “All right, all right, don’t hurt her!” Roy thought fast. “I. . .I’ll have someone drive me there.”

        “No cops!”

        “No. A friend. Someone I can trust to do exactly what I say. I promise.”

        “You’d better promise, because killing this kid won’t mean a thing to me, DeSoto. It won’t mean a damn thing.”

        “I know,” Roy said through clenched teeth. “And Johnny. . .John Gage?”

        “What about Gage?”

        “Are you bringing him, too?”

        “Hell, no,” the man laughed. “Gage is already dead.”

        Before Roy could fully process that news he was told, “Two hours, DeSoto.
If you’re not there in two hours, and under the conditions I’ve named, Libby dies. And believe me, her death won’t be a pretty one.”

        The call had barely been disconnected before Roy was dialing a number from memory. He could tell he’d woken Chet up when the man answered on the fourth ring with a sleepy hello.

        “Chet, it’s Roy! I don’t have time to explain a thing, but meet me at the reservoir north of my house. You know, the one where Johnny fished John out of the water about eighteen years ago.”

        “Roy, what the hell--”
        “Chet, please, I can’t explain right now. I’ll tell you everything when I see you. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t a life or death situation.”

        “Is this about Libby and Johnny? Did you hear something?”

        “Yeah, I did, but I can’t go into it right now, and you can’t tell anyone. There’s a park across the street from the reservoir. Pull your car into the lot there. I’ll find you.”

        “All right. Let me throw some clothes on. I should be there within thirty minutes.”

        “Great. See you then. Oh, and don’t bring a cell phone.”


        “A cell phone. Don’t bring one.”

        “Chet, just don’t. I’ll tell you why when I see you.”

        As Roy disconnected the call he prayed he wasn’t leading Chet into trouble.

        The man extinguished the light in the computer room, then opened the door. If any FBI agent was watching the house, like Roy suspected several were, it would now appear as though he and Joanne were in bed for the night.

        Roy silently moved into the hallway. He paused at the closed door to the room he and Joanne shared. He didn’t risk opening it, but since his wife hadn’t come to the computer room when the cell phone rang, or when he was talking to Chet, he knew she must have finally fallen asleep.

        No sound came from the room Trevor was in, which meant the call hadn’t disturbed the boy either. Roy didn’t allow himself to think of what news he might be bringing back to the child. He didn’t allow himself to dwell on the man’s words of, “Gage is already dead.”

        He could be bluffing. I don’t know what he’s up to, but he could be bluffing.

        Not knowing what awaited him, or what condition he might find Libby and Johnny in if he was lucky enough to be given either one of them, caused Roy to silently open the linen closet and pull his medical bag off the shelf. It contained everything from a B/P cuff, to a stethoscope, to a box of Band-Aids, to gauze, a tube of Neosporin, a bottle of Bufferin, a bottle of Children’s Chewable Tylenol tablets, to a handful of other miscellaneous items that could be used to treat minor injuries or discomforts. He grabbed two medium sized towels off another shelf, the ones Joanne referred to as face towels, and rolled them up so they’d fit in the bag. He placed them inside it, then closed the latch.

        Roy carried the bag with him to the laundry room, easily maneuvering through his dark house. The light from above the kitchen sink allowed him to find his tennis shoes. He slipped them on, then tied the laces. He went back to the kitchen and scrawled a note to Joanne. He had no idea what to say to her, so settled for, ‘Couldn’t sleep. Took a walk. Be back later. All my love for now and forever, Roy.’

        Roy didn’t put the time on the note, and he hoped Joannne didn’t find it odd that he signed it, ‘All my love for now and forever,’ if she woke up and discovered it any time soon. The last thing he needed was for her to run out to one of the unmarked cars parked on his block when he was headed to meet Chet. But, if he didn’t return for some reason, it was important to Roy that those were the last words he gave her. She was the love of his life. She had been since the fourth grade. This was his way of telling her he’d take that love to his grave.

        The paramedic chief silently opened the door that led to the garage, and just as silently closed and locked it behind himself. He turned right, heading for the service door that opened onto his backyard.

        Roy eased the rear door open and cautiously peered out. He didn’t expect to see any law enforcement agents in his backyard, and was relieved when that was the case. Because his house was sandwiched between a home on the right and a home on the left, it was easy for Roy to cross the yard undetected. He simply kept on using that method, jogging from backyard to backyard, until he was far enough away from his neighborhood that he felt it was safe to be on the sidewalk. Even at that Roy would duck behind bushes if he saw headlights coming his way. He felt like a teenager out past curfew, but that mattered little if he got to Chet without being noticed by one of Quinn Dailey’s men.

        Roy breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted Chet’s red Jeep Cherokee in the lot of the small park across from the reservoir. He ran up to the Jeep and hopped in the passenger side while setting his medical bag at his feet. Though Chet’s curls weren’t nearly as long as they had been twenty-five years ago, and his hair was more gray than its former brunette, he had kinky spikes sticking straight up from his head making it obvious to Roy he had thrown on some clothes and headed right to the park.

        “What’s going on?”

        “Just drive to the San Clemente Observatory. Do you know where that is?”

        “Yeah, but--”
        “Chet, just drive. I’ll tell you on the way.”

        Chet eyed Roy as though the man had lost his mind, but at the same time he had too much respect for his former co-worker not to do what Roy requested. If Gage was making this request it would be another thing altogether. With Johnny, you never knew what hare-brained scheme you were getting dragged into, but Roy had always been the level-headed one, the one everyone trusted to do the right thing and make the right decisions. To this day Chet still trusted Roy, and thought of him as one of the most stable men he had ever known.

        “You didn’t have the boys tonight, did you?” Roy asked, suddenly remembering that Chet and his ex-wife shared joint custody of their sons meaning the boys spent two weeks out of the month with Chet in his three bedroom bungalow, and two weeks out of the month with their mother in her three bedroom condo.

        “No. They’re with Jeannine. Besides, it wouldn’t have mattered if they were with me. Collin’s old enough to be left in charge all night when necessary. He handles things just fine when I’m on-duty.”

        “They’re good boys, Chet. You raised a couple of good kids there.”

        “Yeah, well, as much as I hate to admit it Jeannine did her part in all that, too. A big part as a matter of fact.” Chet pulled the Jeep out onto the desolate street. “Now what’s going on, Roy?”

        Roy told Chet about the phone call he’d received, including the list of do’s and don’ts that had been spelled out by the kidnapper.

        “Are you sure it was Libby?”

        “I’m sure.”

        “Roy, it coulda’ been a crank call.” Chet glanced at the man out of the corner of his eye. “Right now. . .with what you’re going through, any little girl who sounds upset on the phone and calls you grandpa might be able to fool you into thinking she’s Libby.”

        “Chet, it wasn’t just Libby I talked to. It was him. The man who has her.”

        “Or it was a crank call,” Chet insisted.

        “No one has my cell phone number but my children, my wife, and Libby. No one, Chet.”

        “Yeah, but it wouldn’t be impossible for someone to get if they just happened to find the right papers in your trash, or ran across your contract with your provider, or--”

        “Chet, it was Libby. I know it was.”

        “Okay,” Chet gave in for the time being, “let’s say it was Libby. He’s just going to give her back to you? Just like that?”

        “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”


        “Chet, I don’t know! I don’t know, okay? But she. . .she begged me to come get her. I don’t. . .maybe all he’ll give me is her body. Maybe he won’t even be at the observatory when we get there. Maybe he’ll never show up. Maybe he’s sending us on a wild goose chase. But she’s my granddaughter, Chet. My granddaughter. I can’t just ignore the call. I can’t just ignore her cry for help.”

        “I realize that, but--”

        Roy ran a shaking hand through his thinning hair. “Look, Chet, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you. This. . .well, it could be dangerous. For all I know the guy might put a bullet through my skull the minute I step out of this vehicle. I should have never gotten you involved. If you wanna pull over and let me out by that pay phone up there I’ll call a cab.”
        “And have it take you where?”

        “To the observatory.”

        “Not home?”

        “No. To the observatory.”

        Chet never said a word when he drove right on by the pay phone Roy had been referring to. When he spoke again he asked, “Did he. . .the guy who called you, did he say anything about Johnny?”

        Roy looked out the passenger side window. Chet had to strain to hear his soft reply.

        “Yeah. He said. . .he said Johnny’s dead.”

        Chet blew out a deep breath. He didn’t know what to say, and the Jeep sped on through the night without either of its occupants exchanging another word.


Chapter 26

        Libby was so petrified she was sure her heart would hammer right out of her chest. She’d kicked and screamed as the man ran from the cabin with her, but his iron grip hadn’t budged an inch. She was thrown in the back of the van, then tied up just like she had been the day her assailant had taken her from the sidewalk in her grandpa’s neighborhood. This time a blindfold was added, too, and instead of duct tape being put over her mouth a bandanna handkerchief was used as a gag.

        Libby didn’t know how long the man had been driving before he stopped the van. She started crying harder when she felt him sit beside her. He yanked the gag down from her mouth and said, “Does your grandfather have a cell phone?”

        “Wha. . .what?”

        “A cell phone. Does he have one?”

        “Ye. . .yes.”

        “Do you know the number?”

        “Ye. . . yes.”

        “Give it to me.”

        Libby’s mind was in such a whirl it took her a moment to calm down enough to be able to remember the number. She stuttered over the digits, and heard the man dialing as she did so. The next thing she knew a phone was pressed to ear and she was commanded, “Talk to your grandfather, Angel.”

        Libby got out her plea for help before the phone was taken away, then the man pinched her arm hard and made her scream. When the man quit pinching her Libby heard him tell her grandfather to meet them at the San Clemente Observatory. She knew where that was. Her mother had taken her there one day the previous summer. She also heard the man say Uncle Johnny was dead. That news made Libby start crying again, even though she wasn’t completely certain the man was telling the truth. She knew Uncle Johnny had been in a lot of pain, and she was suspicious as to why now that she thought about how insistent the man had been that Uncle Johnny drink the apple juice, but when she was whisked from the cabin she was sure Uncle Johnny was still alive.

        But maybe Uncle Johnny’s dead now. Maybe the man knew he’d die while we were gone.

        The gag was put back over Libby’s mouth. She felt the man move away from her, and then the vehicle started moving again. She might have been able to cry herself to sleep if she wasn’t so excited over the prospect of seeing her grandfather. She tried hard to remember everything Uncle Johnny had said she was supposed to tell him, especially about the ranger station and the San Gabriel Mountains.

        An hour later the van came to a stop again. The silence that surrounded Libby was almost scarier than anything else. Uncle Johnny wasn’t here to snuggle up against and assure her that everything would be all right. She knew the man was in the van with her, but he didn’t say a word. Finally, he came to sit beside her again.

        “Libby, if you want to live to see your mother again you’ll do what I say, do you understand?”

        Libby nodded her head.

        “Your grandfather is pulling in the parking lot right now. We’re going to climb out and meet him. I’m going to be holding onto you. You don’t do anything, not one thing, unless I say it’s okay. Is that clear?”

        Again, Libby nodded.

        The man removed the ropes, gag, and blindfold. He grabbed Libby by the left arm, threw open the van’s panel door, and climbed out with her. When Roy DeSoto jumped out of the Jeep the man placed his gun against Libby’s skull.

        “That’s far enough, DeSoto. Stay right there!”

        Libby blinked as the bright lights in the parking lot assaulted her eyes. She wanted to yell, “Grandpa!” but then remembered she wasn’t to do anything until the man told her it was okay. Instead, she started shaking and her lower lip trembled as tears ran down her face.

        Grandpa! Grandpa! Oh, Grandpa, please come get me. Please!


        Roy’s blood ran cold when he saw the revolver pressed to Libby’s temple. He stopped right where he was, with one foot out of Chet’s vehicle, and one foot in it. Chet had brought the Jeep to a halt the second they’d seen the man step out of the van with Libby, and were now one hundred yards from him.

        “DeSoto, who’s that with you?” Evan Crammer shouted across the desolate lot.

        “A friend!”

        “What’s your friend’s name?”

        “Chet Kelly!”

        “A cop?”

        “No. A fireman!”

        “Tell him to get out of the Jeep, walk to the front, and stand spread eagle with his hands on the hood!”

        Roy didn’t have to relay the message. Chet had heard the instructions and willingly got out of his vehicle, despite the fact that he feared being shot in the head at any moment.

        When Chet was in the position he was ordered to take, his back was to the activity. He memorized what details he’d seen, which didn’t extend much beyond the make of the van, its approximate year, and that it was a dark color. The man had parked it in an unlit corner, meaning it was heavily shadowed by the trees that surrounded the parking lot.

        “All right, DeSoto, come over here!”

        “I have a medical bag in the Jeep! Can I bring it?”

        “No! Now come over here!”

        When Roy was halfway between the Jeep and the van, Evan released his hold on Libby.

        “Run to Grandpa, Angel. Run! Run really fast before I change my mind.”

        Libby didn’t need to be told again. She flew across the parking lot and into her grandfather’s arms. She felt herself being picked up, and started sobbing as she buried her face in her grandpa’s strong shoulder.

        “I. . .I. . .I’m sorry, Grandpa. I. . .I’m so sorry for. . .for disobeying you.”

        Roy had tears in his eyes as he gently bounced the child up and down in his arms as he’d done when she was an infant and fussing for a bottle that warming.

        “Shhh. Shhh. It’s okay, Button. It’s okay. Grandpa loves you so much. All I care about is that you’re okay. That’s all I care about. Nothing else matters. Nothing else at all.”

        Libby pulled away from Roy’s shirt. She leaned back and looked down into his face. She was still crying, but was able to assure, “I’m okay. I. . .the man tried to hurt me. . .he touched me through my clothes in places Mom said no one should, but Uncle Johnny. . .it made Uncle Johnny mad.”

        Roy could feel his blood pressure skyrocket. “Is that all he did to you, Libby? The man didn’t hurt you. . .he didn’t touch you, in any other way?”

        “No. He hit Uncle Johnny on the head with his gun so Uncle Johnny couldn’t help me. But Uncle Johnny yelled at him to let me go and tried to get me away from him. The man finally let me go. Uncle Johnny. . .he took care of me, Grandpa. He tried so hard to take care of me, even though he’s really sick.”

        Sick. She said sick, not dead.

“Sick?” Roy looked around Libby’s body at the man who seemed to be enjoying himself. The gun was aimed at Libby’s back, meaning Roy didn’t dare try to flee to the Jeep with her. Roy turned his attention back to Libby. He brought a hand up and stroked it over her tangled hair. “How is Uncle Johnny sick, Button? What’s wrong with him?”

        “I thought he had a cold at first, but he just kept getting worse and worse, and now he’s coughing up blood.”

        Probably pneumonia. Trevor said Johnny was taking a nap. . .that he was in bed with a cold when he was kidnapped. It’s probably turned into pneumonia.

“Then the man. . .I think he gave Uncle Johnny some bad medicine in his apple juice before we came here.”
        “Bad medicine?”

        “Uncle Johnny was so sick, Grandpa. He was in real bad pain, but I’m not sure where he was hurting. He was curled up on the floor. You have to help him, Grandpa. You have to. He helped me not be scared. And he said I was a brave girl. And he played Uno with me, and we colored pictures, and he held me when I cried. . .and he. . .he calls me Olive Oyl. I love him, Grandpa, just like my mom did when she was a little girl.”

        “I know you do, sweetheart. Don’t worry, Grandpa will make sure nothing happens to your Uncle Johnny. I’ll do everything I can to make him feel better until we can get him to Rampart and--”
        “DeSoto, your little reunion has now officially come to an end! Put the girl down.”

        “And then what?” Roy asked as Libby wrapped her arms around his neck, determined not to go back to her assailant.

        “Then you come over here. You see, this is like a baseball team, and I’m making a little trade. The girl for you. You come with me, and Libby goes with your friend.”
        “Roy, no!” Chet yelled.

        Evan laughed because he knew Roy had no alternative. The man came with him, or Evan would kill DeSoto, his friend, and his granddaughter all in the blink of an eye.

        Roy didn’t turn to face Chet as he shouted, “Chet, I’m going to send Libby to you! Take her to Joanne!”


        “Chet, just do it!” Roy spoke to the girl in his arms next. “Libby, you have let go of me and leave here with Mr. Kelly.”
        Those instructions only made Libby cling tighter to her grandfather. “No, Grandpa. Please no.”

        “Mr. Kelly won’t hurt you. You know that. He’ll take you to Grandma.”


        “No buts. None of us have any choice. Now I want you to do as I say and go to him, do you understand?”

        Libby lifted her face from Roy’s shoulder once again. She studied him a long moment, then gave a solemn nod. Right before Roy set Libby on her feet she kissed his cheek and said softly, “Uncle Johnny told me to tell you, ‘Junior says hello.’ I don’t know what that means, but it’s the message I was supposed to give you if I was able to get away.”

        Libby wasn’t sure why that message brought more tears to her grandfather’s eyes, but it did. He returned her kiss and replied, “Don’t worry. I know what it means.” Roy pointed toward Chet. “Now you go over there and stand by Mr. Kelly.”

        Libby gave her grandfather one last, long look, then did as he ordered.

        Evan yelled instructions to Chet. “You remain as you are, Fireman! And keep the girl by your side! After DeSoto and I leave you count to one hundred before you get in the Jeep. Don’t you dare make any stops to use a phone on the way home, because I’ll know it if you do! I’ve got someone watching you, and he’ll blow your brains out just as soon as you make the wrong move. Understand?”


        Evan kept one eye on Chet and Libby while beckoning Roy to come to him. He handed Roy the blindfold and gag.
        “Put them on, DeSoto, and tie ‘em tight. The put your hands behind you with your wrists crossed. No funny business, either. I’ve got my gun aimed at your granddaughter’s skull. I’ll blow it right off if you try anything.”

If it hadn’t been for Libby, there was a number of things Roy would have tried despite the warning against it, but he hadn’t snuck out of the house to get his granddaughter only to have her killed now. He did as the man instructed, then felt a hoarse-hair rope encircle his wrists that contained a sturdy slipknot.

        Roy was pushed in the back of the van. His feet were bound in the same manner as his hands. The slipknots meant the man didn’t have to let go of the gun in order to get the ropes in place, but at the same time he’d made sure they were pulled tight enough so that Roy couldn’t work them loose.

        When the paramedic chief was blind, mute, and unable to move, Evan slid the side door shut and ran around to the driver’s side. He peeled from the parking lot, the tires squealing as he raced for the road.

        Chet was too scared not to do what he’d been ordered. He felt like a fool counting to one hundred while spread eagle across the hood of his Jeep, but he well remembered the condition John Gage was brought to Rampart in twenty-two years ago, and knew what this guy was capable of. There could be someone watching him like the man had said, but then again, maybe not. Nonetheless, Chet wouldn’t take any risks. Especially not since he’d been put in charge of Roy’s granddaughter.

        When Chet reached one hundred on the fastest count possible, he picked the crying Libby up and carried her to the passenger side of the Jeep. He secured the seat belt around her, then raced for the driver’s side. He threw the gear shift in ‘drive,’ and sped out of the lot without bothering to check for traffic. He’d been ordered not to stop at any pay phones along the way, and he wouldn’t, but if he drove upwards of eighty miles an hour he just might get lucky enough to be pulled over by a cop.

        As often happened, when you wanted a cop one was never around. Or at least not until Chet pulled into Roy’s driveway at three-thirty that morning. Joanne, Jennifer, Chris, and Wendy were standing in the garage talking with Troy Anders and Quinn Dailey when the Jeep’s headlights landed on them. Libby flew from the vehicle with outstretched arms crying, “Mom! Mom!”

        The next thing Chet knew he was being yanked from the Jeep by three burly men who threw him against the hood and pressed guns to his ribcage. How much farther this rough treatment would have gone Chet didn’t know, for at that moment Joanne DeSoto yelled, “Stop! Stop! He’s a friend of ours!” and Troy Anders bellowed, “He’s all right! I know him! Bring Mr. Kelly over here, right now!”

        Five minutes later Chet was being led into the DeSoto house by a furious Troy Anders and Quinn Dailey. He knew he was in deep shit, but seeing the look of unabashed joy on Jennifer’s face when she was reunited with her daughter was worth any trouble this stunt brought him.

        Much harder than facing Anders and Dailey, was facing Trevor Gage. The commotion had awakened the boy. He padded into the kitchen barefoot and dressed in his pajamas. He immediately recognized Libby from pictures hanging in the hallway. He looked up at Chet with those deep brown eyes so much like Johnny’s.

        “My papa? Did you bring him home, too, Mr. Kelly?”

        Chet swallowed hard as he shook his head. “No, Trevor, I. . .I’m sorry, but I didn’t.”

        Trevor raced down the hall with tears streaming from his eyes. Even after he arrived in the distant room where he’d been sleeping, everyone could clearly hear his sobs and the heartbreaking pleas of, “Papa. Papa. Please, Papa. Please come back to me. Please don’t leave me all alone.”

        With the support of his canes, Chris shuffled toward his old room to comfort Trevor. After all, now the boy and he had something in common. Both of them were missing a father.

Chapter 27

        The blindfold around Roy’s eyes meant the first turn out of the observatory’s parking lot disoriented him, leaving him with no reference as to where they were going.

        I should have tried to ask Libby more questions. She might have been able to tell me something about the place he was keeping her and Johnny.

The man didn’t say a word to Roy throughout the journey that Roy estimated to last roughly three hours. When the van came to a stop and the door was slid open, Roy knew it was just before daybreak, and that he was no longer in the city. He could smell early morning dew on grass and hear birds chirping. Yet, no sunlight seeped through is blindfold, so he estimated it to be somewhere in the vicinity of four to five a.m.

        The ropes were cut from around Roy’s ankles, and the gag removed from his mouth. The ropes at his wrists, and the blindfold, stayed in place. A hand grabbed his arm and yanked him from the vehicle. The cold metal of the gun was placed against his temple.

        “We’re going to be doing a little hiking, DeSoto. Think you’re up for it?”

        “I am.”

        “Good. Your granddaughter and Gage managed okay, so I figured you could to.”

        Roy was pushed forward and instructed, “Walk.”

        Like Johnny had when he took this very same hike on Friday, Roy found the going rough considering his bound hands and the blindfold. But also like Johnny, Roy knew they were climbing, and heard the soles of their shoes snapping twigs and crunching leaves, and noticed the lack of noise from traffic.

        “Why?” Roy asked at one point when he stumbled over a log and had to push himself back to his feet using only his knees for leverage.

        “Why what?”

        “Why this? Why kidnap John Gage and my granddaughter, then why release my granddaughter in trade for me?”

        “Well, let’s see. That was a multi-part question, which is good, because there are multiple answers to it. So, number one. Why this? Because it’s fun.

        “Number two. Why kidnap John Gage? Because he kept me from what I
wanted so badly twenty-two years ago. . .your daughter Jennifer. I don’t like to lose, DeSoto. I don’t like to lose at all. I vowed that day Gage would pay for what he’d done. It took me over two decades to make good on that vow, but there’s certain things a man has to do before he. . .before he moves on.

        “Number three. Your granddaughter. Why did I kidnap her? Because I wanted a DeSoto and she reminded me so much of her mother. Besides, I knew it would drive Gage crazy knowing I had her, and that at any moment I could do whatever I wanted to her, and that he couldn’t stop me. I’ll tell you this, that dumb shit Gage is still a good friend to you, even though you kicked his ass out of your life years ago now. He was a like a hen with one chick when it came to that girl. He kept trying to get me to take her back to you in exchange for keeping him, and doing whatever to him I desired. Now, is that an idiot for you or what? You’ve cursed his name for fifteen years, DeSoto, and that shit head fire chief is still loyal to you. Can you believe that?”

        Yeah, I can, Roy thought with a multitude of sorrows and regrets while wondering how this man knew so much about something so personal. But then Roy realized the kidnapper had likely been watching his family for months. Evidently he’d been doing research and asking questions, too.

        “Okay. Last question. Why did I trade you for your granddaughter? Well, let’s just say I’m getting soft in my old age. Plus, the game was getting boring. No one was looking for me. Or at least not anywhere near finding me. And, it’s my ultimate goal to make Quinn Dailey the supreme fool in this on-going chess match of sorts we engage in. He’s wanted me for a long time, you know. Since 1969. Though never fear, he’s not going to catch me. But, I knew it would be fun to pluck you from right out under his nose, which I did. So now,” the man paused as he nudged Roy up a short flight of steps and onto a wide deck of some sort, “I’ve got two fire chiefs at my disposal. And speaking of that, do you think you and Gage can still put out a fire, DeSoto?”
        “If we have to, I’m sure we can.”

        “Mmmm. That’s interesting. I’ll enjoy watching that event unfold.”

        Roy had no idea what the man meant, and before he could ask further questions he heard a padlock snap open and was shoved through a doorway.

        The paramedic instructor immediately heard someone wheezing, as though the person was fighting to draw in air.

        Johnny! It has to be Johnny!

The ropes were cut off Roy’s wrists, and then his blindfold removed. It took his eyes several long seconds to adjust to the light glowing from a lantern.
Roy immediately realized he was in a cabin of some sort, and his brain assimilated the boarded-over windows. But once Roy’s wandering gaze fell on Johnny curled up in a far corner, his observations of his surroundings narrowed to focus solely on the person who needed his help.

        Without asking permission first Roy ran to Johnny’s side. He only had to rest one hand on Johnny’s arm to feel the heat radiating from the man’s body. Johnny’s eyes were open, but were glazed and unseeing as he clutched his stomach and moaned. Roy saw the bloody right hand that had repeatedly pounded the floor boards after Libby was whisked away, and now the bloody lower lip that Johnny was biting in an attempt to fight the pain.

        Roy swiveled from his crouched position next to his old friend.

        “What the hell did you give him?”

        “It’s just a little homemade drug I manufactured. Don’t worry, DeSoto, it won’t kill him. It will only make him wish he was dead for another hour or so.”


        “Look nothing. I’ll leave you two alone now.” Evan smiled. “I’m sure you have a lot of catching up to do. About fifteen years worth, wouldn’t you say, Roy?” The man’s eyes flicked from Roy to Johnny as his smile grew boarder at some thought he refused to share. “And I’d advise you to say what needs saying, because you never know if the opportunity will come again. You know how it is, DeSoto, all good things must come to an end. Or so they tell me.”

        If the gun hadn’t been pointed at Johnny, Roy would have attempted a dash for the door. But the gun was pointed at him, and besides, right now Johnny needed Roy by his side more than he needed Roy to make an escape attempt that would likely be thwarted before his feet got off the steps.

        As soon as the door closed and the padlock snapped back in place Roy went into paramedic mode. Johnny was in urgent need of an easier way to breathe. Roy grasped his upper arms. “Johnny, I’m going to help you sit up. I want you to lean back against the wall for me, okay?”

        Johnny didn’t attempt to focus on Roy’s voice, nor did he make any acknowledgment of the man’s instructions.

        He doesn’t know who I am, if he’s even cognizant enough to realize someone is with him at all.

        That thought didn’t keep Roy from telling Johnny everything he was doing, just like he would have any patient.

        “Okay, I’m going to get you to a sitting position on three. I want you to help me if you can. Here we go. One, two, three.”

        On the word, ‘three,’ Roy lifted Johnny’s upper body up and leaned him back against the wall. Johnny gave a strangled, “Ahhh!” at the change in position. Roy didn’t try to get him to uncurl when his knees came up to his stomach again. He knew for the benefit of Johnny’s air intake, it would be better if he could get the man to lay his legs flat on the floor and sit with his back straight against the wall, but for now Roy would accept what they’d accomplished.
He wormed his hand in-between the one Johnny had pressed against his abdomen and counted respirations.

        Fast and shallow.

Because he had no thermometer with him Roy had to estimate Johnny’s temperature by placing his open palm beneath the man’s bangs. The skin was flaming hot to Roy’s touch.

        Probably one hundred and three if not higher.

Roy gently parted the matted hair on the top of Johnny’s head. He saw a long gash that would need stitches. His fingers probed the area surrounding the gash. He found a good-sized bump, and if he parted the hair just right he could see an array of purple and green bruises. He recalled Libby saying that Johnny had been struck with the man’s gun. It actually looked like the wound had been reopened, making Roy wonder what else his friend had been hit with during his captivity. Roy silently categorized everything he knew so far.

        Pneumonia. Scalp laceration. Possible concussion. Abrasions on his right hand. And given a drug of unknown origin. Oh, this is swell. We’re locked in a cabin of some sort. I have no way to treat him. And that guy could come back at any moment and kill the two of us with a couple of well-placed bullets. Some reunion this is turning out to be, huh, Johnny?

Roy allowed his hand to fall to the side of Johnny’s face. He rested it there a moment as he looked around the room. A couple McDonald’s bags stuffed with garbage were against one wall, as was a backpack. A coloring book, crayons, a deck of Uno cards, a blanket, a puzzle box, and a Baby-Sitter’s Club book were scattered about. A McDonald’s cup was lying on its side in the middle of the floor, with what looked like apple juice discoloring the area around it. There was a blood stained towel on the floor, and the tan safari-style shirt Johnny was wearing had bloodstains on the collar and shoulders.

        Probably from the head wound, Roy concluded as he looked his friend over without finding any other injuries. He pushed himself to his feet and made a quick circle of the room, then of the room in the back. Like Johnny had on Friday, Roy quickly realized escape through any of the boarded up windows would be impossible. He saw the small bathroom and entered it. A relatively clean towel was hanging from an old wooden rack in here. Roy soaked it with cold water from the pump, then wrung it out. He hurried back to the main room, knelt by Johnny’s side, and started sponging his face.

        Johnny’s eyes were closed now, and they remained that way for the next two hours as Roy worked to bring his fever down. The stomach cramps appeared to be subsiding. When Johnny allowed his hand to drop away from his abdomen, and allowed his legs to straighten to the floor, Roy stripped his dirty shirt from him. He made use of two of the empty McDonald’s cups he spotted neatly lined up against the same wall that held the backpack. He rinsed them well, then filled them with water and brought them back to Johnny’s side. He continuously dipped a portion of the towel in one, and used it to wipe Johnny’s face, neck, shoulders, and chest. The other one he’d bring to Johnny’s lips every few minutes, stick the straw in his mouth, and encourage him to take a drink. Johnny’s level of awareness didn’t appear to be increasing, though several times he called for Libby in a hoarse voice filled with fear.

“She’s okay, Johnny. Libby’s okay,” Roy quietly assured his semi-conscious friend. “Libby’s fine thanks to you. You took care of her for me, just like you took care of Jennifer all those years ago. You did good by me, Johnny. You did good by me. . .just like you always do.”

        When consciousness began to surface for John Gage again, he was aware of four things. A cool, wet cloth that was heaven against his hot skin. Cold water going down his throat bringing welcome relief to the dryness there. No searing pain in his gut any longer. And a quiet voice that kept telling him Libby was all right.

        It took Johnny another five minutes to find the energy to open his eyes. He sensed a presence beside him, but he had to look down to locate it. A man had an ear pressed to Johnny’s bare chest. From this angle all the fire chief could see was thinning white hair and a round bald spot on the crown of the man’s head.

        “Geez, Roy, it’s nice to know you missed me, but a simple phone call would have been enough.”

        Roy looked up, embarrassed to be caught doing something that, while innocent and well-intended, requires the intimacy of friendship to make it acceptable. He shot Johnny his best glare, then urged him to lean forward by placing one hand on Johnny’s back and one on his chest.

        “I can see the passing time hasn’t changed much where your sense of humor is concerned.”

        “Yep,” Johnny agreed in a raspy voice. “My endearing sense of humor is still with me.”
        “And the infamous Gage charm?” Roy questioned as he laid an ear against Johnny’s back.

        “Most definitely the infamous Gage charm. How do you think I’ve survived to reach fifty-three?”

        Roy laid a light hand on the gash on Johnny’s scalp. “Is this a result of your charm at work?”

        “Well, you might remember that it did fail me every so often.”

        Thinking of all the nurses who had dumped Johnny while they worked together caused Roy to say, “I do seem to remember that.” He sobered as he requested, “Take a deep breath for me, Johnny.”

        Johnny did as Roy instructed. He could tell the breath he attempted to take wasn’t nearly as deep as he should be capable of, and he could tell Roy knew it, too. The man moved his ear to four different spots on Johnny’s back, making the same request of him each time. When Johnny was gently leaned against the wall once more he asked, “Since when did you stop working with a stethoscope?”

        “Since I wasn’t allowed to bring my medical bag along.”

        “What the hell are you doing here anyway?”

        “It’s a long story.”

        “Oh.” With a weak wave of his hand Johnny gestured to the padlocked door. “And you think I’m gonna walk out on you while you tell it?”

        “No. It was usually me who walked out on you in the middle of a story.”

        “That’s right,” Johnny nodded in remembrance. “You did. And just for that, considering we’re locked in here and all, meaning you can’t walk out on me, I should make you sit through a hell of a really long one, but right now it takes too much effort to talk, so consider yourself lucky, Roy, and fill me in on what’s going on while I’m forced to a be a good listener.”

        “Never your strong suit,” Roy said as he sat on the floor facing his friend. “Listening, that is.”

        “Not generally. So hey, I’m all ears. Lay it on me.”

        Roy’s story started with the phone call he’d received from Libby at eleven o’clock the previous evening, and ended when he told of being brought to this cabin.

        “It’s not a cabin,” Johnny said between harsh, wet coughs that Roy didn’t like the sound of. “It’s a ranger station.”

        “A ranger station?”

        “Yeah. We’re in the San Gabriel Mountains.”

        “Are you sure?”

        “I’m sure.”

        “How do you know? Did you see something that looked familiar?”

        “Haven’t seen a damn thing. He brought me up here blindfolded, like he did you. But based on something he said, I know that’s where we are.”

        “What did he say?”

        “That it would end where it all began. I didn’t know what he meant when he said it, but later, after Libby told me about our surroundings. . .she wasn’t blindfolded when we had to hike up here, and after I figured out this is a ranger station, then I knew where we were. I told Libby. I told her we were in the San Gabriel Mountains, and that if she got away she had to tell you that.”

        “She didn’t have time to tell me, but I’m sure she’ll tell the FBI. Chet was taking her to my house. By now the cops are bound to be looking for us.”

        “Is she okay? He didn’t. . .that bastard didn’t hurt her, did he?”

        “No. Or at least not that I could tell, and not that she said beyond him touching her here in the cabin.” Roy assured.

        “I’m sorry. . .I’m real sorry that happened, Roy.”

        “From what Libby said there wasn’t much you could do to stop it.”

        “I should have tried harder. I should have--”

        “Johnny, he damn near cracked your skull! Considering that, you did everything you could. Besides, Libby’s okay. Tired. Upset. In need of a warm bath, a hot meal, a long hug from her mother, and a good night’s sleep, but other than that I think, given time, she’ll be fine.” Roy reached over and patted Johnny’s arm. “Don’t worry about it. Jennifer has already looked her over about two dozen times I’m sure, just like Jennifer’s going to do to you when I bring you into Rampart.”

        “I don’t need to go to Rampart.”

        Roy laughed. “I’m not going to waste my breath arguing with you on that. For one thing, I know you’ll deny you’re sick until you pass out in my arms, and for another, when you get a look at yourself in a mirror, I think you’ll realize a couple days in Rampart is a given.”

        “Maybe,” Johnny conceded when another coughing spasm took his breath away. God, did he feel like shit. “But no girl doctors. Especially not Jennifer.”

        Roy laughed again. It was then that he remembered what Libby had told him a week earlier.

        “Mom says Uncle Johnny could always make you laugh. You hardly laugh at all since Branny died. It makes me sad when you don’t laugh, Grandpa. It would make Branny sad, too. I wish you’d find out where Uncle Johnny lives and call him. Maybe he could make you laugh again.”

“I’m not kidding, Roy. I don’t want Jennifer for a doctor.”

        “What?” Roy said with mock indignation. “You don’t think my daughter is a good physician?”

        “Quite the opposite. I’m sure she’s the best. I just don’t want. . .I mean. . .you know. . she’s Jenny. The little girl I used to twirl around in my arms. The little girl I used to take to the zoo, and read stories to. I don’t. . .well. . .I just. . .”

        “You don’t want her to see you in your birthday suit?”

        Johnny felt his face grow even hotter if that was possible. “Yeah. Something like that.”

        Roy laughed again. Only Johnny would worry about such a thing at a time like this. They were locked in a cabin with no way out, in danger of being murdered at any moment, and he was worried about what doctor at Rampart might see him in the buff.
        “I’m sure, if Jennifer is your doctor, she’ll make certain your dignity is preserved.”

“Probably. But I still don’t like the thought, so just have Morton look at me okay? Libby said he’s head of the ER now.”

        “He is. And I can’t believe you’re actually volunteering to have Mike Morton take a look at you.”

        “I’m not. Volunteering that is. But if I do pass out in your arms, and you take me to Rampart against my will, which I well remember is one of your tricks. . .well, Morton’s a guy, and he’s already seen me naked, so I can live with that.” Johnny paused, then added, “Though he’s probably still as big of a pain in the ass as he was fifteen years ago. Probably will lecture me up one side and down the other about taking better care of myself, even when I remind him that it’s not my fault I got kidnapped by a frickin’ maniac. I mean there I was, taking a nap in my own bedroom, minding my own business, when some nut shoves chloroform up my nose. Now you tell me, Roy, just how is that my fault? Huh? Just how?”

        Roy shook his head with amusement at the typical Johnny tirade. He grabbed the blanket from the floor while Johnny ranted on and covered him with it. He looked at the man, taking note of the exhaustion that made his brown eyes dull and lifeless, the hair matted in clumps by blood and sweat, the broken skin on his lips and right hand, and the streaks of ruby red that ran across the high cheek bones that seemed far more prominent than they had in the picture Roy had just seen Monday morning.

        He’s lost a good five pounds since this started, if not more.

        Johnny caught Roy’s worried gaze, so did his best to continue on a light-hearted note, even though just breathing was starting to be a big undertaking, let alone talking.

        “What about Chet?”

        “What about him?” Roy asked as he started a neuro check on Johnny to determine if he had a concussion or not. “Follow my finger with your eyes, Johnny.”

        “You said he helped you. That he drove you to the observatory. What’s he up to these days?”

        Roy didn’t answer Johnny immediately. Instead he asked Johnny to tell him how many fingers he was holding up, then asked if he’d vomited or was dizzy.

        “No. I’m fine. I don’t think I have a concussion.”

        “I don’t think you do either,” Roy agreed, “but you do have a pretty good sized bump on the top of your head that a doctor needs to look at. As for Chet, he’s working out of Station 53. . .the new station that replaced 51, as their engineer. He’s got two boys now. You probably remember Collin. The younger boy is Ryan. They’re sixteen and fourteen. Good kids, actually, especially considering they belong to Chet.”

        “Must get their redeeming qualities from their mother. What was her name? Janet? Janice? Jeanie?”

        “Jeannine. And she and Chet are divorced. Have been for about 10 years. They share custody of the boys. Chet’s got them enrolled in a very strict Catholic high school believe it or not.”

        Johnny smiled with irony. That was pretty hard to believe. He vaguely remembered seeing Chet’s oldest boy on a couple occasions. By the time Chet had married and Collin was born, Johnny and Chet were no longer working together. Johnny had met Chet’s wife exactly once, at their wedding. Chet had brought Collin by Johnny’s ranch a few times, but the boy would have only been a year old when Johnny moved to Denver.

        “And the other guys?”

        “Mike’s a battalion chief, still happily married to Peggy, and a grandfather six times over. Marco is still single. His mom lives with him and--”

        “How is Mrs. Lopez?”

        “Good. In excellent health as a matter of fact. Anyway, Marco retired from the department five years ago and owns a catering business now. Does a lot of weddings and other parties for members of the Hispanic community. He’s doing very well for himself actually.”

        Johnny nodded at the news that came as no surprise. He couldn’t imagine anyone not liking Marco, and could easily picture the man, who had been Station 51’s best cook, running his own catering business. “And Cap?”
        “He and Grace bought a beautiful little place up in Monterey. Joanne and I spent a weekend with them last fall. Retirement seems to suit him. His daughters have both moved away from L.A., and the three grandsons are grown and on their own, too. There wasn’t much holding Cap to this area anymore, so he and Grace decided to live on the ocean like they’ve always wanted to.”

        “He deserves an enjoyable retirement after all those years of putting up with me and Chet.”

        Roy chuckled. “That he does.” He tucked the blanket around Johnny’s shoulders, then dipped the towel in water again. As he began running it over Johnny’s face he teased, “Well, I’d say the last fifteen years have been good to you, Johnny, but judging by the looks of you right now I’d be lying.”

        Johnny chuckled, his eyes closing briefly at the relief that cold towel brought him. “Most of the years have been good. It’s just the last few days that have sucked.”

        “I can imagine.”

        Johnny tugged at the blanket, but Roy wouldn’t allow him to remove it. Johnny didn’t realize he was shivering, though Roy was fully aware of that disturbing fact.

        “I know. Let me work on cooling you off here. Just leave the blanket like I have it.”

        “Hot,” Johnny insisted again while tugging at the blanket.

        Well, he’s still as stubborn as ever; like I could have been lucky enough for that aspect of his personality to change.

“So, what kinds of things did you and my granddaughter talk about while you were stuck in this cabin together?” Roy asked in an effort to distract Johnny from his misery.

        “Mmmm, well. . .lots of things,” came Johnny’s hoarse response. “She pretty much filled me on everybody. You. Joanne. Jenny. John. Told me about all your grandkids. I. . .I’m sorry about Jenny’s son, Roy. Libby. . .Libby told me he passed away a couple years ago as a result of a brain tumor?”

        “Yes.” Roy dropped his eyes from Johnny’s face as he dipped the towel in water again. “Brandon was six when he died. He was first diagnosed at the age of two. We. . .for a while we had hope. But then. . .well, during the last year of his life it became apparent it was only a matter of time.”

        “I’m sorry.”

        “You already said that.”

        “I know. But I am.”

        “I know you are,” Roy said as he brought the towel back to Johnny’s face. “And thank you. I. . .there were. . .there were a lot of times during Brandon’s illness when I. . .when I wanted to talk to you but. . .well, never mind. That’s my own fault, certainly not yours.”

        Johnny shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”


        “Don’t what?”

        “Don’t let me out of the apology I owe you. I want to. . .I have to give it to you, only I’m not ready.”

        “I understand.”

        “No, that’s not what I meant,” Roy said quickly, having caught the fleeting hurt in Johnny’s eyes. “I mean. . .I want the words to be right. To be. . .enough, you know? I don’t want it to sound trite or insincere. It’s got. . .well, you know, I never was the talker amongst the two of us, so when I have something to say I want to make sure I say it right the first time. And I want to make sure it encompasses all it has to. I want to make sure it covers all it should.”

        “You don’t have--”

        “Yes, I do, Johnny. And I will. Only there will be a better time and place than this.”

        Johnny wasn’t so certain of that considering their current situation, but he didn’t remind Roy of that fact because it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Roy was here with him, and if Johnny died today he’d go to his grave knowing he had Roy’s friendship once again.

        “Chris,” Johnny said the name next that he’d purposely avoided mentioning earlier. “Libby told me about Chris. I’m so glad. . .so damn glad he’s found success.”
        “He has. And a wonderful wife and two beautiful little girls to go along with it. You remember Wendy, don’t you?”

        “Yeah. Didn’t know her very well, but I remember her.”

        “They’re very happy. I’m so proud of him, just like I’m proud of all my children.”

        Johnny nodded. “A father should be proud of his children.”

        “Yes, he should be. And you certainly have every reason to be proud of your son.”

        Johnny cocked an eyebrow at his friend.

        “Trevor,” Roy supplied.

        “Yeah, I know his name. But the question is, how do you know it?

        Roy smiled as he dipped the towel in cold water once again. As he ran it over his friend’s face and neck he said, “Because he told me.”

        “He told you?”

        “Yep. Right about the same time he told me I was a grouch like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Now, let me see. . .was that before or after he kicked Chet? After. Definitely after. And--”

        Johnny batted the towel away and sat up straight. “Roy, what the hell are you talking about?”

        “Your son.”

        “My son doesn’t tell people they’re grouchy, and he most certainly doesn’t go around kicking anyone.”

        “Oh, yeah? Well, I think Chet’s got the bruises to prove you wrong.”


        Roy laughed, enjoying the opportunity to say seemingly outrageous things to John Gage, rather than it be the other way around, which had been the norm when they worked together.
“Trevor stowed away, Johnny.”

        “Stowed away on what? What are you talking about?”

        “On a plane owned by some guy named Gus. The man. . .the man who’s holding us here, stopped Trevor at the end of your driveway when he was on his way to play with some boys--”

        “The Tierman twins. Dylan and Dalton. What do you mean the guy stopped him? Did he hurt my boy?”

        “No,” Roy shook his head. “No, not at all. Evidently he just talked to Trevor about you. It was through that conversation that the guy determined you were in the house alone sleeping. He told Trevor he was a friend of yours from California. Trevor got a good look at his face. I’m not exactly sure what unfolded after that, but sometime on Friday afternoon Trevor found the newspaper article about you and Jennifer. . .the one that had your picture on the front that was taken in the ICU?”

        Johnny nodded.

        “Well, Trevor found that, along with a copy you had of the police artist’s sketch. He recognized the man in the sketch as being the one who had stopped him in your driveway. He said he tried to tell several people, and call the police chief, but no one would listen to him. So, like his father often did, at that point he threw caution to the wind, packed himself a bag, and snuck out of the house. On Sunday he landed in Los Angeles. While he was eating lunch at a McDonald’s he caught sight of a couple paramedics and charmed them into giving him a ride to the training center. . .Station 51. For some reason he thought he might find you there. The department let us set the center up as a command post for Libby, so it was full of cops, volunteers, my family, Marco, Chet, Doc Brackett, and Dixie, when Trevor showed up. It was through what he told us that Troy Anders realized it wasn’t Scott Monroe who had Libby like we first thought, but rather the same guy who had kidnapped Jennifer all those years ago.”

        Johnny sunk back to the wall in stunned silence. At this moment it was too overwhelming to think of all that could have gone wrong during this little. . .jaunt his eight year old took. For now he was just grateful Trevor made it safely to Station 51. When he finally found his voice the worried father asked, “Where is Trevor now? Where is he, Roy?”

        “He’s staying with me and Joanne. Don’t worry. Joanne will take good care of him until we get back.”

        The relief Johnny felt at those words slowly turned to anger. “That little bugger. . .when I get my hands on that boy he’ll find out for the first time in his life what a good old-fashioned spanking is all about. He’ll be lucky if he can sit down for a week. When I get through with him--”

        “Johnny, don’t.”

        “Don’t what?”
        “Don’t spank him.”

        “Why the hell not? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t put him over my knee and tan his rear end for him.”

        Roy shrugged, while trying to hide his smile. “I don’t know. I don’t have one, I guess. But I’ve always wanted to say that to you, considering how many times you pleaded with me not to spank one of my kids.”

        Johnny’s own smile broke through, despite his best efforts to prevent that action. “Okay, okay. Pay back time. I understand. I probably won’t spank Trevor anyway.”

        “I didn’t think you would.”

        “I have, you know. A few times. So don’t think I can’t if he needs it.”

        “I know. He mentioned having received a ‘swat on the behind’ now and again. But he’s a good boy, Johnny. A nice boy. Very polite. Very well-behaved. A ‘little sweetheart’ as Joanne calls him. And funny as hell. He makes me laugh.”

        “He makes me laugh, too, even when I shouldn’t be sometimes.”

        “Kids will do that to you.”
        “Yeah. So I’ve learned.” Johnny felt the towel wipe across his flushed face again. “Thanks, Roy. For taking care of Trevor, I mean. Thanks to you and Joanne both.”

        “No thanks is necessary. First of all, you took care of our kids countless times and would never take a dime for any of those baby-sitting duties. And second of all, believe me when I say it’s been a pleasure. It’s been. . .it’s been nice to have a little boy in the house again.”

Johnny gave a small nod. He didn’t need to ask any questions. He realized Roy was referring to the grandson he’d lost. Because he could sense the subject of Brandon was a painful one for Roy, Johnny switched gears.

        “I have some good friends in Alaska. Carl Mjtko, and his mother Clarice. Carl’s the police chief you mentioned Trevor tried to call. If anything happens to me Trev should be sent--”

        “Nothing’s going to happen to you, but we already know.”

        “Already know what?”

        “That Carl and his mother are named as Trevor’s legal guardians in your will. Carl has made arrangement for his mother to fly down with Gus on Thursday to pick Trevor up.”

        “Oh. Okay. I. . .my dad’s getting up there in years, you know. He’ll be eighty in September. And Reah. . .well, her lifestyle with her career and all just isn’t accommodating to a little boy who’s been used to a solid routine.”

        “I understand. Trevor told Joanne about your dad and Marietta, and about Reah, too.”

        “Carl and Clarice. . .they’ve been a constant in his life since I moved to Eagle Harbor from Denver.”
        “Is that where you went after you left. . .left L.A.?”

        “Yeah,” Johnny nodded, barely able to keep his eyes open now. “Lived there until May of ‘93. Trevor had just celebrated his first birthday when we moved to Eagle Harbor.”

        “You and your ex-wife?”

        Johnny cracked his eyes open and looked at his friend. “Huh?”

        “Do you mean that’s when you and your ex-wife moved to Eagle Harbor.”
        “Ashton’s not my ex-wife. We were never married. And no, she didn’t move there with me. She. . .she walked out of my life two days after Trevor was born.”

        “Oh. I. . .I’m sorry to hear that.”

        “Nothing to be sorry about. I should have seen it coming. We were. . .good together for a long time. Had a lotta good years together. But then, a year or so before Trevor was born, it started becoming apparent that we didn’t want the same things out of life. I wanted us to get married, she didn’t. I wanted kids, she didn’t. She was working a lotta hours. . .she’s a cardiac surgeon. . .I wanted her to cut back. She wanted to live in an apartment overlooking Central Park, I wanted to buy a ranch outside Denver. It all came to a head when she got pregnant with Trev.”

        “I take it that wasn’t planned?”

        “No.” Roy supported Johnny as he turned away, covered his mouth, and started to cough. It was getting harder for him to talk now, harder to breathe, but he was determined to finish his story. When the coughing subsided Roy helped him lean against the wall once more. “Anyway, I had to do some fast talking to keep Ashton from getting an abortion. Trevor was just a couple hours hold when she put him in my arms and said he was mine to raise. She went to a lawyer, had papers drawn up that make me Trevor’s custodial parent, and moved to New York. She didn’t have any contact with him. . .us. . .after that until Trev was three. I don’t know. . .to this day I really don’t know what changed her mind at that point. She sees him once a year now. Each summer he goes to New York to spend two weeks with her and Franklin. . .the rich old fart she married.”

        Roy chuckled. “Rich old fart, huh?”

        “Yeah. He’s seventy years old, she’s forty-five. Go figure. But, I guess he gives her all those things I couldn’t, or didn’t have the desire to. Can you picture me sunning myself on the French Riviera, or staring at a buncha stupid paintings in some art museum in Rome?”

        “No. Can’t say as those are things I’m able to imagine.”

        “Me either. But that’s the kinda stuff she and Franklin are into. Oh, what the hell, I know I sound bitter and I shouldn’t be. Old Frankie’s actually not a bad guy, and when Trevor visits them Franklin spoils him like Trev’s one of his own grandchildren. . .treats him good and all, so what right do I have to complain?”

        You have the right to complain because you still love Ashton. I can hear it in your voice, Johnny. You still love her, and even all these years later you still wish things had worked out between the two of you.

“Johnny, can I ask you a question?”

        “Ask away.”

        “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but how come Trevor’s mother isn’t his guardian if something happens to you?”

        “She wouldn’t want him. Not on a permanent basis anyway. She’d ship him off to boarding school before I was cold in my grave. Don’t get me wrong, like Franklin, she spoils Trevor to death when he visits. . .treats him good, but she. . .she’s not into kids. She doesn’t want to devote the time necessary to raise him. She’s more concerned about her patients, and her career, and making a name for herself, and publishing articles in medical journals, and traveling abroad, than she’s concerned about her own son. Doesn’t make her a bad person, it just makes her. . .who she is. So no, Trevor’s not to live with her. Carl and Clarice. They’ll take good care of him. He loves them and they love him. That’s who’s supposed to raise him if I die before he’s eighteen.”

        “Well, you’re not going to die before then so don’t worry about it.”

        “I think you better reevaluate our position, Roy, before you go making promises you can’t keep.”

        “I’ll tell you what, you promise me you’ll hang in there for me, and I’ll promise you we’ll get out of here.”

        Johnny was so exhausted that he was willing to promise anything, even though he was aware that the promises Roy was discussing didn’t have a chance in hell of coming true.

        “Sure. Whatever you say.”

        “Do you think you could put a little conviction behind that?”

        “Sorry. Feel like shit. Whatever that stuff is he gives me packs a powerful punch.”

        “I know,” Roy said as he dipped the towel again. “You try to sleep for a while. You’ll feel better when you wake up.”

        Johnny smirked. “Only if we’re outta here when I do.”

        “Who knows? We might be. I’m sure the FBI is grilling the hell outta Chet at this very moment.”

        “Damn. And I’m missing it. I’d love to be there watchin’ ole’ Chester B. squirm.”

        Roy shook his head. “You and Chet will never change where one another is concerned.”

        “Doubt it. That’s what makes Trevor kicking him so pissy.”


        “ ‘Cause now I have to apologize to Chet for it.”

        “Not really. Trev already did. Besides, Chet deserves a few swift kicks from someone named Gage, don’t you think?”

        “More than a few. Now that I remember all those damn water bombs, a lot.”

        “My point exactly.” Roy stood and headed for the bathroom. “Be right back.”

        When Roy returned he had the towel completely wet again, rather than just a small portion of it. He made Johnny lean forward enough so that he could sit behind him. Roy pulled his friend against his chest, and placed the towel to Johnny’s face.

        Johnny took as deep of a breath as he could. It was easier to get air this way, with the back of his head resting on Roy’s shoulder and tilted upwards. As his eyes started to drift shut to the feel of cool relief against his face, he heard Roy’s quiet voice.

        “Johnny, why did you chose Roy for Trevor’s middle name?”

        The pause in conversation lasted so long that Roy was certain he’d get an answer, when Johnny finally said, “Because I wanted to. Because there was no reason not to.”

        “But I--”

        “I just told you, there was no reason not to. Let’s leave it at that, okay?”

        “For now, okay. Later. . .no. Later. . .well. . .”

        “I know, I know. You’ll come up with a long, poetic hearts-and-flowers apology. You already told me.”

        “I didn’t say it would be long.”

        “Good. ‘Cause I hate it when you talk too much. Cuts into my end of the conversation.”

        Johnny drifted to sleep to the sound of Roy’s laughter. If he didn’t live to see another day, then he could accept it. He didn’t want to leave his son, but if nothing else he knew Trevor was safe, being well taken care of, and would be returned to Carl and Clarice. Add to that, Libby was safe, and the scattered building blocks of a once solid friendship had been put back in place. There wasn’t anything else John Gage could think to ask for, other than Roy somehow being able to return to his family. Johnny didn’t even realize he’d made his thoughts known when he mumbled, “If you can get away, Roy, you gotta run. You gotta leave me and run like hell.”

        Johnny was asleep when Roy patted his shoulder and vowed, “No way. I go, you go. That’s how things always were between us, partner, and that’s how they’ll be again.”

        Roy didn’t get an answer, but then he wasn’t expecting one. He did his best to keep Johnny’s fever under control as dawn broke on the outside world. Roy tried not to think of what this day would bring if they weren’t rescued. He prayed that if he and Johnny were destined to die, that it was quick and painless for both of them. Roy had a sinking feeling that wouldn’t be the case, but he could pray. Yes, he could pray, because unfortunately, in this locked and boarded up cabin in the middle of the wilderness, there was no other alternatives left him.

Chapter 28

        Chet Kelly sat at the table in the dining area of the DeSoto home, repeating his statement for the third time. Not a word of it had changed from the first time he’d told it, nor from second time, and he was getting pissed that Anders was wasting time interrogating him as though he was Libby’s kidnapper. At least now, Anders finally seemed to believe him in regards to the way he said the events unfolded from the moment Roy had called him. By the look on Quinn Dailey’s face, Chet knew he was damn lucky his story was corroborated by what Libby had relayed, and by information Joanne DeSoto supplied.

        Joanne had woken at midnight to find Roy’s side of the bed empty. When it was still empty at twelve-thirty, and when she didn’t hear the faint sound of the television set, or hear him pacing the house, she got up to search for him. After looking in the room Trevor was occupying, the computer room, the bathroom, and what had been Jennifer’s old bedroom, she moved through the rest of the house. By the time she reached the garage Joanne was in a panic. As she reentered her kitchen from the laundry room she spotted Roy’s note on the counter. She found the way he signed it odd, considering he was just going for a walk.

        All my love for now and forever.

But on the other hand, things had been tense between them on and off since Libby had disappeared. Joanne assumed this was Roy’s way of saying he was sorry, and letting her know that, through good times and bad, she would always be the love of his life.

        “I love you too, Roy,” Joanne had said with a soft smile as she placed the note in a drawer where she kept cards, letters, and other items that held sentimental value to her. Without turning on any lights, she went into the living room. She curled up on the couch and reached for the remote. She half watched an old episode of The Honeymooners while waiting for Roy to return. Joanne realized she’d dozed off when she woke up an hour later, chilled. She called quietly, “Roy,” but got no answer. She toured the house again, worry kicking in once more. She had no idea what time her husband had left on his walk, but knew he’d still been in the house when she’d gone to bed a few minutes after ten.

        He should have been home by now. He’s never gone longer than forty-five minutes.

Joanne quietly opened the door to Chris’s old room to check on Trevor again. The glow from the night-light allowed her to see he was sound asleep on his back, with his left arm thrown over his eyes. She’s seen Johnny sleep like that on her couch on more than one occasion, and had to smile at the remarkable number of resemblance’s Trevor shared with his father. She didn’t allow herself to think of Thursday, when Trevor would be leaving them. His departure was going to be just as hard on her as it was going to be on Roy. Even more sad, and frightening, was wondering what the future held for any of them. Would Trevor get his papa back? Would she and Roy get their granddaughter back?

        Joanne had shut the bedroom door again, then flicked on the hall light. She opened the linen closet in order to grab a light blanket off the shelf. She intended to wrap up in it and wait on the couch for Roy’s return. It was then that she noticed his medical bag missing.

        But it was here this evening. I know it was here because I put the clean sheets and towels away after supper while Roy and Trevor were in the pool.

Joanne ran for the kitchen. She pulled opened the drawer and grabbed Roy’s note. Though she didn’t know what was going on, she had a feeling there was something more final to his ‘All my love for now and forever’ than she’d realized earlier. She found Roy’s cell phone in the computer room and called Chris. Within thirty minutes Chris, Wendy, and Jennifer were at the house, as was Troy Anders. Police officers searched the neighborhood for Roy. When they couldn’t find him along any of the routes Joanne said he normally walked, Quinn Dailey was called. An hour after Agent Dailey arrived Chet Kelly pulled in the driveway with Libby. As a result of that event, the first big break in the case finally occurred.

        Like Roy had told Johnny would be the case, Jennifer looked her daughter over from head to toe multiple times. When they’d finished hugging and crying in each others arms, and after Libby had been thoroughly hugged by her grandmother, uncle, and aunt, Jennifer insisted upon taking Libby to her old bedroom prior to anyone questioning her. At that point the doctor determined what her father had in the parking lot of the observatory, that Libby was in need of a bath, a decent meal, and a long, soundless sleep, but was otherwise in good condition. She questioned Libby thoroughly regarding what the man had done to her. Libby told her mother the same thing she’d told her grandfather; that the man had touched her through her clothes in places he shouldn’t have, and that Uncle Johnny had gotten mad about that and tried to stop it. As a parent, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to cry over what that man had done to Libby. Granted, it could have been much, much worse, yet still, a part of Libby’s innocence had been taken from her in a way no child should ever experience. Jennifer’s profession as doctor meant she knew several good child psychologists. Just like she and Chris had benefited from a few sessions with a child psychologist after their experience twenty-two years earlier, Jennifer knew Libby would benefit from some sessions as well.

        For the time being, thoughts of a bath, a meal, sleep, and sessions with a psychologist, had to be put on hold. While Chet was questioned at the kitchen table, Libby was questioned in the living room with her mother seated on one side of her on the couch, and her grandmother seated on the other. Jennifer and Joanne held onto Libby’s hands as she answered all the questions Quinn Dailey asked her. It took thirty minutes for the man to reconstruct, through Libby’s words, everything that had happened since she’d been kidnapped on Friday afternoon. She made sure she told Dailey three times, “ And Uncle Johnny thinks we were in an old ranger station in the San Gabriel Mountains. He said it was important that I remember that and tell someone if I got away.”

        When the questioning finally came to an end, the exhausted Libby leaned into her mother’s side. “Uncle Johnny was so good to me, Mom. He helped me not to be scared, and he said I’m a brave girl. He wouldn’t let the man hurt me.”

        Jennifer ran a hand over her daughter’s tangled hair. “I know, honey. I know.”

        “I love Uncle Johnny a whole lot.”

        “I know you do, sweetheart. So do I.”

        Libby looked at Quinn Dailey. “When you find my grandpa and Uncle Johnny, and when Uncle Johnny asks if Olive Oyl is okay, that’s me. He means me.”

        “All right,” Dailey nodded with a distracted smile as he dialed another number on his cell phone and began barking orders.

        Jennifer smiled at her daughter. “Is that a nickname Uncle Johnny gave you?”

        “Yep. Almost as soon as I told him my name. . .my full name, he started calling me Olive Oyl. He said some cartoon named Popeye used to be your favorite, and that Olive Oyl was on it.”

        “Uncle Johnny’s got a good memory.”

        “Yep. He remembered lots of things about you, and Uncle Chris, and Uncle John.” The girl turned to her grandmother. “And he said you’re one of his very favorite people, Grandma. And that you were always trying to get him married off.”

        Despite her worry for her husband and Johnny, Joanne chuckled. “I guess I was. It never worked though.”
        “That’s what Uncle Johnny said.”

        Troy Anders entered the living room with Chet, while Wendy remained in the kitchen getting breakfast started for anyone who wanted to eat. Troy and Chet were followed shortly afterwards by Chris and Trevor. Chris sat down in his father’s big recliner, set his canes aside, and took the teary-eyed Trevor into his lap.

        Libby eyed the boy with open curiosity. She didn’t know who he was, but there was something familiar about his sad brown eyes that told her she should recognize him.

        “I wish Roy hadn’t gone off like he did,” Troy said to Joanne. “If he’d only contacted us--”

        “If Roy didn’t contact you then he had a good reason not to,” Joanne defended her husband.

        “The man would have killed me,” Libby volunteered. “I heard him tell Grandpa that.”

        “See,” Joanne said. “Roy had no choice.”

        Troy shook his head. “He had other choices, he simply ignored them.”
        “Because he felt he had to, Troy!” Jennifer was tired of the endless questioning. Between the information the men had gotten from Chet, and the information they’d gotten from Libby, they should have a good idea as to where her father and Johnny were. “Instead of standing here telling us that my father was in the wrong, would you please put your time to better use by finding him and Uncle Johnny.”

        “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Agent Dailey said as he disconnected his call. He looked at Anders. “We’re setting up a base camp on the north end of the mountains. Near the ranch Gage used to own. My guess is the guy has Gage in territory familiar to both of them. Or at least he did have Gage there.”

        “Did?” Chris asked.

        “Your father’s intervention could mean the guy has moved Gage.”

        “No,” Libby shook her head. “Uncle Johnny was sick. . .he made Uncle Johnny sick with the apple juice, I told you that. He made Uncle Johnny sick and left him in the cabin.”

        Quinn didn’t bother to argue with the girl. By now the man could have moved her grandfather and John Gage to a new hiding place. He looked at Troy again.

        “I’ve got a man in contact with a ranger right now. We’re getting locations of all abandoned stations. Three-dozen agents are headed up there. They’ll immediately launch a search.”

        “You’ll need a doctor at your base station in case you find them,” Jennifer said.

        “I’ve already got a paramedic unit on call.”

        “But a doctor would be even better. From what my daughter has said, I can tell you Uncle Johnny has pneumonia at the very least. Considering what he’s been through since Wednesday, I can guarantee you he’ll need immediate treatment, and a fast ride to Rampart.”

        “We can put a Flight For Life chopper on stand-by, too.”

        “Good idea. And you can have a doctor there as well.”

        “Jennifer,” Troy said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. You should stay here with your daughter and--”

        “No, Mom,” Libby interrupted. “Go to Uncle Johnny and Grandpa. I can stay with Grandma. I promised Uncle Johnny you’d stitch the cut on his head for him. You gotta be there to help him.”

        Jennifer gave her daughter a kiss and a long hug. “Uncle Johnny is right. You are a brave girl. I love you so much, Libby, and I’m very proud of you.” The woman stood. “Gentlemen, I’ll get my bag out of the car and then join you.” She looked at her mother. “Do you mind?”

        “No. You go. I’ll take care of things here. Just. . .be careful. It’s bad enough I have to worry about your father and Johnny. I don’t want to be worrying about you, too.”

        “You won’t be,” Troy assured. “This is one DeSoto I’m not letting out of my sight.”

        Trevor caught Jennifer’s eyes as she turned to leave the room. “Are you gonna bring Poppy home to me, Jennifer?”

        The woman bent and put a hand behind Trevor’s head while kissing his cheek. “I’ll do my very best, sweetheart.”

        “And you’ll take care of him so he’s not sick anymore?”

        “I sure will.”

        Trevor reached up and wrapped his arms around the woman’s neck. Quietly he said, “When you see Poppy, tell him I love him, and that I miss him real bad, okay?”

        Jennifer had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could answer. “Okay. I’ll make sure I give him the message.”

        Five minutes later Jennifer was headed for the San Gabriel Mountains with Troy Anders and Quinn Dailey.

        Before Joanne had the opportunity to suggest that Libby eat a plate of the scrambled eggs Wendy had cooking and then soak in a warm bubble bath, the girl hopped off the couch and walked over to her Uncle Chris. She stared at Trevor a moment, then reached out a hand and placed it on his arm. She’d heard what her mother had called him, and although she had no idea how the boy from Alaska had ended up in her grandparents’ house, she now realized who he was.

        “Don’t worry, Trevor. Your daddy will be okay. My grandpa and my mom will take good care of him, just like he took good care of me.”

        Trevor didn’t correct the girl when she used the term ‘daddy,’ but rather gave a solemn nod of his head. He didn’t pull away when she hugged him either. He’d never been hugged by a girl before. Grown women like Clarice, his mother, Grandma Marietta, and Aunt Joanne, yeah. But not a girl. Normally he would have pulled away with a loud, “Yuck!” but for some reason he didn’t. It only took a few seconds for Trevor to understand why. Being hugged by Libby Sheridan wasn’t like being hugged by a girl, it was like being hugged by a friend. A friend who had spent coveted time with his papa when Trevor himself was unable to.

        The boy returned Libby’s hug. When they broke apart the children were led into the kitchen for breakfast. Neither one of them ate much, and while Libby took her bath Trevor retreated to his room once more, where he sat on his bed crying for his father.


Chapter 29

        Evan Crammer’s motel room was three miles from the old fire road that led part way to the abandoned ranger station where he was holding Gage and DeSoto. He bustled through the room now, packing his bags. He already had everything else he needed in his van to give Gage and DeSoto a send-off befitting two veteran firefighters.

        Evan placed his bags by the door, then took one last look around the room to make certain he’d left nothing behind. He silently applauded his brilliance. From the moment he’d kidnapped John Gage, the cops had been like dogs running in circles chasing their own tails. They’d wasted a lot of precious time searching for Scott Monroe as a result of Evan’s own ingenuity.

        The man’s laptop computer was open on the low countertop where the TV rested. He walked over to it, dialed into the Internet, and sent the message residing in his draft folder. By the time Quinn Dailey returned to Virginia and got the message, Evan would be safely encased in his luxurious little Canadian hideaway where his life would eventually end. And oh, but what a glorious ending it would be, because victory was his. Evan laughed as he packed up his computer and thought of the message Dailey would read.

        How appropriate. How very appropriate it is.

        Hi, Quinn. Fooled ya’, huh?

        And really, what more could Evan say but that? He’d been fooling Quinn Daily for thirty years now. He’d soon make his last strike against humanity by killing his old foe, John Gage, and then he, Evan Crammer, would be declared the winner.

Evan put his bags and laptop case in the van, then hopped in the driver’s side. He headed the vehicle toward the San Gabriel Mountains, and the last duty he would carry-out before heading home to die.


        It took Johnny a minute to orient himself when he first woke up. He knew he’d slept deeper and heavier than he had in days, which indicated to the man he possessed a sense of security that had been lacking since he’d been taken from his home. When he shifted his head, and realized he was leaning against someone’s chest, it all came back to him. The deep sleep had been a result of not having to worry about Libby, and of his subconscious mind knowing Roy was here to listen for a cop calling their names, or searchers walking near the cabin.

        Johnny felt the cold towel move from his face as he carefully sat up.

        “Feeling better?” A quiet voice asked.

        “Yeah. A little.” The man moved away from his friend, shifting his body so he was sitting against the wall beside Roy. “How long did I sleep?”
        “About two and a half hours. I think you would have slept longer, but you’ve been coughing a lot. That probably woke you up.”

        “Probably.” Johnny tried to get a glimpse of Roy’s watch. “What time’s it?”

        The paramedic instructor turned his left wrist so he could read the watch’s face. “Nine o’clock.” Roy shoved a full cup of water into Johnny’s hands. “Here, drink this. All of it.” He reached for the box of Ritz crackers he’d dug out of the backpack. “And I want you to eat some of these.”

        Johnny made a face. “Do you know how horrible Ritz crackers are without anything to put on them like cheese, or a slice of sausage, or that really stupendous crab dip Joanne used to make?”

        “No, I don’t. But eat a few anyway. And Joanne still does make that ‘really stupendous crab dip’ as you put it, so if you’re a good boy, and you ask her nicely, I’m sure she’ll make you some to use on the leftover crackers you carry out of here when we’re rescued.”

        “Chicken and dumplings,” Johnny said as he took a drink of water. “Right now Joanne’s chicken and dumplings would be heaven. I’ve got the recipe, but I can never get the dumplings to turn out like they should. Trevor says they taste doughy.”

        “Is he right?”

        “I tell him it’s his imagination and to eat ‘em anyway, but yeah, he’s right.”

        “Then maybe Joanne can give you a lesson on how to make them while you’re here.”

        “Good idea. I’ll have to ask her.”

        “Now shut up and eat some crackers.”

Johnny did as Roy ordered, though dry crackers definitely weren’t enticing when you were sick and had little appetite to begin with. But, Johnny knew he needed to keep up what strength he still had. The last decent meal he’d consumed had been the previous Wednesday, six days earlier now, when he’d eaten the eggs Clarice had cooked him for breakfast. Since he’d been brought to this cabin he’d downed a few French Fries, a small portion of the McDonald’s sandwiches he’d been given on Friday and Saturday night, an apple, and half a granola bar. Hardly enough to maintain good health for any man, not to mention one with a naturally high metabolism.

        “Have you heard anything outside?” Johnny asked in-between bites of crackers and sips of water. “Anything that would indicate they’re searching for us? A chopper going overhead? A flare gun being shot off? Anything at all?”

        “No. Nothing. And I did a thorough inspection of this place while you were sleeping. There’s no getting out of here. Those windows are boarded up tight. And I do mean tight.”

        “Tell me about it. I damn near busted my shoulder trying to break the boards.”

        “Oh.” Roy glanced at Johnny’s vividly colored right shoulder. “So that’s where those bruises came from.”
        “Yeah. I also tried to bust down the door. . .it used to seem so easy when we kicked doors in twenty-five years ago. Either I’ve lost my touch, I’m getting old, or that door’s solid as granite.”

        “Probably a bit of all three.”

        “Ha, ha. You could have at least assured me I’m not getting old.”

        “Sorry, but I noticed the gray hair at your temples, and the fact that you’re the spitting image of your dad the first time I met him. Face it, Johnny, you are getting old.”

        “And this from a guy who’s sporting a bald spot the size of a softball.”

        “Joanne thinks my bald spot is sexy.”

        “Of course she’d tell you that.”

        “What do you mean, of course she’d tell me that? She’s sincere.”

        Johnny snorted as he threw a piece of cracker to the squirrel who had suddenly appeared from the chimney.

        “A friend of yours?” Roy asked.

        “Kind of. I think Libby and I invaded his territory. She named him Acorn.”

        “I see.”

        Johnny and Roy watched as the squirrel disappeared up the chimney with the cracker in his mouth, only to appear again less than a minute later. Johnny tossed him another chunk of cracker.

        “He must be running off somewhere and storing what you give him,” Roy observed.

        “Yeah.” Johnny’s tone was suddenly distant and distracted. “Yeah, it sure looks that way.”

        Johnny stared at the fireplace as Acorn appeared once again, then disappeared, then appeared once again, then disappeared, all the while using the chimney as his means of escape.

        “Damn!” Johnny pushed himself to his feet. “Damn, damn, damn! How stupid could I have been? How absolutely stupid could I have been?”

        “What are you talking about?” Roy stood as well. He watched as Johnny crossed the floor to the fireplace. “Johnny, come back and sit down.”

        Johnny ignored his friend to instead bend and stick his head up the chimney. When he reappeared he was coughing, and his hair was layered with cobwebs he fought to free himself of.

        “Well, now, that wasn’t a very swift move considering you don’t need anything else in your lungs to hinder your breathing at the moment. Now get back over here and sit--”

        “Roy, come here!”

        By now Roy was certain Johnny’s fever was rising again and he was half delusional, or that his six days of captivity had finally pushed him over the brink.

        “Johnny, let’s go over against the wall and sit down together. I’ll get you some water and have you eat a few more crackers. Then you can go back to sleep and--”

        “Sleep! Roy, are you nuts? There’s no time to sleep.” Johnny grabbed his friend’s arm. “Come here. Look up there!”

        “And see what? A bunch of cobwebs and a squirrel’s behind?”

        “No. Look at how big the chimney is! I never gave it a thought before now that I might be able to fit up it. I never gave it a thought that the fireplaces in these old stations weren’t necessarily designed to hold in heat. Hell, why do you need to worry about keeping heat in a building in Southern California? They were designed more for show than anything else. We can climb up it, Roy. We can climb up it, climb out on the roof, and then ‘poof’ we’re outta here.”

        Doubt crossed Roy’s features as he peered up the chimney a second time. “I don’t know. It looks fairly wide down here, but it narrows as it goes up. You might be able to make it, but I’ll get stuck.”

        “No, you won’t. You’ll fit.”

        “Johnny, have you taken a good look at me? I’m twenty-five pounds heavier than I was fifteen years ago.”

        Johnny slapped Roy’s stomach with the back of his hand. “See, that’s why it pays to stay fit and trim.”

        “You stay trim because you’ve got the metabolism of a jack rabbit. Some of us aren’t that lucky.”

        “Look, we don’t have time to debate the merits of a high metabolism.” Johnny crossed the floor and picked up the shirt Roy had taken off him earlier. “We’re getting out of here.”

        “I don’t know if you’re strong enough to make,” Roy said as Johnny was seized by a coughing spasm that almost knocked him off his feet. Roy grabbed his arms and kept him upright. “If you start this coughing in the middle of your climb you’ll fall.”

        “I won’t fall.”

        “You might.”

        Johnny slipped his shirt on and began buttoning it. “If I do, I’ll fall on you, so you’d better hope I don’t.”

        “I already told you I can’t fit up there.”
        “Roy, you’ve gotta try! I’m not gonna leave you behind, but now that I’ve finally found a way out, I’m not stickin’ around either. This has sucked, okay? It’s really sucked. If baring my soul to you will get your ass up that damn chimney then I’ll do it. I’ve just spent four days goin’ out of my mind with worry that I wouldn’t be able to get your granddaughter back to you alive! I’ve just spent four days wondering what would happen to my little boy if I didn’t get out of here alive! I’ve spent six days at the mercy of some asshole whose name I don’t even know, and I’m damn tired of it. And yes, I’m sick. I know I’m sick. I feel like I’ve got one foot in the grave, and the other one’s not far behind. But now that I know we can get outta here, I’m not waiting around for him to come back. I’d rather die running from him out in those woods, than give him the satisfaction of killing me in here like some caged up animal. And I’ll be damned if he’s gonna kill you! I’m not takin’ your body back to Joanne, Roy. I’m not.” Johnny grabbed Roy’s wrist. “Now come on. We’re gettin’ outta here.”

        Coughing the entire way, Johnny dragged his friend to the fireplace to the sound of Roy’s muttered words.

        “I’ve let you talk me into a lot of foolish things over the years, but this one just might take the cake. Especially if I get stuck.”

        “If you’re stuck in the chimney when he comes back, and that means he can’t find you, then believe me, it won’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened.”

        “Johnny, you can hardly breathe as it is. There’s no way you’re going to be able to climb up a dusty old chimney layered with who knows how many years worth of soot and dirt, climb out on a roof, jump to the ground, and then run down this mountain.”

        “Oh, yeah?” Johnny cocked an eyebrow, that gesturing suddenly reminding Roy of how much his old friend loved nothing better than a challenge. “Watch me.”


        “Roy, I’m goin’. And if you’re smart, you’re comin’ with me. If not, then wait here and I’ll come back with help.”

        “I think we should both wait here until--”

        “Until what? The cavalry shows up? Roy, I’ve been waitin’ to see someone on a white horse come over the hill since last Wednesday, and that hasn’t happened yet. I’m not holdin’ out a whole lot of hope that it’s going to happen now. As my Grandma Hamilton used to say, the Lord helps those who help themselves.”

        “I didn’t know you were a religious man,” Roy quipped.

        “You know how they say there’s no atheists in fox holes?”


        “Well, believe me, there’s none in boarded up ranger stations either. Now for once would you be the one to quit talking so we can get out of here?”

        Roy looked around the room a final time. Johnny was right. There was no way to escape but through the chimney. He still didn’t hold out much hope this was going to work, but Johnny’s torso had already disappeared within the stone shaft, and he was lifting his right foot in order to begin his climb.

        Roy grabbed his friend around the knees. “Here, let me give you a boost.”

        “Just a second.” Johnny coughed as he looked up. Enough sunlight was coming in through the top of the chimney to cast dim rays for him to see by. “Let me find a spot to grab onto.”

        The sixty-year-old fireplace had been made with large rocks of varying shapes and sizes gathered from the mountain. That fact alone was to the men’s advantage because it meant there were hand and toeholds.

        “Okay!” Johnny called. “Boost me now!”

        Roy did as Johnny instructed. Johnny found a narrow ledge on each side of the chimney to rest his feet on, and two more rock ledges to grasp with his hands. He bent down as much as he dared and held out a hand to Roy.

        “Come on. I’ll help pull you up now.”

        “Johnny, I--”

        “There’s nothing to it. It’s just like rock climbing.”

        “I’ve never been rock climbing.”

        “Oh. Well, then it’s no different than climbing up the side of a building.”

        “Except we’re without safety belts, ropes, and a pulley system.”

        “Oh, come on, Roy, where’s your sense of adventure?”

        “I should have known I’d be forced to find it again as soon as you showed up,” Roy grunted as he was hoisted through the fireplace’s opening.

        Johnny climbed a little higher to give Roy room to do the same. He looked down, watching as Roy struggled to find hand and foot holds. “To your left. There’s a ledge to your left, by your shoulder that you can grab. And another one to the side of your right foot.”

        As Roy’s fingers fought to maintain a grip on a slender ledge of rock he muttered, “This isn’t as easy as you made it sound.”

        “At the moment it beats all other alternatives if you ask me.”

        “You’ve got a point. A small one, but a point nonetheless.”

        “You know what you need, Roy?” Johnny climbed a little higher. The shaft was narrowing, but he was thin enough to fit without a struggle.

        “What?” Roy asked as he lifted his right foot and hand, grappling to find a new perch for both.

        “Another baby.”

        “A what?”

        “Another baby. You and Joanne need another kid.”

        Small stones and loose mortar showered down on Roy as a result of Johnny’s movements, causing him to cough. When he was able to talk again he asked, “Just why do you think Joanne and I need another kid?”

        “Because kids keep you young. I mean, heck, I was forty-five when Trev was born, and everyone gave me a hard time about how old that was to become a father, but it’s been great.”

        “Johnny, number one, there’s a big difference in becoming a first time father at that age, as opposed to becoming a father at that age after you’ve had several other kids who are almost grown. I was thirty-five when John was born and let me tell you, considering Chris and Jen were twelve and ten, that was a big enough struggle. And number two; in case you’ve forgotten, I’m fifty-six years old and the grandfather of three. Even if it was physically possible for Joanne to get pregnant, which it isn’t, we are not having another baby.”

        “Okay, okay. Sheesh, it was only a suggestion. I just thought maybe if you had another kid it would prompt you to get back in shape.”

        Roy didn’t know whether to be insulted, whether to take Johnny seriously on this issue of another child, or whether to chalk this conversation up to one of the many insane paths John Gage’s mind could travel when allowed too much idle time. Roy chose the latter, deciding that for the sake of his own sanity it was best to let this particular conversation thread die.

        Johnny continued to cough as he climbed. His fingers trembled as they grabbed onto rocks, but he made no mention of his weakness to Roy. First of all, Roy was well aware of it, and second of all, Johnny was bound and determined he was going to win his freedom. When he was a little more than halfway up the chimney, Johnny paused to rest. He laid his face against the cool rocks and allowed his eyes to close.

        Just a little while longer. Just a little while longer and then it’ll all be over with. We’ll get help, and then I can take a hot shower and crash on Roy’s couch. He’ll want me to go to Rampart, but what the heck, for her Uncle Johnny, Jennifer will probably make a house call.

Johnny started when he felt hands on the seat of his blue jeans. He looked down, just able to see the whites of Roy’s eyes.

        “Roy, you keep doing stuff like that and I’m gonna start thinkin’ you’ve been missing me way too much in a weird sort of way.”

        “I was just trying to give you a boost for crying out loud!”

        “Oh, sure. I knew that’s what you’d say as soon as you got me alone in a dark place.”


        “All right, all right, I was just kidding. I’m going. I’m going.”

        Johnny climbed higher, gingerly making his way to the chimney’s opening. When he was almost there he heard, “Uh. . .Johnny?”


        “I. . .I’m stuck!”

        Johnny looked down to see Roy three feet below him. “No, you’re not.”

        “Yes, I am.”

        “Just suck your gut in and climb.”

        “I do have my gut sucked in!”

        “Okay, just a sec. Let me come down a little.”

        “No. Keep going.” Roy looked up. “You’re almost there. Just keep going and get out.”
        “No way. You’re coming, too.”

        “Johnny, what part of ‘I’m stuck,’ don’t you understand?”

        “None of it, because you’re not.”

        “Just because John Gage says I’m not, doesn’t mean it’s true, you know.”

        “Oh ye’ of little faith.” Johnny dropped his right hand. “Here. Take my hand.”

        “And then what?”

        “On the count of three I’m pulling while you suck your stomach in.”

        “I don’t think it will work.”

        “It’s got to. Now come on. On three.”

        Roy grasped Johnny’s hand. He could again feel the heat radiating from his friend’s skin and wondered how Johnny had made it this far.

        Every so often I guess that Gage stubbornness comes in handy. . .for both of us.

        “Ready?” Johnny asked.

        “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

        “One. . .two. . .three!”

        It took a considerable amount of groaning, swearing, and straining on the parts of both men, but finally Roy was able to move. Johnny continued his own climb then. He reached up and grabbed the lip of the chimney. With what strength he had left he hoisted his upper body through the opening.

        For a moment Johnny allowed himself to breathe in the fresh, mountain air. The sun kissed his dusty, soot-smeared face. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, drinking in the smells and sounds of this mountain range he used to call home.
        Because they couldn’t afford the luxury of wasted time, Johnny pushed aside his enjoyment of the outdoors for more pressing concerns. He wriggled his way out of the chimney and climbed onto the roof, then looked down into the hole from which he’d just emerged.

        It was a struggle for Roy to make it the rest of the way out. He got stuck two more times, and for a long minute was certain he was destined to remain half in, and half out of chimney until Johnny returned with help. But somehow, with Johnny’s assistance, along with a liberal dose of his stubborn perseverance, they finally got Roy free and onto the roof as well.
        Johnny plopped down to the old asphalt shingles with exhaustion. Roy sat next to him, forced to catch his breath, too.

        Johnny gave his friend a sidelong glance. “I’d say Mrs. Claus needs to put you on a diet before Christmas rolls around, Santa.”

        Roy brushed cobwebs from his hair while wondering if his face was as dirty as Johnny’s. “Oh, you’re just a laugh a minute.”

        “Well, Roy, I wouldn’t want ya’ to think I’ve gotten too straight-laced in my old age.”

        “Don’t worry. There’s no danger of that.” Roy grabbed Johnny’s right wrist and started taking his pulse. “Now what?”

Johnny yanked his wrist away.“First of all you quit doing that. Second of all, we get the hell out--” Johnny stopped talking and sat straight up.



        Johnny clamped a hand over Roy’s mouth as he flipped onto his belly and laid flat. “Down,” he whispered. “Get down! Lay flat! Lay down flat.”

        It was then that Roy spotted the red van parked half a mile away, at the end of a fire road. He shaded his eyes and squinted, but didn’t see anyone around it, and was about to suggest to Johnny that they get off this roof and run like hell in the opposite direction of the vehicle, when he heard what Johnny had. Footsteps on the cabin’s front porch. Their assailant’s voice was heard next.

        “Well, gentlemen, it’s been fun! Gage, I appreciate the challenge you’ve brought me! Not to mention the laughs!”
        Johnny heard the man walk off the porch. His voice moved, as though he was circling the cabin. At first Johnny thought the man had spotted him and Roy on the roof, but as their assailant continued to talk, Johnny realized the man was under the assumption they were still locked in the cabin.

        “Now I suppose I should answer a couple questions just to satisfy your curiosity! If I was you, I’d be wondering the name of the quite brilliant man who orchestrated this little sojourn you’ve been on! My name is Crammer. Evan Joseph Crammer!”

        Roy and Johnny exchanged glances. If the man was supplying his name, then there was no doubt he didn’t intend for them to live to tell anyone that fact.

        “As for Scott Monroe. . .well, now there was stroke of genius on my part! I had him killed you see. It was me who sent Christopher those e-mails, not Monroe! It’s amazing just how much information a computer hacker can obtain if he simply has the time and talent!”

        Johnny only half listened to what the man was saying. He was more concerned about the smell that was suddenly wafting up from the ground surrounding the ranger station.

        Gasoline! He’s pouring gasoline!

        The look on Roy’s face told Johnny his friend had come to the same realization. As Crammer continued to talk, Johnny buried his face in the crook of his left elbow in an effort to stifle the sound of his coughs. Roy put a hand on his back and rubbed it up and down, whether in a gesture of comfort or reassurance, Johnny wasn’t sure.

        “Hey, DeSoto, remember when I asked if you thought you and Gage could still put out a fire? Well, now you’ll get your chance to find out!”

        From their positions on the roof Johnny and Roy couldn’t see Evan pick up a thick branch and soak the end with gasoline. He tossed the empty gas can on the small back porch the station contained, then held the branch away from his body. The man fished a Bic Lighter from the front pocket of his jeans. He flicked it open, and carefully held the flame to the end of the branch.

        The wood ignited with a powerful “whoosh!” Evan tossed the flaming torch at the cabin he’d splashed with gasoline. Within seconds fire was climbing the outside walls. Evan threw his head back and laughed at the thought of the men. . .the firemen, who would soon be incinerated.

        Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, Fire Chief Gage.

        Johnny risked lifting his head. The sound of fire crackled below as black smoke filled the air. He knew this old weathered cabin would burn fast. He and Roy had to get off the roof. Johnny glanced below, trying to locate Crammer.

        If we’re lucky he’s running for his van.

Roy was having similar thoughts. As flames shot up the outside walls Roy pointed to the woods behind them. The loud crackling of burning wood no longer made talking at any volume a concern.

        “We’ve got to get off this roof and head in that direction!”

        Johnny nodded. He didn’t see Crammer at the back of the cabin, and the direction Roy indicated was opposite of where the van was parked.

        The men grasped each other’s arms and helped one another to a crouched position. They’d only be nine feet from ground after they duck-walked to the corner of the roof, meaning jumping wasn’t a big concern. However, jumping through fire with no turn-out gear was.
        “Okay, Johnny, you first! And don’t forget, ‘stop, drop, and roll’ if you have to.”

        Johnny nodded at the instructions that were given to school children should they ever catch their clothes or hair on fire.

        The fire chief got as close to the edge of the roof as he dared. The tar in the shingles was already beginning to bubble. Johnny could feel the heat beneath the soles of his tennis shoes, and knew it was now or never.

        Johnny stood and took a running leap off the roof. For just a moment he felt the intensity of the flames as they licked at his clothes and bare arms, and then he was headed for the ground. Johnny did his best to tuck and roll. He grunted when his bruised shoulder hit the dirt, but when he scrambled to his feet he was in surprisingly good condition other than minor burns to his hands and arms.

        Roy came down next. He tried to employ the ‘tuck and roll’ method, too, but didn’t have Johnny’s agility to turn in mid-air. Roy took the force of his landing on his feet. His right foot turned, the ligaments screaming in protest.

        Roy had no time to worry about a sprained ankle. Johnny grabbed his wrist and pulled him toward the thick woods behind the cabin.

        “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”

        Fire roared behind the men, as the air filled with noxious fumes that only made Johnny cough harder. Roy gritted his teeth and hobbled along beside his friend.

        God, what a pair we make. Johnny’s got pneumonia, I’ve got a sprained ankle, and both of us think we can run through these woods like we’re thirty years old again.

Unbeknownst to either Johnny or Roy, Evan Crammer had seen their escape. He had considered shooting each of them as they jumped off the roof, but that would be too easy. Like killing a stupid, unaware animal. No, Evan wanted Gage and DeSoto to know it when they died. He very much wanted them to know it as a matter of fact.

        Evan took off after the fleeing firemen. He had three advantages over Gage and DeSoto. He didn’t have pneumonia. He didn’t have a sprained ankle. And he had a gun.



Part 6