End of October
Thursday night 9pm
/Joe, I'm cold./ The dark-skinned boy's hands shook as he signed the words.
"Come here," Joe whispered. He opened his arms, and the boy scuttled over, leaning against Joe's chest. "That better?" The boy nodded his eyes wide and frightened. Joe turned his head to the side. "Sunny, you okay?" He kept his voice low.
"F.. Fine." The teenaged girl sat with her back to him, tension radiating off her shoulders, her response barely audible.
"Why don't you come over here with Benj and me? We'll all stay warmer this way."
"F.. For him. N.. not y.. you." Her nearly eighteen-year-old features held disdain, but Joe could hear the fear that lay under the dismissive words. After a long minute she climbed over Joe's knees – keeping as much distance between them as was possible in the tight space – and settled herself on the other side of the boy, gently touching his cheek with one gloved hand. "Y.. You all r..right, k.. kidlet?" Her stutter was getting worse, and Joe found himself wondering if it was stress or the cold.
/Yes./ Benj shifted toward her. /How long do we have to stay here?/
"G.. Good q.. question." Sunny turned to Joe, her eyebrows raised, her jaw clenched. "Got an answer?" Anger smoothed out her speech.
"I'm not sure." Joe let out a breath, trying to keep his voice from betraying the concern he felt. "We need to give Frank some time. He'll double back as soon as it's safe."
"D.. don't t.. tell me. N.. now y.. you t..trust him." Sunny's voice dripped skepticism.
Joe nodded, tightening his hold on the child in his arms. "With my life."
The girl snorted derisively. "R.. right. T.. tell me an.. another one."
"I trust Frank completely. Always have, always will." He paused for a moment, gritting his teeth against the throbbing in his ankle. "He's my brother." Both children turned to look at him, astonishment in their eyes. Benj's hands flew, making words faster than Joe could translate. "Slow down, buddy. I'm not getting all that."
Sunny placed her hands over Benj's, stopping the flow of words. "H.. he's right. There's n.. no way. Y.. you two h.. hate each other."
"It's an act." Joe held their eyes. "My real name is Joe Hardy. Frank and I are private detectives. We're here on a case."
Benj freed his hands from Sunny's grasp. /A case? Doing what?/
Joe let out a long breath. "We were hired to protect you."
Sunny's almond-shaped eyes grew wide. "P.. protect us?"
Benj's cheeks paled. /From who?/
"I don't know. From whoever it is that's now chasing Frank." Joe heard the sharp tone emanating from his lips and immediately regretted it. He swallowed and closed his eyes. "Sorry." He opened his eyes and forced a note of calmness into his voice. "Look, we're gonna need to sit tight for a bit. I'll get you out of here and somewhere warm as soon as I can." The sound of raindrops splashing on rocks sounded from above them. "For right now, we'll stay here where it's safe and dry." He winced as the pain in his ankle made itself known again. "Let's get some rest. We could be here for a while."
Benj leaned back against him, shivering slightly. Sunny inched closer to the younger boy, resting an arm on his shoulders. "J.. Joe?" Joe looked at her over Benj's head. "He'll b.. be okay, r.. right?"
Joe nodded. "Of course. Frank's a professional." Sunny turned away to watch the rain fall, satisfied with the answer. Joe's eyes grew distant as he stared at the rocks protecting them both from the rain and anyone who might be looking for them. He damn well better be...
Friday morning 9am
"Frank, can you hear me? Frank? Open your eyes."
The words rang in Frank's ears. He tried to move his head in the direction of the voice and was vaguely concerned when found he couldn't. Moving his shoulders didn't work either, nor could he move his legs. Paralyzed? The thought flitted through his mind. No. Can feel my toes. Legs are wet. Rain? Where...? A groan escaped his lips.
"Travis, be careful!"
"I am being careful. Do you want him warm or not? Hand me that blanket." The man's voice was farther away but sounded exasperated and worried.
"Of course I do. Just be careful." The girl's voice was commanding and firm, as if she was used to having her orders obeyed without question. It echoed in Frank's ears, making it sound like she was speaking inside a tunnel. "Frank, please. Open your eyes. I need to know you're okay."
Frank struggled to do what she asked, fighting against the smothering darkness. "What... happened?" It was hard to talk. He became aware of the cold, his wet clothes sticking to his skin, his teeth starting to chatter.
"I think he said something." Light pressure on his chest. A hand? "Frank?" He groaned again, pain shooting through his body. "You're going to be all right." The girl's voice sounded as though she were trying hard to convince herself of this. "You're hurt. We're trying not to jostle you too much." A pause. "Was Joe with you? And the others?"
Joe? This thought forced Frank's eyes open. Sunlight bore into his head like a laser, making his head hurt even more. No matter how hard he tried to focus, everything was blurry; the chattering of his teeth didn't help. He squinted at the figure closest to him – the girl – but couldn't make out her features. He blinked, hoping his vision would start cooperating, and slowly details became more clear. "What... happened?" he asked again. Talking hurt. Scratch that. Everything hurt. It was hard to breathe. Cracked ribs? Probably. Definitely something with his left shoulder and his right leg. And his head. At the least, a concussion. Hopefully not...fractured skull. It was hard to think straight.
"You've been... injured. We're waiting for an ambulance." There was something in the girl's words that let Frank know she wasn't telling him the whole truth. Not lying exactly. More like concealing something. "Frank, I need you to concentrate. Where's Joe? Was he with you?" It sounded like there was a tremor in her voice. "Can you tell me anything?"
Although the faces near him were still hard to make out, the trees overhead came into focus, wind whipping their branches around. Their motion made his head spin. Frank let his eyes close and concentrated on breathing, trying to fight off rising nausea. When he opened them again, he could just make out the girl's face. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail, but wisps had escaped the hair band and curled above her ears. Concerned brown eyes were trained on his face, and her small, almost delicate, features were hardened with tension. Frank figured she couldn't be more than five feet and a couple inches, but the hand gripping his was strong, and even with his brain disoriented, he noted her commanding presence. "Thirsty," he muttered.
She looked at him, the concern in her eyes growing stronger. "I'm sorry. We can't give you anything. Not until you get checked out." Frank tried to nod, but the motion was cut off by whatever kept his head in place. "Frank, please, was Joe with you?"
The intensity of her gaze hurt. Frank closed his eyes again and breathed out. "Don't know," he whispered. The enveloping cold was making it hard to concentrate. "Don't... remember." He paused. "Need water."
"I can't give you water, Frank. What do you remember? Why were you out here?"
Frank tried to think back. Where was he? He could see trees. There was a feeling of falling, voices yelling, then nothing. Had he been hiking? He could feel boots on his feet, not sneakers – another indication he wasn't paralyzed; he never hiked without boots, not since his last badly sprained ankle. The confusion in his brain scattered his thoughts like shattered pieces of glass. "I... I don't know," he repeated, his voice dropping.
She blew out a worried breath. "Okay, while you're getting looked at, Travis and I can go over your notes. Is your laptop at the school? Or did you leave it with Chet?"
"Why... would Chet...?"
"You didn't leave it in the dorm, did you?" She seemed surprised. "Were you encrypting your notes? If you were using the same code, we can start deciphering them while the doctors are checking you out."
Frank opened his eyes and turned his head gingerly back so he could see her face. "Code?" The chattering of his teeth was making his head pound. "Who's... 'we'?"
"The team. Me, Travis..." Her voice faltered at the look on his face. "Frank?"
His throat was dry, and waves of pain coursed through his body. The pounding in his head was getting worse. "I... don't… know..." The words slurred as he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the pain that was threatening to overwhelm him. "Really... thirsty. Please..." Then the darkness reached back up, smothering him. Everything went black.
Pain in his right arm. A needle? No, an IV. Frank could hear scissors near his chest. Someone was cutting off his jacket and shirt. Sensors were attached to his chest, and a cuff had been placed on his right arm above the IV. Something was clamped to his index finger. Then the beeping noises started. It was hard to block out all the noises so he could rest. When he was finally able to block it all out, someone tapped his shoulder, forcing him awake. "What's your name?"
"Who... who are you?" He struggled to focus his eyes on the person talking.
"I need you to answer the question, son."
"I'm thirsty. Can I have some water?"
"I can give you some ice chips after you answer my questions." A male voice, concern fighting with amusement in his tone. "Full name, please."
"Franklin John Hardy. Some water, please?"
A chuckle. "At least you're polite. Do you know where you are, Frank?"
Frank sighed. No one seemed to understand how thirsty he was. He hadn't had anything to drink since... Well, for a long time. "Hospital."
The man nodded. "And do you know what day it is?"
Frank closed his eyes and screwed up his face. What day it was? Could these questions get any more annoying? He sighed. "It was... Thursday. Could be Friday now. What time is it?"
This time there was a barking laugh. "Okay, you have a point." The person attached to the voice grabbed his hands. "Squeeze my hands as hard as you can." Frank complied. "Good. Now open your eyes wide." A flashlight waved across each eye. "Good. You can rest now."
"And here I was hoping you'd forget that. Ice chips." A few chips were spooned into his mouth. "Now go back to sleep, son. We'll do this all over again in a few hours."
Frank closed his eyes and slept.
Saturday morning 2am
"Is it normal for them to be in the hospital this much?" The voice hovered on the edge of Frank's consciousness. There was something vaguely familiar about it, but he couldn't place it. There was a name and a face that were just out of reach. "I was hoping the last time was something uncommon."
"Unfortunately, no. They're on a first name basis with the ER nurses at Downtown Hospital. There was even talk about naming a wing after them back in Bayport," a second voice said, caught between worry and amusement. This one he knew.
"Chet?" Frank cracked his eyes open. "What're you...?"
A relieved grin covered Chet's face as it came into focus. "Oh, man. You really had us going, Frank. Are you okay?"
How had Chet gotten here? And there was something... odd about him. He looked... different somehow. He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting with his confused brain to try to figure out what it was.
"Frank, you still there?" An edge of worry had worked its way into Chet's voice. Frank forced his eyes open and gave a slight nod, something around his neck making the motion more difficult than usual. "Good."
A red-haired man in a lab coat came up to the bed, his brown eyes showing concern. His name tag read 'Dr. Robert Finley.' "Well, Frank, I wasn't expecting to see you again and certainly not here. How are you feeling?" The man looked at Frank as if he expected a warm greeting.
"Battered. Confused." Cautious answers seemed best for now.
"Unsurprising," the doctor said. "What does surprise me is that your brother isn't here." Frank saw Chet give the man a barely perceptible head shake. The doctor pretended he hadn't noticed and took a small flashlight from his pocket. "In any case, let's take a look at you." Dr. Finley checked Frank's pupils and vital signs, then moved on to the inevitable questions. "Your name?"
"Do you know where you are?"
"Do you know this gentleman?"
"Chet Morton." Frank's eyes went back to Chet's face. There was definitely something different. Chet looked thinner, but there was something else as well. Something he couldn't put his finger on. He turned back to the doctor, hoping it would come to him.
"Do you know what today is?"
Frank thought. "I don't know how long I was out. Is it still Friday?"
"Saturday at this point," Dr. Finley responded. "You were unconscious for quite some time."
Frank swallowed. "Is there any water? My throat's dry."
"None of the scans are indicating surgery, so I guess it's all right for you to drink." The doctor held a styrofoam cup with a bendy straw up to Frank's lips.
"Thanks." He took a mouthful of liquid, then swallowed, his parched throat feeling better almost immediately.
"I imagine you have some questions for us," the doctor said, placing the cup back on a nearby table.
"What's the damage?"
Chet grimaced at him from across the room. "Top to bottom? Or order of importance?"
"Top to bottom."
Dr. Finley took a quick peek at his tablet computer. "Concussion – a minor skull fracture over your left ear, cracked collar bone, dislocated left shoulder, three broken ribs, right leg broken in two places." He let out a breath. "Extensive bruising and mild hypothermia."
Frank raised an eyebrow. "Why can't I move my head?"
"Collar." The doctor mimicked a collar with his hands. "We needed you awake to make sure there's no additional neck damage before we can take it off." The doctor's face started swimming. "Frank?"
"What?" A headache was forming over his left eye, pounding a drum cadence in his head.
Dr. Finley's expression grew serious. "Frank, are you all right?"
"No. Head... hurts." He groaned. "Thirsty." Through barely opened eyes, Frank watched as the doctor pressed the call button on the side of his bed. Seconds later a nurse came in and used a syringe to force something into his IV. The pain diminished almost immediately, and his body relaxed. "Thanks," he muttered.
The doctor spoke quietly to Chet for a few moments, then turned back to the bed. "Frank, I'm going to have the on-call neurologist check your CT scans to see if there's anything they missed. I'll be back in little while."
Frank didn't hear him leave.
When he next opened his eyes, Chet was dozing in the chair beside the bed. From the shadows in the room, it looked to be about early morning, the sun just about to rise. Frank shifted, sucking in a painful breath, his ribs complaining about the movement.
"Frank?" Chet was on his feet instantaneously. "What do you need?"
"Drink." The straw was back at his lips. "Thank you." He took a deep breath. "Chet, what are you doing here?"
"What do you mean?" Frank watched as he sat back down on the edge of the chair. "Where else would I be? You guys need me to take care of you, so here I am."
There was something about the way Chet said this that Frank couldn't put his finger on. He sighed, his brain feeling like scrambled eggs. "Why was the doctor expecting Joe? Is he here?"
Chet's eyes grew troubled. "Not here here. Kara's frantic."
Frank tried to shake his head, thwarted by the collar, confused. "I don't even know what happened to me."
"Kara and Travis found you on the bottom of a mountain."
Frank's eyes widened. A mountain? And those names. He knew they meant danger.
"You don't remember anything?" Disappointment dripped from Chet's voice. "Kara was hoping you could give her something..."
The door opened, and Dr. Finley entered the room. Frank glanced at him but kept his attention focused on Chet. "Why would Joe be here? Are we working on a case? He should be at school."
"We checked the school," Chet said, his voice hollow. "He's not there."
Frank could feel his head starting to pound again. Dr. Finley took Frank's right hand, checking his pulse. Frank ignored him. "But it's mid-term. He's got exams. And you keep mentioning this Kara. Who is she?" Chet grew pale, his eyes shifting to the doctor. Frank's eyes narrowed as he examined Chet, finally realizing what was so different about his friend. "Wait, your hair's long. You had a buzz cut when the semester started. It's only the end of October. There's no way..."
Dr. Finley exchanged a glance with Chet, and let go of Frank's wrist, drawing Frank's attention. "Frank, what school does Joe attend?" His voice was calm, but there was an undercurrent of concern in the words.
"NYU. He should be there, not here." Frank was starting to feel panicked, the monitors beeping shrilly as his heart picked up speed.
The doctor's voice was calm. "Where's here?"
"Utica, New York." From the corner of his eye, he saw Chet's hands flexing. "I go to Utica College. Isn't that where we are?"
"What's your major?"
"Double major – Criminal Justice and Computer Science." A sudden irrational anger flooded through him. "Why's everyone asking about Joe? And what is Chet doing here?" he roared, the noise of his voice echoing in his head. The headache came back in full force, and Frank felt like there were jackhammers running behind his eyes. Alarms started beeping around his head, the noise agitating him even more.
"Frank, you need to calm down." Dr. Finley's brown eyes were guarded. A nurse entered the room, and the doctor nodded at her. She moved to Frank's side, her hands doing something he couldn't see.
Exhaustion suddenly flooded through him, making him go limp, the pain in his head subsiding. The nurse moved away, pocketing a now-empty syringe, a grim expression on her face. Frank moved his eyes back to the doctor, realizing there had been another question. "What?"
"What semester is it, Frank? And what year are you?" The doctor's features were starting to blur.
"Fall," he whispered. "Fall semester. Senior year." He let out a short breath, closed his eyes, and fell back asleep.
Saturday morning 10am
The next time he awoke, the girl from the woods was sitting beside him in Chet's chair. "How are you feeling?" Her voice was dry. She was trying to sound professionally detached, but Frank could hear the slight note of panic under the words, could see the worry lines etched on her forehead.
"Kara?" Hope flared in her eyes, then faded as she realized Frank was verifying her identity, that there was no look of recognition in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, embarrassed. "I'm a little confused right now. How do we know each other?" The way she carried herself practically screamed law enforcement. From Chet's earlier reaction, he had the impression they were close, and a small voice in the back of his head insisted he had trusted her with his life more than once. He found himself praying they weren't involved. Even if he couldn't remember her, the thought of causing her that kind of pain hurt him.
"We've worked together on and off for the last number of years." She swallowed and set her jaw before continuing. "My office calls you in to consult on occasion. You've gone undercover for us a number of times. Your skill set is... rather specialized. It comes in handy when we need someone who won't be recognized as being one of us."
Frank looked out the window for a long moment. "Who's 'us'?"
"The FBI. Primarily you've worked with my team. My partner, Travis, was with me when I traced you. There are other... connections, as well." Her voice shook on the last part. "You really don't remember?"
He shook his head as much as the collar around his neck would allow. "Were we working together on a case?"
Kara's lips pressed together. "Sort of. I recommended you and Joe to Dr. Park. You've been working undercover here for a couple of months."
"Joe's involved?" Did she flinch when he said his brother's name? It could have been a trick of the light. "And where's here?"
"Right now you're in Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was the closest trauma center. You've been working as teachers at Pocumtuck Academy." Her eyes were guarded, careful. "This isn't ringing any bells at all?"
He let out a breath. "I'm sorry. My brain feels like Swiss cheese. I'm not even positive if I'm awake right now. Nothing feels real."
The door swung open, and Chet walked back in carrying a tray of food. "Good, he's up," he said. "You okay, boss?"
"Boss?" Frank eyed Chet suspiciously.
Kara turned to Chet, shaking her head as he put the tray on the table by Frank's bed. "He still doesn't remember anything." Her voice was flat, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety. A beeping noise filled the air, and Kara pulled a small phone from her pocket. "It's the district office," she said. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Frank watched her leave, letting the door close behind her before turning back to Chet. "There's something she's not telling me," he said. "What is it? And what do you mean, 'boss'?" The anger was starting again, making him want to throw something.
Chet picked up a cookie from the tray. "I work for you and Joe. Have for the last couple of years. I'm the office manager at your agency." He unwrapped the cookie, then put it back down. "And Kara's not just an FBI contact." He looked Frank straight in the eye. "She's Joe's girlfriend."
Frank's eyebrows rose, the anger dissipating as surprised shock took over his system. "Really? His taste in women must have changed in... How long are we talking?" His tone was light, but there was no answering smile from his friend, just a furrowed brow. Chet was hiding something as well. Frank stared at him, trying to force his brain to make the simple connections it normally could without any effort, and gasped as the meaning behind some of the things he'd heard suddenly came clear. "He's missing. Joe's missing." Frank felt a sudden dizziness and knew it had nothing to do with his concussion. "That's why everyone keeps asking me about him."
"With the kid you were hired to protect," Chet added. "The teenaged granddaughter of a former North Korean nuclear physicist. And at least one other kid from the school." He paused and stared down at the cookie. "Kara managed to get them to hold off issuing an Amber alert until you regained consciousness to see what you could tell us."
"And instead I think it's... How much of my memory have I lost?"
Chet thought for a moment. "You said senior year of college, right?"
Frank nodded, his expression wary. "The last thing I remember is taking my computer programming mid-term."
"About five years."
The air whooshed out of Frank's lungs, sending the room spinning. He closed his eyes, trying to regain his equilibrium. Five years? How could I lose five years?
"Are you all right?" Chet's voice was full of concern. "Frank?"
Frank swallowed, then opened his eyes. "I'm okay. Just... overwhelmed." His right hand tore at the bedsheets in frustration. He needed something else to concentrate on, something to calm the whirling thoughts in his mind. "Chet, you said something about a mountain."
His friend nodded. "Goat Peak. It's part of Mount Tom. You were at the bottom of it. You were hooked up with some kind of a GPS tracking device, and when it stopped broadcasting, Kara and Travis went looking for you." He swallowed. "At first they thought you'd had an accident, that you'd gone off on your own and slipped and fell."
"Those bruises Dr. Finley mentioned?" Chet looked uncomfortable. "There's a clear one on your chest. It's shaped like a boot." He paused. "You were pushed, Frank. Someone tried to kill you."
Frank leaned back on the pillows, stifling a moan as he jostled his shoulder. "And they've got Joe."
Chet unwrapped the cookie and broke off a small piece. "We don't know. It's possible."
"Do we have any idea how long he's been gone?"
"Headmaster Whitman said you left Thursday morning. The hike's an annual field trip. The last time anyone saw you, Joe, or the kids was around ten in the morning." He looked at the cookie in his hand, then put it down and pushed it away. "They didn't figure out you hadn't come back until dinner, when they had four empty seats."
The door pushed open, and Kara walked back into the room, shoving her phone back in her pocket. "They're giving us twenty-four hours." She shook her head. "It better be enough."
"Kara." Frank looked at her. "Tell me about the case. Start from the beginning. Maybe it will jog my memory."
She regarded him carefully, her lips pressed together, calculating how much information he could absorb. Finally, she sighed and sat back down in the chair by his bed. "I can tell you what I know about how you got involved and what Joe reported to me once you were at Pocumtuck. I hope it's enough." She sighed. "It started last August..."