Sunday morning 7:30am
The knock at the door pulled Frank's attention from the paper he was writing for his Winter Session English class. "Mr. Hardy?"
The voice startled him. As everyone else had gone home for the January break, for the last week or so, he'd been the only person in his hall and had become accustomed to a certain amount of silence. The first thing that got his attention him was the gender of the voice's owner – it was definitely female; the second thing was the address. Mister, he thought, who would be calling me Mister? He turned to the door. "That's me. How can I help you?"
The girl's appearance took him back a step. Despite the snow on the ground, she wasn't wearing either a coat or boots. Her short stature – she looked to be nearly a foot shorter than he was – made her look younger than she probably was, but she carried herself with assurance and a bit of bravado. She's got some authority, he thought, but she hasn't had it very long. And she gets challenged a lot. If Frank had to guess, he would have said she was about his age, maybe a year older. Her long, brown hair back was pulled back into a severe bun, and she wore a nondescript dark suit, the jacket hiding a holstered gun. In one hand she held the handles to a laptop case, in the other a badge that she had just pulled from her pocket.
"Kara Malone, FBI." She flashed the badge at him, then shoved it back in her pocket. "I need to ask you some questions about Roger Gardner."
Frank's eyebrows rose. "I haven't heard from him in months. Is he all right?"
She looked pointedly at the open door. "May I come in?"
"Of course." He held the door as she entered the room then closed it behind her. "Please, sit," he said, indicating the desk chair. Her perched on the edge of his bed, so she wouldn't have to look up at him. "Is Roger all right?"
"Mr. Hardy, when was the last time you saw your roommate?"
"Last semester." Frank told her the date. "We had an argument – one of several, actually, and when I came back from my programming mid-term his half of the room had been cleared out."
"And you haven't heard from him since then?" She leaned forward.
"No." He let some of the annoyance he was feeling slip out into the word. "Agent Malone, perhaps if you could tell me where you're going with your inquiry, I could better assist you. Has something happened to Roger?"
She gave him a level gaze as if sizing him up and deciding how much to say. Finally, she let out a breath. "About three weeks ago, Peter and Emily Gardner received a letter from someone threatening to kidnap their son."
Frank gasped. "What?"
"The letter demanded ten thousand dollars as a down payment to keep him safe. The implication was that the request would be repeated at regular intervals." She paused. "They were able to raise two thousand and contacted us when the kidnappers refused the lesser amount."
"They're still in Africa, then."
"What do you mean?" The agent 's eyes narrowed, her tone wary.
"They were negotiating with the kidnappers," Frank explained. "That generally doesn't work in this country, does it?"
The girl shifted in her seat. "We traced the letters to a location in New Mexico, but when we got there, this," she handed Frank the carrying case, "was all we found."
He unzipped the bag and reached inside, growing still as his fingers recognized what it was. He pulled the machine free of the bag, turning it over in his hands. "Roger's laptop," he breathed.
Her eyes narrowed. "Are you sure?"
"I was with him when he bought it." He pointed to some scratches on the battery panel. "That's his student number. Were there any prints on it?"
"They told me you were an amateur detective," she said, emphasizing the word 'amateur.'. Frank bristled slightly. "Mr. Gardner's were the only prints we found." A look of annoyance darkened her eyes. "Our tech guys have been all over it, but his parents seemed to think you might be able to find something they missed." Her tone let Frank know she thought having him look at it would be a waste of time but that she had been overruled.
"Well, let's see." He booted up the machine and clicked on various keys, shaking his head when nothing happened, and finally giving up and restarting the machine. This time, instead of loading the operating system, he the F8 key repeatedly until a menu appeared on the screen, then used the arrow keys to select 'Safe Mode with Command Prompt'. There was silence for a few minutes as Frank typed and scanned the onscreen output. He hit a few keys, raising his eyebrows as the word 'Password?' became visible.
"He password protected it." Frank frowned. "Give me a few minutes."
The agent looked at her watch. "We had some of the best techs in the country working on this, and they didn't find anything."
"I've been Roger's roommate and friend for the last several years. I know him better than your techs would." He managed to keep his voice level as he said the words.
She arched an eyebrow at him but didn't respond.
His fingers moved on the keyboard. Nothing. Another try. Again nothing. The minutes ticked by, with each new attempt failing. Finally, Frank stopped. He let out a frustrated breath, then closed his eyes, trying to picture the room as it had looked when Roger lived there.
Roger had never had many possessions. Growing up at dig sites, he tended to travel light, keeping everything he owned in one trunk. His prized possession had been a small, first edition botanical encyclopedia, about which Frank had teased him mercilessly given his friend's inability to keep any plant alive longer than one week. He concentrated, trying to remember the book's title and author, then slowly struck the appropriate keys. The cursor blinked at him. A sudden thought occurring to him, he hit the up arrow, then clicked the backspace key, retyping the word, but replacing its vowels with numbers – a zero for the letter 'O', three for the letter 'E', and one for the letter 'I'.
A menu appeared on the laptop's monitor. "Yes." The word hissed out from between his teeth.
A look of curiosity covered the girl's face. She stayed in her chair for another few seconds, then sighed, vacating the desk chair and moving next to him. When she saw the screen, her mouth dropped open. "How did you do that?"
"I told you. I know Roger."
"And if you hadn't known him could you still have done it?” she asked, a note of challenge in her voice.
"Yes. Even without the password, I would have gotten here eventually. It just would have taken longer."
"So, you're that good?" This time the tone was disbelief.
"Yes. I am." Frank's voice was matter-of-fact.
"Sorry." A flush became discernible on the agent's cheeks.
"Apology accepted," he said, turning back to the computer. "Now give me a minute." His fingers flew across the keyboard, the silence of the room growing more oppressive as the seconds ticked past. After a few more keystrokes, he closed his eyes and shook his head.
"The data's been erased." He clenched his teeth together.
"I don't understand," she said. "You got in."
Frank nodded. "With the password. That's what's so frustrating." He turned to look her in the eyes. "And that fact means just one thing." His eyes grew troubled. "Roger was the one who did it."
He could feel the oxygen mask back on his face, and he lay still for a moment enjoying the feeling of pure oxygen in his lungs before allowing his eyes to flutter back open.
"Frank, are you all right?" Dr. Finley stood over him, concern written all over his face. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Peter and Emily," he whispered. "Roger's parents." He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to shut out his emotions, to focus on facts alone, took a deep breath, then opened them to look at the doctor. "How long was I out this time?"
"Not long. Fifteen, twenty minutes." The doctor watched as Frank started to pull the oxygen mask from his face. "Let me help you with that." He held the mask between his hands. "This was mostly a precaution. Why?"
"More puzzle pieces fell into place." He rubbed his eyes, then looked around. "Where's Chet?"
"With the boy's parents. They're pretty shaken up. Do you want to talk to them?"
Frank shook his head. "Not yet. I need to talk to Chet first."
The doctor nodded, then walked out the door. Within seconds, Chet had returned, his expression showing exactly how worried he was. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Frank brushed the question aside, concentrating on keeping his emotions in check. "I need a map of the area. And a list of all the staff members at the school."
"I can get that," his friend said. "What are you thinking?"
The door opened, and both men turned to see Dr. Finley re-enter the room.
"There hasn't been a ransom note," Frank said, aware that the doctor was watching him intently. "If someone had them, there would have been some sort of contact already. Kara said her aunt was worried about the North Koreans using her daughter's life as something to trade for her father's notes.
Chet's eyes widened. "So if there's no note..."
"It's possible Joe got away, that he's hiding them somewhere." A wrinkle appeared on Frank's forehead as he concentrated. "I need to visualize the area. If I could remember..." He shook his head, some of his focus slipping.
"What do you need to know?" The doctor's voice sharpened his attention. "I live here. I can help."
Frank handed him the notebook. "Can you draw me a map?"
"It won't be a good one," Finley warned. "My artistic skills aren't up to yours."
"Generalities are fine." He watched as the doctor drew some lines on the paper.
"This is Route Ninety-One," he said, the pencil making scratching noises. "Springfield is here." He drew a circle. "Northampton is here. Goat Peak – where they found you – is about here. Deerfield is up over here."
Frank pointed to the blank space on the right side of the page. "What's over here?"
"Amherst." He wrote the word on the page.
"Didn't Phil apply to Amherst College?" Chet asked, looking at the map.
"Yeah. He and his folks went out there to look at it." Frank leaned back against the pillows. “I remember being surprised that he wasn't looking at UMASS instead; the computer department wasn't..." His voice trailed off, dark spots flickering before his eyes again. He closed them and concentrated on breathing. Not now, he thought. Not. Now.
"Frank? Frank!" Chet's voice was close to his ear. Frank opened his eyes and peered at his friend. His features were blurry.
Dr. Finley was reaching for the oxygen mask. "Frank, keep your eyes focused on me."
Frank turned his head to the doctor, waving off the mask. "I'm fine."
"Like hell you are," Chet said. "You just turned whiter than those sheets."
"The university," Frank murmured. "Twenty thousand people in the space of a mile."
"What?" Chet and Finley's faces wore identical expressions of confusion.
"That's our haystack. That's where he's hiding." He stared at them, willing them to understand, watching as Chet's eyes widened as the meaning of the words sank in. "I need that list of staff members, Chet. Now." He forced himself to focus as Chet called Pocumtuck's headmaster and asked the man for the information that was needed. "Phone numbers," he said, "I need phone numbers."
Chet nodded. "Thank you, sir," he said into the phone. "The sooner, the better." He ended the call, his eyes shifting to Frank's. "He's emailing the list to me now." His lips quirked into a half smile as Frank opened his mouth to speak. "With phone numbers." The phone in his hands rang with a bell-like sound. "Here we go." He opened the email and handed the phone to Frank who scrolled slowly through the list.
"That one doesn't have a subject listed next to it." Frank pointed to a name at the bottom of the document. "Sarah McIntyre. What does she teach?"
"She doesn't." All three men jumped at the voice, having been so intent on their task, they hadn't noticed anyone entering. Kara stood in the doorway, dirt smudging her clothes, dark circles under her eyes, her hair ruffled around her face. "She's a student intern. Why?"
Chet bustled over to her. "You look like you're about to collapse. Sit."
"I'm fine." The words were clipped, her tone brusque.
"Great." Chet squared his shoulders. "Be fine in the chair so I don't have to catch you when you fall over."
Kara's grim expression lightened for a moment. She inclined her head. "Yes, sir," she said in a soft voice. A grimace covered her face as she lowered herself into the chair. "More to the point, she's Joe's student intern. Why?"
Frank picked up the phone from the table beside the bed, dialed the number on the screen, then dropped the receiver down with a snarl. "It won't let me call an out-of-state number."
Finley pulled a cell phone from his pocket and held it out. Frank nodded his thanks and redialed the number. After a seeming eternity, a girl's voice came from the phone.
"You've reached Sarah's phone. You know what to do." Then a long electronic beep.
"Sarah, this is Frank..." he paused, not knowing what name he had been using. "From the school. I need to talk to Joe. If he's with you, can you have him call me back at this number?" The doctor wrote the number on the map, and Frank recited it into the phone. "Sarah, this is really important. If you know where Joe is, please have him call me as soon as possible." He disconnected the call, feeling his jaw tighten in frustration, and held the device out to the doctor. From the corner of his eye he saw Kara jump to her feet, her eyes growing wide.
"Hold on to it," Finley said. "Keep trying. She's a college student, and it's early. She might be asleep."
"Frank, what's going on?" Kara demanded.
"He thinks he knows where Joe might be," Chet said, one hand on her shoulder, gently pushing her back into the chair.
"It's only a theory," Frank said. "I don't know for sure. I don't know anything for sure right now."
A knock at the door interrupted Kara's words, and Peter Gardner's head appeared. "May we come back in?"
Dr. Finley looked at Frank. "Are you up for it?"
"Sure." No. "Give me a minute." He looked at Chet then at the door, hoping his friend would understand the message in his eyes.
Chet nodded and turned to Kara. "Have you eaten anything since yesterday?" When she didn't answer, he sighed. "Come on. Let's let them have a few minutes. I'll feed you."
She glared at him for a moment. "I don't have time."
"Coffee, then. Come on." He pulled her from the room.
When the room was empty, Dr. Finley turned to Frank again. "Are you sure about this?"
Frank shook his head. "No, but it's their son out there."
The doctor nodded. "Do you want me to leave as well?"
There was a short pause, then Frank let out a breath. "Given my reaction to their first appearance, it's probably better if you stay."
"Okay. I'll let them know it needs to be short."
A minute or so later, the Gardners re-entered the room followed by Finley. Emily crossed to the bed, giving Frank a quick, fierce hug. "Frank. We had no idea..."
Peter Gardner laid a hand on his wife's arm. "Let the boy breathe, dear."
Emily jumped back as if she were on fire. "I'm sorry," she said, blinking back tears. "It's just..." She leaned into her husband's embrace for a moment, then turned back to the bed. "Are you all right?"
Frank grimaced and looked down at the blankets covering his legs. "I'll recover." He lifted his gaze back to the distraught parents. "They told you. About my memory?" Both Gardners nodded. "I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you something. Anything."
"Do you remember anything about Beniam?" Peter's voice cracked on the name.
"Benj," Emily corrected. "He prefers to be called Benj." She took her husband's hand, squeezing it hard. "I just can't believe this is happening again."
"Again?" Frank's voice rang through the room. "What do you mean again?"
"Benj was kidnapped about four years ago." Emily continued holding her husband's hand as she spoke, her eyes moving to his clenched jaw. "He was rescued by one of the site workers, but it.. it changed him."
"He stopped talking." This time Frank's voice was a whisper.
Emily sniffed and nodded. "He hasn't said a word since his return."
Frank closed his eyes for a moment, sifting through the memories he had. Words broke into his ruminations. "I think that might be enough for now." Dr. Finley was speaking to Peter and Emily. "He's been having a tough time of it."
"No. Wait." He looked up, his eyes meeting Emily's. "The letter you got. When you sent Kara... the FBI agent to see me with Roger's laptop. Which son was being threatened?"
This time Peter answered. "Beniam. Why?"
Sunday morning 8:45am
"You want to what?" Kara's voice rose an octave as she spoke. "No way. It's too dangerous. You're hurt!"
"I have to agree with Agent Malone, Frank" the doctor said. "In your condition, this isn't something I can recommend."
Frank sighed and looked at Chet, who shook his head. "You've already made up your mind about this haven't you, boss?" He sighed, knowing the answer. "Explain it to us one more time. I'm not saying you're going to get cooperation, but..." He shrugged his shoulders and leaned against the wall. Frank could see how exhausted he was – they all were – and felt a twinge of guilt.
"It's the only thing that makes sense," he said. "Look, Kara, your time is up on searching. The police are going to issue the Amber Alert anyway. We can use it to lure the kidnappers here." His hand curled around Finley's phone. He had called Sarah's number several more times without getting an answer, and was feeling the need to do something.
"No," Kara said, her hands gripping the side of the bed so hard her knuckles were turning white. "There are too many unknowns, too many things that could go wrong, too many..."
"If they think I have information, they'll come here," Frank said, cutting across her words. "If they're at the hospital looking for me, then they're not out there," he pointed out the window, his voice getting louder, "looking for Joe and the kids." He watched as she swallowed convulsively, her jaw trembling. "It's a bona fide kidnapping case, Kara. Station agents at the nurses' desk. Hell, you can stick one in the bathroom here for all I care. All I'll need to do is lie here and pretend to be unconscious. As soon as someone comes in the room that you don't recognize, you grab him." He forced himself to a sitting position, trying hard not to grimace or groan as his injured ribs and shoulders protested the movement. "If you've got a better idea, I'd love to hear it."
They stared at one another for a long minute, Frank counting each breath as it creaked against his ribs.
"Fine." The word was so soft he wasn't sure she had actually spoken. "You win. But if you get yourself hurt worse because your overinflated ego can't stand not to be in the middle of this, I'll kill you."
Frank snorted, laughing suddenly, then wincing at the pain in his chest. "Deal." He wrapped an arm around his ribs. "Ow. Don't make me laugh. It hurts."
Chet rolled his eyes, a chuckle escaping his lips. "You're not filling us with confidence, here, Frank." He took a deep breath. "Okay, so how do we do this?"
"Kara contacts the state police with information for the Amber Alert and then follows up with a story to the local news stations about me." Frank eased himself back down to the bed. "Dr. Finley, can you make sure we've got the right equipment in here? We'll need it to look right."
The doctor's face was grim. "I need to remind you that you really are injured, Frank. A fractured skull isn't anything to mess around with. If anything goes wrong, the memory loss could be compounded. Or become permanent."
Frank swallowed. "I understand, but it's a risk I have to take. Whether it's the North Koreans or someone with a grudge against the Gardners, we have to catch them so those kids can be safe."
Kara stood. "I'll go call the barracks. We'll saturate the airwaves with the information. With any luck we can have it on radio, television, and the web within minutes." She turned to Dr. Finley. "Can you get whatever machinery in here you need to make it look like he's being monitored, ASAP? The sooner it's all set up, the better off we'll be." At the door, she turned back to face them. "Frank. Be careful."
A moment later, Dr. Finley followed her from the room. "Hold onto the phone," he said. "Keep trying the girl. See if you can get ahold of your brother. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Are you sure about this?" Chet stood by the bed, straightening up the pile of drawings on the table. He flipped through them one after the other, finally stopping at the picture of Anna as Mary Magdalene.
Frank took the picture, held it for a moment, then handed it back to Chet, placing it face down on the stack. "Yes. It's the only way I can think of to keep them safe."
"And what if Joe sees the story? He'll completely freak out." Chet's fingers crumpled the edges of the drawings.
"I know." Frank's eyes moved to the window. "And knowing Joe, he'll try to get here to find me." He turned his gaze back to Chet. "Which will put the kids in Kara's path. Either way, they're safe, which, from what I've been told, is what we were hired to do. Keep them safe."
"You are either the bravest or the stupidest man I've ever met, Frank Hardy." Chet shook his head. "And it's a privilege to call you my friend." He let out a breath. "Now lie still. If you've got to pretend to be unconscious, you may as well start now."
At nine, Chet turned on the television. "Kara said to put on Channel Twenty-Two." The screen instantly lit up the room, showing a news studio. They watched a minute or two of the local forecast before one of the newscasters interrupted the meteorologist. "This just in," she read from a paper in her hand, "an Amber Alert has been issued for two students missing from Pocumtuck Academy."
Frank peered at the pictures shown on the screen – the tall, athletic Asian girl and the smaller, dark-skinned boy – and tried to remember anything he could about them, shaking his head in anger when he wasn't able to. Don't try to force it, he thought. It will come back. It has to. He wrenched his attention back to the television.
"They were last seen with one of the teachers from the school, a man by the name of Joe Miller. Mr. Miller is six-two with blond hair and blue eyes. If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of these children, contact the State Police at the number shown on your screen."
The young woman paused, turning her head as the camera changed its angle. "And in a related story, police are investigating the apparent beating of another teacher at the school. Frank Tennison was found at the bottom of Goat Peak with life-threatening injuries." Frank nodded; Kara had come up with something plausible and not totally inaccurate. "He is currently being kept in a medically-induced coma at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. Police are hoping that doctors can bring him out of the coma sometime soon so they can question the teacher about the disappearance of the two students. Anyone who may have been hiking on Goat Peak on Thursday and may have seen anything are being asked to contact police. Now, onto other news."
"Well?" Chet clicked off the TV. They both turned as the door opened and watched as Dr. Finley and a nurse entered the room with a wheeled cart holding a computerized monitoring station.
"That should do it." Frank hit the redial button on the phone and handed it to Chet. "Here, this time you try. Looks like I'm going to be busy for a few minutes. Maybe you'll have better luck."
Chet held the device to his ear, then shook his head. "It rang once and went right to voice mail. She must've turned it off."
Frank let out a long breath, twitching as sensors were again taped to his chest. "She probably got tired of getting phone calls from a number she doesn't recognize." He looked at Chet. "You should probably head out."
"What do you want me to do?" Chet tried to hand him back the phone, but Frank nodded at the doctor.
"Why don't you go sit with Peter and Emily? They could probably use someone to take care of them." He smiled at his friend. "I may not remember everything, but I know that's something you're good at."
"Are you sure?" Frank could tell Chet didn't like the idea of leaving him alone.
"I'm just going to sit here and wait." He gave his friend what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "Don't worry. It's all going to be fine."