Deliverance

Seven


Friday morning 6am


It took nearly five minutes of quiet knocking before Sarah came to the door. She stood in an oversized football jersey yawning, her short, blonde hair sticking up at odd angles. "What the hell?" she said, rubbing her eyes. "Do you have any idea..." Her voice faded away as she saw who was at her door. "Sunny? Benj? How did you get here?" Her pale blue eyes met Joe's darker ones. "Mr. Miller? What's going on?"

Joe let go of Benj's shoulder and stepped forward, wincing at the pressure on his ankle. With a turn of his head, he scanned the hallway, making sure Sarah's voice wasn't attracting attention. "Can we come in?" he asked, intentionally keeping his voice low. "We need to get out of sight."

Sarah's eyes narrowed, but she stepped back, holding the door open with one hand. "Out of sight...? You're limping," she said to him, her voice wary. "What happened?"

"In a minute." Joe looked around the odd z-shaped room. "You have a roommate?"

"She's not here." She reached behind the door frame, picked up a baseball bat, then forced herself between Joe and the kids, her expression hard. "I need an explanation here, Mr. Miller. You have about thirty seconds, then I go for the other ankle."

Benj darted around her and stepped in front of Joe, his hands flying. "Whoa, buddy. It's okay." He gently pushed Benj closer to Sunny, who wrapped her arms around the boy's chest. Once both kids were away from him, he held his hands up in front of him to show they were empty, swaying slightly with the motion. "I had to get them somewhere I can hide them," he said, trying to keep his voice calm and level. "Somewhere no one would think to look for them." Exhaustion stole over him, the adrenaline rush he'd been working under since yesterday afternoon starting to fade, and the lack of sleep last night catching up to him. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, realizing the words he used weren't ones that would make Sarah drop her weapon. "Need to... keep them safe."

Sarah's eyes narrowed. "Safe from what?"

"Not what," Joe said. "Who. And I don't know. I know this sounds insane, but you have to trust me. I'm not going to hurt them." He shook his head. The small amount of light in the room seemed to be fading. "I'm protecting them."

"That's not enough of an explanation, Mr. Miller, and your time is running down." The bat shifted until it was just over Sarah's shoulders.

Joe took a deep breath, his brain frantically, but unsuccessfully, trying to put convincing words in his mouth. He shook his head again. "Need... a minute."

"S.. Sarah." Sunny touched the older girl's shoulder. "L.. let him talk."

As Sarah turned towards Sunny, Benj reached out and grabbed the bat with both hands. He yanked it out of the older girl's grasp, sending it arching towards Joe's stomach. Joe stepped back to avoid it, landed hard on his injured ankle, and staggered. A hiss escaped from between his teeth, and he squeezed his eyes shut, the pain making him bend nearly in half.

Sounds of a struggle rang in the room. Joe forced his eyes open and saw Sarah holding Sunny back with one hand while trying unsuccessfully to wrench the bat away from Benj with the other. Breathing hard, he concentrated on making his voice heard over the tumult, part of him concerned that someone on the floor would come to investigate, part of him impressed at Benj's strength. "Stop it! Someone's going to get hurt. Just put it down!"

All three froze. "J.. Joe?" The tone in Sunny's voice forced his eyes toward her face. Her expression was filled with concern. "You d.. don't look so g.. good. You n.. need to sit. Now."

"I'm fine. Benj, give Sarah back the bat," he said, his voice stronger again for a moment. As he tried to straighten, he saw Benj shake his head, the boy's hands forming words Joe suddenly couldn't understand. "Just until... she believes me." He tried to move closer to them, his hand held out, but the surroundings grew blurry and he felt his knees start to buckle. He thought he heard Sunny call his name again. Then the room disappeared.


"He's dehydrated. He needs to drink something."

The voice, female and authoritative, reminded Joe of Kara's. Wonder what she's doing right now? With his eyes closed, it was easy to imagine she was with him.

"H.. How?" A second female voice. This one sounded worried. He knew he should open his eyes, to reassure the girl, but it was too much effort. It was easier to drift back down.

"Here. Try this." A straw was placed between his lips. "Mr. Miller, can you hear me?" Something pungent was pushed under Joe's nose, and he gagged, displacing the straw.

"I'm okay," he said, his voice shaking. "Just... keep that away." He forced his eyes open and saw Sunny and Benj staring at him with frightened eyes, Sunny holding a sports drink near his head. He took the container from her with a trembling hand and managed to get the straw in his mouth, drinking as deeply as he could. He stopped to breathe for a moment, then drank some more, shivering all the while. "What was that stench?" he asked as soon as he could trust his voice.

Sarah stood nearby, the bat now held loosely in her hand. "Perfume." Joe shuddered at the memory of the scent. "My grandmother sent it to me. I wear it when I don't want my date to get too close."

"That'd work." He pushed himself up, trying to figure out what he was leaning against. A cinderblock wall. Somehow the three of them had managed to get him on one of the beds in the room. He took another drink, then turned to Sunny and Benj. "You two okay?"

Sunny snorted. "We're f.. fine. You're the one who p.. passed out." She shook her head, her expression torn between anger and relief. "Y.. you gave us all the s.. supplies last night. You d.. didn't keep anything f.. for yourself."

"I said I'd keep you safe." Joe took a breath. "That was part of keeping you safe. I'm stronger than you are."

"Y.. you c.. can't keep us s.. safe if you're unconscious! Or d.. dead!" Sunny was furious, but Joe knew she was using the anger to mask her fear.

"I know my limits," Joe said, forcing himself to a sitting position. "I got you here, didn't I?" Sunny raised an eyebrow at him, and looked pointedly at him on the bed, then the drink container. "Okay, I miscalculated a little. It won't happen again."

Sarah thrust the drink back in his face. "Mr. Miller, you can't push yourself like that. It's dangerous with your heart condition. You could die. Where's your medicine? We searched your pockets but couldn't find any."

Joe swallowed. It was time for more truth telling. "I don't have a heart condition."

/Yes, you do!/ Benj's indignation was clear on his face.

Joe let out a long breath, his blue eyes seeking out Benj's darker ones. "Joe Miller has a heart condition. I don't." Joe rubbed his face with his free hand. It shook as he pulled it away.

Benj shook his head, taking refuge in stubbornness. /We were there in the dining hall when you had your attack. We saw you!/

"It was an act. I'm perfectly healthy." A momentary wave of dizziness forced him to lean back against the wall again. "Okay, maybe not so much at the moment." He turned to Benj and Sunny, the shock and betrayal covering their faces striking at his conscience. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice shaking slightly as he spoke the words. "We didn't want to lie to you, but it was necessary. We had to blend in."

"Wait, what do mean Joe Miller? You're Joe Miller." Sarah's voice was hard.

"No, I'm not." He glanced quickly at Benj and Sunny. "My last name is Hardy. Frank – Mr. Tennison – is my brother. We're private detectives." He lifted his head from the wall. "I don't have a heart condition, and he's not deaf."

"Where's your proof?" Sarah's grip on the bat tightened.

"I don't have any. You'll have to trust me."

Sarah picked up the bat again, moving in front of Sunny. "You don't have... Give me one good reason why I shouldn't hit you with this and call campus security." Tears in his eyes, Benj reached out and grabbed her arm. He shook his head, his dark eyes pleading with her to drop the weapon. "For all I know, you've kidnapped them, and..."

"And brought them here so you could identify me to the police? After my confession, I can see where you wouldn't think much of me, but do you really believe I'm that stupid?" Joe put the empty drink container down. "Benj, let go of her arm." The boy swiveled his head to Joe, a questioning look on his face. "It's okay. She's trying to protect you. That's why I brought you here. She cares about you, too." Benj loosened his hands and ducked around Sarah, sitting down next to Joe on the bed. Joe took a deep breath. "Sarah, I need your help."

"And I need more than the word of a liar."

Joe nodded. "I can appreciate that. You got a computer?"

Sarah snorted. "I'm not turning my back on you to get it."

"Smart move," Joe said. "I faked having a heart condition. For all you know I could have faked passing out. How about if Sunny gets it?"

Sarah's eyes narrowed for a moment, then she jerked her head at a desk by the other bed. "It should still be on. I was writing a paper last night."

Once Sunny had retrieved it and opened a browser, he said, "Go to Hardy Investigations – one word – dot com." He waited, eyes on Sarah, as the page loaded.

"What is this?" Skepticism dripped from her voice.

"Our website." He held out his hands for the laptop and scrolled through the pages.

"How is this going to prove anything?" Sarah's eyes grew icy. "There aren't any pictures of you."

Joe gritted his teeth. "Stakeouts become a bit more difficult if everyone can see what we look like." He muttered a few curses under his breath. "Look, at some point, you're going to have to take my word that I'm telling the truth. I haven't hurt them. I didn't take them somewhere isolated. I brought them to a college campus..."

"I kn.. know that place." Sunny was pointing at one of the names on the client list, her voice so soft, Joe almost didn't hear her. "There w.. was an art exhibit l.. last summer. My c.. cousin b.. brought me there. She said her b.. boyfriend had d.. done the s.. security." She turned to Joe, her almond-shaped eyes growing wide. "Y.. you." She stared at him for a moment, her expression just like Frank's when a missing piece of information suddenly made things clear. "Y.. you're that Joe? Uncle L.. Liam c.. can't stand you."

With great care, Joe managed not to roll his eyes. Like I needed the confirmation, he thought. "You know that thing he does, where he leaves you on the porch for ten minutes with his back to you while he hugs Kara? Has he done that to every guy she's dated?"

Sunny nodded. "N.. not all of them. J.. just the ones he d.. doesn't like."

"What about the drainpipe thing?"

"He p.. pushed you under the d.. drainpipe?" Sunny's eyes grew wide. "The l.. last guy he d.. did that to was her p.. prom date. He h.. hated J.. Johnny."

He turned to face Sarah again, his eyebrows raised. "Is that enough proof for you?"


"Let me get this straight. Your girlfriend – Sunny's cousin – is an FBI agent." Joe and Sunny both nodded. "Then, why can't you just call her and tell her where you are?" They sat on the floor, drinking orange juice and eating bagels Sarah had taken from a small refrigerator by her bed. She had given the kids sweatshirts to replace their wet shirts and jackets and Joe a large beach towel, apologizing all the while because she had nothing to fit him.

He swallowed a mouthful of juice before responding, still feeling a bit dizzy and unfocused. "There was a leak," he said. "Someone knew we were going to be on Goat Peak. Either someone at the school passed along the information, or one of Kara's phones is being tapped. Until I can figure out where the leak came from, we need to stay hidden."

Benj put down his bagel and wiped his hands on his shirt. /How long?/

"I don't know, buddy. Frank is probably out looking for us right now." Joe worked at making his voice sound more confident than he felt. "I'm sure Sarah doesn't want us as roommates for too long. This room isn't that big."

"How w.. will he kn.. know where to l.. look?" Sunny leaned against one of the beds. Since realizing Joe's connection to Kara, she had steadfastly refused to look at him, blushing each time her eyes accidentally met his.

"Frank knows how I think. He'll find us." He let out a breath, his voice getting softer. "He always finds me."

A huge yawn split Benj's face, his arms stretching out to his sides like a windmill. Within seconds, Sunny yawned, too. Joe blinked, trying not to follow suit, and failed miserably. Sarah stared at them all, her eyes calculating. "Look, I have to get to class. The three of you should sack out here for a while. Even with over five thousand people living in Southwest, you'll stick out like sore thumbs. Once it gets dark, we can reconsider."

"What about your roommate?" Joe asked around another yawn. "You said she was gone, but when's she due back?"

"Not for a week or so. Her mother had to have surgery, and she went home to help take care of her." She stood and brushed bagel crumbs from her pants. "You'll be safe here." When she got to the door, she stopped and turned back to them. "I'm sorry for the way I reacted. I didn't know..."

Joe waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "Don't worry about it. I would've done exactly the same thing. And Sarah? Thank you."

She shouldered her backpack and nodded her head, the door closing behind her as she left. Within minutes, Benj was tucked into one of the beds and asleep, zonking out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Sunny lay down on the other bed, her eyes distant. "I r.. remember now." She focused on Joe, who was now leaning against Benj's bed, his foot propped up on a pile of books. "You w.. were at the f.. funeral. K.. Kara looked l.. like she wanted t.. to hit you."

Joe nodded. "We didn't get along too well back then. Things changed."

"There w.. was some s.. skinny guy, too." Her face looked troubled. "I thought it w.. was s.. someone Lynnie knew f.. from the h.. hospital." She swallowed. "Was it...?"

"Frank? Yeah. He'd been... ill, but he wanted to be there for Kara." Joe shifted on the floor, trying to find a more comfortable spot for his leg. "I sort of bullied him into taking me with him. I was worried about him."

"Y.. you're worried now, too." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah." He let out a long breath.

Sunny turned her eyes toward him for a long moment, searching his face, then rolled over on her side. A few seconds later, Joe could hear a faint snoring coming from her bed. He wrapped his arms around his chest, tucking the towel behind his back, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.


Sunday morning 6am


"You're awake? That's not good. You need more sleep so those injuries can heal." A sigh. "Well, since you are up, how are you doing this morning?" Frank swiveled his head to the side and saw Dr. Finley standing in the doorway, dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. A dark green windbreaker was draped over his arm, and he held a tablet computer in his hands. His fingers dragged across its surface as he checked what Frank assumed were notes about his idiotic actions of the previous evening.

Frank raised his eyebrows, hoping to deflect a lecture. "Is this the hospital's equivalent of casual Fridays? And isn't it a bit early for you to be here?"

Finley shook his head, smiling ruefully. "My partner's attending some college function today. I told him I had a patient I needed to check up on." He entered the room, leaving the door open, and hung his jacket on the doorknob. "Thank you for the excuse, by the way," he said. "I hate those things. I never know what to do with my hands."

Frank nodded and went back to his drawing, the pencil in his hand moving lightly over the paper on the portable desk. Finley approached, picking up sheets that had been covered with sketches, torn from the book, and dropped on the bed. He flipped through them several times, eventually stopping at one particular drawing. "I've seen this one before." Lines formed on the man's brow as he considered the picture. He stared for nearly a minute, then shook his head. "It's not coming to me. Can you give me a hint?"

"The Sunday Times Magazine." The words were flat, spoken to the bedside lamp as Frank picked up and examined the drawing he was working on. "They printed a similar photo."

Recognition flooded the doctor's face. "Yes, it's from that Stillwater play, isn't it? That one from last fall? I saw that. It was amazing." His gaze moved sharply to Frank's face. "You said your girlfriend's name is Anna." The paper rustled like falling leaves as he shook it. "This is her. She's that actress..." His voice trailed off. Frank was shaking his head. "You're remembering things. That's good."

"That's all I remember." The words came from between clenched teeth. "That image of her. Chet had to..." His hand stilled. He had woken up from a nightmare at four in the morning, the image of the girl exploding in his brain and needing to be released. The frantic sound of pencil on paper had woken Chet. "He had to explain..." He stopped, his lips pressed together. Chet had spent the last couple of hours telling Frank how he and Anna had met, and now Frank was trying to mesh the briefly remembered image of the shy girl with the braids with this picture of the glamorous actress.

"Where is Mr. Morton?"

Frank could feel the doctor's eyes on him, but he refused to meet his gaze. He was getting tired of everyone's sympathy, the understanding look in their eyes when he couldn't remember something. He knew Finley had asked about Chet as a way to change the subject.

"There was a phone call. He left a few minutes ago. Said he'd be back as soon as he could." Frank frowned. The call had obviously disturbed Chet, but he had left before Frank could ask who it was and what they had wanted. Part of him thought Chet might still be angry about yesterday's outburst – And rightly so, he thought – and might have used the phone call as an excuse to leave for a while.

There was a momentary silence then the sound of paper being shuffled. Frank kept his eyes steadfastly fixed on his drawing until his attention was drawn by Finley placing one of the other papers on the surface in front of him. This one showed one half of a room, the bed unmade and covered with clothes and scraps of paper. The doctor cleared his throat. "You had another dream, didn't you?"

"Roger's gone." Frank huffed out a breath of air. "I came home from my programming mid-term and the room looked like that." He gestured to the paper in the doctor's hand. "I've been trying to remember what occurred after that day. No luck."

"What about the rest of them?" Finley spread the pictures out on the desk.

In addition to the ones of Anna and the dorm room, there were three other complete drawings. One resembled the picture Frank had drawn the night before – a bearded man in an attack posture – this time with the face blurred out. The one Chet had seen had been consigned to the nurses' station recycling bin; it was hard enough keeping his past and present memories separated, and the picture hadn't had simply confused matters more. The second drawing was of a wooded area, trees and rocks prominent in the foreground, a path barely visible in the background. The last image was of a group of children, sitting and relaxing in living room, all focused on something outside of the frame. The features of many of the kids were indistinct, except for two in the back – a younger boy and an older girl – who were drawn in astonishing detail, right down to the girl's jewelery and the boy's mischievous smile.

Frank leaned back against the pillow, his features drawn. "I don't know. I've been trying to remember, but I just don't know." He let out a long breath. "I'm getting really tired of saying that."

"The memories are there, Frank." The doctor picked up the papers and neatly stacked them on the table next to the bed. "These prove that." He took the notebook and pencil from from the portable table and added them to the stack before reaching out and putting a hand on Frank's shoulder. "We'll help you recover them. Right now, though, you need breakfast. I'll get you some food, and then we can talk." He smiled suddenly, a smile that lit the still somewhat darkened room. "In the interest of my not lying to my partner, of course."

They ate in silence, which Frank appreciated. Not only was he tired of talking about his situation, every part of his body hurt. Even something as simple as eating was difficult, as it forced sore muscles to move in ways they protested against. The bruises on his arms and chest were turning spectacular shades of blue and purple, and he could only imagine his face looked about the same. The injuries alternately ached and sent shooting pains through his shoulders, leg, and ribs, but the biggest ache was the one in his mind, the gaping five-year hole in his memory that was wrecking havoc with his emotions and thought processes. Awake, it gnawed at him; asleep, it seemed determined to drag him through each and every missing second in perfect chronological order. He wondered if it was going to take five more years of simply sleeping to get all his memories back. He shuddered at the thought, then gasped as the motion aggravated his shoulder and ribs.

"You're trying too hard." The doctor's voice held a sharp note. "The harder you fight for those memories, the longer it's going to take for them to surface." Frank's jaw tightened at the words. He hated being so easily read. "Look, I know you don't remember me, but I know you, Frank. You're worried about your brother, and you're lying in bed trying to force those memories out so you can find that last puzzle piece that makes this all make sense." Finley rose from his chair and placed his hands on the bed's railing, his knuckles turning white where he grasped it. "What you're actually doing is slowing down your recovery." He blew out a breath. "I know it's not how you operate, but you're going to have to let go." One hand lifted from the railing and pointed to the pile of drawings. "Look at what's hidden in your subconscious. Give it a chance to come out on its own."

"I can't." Frank swallowed. "How do I know my memory will come back?" He shook his head. "There's too much riding on this. My brother's been missing for how many days now? Joe's life could be..." He stopped and tried to control his breathing, his emotions, the tears that were threatening to fall from his eyes. "I can't."

There was a knock. Chet stood in the doorway. "Sorry. That was Kara on the phone before. She asked me to meet her at the police station in town." He let out a breath. "They haven't found anything, and her time's just about up. They'll be issuing the Amber alert in about an hour." He swallowed and looked at Frank, concern in his eyes. "The parents of the boy arrived at the school yesterday. They want to talk to you before the story hits the airwaves. See if you can tell them anything. Headmaster Whitman tried to tell them about your amnesia, but they don't care. You're the last link to their son right now, and they want to see you. While I was at the station he called to warn Kara they're on their way down from the school."

Frank felt like he'd been shoved against a wall. Joe wasn't the only one missing. There had been two kids with him. How could he have forgotten that? He looked from Chet to Dr. Finley. "What do I do?" The uncertainty in his voice made him wince. "I can't tell them anything. I don't know anything." Panic made the words louder than he had intended.

"Take a deep breath, Frank." The doctor's voice was soothing. "You don't have to see them. It's your choice. If you want I can meet with them, explain the extent of your injuries, tell them it would be inadvisable."

He turned to Chet and caught a small spark of disappointment in his friend's face. It washed over him like ice water, calming his emotions and clearing some of the cobwebs from his brain. Still looking at Chet, he put his hands up to stop Finley's words. "No. I'll meet with them. I have to. They deserve that. If nothing else, I can tell them that as long as their son is with Joe, he'll be taken care of. That Joe will protect him." With his life if he needs to. He lay back on the pillow, feeling calmer than he had since he had first woken up in the hospital.

Chet shot him a tentative smile. "I'll go wait for them at the nurses' station."


It was another hour before the boy's parents arrived. Dr. Finley straightened up the drawings, got rid of the breakfast dishes, and helped Frank to and from the bathroom so he could wash up a bit, clucking over the number and state of Frank's bruises. He checked Frank's vitals and monitored his heart-rate and blood pressure several times, shaking his head after each check. After the third round of this, he chuckled and shook his head in disbelief. "You must have ice in your veins, Frank. Most people, when faced with an unfamiliar situation, are nervous. Their blood pressure rises. Their heart beats faster. You get calmer." A look of reluctant admiration showed in his eyes. "You would have made one hell of a surgeon," he said. "I can see why you're as good at your job as Agent Malone says you are."

Frank nodded, not really listening, his eyes glued on the door. At the doctor's request, Chet had closed it upon leaving to give Frank the option of changing his mind right up to the last second, even though he had known it wasn't necessary.

Finally, there was a knock. The doctor looked at Frank for confirmation, then crossed the room and opened the door. He stood in the doorway for a moment, blocking Frank's view of the visitors, introduced himself, and explained Frank's condition. "I just don't want you to expect too much. He's been badly injured himself, and..."

"If he can tell us anything. Anything at all..." A man's voice rang out in the hall. Frank tilted his head. It sounded... familiar.

"We just need to talk to him." A woman's voice spoke, calmer, more measured, and also familiar.

Frank closed his eyes, his brow furrowed in concentration, trying to place the voices. He'd heard them before. He knew them. From where? He opened his eyes as the door opened and felt the blood drain from his face.

"Frank?!" Complete shock emanated from the couple standing in the center of the room. The man, tall and tanned, with short cropped salt-and-pepper hair, looked completely stunned.

The woman, also tan, but of medium height with light brown hair wound around the crown of her head, gasped. "Frank Hardy? But Headmaster said.."

Frank felt the room starting to spin. It was as if the world was falling into darkness one piece at a time. As his breathing sped up, the dark spots started clouding his vision. He struggled to slow down his heart rate, to clear away the darkness as he stared at each of visitors. "Peter? Emily? What are you...?"

Chet's voice broke into his whirling thoughts. "Frank, you know these people?" His voice sounded as though it was farther than the doorway and was shot through with worry. "Frank?"

He tried to focus on Chet, but his eyes kept turning towards the visitors. He could feel Dr. Finley's hand on his wrist, hear him pushing the call button for the nurses, but all he could see were the shocked faces of the people standing in his room. "Roger's parents. Not sure why..." The darkness chipped away at their faces until all he could see were their eyes. Then the room went black, and everything disappeared.
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