End of October, Tuesday
Joe sat at the table, his left leg bouncing convulsively under the tablecloth, trying to will Headmaster Whitman to shut up. The man had decided just at the end of dinner that now would be the perfect time to share the plans for the upcoming weekend's fall festival with the students. Stop talking, Joe thought, groaning internally. Stop talking now. Please. He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes. He had a long overdue phone date scheduled with Kara. It had taken weeks to set up, and he would be damned if anything was going to keep from it. His foot bounced into the table leg, pushing the table several inches to the right with a loud scraping noise. From across the table there was a loud throat-clearing sound, and when Joe looked up, he saw Frank's eyebrows raised over the frames of his glasses. He felt himself flush and surreptitiously slid the table back into place. Several of the kids noticed the exchange and giggled into their hands, picking up on the tension between their house parents.
"We'll be dividing into several groups," the headmaster was saying. After a cursory glance, Joe found himself tuning the man out again, his mind drifting to what he and Kara would say to each other. Lost in his thoughts, his fingers started beating a staccato rhythm on the table. A sharp poke in his midsection brought him back to the present. He looked down to see Benj grinning at him.
/If I have to pay attention, you do, too./ The boy's hands moved in small gestures, hidden from view by the tablecloth.
"Thanks, buddy." Joe rubbed the boy's head, then clasped his hands together, moved them to his lap, and wrenched his attention back to Whitman, studiously avoiding the glare he could feel coming from Frank's end of the table.
"... and the rest of you will be hiking on the trails around Goat Peak. We'll meet here Thursday morning at seven" – this elicited groans from some of the older students – "for breakfast, and be on our way." The headmaster glanced at the clock on the far end of the room, then smiled broadly. "Now, I understand most of you have exams to study for." More groans came from around the room. "So, I won't keep any longer." Joe let out a relieved breath. Whitman waved his hands at the students. "I'm not going to wish you good luck as I know you're all going to study hard enough not to need it. Now, everyone, back to your pods."
Chairs backed away from tables, and the sounds of feet and wheelchairs were heard leaving the room. Within seconds, the only people left in the room were Frank, Joe, and a few of the kitchen workers.
Head bowed down and hands slowly gathering silverware, Frank whispered, "Go. I'll take care of this." He lifted his head slightly, and Joe could see a small smile playing on his brother's lips. "Tell Kara I said 'hi.'"
"Am I that obvious?"
Frank's only answer was a raised eyebrow.
"Never mind. Thanks, 'bro." Joe flashed him a quick grin then slipped out the back door, grateful that his brother understood how much he needed this.
It was a dark, quiet night. It's always quiet here, Joe thought, his eyes automatically searching out the slowly brightening stars. The downside of the quiet was the feeling of isolation, Joe occasionally felt, but the upside was the view. Fewer people meant fewer electric lights, and in the gathering darkness, Joe could see more stars than he had since being out on Barmet Bay when he was a kid. He walked through the fields to the wooded area by the river, wishing he could show it to Kara. In the daylight, the view was spectacular, a perfect New England autumn with splashes of red and gold breaking up the green of the pine trees. Now, in the evening, all it needed was a blanket, a picnic basket, and a bottle of wine to make it the perfect romantic rendezvous. In his head, he pictured how it would look in the spring, the warm, wildflower scented air, the fireflies lighting up the field, Kara relaxing in his arms...
The phone buzzed in his hand. Without looking at the number, he flipped it open and held it to his ear, a smile on his face.
"I miss you." Kara's voice sounded small and far away. "How are you holding up?"
"Better now that I can hear your voice." Joe could feel tension in his shoulders start to dissipate, tension he wasn't aware he had been carrying around. The stress of spending so much time away from Kara was something he hadn't been completely prepared for, and its strength surprised him. They talked about unimportant things for a few minutes, just enjoying each other's company, then Joe asked "Have you heard anything?"
Kara sighed, and Joe found himself wishing he could put his arms around her, feel her breath on his chest. "Word from the State Department is that there's going to be some kind of announcement in the next few weeks."
Joe ground his teeth together. "Weeks? I thought it was..." he growled. He took a deep breath before speaking again. "Sorry. Don't shoot the messenger and all that. It's just..."
"I know. We were hoping just a few more days." He could hear her pacing. Was she in their apartment, or at her office? He couldn't tell. "My contacts are telling me the tests aren't going well. They North Korean government is pushing their scientists hard, hoping for a positive result, but so far they've got nothing, and they don't want to admit failure."
"Great." Joe kicked a rock into a tree root, the thud as it hit sounding like a gunshot.
"Just stick close to Sunny," Kara said.
"She'll love that." He chuckled. "Although if I give Frank that job..."
Kara laughed into the receiver. "It'll be over soon. Then you'll be home."
Home. Just the thought of it brought goosebumps to Joe's arms. "I love you, you know that?"
"Yes. It's nice to hear you say it, though." He could hear her smiling. A beeping noise came from somewhere in the receiver. "Damn. Sometimes I hate this job." Joe's lips pressed together; she was at the office. If he had been home, she wouldn't still be in the office this late. Well, maybe, but at least she'd have a reason to leave closer to on time. "It's the upper-ups. I have to go."
"Just tell them you need a few nights off once I'm home, okay?"
Kara laughed. "Are you kidding? When that happens, I'm taking a week's vacation. You are, too, by the way." The beeping noise sounded again, and Joe heard Kara groan. "I heard you the first time," she told it. He heard her breathe in to the phone. "We'll talk soon. Tell Frank I said hi." A pause. "I love you." The connection broke.
Joe held the phone in his hand for a few moments before putting it back in his pocket. "I love you, too," he said, his voice soft. He kicked at another rock, feeling a stinging in his eyes. These short conversations kept him sane but were too much of a reminder of how much he missed Kara's presence. He let out a shaky breath and realized he was going to have to get control of himself before he went back to the residence hall. Yet another reason to be impressed by Frank, he thought. I'll never match his poker face.
The night air was cool, and he walked for a while allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimming light and enjoying the night air. He was just aiming his foot at another rock, when he heard a noise. It was a man's voice, his words unintelligible, a cross between words and a growl.
A response came almost immediately. "Just go away, Illiya."
Joe froze. While he didn't recognize the first first voice, the second belonged to Ekaterina, her tone and cadence perfectly normal – bored and unimpressed. He moved closer, crouching behind a tree.
The first voice – Illiya's – responded angrily in what Joe supposed was Russian. There was the sound of a slap, a grunt, and the noise of a body hitting the ground. A quick glance around the tree showed Ekaterina standing over a prone body, her body outlined in the moonlight.
"I told you. I don't care about your damn deadline," she was saying, "and if you come near me again, I'll put you right back down where you are now."
There was a snort and the sound of dirt being brushed from clothing. "I'm perfectly aware of what you can do, Katya, but your inaction..."
"Enough." Ekaterina's voice was harsh and cold. "You made your point, Illiya. Leave now."
"Don't call me that!"
Joe heard a few more words in Russian, then the sound of footsteps. He was just on the point of sneaking away when he heard something that sounded suspiciously like sobs. Indecision rolled through him, his innate desire to help a damsel in distress – albeit, one who had apparently managed to throw a full-grown man to the ground – warring with the voice in the back of his head – a voice that sounded a lot like Frank's – telling him not to get involved, to walk away before he did anything to endanger his cover. He ground his teeth together, the need to help winning out. Screw it. Here goes.
He stepped out from behind the tree. "Ekaterina? Are you all right?" She stood as still as a statue, not acknowledging his presence. "Look, I'll leave you alone if you want, but..." The words stopped as she stiffened, then collapsed at his feet.
Joe looked at his watch as he left Kathy's office. Eleven pm. The kids should all be in bed by now. It's past curfew. Time for another clandestine meeting with his brother. He walked back to the residence hall, yawning as he did, and entered their rooms. When he got to Frank's door, he knocked softly. "Hey, 'bro, you up?" The door opened, and Joe's eyes went wide.
Frank was still dressed, his shirt tucked in and a tie around his neck. The steaming mug in his right hand looked like it was permanently attached to his arm. The scent of coffee filled the room.
"Don't you ever sleep?" Joe demanded. "I'm exhausted, and you look like you're about to head off to work."
"Where've you been?" Frank opened the door and gestured for Joe to come in. "You couldn't have been on the phone for that long. Your battery would have run down hours ago."
"You won't even begin to believe it." Joe sat down on Frank's bed and recounted the events of the evening. "Kathy wants to keep her in the infirmary overnight. She was wiped out. I just got back."
"Ekaterina's epileptic?" Frank asked. He put down the mug and took off his glasses, rubbing the lenses gently on a corner of his shirt. "So, I was right."
"Wait, you knew?" The words came out more harshly than Joe had intended. He put up a hand, then squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "Sorry. I'm still a little freaked. I've never seen anyone have a seizure before."
Frank put the glasses back on, his eyes showing sympathy. "One of the guys in the chess club has it. His tend to be on the low-key end – he sort of fades out for a minute or two. It's unnerving the first few times." He patted Joe on the shoulder. "And, no, I didn't know. I surmised."
"Really, Sherlock? Do tell." Joe was pretty sure Frank would ignore the sarcasm underlying the words and share his observations anyway.
His brother didn't disappoint, merely raising an eyebrow. "Well, everyone else here has been been pretty forthcoming about what their disabilities are. With some of them, it's obvious." Frank pointed to the hearing aid behind his ear. "It's kind of hard to hide one of these. Or a wheelchair or a cane. But even the kids with more hidden conditions come right out and tell you what they've got. So do the teachers." Frank shrugged and let out a breath. "Ekaterina never talks about her disability, not that she spends a lot of time talking to anyone here. I figured it meant she's embarrassed about it."
Joe put a hand to his forehead. Trying to follow Frank's logic was giving him a headache. "You lost me. Care to explain?"
"Historically, having epilepsy was considered shameful. It meant there was something wrong with your blood. Families did everything they could to hide it. If you were a woman, it meant you might never get married in case you passed it down to your children." Frank reached out for the mug and took a sip of the contents. "Of course, she could have been faking the seizure." He looked his brother in the eyes. "You did."
"And I still have nightmares about having to do it again." Joe started rubbing circles on his temples. "No. I'm not buying that. She didn't know I was there. Whatever that Illiya guy said upset her enough to trigger a seizure."
"Something about a deadline, you said?" Frank took another drink. "Any idea what kind of deadline?"
"No clue. I didn't hear much, and most of what I did was in Russian. Which, if you remember, I don't speak. And unless you can come up with a good reason to ask Ekaterina about the encounter..."
"She stays on the list of people we have to watch out for." Frank wrapped both hands around the mug. "This list isn't getting shorter."
"No, it's not, and get this." He repeated what Kara had told him on the phone. When he was finished, he shook his head. "So it looks like we're going to be here longer than we thought." He rubbed his eyes. "I don't know about you, but I'm not really happy about this."
Frank made a non-committal sound in his throat and lifted the mug to his mouth again.
Joe watched him and grimaced. "Are you actually drinking coffee at this time of night?"
"Morning," Frank corrected, nodding at the clock. It was just past midnight. "And yes. Why?" He looked puzzled. "I like coffee. It helps me think."
"You know what helps me think? Sleep. Sleep helps me think." Joe yawned, watching through narrowed eyes are Frank drained the cup. "You know, some day they're going to find out that you have coffee running through your veins instead of blood."
Frank tilted his head to one side, examining his younger brother. "So, aside from the cheery news about the North Koreans, the conversation with Kara went well?"
Joe grinned. "Yeah. Have you talked to Anna lately?"
"Thursday night. They're reshooting some of scenes she's not in, so she gets some time to herself." A look of satisfaction crossed Frank's face. "Without Eric." His expression abruptly changed to one of business. "Speaking of Thursday. We've got the hike that day. I talked to Headmaster about taking some time off tomorrow afternoon ostensibly to go purchase some printer cartridges, but I want to head over to Goat Peak and do some reconnaissance. I'll feel more comfortable being out in the open with Sunny if I know the lay of the land."
"Sounds good. Want company?" Joe yawned again.
Frank shook his head. "No. I need you to get caught up on your beauty sleep. I'd prefer to have you alert and awake on Thursday. Just in case."
"Sure, sure. Just in case." Joe turned to the door. "Then I guess I'd better get on that right now. See you tomorrow."
"Later today, you mean," Frank corrected.
"Much later." Joe closed the door behind him, yawned again, and headed to his room. It had been a long day.
End of October, Thursday
"Joe, hold up a minute." Frank kept his voice low, counting on the distance between the him and the kids to keep his words from them.
"What's up?" Joe turned to face his brother, automatically dropping his voice as well.
"I think we're being followed."
Joe's eyes darted around the clearing, before finally coming to rest on Benj and Sunny. "Are you sure?"
"No. It's just a hunch." His lips curled up into a small smile. "You're not the only one who gets those, you know." Stepping back, he craned his neck up, judging the height of the nearby trees.
"What are you doing?"
"I like verification of my hunches." Frank put an arm out toward what appeared to be a solid-looking branch of an oak tree, making sure it was out of sight from where Sunny and Benj sat eating some of their snacks. "Give me a boost."
Joe threaded his hands together, grunting as Frank pushed off and grabbed hold of the branch. "Geez, 'bro, you've put on some weight. Spend less time in the library and more time exercising." He stood, shifting his weight from side to side, watching his brother pull himself up the tree. "So?"
"I need to get up a little higher. I'll let you know as soon as I see something." He climbed steadily for a few seconds, regretting the fact they were on their own and wishing the morning had gone differently.
From the moment they had gotten off the white and maroon Deerfield Academy bus, Benj had been determined to take the most difficult path up the mountain, his hands animatedly trying to convince Sunny to join him. After a few minutes of teasing refusal, she had sprinted up the trail, leaving the boy in her wake for a few surprised seconds before he grinned and chased after her. After a quick glance at the other teachers, Frank followed, cursing under his breath, finally catching up to them several hundred feet up the trail. Joe appeared a few minutes later, having spent some time conferring with the other group leaders, noticeably irritated about having to continue pretending to have a heart condition. Once Joe had gotten the safety in numbers lecture out of the way, the four of them continued at a moderate pace up the mountain, Benj apologizing for having run off, and Sunny studiously ignoring both Joe and Frank in her embarrassment. They had finally stopped a few minutes ago to catch their breath and have a snack.
A movement from down below caught Frank's eye. Two men dressed in typical hiking clothes, but somehow looking uncomfortably out of place were heading steadily up the trail, looking around them. The shorter of the two was Caucasian, with black, curly hair; the other man was of African descent, and from the looks of it was at least as tall as Joe but less muscular. They walked side by side, speaking to each other, hands gesticulating as they talked but too far away for Frank to hear their words. Suddenly they stopped. The shorter man held his hand to his left ear and turned to peer down a trail. He was wearing a bluetooth phone headset in his ear. When the conversation was done, the other man turned to face him, and Frank could see he had a matching device on as well. They stopped on the trail for a moment, the first man obviously filling his partner in on what he had learned. The dark-skinned man shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say he didn't agree but knew there was nothing he could do. Curly-haired guy nodded, indicating with a motion of his head that they needed to continue up the mountain. They picked up their pace, starting to jog, making no effort to hide their activity.
Damn, Frank thought. There are times I hate being right. But something about the men tugged at his mind. If the North Korean government is after Sunny, shouldn't they be Asian? He watched as the men continued up the trail, making no effort to hide or conceal themselves in any way. And they don't appear to be professionals. Seeing how close they were, he pushed the thought aside and maneuvered his way down the branches, nodding as he caught his brother's eyes. "Two that I can see," he said, his voice grim as he described them. "They're being directed by someone, but I can't tell if he's on the mountain or off-site. At the rate they're moving we've got about ten minutes until they get here."
"What do we do?" Joe scratched his chin, his blue eyes showing concern.
Frank pulled the map from his coat pocket, pointing at a hand-drawn circle. "There's a cave a mile or so over that way. Take the kids and go. I've marked the trail."
Joe stared at him. "You marked the trail? How safe could that be? Anyone could follow it."
A hint of amusement glinted behind the worry in Frank's eyes. "No, you'll be able to follow it. No one else will know what it is. You'll see what I mean." He let out a breath. "I'll lead whoever they are toward the summit, then double back to get you once I've lost them."
"Two problems with that plan," Joe said, running a hand through his hair. "One: I'm not leaving you alone. Two: Even if I were dumb enough to do that, Sunny won't go with me. She can't stand me."
"She'll go with you if Benj does." Frank stood, barely breathing, silently willing his brother to see this was their only option.
Joe's eyes flickered down to his watch then back to his brother. "I don't have a good feeling about this."
"Once we're off the mountain, we can head back to the school. I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to try to grab her in front of so many witnesses." Frank forced a smile onto his face, feigning a confidence he didn't entirely feel. "It'll be fine. Time's running out."
"What if...?" Frank could see his brother trying to come up with reasons not to leave, his shoulders slumping when he finally accepted he couldn't.
"Just keep them safe. I'll be back as soon as I can." Frank sat on a rock and untied the laces from one of his boots. "I, uh, think I've, um, got a rock in boot," he said, raising his voice and switching back to Tennison's stammer.
He watched Joe swallow and nodded encouragingly at his brother. Joe rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said, also raising his voice, the irritation he felt evident in his tone. "We're not waiting for you. Catch up when you can. C'mon Benj, let's go." He turned his gaze back to Frank. "Be careful," he whispered.
"That's my line, little brother." Frank flashed a brief smile. "Enjoy the cave. I'll see you in a bit."
Frank spent the next hour shuffling up the mountain, carrying on a half-shouted, one-sided conversation with the hikers supposedly several hundred feet in front of him. He made sure to stay far enough ahead of the two men that it would be difficult for them to see up the trail in front of him but close enough so they could hear his words.
"Come on, guys," he shouted. "I'm getting tired. Can't we just stop and rest?" He waited for what felt like an appropriate amount of time before responding to the non-existent answer. "No, I don't want to wait until we get to the summit. And watch your language, I'm still your teacher." He slowed down enough to approximate someone with flagging energy, and stopped frequently to take pretend swigs from his water bottle.
As he approached the summit, he could hear the footsteps getting closer. He sprinted up the last several hundred yards, hid behind a large rock formation, and waited. Within seconds, he heard the sound of heavy breathing interspersed with curses. Now that they were closer, Frank could hear they were speaking French. That doesn't make any sense, he thought.
"Où sont-ils?" Frank didn't dare look to see which man was speaking. He held his breath, hoping they would assume the group had continued down the other side of the trail and leave.
"Je ne sais pas. Je ne vois pas de traces." The second voice came from farther away. It sounded as though it was coming from the direction in which the trail continued.
"Pas de traces?" The first voice grew fainter as the speaker walked toward his partner. "Que faisons-nous maintenant?"
Frank slowly edged around the rock. The two men were standing about twenty yards away from him carrying on a conversation in full view of both ends of the trail. He swore internally, his fingers tightening on the rough surface of the stone. Come on. Just leave already. But luck wasn't on his side.
The curly-haired man started walking back toward his hiding place, his eyes scanning the ground. He stopped, leaned against the other side of the rock, and said, "Nous devons dire au patron."
The taller man grunted in agreement, and Frank heard the sound of buttons being pressed, then a flurry of words. He strained to hear what the man was saying, but only a few of the words he heard were ones that had been covered in his high school French class. What he could make out was the man's tone – frustration dripped from every word. Finally, the phone clicked shut, and the man said "Il a dit de continuer á chercher. Il n'est pas content."
There was bitter laughter and the sound of receding footsteps. Frank stayed where he was, ignoring the cramps starting to develop in his legs, and quietly pulled out his map of the mountain. Regardless of which trail the bad guys were using to head down the mountain, he was going to need to find a different route to reach Joe and the kids. The sound of pebbles being scattered drew his attention away from the map. Someone else had reached the summit. He shoved the map in his pocket. If it was one of the other school groups, he needed to warn them, but he had to do it as Frank Tennison. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to calm himself, then heard a sound that made his blood run cold – the sound of a magazine being loaded in a gun.
"I know you're there," a soft voice said.
"Come out with your hand"I know you're there," a soft voice said.
"Come out with your hands up."
Frank took a deep breath, shouldered his pack, and slowly raised himself up from the ground, hands at shoulder height, fingers splayed. He let the breath out, turned around, and gasped.