The six men milled around the staff room, all bearing the signs of the excessive stress they were under. Buck cradled his sore hand, sure that it was in fact broken, but too distracted to get medical attention. Nathan knew better than to approach his associate about it. Buck would either deal with it because the pain made it impossible ignore any longer or what was more likely, he would get it looked at after their teammates were located and brought safely home.
"All we know so far is that this was a premeditated act. There isn't and never was a Judy Tyle on any Denver PD committee, in fact we can't find a Tyle anywhere in the Denver area, so it is a fair guess to say she never existed. There was no cop of the year contest or reservations made at Willmere Lodge for such. All calls are traced when they come into the building, but you were having problems with your phone lines at the time of the call and we could not trace where she called from. We think now that the lines had been tampered with," Judge Travis said bringing all the men up to date.
"Okay...this is the last of the cases that Orrin and I were both involved in together. Since none of you came running and shouting victoriously into my office, I can only surmise the first twenty some names we gave you came up blank," Chris asked as he ran his hands through his hair in tired frustration.
"We are still looking into a few of the names who's locations are unknown, but the rest came up negative. Some are in jail still...some are dead, and lots were minor misdemeanor offenses with all of them having fail-safe alibi's. Most couldn't even place either of you when we approached them with your names," Josiah answered.
"I've been down in the lab most of the day, the techs have dissected the disc front and back and every which way possible and still can't draw any useful conclusions," Nathan added.
Chris nodded, "I made another disc, when I get done here I want us all to sit down and watch it again. There has to be something we just aren't seeing."
"Buck and I canvassed the lake residents this morning. Several mentioned being woken up by a float plane at around 2:40am which they say is really unusual, but except for an older gentleman who was up getting a glass of water at the time no one actually saw it. The old guy said he watched it taxi up to the wharf then went back to bed, but it was not a plane he had ever seen on the lake before," Ezra said, reading over his notes to make sure he not missed any information.
"It never even hit me until after we got the e-mail this morning, but there was no identification on the plane at all, just a yellow Beaver floatplane, no identification numbers or letters on the side...nothing. I should have been suspicious then. If I had been paying attention I would never have let them two boys get on that damn plane!" Buck blurted out a string of oaths and resumed his nervous pacing.
"This is not your fault, Buck. None of us would have thought anything was amiss. This was a very well thought out scheme, and we now have to find somewhere that they slipped up." Travis gave Buck's arm a reassuring pat.
"Give us some of the files, Chris, maybe if we all go over them one of us will pick up something you missed," Nathan reached over and grabbed the top folder off the pile and started reading.
"Watts...,Thomas. Arresting officer was Chris, busted on a illegal weapons charge. You were the replacement judge on the case Orrin."
"I vaguely remember that case...kid had a rap sheet the length of my arm, mostly minor infractions and a rich daddy. His lawyer had a deal all ready for me to sign, but after some serious deliberation I sentenced him to some jail time in a medium security facility."
"His dad owns the Watts Corp, I think I read somewhere his estimated wealth is at a hundred million dollars. Why would anyone with those kinds of bucks worry about an underpaid, overworked cop and semi-retired judge?" Chris glanced briefly at the file then throw it onto the done pile.
"Where the hell is he!...He has to be in there. Check again!" Bill yelled at the man climbing through the logs.
"Check for yourself. I'm telling you, there isn't a body under here, dead or alive."
"Well he can't have gone far, spread out and find his tracks!" Swearing, Bill took a last look under the deadfalls and then started to scout for tracks. No way a twit of a city born, kid cop was making him out to be a fool. Fun and games were over...the young agent was as good as dead.
It was all JD could do to hang on to the tree. His fingertips were bleeding from the grip he had dug into the bark and his forearms quivered under the strain of holding up most of his weight. His runners kept slipping off the trunk as he fought for a foothold while trying to not give away his position twenty feet above the heads of the hunters. JD had his eyes clenched tightly shut, and his forehead ground against the tree as he tried to hold back his rasping breath.
After what felt like eternity, the men below finally moved off into the woods in different directions. JD painfully inched his way up the tree to the branch he had been initially aiming for, before the men hunting him had shown up and he had been stuck dangling part way, praying none of them would look up. Luckily all those years he had spent climbing every tree in the neighborhood and giving his poor mom fits had just paid off in dividends. He had been sure they were going to spot him when he crawled out from under the pile of deadfalls and started climbing up a big ponderosa pine. His heart had just about leapt out of his chest when the hunters had stopped right under his tree and opened fire on the logpile with their high powered rifles.
JD huddled on the branch resting until dusk moved over the landscape and hid him in it's shadow, then slowly climbed out of the tree. Carefully he listened for the return of any of the men as he stood at the bottom of the tree and tried to decide which direction to go in now.
He had needed the rest break, but all it had done was make him realize how sore and hungry he really was. And so alone...god, he hated being alone at the best of times. He just wanted to find Vin and go home to the rest of the team.
He jumped when he heard a bush rustle near him. Dropping to his hands and knees behind some underbrush he started to crawl away. The rustling turned into voices as Bill and one of the others retraced their steps back to the deadfalls.
JD wiggled into the brush and pulled the branches up tight around him. Holding his breath he watched the men pace back and forth, looking for signs of him. Bill stopped walking and stared at the brush; JD could swear he was looking straight at him. Just as he was about to bolt, a hand grabbed him from behind wrapping itself around his mouth and nose closing off his air.
Chris, Judge Travis, Josiah, and Nathan watched the disc for the sixth time, freezing frame after frame as they tried to see something the lab techs missed. The guys in the lab were as good as any in the country, but it wasn't their friends in trouble, no one in this office was about to give up and go home until Vin and JD were found safely and in one piece.
Buck and Ezra continued to check names off the list Chris had made for them of possible suspects. Buck couldn't watch the disc again, he just couldn't stand to see the face's of his young roommate or teammate bleeding and bruised. He just kept moving, running down one name after another, trying to concentrate on getting the job done and not on the last image he had seen of Vin and JD.
Chris froze the picture again and the men studied the screen. "Josiah...what's that blur in the background, can you magnify and clear it up."
The image of a man just caught off in a corner of the frame started to immerge as Josiah played with the computer software. Getting sharper and larger, features started to appear until suddenly a clear side view of a man was visible.
"Ike Sorenson!" Judge Travis gasped. "Bless modern technology."
"Who is he?"
"Ike Sorenson was a police officer with the Denver PD years ago. I met him in his rookie year, and butted heads with him for about six years before he was caught with his hand in a bag of drug money during a bust. I was still a practicing lawyer with the District Attorney's office and I made sure the case stuck. Everyone in the PD knew he was a dirty cop, this was just the first time we were able to catch him in the act. He received a ten year sentence in a maximum security facility. He lost his job, his family, and pension. I know he has been out for a long time now, but I have never heard a word from him or about him since." Travis said as he sat staring at the image of a man he had not even thought about in years.
"Well...let's go find the bastard!" Chris hissed at his men.
"Shhh..." JD thought he was going to have to kick start his heart when he heard the familiar voice whispered against his ear.
Quietly he let Vin lead him away under the cover of brush and darkness until they could not see or hear the other two men. Removing his hand from JD's face, Vin motioned at him to follow.
Keeping low they moved through the darkness; JD trying to imitate Vin's style as the sharpshooter seemed to float silently across the forest floor.
Coming to a small stream both men drank, then followed the water upstream a ways until they came to a low hanging branch. Grabbing it, Vin pulled himself up into the tree and then reached down and pulled JD up behind him. Like a pair of African monkeys, the two of them climbed high into the tree before Vin picked a sturdy branch wide enough for them both to rest on.
"You okay kid? Ya look like hell?" Vin whispered.
It was all JD could do not to burst out laughing as he took in Vin's own abused face, "Man...I've never been happier to see anyone in my whole life."
Vin reached over and messed up JD's hair with his hand, "Yeah me too, kid...me too!" That was about as much sentiment as either could handle.
The two men paused and looked out to the forest, searching for anyone following their trail, "We seem to have gotten ourselves into a bit of a situation here, you got any idea's how to get out of this one Vin?"
"Haven't come up with anything too brilliant yet. I spent the day trying to find you, and you can bet the guys tracking me know it, but we've combined the two hunting parties now so they won't be scattered all over the woods. You have any suggestions?"
"Me...not a one. I thought I was doing good just staying alive as long as I have."
"You did do good, JD...I had a heck of a time catching up with you," Vin wrapped his hand behind JD's neck and gave his young friend a gentle shake, "and I am way better at tracking than any of those guys after you today."
Vin reached into his pocket and placed what he had pulled out into JD's hand, "What is it?"
"A wild onion...I know you aren't big on veggies, but we have to eat to keep our strength up. You want first or last watch?"
"I'm still too pumped up to sleep...why don't you sleep first."
"Okay, wake me in a few hours," Vin said as he settled his shoulder against the tree trunk, and to the amazement of JD, was snoring almost instantaneously.
JD jolted awake feeling like his body was tilting off into outer-space. A strong hand clutched his sweatshirt to keep him from going over backwards off the tree.
"You were about to do your Superman imitation and try taking flight again JD!" Vin grinned at a wide eyed JD.
Startled, JD looked wildly around as he tried to get his bearings. Why was he sitting in a tree with Vin, and how come he felt like he had been run over with Buck's old Chevy truck?
"You awake now?" Vin asked before he took his hand away.
"Yeah," JD stretched up and looked out into the dark forest as memories of yesterday returned. Sometime in the night he had woken Vin up, and the two traded positions so JD could lean against the tree trunk and get some sleep. He didn't think he had fallen asleep until he lost his balance and almost fell off.
Vin watched as JD squirmed around to get more comfortable. He knew how the kid felt; on top of all the injuries he had sustained at Sorenson's hands yesterday, his butt hurt and his legs were numb from sitting on a six inch surface for the last five hours.
"Come on JD, we can't stay here, we have to keep moving. Follow me...try not to break branches or step anywhere that will leave footprints. Let's give them as little too track as we can," Vin stood up and reached over to test the strength of a branch on another close tree. Satisfied it would hold him, Vin stepped from one tree to the other and waited for JD to do the same.
The two men moved across several of the forest's thick pines this way, until the trees became to widely spread apart to step across. Reaching over, Vin grabbed a nettle-laden branch, and swung from one tree to another, then waited for JD to do the same.
JD looked at the distance between the two trees, then down to the ground below, "Yo, Tarzan! I look like a Jane to you?"
"You don't look like any Jane I would want to know. I had ya pegged more as that hairy, little monkey guy, what did they call him? Cheetah...yeah that's who you remind me of...Cheetah! Come on, swing across Monkey Boy, with any luck they won't find where we left the creek and we can get some distance between us and them. We'll travel overhead for as far as we can. Its hard to follow tracks when there ain't any."
JD grasped the branch tightly with both hands and bounced up and down on it to test its strength. Satisfied it could hold his weight, he leapt into thin air and swung towards the tree Vin was standing on. It sounded like a gun blast going off, as the dried out branch snapped off above his head, and he suddenly found himself falling rapidly from the tree. With a holler, JD grabbed another branch to slow his decent. Nettles and bark ripped through his hand, as he slid down its length, before getting enough of a grip to stop sliding. Then he slammed hard into the tree trunk with his whole body. Rough pine bark poked at his exposed skin as he dangled twenty-five feet above the ground.
Trying not to add to there noise, Vin cautiously whispered down, "JD...are you okay...JD?"
"*&%^*&%!" A long blast of blue language came shooting out of JD's mouth, as he wrapped his arms and legs around the tree and wriggled his way up to where Vin was sitting.
"Shhh, JD. Keep it down!" Vin whispered as he helped JD onto the branch.
"You keep it down...stupid damn trees!"
With his mouth twitching into what looked suspiciously like a grin, Vin nudged JD, "Come on, you see how easy that was."
JD glared at his friend, as he tried to rub the sticky tree-pitch from his palms, "Yeah right...I'm shorter than you, it's a longer fall for me."
"Oh yeah, like three inches shorter, but fine by me if that's the story you want to go with," Vin chucked at JD's disgruntled expression. Then after making sure all that was injured was the kid's pride, he continued to make his way across the trees, until they became to spread apart and they were forced to the forest floor.
Once on terra firma, he set a ground covering pace through the forest, pausing for a five minute break every hour. He had no idea where they were heading except it was south, but he figured if they kept walking eventually they would reach some form of civilization, maybe a logging road or better yet a ranger station.
They grabbed what they could find to eat on the move, rose hips and dried berries from bushes that had not yet been picked clean by animals. They pulled chunks of the inner bark off a ponderosa pine and gnawed on it as they walked, ignoring the bitter flavor and just absorbing the nutrients.
Bill let out a string of profanity under his breath as he brought up the rear of the pack. Sorenson could not believe Bill had lost track of the kid when they met up last night. Sorenson was furious that a professional hunter he trained had let a kindergarten cop outsmart him, and that the kid was still managing to avoid them. Stan had been happy to hear the news as he had limped behind Sorenson, he also had a grudge to settle with the younger agent.
Escape for the two ATF agents was not an option. Watts was paying them ten million dollars to kill two men even though the initial contract was not on these two; if they got away they would all be sent to jail for a very long time, including Watts. Sorenson had tried to talk the man out of coming on the hunt. They wanted him to finance the expedition, and then sit in his mansion and wait for conformation that the deed had been accomplished, but the man had been adamant that he had to be involved or there was no deal.
Except for Watts, they were all expert trackers who were, at this moment, incredibly frustrated as they combed the forest for any sign of either agent. It was as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth. Sorenson wasn't worried, he appreciated worthy opponents. He was impressed that the kid Dunne had managed to keep himself alive long enough for Tanner to find him and Sorenson had a very good idea which direction Tanner would take them in.
Sorenson knew these mountains and the surrounding wilderness like the back of his hand. He sent Bill and some of the other men to a timbered basin to his left, hoping they would be able to flush the agents back towards him. He didn't need footprints to read the woods; he already knew how someone like Tanner would think and react, and he just had to make sure he was in the right spot waiting for them.
Above them, the sun shone brightly in a brilliant blue sky, but down on the forest floor it was dark and damp from the thick foliage. Tremendous hatches of small blackgnats formed clouds around them, forcing them to travel with their mouths closed while trying not to breath them in through their noses. Thick, emerald green moss covered the ground, and recent rains made the footing as slippery as an ice rink, while at the same time soaking them to the skin.
"We gotta get out of this footing JD, we're wasting too much energy, we're not covering enough ground, and this is easy to track in. We stay in here and they're going to pick us off like flies."
"Okay...hey, you hear what I hear? That sound like running water to you?" JD stopped to listen, then recognizing it as a river started to jog towards it.
Suddenly a flock of birds set up a racket, and burst out of some trees from somewhere behind Vin and flew off.
"JD...stop! They're coming!" Vin hissed, but JD was already out of earshot, and Vin couldn't risk yelling louder.
Vin froze and listened hard for the direction the birds were squawking from. Something had definitely disturbed the animals. Cautiously he followed JD towards the river.
JD stood thirty feet above the river on a craggy cliff, and watched the white churning water cascade wildly through the narrow gorge. He jumped when Vin tugged on his sleeve, not having heard his friend approach over the sound of the thundering water.
"Get moving JD...someone's behind us!" Vin shoved JD, and they both started to run parallel to the river as fast as they could. Vin pushed out in front, moving with a rhythm and fluidity of motion that was brought on by years of hiking in the wilds.
JD stuck right to Vin's heels, not running with the same confident action, but easily keeping up because of his own natural athletic abilities. They kept the pace up for over a mile before Vin pulled up to listen and watch again. Neither hearing or sensing anything behind them, Vin set off on a slower stride to conserve their energy, so they could deploy their full strength when they needed it most.
Up ahead of them the river gorge narrowed and several logs lay scattered on the ground, bridging one side of the river to the other. Cautiously, Vin started to check them out as they moved past until he found one that appeared to be a recent blow over and was not yet rotten.
Motioning to JD to go ahead of him Vin sank low to the ground and acted as a lookout as JD wriggled his way across the wet, slippery log. From the other side, JD signaled for Vin to start across.
"Crap. Vin hurry up, I just saw something!" JD waved at his friend to pick up the pace. Vin was half way across when JD realized what he saw was a rifle being pointed at them. With Vin out in the open like a sitting duck, JD frantically picked up a fist size rock and heaved it as hard as he could at the shooter and then dropped to the ground as a bullet zipped by his head. He tossed another as he tried to distract the shooter, and then another, but this time a couple rifles responded.
JD yelped as his eyes was filled with grit from a bullet kicking up the dirt beside him and another bullet from behind him lodged itself in a tree a mere two inches from his head. Whirling around, he saw Sorenson and Watts standing a hundred yards up a slope on the same side of the river as him, both with rifles aimed at him. On the other side of the river he could see the shooter aiming at Vin again, but Vin had figured out the situation for himself. Yelling at JD, he rolled off the log just as the shooter squeezed the trigger and fell into the boiling currant below. JD felt the sting of a bullet nick his calf as he threw himself over the edge and into the swirling water right behind Vin.
Both men felt the air explode from their lungs as they hit the icy, churning water and were tossed over and over like helpless rag dolls. They fought to keep their heads above the turbulent river and away from the huge boulders that the water violently collided against. JD slid down a rock fall into a swirling whirlpool and then was dragged to the river bottom and scraped along the rough gravel. Breaking the surface, he gagged on the water he had swallowed, then before he could catch a breath he was pulled backwards into another pool and again disappeared, tumbling to the bottom.
Ahead of him, Vin was tossed viciously about slamming off one boulder right after another like a pinball machine. Struggling, he fought to stay afloat as his left arm flopped numbly at his side after being rammed into a large rock. He was almost at the end of his strength in the boiling current when he heard the full throated roaring of the falls. Looking ahead, Vin's blood ran cold as he saw the river disappear into empty space. Struggling hard, he fought against the pull of the current and by stretching out his arm just managed to grasp a branch from a deadhead that was jammed in the water by some large boulders. With sinewy muscles bulging, he pulled himself towards the tree as the powerful water tore at him, trying to wrench him from his uncertain grip. He finally got an arm draped across the log as the water continued to pellet him. Gasping for air, he threw his other arm over the log to settle against its sturdy trunk, but lost his balance on the slippery surface and was torn away by the unforgiving river. With a scream the earth fell away from him and he started to plummet.