The phone rang and Chris looked away from the expense report he had been reviewing to answer it. Before he even managed to speak, the voice of his supervisor, Orin Travis, burst forth.
“Chris, have you seen the news?”
“No sir, I haven’t. Why?”
“There was a massive explosion and fire at UNOS Biotech. I want your team on scene before the firemen destroy any evidence of who caused it.”
The blond mentally reviewed what he knew about UNOS. The corporation had bought a large swath of land nearly an hour south and west of Denver. Nestled against the mountains, they had built a huge facility. Protestors had picketed the place several times over rumors that The Human Genome Project was setting up shop there. There were rumors of human cloning every so often. On paper, UNOS manufactured vaccines and engineered new drugs. They were on the forefront of the battle against the AIDS virus.
“We’re on our way,” Chris said before hanging up the phone. He saved and closed the expense report, glad for a reprieve from the endless red tape that it took to be the team leader. Stepping out of his office, he studied the four men who made up his team.
Buck Wilmington had been with him forever, or so it seemed. The loveable rogue had seen him at his best and worst. Nathan Jackson was someone they all trusted to care for them, even when they really didn’t want him to. The team medic was constantly on them about their diets and how they drank too much. Josiah Sanchez was the one none of them could lie to. He would simply lean back in his chair or against a wall and stare at them until they sang like canaries. Lastly, he considered Chanu Redfeather. The Native American sharpshooter was still something of an enigma to them. He had come highly recommended for his skill with the sniper rifle but they had also discovered that he had a wickedly dry sense of humor and that he frequently gifted them with deep philosophical thoughts.
“Alright, wrap it up, we have to investigate the explosion at the UNOS facility,” the team leader announced. Immediately, computers were shut down and desktops cleared. Each man grabbed two bags, one containing whatever tools of the trade they used and the other containing a change of clothes and toiletries. They never knew when they might be required to stay overnight.
The fire was at six alarms when they reached the site. Chris flashed his badge at the cops blocking the roadway and was allowed to get closer to the building. A series of explosions caused the fire to flare up and the firemen to flinch. Water was pouring from several directions, including the top of a ladder truck. Chanu climbed into the back of the truck and pulled out a camera with a telephoto lens and began snapping pictures.
Several hours later, all that remained of the building was the wall that had been built into the side of the mountain. The executives who had arrived to survey the fire stated that the only person unaccounted for was the security guard and he had been taken to the hospital after being overcome by heat and smoke. Team 7 made sure that the firemen didn’t disturb things any more than necessary, even to following them through the burnt remnants of the building, cameras in tow, snapping pictures of anything that was touched or moved. It was nearly midnight before they left the site and checked into a local hotel. Four Corners was the nearest town and it had only two motels. Nathan pressed a mug of microwaved soup into each of their hands, knowing that none of them had stopped to eat anything since lunch.
At daylight, the men were back at the site, waving to the police officers who had been stationed to keep away the curious. Buck and Chanu went in opposite directions, taking pictures and dropping markers for things they wanted bagged for the lab. Nathan spent his time in the cab of the truck, reviewing the lists of everything that had been in the lab before the fire. Fortunately, there were no hazardous materials or bacteriological agents on any of the manifests. Chris followed Buck while Chanu had Josiah at his heels. They worked methodically, having divided the massive ruins into a grid. Around noon, the trucks arrived to begin hauling the tagged articles to the lab for analysis.
“We’re being watched,” Chanu said as he carefully poked through a pile of rubble.
“How can you tell?” Josiah asked, risking a look around under the guise of stretching his aching neck and shoulders.
“They’re using binoculars. I got a flash off of the lens just a minute ago.”
Josiah carefully keyed his two-way radio and informed Chris about the two men on the ridge. Fifteen minutes later, the police car rolled up with the men in the back seat. All of Team 7 walked up to see who had been watching them so covertly.
“My name is Justin Prescott. I own UNOS Industries. I was just curious about the investigation; I didn’t mean to upset anyone. Have you been able to figure out what started the fire?”
“We’ll send in our report as we finish it. Until then, this is an ATF crime scene and you need to stay away,” Chris told the man. Prescott mumbled an apology and promised to keep his distance.
Later in the afternoon, Josiah made an interesting discovery. “Chanu, can you help me move this?” he called to his partner. The two men moved a large section of the corrugated metal that had supported the upper floor and discovered a door behind it. Curiously, the area immediately in front of the door showed very little damage. “What do you think?” Josiah asked.
“Halon fire suppression system. See those lines there and there? We need to get these doors open and check back there. I wonder what was important enough to have been kept so securely.”
It took four of them to pry the warped metal door out of its frame. Beyond the door was a corridor that led to another door. This one was locked but not warped by the heat of the fire. The five men cautiously peered into the rooms they found. Having no electrical lighting, they were dependent upon flashlights to search the area. It looked like living quarters. There were several rooms and a kitchen. The rooms were sterile, stark and white, having no decoration or homey touches.
“Staff housing?” Nathan suggested. “For when the scientists had to stay close to their work.”
“Could be but it isn’t on the blueprints,” Buck said. “None of this is on the floor plan they gave the fire department.”
At the deepest point in the newly discovered area, they found a room that wasn’t as plain as the others. One wall was covered from floor to ceiling with a color mural of the mountains. There were books on a shelf along one wall. A pair of bunk beds was arranged in a corner and there was a table with four chairs in the middle of the room. On the table, Nathan picked up a notebook.
“Someone was working on some pretty heady calculations here,” he said as he glanced at the tiny rows of numbers. “And drawing,” he added as he flipped to another page.
“Look at this! What do you think it means?” Josiah asked as he pointed out the scratches in the wall behind one of the bunk beds. “Ezra two, Vin four, JD seven, it looks like it was done by a kid.”
Chanu moved to photograph the marks up close before returning to his meticulous recording of the room and its contents. Buck picked up a few other things and put them in an evidence bag, there was pitifully little except for the books in the room.
“Let’s get out of here, I’m starving,” Chris said, “Chanu, are you finished?”
“Ready to roll,” the Indian said as he capped the lens and put the camera back into his pack. The five men left the underground bunker, talking among themselves about what the purpose of the rooms had been. Unknown to them, they were being watched, again.
“They’ve got the notebook!” the long-haired child whispered to his companions.
“Who are they? Are they UNOS?” the older boy asked, squinting at the tiny forms.
“No, they aren’t UNOS, I think they’re fire inspectors or something. They’ve got a bunch of stuff from our room.”
“Can you see the license on the truck?” the third boy asked. The long-haired boy focused his eyes on the back of the truck and read off the letters and numbers. The other boy wiggled around on the tree branch and opened the laptop computer, rapidly calling up a connection and working his special brand of magic to get the information he sought. “Chris Larabee, number 24 Mountain View Lane. He’s … Oh no! … he’s a federal agent,” the third boy announced. “Denver bureau of the ATF, they must be investigating the fire!”
“Settle down, JD. It’s going to be alright,” the older boy said. “We’ll just have to get away from here sooner than we planned.”
“We’d better get out of here, it’s going to be dark soon, Ezra,” the long-haired child said as he prepared to climb down. Without waiting for the others, he started along the path toward the little hunting cabin they had found earlier in the day.
“Vin, wait!” JD called. As the youngest, he was also the smallest of the trio. He handed the case with the computer to Ezra, who tucked it into his backpack and they hurried to catch up. They moved quickly through the deepening darkness until they reached the little cabin. Vin scouted the perimeter, using all of his senses to detect if their safe place had been disturbed.
“It’s okay, come on,” he whispered as he opened the door and squeezed inside. The other two boys followed and they quickly closed the door and wedged the thick plank into position to hold it securely shut. They moved to the corner where the bed was and sat on the floor, close enough to be touching. It was dark in the cabin but they dared not light a candle or lantern for fear of being discovered.
“Do you think they’re looking for us?” JD asked softly.
“They’ll look for us until they find us. They can’t risk anyone finding out about us,” Ezra said, his voice tinged with bitterness.
“We’ll be going as soon as we get the notebook back. JD, in the morning, I need you to get all the information you can on that Larabee guy. We have to know more, where he works, where he rests, who his friends are,” Vin said.
“You sound like you’re planning an Op against him,” the younger boy replied.
“If it comes to that,” the long-haired boy said. “It’s us or them and I don’t plan on going back without a fight.”
The boys shared some of their hidden cache of food before climbing into the bed and going to sleep, curled together for warmth and comfort. They genuinely believed that it was the three of them against the world. It was a big, scary world and they were three young boys.
At the ATF offices the next day, the men were busy going over the evidence they had collected. Nathan had scanned the notebook into his computer so he could go over the computations at his leisure. Chanu was particularly interested in the drawings, done in pencil but looking very much like they might come alive and leap off of the paper at any time. The eagle was prominently positioned in three of the drawings, something that resonated in the Native American man. The other animals were equally as powerful but not as intensely represented. After securing a copy of the pictures for himself, he went to help Buck with the volume of physical evidence they had brought back with them. Josiah was in charge of the photos that the others had taken at the scene. He would study them and try to come up with a profile on the person who caused the destruction. Chris was busy going over the reports from the firemen and the employee files from UNOS.
Two days later, they were still no closer to figuring out what had happened at the bioengineering plant. Buck had found evidence of tampering with several of the safety systems but was unable to figure out how they had been sabotaged without anyone noticing. Chanu had assembled several electronic pieces that appeared to have been at the heart of one of the primary explosions but he was at a loss to understand how or why they had blown up. Nathan spent hours and hours staring at his computer screen. Every so often, he would roll his chair over to Josiah’s computer and search for information before returning to his monitor. The profiler was engrossed in the enlargements he’d had made of the small room where they found the notebook and the childlike etching on the wall.
Ezra crept out of his hiding place and tried to appear casual as he strolled down the street. He had volunteered for this, the most dangerous, part of their escape. Armed with their computer, he was going to try to get them some cash so that they could buy tickets for a bus or train. He watched the people he passed, a deep longing in his striking green eyes. A man and woman came out of a restaurant with two children and a baby. They looked so happy and the children looked so content, he wondered what it would be like to have a normal family. He spotted his goal, an ATM machine, and detoured toward it. He had fed the cable down his sleeve to the card that had the magnetic strip. JD had assured him that it would take no more than sixty seconds for the card to get the pin number he needed to access the bank account. With his heart pounding in his chest, he fed the card into the slot and waited. Sure enough, in less than a minute, the screen changed to one that would allow him to make a withdrawal. He punched in the numbers and waited as the machine clicked and purred. Finally, the door popped open and he took out the cash. Five hundred dollars wouldn’t last long but it was as much as he could get at one time. He expected that UNOS would close the account as soon as they discovered that the boys were withdrawing funds.
With the money tucked into various places on his body, Ezra hurried away from the ATM. He imagined that everyone who looked at him knew that he had stolen the money. Several blocks away, he found another machine. Deciding that it couldn’t hurt to try, he put the card in the slot and anxiously tapped his fingers on the stainless steel surface. When the screen again allowed him to withdraw funds, he quickly punched in the numbers. Pocketing the money, he decided to boldly try again. The screen flashed an apology, stating that he had made the maximum withdrawal available. Shrugging, he pulled out the card and walked away. When he passed an all-night mini market, he went in and bought some food for the trip. A plastic jar of peanut butter and another of jelly joined the box of crackers on the counter. He had pocketed a few of the plastic wrapped knives and spoons from the condiments counter, along with a handful of napkins. He declined the offer of a bag and stuffed the purchases into his backpack.
In Denver, a soft chime sounded from the computer and Mr. Prescott tapped the space bar to clear the screen saver. He opened the file to see that a thousand dollars had been withdrawn from his corporate account, using ATM’s in Four Corners. An evil grin lifted his cheeks as he picked up the phone to call his men to tell them where to begin their search.
The enlargement of the names and numbers showed wear from the number of times Josiah had picked it up and studied it. His internal alarms were telling him that the information was right there in front of him, if only he could discern it from the rest of the flotsam they had brought back with them. He sighed, stretching his long, muscular arms above his head.
Movement at the desk behind him had Nathan looking away from his screen. He had been running the calculations through increasingly more complicated pattern recognition programs, trying to figure out what it was about the formula that was so familiar.
“Anything?” he asked of the graying man.
“No. It’s right here, I can feel it, but I can’t figure it out!” Josiah said irritatedly.
“Same here. I know that I recognize this from somewhere, if I could just figure out where.”
Vin slipped into the revolving doors while the guards were busy discussing the baseball game they had been listening to on the radio. He slipped silently into the men’s restroom and waited for the others. Seconds passed, each one weighing heavily on the boy. It was his plan and if it failed, they might be caught. It was a fate worse than death to the trio. They had been told often enough what would happen to them if they were discovered. Just as he was about to sneak out and look for the others, he heard the door open.
“Vin! You in here?” JD whispered.
“Yeah, did Ezra make it in with you?”
“Right here, Vin. The guards are just about to make their patrol of the building. That should give us a chance to get on the elevator and go up to the eleventh floor,” the older boy said.
They waited as long as they could before dashing to the elevators. Once the doors closed, they were at the point of no return. Ezra and JD pressed into the corners, ready to bolt out if any of the guards stepped into the car. When the doors opened on the correct floor, Vin peeked out. Seeing the small lobby empty, he motioned for the others to follow him. They approached the door to the Team 7 office and paused. Vin pulled the stun gun out of his belt and nodded to Ezra.
Chanu stretched and yawned, it had been a long day for him. The tea he had been drinking all afternoon had reached his bladder and he stood to go to the restroom. Buck clicked on something on his computer screen and sighed, none of the things he’d discovered made any sense to him. Out of the corner of his eye, he detected a shadow on the carpet, a shadow that didn’t belong there. Locating each of the other men in the office, he realized that he was the only one who had noticed. Reaching out, he pushed a button on his phone and got out of his chair.
The soft buzz in his ear told Vin that he had been discovered. He vaulted out from behind the desk and took up a defensive stance. The big, dark-haired man looked surprised for a moment, right before the stun gun clicked against his thigh.
“Ahhh!” Buck cried as he gripped his leg and went to the floor. The shock wasn’t debilitating, but it hurt like hell. At his cry, Josiah and Nathan looked his way. Both of them missed the child, who had ducked behind a desk.
“Buck?” Nathan asked as he knelt beside the fallen man.
JD spotted the notebook and eased the conference room door open. He crossed the thick carpeting and grabbed the evidence bag, ripping it open and stuffing the notebook in his pants. Just as his hand closed on the doorknob, he heard a man shouting … a very angry man.
“What in the hell is going on out here?” Chris yelled as he stood in the door of his office. He had picked up his phone, only to hear dead air on the line. As soon as he hung it up, he heard Buck scream in pain.
Ezra froze, his back pressed tightly into the space next to the water cooler. He had the small smoke bomb they had fashioned to cover their escape. JD was in one of the rooms on the left side of the hall. Vin had managed to stun one of the men, but he’d been unable to get back out of the main office. Daring a peek out of his hiding place, he spotted the blond striding angrily out of his office.
Vin crawled around behind the desk and was getting ready to jump up and run. He saw JD looking out of one of the other rooms and he gave the signal that meant he had the notebook. Just as the long-haired child rose to dart out of the office, another man arrived on the scene, and Vin ran right into him.
As he was washing his hands, Chanu heard Buck cry out. Deciding against drawing his gun, he slipped out of the restroom and crept along the wall toward the main area of the office. His sharp eyes scanned the room for any apparent threat and, seeing none, he took another step forward. Suddenly, a boy stood up and ran right into him. By reflex, Chanu grabbed the boy by the upper arms. He never expected the kid to have a stun gun. A jolt of energy hit his ribs and he gasped. Retaining his grip with one hand, he used the other hand to knock the weapon away before he sank to his knees.
Hearing the sharpshooter cry out, Chris turned to see him send something flying from the hands of what looked like a kid. In three or four quick strides, he was close enough to wrap his arm around the boy, pulling him away from Redfeather.
JD’s eyes widened in fear as he saw the blond grab Vin. He knew that the older boy was strong but he didn’t know if he was strong enough to get away from three grown men. As he pulled the door open and started toward his friend, someone rushed past him, giving a yell of rage.
Buck saw the small boy step into the hall and he pushed Nathan’s hands away, yelling, “Watch out!” Josiah turned in time to put out his arm, clothes-lining the child hurtling toward Chris, who was having his own problems at the moment. The medic ducked out of the way as something sailed past his head and shattered against the wall. Immediately, the air was filled with an acrid odor and thin wisps of smoke. Nathan scurried around the desk and vaulted over a low filing cabinet to take hold of another child who was creeping toward the fallen stun gun.
A hard jab hit his ribs and Chris groaned. What he thought to be a skinny kid turned out to hit like a lumberjack. He tried to get on top of the boy but he was smart enough not to allow the heavier opponent to get the drop on him. As much as he hated to do it, he closed his hand into a fist and swung at the boy’s chin.
JD’s feet went out from under him and he fell, coming down hard on his wrist. A cry of pain was wrenched from his mouth just before he was yanked off of the floor and enfolded in strong arms. He screamed again, more in surprise and anger than pain. He struggled, but the arms around him only tightened. He tried kicking but his feet were immediately imprisoned between strong thighs.
Ezra darted past the dark-skinned man and bumped into the wall beyond him. His quick mind scrambled for a weapon and he spotted the broken bottle the smoke bomb had been in. He reached out and closed his hand around a particularly vicious looking piece of glass. Launching himself at the downed man, he dropped to his knees and held his weapon near the exposed throat.
Seeing the boy going after Buck, Chanu drew his gun and pointed it at the kid. “Don’t do it!” he warned. When the kid’s hand moved, the sharpshooter thumbed back the hammer on his gun. The ominous sound caused everyone in the room to freeze. The dark-haired child with the glass in his hand stared up at him. “Put it down, Kid,” Chanu said, motioning with the barrel of the gun.
Frozen in horror at the sound of the cocked gun, Vin was immediately tossed to his stomach and handcuffed. Chris, breathing heavily from the struggle, addressed the child threatening Buck. “If you hurt him, you’ll get shot, and we’ll still have your two friends.” He saw the green eyes stray from the gun to the smaller boy Josiah was holding and then to the boy on the floor in cuffs. Finally, he moved the glass away from Buck and dropped it on the carpet, raising his hands and sinking back on his heels. Chanu holstered his gun and moved forward, throwing the boy down on his stomach and handcuffing him quickly. Both he and Chris turned to survey the child in Josiah’s arms. The boy was staring at the bloody glass as tears rolled down his face.
Nathan moved to check on Buck first, although he really wanted to get a good look at the boy’s hand. Wilmington rolled to his hands and knees and used the corner of the desk to rise, leaning heavily as he tried to get the feeling back in his leg. The medic steered him into a chair and gave him a cursory check before turning to the boy. “I need those cuffs off of him,” he said to Chanu.
“Not yet,” the team leader said, “not until we get some answers.”
Josiah surrendered the child in his arms to the sharpshooter, wincing as his handcuffs were ratcheted to the smallest setting around the boy’s wrists. Chris pulled the other boy to his feet, giving him a shake when he looked like he might struggle.
“Take them into the conference room,” he said, giving the long-haired boy a shove.
“Ezra!” JD cried as they pulled him toward the other room. Josiah gave him a nudge, sending him into the room and steering him to a chair. Chanu propelled the other boy in behind them, shoving him, none too gently, into a chair and holding him by the shoulder when he tried to pop back up.
“So, your name’s Ezra?” Chris asked as he bodily lifted the boy and set him on top of the low file cabinet. “What are the other boys’ names?” The kid’s green eyes stared at a point just past his shoulder and his lips clenched tightly. Stepping directly into his line of sight, Chris grabbed the boy by his upper arms and shouted at him, “Who in the hell are they?”
“I really need to treat his hand,” Nathan interrupted as he set his first aide kit on the desk. Chris realized that the medic was right but he didn’t want to release the child to attack again. He unbuckled his belt and unthreaded it from his pants. Nathan’s eyes hardened but he didn’t say anything. Chris wrapped the belt around Ezra, securing his arms to his sides before he nodded for the handcuffs to be removed. Buck reached out and unlocked them and Chris took them from him, immediately using them to secure Ezra’s ankles together.
Nathan carefully brought Ezra’s hand around to rest on the boy’s leg as he took a bottle of sterile water to clean the wound. He folded a towel and placed it under Ezra’s hand and began to pour the room temperature water across the deep cuts. He felt the kid shudder and was torn between feeling that he deserved whatever pain he experienced and feeling sorry for him. He put on gloves and carefully opened the deepest gash, looking for glass. When he was certain that there wasn’t anything in the wound, he cleaned the shallower cuts on the boy’s fingers. He then took out a roll of gauze and began wrapping the cuts.
“He needs stitches and a tetanus shot,” Nathan explained.
“Not until I get some answers. Now, Ezra, why did you come here? What did you want?” Seeing that the boy wouldn’t speak, he picked up the stun gun and brought it over.
“Now Chris, you can’t do that, he’s just a kid!” Buck protested.
“He’s old enough to kill, he’s old enough to take a little pain,” the blond threatened as he approached Ezra’s bare arm with the weapon. He could see the boy drawing deep breaths, trying to prepare for the impending pain. “Why did you come in here and attack my men?” he asked again. Seeing that the boy wasn’t going to answer, he removed the handcuffs from his ankles and jerked his arms behind his back again, securing them and removing his belt. “Take him into my office, Buck, and watch him. Nathan, have the little one brought out here,” Chris said, getting a flash of pleasure at the fear that blossomed in Ezra’s eyes.
JD looked up when the door opened and he shrank into the chair when the Negro pointed to him. The big man with the gray hair took hold of him and pulled him to his feet and forced him to follow the other man. At the door, he got one last look at Vin. Seeing the hard determination in the other boy’s eyes, he clenched his teeth and walked out to meet his doom. The blond man was holding the stun gun, glaring angrily as he stopped and had to be pushed forward. The gray-haired man lifted him and set him on the filing cabinet and moved behind him, keeping a hand on his shoulder.
“What’s your name?” Chris asked. He saw the boy’s brown eyes focus on the far wall and knew that he wouldn’t get any answers from him. As with Ezra, he brought the stun gun closer to the boy’s exposed skin and watched him shy away from the metal tips. “Tell me your name,” he said calmly.
In the conference room, Chanu studied the hate-filled blue eyes of the boy. “What you did took guts, I have to say. What were you expecting to find?” Not getting an answer, he moved around behind the child. “Did someone put you up to this? Have you ever been inside juvenile detention?”
Vin turned his head, ever so slightly, so he could see the man. He was scared but he wouldn’t let it show. He was worried about Ezra and JD, they weren’t as strong as he was. The man moved so that he would have to turn around to see him. Vin looked toward the door.
In the team leader’s office, Buck watched the injured boy closely. He half expected him to cry, having been caught and hurt. Noticing that the kid needed a tissue, he plucked one from the box and walked over to the chair where the boy sat, staring out the window. “Here, blow,” he urged as he pressed the tissue to Ezra’s nose. The boy complied and Buck tossed the used tissue in the trashcan, taking his eye off of the kid for just an instant.
Ezra nearly choked when the man approached him. He had been working on picking the lock of the cuffs ever since they came into the office. When the man turned to toward the trashcan, he saw his opportunity and he took it. Vaulting out of the chair, he grabbed the handle of the Glock and pulled. The gun was slightly heavier than he expected.
Feeling the gun slip from its holster, Buck immediately slapped his hand back to try to grab it, catching the boy’s wrist instead. In a reaction born from pure instinct, he pulled the child toward him, twisting his arm at the same time and slamming him, chest first, into the edge of the desk. Even as he was drawing back to slam his fist into Ezra’s jaw, the boy screamed.
Pain unlike anything he had ever experienced broke Ezra’s determination to remain silent. He screamed as the nerve endings in his arm and shoulder transmitted intense signals to his brain. Rage washed over him, numbing the pain as he pushed away from the desk with his other hand, surprising his larger opponent.
In the bullpen, JD’s eyes went to the door of Chris’s office. Seeing that the adults were also startled, he lashed out with his foot, hitting the blond in the groin before leaping off of the filing cabinet and running toward the exit. He paused just long enough to drop into a forward roll, bringing his cuffed hands under his hips and popping his feet out. Without losing his forward momentum, he was right back on his feet. Meanwhile, in the conference room, Vin took advantage of the distraction to regain his feet. He charged Chanu, driving him into the wall hard enough to crack the drywall. Like JD, he dropped to the floor and brought his hands around in front of him before leaping up and rushing for the door.
Buck was unprepared for the strength Ezra possessed. He lost his grip on the boy and bumped his elbow on the edge of the desk hard enough to break the skin. In the few seconds it took him to regain his balance, the boy raised the gun with both hands and pointed it at him. He had only one chance and he took it.
Josiah and Nathan bolted after the fleeing child, leaving Chris doubled over, struggling for breath. They saw the long-haired child run out of the conference room and dug in to try to catch them before they got to the door. All of them froze at the explosion of glass as Buck’s weapon discharged.
Time almost stopped in the Team 7 office. Both of the boys froze, looking beyond the men to the glass that bounced and slid across the linoleum floor. Chanu rushed out of the conference room, gun drawn. Josiah recovered first, closing the distance between himself and the boys, grabbing both of them by the upper arm and flinging them against the wall, covering them with his body. Nathan drew his gun and went with the sharpshooter toward Chris’s office. The team leader had dropped behind a desk, still gasping for breath and unable to see because of the tears in his eyes. When they reached a place where they could peer through the broken window, they pointed their guns at Ezra, who was sitting on the floor against the wall. Chanu spotted the gun, lying on the floor at the boy’s feet.
“I got it,” Buck said as he reached out and moved the gun. Nathan opened the door and slipped around it to keep his weapon trained on Ezra. He noticed that the boy was shaking and that he was going pale.
“Is he hit?” Nathan asked of Buck, without taking his eyes off of the kid.
“No, bullet went through the glass. Everyone alright out there?” Buck asked.
“Josiah’s got the other boys. Chris?” Chanu called.
“Here … ohhh God … that hurt,” the blond moaned as he slowly straightened his body.
Holstering his weapon, Nathan knelt in front of Ezra. He could see that the boy was drawing rapid, shallow breaths. When he reached out to touch the kid on the shoulder, he cried out.
“Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”
Nathan allowed his hand to gently grasp Ezra’s shoulder and he felt the deformity in the joint. He quickly checked for the pulse in the boy’s wrist before moving to get closer. “Buck, I need a hand here,” he said, “hold him for a minute while I pop his shoulder back into place.” As soon as Buck took hold of the boy, Nathan quickly snapped the joint back into the proper position. Ezra screamed and blacked out.
“Don’t hurt him! Leave him alone!” Vin yelled as he shoved Josiah away and ran toward the cluster of adults. Chris caught the boy and pulled him back, dropping into a chair and wrapping his arms around the furious child. Josiah brought the other one back up the hall and pushed him into a chair, where he sat, watching them all with wide, frightened eyes.
“We need to get him to a hospital. Do either of you know how to reach his parents?” Nathan asked as Buck picked Ezra up and carried him out of the office.
“We don’t have any parents,” the smallest boy replied.
“Shhh!” the long-haired boy hissed.
“You’re orphans?” Josiah asked.
“No, we never did have parents.”
“Chanu, call the police and ask them if they have any missing child alerts,” Chris said. He felt the boy in his arms jerk. “Yeah, you know what will happen when the police find out what you did, don’t you?”
“Please don’t call the police, Mr. Larabee,” JD implored.
“How do you know my name?”
“We looked it up after you took our notebook.”
“JD!” Vin cried, dismayed at having their secret revealed.
“We have to tell someone, Vin! If they take Ezra to the hospital, Prescott will find us!”
“What does Prescott have to do with it? Do you belong to him? Are you his children?” Chris asked. He felt Vin moving, trying to turn and look at him and he eased his grip on the boy. When their eyes met, the blond felt like he was staring into the eyes of an adult, not a child.
“If we tell you, will you help us? Will you keep Prescott from getting us back?” Vin asked.
“Depends on what you tell me,” he answered, not wanting to lie to the boy. A great, heavy sigh left the child, as if the weight of the world were sitting upon his shoulders. He turned to look at Ezra, hanging limply in Buck’s arms as the man sat on the edge of the desk. He then looked toward JD and nodded. At that, JD pulled the notebook from his pants and held it out. Josiah took it from him and waited expectantly for an explanation.
“We’re part of the G.E.E.T. project,” Vin said, “genetically engineered embryo transplants. Dr. Prescott and his staff … made us in their lab.”
“Made you? You mean that you’re clones?” Nathan asked incredulously.
“Not clones, clones are exact duplicates of another individual. We are ‘engineered’ to specific purposes. Made to do the things they want us to do,” the boy explained.
Ignoring the thousands of questions bursting on his mind, Nathan asked, “What does the notebook have to do with it? Why is it so important?”
“I copied the formula. I know how he changed each of us. I thought that I might find someone who could help us, undo what he did.”
“Gene therapy, that’s what you were hoping for, wasn’t it?” Josiah asked. The small chin dropped before he spoke again.
“It’s stupid, I know, but we didn’t ask to be like this.”
Ezra tensed and Buck spoke soothingly to him, “Just relax, I’ve got you.”
“He should still be seen by a doctor. His shoulder was separated and he needs stitches and a tetanus shot,” Nathan said reluctantly.
“He’ll be fine if you let him alone. That’s part of the ‘plan,’ we heal quickly,” JD said.
“Well Chris? What do you want to do?” Chanu asked.
The blond sorted through his options. He knew that if they contacted children’s services, the children would more than likely be turned right over to Prescott. No doubt, the man would have the necessary paperwork to claim that they were his. On the other hand, he didn’t know if he completely believed the child, it was too strange. But he could see that Nathan believed Vin. Ezra was struggling to get down and Buck finally settled him in a chair. Before the medic could stop him, the boy had unwrapped the gauze from around his fingers. They were astonished to see that the shallower of the cuts had already closed. Nathan unwound the rest of the gauze and stared in amazement at the deeper cut, which was definitely showing improvement.
“How did the fire start?” Chris asked. The three boys exchanged worried glances.
“We did it. We hacked into the security system and shut down the safety protocols. We changed some of the parameters so that they wouldn’t record spikes in temperature in the labs. It wasn’t hard,” JD said, as he sat up a little taller in the chair.
“A computer glitch … the evidence does point to that. I think I can finish my report on the explosion now,” Buck said, staring at the team leader.
A long, heavy pause descended on the large room. The five men were about to cross a line, falsify a report and hide evidence, to protect three boys who had brazenly attacked them in their own office. One by one, they studied the faces of the kids before looking to Chris.
“Make sure there isn’t anything to indicate that we know about the boys. Chanu, call your uncle and see if we can bring him some visitors for a few days. Buck, gather up clothes for you and me. Josiah, you and Nathan get clothes and groceries, bring your camper. I’m going to tell Travis that we’re taking a few days off.”
The men nodded and hurried around the office. Josiah placed an empty duffle bag on his desk and all the evidence collected was packed inside. Chris rose and removed the handcuffs from Vin and JD’s wrists, gently rubbing the red marks left behind by the metal. The trio moved to sit together, sharing long looks but saying nothing. They watched the men as they gathered things. JD touched Vin’s arm and looked at the computer sitting on the desk, they had left their laptop hidden near the cabin.
“Mr. Larabee? We have to go get some stuff we hid, it’s important,” Vin said.
“Where is it?” Chris asked.
“Not far from UNOS, near an old cabin.”
“Buck, can you and Chanu manage the boys while Vin and I retrieve their stuff?”
“Will your shoulder heal on its own?” Nathan asked Ezra.
“Yes sir, it’ll take a few days.”
Most of an hour later, Buck, Chanu and Nathan took the boys down to the parking garage and hurried them into the medic’s SUV. The darkly tinted windows would prevent them from being seen. Almost as soon as the vehicle reached the highway, Ezra dropped into a deep sleep. JD quietly explained that it was the way he healed. Buck tentatively stretched his arm around the back of the seat and the younger boy carefully leaned against him. He could feel the trembling as the kid tried to relax.
Chris waited until the others were well away before he called upstairs to let Orin know that they had finished their report on the explosion at UNOS. He informed his boss that the team was taking a few days off. Travis read the unspoken statement that there was more to the request than what was on the surface and he agreed.
It was nearly dark by the time Chris and Vin left the truck and walked into the woods. The blond was amazed that the boy moved confidently through the trees in near-total darkness. Using a low-light flashlight, he followed the boy, breaking into a jog to keep up with him. When they reached a fallen tree, Vin knelt and brushed aside some leaves and grass to reveal a backpack. He shouldered the bag and turned to see what the blond man would do.
“That’s it? That’s all you have?” Chris asked as he played the beam of light across the ground.
“Yeah, JD’s laptop and some stuff. It’s all ours, honest,” Vin said.
“Take it easy, I believe you. Want me to carry it for you?”
“No sir, I’ve got it. Shouldn’t we be going?”
Frank and Gilbert watched the black truck from the shadows. They had seen the man and boy go into the woods and were going to ambush them when they came back. When they saw the flashlight beam coming toward the clearing, they crouched so they could jump them.
Vin heard the men moving and his hand shot out to stop Chris. He pulled the blond down and snatched the flashlight from his hand.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s a trap. There are men over there, waiting for us,” Vin paused, testing the air, “they’re armed.”
“Stay here and stay down,” Chris said as he pulled his gun and thumbed the safety off. He angled away from Vin, not toward the truck but toward the place where the boy had indicated the men were lying in wait.
Vin groped along his ankle for the weapon he knew was hidden there. He went into full stealth mode, breathing silently through his mouth as he stalked the two men. He could track Chris by the scent of his cologne and knew exactly where he was in the clearing. His sensitive hearing picked up the hissed discussion between the men. They were angry that the light had gone out and unsure if they should move or not. He knew the moment Chris stood up and called for them to give up. One of the men stood, throwing out his weapon but the other one didn’t.
Chris saw the men rise and heard the sound of a gun thumping on the ground. A second later, he heard the other man grunt and then fall against his friend. He saw a pale flash and quickly holstered his gun. Stumbling forward, he grabbed hold of Vin as he was drawing back to stab the other man, the one who had surrendered. “Vin, don’t!” he demanded.
“They’ll come after us!”
“They won’t! Not if they know what’s good for them,” he said, directing his words to the man who was playing possum at their feet.
“It’s not logical to leave him alive. It puts the whole Op at risk!” Vin protested.
“You’ll have to trust me,” Chris said, easing the knife from his hand and turning the boy from his prey. He could feel the tension radiating from the thin frame and he knew that the child could and would kill if he had to.
They reached the storage lot where Josiah kept his camper. Under the cover of darkness, they transferred the boys to the cab of the truck. The profiler had gotten groceries and serviced the vehicle while he was waiting. Ezra murmured softly as he was moved but he never fully awoke. JD clung to Buck for a few minutes, until he came fully awake, then he willingly slipped out of the comforting embrace and got up into the truck. Josiah shook out a blanket and covered the boys, easing Ezra to lie against the pillow he had placed between himself and the boy. JD pulled his end of the blanket around and leaned against the door, trying to go back to sleep. Nathan, Chanu and Buck would follow them in the SUV, making sure that they weren’t followed.
They reached the perimeter of the reservation and the men began to breathe a little easier. When the small cluster of trailers appeared, they pulled into a driveway and rolled to a stop. Buck rushed up to reclaim JD, wrapping the boy in his own coat when he saw that he couldn’t get the blanket out without waking Ezra. He carried the sleeping boy into the trailer, nodding to the older man at the door. A round-faced woman guided him to a homey bedroom and folded down a thick layer of blankets. Buck slipped JD in, as close to the wall as he could to leave room for the other two. Nathan carried Ezra in and went to the couch to lay him down so he could check his injuries before putting him to bed. The boy whimpered as the medic gently probed the dislocated shoulder. The wounds in his hand were almost completely healed, which amazed him.
Chanu and Josiah quickly unloaded the supplies and left again, taking the camper and the SUV to a large, ramshackle shed where they would be out of sight. By the time they returned to the trailer, Nathan had tucked Ezra into bed beside JD and was accepting a cup of coffee from Opa Locka, Chanu’s aunt. The men discussed a schedule for keeping watch and Nathan and Buck settled on a pair of air mattresses on the floor of the room where the kids were sleeping. Josiah and Chanu sat outside, under cover of darkness and watched … and waited.
The black truck bounced wildly on the uneven ground but Chris couldn’t reach out to steady the child on the other side of the cab because he had to keep both hands on the wheel. With the only illumination coming from the dashboard lights, he couldn’t really see the boy. He knew that Vin was angry with him, he just didn’t know what to do about it.
Adrenaline coursed through his veins, making Vin want to run or lash out. The smell of blood on his hands and clothes was keeping his senses on high alert. Leaving the man alive had been a mistake. He braced his hands against the seat, the seatbelt had locked, preventing him from being thrown around as the truck climbed over the uneven terrain.
When he had put miles between himself and the place where they were ambushed, Chris began thinking about ditching the truck. Making a quick turn, he headed for the one place he knew would have a vehicle he could use for a while. Hank Connelly wasn’t fond of his former son-in-law but he was at least cordial. Chris pulled into the used car lot and surveyed his options. A newer Suzuki Sidekick looked like the best choice.
“Stay in the truck,” he said as he got out.
Vin watched as the blond man approached the small trailer at the edge of the lot. Chris pounded on the door until an older man opened it. The two had words. Even as far away as he was and with the windows closed, he could still hear the irritated exchange. The older man wanted to know why Larabee needed the vehicle. Chris told him that it was safer if he didn’t know. The man complained about losing the car, but he crossed the lot to the little brick building that he used as an office to get the key.
“Hide the truck. If anyone asks, tell them I sold it to you for cash and that I was in a hurry to leave the area. Alright?” Chris said, as he put his keys into Hank’s hand.
“Yeah, alright. But you’d better bring it back in one piece or you’ll be buying it from me.”
“Thanks Hank … I really appreciate this,” he said, noticing for the first time how much older the man looked.
Ten minutes later, they were on the road again. Temporary plates had been fixed to the bumper of the little four-wheel drive car and all of the contents of the truck cab had been tossed into the back seat. Chris kept to the speed limit as he left the lot, watching in the mirror as Hank put the truck in his shop. He hoped that the men who were after the boys didn’t trace him back to Sarah’s father.
“Why don’t you lean the seat back and try to sleep?” he asked Vin.
“Not sleepy,” came the reply.
Chris flashed the lights as he rolled to a stop near the cluster of trailers. He waited until he saw the flicker of light from the trees before he advanced to park in the driveway. Chanu walked up to the car, gun drawn and alert. When Larabee opened the car door and the dome light came on, the sharpshooter noticed the blood on the child.
“What happened?” he asked as he holstered his weapon. Vin’s eyes locked on his and Chanu saw something ancient and feral looking back at him.
“Ambushed, two men tried to get the drop on us near the cabin. We took care of them. Vin? Can you get out over there?” He watched as the small, bloody hand unhooked the seatbelt and the boy climbed out, closing the door behind him.
As the smells and sounds of the immediate area washed over him, Vin trembled. His adrenaline rush had faded and he was filled with nervous energy. The man standing at the front of the car moved and Vin’s head whipped around as he dropped into a defensive crouch.
“Easy, little one, take it easy,” Chanu said as he waited for the boy to acknowledge him. “Will you come walk with me for a while? I have to patrol the area.”
“He needs to rest,” Chris protested. In the moonlight, he saw the determination in the other man’s face and he nodded slowly. “Don’t be long.”
Chanu motioned for Vin to follow him and they headed back up the road. Chris was privately amazed that he couldn’t hear either of them, even though they were walking on gravel. He sighed and reached into the back seat to get the backpack and the duffle bag he had thrown in earlier. Josiah deliberately made noise as he approached so as not to startle him.
“Buck and Nathan are in with the boys. Jonah said to park our vehicles in the shed to avoid drawing attention to our visit. You need some coffee?” the profiler asked as he reached out to take one of the bags from the blond.
As they walked, Chanu observed the boy. Vin was scanning the trees with his eyes but his flaring nostrils told the Indian that he was also reading the very air around him. They circled around the trailers, coming back through the clump of trees. Vin stopped, turning his head slowly to allow his ears to locate the sound.
“What is it?” Chanu asked, following the boy’s line of sight.
“An owl … he caught a mole, I think,” Vin answered.
“You can hear that?”
“I can hear your heart beating if I concentrate hard enough.”
Chanu took a moment to digest that bit of information before speaking again. “You think you could rest now?”
“You can call me by my name, you know, I won’t mind.”
“Thank you, Mr. Redfeather,” Vin answered.
Chris was still sitting on the couch with his coffee when the sharpshooter opened the door and brought the boy inside. He noticed that Vin seemed less tense and nodded to him.
“I’m going to wake Buck and Nathan, let them take the watch,” Chanu explained. He steered Vin into the room and around the sleeping men. The bed creaked as Vin sat on it and Buck rolled over, gun in hand.
“Easy Buck, it’s just us … the good guys,” Chanu said as he moved to stand between the gun and the boy. “It’s about time for you and Nathan to take the watch.”
The men traded places and settled in to sleep. Some time later, Chanu felt the gentle caress of Vin’s hand as he lifted the snub-nosed revolver from the holster around his ankle. The sharpshooter didn’t move as the boy tucked the weapon between the mattress and box springs. He kept his breathing deep and even hoping that Vin didn’t know he was awake. It was another piece for the puzzle that he had in his head about the three of them.
The sun was shining in the window when the boys awoke. Ezra carefully flexed his shoulder, feeling the remnants of damage still fading away. JD twitched, usually a precursor to his waking. Vin was lying on his stomach at the edge of the mattress, his arm hanging off of the bed. Beyond Vin, he could hear the soft snores from someone sleeping on the floor. Not knowing where he was, he lay still and waited. His mind naturally turned to their situation. They had escaped UNOS, only to fall captive to the ATF team. He hoped that they could get away and get back to their plan.
They had come up with the plan several weeks ago. Knowing that they were somehow different from the adults around them, it hadn’t taken long for them to find out exactly how and why.
Justin Prescott had lost his only child to a rare type of brain tumor. His wife, depressed over the death of the boy, had committed suicide. Using his skill as a genetic engineer, he had set out to discover the exact DNA pattern for the cancer that took his family and to figure out how to eliminate it. He sponsored and closely followed The Human Genome Project as they mapped out the DNA strand. Armed with a blood sample from his son, he had soon found the faulty gene sequence that had doomed the baby at conception. His next goal was to find a way to eliminate the sequence. Along the way, he made several, rather remarkable, discoveries. He found a series of DNA markers that appeared to be dormant in his son’s profile. After painstakingly separating the dormant sections, he replaced them with active markers culled from several of his assistants. When he was finished, he decided that he had to see what would come of the modified DNA. Using cloning technology, he inserted several cells with the new DNA. He fertilized them with other modified DNA. The next part of the experiment was dangerous and highly illegal. He had found three women to implant with the developing embryos. The first two were living on the street, but the third was a woman who had captivated Justin from the moment she crossed his path.
Maude Standish was a society belle, used to having the attention of every man within her sight. When she laid eyes on Justin Prescott, her escort informed her that the man had more money than Bill Gates … and he was widowed. Within six weeks, the couple was married. A whirlwind honeymoon on the French Riviera was just the beginning. When she turned up pregnant afterwards, Justin decided to make her his finest experiment. He slipped her a sedative and whisked her to his lab. It took only a moment to implant the additional embryo in her uterus. She was none the wiser, waking up in her own bed. Her husband lavished attention on her, distracting her from the slight bruise the procedure had left.
The first round of implanted embryos failed, miscarrying in the first month. Maude was heartbroken over the loss of the baby, but her husband assured her that there would be another. In two months, she was pregnant again. She carried the baby to term and delivered him at home. If she suspected anything was different or special about her son, she didn’t mention it to anyone. Ezra was the first successful birth.
For the two young women at the lab, there were other miscarriages. Victoria Tanner and Grace Dunne were glad to have a roof over their heads and didn’t mind the pain and loss that accompanied each failed pregnancy. When Victoria finally made it past the half-way point in her gestation, she was thrilled. Mr. Prescott had promised her five hundred thousand dollars for the baby when it was born. She planned to go back to school and get her degree so she would never have to live on the streets again. Grace endured several more failed attempts. The young woman had been so weak when Prescott found her that she nearly died. Victoria’s baby was born before Grace managed to carry past the first trimester. A few days after the baby, named Vin for his maternal grandfather, was born, Victoria disappeared. Grace worried about her friend but was assured that Justin had the very best detectives on her trail. He promised that they would find her and bring her back. Grace never suspected that the young woman had been killed and her body cremated.
The third baby, named John Daniel, was delivered by C-section after Grace suffered a stroke. The baby was small and almost a month premature but he survived. The two were kept in the underground wing at the UNOS building, where their every sound and movement was carefully recorded for posterity. When Ezra was nearly two, Justin decided that he wanted the boy raised in a more controlled environment. Maude had begun drinking and threatened to take her son and return to her family in Georgia. It took very little for Justin to convince her that her child was dead … and that it was her own fault. One night, after supper, the couple had an argument. Afterwards, when she passed out, Justin put her in the car and took her for a drive. When she awoke, she was in the hospital. A doctor informed her that she had been thrown from the car before it went into the river. The car seat was found a mile downstream but her son’s body was never recovered. After the funeral, she left her husband and filed for a divorce.
The boys were tested repeatedly to detect anything unusual caused by their modified DNA. It hadn’t taken long for the staff at UNOS to realize that all three were exceptionally intelligent. JD, as the youngest was called, had an eidetic memory, he could recall anything he saw or heard. It became a challenge to keep the child occupied, as he devoured reading material. By the time he was six, he was reading on a college level. Vin, on the other hand, was different. He was aggressive and strong. He had a natural agility and the coordination of a gymnast. It took them a lot longer to figure out what else was special about the boy. And then there was Ezra. The oldest of the three boys was intelligent and strong but not exceptionally so. His ability to recover quickly from any injury wasn’t what he’d had in mind. Justin Prescott was disappointed in the child his wife had borne, as though it was all her fault.
Once the boys found out that they were little more than laboratory rats, they decided to escape. It took them a while to figure out how to create enough of a disturbance that they would be able to get away without being caught. The massive explosions and fires hadn’t been part of the plan. They were going to find a place where they could live without anyone knowing who and what they were. One of the doctors had been overheard calling them ‘Prescott’s Monsters,’ akin to the Frankenstein Monster. He suggested that more could be learned from the boys posthumously, than could ever be learned from them while they were alive. Ezra had asked the doctor what would happen if he ran away and the man said that he was a freak, that he would be dissected and studied if anyone found out about him. He had nightmares about being strapped to a table and cut open.
JD rolled over and saw that Ezra was awake. “Hey, are you all healed now?”
“Yeah, just a little sore. Are you okay?”
“I’m hungry. Do you think Vin brought the food back with him?”
“It’s in the backpack,” Vin said, raising his head and propping it on his palm.
Josiah heard the boys whispering and rolled over, “Good morning, boys. I’ll bet Nathan’ll have something for you to eat if you’re ready to get up.”
As soon as the trio got off of the bed, JD gasped at the blood that had dried into Vin’s clothing. Ezra looked and immediately reached for his friend.
“It’s not my blood,” Vin said, pushing the older boy’s hand away.
“We’ll have to get you some more clothes, Vin,” Josiah said. “Those have got to go.”
The boys followed the profiler out of the bedroom, stopping at the bathroom before going to the living room. Chris was still asleep on the couch, his arm thrown across his eyes to block the light. Buck looked up from where he sat and motioned for them to come into the kitchen. He introduced them to Chanu’s aunt and uncle. Opa Locka offered them something to eat and they nodded. In a few moments, she set bowls of warm, sweet oatmeal in front of each of them, along with toast and a glass of milk. She offered them eggs and turned back to the stove to make them. Josiah noticed that the boys seemed reluctant to eat, staring at the food as if it were poisoned.
“Is something wrong, boys?”
“Is it okay? We can just eat?” JD asked. All of their lives, a round of checking their vitals had come before eating. Their blood sugar was closely monitored.
“Sure, it’s okay, kid. Go ahead and eat,” Buck urged.
After they finished breakfast, all three boys were sent to the bathroom for a shower. Opa Locka had gathered clothing for them from the surrounding families and wanted to get them, especially Vin, out of their dirty clothes. All three of the boys were skittish and unsure as the portly woman bustled around, putting stacks of folded clothing in each of their hands and showing them where things were in the trailer’s small bathroom. When they had showered, each boy came out and sat quietly on the couch. Nathan itched to examine them but they were still too wary for him to get that close. The others were maintaining the watch on the road, to make sure that they hadn’t been followed.
Chris came in from his watch and glanced at the three boys. The tension radiating from them was thick in the air and he wondered what he could do to help them feel more at ease. Buck came in a few minutes later and, in typical fashion, called loudly to the boys.
“Who wants to go outside and see the new puppies?”
“Oh, me,” JD said, popping up from his seat between the older boys. Buck waited to see if either of the other boys would go along but neither moved. Giving Chris a glance, he offered a hand to the diminutive brunet. Opa Locka came into the living room and saw that the boys were still sitting on the couch like statues.
“Would one of you like to help me with lunch?” she asked. The boys looked at each other and Vin slowly stood. He crossed the room as if he were walking through a minefield, shying away from both Chris and Nathan.
All alone with Ezra, Nathan decided to ask a few of the questions that were buzzing around in his head. “How old are you, Ezra?”
“Ten, sir,” he answered.
“And Vin and JD?”
“Nine and seven.”
“And you’ve spent your whole life there, in that lab?” Chris interrupted.
“No, sir. I lived with my mother for a while. But she left and Mr. Prescott moved me to the lab with the other boys.”
Josiah came in and took a seat on the couch, putting a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. He felt the almost electric tingle of fear that his touch caused and he slowly withdrew his hand. Nathan and Chris continued asking questions, each answer provoking another question. Finally, Josiah leaned forward and asked, “What did the numbers mean, after your names? We found them etched on the wall near the bunk beds. Ezra two, Vin four, JD seven, can you tell me what it means?”
“It was their designations for us. It has to do with the number of times they failed to obtain a viable result from implantation,” Ezra answered softly. The three adults exchanged glances before Chris got up and walked out of the trailer.
In the kitchen, Vin watched as the woman put several things on the table. When she had everything ready, she began opening the packages and then asked him what he wanted on his sandwich. Vin looked at her in complete confusion, he had never been given a choice. Hesitantly, he pointed to the package of turkey. Opa Locka piled several pieces of the sliced turkey on the bread and asked if he wanted anything else on it. He turned down the cheese she offered and opted for mayonnaise instead. She gave him some chips and a slice of cantaloupe to round out his meal.
“Do you know what the other boys prefer?” she asked.
“JD likes bologna and Ezra likes ham,” Vin answered. In no time, they had plates made up for the other boys. For the adults, the woman placed some of each kind of meat and cheese on the bread, leaving off the condiments. She poured three glasses of milk and motioned for Vin to take a seat at the table. He slid into the chair and stared at the plate, waiting for direction. Opa Locka walked to the door and told Nathan and Josiah to call the others in for lunch. Ezra came in and Vin motioned him into the chair at his side. He pointed to the plate with the ham sandwich and whispered something into Ezra’s ear. Green eyes widened as the boy looked around.
Josiah couldn’t help but smile as he looked into the stall where Buck and JD were playing with the puppies. JD was on his knees, giggling as he fended off the puppies who were eagerly trying to lick his face and ears. From the sawdust dotting the boy’s clothes, Josiah guessed that he had been rolling on the ground with them at some point. “Buck, JD, it’s time for lunch,” the profiler said. Buck pushed up from his seat on a bale of hay and picked the boy up, settling him on his hip and dusting the sawdust from his pants.
“Can we come out and play with them again?” JD asked breathlessly.
“Sure thing, after lunch,” Buck agreed. Josiah helped to keep the puppies in the stall as Buck slipped out. He started to put JD down but the child rested his head against Buck’s shoulder and he just couldn’t bring himself to let him go. They hurried into the trailer and found the others seated around the table. JD squirmed to get down, running to the table to whisper to the other two boys. “JD, you need to wash up before you eat,” Buck prompted.
The men were amazed at how well behaved the boys were, even to waiting until given permission to eat. Nathan and Josiah came to the belief that they had never been allowed to make a decision for themselves; everything had been decided by someone else. After lunch, Chanu offered to take the boys out to meet some of the other children while the rest of the team discussed what they would do about them. Carefully covering his weaponry, he brought his uncle’s battered pickup around and parked it in front of the trailer. When he came back inside, Vin was just stepping out of the bedroom. As hard as he tried to conceal his thoughts, the sharpshooter knew that the boy had gotten the pistol from under the mattress. Not wanting Chris to know that he had allowed the child to keep the weapon, he steered Vin back into the bedroom.
“I know that you’re frightened but you don’t need the gun, Vin,” he explained as he knelt in front of the gangly boy. “It’s my job to protect you and the others. Now, can I have my gun back?” He waited until Vin reached down and pulled up his pants leg. He had tucked the gun into his boot. Chanu was relieved to see that the safety was still on as he took the gun and slipped it into his own ankle holster. “That was the smart thing to do, you know?” Vin looked at him as if he didn’t quite believe it, though.
After the children were safely out of earshot, the rest of Team 7 sat down to discuss the situation. Nathan powered up the laptop Chris had liberated from the boys’ pack and used it to access the information on the disk he had used to store the formulas from the notebook. In a few moments, the screen switched to a colored model that they had all seen at one time or another, a DNA strand. Instead of the usual four colors, the screen showed six.
“It would appear that Mr. Prescott has indeed been using gene splicing and genetic manipulation. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at here, but if this is from one of the boys, he’s definitely made some kind of change. Chris, if anyone else finds out about those boys, they’ll end up in another lab. The government will want to know exactly what the modifications do,” Nathan said.
“Is there any way to tell what he’s done to them?” Chris asked, his mind going to the variety of movies made on the topic of genetic mutation.
“Not really. You’ve already discovered that they’re stronger than normal for their size and age and I’d bet they’re smarter than other kids their ages. It’s possible that they know but I don’t know if they would trust us enough to tell us. We know that they heal quicker than normal.”
“But the real question is do we have any right to keep them? If they hadn’t come into the office, we wouldn’t have known anything about them,” Josiah said.
“Well, I’m not going to turn them over to somebody who’ll make them into lab rats!” Buck said, his voice thick with anger. “They’re human beings, for God’s sake!”
“Easy, Buck. We’re just discussing things, not making a decision,” Chris called, calming his friend. It was easy to see that Buck was leading with his heart. “They need to be some place safe. We can’t protect them indefinitely. If Prescott finds out that we have them, he’ll try to get them back.”
“He doesn’t have any right! He kept them in a cage!” Buck yelled.
“But I’d bet my ranch that he has paperwork that gives him custody of them,” the team leader replied, “And the courts would give them to him.”
The rest of the team argued and discussed it until they were exhausted without reaching any kind of solution. Meanwhile, Chanu parked on the teacher’s parking lot and got out of the truck. The boys were frozen in the cab, staring at the forty or so children running and playing inside of the fenced-in playground.
“Are you boys going to sit in there or get out and meet the kids?” Chanu called to them. When they got out, Vin stood protectively in front of the other boys. “Come on, I’ll introduce you,” the sharpshooter suggested. Since most of the kids at the school were related in one way or another, they all knew Chanu and ran over eagerly to meet the boys. It took a little coaxing, but eventually the boys followed the other children. JD edged around his protector and was soon happily chatting with a couple of boys about his size. Chanu sat down in the shade of the building and watched. He noticed that Vin kept close tabs on him, looking up every few minutes to make sure that he was still there.
When the bell rang, the children ran for the building and the boys returned to Chanu. He steered them in behind the other kids and followed them into the large, one-room school building. The teachers acknowledged him and invited the boys to take seats around the tables with the other students. Judging their ages, the teacher grabbed a set of readers and put them on the table in front of them. Assigning them a chapter to read, she motioned Chanu to the corner to find out who the boys were and how long they would be there. He explained that they were only going to be there for a few days and that he just wanted them to meet some of the other kids.
JD eagerly opened the book and began flipping the pages. The teacher’s aide leapt to the conclusion that he was only looking at the pictures. She waited until he reached the end of the book before she offered him the worksheet that went with the chapter review questions. To her amazement, he took up a pencil and began answering the questions.
At his left, Ezra sat staring at the book as the words swam on the page. He felt strangely tired and wanted to close his eyes and sleep. On the other side of JD, Vin was holding the book but his attention was focused sharply on listening to what the adults were saying across the room. He heard Chanu tell the woman that the boys were brothers and that his boss was their guardian. He told her that their home had burned down and that was why they weren’t in their regular school. The teacher made an exclamation of sympathy and said that she was glad to have them.
JD, noticing that Ezra wasn’t really reading his book, traded with him and began flipping through the pages, committing each one to memory. Ezra accepted the other book and continued to stare at the page without really seeing it. When Chanu stopped talking to the teacher, Vin began to read his book. Like JD, he committed it to memory. When the prescribed length of time elapsed, the teacher handed out the papers and the children began completing them. Ezra stared at the paper for a few minutes before he pushed it aside and rested his head on his folded arms. Within seconds, he was deeply asleep. While his unusual behavior worried Chanu, Vin and JD weren’t at all worried, they knew that Ezra was tired after he sustained an injury. The teachers ignored the dozing child and went on with the math lesson. JD and Vin sped through the papers, which were mostly simple addition and subtraction.
When he finished his paper, Vin began to take notice of the posters that decorated the walls of the classroom. When he reached the one with a more advanced math problem, he turned his paper over and began to solve it. The teacher’s aide walked around behind him and peered over his shoulder. Her eyes widened in surprise and she hurried around to where the other teacher was helping one of the girls with her problems. The bell rang to dismiss class for the day and all of the children leapt to their feet, except for JD, Vin and Ezra. JD looked around in confusion as the others pushed in their chairs and stacked their papers on the corner of the teacher’s desk. Vin moved to stand protectively over Ezra, watching to see that no one bothered him. After all of the children had gone, the teacher approached Vin and picked up the math paper. She studied the solution he had come up with and shook her head in wonder.
“I’ll have to find some more advanced math for you tomorrow, young man,” she said with a smile. “For both of you, I see,” she told JD as she handed back his reading paper. She had put a gold star and a smiley-face sticker on the top of the paper. JD took the paper as if it might bite him, looking to Vin for help. Seeing the other boy shrug his shoulder, he carefully folded the paper and tucked it into his pocket.
Chanu picked Ezra up and carried him out to the truck. He stirred only briefly before leaning against Vin and dropping back to sleep. “Is he okay?” Chanu asked of Vin.
“He always sleeps a lot after he gets hurt.”
“Yeah, when Dr. Markam took out his appendix, he slept almost a week,” JD volunteered. What he didn’t reveal was that the surgery had been done without anesthetic, as a test of the boy’s ability to control his reaction to pain.
“What if we leaked the story to the press?” Josiah suggested as he and Buck were sitting outside keeping watch.
“What good would that do? They’d come and take the boys away to turn them into lab rats,” Buck countered.
“They couldn’t, not if the press released a story on their plight. Public opinion wouldn’t allow them to put innocent children through something like that.”
“But would it make things better for them or worse? If the other parents found out about them, would they want their kids in school with them? What if they split them up?”
“At times like these, I find myself wishing for the Wisdom of Solomon,” Josiah said as he shifted around to ease an aching muscle.
The next day, Chanu took the boys back over to the school right after breakfast. He watched to see how they interacted with the other children. JD was quick to blend in, actually comfortable enough with the other kids to sit apart from Vin and Ezra. The teachers gave the boys more advanced work, even to throwing some of the high school level papers into the mix. Ezra, feeling better after most of 12 hours of sleep, was quick to tackle the assignment. Vin was edgy and irritable all morning. At the first recess, JD went off to play with the younger children. Chanu encouraged Vin and Ezra to join the older kids in a game of kickball. After he explained the game, he sent them to opposite teams.
Ezra went to the outfield, between two of the bigger boys while Vin went to the team that was kicking. When the first player, a girl, kicked the ball, it bounced over the head of one of the outfield and she made it to first base. Several players later, the biggest boy on the team was up. The field players moved back, expecting him to really send the ball flying. When the ball was kicked, it went in a long, high arch toward the field. The boy took off running and his teammates cheered. Chanu watched as Ezra stared at the ball. It was coming right at him! He put out his hands, as his tongue stuck out from between clenched lips. The bigger boys, seeing the ball coming to the new kid, started running to try to catch it. Fearing a collision, Chanu got up and started across the infield. One of the bigger boys stepped in front of Ezra and caught the ball. Even as the sharpshooter slowed his run, he saw the anger in Ezra’s green eyes. The inning was over and the teams switched places.
Vin, like Ezra, was sent to the outfield. Ezra was put up early in the line up, between two better players. When it came his turn, he stared at the ball as it came toward him, and passed him. The children behind him began to yell, asking why he hadn’t kicked it. The second ball came toward him and he watched it go by. Chanu jogged out and wrapped an arm around the boy, asking him if he understood that he was supposed to kick the ball, Ezra nodded and said that he would. The third ball was rolled and Ezra bounced on his toes a couple of times before he swung his leg. The ball connected and was propelled away. The infield players watched in stunned surprise as the ball flew over their heads, as did the outfield. Two of the boys ran to get the ball while Ezra’s teammates screamed for him to run. With a smile, Ezra did run around the bases, stopping at third when the ball was relayed back to the infield. The next player kicked another long ball and Ezra jogged to the home plate, getting high-fives from several of the other kids.
Vin came up early in the next inning and kicked the ball as hard as he could. The ball flew, low and fast, past the pitcher and the second base player. One of the outfield tried to grab it and fell, knocking the ball down but not able to hold on to it. Vin ran, faster than Chanu could have imagined, managing to make it all the way around and coming toward home. The catcher was standing on the base, yelling for them to throw him the ball. The pitcher had the ball and threw it, not to the catcher, but at Vin. The ball hit him in the thigh, throwing him off balance and sending him to the ground. Before Chanu could even process what had happened, Vin was up and racing across the diamond. He shoved the pitcher, sending him to the ground. Chanu ran out and caught hold of Vin before he could light into the boy with his balled-up fists.
“Vin! You don’t push other kids!” the sharpshooter scolded.
“But he hit me!” Vin protested. “He didn’t hit any of the others!”
The bell rang, ending the game, and the kids meandered toward the building. Ezra and JD ran to Vin, glaring at Chanu. It took him a while to explain to the boys why the kid had hit Vin with the ball and that they hadn’t meant to hurt him. He thought the matter was resolved, until the next recess period. The children separated again and the game began. When the pitcher who had hit him with the ball came up, Vin began to smile. The ball bounced once before he was able to get to it, cutting off three other players who were trying to catch it. When he had the ball in his hands, he looked to see where the boy was who had hit him earlier. With perfect precision, he let the ball fly, hitting the boy in the leg hard enough to knock him down. Chanu noticed that there was a little bit of a strut to Vin’s walk as he returned to his place in the outfield.
At the end of three days, they were no closer to an answer. Orin wanted them back in the office and they couldn’t come up with a good enough reason not to go. They decided to take the boys to Chris’s ranch for a few days until they came up with a better plan.
Justin Prescott answered the phone as he muted the television, “Prescott.”
“Mr. Prescott, I thought you should know that ATF agent who was investigating the fire came home late last night.”
“Were you able to get into his house?”
“Yes, we searched and didn’t find anything from the lab. I don’t think they found anything.”
“I don’t pay you to think,” Prescott said. “Keep an eye on him. I’m sure they know where the boys are. I’ve got to get those kids back before someone finds out!”
“Yes Sir, I understand,” the man replied, almost coming to attention in his car. When the line went dead, he folded the cell phone and stuck it back in his pocket. He had seen Larabee leaving for work, after he tended to business in the barn, and there hadn’t been any motion inside of the house since.
Another call came in and Prescott sighed in irritation, “Prescott.”
“Mission accomplished, Sir. The Wells’ are dead.”
“And the child?”
“She was in the car with them. After the fire, there won’t be enough left of her for them to learn anything,” the man said as he watched the paramedics pulling the charred remains from the car. The official report would say that a faulty fuel pump exploded inside of the tank, turning the Mini-Cooper into a fireball as it left the road.
In the mountains to the west of Denver, an older woman hung up the phone and tried to control the tears that threatened to trickle down her cheeks. She turned to look at the little girl playing so happily on the floor of the living room and wondered if she would understand that her parents were dead.
“Casey dear, why don’t we take your toys and go out in the yard for a while?” Nettie called as she wiped her face on her apron. The little fair-haired girl smiled as she gathered up her toys and put them in the basket.
When her brother’s son had come to her with the story, she hadn’t believed him. Who could believe a wild story about genetically engineered children? Gavin explained that his wife had been unable to conceive and that they had gone to a fertility clinic for in-vitro insemination. It wasn’t until his daughter was almost a year old that they began to notice things. Casey could tell how people felt by the way they smelled, or so she said. She could hear things that neither Gavin nor his wife Missy could hear. They had been overjoyed when she walked at eight months. When they enrolled her in a ‘Tumbling for Toddlers’ program, they were stunned to see her copying the actions of the older children, even to doing a heart-stopping back-flip on a balance beam before her mother could get to her and take her down. They started teaching her the alphabet and she was reading by the time she was two. She could also repeat, verbatim, anything she had looked at, even if only for a few seconds. Gavin said that he had gone back to the clinic, thinking that it was some benefit of the in-vitro program; it was then that he learned what had happened.
The young accountant sat back in the leather chair, stunned into silence. Justin Prescott had just informed him that his daughter was the product of genetic manipulation. The man cautioned him that if anyone found out, they would probably take the child away to study her. He had stumbled from the office, dazed, and went home to tell his wife. Missy cried hysterically, fearing that they had hurt the baby in some way. Gavin assured her that Prescott said she was unharmed, just exceptionally smart. For the next year, they kept the secret, until the explosion at UNOS. When he noticed the strange men watching him and the house, he was worried. A couple of days later, the preschool called to tell him that they noticed a man watching the kids and that he asked questions about Casey.
They had arrived in the middle of the night, leaving the girl after telling Nettie the wild story and asking her to keep Casey until they returned for her. Now they would never return and she had to decide what to do with the four-year-old. She owned the house and nearly a thousand acres of land, although she rented the fields and collected a percentage of the crop sales. Together with the small pension checks from her years as a teacher, she lived comfortably but she was all alone.
In the basement of Chris’s ranch house, the three boys were bored. They had promised that they would stay in the house and away from the windows. If they heard anyone come in, they were to go to the storage cellar. Chris had reinforced the door and put a stout metal pole in there to use as a lock. From the outside, it looked as if the old door hadn’t been opened in years, and it would provide the boys with a place to hide. They had a cell phone and, against Chris’s better judgment, a pistol. Vin had assured him that he knew how to use it and had demonstrated his ability before they left the reservation. The nine-year-old would make a hell of a marksman some day, hitting every target Chanu had set up for him.
From the offices in the Federal Building, Chris tried to concentrate on his work but his mind kept going back to the three small boys locked away in his basement. Buck had assured him that it was the best, indeed the only, way to keep them safe for the time being. Josiah and Nathan were delving into some information on the computer the boys had taken with them and discovered that the boys were what amounted to the beta models and that Prescott had begun breeding other genetically modified children under the guise of a fertility clinic. As they ran down the patient list, they discovered that several of the families had recently been killed in a variety of accidents. At least six families had died in the two weeks since the fire at UNOS.
“He’s getting rid of the evidence!” Nathan announced as he dropped the file on the desk.
“You think all of these families had UNOS babies?” Chris asked.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. Prescott’s afraid of being discovered, so he’s eliminating the children and their families.”
“Do you have any idea how many we’re talking about?”
“Besides the ones he’s already gotten, there are maybe ten more families in the special files. Some of them haven’t even delivered yet. Chris, we’ve got to get these people some protection!”
“How? Nathan, how do we protect these people without revealing what we know? If we tell the truth, those kids and the boys will become lab rats!”
“And if we do nothing they’ll be killed!”
“Gentlemen, have you considered that we need not reveal the truth? Suppose a little subtle subterfuge is in order. What if someone was trying to kill them because they saw test-tube babies as soulless demons?” Josiah suggested. “Some cult of crazed religious fanatics or something, they blew up UNOS and now they’re after the children created through their technology and resources?”
“Does it fit the profile? Can you sell it?” Chris asked of the profiler.
“We have the proof right here in black and white,” Nathan said as he tapped the folder.
Orin looked at the papers in disbelief. “You can’t be serious!”
“It’s all right there. One family on the list was coincidence, six is an organized attack,” Chris said as he stared intently at Travis.
“I’ll have to bring the FBI in on this; it’s outside of our scope. Is this the entire list?”
“These are all of the families from that particular clinic. None of the other clinics have had any of their patients killed. It’s possible that they had someone on the inside, a nurse or lab technician who provided them with the names,” Josiah offered.
Over a twenty-four hour period, all of the remaining targets disappeared. Justin Prescott was not a happy man. He cursed and screamed at his men, demanding that they find them and get rid of them. It was bad enough to have lost the boys, but now it looked like someone was on to him. He pulled in a lot of favors and greased a lot of palms to find out that the FBI was behind the disappearances, and that they had been tipped off by the man in charge of the ATF team who had investigated the explosion at UNOS.
“Larabee must have the boys! It’s the only way he could have made the connection between the clinic and the murders. Get me Chris Larabee!”
At the ranch, Chris and Buck tried to keep the boys entertained, no easy task. They weren’t interested in any of the board games the team had gathered up and Chris didn’t have many books. When Buck hooked up the Play Station, JD took an interest. Vin didn’t have the patience for the video games and soon slipped out of the room. Ezra didn’t like the games; the noise they made gave him a headache. When Chanu left and returned with a sketchpad and some charcoal pencils, Vin eagerly joined him in the kitchen to draw. Josiah and Chris were watching a baseball game and keeping half an eye tuned to Ezra, who was sitting on the floor fiddling with some coins. Every so often, he would sigh, letting the men know that he was bored.
Although he was glad that the others had found something to do, Ezra was bored and lonely. He hadn’t realized how much he depended on the other boys for his own entertainment. Glancing around the living room, he noticed a deck of cards on the mantle above the fireplace. His eyes widened with excitement and he gathered up his coins and pushed up from the floor. “Mr. Larabee, may I play with those cards up there?” he asked when the blond looked up at him.
“Sure, I’ll get them for you,” Chris said as he got up from the recliner. “Would you like for me to play a game with you?”
“Yes, please!” Ezra said with a grin.
When he had gotten the cards and they sat down around the coffee table, Chris asked, “What game did you have in mind?”
“The game is poker, gentlemen, one-eyed jacks and deuces are wild,” the green-eyed boy replied as he shuffled the cards and dealt them, automatically including Josiah, who had sat up on the couch to watch. “Do you have any chips, so that we might keep score?”
Less than an hour later, Chris shook his head as Ezra raked in the last of his chips. Josiah looked at the paltry remains of his own stack of chips and muttered a prayer under his breath.
“I sincerely doubt that invoking a deity will help you, Mr. Sanchez. You simply must learn to control your emotional reaction to the cards you are dealt,” Ezra said as he set the deck down to be cut.
“I think someone is dealing off of the bottom,” Larabee commented.
“I have no need to cheat, sir. Your ability to conceal your emotions is equally as deplorable as Mr. Sanchez. I need only concern myself with the calculation of the odds.”
As Ezra’s small hand reached out to take up the cards, the front door burst open and several men ran in, pointing assault rifles at them. Chanu started into the room, only to be dispatched by a gun butt to the chin. Two of the gunmen stepped over the prone body and covered Vin, who was watching with rage burning brightly in his eyes. Buck came out of the bedroom, his mouth open to ask a question and froze at the sight of the heavily armed men.
The five ATF agents were securely tied and sitting in the middle of the living room floor. The boys were made to sit along the wall and they were tied hand and foot. The gunmen seemed to be waiting for something and hadn’t spoken to their captives since ordering them to sit down and shut up. A half hour later, a car pulled up and one of them moved to open the door. Prescott strode in like he owned the place, an evil smile curling his mouth. The boys gasped in surprise before their faces went blank.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here? Tsk, tsk, tsk, you shouldn’t have kept them from me, Mr. Larabee,” Prescott said as he looked down on the blond. “They are, after all, my very own creations. Why, Ezra was even carried by my beloved wife, weren’t you, son?”
“Leave him alone. Why don’t you just leave all of them alone?” Chris asked, his voice loud and angry. He glared at Prescott as he continued to try to work his hands free of the rope that bound them.
“Because, I brought them into the world and now it seems that I am going to have to take them out of it. It really is too bad, because they had so much potential. Bring me one of them,” he ordered as he walked over to the bar and pulled something from his pocket. Nathan’s blood ran cold at the sight of the syringe and the amber liquid in the bottle. He had no doubt that it was a lethal poison. One of the gunmen handed off his weapon and moved to pick up the smallest of the boys.
“No! Don’t!” JD screamed as he was carried across the room.
“Don’t you hurt him!” Vin yelled as he continued to try to loosen his bonds. “Leave him alone!”
JD continued to scream and struggle, even as he was forced to sit in one of the tall bar chairs. “Hold him still!” Prescott demanded. The gunman wrapped his arm around the small boy and used his other hand to grab a handful of JD’s hair and tip his head back, exposing his vulnerable throat.
“Please don’t … Father!” Ezra called, as Prescott was preparing to put the needle into JD’s vein. The man’s hand stopped, just short of penetration and he turned to regard the child across the room.
“What did you call me?”
“Father! Please don’t hurt him! I … I’ll do whatever you want!” Ezra yelled.
The ropes around his wrists slipped free and Chris used the moment of distraction to spring up, grabbing one of the assault rifles. Behind him, Chanu had also managed to free his hands and leapt up, surprising another one of the gunmen. Nathan and Josiah lashed out with their long legs, tripping a couple of them. Shots rang out. From the corner of his eye, Chris saw two small forms hurdling across the room. One final shot sounded before the room went oddly silent. Justin Prescott had a look of surprise on his face as the pistol slipped from his lifeless fingers. His body toppled slowly toward the ground, aided by the long-haired child clinging to his back. Vin grunted as the man’s weight drove him against the floor but he never relinquished his grip on the wicked-looking knife he had plunged into Prescott’s chest.
“Oh my God!” Nathan gasped as he rolled over and looked to the other two boys. Buck snapped the rope on his wrists, bounding over in time to catch Ezra as he sank to his knees, staring in horror at the blood pouring from the hole in his chest. But it was JD’s soft whimper that galvanized them.
“He shot me!” Ezra whispered as his eyes drifted closed.
“Untie me, damn it!” Nathan yelled. Chanu knelt and cut the ropes from Nathan and Josiah’s hands while Chris covered the surviving gunmen. Both men scrambled to their feet, Josiah moving to take hold of Ezra while Buck struggled to keep JD from falling out of the chair. “Lay them both on the floor! Chanu, I need blankets and towels!”
The sharpshooter looked up from where he was handcuffing the remaining surviving gunman and nodded. Chris laid the assault rifle on the kitchen counter and began to gather the other weapons. It took him less than a minute to dump them in the corner before he knelt to ease Prescott’s body off of Vin. The boy actually growled at him until he recognized who it was that had touched him. Chris pried the little hand off of the hilt of the knife and rolled the body toward the wall. In a flash, Vin was clinging to his chest and shaking. Chris rose slowly, cradling the boy’s head against his shoulder as he walked back across the room. The others were attending to JD and Ezra and Larabee needed to get Vin away before he realized how badly they were hurt.
“Press down on this. Good, just like that. Chanu, can you call an ambulance and the police? Tell them what we’ve got and tell them to put a rush on it. Buck, can you trade places with me?” Nathan moved without waiting for an answer. While Ezra was marginally conscious, JD had yet to respond to anything. Fortunately, the bullet had hit him below his lung, so his breathing was steady.
“Just take it easy. You’ll be fine,” Josiah assured Ezra every time the boy’s eyes met his. Suddenly, the green eyes widened and the child began to try to get up. “Lay still, son. Just lay still,” he urged as he held Ezra to the floor.
“Vin!” Ezra cried, “Where’s Vin?”
“Chris has him, he’s fine,” Chanu said as he knelt and handed another stack of towels to Nathan. “He took him out on the deck. You need to stay still.” He saw the relief in Ezra’s eyes before they went unfocused and he lost consciousness again.
The black gelding sniffed at the odd bundle his master was holding in his arms and tossed his head at the coppery odor of blood that clung to it. In the next stall, Buck’s gray stuck his head out in curiosity, also nudging the silent bundle.
When the boy in his arms flinched, Chris tightened his arms, “Shh, it’s alright. You’re alright.” He turned around, leaning against the stalls as he willed his hands to stop shaking. He felt another warm breath on his neck and shook his head slightly as Pony began to lip his collar. A moment later, he heard something. He waited, anxious to hear it again. Vin shifted slightly in his arms and giggled again. “Don’t let him get your fingers,” he cautioned.
“I won’t,” came the soft response. Vin stretched his arm out and ran his palm down the length of the gelding’s face. The gray horse nudged the man, hard enough that he had to shift his weight to stay in place and Vin laughed again. The sound of sirens reached his ears and he drew back so he could see Chris’s eyes. “Are Ezra and JD going to die?”
“I don’t think so, Nathan’s going to take good care of them.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
That was indeed the question of the hour. Now that Prescott was dead, could they pass the boys off as test tube babies? Even if they didn’t reveal their unique nature, who would take all three of them? As his heart clenched at the myriad of possibilities, he heard the sirens himself.
“Let’s get back up to the house so Nathan can check you over too,” Chris said as he began to walk out of the barn.
“I’m fine, he didn’t get me,” Vin solemnly replied.
“Yeah, well, Nathan will still want to check for himself. What do you say to humoring him?”
The paramedics arrived and glanced around at the carnage. Nathan quickly explained the boys’ conditions. JD was gently lifted to a stretcher and IV’s started in both arms. At least a score of cops arrived, both DPD and the surrounding municipal departments sent officers. The surviving gunmen were roughly dragged to waiting patrol cars while the dead ones were photographed before being moved. When Chris came in, he saw more than one hand grab for a gun. Recognizing that he was one of the victims, they immediately relaxed. The paramedics lifted Ezra from the floor and he cried out in pain and fear. Vin began to struggle until Chris let him go. He ran to the stretcher and glared defiantly at the strangers.
“Easy, Vin, they’re just trying to help him,” Chanu said as he put a hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder. “Why don’t you step back here and let them do their job?”
“Vin?” Ezra called.
“I’m here,” he answered, reaching to take one of the pale hands.
“At least we’ll heal quickly,” he murmured before he drifted off again.
After Nathan checked Vin for injuries, he took the child into the other room to wash his hands and change his clothing. He noticed the abrasions on Vin’s wrists left by his struggling with the rope and gently cleaned them with soap and water. Chris came in after having changed his clothes.
“Let’s go, they’re taking the boys.”
“No!” Vin cried as he launched himself toward the door. Chris dropped to his knees and caught the boy in his arms. “Don’t take them away! Please, we have to stay together!”
“Vin! Vin … they’re taking them to the hospital so they can be fixed up. We’re going with them. I’m not letting anyone take them away,” Chris said firmly.
Nathan rode with Buck and JD in one ambulance, while Josiah rode with Chanu and Ezra in the other, leaving Chris and Vin all alone in the cab of the truck. It was a quiet ride, except for the sound of the sirens, and Chris had to struggle to hear what sounded like sniffles coming from the child seated next to him. Taking one hand off of the wheel, he pulled Vin toward him. He felt one small hand clench in the material of his shirt as the boy shuddered. Chris stroked the long sun-blond hair as Vin silently shed his tears. Before they reached the hospital, he was asleep, his hand still holding the wrinkled wad of material.
Both boys went straight to surgery. Team 7 and Vin waited in the surgical waiting area. A police detective arrived to take their statements. When he asked to speak to Vin alone, Chris and Chanu objected. Vin slipped off of the couch and walked to the detective calmly, “It’s alright, I can tell him what happened.”
Vin walked into the small room and took the seat he was offered. The detective tried to put him at ease. “Now, I just want to talk to you about what happened at the ranch today. You aren’t in any trouble. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” Vin replied. He started with Buck and JD playing the video game and told how Chanu had gone to get the drawing supplies. The detective made notes, even though this wasn’t at all what he needed to know. He let the child talk, telling the story in his own way. When Vin told about the men with the guns, he perked up. He listened with fascination as the boy calmly described the men and the guns, telling how Chanu was incapacitated by the blow to his chin. Vin laid everything out in startling detail, ending with a statement that left the 23-year veteran cop chilled to the bone. “I saw he was going to shoot JD and Ezra so I pulled my knife and I stabbed him in the heart,” Vin said. “He still pulled the trigger, though, so I must not have done it right.”
Charlie Adams had heard a lot of statements during his years on the force and a lot of cold-blooded killers had made grizzly confessions, but none of them affected him as profoundly as the words coming from the skinny, nine-year-old boy. He was momentarily distracted until a pair of thin, scraped wrists intruded on his field of vision. “What do you want, son?” he asked.
“Aren’t you going to handcuff me and take me away?” Vin asked.
Detective Adams fought back the smile that wanted to spread on his face, “No, but someone might want to shake your hand.” He gently parted the boy’s wrists and squeezed Vin’s hand.
When the detective brought Vin back into the waiting room, Chris wasn’t there. Vin’s heart clenched as his eyes filled with tears. Chanu was the first to realize what was happening, “JD’s out of surgery. Chris and Buck went to see him. He’ll be right back.”
“I believe I have everything I need. I’ll be in touch in a couple of days,” Adams said as he nodded to each of the men in the room.
The boys were placed in the same room since Nathan told the hospital that they were brothers. The staff balked a little at allowing Vin into the ICU but Chris glared them down, hitched the boy onto his hip and carried him in. Ezra was already awake and Vin could tell that he was hurting badly but it didn’t show on his face. Chris put him on the side of the bed, admonishing him to be careful, because Ezra had stitches in his side. Vin gently took up Ezra’s hand and studied his face.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly.
“It will heal,” Ezra replied. “You were not injured?”
“No, just got the wind knocked out of me for a minute.”
The adults shrank back, letting the boys have a moment. Still, Vin could hear every word they said. Josiah asked what the detective said when he called and Chris said that no charges would be brought against any of them.
While Ezra was alert and talking, JD remained unconscious. The doctors thought it was due to shock and blood loss, but Vin knew better. JD, like Ezra, needed rest to heal, but JD had been awake, he was simply too afraid for them to find out. Like the others, he had been told what would happen to him if the authorities should get hold of him. He was withdrawing, curling up in a safe corner of his mind where he wouldn’t feel anything if they started ‘experimenting’ on him. Knowing didn’t help Vin, he couldn’t assure the younger boy that they wouldn’t end up on some lab table. He had heard the men whispering and he knew that there were some negotiations going on for custody of the three of them. Orin Travis had secured the team leader temporary custody while the investigation was ongoing but Children’s Services had been contacted and was searching for relatives to take them.
The knock at the door caused Nettie to glance across the room before rising from her rocker. She had agreed to meet with these men because they said that they had information about how her nephew and his wife died and why. Casey was in the bedroom, she had been told not to come out, under any circumstances. As far as anyone knew, the old woman was still all alone up there. Two men stood on her porch when she opened the door.
“Why don’t we talk out here since it’s a pretty day?” she asked, motioning them toward the glider and chairs on the far end of the porch. “Now, what was it that you had to tell me that you couldn’t say over the phone?”
Nathan and Chris took the offered chairs and then paused, although they knew what they had planned to tell the woman, it all evaporated in the cold light of her eyes. “Mrs. Wells,” Nathan began, “I don’t know if you were aware of it or not, but your nephew and his wife sought fertility services at the UNOS clinic in Denver.” Seeing the woman nod, he went on, “We have been investigating an explosion at the facility. It seems that a group of … religious fanatics … took it upon themselves to … eliminate what they saw as ‘devil’s issue’ in the form of the artificially conceived children and their families. I know it isn’t any kind of consolation to you, Ma’am, but we did get them and they will be punished.”
“My stars and garters,” Nettie exclaimed softly, “how many of the children did they get? Did any of them survive?”
“We managed to get several into safe houses. We also have three children whose mothers were killed. They are looking for relatives to take custody of them.”
Wondering if the other children were like Casey, Nettie asked, “Where are they now, the ones whose mothers were killed?”
“That’s being kept secret for now,” Chris hurriedly interrupted.
They made some small talk for a few minutes before the men took their leave. As they were driving away, Chris happened to glance in the mirror in time to see a small blonde girl run across the porch to the woman. He knew that, according to the records, Casey Wells had been burned to death in the car with her parents. It appeared that the report may have been in error.
Josiah closed the book and took a drink of the water on the bedside table. He had been reading for over an hour, hoping to get some response from the boy on the bed. The doctors were completely baffled by the fact that he seemed to be in a coma. Physically, he was healing faster than they would have expected but he had yet to waken. He was being fed intravenously and by an NG tube, his waste being carried away by a catheter. They had not removed the cardiac monitor, its continuous beeping neither rising nor falling in response to the world around him. All of the team had taken turns spending time with JD but it was Buck who spent the lion’s share of time with him. He read and sang to the boy, often sitting on the bed stroking JD’s hands and face to encourage him to come back to them. He took over bathing the pale body, doing an admirable job of washing and drying JD with a minimum of mess. The doctor had spoken to Chris about doing more tests.
Vin and Ezra turned pleading eyes on their guardian. It had been over a week since the older boy had been discharged from the hospital and neither of them had been back there since. They had overheard the adults talking about the additional tests the doctors wanted to perform and feared that they would drive JD deeper into his protected world. Chris finally relented and put them both in the truck.
The nursing staff stood silently as the blond marched the boys into the room where their friend was being kept. Vin gasped at the tubes and wires that were connected to JD.
“You have to take that stuff away or he won’t wake up!” Ezra exclaimed as he tried to get up on the bed. Buck caught hold of him just in time to keep him from taking hold of the oxygen line.
“Leave that alone! The doctor says that he needs that,” Buck said, tightening his grip on the writhing, struggling child in his arms.
“But you have to!” Ezra cried as he sank his teeth into the restraining arm. Wilmington hissed in pain before letting go, catching himself just shy of striking the boy. Chanu took hold of Vin when he saw that the boy was about to launch himself into the melee. Chris caught hold of Ezra the next time he made his bid for the tubes and wires.
“Ezra, stop! You can’t go yanking on that stuff, you’ll hurt him. Calm down and tell me what you’re thinking, Kiddo,” the blond said as he moved to sit on the foot of the bed.
When he realized that his guardian would truly listen to him, Ezra let his body relax. “He thinks they’re going to experiment on him, that’s why he won’t wake up. He’s afraid.”
“Experiment?” Buck questioned, bristling with anger at the very thought.
“That is what Prescott’s people told us would happen to us if we were ever discovered,” Ezra quietly explained. “They taught each of us to shut ourselves away inside of our minds for protection.”
“The ultimate soldier, strong, fast, and unable to be interrogated, that has to be what he was aiming for,” Chanu said. “He’s made the ultimate soldier.”
It took a lot of doing to convince the doctors to remove the IV and NG tube. It took a lot of angry discussions and posturing to get them to release the child to them while he was still unconscious. Buck bundled JD in a blanket and carried him out of the hospital. The other two boys were certain that, once he realized he was out of the hospital, JD would waken. Nathan went ballistic when he found out what they had done.
Once they were at the ranch, JD was tucked in the bottom bunk of the beds Chris had set up in what had been Adam’s room. Vin and Ezra insisted that the window be open so that JD could smell the mountain air. They then settled in to wait.
There was no change overnight, and when Nathan showed up in the morning, he was accompanied by the worker from Children’s Services. The woman was red in the face with anger that the child had been removed from the doctor’s care and threatened to have Chris arrested for child endangerment. The blond merely glared at her and invited her to leave.
When there was no change by noon, Buck began to worry. He had come to love the littlest of the three boys with all of his heart. Nathan began ranting about how quickly JD could become dehydrated and urged them to return him to the hospital. They spent another tension filled night at the ranch watching over the slumbering child. Vin and Ezra refused to sleep, spending their time talking and reading to their friend. By the next morning, Chris conceded that there was no change and agreed to allow them to take JD back to the hospital.
“He’ll die,” Ezra told Buck as he sat washing JD’s face.
“He’s dying now,” Wilmington countered.
“You have to reach him,” Ezra urged. “He cares for you.”
Looking into the intense green eyes, Buck threw out his last challenge, “Tell me what to do.”
Nathan had called the hospital and informed them that he was bringing JD back. Chris called Chanu to come from the office and help Josiah to keep the other boys from interfering. Looking out the kitchen window, he could see Vin leaning against the corral with three of the horses crowded close. He had looked so disappointed when Chris told him that they might have to take JD back. The medic came running through the house, cursing aloud.
“He took JD away! Damned fool, that boy could die! And he’ll be responsible!” Nathan vowed.
“Who took JD?” Chris asked.
“Buck, he was just going to get him washed up and dressed and now they’re gone!”
The sun was shining warmly in the secluded little field. The grass was knee high on the horse as he sauntered toward the lake. Buck looked down at the child in his arms. JD was so still, so limp in his arms, that he almost looked dead. “Come on, Little Bit, come on back to us,” he urged.
It didn’t take long to find Buck’s horse missing and figure out what direction he had taken. Chris and Nathan saddled the horses to set out after him. Chanu ran from his car when he saw the men at the corral. Vin and Ezra stood, unrepentant, while Chris explained the situation. They swung up into the saddles and turned the horses, moving them into a lope.
Buck leaned back against the rock, letting the warmth invade his body as he talked to the unresponsive child in his lap. He talked about all of the good times that had been had at the small lake, including the time that Sarah had tipped over the canoe. He made lavish promises if only JD would wake up. All too soon, he heard the thundering hoof beats that announced that they had company.
“Didn’t take you long to find me,” he said as Chris’s boots crunched on the gravel.
“Were you trying to hide?” Larabee countered.
“Give me another day with him,” Buck said, tipping his face up into the sun, he squinted at his friend’s face, “Please Chris? Just one more day?”
“I already called the hospital, they’re expecting him,” Nathan interrupted as he came around the blond and knelt to examine JD. “He’s already showing signs of dehydration.” He made to take the child and Buck curled his arm more tightly around him.
“At least let me have the ride back with him.”
Chris nodded and Nathan backed off. Buck rose, gently cradling JD on his hip. He untied the reins from the bush and mounted. When he had turned the horse back toward the ranch, the other two men mounted and fell in behind him. No one spoke as they made their way through the trees and into the lower pasture. Several of the horses that Chris boarded were in the field and they tossed their heads at the saddled mounts before thundering away. Buck thought he felt a twitch from JD but when he looked down, he couldn’t see anything different. Deciding that it was wishful thinking, he focused his eyes on the barn in the distance. As they reached the gate that led into the smaller area where the team’s horses grazed, Chanu’s mustang cantered over. Buck’s horse stopped, tossing his head at the smaller, younger gelding. Using his knees, Wilmington steered his mount around the other animal, his heart heavy at the sight of the other two boys standing next to the corral.
Inside of the barn, Buck got down from the horse and shifted JD in his arms, settling the brunet head against his shoulder. He froze when one of the boy’s arms wrapped around his neck and JD sighed. “Can we do that again soon?” JD mumbled around a yawn.
It took only a few days to locate Maude Standish. She was in a convalescent facility near Vale, Colorado. Believing herself responsible for her son’s death, she had begun drinking heavily. A series of strokes had left her trapped inside of a wasting body. Nathan sighed as he reviewed the report from the doctor attending to the woman.
“What are we going to do, Chris? If it is his mother, she certainly can’t care for him. And if what I saw on the computer is correct, she may not even have been his mother, biologically speaking,” the medic said.
“Can you find out? Do a comparison or something?” Larabee asked.
“I’ll get a DNA sample and have our guys run it. We hit a wall on the other boys. Neither woman had any family. Children’s Services will begin searching for adoptive homes for all of them as soon as the temporary custody order expires.”
Therein lay the rub. In the short time he had known the boys, Chris had become attached. Once the danger of Prescott had been eliminated, the boys had been allowed to move around the ranch freely. They explored their new surroundings in much the same way a toddler would, they had to touch and smell everything. The horses were especially interesting to them. He found them in the barn or hanging on the corral rails most of the time. The large animals seemed to accept the boys immediately, coming to stand near them for petting or simply to hang their heads over the boys’ shoulders.
Since JD had gotten to go for a ride with Buck, the other boys reasoned that they should also get to ride. Chanu offered to take Vin but the boy only had eyes for Chris’s big black gelding. Pony nuzzled the child every chance he got and the fondness was definitely returned. Ezra begged and was allowed to choose his mount and Chanu took him out on the russet-colored thoroughbred.
Nathan and Josiah returned from visiting Maude. They wanted to see if she was cognizant enough to be told about her son. She wasn’t, the doctors saying that the strokes had damaged large parts of her brain. She was like an infant, eating, sleeping, and being tended to around the clock. It didn’t take long for them to get the results of the DNA test. Ezra had no more in common with Maude Standish than he did with the other boys. On one hand, it simplified things, on the other, it made them more complicated.
The little, non-descript truck rolled to a stop and Chris stepped out to the porch to see who had come visiting. The boys were in the den, working on a computer program that Josiah had gotten for them from MENSA. When the driver got out, he immediately recognized her, Nettie Wells. Holding her hand was a little blonde girl with enormous brown eyes.
“Mr. Larabee, may I have a word with you?” she asked, without moving from the side of her vehicle. When he nodded, she started toward the house. “It took some doing for me to find out that you had those boys you were talking to me about.”
Alarm bells rang in his head but Chris was outwardly calm, “Yeah, what about them?”
“They’re special, aren’t they? Smarter, stronger than normal children?”
“What do you want?” he asked, feeling decidedly uneasy.
“I want to help you with them. You see, this is my niece, Casey, and she’s one of the UNOS babies. My nephew told me all about it when he left her with me.”
It took a lot of work to cut through the hoards of red tape and gain permanent custody of the boys. Chris had settled Mrs. Wells and her niece in the small apartment that had been built into the side of the barn. Buck and Chanu agreed to move to the ranch, to provide additional supervision for the boys. In the sealed court records, Chris revealed how the children had been test-tube babies, implanted in women who were little more than incubators. He hinted that Prescott had planned to use them as test subjects for his new AIDS drug. The judge glossed over the files and photographs. None of the people who had worked for UNOS could be found to refute the testimony.
A lot of work went into teaching the boys to be children. Because of their enhanced abilities and intelligence, they couldn’t function in a normal classroom setting. Nettie attended to supervising their education, which consisted mostly of making sure they understood the volumes of information they took in from the books they read. But she also made time for them to play. In conjunction with a home schooling program, she took the boys to play with other kids and got them involved in baseball and soccer.
JD went to his knees, one arm raised in victory as the ball went into the net. He had made the pass to Tony, who kicked the ball past the goalie. A moment later, he was back on his feet, racing down the field to the clutch of people who had been cheering him on. Buck caught him as he launched himself toward the mustached man.
“Did you see it? Did you see how we did it? Chanu taught us that move! Wasn’t it great?!”
“It was awesome, Little Bit! Now, go shake hands with the other guys so we can go celebrate,” Buck urged as he set JD on his feet and nudged him toward the others. It had been hard for him, being so fast, to learn to pass the ball and let the other kids help him to score.
The wind barely stirred the air as the catcher signaled the pitch. The green eyed boy on the mound watched, judging the exact moment when the batter’s attention strayed, then he hurled the ball. When the snap of ball on leather was heard, Ezra smiled. He worked very hard to learn to pitch and even harder to keep the position. He’d had to try out, since he didn’t belong to the school that the other boys attended. The coach was impressed with him.
When he came up to bat, his mind was a whirl of thoughts. The smell of the hotdogs, with their spicy mustard and sweet relish, the popcorn and nachos, made his mouth water. The taunting from the outfield was tuned out. From the corner of his eye, he saw the flag flutter slightly in the thin breeze and added that to his calculation. He could hear the catcher’s fingers as he signaled to the pitcher. When the ball came, he had already figured the speed and lift and adjusted his grip slightly. The ball connected solidly with the bat, lofting gently over the heads of the pitcher and shortstop, falling neatly in the open space in left field. Dropping the bat, he dug his toes into the dirt and ran, each stride precisely placed. He rounded first and barreled toward second, dropping at the last second to slide in under the throw. He was safe. The next batter was a pop up and the pitcher easily caught it, ending the inning and the game. They had lost by two, but they would get them next time. Ezra crossed the infield, stopping to compliment the pitcher on his great catch.
“You could have hit that farther, couldn’t you?” Chanu asked when the curly-haired child joined him near the concession stand.
“Yeah, but then Kevin wouldn’t have gotten to bat,” Ezra explained. “As soon as Jason and I scored the game would have been over.”
The sharpshooter clucked the boy under the chin before handing him a helmet. Chris had agreed that Ezra could ride on the back of the motorcycle, since the weather was pretty and they weren’t far from the ranch.
“Can we take the long way home?” Ezra asked.
From his vantage point on the ridge, Vin could see the small herd of deer cautiously approaching the pond. His charcoal pencil moved without him even looking at it as he began sketching them on the paper. His genetically engineered vision allowed him to see the thickness of muscle on the massive shoulders of the proud buck as he stood watch. He could also see, quite clearly, the shape of the spots on the fawn that crept out of the shadows to sniff at the water. Later, when he got home, he would begin to carve the deer from the wood that Chris had brought him. There was nothing he enjoyed more than sitting with the blond man’s arms around him, showing him how to hold the knife and get the exact shape he wanted from the shapeless hunk of wood. Josiah had also brought him an easel and paints, to encourage him to immortalize the beauty he saw.
A soft crunch on the gravel behind him told him that it was time to go. He looked down at the sketchpad in his lap and smiled. After capping his charcoal pencil, he tucked it into the sleeve on the pad and extended his hand. Chris took hold of him and drew him to his feet, relishing the way the boy leaned into him for a moment before standing on his own. Of all three boys, Vin was the most reticent about physical contact. Something in his genetic pattern yielded a strong fight-or-flight instinct and he had been hurt by people so often that he tended to avoid situations where he might be touched. Fiercely protective of the other two boys, he had a hard time when one of the adults had to correct one of them or hand down discipline. But he was getting better about it.
Chris parked the truck in the garage and got out, reaching back at the last minute for his briefcase. As soon as he set foot in the living room, Casey leapt up from the table where she had been reading and ran toward him. In the months since her parents’ deaths, the little girl had become quite attached to him and very demonstrative of her affections.
“Come see what I’m reading! Aunt Nettie got me a new book from the library! Come and see!” Casey yelled as she dragged Chris across the room.
“Casey Elizabeth Wells! What did I tell you?” Nettie scolded from where she stood in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.
“Not to leave the table until I finished chapter four,” the chastised little girl replied. Chris ran his hand over her silky brown hair as she slid back into the chair. When he turned toward the hall to the bedrooms, he saw Vin, standing in the hallway with something in his hands. Chris smiled, moving toward the hall, eager to see what Vin had done with his project. If he had looked a little closer, he would have noticed the change in the boy’s expression.
“What have you got there, Kiddo?” Chris asked as he stopped in front of Vin.
“I don’t think the leg is right,” Vin said as he held out the wooden deer. Vin had been working on the massive stag for several weeks. If there was one thing Chris had learned, it was that Vin was a perfectionist. The child would painstakingly shape the wood until it practically came to life under his hands. Vin had the finest sandpaper that could be bought to give the wood a silky feel. Chris took the carving by the base and studied the hind leg with a critical eye.
“It looks right to me. I can see the tendon and the bend at the hoof is perfect, Kiddo,” Chris said. He turned the statue around, marveling at the detail on the buck’s eyes and the flair of the nostrils. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he added as he handed it back.
The screen door in the kitchen swung closed with a resounding ‘thwack’ and JD came barreling through the house. They were quickly learning that JD had an abundance of energy and enthusiasm to spare for anything that he found interesting.
“Chris! Chris! Come see! Come see what I found!” JD said loudly. “I think it’s a dinosaur!”
A flash of dread crossed his mind as Chris considered what JD might have dug up. “Let me get changed into my jeans, then I’ll come outside,” he said. JD nodded, barely pausing in his explanation of his amazing discovery.
“I was just digging around in the dirt down by the old tree stump and I found it. I was really careful, just like an archaeologist, and I used one of Vin’s old paint brushes to uncover it,” JD said.
“That was mine!” Vin shouted. Chris had only a second of warning before Vin launched himself at JD. The smaller boy danced away from the attack, his eyes going darker as his hair seemed to poof out around his head. Chris wrapped an arm around Vin and pushed him into the bedroom the boys shared, bracing his body in the doorway when Vin turned his fury to a new target.
“Vin! Stop!” Chris said. “I’ll get you another paint brush. Settle down.”
From the kitchen, Nettie heard the confrontation. Casey had run to her, squealing that Vin was mad and JD was scared of him. Ezra ran in from the yard, where he had been reading in the hammock, heading directly for the bedroom. Nettie rushed to intercept him.
“You stay back here and let Mr. Larabee handle it,” she said.
Chris remained in the doorway, watching as Vin’s breathing became calmer and the color faded from his cheeks. Risking a peek over his shoulder, he saw that JD was still strung up tightly, his entire body practically trembling with the need to fight or flee. “JD, why don’t you go in the kitchen and wait for me there?” he said. Getting no response from the child, he raised his voice, “JD! Go in the kitchen and wait for me!” Finally, JD backed away, not turning his back on the perceived threat.
A red haze had descended over him and Vin shuddered as it faded away. His body was tense and he felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of his head. He took a deeper breath and focused on the mad standing before him and he felt sick. “I … I’m sorry,” Vin said, “I don’t … I didn’t mean to-”
Easing out of the doorway, Chris slowly approached Vin. He pulled the nine-year-old up against his leg, turning to keep his weapon farthest from the boy’s reach. Chris felt the trembling that shook Vin and he gently massaged the back of Vin’s neck. After several seconds, Vin sighed, leaning into the touch and letting his head down to offer more of his neck to be rubbed.
“Come on in the other room with me, Kiddo,” Chris urged. Vin followed obediently, a leftover from his life in the clinic. Any time that something new or different happened to one of them, they would be separated from the others for testing. Chris steered Vin into the master bedroom and made him sit on the side of the bed. Seeing that Vin was calm, Chris went to the wall safe and stored his weapon. After checking to make sure that the safe was locked, he went to sit next to Vin on the bed. “You want to talk to me about what just happened out there?” he asked.
“I – I – I don’t know, Sir,” Vin replied.
“You don’t have to call me Sir,” Chris said.
“I’m sorry,” Vin said quickly.
Chris slid off of the bed and knelt in front of Vin, capturing both of the boy’s hands and squeezing them gently. It seemed that the boys were starving for physical interaction, something they hadn’t gotten much of at the hands of the scientists who had ‘raised’ them. He could see that Vin’s eyelids were drooping and that he was struggling to focus.
“Why don’t you lie down and take a nap? We’ll talk more after supper. Alright?”
With barely a nod of acceptance, Vin toed off his sneakers and moved to lie on one of the big, fluffy pillows. Chris took a quilt from the quilt rack and shook it out, draping it over the boy, who was already asleep. Taking a minute to stroke over the longer, slightly curly hair, Chris slipped from the room.
“What happened? Where is Vin?” Ezra asked as soon as Chris came out of the bedroom.
“He’s asleep. How’s JD?” Chris countered.
“He’s having cookies and milk with Casey in the kitchen.”
As much as he hated to do it, Chris was forced to ask, “Has Vin ever gotten angry enough to hit you or JD?”
Ezra gasped and shook his head, “Oh no. He never got angry with us.”
“But he did get angry, is that what you’re telling me?” Chris pressed on with his questions, knowing that Ezra wouldn’t volunteer anything.
“It’s part of his … training,” Ezra answered. Before Chris could come up with another question, Buck and Chanu arrived. Buck had been living at the ranch before the boys arrived but Chanu had only moved in since Chris had gotten custody of the boys, to help out. With three genetically enhanced kids in the house, Larabee welcomed the extra pair of hands. Buck swept into the kitchen, scooping JD up from his chair and snuffling in the boy’s tummy, something that never failed to cause the child to laugh and squirm. Chanu took in the tense set of Chris and Ezra’s shoulders and the absence of Vin to mean that something had happened. Raising his eyebrows, he saw Chris look toward the other end of the house.
“Buck, you have to come see what I found! I think it’s a dinosaur!” JD said as soon as Buck returned him to his chair.
“A dinosaur? That’s awesome, Little Bit! Let’s go see!” Buck said with as much enthusiasm as JD. Immediately, JD bounced out of the chair and took him by the hand, dragging him out the screen door and around the house.
The ‘dinosaur’ bone lay in the hole where it had been found. JD’s archaeologist tools lay on the ground around the hole. Nettie had given him the small spade and a wooden spoon. Chanu had provided the small pick that JD used to loosen the dirt around his find. Lastly, three paint brushes lay in the strewn dirt. Buck recognized them as the ones that Josiah had given Vin for putting the varnish on his carvings.
“See! Do you think it’s a dinosaur bone? I think it is. I think it’s a new kind of dinosaur and they’re going to name it after me. It’ll be a JDasaurus,” JD explained as he squatted by the hole in the ground near the stump of a tree that Chris had cut down after it was struck by lightning several years ago.
“Well, JD, I hate to break it to you but that’s not a dinosaur bone. That’s a cow bone,” Buck said. “I’ll bet that’s been here since before you were born. See, Chris used to have an old hound dog and that dog, she would bury things. Sarah probably gave her the bone and the dog buried it here.”
“Are you sure?” JD asked. He really wanted it to be a dinosaur bone.
“I’m sure. JD, can you tell me what happened before I got home today?” Buck asked. Of all the boys, JD was the one who was the easiest to get information out of.
“Well, I was telling Chris about the dinosaur and Vin got mad. Chris pushed him into the bedroom and sent me to the kitchen to have milk and cookies.”
“Do you know why Vin was mad?” Buck asked. He had a pretty good idea but he wanted to help JD to realize what he had done.
“Because I took his old paint brushes to dig up my dinosaur?” JD asked.
“That’s probably it. Did you ask him if you could use the brushes?”
“No. But he never cared before.”
The boys had been having problems adjusting to ‘normal’ life outside of the lab. One of the biggest hurdles had been getting them to ‘play’ without having someone there to record the particulars. They were used to being watched, monitored, every minute of every day that they struggled to do things independently. Even after they broke out of UNOS, they had stayed together and hadn’t gone too far from the lab building. Nettie had made progress, mostly by introducing Casey into the mix, but they still had a long way to go. Buck urged JD to ask from now on if he was going to borrow something from anyone and he stressed that it applied to everyone in the house so that JD wouldn’t be confused.
Chanu slipped into Chris’ bedroom and sat lightly on the side of the bed. Vin was deeply asleep, not even responding to the hand that ghosted over his head and along his back. Chanu saw in Vin a little warrior, ready to jump to the defense of anyone who needed help. He sensed a kindred spirit in the boy and tried to spend as much time as possible with him.
Sitting Ezra on a bale of hay in the barn, Chris sat on the top of the grain bin so that he didn’t tower over the child. He had brought Ezra out, away from the house, so that he could ask him some very specific questions.
“What did you mean about Vin’s training?” Chris asked.
“We all had stuff we had to do. Vin was training to fight. They trained JD to remember things,” Ezra answered.
“And what did they train you to do?”
Ezra looked toward the horses. He didn’t want to talk about his training. He didn’t even like to remember the lab.
Setting Ezra’s training aside for a moment, Chris returned to Vin. “How did they train Vin?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Ezra, it’s important that I know what Prescott was training Vin to do.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you,” Ezra repeated.
“But you do know, don’t you?” Chris asked.
“Yes, and he won’t hurt me or JD.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that isn’t what he was trained to do,” Ezra replied cryptically.
Vin’s first ‘hunt’ was when he was barely five years old. Prescott challenged some Marines to try to evade his ‘hunter’ and return to base without being ‘tagged’ by him. The men had accepted the challenge, not even bothering to question the substance that the scientist dripped onto their clothes. They scoffed when they were dropped by helicopter and told to make their way back to the lab. Vin was transported by car and dropped off half a mile away from the Marines. He had been ‘conditioned’ for battle. Starting after his morning checkup, Vin was sequestered apart from the other two boys. He was placed in a sensory deprivation tank. Every few minutes, a few drops of blood were added to the tank, the same blood that had been dripped on the Marines’ uniforms. In the confines of the small, dark space, Vin struggled. One of Prescott’s scientists discovered that Vin had an almost rabid dislike of being enclosed in the dark. They used it to punish him for disobedience, after the first time they left him in there for 24 hours, they seldom had to do more than threaten him with the tank. The tank was transferred to the back of a UNOS van and taken to the release point.
“Find them and mark them with this or I’ll put you back in the tank. There are three targets,” Prescott warned when Vin was released from the darkness. Vin took the paint ball gun and recognized that there were only six shots in it. One of the staff stepped forward with the tracking device. A leather collar was secured around Vin’s neck with the small radar tracking chip. It was secured with a pair of rivets so that the child couldn’t remove it.
Less than an hour later, the three Marines arrived back at the lab, each dotted with a bright yellow blob of color on their uniform. They were a little awed by the fact that each had taken a ‘kill’ shot in either the chest or back, dead center over their heart. Prescott took what looked like a dog whistle from his pocket and blew into it. Several minutes later, Vin stepped out of the woods. He handed off his ‘weapon’ and it still had three paint balls in the tumbler.
“Vin doesn’t remember anything about the training sessions. He always falls asleep afterwards and he … forgets about it,” Ezra added.
Sighing, Chris knew that he would get nothing more from Ezra. That was another thing that they had learned, the boys could not be compelled to reveal anything about their lives in the lab. JD could be tricked into saying things but it was difficult. All of the adults suspected that Ezra and Vin were ‘reminding’ JD not to tell the things he knew but they couldn’t prove it.
“Alright, let’s get back to the house. And I want you to know that I’m not angry with you,” Chris said, staring into Ezra’s eyes as he tried to gauge whether or not the boy believed him.
“Yes, Sir,” Ezra replied.
Nettie and Casey had returned to their apartment by the time Ezra and Chris got back to the house. Ezra sat down and pretended to read. He knew that Chris was concerned about Vin’s behavior. He watched as Chris went back to the bedroom to check on Vin. No matter what the adults did or said, the lack of trust was deeply ingrained and Ezra just couldn’t bring himself to confide in them. It was strange though, the way that Larabee seemed to care about them. At the lab, the scientists were very detached in the way they interacted with the boys, except for Dr. Landon. He was the only one who seemed concerned for their feelings. Ezra found himself wishing that the doctor was here now, he could certainly use some help in figuring out all of the confusing emotions that he had been experiencing since leaving the lab.
Just as Chris was putting supper on the table, Vin came out of the bedroom. He had awakened and was frightened at finding himself in Mr. Larabee’s bed; the boys had been told that the master bedroom and Mr. Wilmington’s room were both off limits to them. His nose told him that it was almost time to eat, so he got up and silently slipped from the room.
“Hey Junior, how are you feeling?” Buck asked when Vin came into the living room. He was working with JD on a puzzle to keep the younger boy occupied until supper.
“Fine, thank you,” Vin answered. He bypassed the puzzle table and continued toward the kitchen. Ezra was sitting at one end of the counter, watching as Chris transferred the hot food to the serving dishes. Ezra cocked his head, silently inquiring about how Vin felt and Vin nodded. Chris turned around smiled at seeing Vin.
“Hey Kiddo, did you have a good nap?” Chris asked.
Yes, Sir,” Vin answered.
Chris remembered what Ezra said about Vin not remembering after the ‘training sessions’ and he didn’t bring up the sudden burst of anger. He would try to discuss it with him after supper, away from Ezra and JD.
“Well, why don’t you get washed up and we’ll eat,” Chris said as he put the bowl on the table.
Buck tentatively tried to fit the puzzle piece into several positions around the border. Josiah had given the boys the puzzle, named The World’s Hardest Puzzle. It was purple. That’s it, just purple. Both sides of every piece were the exact same color. The boys had devoured the simpler puzzles that Chris bought for them, even the 2000 piece picture of a field of wild flowers. Nathan theorized that it was because of the genetic modifications in their brains. He wanted Chris to take the boys to a doctor for tests but Chris refused, not wanting to draw attention to the boys. Buck smiled when he finally found the place for the piece he had been holding for the past half hour.
The boys acted normally over supper. JD chattered about the bone he had discovered and Ezra filled them in on the book he had been reading. Vin was naturally reticent about speaking, only responding to direct questions. Chanu mentioned that he was going to visit his aunt and uncle over the weekend and Vin perked up, asking if he might go along. Redfeather looked to Chris for permission, since he was the boys’ legal guardian, before agreeing for Vin to come with him.
After the supper dishes were washed and dried, Chris took Vin out to the barn to talk with him about his reaction to JD borrowing the paint brushes.
“I don’t mind,” Vin assured Chris, “We always shared our stuff.”
Chris was mildly concerned at the complete reversal of Vin’s attitude but he remembered Ezra telling him that Vin never remembered the training sessions.
“Vin, can you tell me about some of the things you did at the lab?” Chris asked.
“We told you what we did there,” Vin answered.
“I know, but were there ever times when you did things away from the other boys?”
Vin shuddered at the memory that flashed in his mind’s eye. It was a fleeting image, gone before he could truly examine it. “No, we were always together,” Vin answered.
Frustrated, Chris decided to let it go for the time being. “Well, if you remember something and you want to talk about it, you know you can always come to me, right?”
“Yes, Sir,” Vin said.
The incident was dropped. Chris figured that he would chalk it up to just another mystery involving the boys.
Nettie was busy making lunch for the kids while they were taking a break from their reading assignments. She asked them each to read a book, then give her a brief synopsis. It turned out that, although JD could remember anything he saw, he didn’t absorb the content very well. She was working with him on actually reading the material instead of just absorbing it. After he finished a book, she would ask him why a certain character did or said a certain thing, teaching him to use the information. Casey wasn’t as advanced as the boys academically, so her assignments were different. Vin didn’t seem to enjoy reading as much as math but he would read if he could take frequent breaks to get up and move around. Ezra preferred to read, devouring the books like there wouldn’t come a tomorrow. He seemed to genuinely relish discussing whatever topic Nettie chose.
Slipping stealthily into the house, Ezra stopped at the door to the small office that Chris had told them was off limits. He took the small instruments he had fashioned from paperclips and an old nail file and began to work the simple lock. Within seconds, the knob turned freely and he eased the door open. Once inside, he studied the location of every article in the room. When he had it all memorized, he moved to the desk and began to go through the papers he found there. It was mostly household bills, feed bills, notices of coming stock auctions and the like but there was a folder with ‘UNOS’ written on the tab. Ezra opened the folder and began to scour the assortment of papers, committing the facts to memory. He was almost at the bottom of the stack when one sentence leapt off of the page.
‘Maude Standish Prescott, committed to Wildhaven Psychiatric Care Center.’ Ezra quickly scanned the next page for the address. He skipped over the last page.
“Mother,” Ezra gasped softly. He quickly replaced the folder and rifled through the rest of the papers on the desk. He found references to Victoria Tanner and Grace Dunne but no mention of an address for either of them. Another folder held bios on a few of the scientists and had their addresses, Ezra carefully memorized everything. When he heard Nettie calling the others to come in, he quickly replaced the folder and crept from the room.
That night, Ezra lay in his bed listening as the adults in the house got ready for bed. Like the others, he could hear exceptionally well but he had to really concentrate to be able to do it. When everyone was settled and the house was quiet, he crept from his bed and into the hall. He slipped out through the bathroom window, the only one without a screen, and made his way to the road.
It was cold but he barely noticed. His mind was focused on one thing, getting to the highway. His eyes made use of the limited light and he was able to jog along the side of the little, winding blacktop road until he came to the highway interchange. Summoning the information he’d found in the atlas, he chose a direction and headed off.
Chris was awakened by a small hand shaking him. Opening his eyes, he squinted at the children standing beside his bed. “Hey guys, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“He’s gone!” Vin said.
“Ezra’s gone!” JD said.
Throwing off the blankets, Chris sat up and groped along the floor for his slippers. He grabbed the heavy robe from the rocking chair and hurried to the bedroom the boys shared.
“Buck! Chanu! Up and at ‘em!” he yelled as he pounded on their doors briefly. Chris strode to the bathroom and flipped on the light, looking for Ezra. He headed for the other end of the house, turning on lights and yelling as he went.
“He’s gone!” JD repeated.
Before Chris could say the words that leapt into his mouth, someone knocked on the door. Chris rushed to answer it and found Nettie standing on the porch, shivering, with Casey bundled up on her hip. Buck and Chanu dashed out of their bedrooms, pulling on clothes as they moved.
“What happened?” Buck asked while Chris brought Nettie and Casey in and seated them in the living room.
“Ezra’s gone!” Casey wailed.
“How does she know?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know but she woke me up about five minutes ago telling me that Ezra was gone,” Nettie said, shifting the blonde girl in her lap.
Brushing the oddity aside, Chris called the local sheriff and told him that Ezra had run away. Shortly thereafter, a police car arrived. Officer Lasiter collected a picture and as much information as Chris could give her on the missing boy. Within the hour, two police cars had searched the construction site on the former UNOS site and come up empty.
Chanu could almost see the anxiety sheeting off of Vin. The boy was a live wire. Chris and Buck were busy phoning neighboring jurisdictions, as well as the rest of the team. Redfeather eased up behind Vin and set his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you boys go back and lay down? We’ll wake you as soon as we know anything,” he said. JD nodded, seeming almost relieved to be told what to do but Vin resisted. Chanu tightened his grip and tried to turn the boy toward the bedrooms.
“No! We have to find him!” Vin screamed.
The two sheriff’s deputies looked up in surprise as all three men converged on the small, fair-haired boy. They were even more surprised that it took all three of them to steer the child out of the room. Chris had told them that he was only the boys’ guardian, their parents were deceased, and they figured that was the reason the boy had run away.
Buck caught hold of JD and coaxed him out of the way while Chris tried to talk Vin down. Chanu was lying across the boy’s legs, bracing against the bed frame to hold him on the mattress.
“We’re going to find him! Vin! Calm down!” Chris said. He winced as Vin’s short little nails dug into his hands.
Gradually, over ten or twelve minutes, Vin began to relax. Chris eased his weight off of the diminutive boy and sank back on his heels. Chanu grabbed a pillow off of the other bed and handed it to Chris, who passed it on to Vin. Immediately, the boy latched on to the pillow and curled into a tight ball. Chris continued to stroke the sweat-soaked curls until Vin was soundly asleep.
It was colder as he got farther away from the road. Ezra was looking for a place to hole up and sleep for a while. He knew that he would make better time traveling in the day time as long as he stayed out of sight of the road. When he found a suitable spot, he curled up on the ground and dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep.
As the first rays of light touched him, Ezra awoke. He lay perfectly still as he took stock of his surroundings. His sensitive nose didn’t detect the smell of anyone else and the animal smells were too faint to be of concern. It took him a minute to orient himself to the mental compass in his head and then he was off to find his mother.
At the ranch, the first light of dawn saw a household already up and moving. JD was agitated, pacing around. Vin was anxiously watching the adults, who stayed between him and the exits, looking for some break in their vigilance so he could slip out and go after Ezra. Even little Casey was upset but she took her cues from her aunt and brought smiles to the other adults as she brought them sandwiches and took away empty coffee cups. Chris was kept busy with the police, answering questions, while Buck and Chanu watched Vin and JD.
“He knows where Ezra went,” Chanu said softly.
“Then why won’t he tell us?” Buck asked. He glanced up at where Chris was denying, for the umpteenth time that evening, that he had punished Ezra for something and that was why the boy had run away. “We’re going to take the boys out and check on the horses,” Buck called to the cluster of people standing around Chris.
As soon as his feet hit the deck, Vin stopped and lifted his face to the gentle breeze. JD’s nose quivered as he also scented the air outside. Buck and Chanu waited until the boys realized that they were being observed, then they each placed a hand on a small shoulder and steered the boys toward the barn. Once inside the barn, they parked the boys on a hay bale and began to ask questions.
“Do either of you know why Ezra left?” Buck asked.
“No, sir,” they answered in unison.
“Do you know where he went?” Chanu asked.
“But you do know which way he went, don’t you?” Buck pressed. He saw the boys exchange a look and he knew he had them. “You could trail him, couldn’t you?”
JD trembled. He was worried about Ezra and the vibe he was getting from Vin was making him increasingly uncomfortable. The boys had a unique bond from having spent so much time in proximity to each other, they were able to sense the other boy’s emotions. Only Ezra had been given any training at shielding his feelings.
The police cars stopped on the driveway and the two tracking dogs were let out. Chris had given the sheriff’s deputy one of Ezra’s dirty shirts for them to use to give the scent to the dogs. As soon as they were allowed to snuffle in the tee shirt, the dogs began to bay loudly as they dragged their handlers toward the road. Chris and the deputy followed.
Ezra found the quad runner under a tarp at an old hunting cabin. The gas tank held almost a gallon of gas, enough to get him much closer to his target. In no time at all, he had it started and was heading cross country, in as much of a straight line as he could manage while avoiding open spaces and paved roads. It had been a very long time since he had seen his mother, he wasn’t even sure what she looked like but he knew her scent, it was imprinted onto his brain at the most basic level.
With Chris and most of the deputies out following the dogs, it was quiet when Buck and Chanu took the boys back to the house. Vin moved to the front room window and sank to his knees, staring at the point where the driveway vanished around and over the hill. JD resumed pacing up and down the hall outside of the bedrooms. Buck noticed that JD stopped on every circuit outside of the door to the small office Chris kept at home. Because the boys had already demonstrated a proficiency at hacking internet sites, the office door was kept locked and the boys weren’t allowed in there at all. Buck got up and started toward the bathroom in time to intercept JD on his next pass.
JD stopped when Buck blocked him from walking past the door to the office. He tried to edge past him but Buck moved to prevent him from reaching the door. JD huffed in irritation.
“What is it, Little Bit? Is it something about Ezra?” Buck asked as he sank to his knees in front of the boy. JD looked uneasy but he nodded. “Something about the office?” Buck pressed. JD nodded again. “You gotta tell me, JD. Ezra could get lost or hurt out there all by himself. There are people out there who might do things to him if they get hold of him.” Buck hated using the same threats that the boys had heard at the lab but he knew JD was especially susceptible to them.
“He went in there,” JD whispered. “In the office. I can smell it. Something in there upset him. He’s hunting for someone.”
Like Vin, Ezra had been trained to hunt by scent. Prescott had taken him out and given him a limited amount of time to find a box that he had handled and had someone else hide. While not able to hunt like Vin did, with the single-minded determination to make kill shots with the paintball gun, Ezra had been able to find the box every time. Unlike Vin, Ezra didn’t forget the hunts.
Another thing that set Ezra apart from the other boys was the fact that he didn’t have the aggressive streak that Vin displayed. No matter how much Prescott threatened him, he couldn’t be made to attack the soldiers that were brought in for him to trail. He could follow them, getting so close that he could take the sack lunches they brought, but he wouldn’t shoot them. It was one of the many disappointments for Prescott.
“I told you to mark them with the gun, Ezra! Why didn’t you?” Prescott shouted at the barely six year old boy. “Answer me!” he shouted. When Ezra continued to look up at him, blank faced and emotionless, Prescott drew back and slapped him. “Why do you disobey me, Ezra?” he asked. Getting no answer, he drew back again and one of the soldiers interrupted.
“He’s just a little boy, Sir!” the young Marine protested.
Prescott drew the 9mm from his belt and fired, striking the soldier in the chest. Ezra gasped, staring in horror at the blood that pumped from the wound and soaked the material of the flack jacket.
“That’s your fault, Ezra! If you had marked him like you were supposed to, I wouldn’t have had to kill him!” Prescott raged at the boy. He punctuated his rage with another blow to Ezra’s face, knocking the child from his feet to land next to the dying soldier. From that point on, whenever Ezra went on a hunt, he gave off pheromones so strongly that the other boys could detect them for days afterward.
“Ezra was in the office?” Buck asked. JD nodded, trembling at the anxiety that the hunting smell caused him to feel. “Vin, Chanu, come here,” he called, as he dug the key ring from his pocket and unlocked the office door. “JD says that Ezra was in the office, I need to know what he found that upset him,” Buck said to JD and Vin before releasing the boys into the room. He and Chanu stood in the doorway and watched as the boys made a beeline for the files on the desk. After a couple of minutes, they began to whisper to each other.
“It was this file,” Vin said, holding out the plain manila folder.
“Aw hell,” Buck said when he opened the file. “I gotta call Chris.”
The dogs bayed repeatedly as they circled the place where Ezra had spent the few hours sleeping. Chris felt his phone vibrate and stepped away from them, sticking one finger in his other ear as he opened the cell phone.
“Larabee,” he said without looking at the caller ID.
“Chris, he’s on his way to Wildhaven,” Buck said.
“How do you know?”
“The boys said that he had been in your office and they found the folder with his scent on it,” Buck replied.
“Damn! Call Josiah and Nathan and send them to the facility. Tell them to watch for him. I’ll see if I can get someone to drive me over there,” Chris said before snapping the phone closed and jamming it back into his pocket.
The quad runner ran out of gas and Ezra abandoned it, still moving on a straight line toward the mental hospital. His face, arms and chest were covered in scratches from where he had driven through bushes and low-hanging tree limbs. He had reached the first nearly-insurmountable obstacle, the eight-lane highway that lay between him and the goal. The morning rush was well under way and the cars were whizzing past him, too quickly and too numerous to track. He walked along the tree line, searching for a path across. Finally, he spotted the massive storm drain.
It was a ten foot drop to the bottom and Ezra flinched at the pain that raced up his leg but he didn’t let it stop him. Limping, he continued into the tunnel, heedless of the noise of the cars over his head. When he emerged from the other side, he continued walking until he reached a point where he could climb out. Immediately, he returned to his course, ignoring the steady throbbing in his lower leg.
Josiah and Nathan arrived at Wildhaven and stationed themselves in places where they could see both of the main entrances. Josiah was hunkered down in his vehicle, sipping his coffee while Nathan was seated on a bench with a newspaper spread out in front of him. They had alerted the staff to watch for the child but not to interfere with him. Josiah saw the sheriff’s deputy pull up and let Chris out, so he grabbed his coffee and got out to talk to him.
“No sign of him so far,” Josiah explained.
“I don’t know how quickly he could cover the distance. He’s still just a kid,” Chris said, looking around uneasily. “The dogs trailed him for several miles before we found where we think he slept. I can’t believe how far he made it!”
“What are you going to tell him when you find him?”
Chris looked at the graying man in confusion.
“About his mother?” Josiah clarified.
“I haven’t thought about it really. You and Nathan said she’s not in any condition to care for him,” Chris answered. His cell phone rang and he answered it. “Larabee. Where? Damn. Alright, he’s probably headed this way. Thanks, Officer Long.” He closed the phone and looked at Josiah, “He stole a quad runner from a hunting lodge. They don’t know how far he can get with it.”
Josiah’s eyes widened in horror. “Chris! The highway!”
“Oh hell!” Chris said as he turned to stare in the direction of the highway.
Worrying about Ezra made the boys anxiety worse. JD was so distracted that he couldn’t find the correct placement for the puzzle pieces and resorted to trying to force them into position. Vin was pacing, looking out the windows and toward the door as if he would bolt any second. Finally, Buck suggested that they go down to the barn and work on the stalls.
Vin attacked the work eagerly, glad of the chance to be doing something. Like Chris, he hated to wait. JD worked but kept looking around and creeping toward the doors to look out at the driveway.
“They’ll find him and bring him back, JD,” Buck said as he steered the smaller boy back to work. “Chris won’t let anything happen to Ezra.”
For all that the boys were given the unusual physical and mental abilities, they were still young, emotionally vulnerable children. JD had been pushing his worry aside and putting on a brave face because that was what he saw Vin doing but deep down he was a very scared little boy. Buck’s gentle touch pushed him over the edge and JD sank to his knees in the aisle and started to cry. Vin looked around in panic at the despondent sounds emanating from the younger boy and he felt his control slip. Chanu saw the emotions warring on Vin’s face and moved to take the rake from him and gathered him in his arms. Vin clung to Chanu, shaking and crying. Buck knelt and picked JD up, sitting on the grain bin as he tried to soothe the little boy.
Nettie looked around in surprise when Casey suddenly burst into tears. She had been keeping the little girl busy all morning with making cookies and pressing handkerchiefs, something Casey loved to do. Nettie knew that one of the men would let them know when they found Ezra. She dried her hands on her apron and went to gather Casey into her arms, sinking into the rocking chair and trying to calm her.
Ezra reached the ornate wrought-iron fence that surrounded the Wildhaven facility. Fearing that he would be spotted if he went in the main gate, he began to circle around to try to find another way in. The hospital sat in a valley, so there was no breeze to bring the scent of people to Ezra so he knew he would have to get inside to find his mother.
After walking around several hundred feet of fencing, Ezra came to a drainage ditch that ran beneath it. He managed to crawl through the round metal tunnel and pushed out the mesh screen at the other end. When he stood up, he realized that there was no more cover and that he would be in the open when he approached the building. He took several deep breaths, oxygenating his blood for the sprint to the door.
Chris paced anxiously along the hallway outside of Maude’s room. The nurses had hurriedly dressed Maude in one of the fancy, lacy gowns that Mr. Prescott had sent to her during her years of hospitalization. They deftly applied makeup to her sallow skin and brushed her blond, wispy hair. In spite of the strokes that had robbed her of all motor function, she was still a strikingly pretty woman. Every time he heard footfalls, Chris looked up, hoping beyond hope to see Ezra coming toward him. Suddenly, his cell phone vibrated. He pulled it out to see the text message from Nathan. ‘Heads up.’
Ezra slipped past the staff and into the long, quiet hall. His nostrils flared as he searched for that one scent that he needed to find. Finally, he caught it and dodged past the Nurse’s station and into the correct wing.
Standing well away from the door, Chris hoped Ezra would get all the way into the room before he realized that his guardian was there. The staff had all been advised to ‘ignore’ the boy if they saw him. After several tense minutes, Chris saw the door slowly swing open. He held his breath, not knowing how Ezra was going to react to his being there.
Pushing the door open tentatively, Ezra peered inside. He spotted the pretty robe lying across the end of the bed and nudged the door further open. His heart clenched when he saw her and he stepped fully into the room, heedless of the trap.
“Mama,” he whispered. He moved to the bed like a heat-seeking missile and gently covered her hand with his. “Mama, it’s me, Ezra,” he said.
Chris exhaled slowly and stepped away from the wall. He took only a couple of steps before he spoke, “We were worried about you, Ezra.”
The boy spun around, rage and fear vying for control and Chris got his first look at the damage the child had sustained. Ezra froze, recognizing his guardian.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, his voice thick with distrust.
“Because she can’t care for you, Ezra. She’s had a series of strokes. She can’t even take care of herself,” Chris answered gently.
“Then I will care for her,” Ezra said.
“I’m sorry, son, but that isn’t possible either.”
“But she’s my mama,” Ezra protested. He turned and took up her hand, pressing it to his chest. “Tell him, Mama! Tell him that you want me to stay and take care of you!”
Buck flinched when his phone rang and he shifted JD around to pull it from his pocket. “Yeah?” he said softly.
“We’ve got him and he’s safe,” Josiah said.
“Thank heaven,” Buck breathed.
“I did. He’s with his mother right now and Chris is with them.”
“How is he?” Buck asked.
“I don’t know yet. I just wanted to let you know that we had him. How are the other boys?”
“I think they’ve worn themselves out worrying about Ezra, they’re both asleep at the moment,” Buck replied. “But I’ll tell them as soon as they wake up.”
It took a while to convince Ezra that his mother was beyond speaking to him. A nurse and Maude’s doctor came in and explained to him in very precise terms what was wrong with her. Chris, Nathan and Josiah hung back, waiting to see how Ezra would take the news. It was agonizing watching the child come to terms with the information. Ezra began to shake his head, denying the doctor’s words, even as the tears welled up in his eyes. Finally, the boy crumpled, going to his knees beside the bed and sobbing. Chris motioned the doctor away and knelt next to him. He didn’t touch Ezra, he waited to see if Ezra would turn to him. Finally, one of Ezra’s bruised and bloodied hands crept across the tile floor to grasp the hand that Chris held out to him. Chris gathered Ezra up and held him while the boy poured out all of his anguish. Finally, when the tears faded to hitching breaths, Josiah and Nathan helped Chris to stand with Ezra in his arms. They guided the pair into the rocking chair that sat near the window. It was covered in a lambskin cover, to protect Maude’s delicate skin.
The doctor gently cleaned and applied antibiotic ointment to the assorted scrapes on Ezra’s hands and face. Because the facility also housed several children, they had small hospital pajamas that they brought to change Ezra out of his dirty clothes. Once he was clean, the doctor allowed him to lie next to his mother on the bed for a while.
“We didn’t know that Mrs. Prescott had any children,” the doctor explained. “I don’t know how much good it will do him but Ezra is welcome to visit any time,” he added.
“What’s her prognosis? How long will she live like this?” Chris asked, barely taking his eyes from the boy lying so quietly on the bed.
“I’m afraid that there are no clear answers for that question. She could live a very long time as long as she is fed and hydrated, which we are doing via a tube in her stomach. Or, she could come down with something as innocent as a cold and it could become fatal. There just isn’t any way to know,” the doctor answered.
A couple of hours later, Ezra eased off of the bed, tenderly replacing the blanket he had displaced. He leaned over the bed and kissed his mother on the cheek and gave her hand another squeeze before he turned to Chris.
“I believe I am ready to leave with you now,” he said solemnly.
“You know that I’ll bring you back whenever you want to visit,” Chris said.
“There’s no point, she is but an empty shell. My mother has been gone for a very long time. I would like to try to find out what happened to Vin and JD’s mothers, if it’s alright with you,” Ezra said.
“I don’t know if that’s possible, Ezra. We don’t know their last names or anything about them. All of the files from UNOS were destroyed.”
“I’m certain that one of the staff must know something. You have the names of several of the doctors and scientists who were working in the lab. Can you not compel them to provide you with the information?”
“I’ll try, Ezra,” Chris said as he picked up the bag with Ezra’s dirty clothes in it.
Ezra was very quiet on the ride home from the hospital. Several times, he stared up at Chris as if to ask a question, only to sigh softly. Chris shifted his arm from lying on the back of the seat and pulled Ezra closer to him in the back seat of Josiah’s suburban. Within minutes, Ezra was lying against his side, asleep.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Chris took Ezra to Wildhaven every Sunday afternoon. Ezra continued to state that there was no reason to visit with his mother, since she obviously was unaware of anything but Chris felt that he needed the time, to come to terms with her impending death.
One Sunday afternoon, as they were driving back to the ranch, Ezra startled Chris with a question. “Maude really isn’t my mother is she?”
Pulling into a parking space, Chris shut off the engine and turned to Ezra, “What makes you think she isn’t your mother?”
“I was looking up some of the information about in-vitro fertilization and it says that any woman’s egg can be transplanted to another woman and it just …” his voice trailed off and his gaze shifted past Chris’ shoulder.
“But you remember her, don’t you? From before she went away?” Chris asked. He knew that children didn’t usually remember things from when they were toddlers but he didn’t know if the genetic enhancements allowed Ezra to remember his brief time as Maude’s son.
“A little,” Ezra replied. “She used to talk to me. I remember her scent. She always smelled so good.” He looked into Chris’ eyes for a moment before he continued, “She used to rock me to sleep.”
A few nights later, as Nettie was putting a kettle of water on for tea, she heard a whimper from Casey’s room. Setting the kettle aside, she went to the door and peered in at her niece. The four-year-old tossed fretfully in her bed. Nettie stepped into the room and sat on the side of the bed. She reached out and lightly stroked Casey’s cheek.
Buck’s eyes darted behind closed lids. In his dream, he could hear a man’s voice, raised in anger, yelling and a woman’s voice yelling back. Suddenly, there was a crash … Wilmington jerked upright in bed, his heart racing, and looked around. The images from the dream were so real! Buck lay back against his pillow and closed his eyes, intending to go back to sleep, until he heard murmured voices coming from the boys’ room. He flipped the blanket off of his legs and got out of bed.
Chris was already moving toward the boys’ room when Buck stepped into the hall. Being a naturally light sleeper, he had heard the muffled thump of small knees striking the wall followed by soft voices. He held his finger up to his lips and moved to the drawn bedroom door.
Vin was just slipping back into bed when the door opened and his guardian peered in at him. Ezra was asleep in his bed, which was against the common wall between the boys’ room and the room where Chris slept. Vin suspected that Ezra’s kicking the wall had wakened Larabee.
“Everything alright in here?” Chris whispered, slipping into the room and checking the other boys. He waited for Vin to get settled before he sat on the edge of the mattress. “Having trouble sleeping, Vin?” he asked.
“No. I’m okay,” Vin replied softly.
“Ezra was dreaming,” JD murmured, rolling onto his side and blinking sleepily.
Chris looked over and saw that Ezra appeared to be sleeping soundly. “Okay, you guys try to go back to sleep,” he suggested as he stood up and moved closer to Ezra’s bed. He reached down and laid his palm against Ezra’s forehead, checking to see if he felt overly warm. Ezra drew a deeper breath and his hand twitched on the blanket but he remained asleep.
Nettie settled Casey at the kitchen table with the boys and moved into the living room to speak to Chris before he left for work with Buck and Chanu. Chris informed her that Vin had been up during the night but that he seemed alright when he woke up that morning. Nettie replied that she would keep an eye on him.
On the ride into the office, Buck mentioned the strange dream that he’d had that night. “At first,” he explained, “I thought I was remembering something from my own childhood but it felt so … real.”
Before Chris could reply, Chanu spoke up. “I had a really vivid dream last night too. There were people arguing in the next room, then I heard-”
“A crash,” Chris interjected, “Like a glass shattering against a wall.”
An awkward silence settled over the quad-cab as the men considered the ramifications of what they had experienced. Chanu had noticed that Ezra’s moods seemed to influence the other boys. He was uncertain whether that was due the length of time they had spent together or if there was some other factor involved.
Once they reached the office, all thought of the issue at home was brushed aside as they got caught up in an investigation of a stolen shipment of ammunition that had been headed for a military base in Oregon.
Maude Standish Prescott passed away peacefully in her sleep four months later. As the legal guardian to her only living relative, Chris Larabee was allowed to make the arrangements. Ezra, Vin and JD stood solemnly as the minister said his piece at the graveside.
A few weeks after Maude’s death, Chris was granted permanent custody of all three of the boys. Judge Travis coaxed a friend of his to push the paperwork through, even though the case worker assigned to the boys thought they should be placed in a two-parent home. The information about their time at UNOS was carefully hidden.
All in all, a total of 12 of Prescott’s genetically engineered children were found in and around Denver. The scientists who had assisted him had vanished. The fertility clinic closed its doors after a carefully-worded statement. All of their digital records were mysteriously corrupted and the paper files were destroyed in a fire.
* * * * * * *
* * * * *
* * *
Comments to: AngieInStL@aol.com