THE LONG ROAD HOME
Earlier that evening
Ever since Jarod’s phone call earlier that afternoon, Miss Parker had found herself unable to concentrate on anything that she was supposed to be doing. In the end, after hours of shuffling papers around on her desk, and intermittent pacing, she gave up any pretence of working, and headed out of her office to find one of the few people in the entire place that she trusted implicitly – although she would never have admitted that to anyone.
She found him in Sydney’s office, sitting watching cartoons with a companion who seemed more interested in the paper crane in his hands than what was on the screen.
“What the hell are you doing, Broots?” she asked, trying to hide her amusement at the almost innocent delight on the other man’s face as he watched the Tom & Jerry episode that was playing out. True to form, Broots almost fell off his chair at the sound of her voice, almost ending up on his butt on the floor.
“Th… Therapy,” he stammered. “For… For Angelo. Sydney’s idea.”
She looked back at Angelo, noting again that his attention was focused on the paper crane, and not on the television screen.
“Where is Sydney?” she asked, keeping her voice deliberately low, even though Angelo was the only other person in the room.
“He went to the Director’s office,” Broots answered, following her lead and keeping his voice low as well. “You know… about Bobby. He’s hoping he can convince the Director to order Raines to let him see him.”
“Not likely. Raines has got control of him now. He won’t let Sydney back into the loop, not without one hell of a fight.”
“You know, no one’s seen Bobby since Raines moved him down to the new wing in Sub-level 26? Man, the stories I’ve been hearing are enough to give me nightmares!”
“And they’re probably all fairy tales, compared to what that psychotic son of a bitch is actually doing. Listen to me carefully, Broots. I need you to do something for me… unofficially.”
It really was fascinating, she mused, watching his face turn so many different shades of white in such a short space of time.
“Calm down, Broots. I’m not asking you to go sneaking around anywhere. What I want you to do is monitor the security system carefully over the next few weeks. Keep an eye out for anything unusual… Especially anything that might suggest someone might be trying to override any part of the security in order to get in unnoticed.”
Broots’ eyes went impossibly wide.
“You think someone’s going to try break into the Centre?”
“Yes,” she answered softly. “Jarod.”
“J… Jarod? Why?”
“To rescue Bobby,” she answered.
“Why would he risk it?” Broots argued. “With Bobby here, Jarod’s free! The Centre doesn’t have any interest in him anymore!”
“He’ll come, because I asked him to,” Parker said flatly, and Broots stared at her in open shock.
“You… You asked him?”
“That’s right. I told him to get his ass back here now, or there won’t be anything left worth rescuing.”
“Okay…” Broots muttered. “So… You want me to keep an eye out for Jarod, so we can catch him when he comes for Bobby?”
“No,” Parker said in a barely audible whisper. “If you notice anything… Anything at all… I don’t want to know about it. Do you understand me, Broots? You keep it to yourself. And do whatever you have to in order to keep anyone else in this God-forsaken building from knowing about it, too. Am I making myself clear?”
Broots stared at her, thoroughly confused.
“You… want Jarod to rescue Bobby?”
“Just do what I ask,” she growled.
A hand closing over her own startled her, and she looked around to find Angelo standing there, staring at her with a discerning gaze.
“Miss Parker… wants to help,” he said softly, and his tone was intensely sad. Acutely aware of Broots’ wide-eyed stare, she reached out and cupped Angelo’s cheek tenderly for a moment before stepping away and striding over to the door. She paused there for just a moment, firing a warning look at Broots before leaving the two men alone once more.
Broots was almost falling asleep at his desk. He had spent over four hours navigating the Centre’s intricate security system and rerouting all the alert procedures, so that he would be the first and only person to be notified of any breaches in security. He still wasn’t sure what Miss Parker was expecting to happen, but he’d never questioned anything that she’d asked him to do in the past… Well, almost nothing… And he wasn’t going to start now.
He sighed softly, and rubbed at his eyes, trying desperately to stay awake long enough to finish the reroute. It had already been a hell of a long day for him before Miss Parker made her request, and now he just wanted to get home, and see his daughter.
Another sigh escaped him – this one a sigh of relief that Debbie was old enough now to be left at home without a baby-sitter. He couldn’t help but wonder, though, how much she was starting to resent the time he was giving over to his job. He loved his daughter dearly, but he loved his job as well. It was just a pity about the company that employed him…
A soft beeping jolted Broots almost painfully back into awareness, and he peered at the screen in front of him blankly for nearly a minute before he suddenly realised what was happening. The newly rerouted security system had picked up unauthorised movement both inside the Centre and on its immediate borders. Inside the building itself, it appeared there were at least three people moving about in sub-level 27, the very lowest sub-level of the Centre.
Broots sucked in a sharp breath, and wondered whether this was the breach that Miss Parker had alluded to. His first instinct was to call her straight away, but then her words filtered back to him; that he wasn’t to call her, that she did not want to know.
Feeling a distinct prick of fear, Broots consciously told himself to calm down, and he sat back to watch for further developments.
Black, Green and Grey Strike entered the service tunnel together. At eleven-fifteen, Black Strike would move in and proceed to cut the power to the building, with the express intention of giving Green Strike the time they needed to get in and secure the ground floor, the main entrance and the tower. None of them were under any illusions that their offensive would go unchallenged, but the more ground they could cover before any sort of retaliation began would just add to their slim advantage. That was all the black-out was meant to do – provide some small advantage against the frightening odds they faced.
No one spoke, and the only thing exchanged were knowing glances. They each knew their tasks back to front by now, and all were anxious to carry them out.
Mike Logan glanced around at those who surrounded him. In immediate proximity to him was Carolyn. If he wasn’t mistaken, she was whispering a prayer under her breath, but he couldn’t quite understand it. Nor did he care to. Granted, he’d prayed to God more in the last twelve hours than he had for a long time, but his prayers were more unsophisticated, and very basic in their composition.
God, let us get him out of there alive.
He didn’t beg or barter. He wasn’t going to offer to do anything he wasn’t prepared to carry through on in exchange for a successful mission. He just hoped that the God that had allowed his paedophile priest to assault the boys in his parish was compassionate enough to give Bobby back to them, alive.
Nearby, Elliot and Olivia crouched close together. Again, neither said a word, but the silent communication shared between them negated any need for verbal exchange. He could see the tension rippling through their bodies – the same as his own… the same as everyone there. They were ready to move. They wanted to move. It was like… Hell, he didn’t even have a frame of reference in his own mind to compare the tension that was building amongst them all.
They needed to get going, but necessity dictated they stand their ground, and wait for the designated moment.
Mike let his breath out in a quiet hiss. It was a going to be a frenzy when they did finally get the signal to move. They all wanted the same thing; to go in, find Bobby and get out again fast. It was entirely possible that, from the moment Green Strike entered the actual building, the entire operation could be over with in less than an hour. They could all be on the choppers by one o’clock, and on their way to their various destinations.
The building tension was almost intolerable.
A further glance around revealed Deakins, standing further back with Jarod, Ellis, Fin, and the SEAL that completed Grey Strike. It had been a curious thing, to observe Deakins over the last ten hours, particularly since they’d been divided into teams.
It almost seemed to Mike that Deakins didn’t want to be a part of Grey Strike, and he couldn’t help but wonder why. His own disappointment had been acute at the realisation that he wouldn’t be a part of that select team whose mission it was to find Bobby. Perhaps, he mused grimly, it was that Deakins was afraid of what they would find.
It was a perfectly legitimate fear, Mike had to concede. They had all been warned that it was a very real possibility that they would find Bobby dead. Despite confirmation that he was alive as of however many hours ago, they had no guarantee that Bobby would still be that way when they got to him.
It was a scenario none of them wanted to face.
Movement ahead of him effectively derailed Mike’s train of thought, and he looked to see the six members of Black Strike heading away down the tunnel that would lead them into the bowels of the Centre. A glance at his watch confirmed that it was precisely eleven-fifteen.
Mike grimaced, and adjusted the balaclava he now wore. Twenty-five minutes to go.
Broots leaned forward in his seat, blinking hard to keep his tired gaze focused. Something was definitely happening on the eastern side of the Centre’s main building. He frowned, and switched his screen over to the security monitors that had been installed at the point where the service tunnel intersected with the Centre. According to the feed from the security monitors, nothing was amiss, and yet the motions sensors had picked up on definite movement in that area.
As near as he could tell, there were at least five people moving along the tunnel – possibly more. Broots’ heart pounded in his chest, and as he watched the situation that was developing in front of him. He hoped and prayed that whatever was going on, it was the rescue attempt that Miss Parker seemed to be anticipating. Because, if it wasn’t…
He groaned softly, and reached for a bottle of antacid. This goddamned place was going to give him an ulcer.
Munch followed the SEALs along the tunnel, his breath sounding painfully loud in his own ears as he tried to be as silent as possible.
To start with, he hadn’t been especially pleased to find himself assigned to Black Strike, but he’d not complained. Ellis had said it succinctly when he told them they were a team, and needed to act like it if they were going to be successful. They were all a part of the one team, and there was no room for any one person to want to be the big hero.
And so he’d accepted his given role with good grace.
As it turned out, he figured he was probably in a better position than most of his colleagues. He was with the team that was going in first – Red Strike notwithstanding – and when their particular task was complete, it had been decided that they would join Green Strike, and help to keep the primary areas secure.
More than that, though, Munch was particularly eager for a look inside the Centre – before it was blown sky high. Yes, the Centre was the focus of one of the many conspiracy theories that he subscribed to. Unlike many, though, it was one that he’d made a point of keeping to himself. He’d always believed the Centre was an actual place, and to have one theory confirmed like this was too good an opportunity to pass up; as was the chance to be involved in putting the place out of business.
They came to a grating that covered a hole which was just big enough for a man to go through hunched over. The team leader gave a shove, and the grating rolled easily to the side, clearing the hole. He said nothing, only motioning with a pre-arranged hand signal to give the go-ahead. A ripple of excitement swept through the team, and they made their way through the opening, and into the Centre.
Broots was just about ready to call Miss Parker, despite her strict warning to him. From what he could tell, there was at least eight or nine unauthorised people inside the Centre, and several more on the outskirts. This was far more than anything Broots had anticipated from Jarod. It smacked more of something Mr Lyle might have done, rather than Jarod.
Whatever the explanation, the one thing Broots was certain of was that he was afraid. Starkly, horribly afraid.
The sound of his door opening was unexpected, and yelled in fright before realising who it was.
“S… Sydney? Wha… What are you doing here so late?” he stammered, pointlessly trying to mask his agitation. Sydney regarded him critically.
“I was about to ask you the same thing, Broots.”
“I… ah… Miss Parker… She asked me to, uh… check on the security… I was running d… diagnostics…”
Sydney raised an eyebrow at the stuttered explanation, but didn’t question him further.
“I just finished meeting with the Director. She has finally agreed to give me access to Bobby. Raines will be ordered to bring him to the infirmary tomorrow, so that I can assess his condition.”
“Th… That’s good news,” Broots agreed, only to falter as he saw a familiar gleam in Sydney’s eyes. “Sydney? What are you planning…?”
“I’m going to get him out of here, Broots,” Sydney admitted in a whisper. “I don’t yet know how, but somehow… I’m going to get Bobby out here, before Raines kills him.”
“You may not have to,” Broots whispered back, his attention returning to the computer. Sydney leaned in over his shoulder, also looking at the monitor.
“What do you mean?”
Broots let his breath out in a rush. He knew what Miss Parker had warned him, but if he couldn’t trust Sydney, then who could he trust…?
“Miss Parker would kill me if she knew I was telling you this, but she spoke to Jarod. She, um… She told him to come and get Bobby out. She asked Jarod to rescue him, Sydney.”
To Broots’ quiet wonder, Sydney showed no surprise, and all he offered was a sad smile.
“That is good to know, Broots. But how long might it take Jarod to plan and execute a rescue? I don’t believe Bobby will last that long.”
“No, Sydney,” Broots whispered urgently. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” He pointed shakily to the monitor. “I… I think he might already be here.”
Sydney stared at the monitor for nearly a minute before speaking in a tense whisper.
“Broots, stay here and don’t let anyone else know about this. Understood?”
Broots barely had time to nod before Sydney was gone. He was just turning back to the monitor when the lights flickered once, and went out.
They were on the move almost before he was consciously aware of it. One moment, they had been crouching in the dark, their collective breath the only sound to be heard. Then, a single flash of green light lit up the tunnel just ahead of them, and suddenly they were surging forward.
Mike found himself swept to the front of the strike team, joining Ellis. Carolyn was only a step behind him, he discovered when he risked a glance over his shoulder. They locked stares with each other for the briefest of moments and, in that split second, Mike saw a world of hope reignited in his partner’s eyes.
It was a hope he felt as well. The time for waiting was over. It was time to act.
They moved at a fast trot, less concerned now with subtlety than with speed. They’d been given three minutes to get into the Centre, and position themselves to secure the designated areas. The time for subtlety was long past.
Reaching the grating, Ellis led the way through, and into the Centre.
Sydney reached his office at much the same time as Miss Parker, and a single glance told each one that the other knew what was really going on.
“Broots said you spoke to Jarod,” Sydney said as he went to his filing cabinet and unlocked it. Parker frowned at the apparent breach of trust.
“remind me to have a word with him when this is over.”
“Relax, Parker. You had the same idea I did. You just got in first. The question is who is responsible for what is happening right now? Is it Jarod, or is it someone else entirely?”
“I never thought I’d say this,” Parker answered ruefully, “but I hope to God that it is Jarod.” She paused, and then laughed humourlessly. “I am such an idiot.”
“What is it?” Sydney asked as he lifted a metal case out of the top drawer of the cabinet.
“Jarod called me this afternoon. He wanted to know if Bobby was still alive. That’s when I told him he needed to get back here and get Bobby out. It never even occurred to me that he was already on his way.”
“That was probably for the best,” Sydney murmured under his breath. Parker ceased her pacing, and walked over to see what her colleague was doing.
“Sydney, what is that?”
“This case, Parker, hold copies of every sim and every experiment that Bobby has suffered through over the last nine months… Both Raines’ projects, and mine. If Bobby is to have any chance of recovering from this, Jarod will need to know exactly what has been done to him. I need to get this to Jarod.”
Parker lifted the lid of the case, and blanched visibly at the number of discs stacked inside.
“There must be at least two hundred sim discs in here!” she burst out.
“Actually, there are two hundred and twenty-seven,” Sydney confirmed grimly. “In the time that Bobby has been in Raines’ control, he’s been forced to perform at least one simulation every day. Sometimes two, or even more. I just hope that if this is Jarod attempting a rescue, that it isn’t too late to repair the psychological damage that has been done.”
“If it is Jarod,” Parker said slowly, “then he may not know that Bobby isn’t in sub-level anymore.”
Sydney quickly realised what Parker was getting at, and started gathering up the case, along with eight or nine green notebooks.
“I’m going down to sub-level twelve.”
He was almost to the door when the first gunshots shattered the unnatural silence that had fallen over the place since the blackout hit just a few minutes previous. Drawing her gun, Parker moved to the doorway.
“You’d better stay here, Sydney. I don’t want you getting shot. If it is Jarod, I’ll send him your way. All right?”
Sydney looked reluctant, but opted against arguing when another burst of gun fire broke the stillness.
“All right, Miss Parker. But hurry.”
She was almost out the door when he caught her by the arm.
“Miss Parker, wait. Where is Raines? If he thinks for a second that this is a diversion for a rescue attempt…”
“Relax, Syd,” Parker murmured as she peered out into the dimness beyond Sydney’s office. “Uncle Fester is in Florida. He flew out this morning after getting an urgent message from an anonymous source about one of his projects down there…”
She trailed off, and both she and Sydney came to the same conclusion at the same moment.
“Jarod!” they exclaimed together. Hope flared in Sydney’s eyes. If Raines was out of the Centre, then no order could be given to execute Bobby. Unless Lyle…
“Hurry, Parker!” Sydney hissed, even as she took off towards the stairs.
Jarod and Ellis had planned it out very well. At the time that Green Strike entered the building, the Centre was operating on a night-shift skeleton staff, and there were very few people still there. Subsequently, when Green Strike burst out into the foyer on the ground floor, they were confronted by just two cleaners who were standing guard by the main entrance.
Caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of a team of armed individuals, the cleaners were only just unholstering their weapons when designated members of the team opened fire on them, using special rubber bullets. The two men went down, in pain but alive.
“Okay, secure those two,” Jack said, and two of the team moved in to handcuff and gag the cleaners. They were almost done when Elliot gave a muffled shout, and fired his gun. Jack turned swiftly to find another Centre operative on the floor, his gun discarded in favour of clutching at his knee, which Elliot had shot out on him.
“Nice shot,” Jack said approvingly as he strode over to the man and picked up the discarded gun. “Tell me, pal, are you going to give us any trouble?”
His answer was a frantic shake of the head.
“Good answer,” Jack told him. “You stay still and quiet, and my people might decide not to let you bleed out. Understand?”
Another desperate nod. Jack paused, and then crouched down next to him.
“I’m going to ask a couple of questions, and you’re going to cooperate and answer truthfully. And no, that was not the first question, that was a statement of fact. Here is the first question. Do you know anything about the man the Centre abducted nine months ago to replace their pretender, Jarod?”
A slow, reluctant nod answered that question.
“Do you know if he’s still alive?”
“Okay, that’s good,” Jack murmured. “Now, for the technical side of things. How many of your lot are on duty tonight? Ballpark figure.”
“Half… half a dozen… per floor…” came the hoarse reply. “That’s from SL-1 down to… to SL-26. No… No one’s in the tower tonight.”
“So how many more men are on this floor?”
“None. Skeleton staff… This floor never has more than three men on it at night time.”
“Good. And has an alert gone out about the blackout?”
“Not about the blackout… That happens often enough that we don’t worry too much… But I alerted cleaners on SL-1 and SL-2 when I heard the gun shots.”
“Fuck,” Jack hissed. “Okay, pal, you’ve done good for yourself. Now you get to ensure that we won’t kill you. You’re going to pick up your radio, and send the message that everything’s fine, and the gunshots were just a one of you clowns getting spooked by a shadow.” He lifted his gun, and pressed the barrel lightly to the man’s forehead. “Do you understand me? If you so much as blink the wrong way, it’ll be lights out, permanently.”
The man went even whiter than he already was, and he reached quickly for his radio. As well paid as he was, he wasn’t paid enough to risk getting shot in the head. Activating it, he spoke in as calm a tone as he could.
“Come in, C5. Come in, C9.”
There was a loud crackle as the respective teams responded.
“C9 here. What’s going on up there, Travis?”
“C5 here. Do you need assistance?”
“Negative,” the cleaner answered, his eyes fixed on Jack and his gun as he spoke. “Everything’s okay up here. It was just Danny. Stupid kid got spooked and started shooting at his own goddamned shadow.”
Laughter erupted over the radio.
“That’s what they get for putting a green kid on graveyard shift. Tell him to go change his diapers and get back to work!”
“I’ll do that,” Travis answered. “C1 out.”
He released his hold on the radio, allowing Jack to ease it out of his hand.
“Very good… Travis, was it? You just bought yourself a ticket out of here. Now just sit tight, and don’t be a pain in the ass, and my people will treat you right. Understand?”
“Yeah…” Travis muttered. Patting him condescendingly on the shoulder, Jack rose up and turned back to the waiting team members.
“According to our new friend here, the tower is unoccupied tonight. So we just need to disable the elevator that goes up there from the sub-levels… That one over there. It runs on an emergency power system. Ben…?”
“I got it,” King confirmed, and hurried off to the elevator along with his two sub-team colleagues. Jack watched them go, and then turned back to the rest of the group.
“All right. Jerry, Zach and Tommy, I want you three to keep this area secure. You’ll be joined by Black Strike shortly, and it’ll be up to all of you to keep this floor clear so that we don’t run into any trouble when we come back up. You know what you have to do. The rest of us are heading down now into the sub-levels, and I’m going to signal for Grey Strike to move in.”
Deakins waited in silence, listening only and not attempting to add to the low murmuring discussion that Ellis and Jarod were carrying on with while they waited for the signal from Green Strike. The truth was, he was almost sick to his stomach with nerves, waiting to get moving. He almost wished he had been assigned to Green Strike… or even Black Strike, because then he would at least have been doing something. He hated waiting, especially in times like this when there was so much at stake.
He adjusted the balaclava on his face, trying to ignore the itchiness that it was causing. He couldn’t remember the last time he had worn one of these things… In fact, he didn’t think he had ever worn one. It was an irony that he couldn’t get over, that he’d spent so long working to put criminals behind bars and now, regardless of the reasons, he sneaking around like the very thing he abhorred.
He shut his eyes, and tried to focus on Bobby’s face in his mind. Over the last nine months, he’d tried hard not to do this, mainly because when he’d spent any significant time dwelling on Bobby, the younger man’s face inevitably found its way into his dreams, twisting them into horrendous nightmares. Now, though, he found it soothing to his nerves to focus on Bobby’s face, and to shut out the anxiety that was threatening his very sanity.
Not long now, he thought, and took some small comfort in the thought.
A soft beep cut into the quiet, and Deakins looked just in time to catch a flash of green light in the darkness. The light had emanated from a device that was strapped to Ellis’ wrist – a homemade radio device that Jarod had made, which had been given to each team leader. The green light told them that Green Strike had successfully completed phase one of their part of the plan, and secured the ground floor.
Ellis looked around at the rest of the men that made up Grey Strike, taking in the anxiety in their eyes that he imagined mirrored his own.
“Let’s go,” he said simply, and hurried away down the tunnel.
Jarod led the way into the Centre and without a moment’s hesitation he led the team into the utility stairwell, and down several flights of steps at a rapid speed, until they reached a door marked SL-12. Acting with caution, Jarod pulled open the door and led the way out into the corridor.
“Which way?” Ellis asked softly. Jarod motioned to the right.
“Down there. The room they keep him in is down that way, around that far corner.
Ellis took off at a run, with the others close behind.
They emerged around the corner to find the members of Green Strike had arrived there just ahead of them, and they were not alone.
“Look at what we found on our way down here,” Jack said dryly, pushing a sullen-looking Mr Lyle ahead of him. Jarod walked forward, pulling off his balaclava so that he could look at Lyle properly.
“Jarod,” Lyle said softly. “Just couldn’t help yourself, could you? You’re a free man, finally, but your precious conscience couldn’t just let you enjoy it.”
“I could never abandon Bobby,” Jarod said angrily. “You, of all people, should have known that.”
“Jarod,” Lyle said in a tone that was almost a sigh. “The Centre lost you. Do you really think it would risk losing Bobby?”
It was all Jarod could do to stifle his fury.
“We are taking him out of here, tonight, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us.”
The sour look was replaced all-too-quickly with a smug grin, and he motioned to the room.
“Fine. Go ahead. Be my guest.”
Suddenly suspicious, Jarod reached for the door and tried it. It swung open easily, having not been locked for well over two months. Jarod stood in the doorway, staring into the empty room with a sinking feeling in his gut. Lyle had known they wouldn’t find Bobby there. He only hoped and prayed that Bobby was still somewhere within the Centre.
“Where is he?” Jarod asked softly. Lyle only chuckled.
“That’s for me to know, and you not to find out.”
Jarod spun around, and grabbed Lyle by the collar of his shirt, yanking him in close.
“Where is he?”
Lyle, however, only laughed.
“You’re not going to find him. He’s out of your reach, totally. Why don’t you just cut your losses, and get out of here while you still can?”
“You son of a bitch,” Mike snarled, lunging forward, dragging Lyle out of Jarod’s grip and slamming him back against the wall. “You tell us where he is, or I swear to God, I will shoot you.”
Lyle’s grin widened to almost impossible proportions.
“Hey, go ahead. Wouldn’t be the first time. ’Course, since I’m the only one in the building right at this moment who knows exactly where Bobby is, you’d be kind of screwing yourselves over…”
“And you’d be an expert on that, wouldn’t you, Lyle?”
Lyle’s grin faded with startling abruptness at the new voice.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Miss Parker approached slowly, gun holstered and hands outstretched to show the strike teams that she was not there for a fight. Ignoring Lyle, she focused her attention on Jarod.
“Bobby is on SL-26. That’s where Raines moved him over two months ago.”
“And you expect us to trust you?” Carolyn asked sceptically. Jarod spoke quickly.
“We can trust her. She’s telling us the truth.”
“I’ll take you to him,” Parker told them sincerely. “But Jarod, you need to go to Sydney’s office. He’s waiting there, and he has something you’re going to want.”
Jarod frowned a little, but didn’t argue, turning instead to Ellis and speaking urgently.
“Take the team, and go with Miss Parker.”
“Jarod…” Ellis growled. “This was not in the plan…”
“Flexibility, remember?” Jarod reminded him. “I have to go.”
“All right,” Ellis conceded. “But at least take one of these guys with you. I’ll feel a lot better if you don’t go alone.”
“Okay,” Jarod conceded with obvious reluctance. He looked around, and his gaze went to Mike. The detective hesitated, and then nodded.
“Right with you,” he confirmed.
“Go,” Jarod told Ellis. “Find Bobby, and get him out. We’ll meet you outside, just like we planned.”
“And what do we do with this clown?” Ellis asked, motioning to Lyle.
“I can answer that,” Parker said, and she shoved Lyle brutally into Bobby’s old room, locking the door after him.
“I like that irony,” Ellis chuckled. “Okay, Miss Parker. Lead the way.”
Sydney was pacing back and forth almost frantically in his office when a voice spoke just behind him, almost startling him out of his skin.
“Miss Parker said you have something to give me.”
Sydney spun around, and then let his breath out in a rush.
“Jarod, thank God. We weren’t positive that it was you…”
“We don’t have time to chat, Sydney,” Jarod cut him off. “What is it?”
Glancing uneasily past Jarod to Mike, Sydney lifted up the case, and the notebooks.
“Here. Copies of the simulations that Bobby has performed for us. There are also discs of the experiments Raines conducted on him.”
Jarod’s gaze narrowed as he looked at the notebooks.
“Are those what I think they are?”
Sydney confirmed with a nod.
“Yes. Whilst he was still in my care, I encouraged him to plan out any ideas he had in these books. There are some very good ideas and inventions in them. Given time, Bobby may look back on them, and feel that he’d like to put some of them to practical use.”
Jarod accepted the case, and the books, and was just turning to go when Sydney called after him.
“What?” Jarod demanded, his voice taking on an edge that Sydney had never heard from him before. Sydney faltered, staring at Jarod in visible confusion. After a moment, the pretender turned back and spoke in a tense, angry voice.
“What do you want from me, Sydney? Some sort of absolution? Do you want me to tell you everything’s okay? Well, it’s not, and it may never be okay. You might have been the one to warn me that the Centre wanted Bobby back, and I appreciate it, but when it came down to it, you just went along with everything they did. When you had Bobby here, what did you really do to protect him? You could have gotten him out, but you didn’t. Instead, you used him, just like you used me. You betrayed him, Sydney, and the hard truth is that he might never recover from this. You know it as well as me. So… what, exactly, do you want me to say?”
Sydney’s shoulders slumped as the truth of Jarod’s words finally hit home. For several seconds, he said nothing, the grief evident in his eyes. Then, finally, he spoke softly.
“Tell Bobby I’m sorry.”
Jarod stood stiffly for a long moment before turning and striding from the office without saying a word. Mike paused for just a moment longer before following him.
Ellis and the now combined Grey and Green Strike teams followed Miss Parker down the stairs, passing each sub-level at a startling speed.
“I hope you have something in mind for getting back up to ground level,” Parker told Ellis grimly, “because I don’t like your chances of getting Bobby to walk up twenty-six flights of stairs.”
“We’ve got that covered,” Ellis said simply, and Miss Parker didn’t ask him to elaborate.
They were just nearing SL-24 when gunfire erupted in the stairwell just below, bullets glancing off the metal railings that were too close for comfort.
“Cleaners,” Parker growled. “Lyle must have found a way to alert them.”
Ellis clenched his jaw as he switched guns.
“Play time’s over, people. Switch from rubber bullets to live ammo, and let’s take these clowns out.”
Waiting for a break in gunfire, Ellis took the last half dozen steps to the SL-24 landing in one jump. He slammed into the wall, swinging his gun and firing at the three cleaners who had positioned themselves on the half level just down from the entry door to SL-24. Two went down, but the third ducked out of the way, and then swung back around and fired a single bullet that caught Ellis in the right shoulder.
“Son of a bitch,” he swore, stumbling backwards and landing on his ass. Miss Parker stepped past him, firing once. The bullet struck the third cleaner right between the eyes, and he was dead before he hit the floor.
“You’re one hell of a shot, lady,” Ellis grunted as two of his team mates stepped in to help him up. Miss Parker regarded him grimly as she re-holstered her gun.
“It pays to be a good shot when you work for a company where second chances only come with a loaded gun.”
Olivia moved forward, examining the shoulder wound with speedy expertise.
“It’s not serious, but you’re not going to be able to use your gun now.”
“You’d better stay in the middle,” Deakins warned him, and Ellis conceded.
“Okay, Captain Deakins. It’s your show, now.”
Deakins resisted the urge to grimace, and he looked around at Miss Parker, his eyes glinting behind the balaclava he wore.
“Take us to Bobby.”
They emerged into SL-26 to find themselves in a dimly lit corridor that had the white, sterile feel of an asylum. Pausing for just a brief moment to get her bearings, Miss Parker turned to the left and led them quickly along the corridor. Not a word was spoken as they moved, and they encountered no cleaners as they hurried around corner after corner. The tension was almost electric by the time she finally halted outside a plain door that was unremarkable except for the digital combination lock.
“I don’t suppose you know the combination to open it?” Deakins asked. Miss Parker raised an eyebrow at him, and then drew her gun and fired, shattering the lock with one bullet.
“Thankyou,” Deakins said wryly, and she smiled her best piranha smile.
“You’re most welcome.”
Deakins paused before opening the door, and then looked back at the group that was almost right behind him. If they opened the door, and Bobby was confronted with all these masked faces, it could easily send him into a panic, and that was the last thing they needed.
“Okay, people,” Ellis said, reading the look in Deakins’ eyes with ease. “Let’s back off a little. Olivia and Elliot, move down to that corner, and keep a watch. Dom and Andy, you two take that other end.”
The four went immediately. Ellis then nodded to Deakins.
“Okay. Go ahead.”
Deakins started to reach out to push the door open, only to stop at the last moment. Before anyone could ask what was wrong, though, he reached up and pulled off his balaclava. Miss Parker gave a short laugh.
“Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
He glanced at her, making no effort to hide the bitterness he felt towards her despite her help now, and then stepped forward and pushed open the door.
The sight that met him was one that, for all his imagining of what this moment might be like, he hadn’t truly been able to prepare himself for. Sitting huddled on the floor in the far corner of what was a painfully small room, dressed in a pair of ragged sweat pants and nothing else, his torso a mass of cuts and bruises of varying degrees of seriousness, was Bobby Goren.
For several long seconds, Deakins couldn’t move. He stood in the doorway, staring at the man who had once been the bane of New York’s criminal fraternity, and felt his heart break. Bobby was almost unrecognisable from how he had looked nine months ago, though how much that had to do with his actual physical appearance as opposed to his cowering demeanour Deakins didn’t know.
So far, Bobby hadn’t looked up and, for all appearances, didn’t even seem to be aware that he was no longer alone. He remained sitting in the corner, knees drawn up tightly to his chest and his arms wrapped around his body in what looked like a futile effort to protect himself. As Deakins stood and watched, and listened, he thought he could hear soft whimpers escaping Bobby’s lips.
Shaking himself back to reality, Deakins walked forward and crouched down in front of him.
No response. Bobby didn’t look up, or show any sign that he’d heard anything. Deakins tried again, raising his voice a little more.
That time, Deakins couldn’t miss the way Bobby stiffened. A fresh whimper escaped him, and he seemed to withdraw even further into himself.
“He probably thinks you’re Raines,” Miss Parker said quietly from the doorway. “After all, Raines’s face is probably the only face he’s seen for the last two and a half months.”
“Bobby, listen to me,” Deakins tried again. “We’ve come to get you out of here.”
He hesitated, and then reached out to take hold of Bobby’s wrist, with the intention of gently drawing him out. The reaction to the simple contact was immediate, and violent.
Bobby screamed in sheer terror, yanking his hand away from Deakins and cringing back as far as he could, curling into a ball that seemed impossibly small for someone of his size. The terrified sobs that wracked his body gutted Deakins to the core, and he began to get some small inkling of what the road ahead was going to be like.
“Captain, you’ve got to move him out of there,” Ellis called from just outside the room. “We don’t have all night.”
Deakins scowled, angry and frustrated. He tried again to catch hold of Bobby’s hand, only to get the same reaction. Gentle persuasion was going nowhere fast, so that left him just one alternative.
“Detective Goren!” Deakins snapped, putting as much authority into his voice as he could manage to. “Snap out of it! That’s an order, Detective First-Grade!”
Slowly, Bobby’s sobs quieted, and finally stilled altogether. Heart pounding in his throat and buoyed by his apparent success, Deakins tried again.
“Look at me, Detective. Now!”
For several seconds, Bobby didn’t move. But then, slowly, his head came up, and a familiar pair of chocolate brown eyes gazed up at Deakins in visible confusion. Once Bobby’s gaze locked with his own, Deakins dropped the tough-ass captain act, and leaned forward, speaking in a gentle but urgent voice.
“Bobby, it’s me. Captain Deakins. We’ve come to get you out, Bobby.”
Silence reigned and Deakins waited, hardly daring to breathe as he waited for Bobby to process what was happening. Then, abruptly, recognition flared in his eyes.
“Captain…” he whispered in a heartbreakingly weak voice. Deakins shifted forward, slipping his arms around the younger man even as he broke down once more.
“Yes, it’s me,” Deakins murmured, hugging Bobby protectively as he cried. “It’s me, Bobby. You’re not imagining it.” He looked around, searching for someone who would be able to help him get Bobby up. “Fin…?”
Fin yanked off his balaclava and slipped into the room, pausing only momentarily at the sight of his old friend. Sucking up any shock he felt, Fin walked over and crouched down next to his friend.
“Bobby, it’s me. It’s Fin.”
Slowly, Bobby looked around, and dim recognition lit up his eyes.
“We’re getting you outta here, Bobby,” Fin murmured. “But you’ve gotta let us help you, and the first thing we gotta do is get you on your feet. Okay, pal?”
Deakins was convinced that Bobby didn’t really have any solid idea of what was happening, but the important thing was that he’d ceased struggling, and was finally submitting to their touch. If they could just get him to his feet, then they would be one step closer to getting him out.
Nodding to Fin, Deakins gently took hold of Bobby’s right arm, and Fin took his left arm and, between the two of them, they were able to lift Bobby up off the floor, and stand him up. He was disturbingly easy to lift up, both Deakins and Fin noted in sad silence.
“That’s good,” Deakins murmured. “Now, do you think you can walk to the door?”
For nearly a minute, it seemed that Bobby wasn’t going to cooperate. But then, with a painful slowness, he put one bruised foot in front of the other, and began to shuffle forward.
“Good, Bobby,” Deakins murmured encouragement to him. “That’s great. We’re going to be out of here before you know it.”
They came to the doorway, and Deakins was grateful to note that Miss Parker had backed right off, out of Bobby’s immediate line of sight. As it was, he still froze at the sight of the masked faces that awaited him in the corridor. A panicked whimper escaped him, and he tried to pull back, and retreat back into the tiny room.
“It’s okay, Bobby,” Deakins reassured him. “They’re all friends. No one here is going to hurt you. They’re here to help you. They’re here to rescue you.”
Carolyn came forward, then, carrying a black thermal top, a protective vest and headgear for him. She, too, had taken off her mask, in the hope that Bobby would remember her face, and not be afraid.
“Bobby,” she spoke gently but clearly to him. “We’re going to put this top on you, okay? Because it’s cold outside, and we don’t want you to catch a cold.”
She kept her voice low, calm and casual, and the tactic seemed to be working. The borderline panic in Bobby’s eyes subsided somewhat, giving Carolyn a chance to slip the top over his head. As she did so, she continued to murmur reassurances to him, keeping his frightened gaze fixed on her, and continuing to smile warmly at him. When she started to push his arms up, though, to get them into the sleeves of the top, a strangled cry of pain escaped him, followed by a choked sob.
“His shoulder,” Miss Parker said, coming forward. “Raines’ goons liked twisting his arm as their preferred means of torture. They twisted it so badly one day that they tore the tendons in his shoulder. It’s never been given a chance to heal properly. Here…”
Acutely aware of the violent tremors rippling through Bobby’s entire body, Miss Parker gently slipped the sleeve onto one arm, but pressed the injured arm to his torso, and pulled the body of the garment down over the top of his arm, ensuring it was kept protected and still. Carolyn then slipped the vest onto him. When she reached up to put the helmet on, though, he baulked and pulled away, fear lighting up his eyes.
“Bobby, this will keep your head protected,” Carolyn tried to convince him, but he was having none of it, and her efforts to get it on him were only increasing his agitation and fear.
“All right,” Deakins said finally, making a snap decision. As Ellis had said, they did not have all night. “No headgear. Bobby, look at me.”
Bobby’s gaze turned slowly from Miss Parker to Deakins, and once again Deakins felt his stomach twist painfully at the hopelessness that he saw in the other man’s eyes.
“We are going to walk out of here,” he told him softly. “All you have to do is stay with us. Can you do that?”
Bobby’s breath hitched in his chest and, finally, he gave a single, shaky nod.
“Good,” Deakins murmured. He looked over at Ellis, who nodded in response and lifted a small radio and spoke into it firmly.
“Green Three, reactivate the elevator, and send it to SL-26. We’re ready to come back up. All Strike team members, begin Exit Plan One. Proceed to the designated area, immediately. The target has been acquired. I repeat, the target has been acquired. Move out, now.”
Mike and Jarod both looked at each other sharply as Ellis’ words came through on the small radio Jarod was carrying.
“They’ve got him,” Mike whispered, suddenly feeling weak-kneed. Jarod nodded down a corridor.
“That way. Hurry.”
Before they had a chance to move, though, a voice called out, floating out to them from the darkness.
Mike lifted his gun, but Jarod shook his head, pushing the weapon down. He knew that voice…
Angelo emerged out of the darkness, a strange mixture of anxiety and eagerness on his usually passive features.
“Angelo,” Jarod murmured in greeting. “We came for him, like I promised we would.”
Angelo nodded confidently.
“Bobby’s safe now. Safe with Jarod. Here… Jarod take these…”
And he thrust a sheaf of loose papers into Jarod’s hand.
“What is that?” Mike asked, frowning. “Rubbish?”
“Important,” Angelo insisted. “Important… to Bobby.”
“Angelo, listen to me,” Jarod said, slipping the papers into the cover of one of the notebooks without sparing them a glance. “Go to Sydney. Tell him he has to get out of here. We’re going to destroy the Centre.”
The maniacal look that appeared on Angelo’s face was enough to give even Mike pause.
“That’s right,” Jarod confirmed. “Very big boom. Go on, quickly. Get Sydney, and get out of here. Go!”
Angelo loped off into the darkness. Jarod waited until he was out of sight before looking back at Mike grimly.
“Okay. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Alex hadn’t stopped praying from the moment the members of the Black, Green and Grey Strike teams moved out from the temporary camp. She continued to pray as she took her place behind the wheel of one of the escape cars, and was still praying when she pulled up in a culvert less half a mile away from the Centre.
She sat in silence, with one eye on the Centre and the other on her watch. Eleven-fifteen ticked by; Black Strike would be moving in. She counted the minutes, and watched piercingly. Sure enough, at precisely eleven-forty, the lights of the Centre went dark. Alex sat forward a little, leaning against the steering wheel and watching with her heart in her throat.
It was the hardest thing she had ever done, to sit and wait and do nothing, all the while knowing exactly what was being carried out such a short distance away. It was even harder to stay put, knowing that if this plan failed, for any reason, then she would probably never see Bobby again.
And so the minutes ticked by, so slowly, and she continued to watch and wait, trying to anticipate just when Grey Strike might have gone in, and how long it might take them to find Bobby. She refused to think in variables. Variables meant complications, and she didn’t want there to be any complications with this operation.
At twelve oh-five, her radio crackled to life, and Pete’s voice spoke.
“Alex, how’re you holding up?”
It was all Alex could do to keep her voice even as she answered.
“Been better. I just wish I knew what was going on in there.”
“If everything’s going to plan, Grey Strike should be in there by now.”
“Should,” Alex retorted. “Nothing’s certain here.”
“Hold tight a little longer, Alex. We’ll know as soon as they have him. Then, believe me, it’s all going to happen damned fast.”
Alex let her breath out in a rush as she checked her watch once more. Twelve-oh-eight. Nearly half an hour since the power was cut, and there was no indication of what was happening inside the building.
“On the bright side,” Pete added, “no reinforcements have turned up.”
Again, she grimaced. Pete was right, of course. If reinforcements had arrived at the Centre, it would have complicated things in a major way. But so far, it appeared that that had not happened…
The radio crackled to life again, and this time the voice that came through was not Pete’s, but Commander Ellis’ voice.
“All Strike team members, begin Exit Plan One. Proceed to the designated area, immediately. The target has been acquired. I repeat, the target has been acquired. Move out, now.”
Alex sucked in a sharp breath. The target Ellis referred to was Bobby. They had Bobby… They were coming out…
She’d floored the accelerator and was on her way to the designated point almost before Pete gave the order to move out.
They split into two groups to head back up to ground level. Half the team headed up the stairs, while Deakins, Ellis, Fin, Carolyn, Olivia and Miss Parker went up in the elevator with Bobby. They surrounded him in a protective circle, weapons at the ready should they encounter trouble when the elevator reached ground level.
Deakins soon found himself almost completely supporting Bobby as the younger man struggled to stay on his feet, and it was a task that he found worryingly easy. Bobby had lost a hell of a lot of weight, Deakins noted in the back of his mind. He just hoped that, like with the psychological and emotional damage that had clearly been done, the physical damage was not irreversible.
Bobby took a small step, and stumbled, his legs threatening to give out beneath him. Deakins caught him around the waist with one strong arm, and hugged him tightly as much for support as for reassurance. Another glance told him again that Bobby didn’t really understand what was going on, but he seemed content for the moment to just go along with them, and right then that was all that mattered.
“It’s going to be okay,” Deakins murmured, trying to reassure himself as much as Bobby. “Not long now, and you’ll be safe. We’ve got you, Bobby. We’ve got you…”
Deakins blinked, looking at him in pleased surprise.
“She’s waiting for you, Bobby. You’ll see her very, very soon. I promise.”
Bobby shuddered, and his head dropped once more, a fresh wave of tremors passing through his body.
“However you’re planning on getting him out of here,” Miss Parker said softly, “you should be aware, he was probably drugged by Raines within the last twenty-four hours. It may cause panic attacks… hallucinations… to say the least.”
“We’ll cope,” Deakins murmured, taking care not to release his grip on Bobby’s waist. Not only was it to keep Bobby on his feet, but he also seemed to be comforted by the physical contact. Right then, he was calm… or rather, as calm as he was likely to be… and Deakins was desperate to keep him that way. They were prepared to sedate him if it became necessary, but Miss Parker had nailed it in pointing out that Bobby may or may not have been drugged by Raines within the last twenty-four hours. If they were to give him anything, they risked it reacting against any narcotics that might already be in his system. It was best if they could just keep him calm by natural means.
The elevator door slid open at the ground level to reveal members of Green and Black Strike waiting for them. A quick glance around revealed several bodies lying in bloodied heaps around the floor, in addition to the three cleaners who had been secured during the initial assault.
“They tried to retake the floor,” one of the SEALs said simply. “We repelled borders.”
“Okay. Any casualties?”
“A couple of our guys got grazed by bullets, but nothing more serious than that.”
“Good.” He looked around piercingly at the gathered team. “Are we all here?”
His question was answered when a door swung open and six members of the combined Green and Grey strike joined them. From the other direction, Jarod and Mike came through a door, completing their number.
“We are now,” the SEAL said, smiling wryly.
“Excellent,” Ellis murmured. “Okay, people. Move out! Your transports are waiting!”
The team members promptly headed for the main doors, to exit the building and join the waiting members of Blue Strike. Ellis turned around to face Miss Parker.
“We appreciate your help, Ma’am.”
“Why?” Mike demanded, staring at her hard. Parker was silent for a moment, her gaze on Bobby. When she finally answered, it was in a soft, sad voice.
“Because he deserves a life. He doesn’t deserve what’s been done to him in this place.” She looked to Jarod. “I hope you have a plan to keep him safe, because you know they will go after him again.”
“We have that covered,” Jarod assured her. “Thankyou, Miss Parker.”
She motioned to the doors.
“Go. Hurry. Before Lyle gets loose and sends a sweeper team after you.”
Jarod paused, watching as Bobby was led to the doors, and out of the Centre, before looking back to Miss Parker.
“I mean that. Thankyou.”
She smiled faintly at him, a genuine smile that lit up her face in a way that was truly reminiscent of her late mother.
He started towards the door, and then turned back to her once more.
“We really do have a plan. I suggest you get up to your office and get anything that’s personal, and then get as far away from here as you can.”
Her smile faded with startling speed.
He motioned with his hands to indicate an explosion, and Miss Parker sucked in a sharp breath.
“Oh my god…”
“Get Broots, and get out of here,” Jarod warned her. “I’ve already told Angelo, and he’s gone to get Sydney. We’ll be sending a warning to the whole building once we’re away from here, but don’t wait. Just go, get out of here.”
She hesitated, and then wheeled around and hurried off to do as he’d told her. Jarod waited until she’d gone before turning and following the strike teams out of the Centre.
Bobby slowed to a halt as they exited the building, and emerged into the cool, clear night. Deakins looked to him questioningly, only to find Bobby was staring up at the night sky, tears trickling slowly down his cheeks.
“Bobby?” he asked softly.
“The… sky…” Bobby whispered in a broken voice. “The… The stars.”
Deakins thought he understood. With the exception of that brief period when he’d managed to escape himself, Bobby had probably not seen daylight for nine months. He was suddenly glad their rescue operation had been executed at night. Had they brought him out into broad daylight, it might just have blinded him.
“Yes, it’s the sky,” he confirmed. “You’re out of there, Bobby. And I swear to you, we’ll never let them take you again. C’mon, now. Alex is waiting.”
With a shudder, Bobby allowed himself to be guided forward, and down the steps to the waiting car.
Alex pulled up behind the other cars outside the Centre – one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her gun. They had been incredibly lucky so far, and there was no sign of interference outside the boundaries of the Centre building, but that wasn’t to say that trouble wouldn’t still appear at any given moment. She watched, breathless, as masked members of the team emerged through the front doors and ran down the steps, bundling into the first cars in the line. Each car ahead of her filled up and took off, on its run to the rendezvous point where the choppers would be waiting.
And then, abruptly, there were only two cars left. Alex looked back to the doors, her heart pounding. What if something had gone wrong…? What if they’d been ambushed just inside? What if…
But there they were.
Tears flooded her eyes before she could stop them as her gaze quickly focused on the slim, hunched figure that Deakins was doing his best to support. It took every ounce of self-restraint she had not to leap out of the car and run to him. Instead, she sat with a grip on the steering wheel that was getting tighter with every second that passed.
She watched as they stopped just outside the door, and Bobby looked up. She thought he said something to Deakins, but couldn’t be sure. Then, they were on their way down the steps. Jarod emerged from the doorway behind them, following them down the steps, watching the doorway to ensure no one tried to come after them. When they reached the bottom, they quickly split up, with Jarod and Fin getting into the car ahead of her, along with whoever was already occupying that vehicle. Bobby, to her immense gratitude, was guided to her car, and ushered with extreme care into the back seat.
She watched, her heart in her throat as Deakins got in on one side of Bobby, and Carolyn on the other. Mike slid into the front passenger seat beside her, the relief obvious on his face.
“Okay, Alex,” Deakins said firmly. “Get us the hell out of here.”
She didn’t need to be told twice.
She found herself half watching the road and half watching Bobby in the rear view mirror. Once in the car, he’d slumped over, his entire body trembling visibly, and faint whimpers and sobs could be heard. Deakins slipped an arm around him and drew him in close in a warm, protective embrace.
“It’s okay,” he murmured as Bobby sobbed softly into his shoulder. “You’re safe. We’ve got you now, Bobby. We’ve got you, and we’re not letting you go again.”
“Is he hurt?” Alex asked, barely able to keep her voice even as she steered the car around a narrow corner.
“His right shoulder is damaged,” Carolyn answered. “We don’t know how badly. We won’t know if there are any other injuries until we get to safety.”
“Just get us to the choppers, Alex,” Deakins told her. “Once we’re on that chopper, then we can all breathe again.”
Alex didn’t say another word, but none of them missed the way her gaze kept flickering to the mirror, and Mike in particular didn’t miss the tears that welled in her eyes as the euphoria of having Bobby back with them faded, and the reality of his broken appearance finally began to sink in.
They were the last car to arrive. One of the choppers had already left, and the other two transport choppers were ready to lift off at a moment’s notice. Deakins slid out of the car and, with Mike’s help, guided Bobby out of the car. As they turned him to usher him towards the last chopper, though, something inside him seemed to snap, and the tenuous composure that Bobby had displayed since bringing him out of that tiny room finally broke.
A terrified scream erupted from his lips at the sight of the chopper, and he pulled away from them, breaking free from Deakins’ hold on him. In his panic, he overbalanced, stumbled backwards and fell painfully on the grass.
“Bobby!” Deakins burst out, going to him to try and get him back up again. Bobby, however, gave another scream and curled into a tight ball on the grass, shaking helplessly with terror.
“Trick…” he moaned. “It’s a trick… Please, don’t… Please… I’m sorry… Please take me back… I’ll be good… I swear…”
“What the fuck…?” Mike growled.
“He thinks this is all a trick,” Jarod said grimly. “Probably something that Raines planted in his mind… and with the drugs that are probably in his system…”
“Bobby, this is no trick,” Carolyn tried to tell him, but Bobby was having none of it.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed again. “I’ll do what you want… Don’t send me there… Please…”
“Send him where?” Ellis wondered. Jarod was pale.
“The last year that I was in the Centre, Raines threatened me when Sydney wasn’t around. He told me that if I didn’t do as I was told, I’d be taken to the Fortress. It’s a Centre-owned estate that can only be accessed by helicopter. People who are sent to the Fortress never come back. That’s what he’s terrified of.”
“We can’t move him like this,” Ellis said. “He’d be a danger on the flight. We’re going to have to risk sedating him.”
“Fuck that,” Alex snapped, and shoved through the group, striding over and crouching down beside her partner. “Bobby? Bobby, look at me.”
He didn’t respond, sobbing helplessly where he lay. Alex hesitated, and then reached out to gently smooth back his mussed-up hair. She said nothing, but continued the motion. When, finally, his sobs seemed to ease, she joined that motion with a gentle hand to his cheek. Slowly, oh so slowly, he quieted, and eventually stilled. His eyes remained tightly shut, and the tremors still coursed through his body, but his sobs were finally silenced.
“Bobby,” Alex whispered, leaning in as close as she dared. “Bobby, sweetheart, look at me.”
His eyes half-opened, and he found himself gazing up into a face that he had imagined so often over the last nine months, and suddenly he found himself unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Alex couldn’t possibly be there, he rationalised to himself in a desperate effort to stave off the heartache that so often accompanied his imaginings of her face. And yet… the feel of her hands on him was so real.
She leaned in closer still, until he could feel her breath on his face. Her sweet, warm breath…
Once she had his attention, and deciding she didn’t give a damn what Deakins thought, Alex leaned right in and pressed her lips gently to his bruised cheek.
Insanely, the first thing that occurred to her was that he was clean-shaven. Then, just as quickly, that thought was gone, and her only concern was convincing her partner that nothing that was happening was a trick, or a hallucination.
“Bobby, it’s really me,” she whispered, her lips still against his cheek. “I’m really here. It’s no trick, and you’re not imagining anything.”
She felt him shudder beneath her tender touch. She slipped her hand into his one free hand, and squeezed gently. She was rewarded with a weak squeeze in return.
“You know I’m real,” she whispered into his ear. “Now, you have to get up off your ass, Goren, and get on that goddamn helicopter, so we can get you as far away from this fucking place as possible.”
She never raised her voice, and she would never confide in anyone else about what she’d whispered to him. Moments passed and then, to the astonishment of all, Bobby relaxed and allowed Alex to draw him up into a sitting position. From there, Mike and Jarod helped him back up to his feet, and urged him across the grass to the helicopter.
As they helped Bobby into the chopper, Deakins turned to speak to Ellis.
“We’ll never be able to repay you for this.”
Ellis grinned as they shook hands.
“You want to pay me back, Captain? You take good care of that boy, and see that he recovers properly. You do that, and I’ll consider us even.”
Deakins nodded, suddenly too choked up to be able to speak. Jarod joined them, and ignored Ellis’ outstretched hand in favour of a quick but fierce hug.
“Thankyou, Dan. Thankyou for everything.”
“You’re welcome, my friend,” Ellis murmured. “Take care.”
And then he was gone, climbing into the other chopper. Fin hesitated before climbing aboard, instead running back to the last chopper. He stood at the open door of the aircraft, speaking when he managed to catch Bobby’s gaze.
“Take care, Bobby. I’ll be waiting for when you come home, okay?”
He didn’t wait for a response, instead nodding to Deakins and the other Major Case detectives, and hurrying back to the other chopper. As soon as he was on board, the door slammed shut, and it lifted into the air and was soon on its way back to New York.
“Let’s go,” Jarod said, urging Deakins onto the chopper to join the others.
While Jarod disappeared up front to pilot the chopper, Deakins took one of the empty seats and quickly strapped himself in. To his right was Carolyn, and on his left was Mike. Immediately opposite him, Bobby sat trembling, hunched over to the side with his head resting on Alex’s shoulder. She had her arms around him awkwardly, murmuring softly to him with words that Deakins, Mike and Carolyn couldn’t make out.
He never opened his eyes, and continued to cling to Alex for comfort… for reassurance… for protection. When Alex finally looked in their direction, though, Deakins saw the same sorrow in her eyes that was in Mike’s and Carolyn’s, and that he knew was in his own.
Bobby was physically free from the Centre, finally, but battle to save his heart, mind and soul had only just begun.
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