The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 18

The Scars Above My HeartChapter 18: Trials Begin

"Are you ready to do this?"

Alex raised his eyebrow at the agent standing next to him. There was an uneasiness already sweeping over the teen, especially since leaving the house with his escort earlier that afternoon. He had watched his parents as they stepped into a large Lincoln Continental, before being driven away to a second, undisclosed location. The agents that had arrived explained how the trip would be divided into two separate routes, and that the family would not be reunited until they reached their destination. Alex gave his parents a long hug, hanging with his arms around them both simultaneously. The impact of their separation didn't sink in until just then, and while holding them both, his mind raced through all kinds of scenarios that led him down the path of not getting to see them again. For a teenager, that hit him hard, and for a moment he almost backed out of the whole idea, and refused to go.

Despite the growing unrest, however, Alex had taken a deep breath and had realized that the dividends of what they were about to do, far outweighed the alternative. His nerves had calmed then, and he had finally smiled at them both before backing away. He didn't trust his voice, however, as his parents had reassured him all would be fine and that they would see him again in a few hours. With grudging respect, he had only nodded and waved as he watched them leaving, and then had allowed himself to be transported to the hangar where he was now. Looking onward, he saw the private Learjet waiting for them.

"Do you want me to be honest, or would you rather I make something up?" Alex finally replied, a catch in his voice betraying the uncertainty he still felt about the whole plan.

The agent grimaced, but was not unsympathetic. "I understand how you feel, Alex. I've been through this a few times before, and no matter how old you get, it still leaves a few butterflies fluttering about your stomach," the man offered, before taking a deep breath and stretching. "We all know that there is always a certain danger, but the odds are really against anything dodgy happening. To be completely honest with you, the best way to manage it, I think, is to just get on with it. The sooner we get you to Philadelphia, the sooner you can wait for your parents to walk through the door and then feel better."

Alex's curiosity was piqued. "We're not going to arrive together?"

"Not exactly, but pretty close. The way the flights are set up, their route is supposed to take about 30 to 45 minutes longer than yours, I think," the man replied. "That's why they left first. We'll get an update on them after we land in Philadelphia."

Alex nodded, grudgingly keeping his thoughts in check. Turning, he saw the other agent had loaded what little luggage he had brought along and was closing the storage hatch. Looking onward at the stairs, the teen sighed and started to climb up. At the top, he stepped onboard the aircraft and was met by a pretty, petite-looking lady who smiled and stepped back, allowing him space to pass. "Hello, Alex! My name is Mandy, and I'll be your stewardess for this flight," the woman introduced herself.

Alex raised both eyebrows briefly, then sheepishly shook the offered hand. "Hello Mandy. Nice to, uh, meet you," the teen replied, before she waved him deeper into the passenger cabin. The teen took a step inside and then paused in surprise. The interior of the cabin did not have the usual characteristics of a passenger plane, or the smaller craft he and his family had ridden in before. Instead of rows of seating, the cabin was fashioned into a basic lounge, with a variety of leather-cushioned recliner seats strategically placed in groups of four along the sides. Stealing a glance back, he saw the stewardess smile and nod at him encouragingly.

"Just take any seat you wish. I believe the passenger list is quite short today," the woman explained with a teasing lilt in her voice. Alex did as he was instructed, choosing a seat near the front of the cabin. The two agents followed behind him, one moving on toward another section down the aisle, but the first with whom Alex had been speaking, chose to take the seat opposite Alex.

"You know, I'm not sure if James introduced us to you or not, given so many things that were happening back there after we arrived. I'm Mike Dory, and that other guy back there is Anthony Cox. Everybody calls him Tony, though," the man offered in a friendly tone. Alex shook the hand extended to him and nodded in acknowledgement. He recalled that the men actually were introduced earlier by James at the house, but Alex was much too nervous to pay close attention at the time.

Trying to calm his nerves and help pass the time, the teen took a moment and assessed the man. "So, is it safe to ask, like, how long you've been doing this stuff? I mean, being an agent and all?"

Mike grunted. "Too long, that's for sure." Settling back into his seat, the man became thoughtful. "Let me think, I'm 42 now, so that makes it... sheesh, almost 23 years, I think. Some of our family friends started working in the Pentagon, I think back in the 1960's and 70's. Nothing important, mind you, more like administrative and support jobs, I think. You know how it goes, though. They knew someone, who saw someone else, that sort of thing. So, I got to start out at an early age, almost right out of high school. My first job was just being a courier, but once I got my security clearance, more opportunities opened up and I took advantage of them. Next thing I know, I'm in this group with James, flying high, guarding, escorting... you get the drift," Mike explained.

Alex nodded, impressed. "Do you like it? The job, I mean?"

"Oh, the job itself is fine. The hours can be long at times, though. Some weeks, I don't get to go home at all, while on others I may get to stay home for two, maybe three weeks at a time before being called back out. That's when I get to relax and unwind the most during the downtime. The only real hiccup is that you can't really plan anything ahead. You never know exactly when you're going to be called up or needed, and sometimes it can come with only a short notice, like an hour or so. You know, spur-of-the-moment type stuff." The man shrugged. "Still, it's a good paycheck, and a decent way to make a living. That, and combined with the fact we've got a reasonable lady boss, it works out pretty well."

"Sounds... interesting," Alex admitted, as he felt the whine of the engines starting up. He glanced out the window, but noted they still had yet to move. "I guess that's okay, for some people anyway. I don't really see how your wife, or girlfriend or anyone would like putting up with it, though."

Mike crossed his arms on his chest and laughed. "I'm still on the single side of life, at least for now. Although, I must admit, I've been dating this girl for almost a year now, on and off again. We're just friends mostly, but sometimes I think about what life could be like otherwise. I've just never been ready to set down roots yet. It's kind of hard with the way we get called out and everything." The man shifted to get more comfortable. "So, how about you? Have you started school yet for this year?"

"One week down, something like 39 more to go, I think," Alex replied.

"That sounds pretty standard, I think. Do you like it? There in Greensburg, I mean?" Mike asked.

Alex could not help but smile. "Oh yeah, definitely!" He glanced at the man, and then came to a decision. Mike was not just filling in the void time artificially, but seemed to take a genuine interest in the teen, and that allowed Alex to relax even more. "It's the first place we've lived for a while now, that I actually have some friends to speak of. Real friends, I mean."

"There's something positive to be said about rural life in that way. Although some of my city and urbanite friends might argue with you, small town life is not to be sneezed at. Me, I grew up in the suburbs, not far from the center of Pittsburgh actually, so I've never had the pleasure of experiencing country life - not directly, at least. I spent most of my childhood in the city, running around with a bunch of wild guys, hitting it up with the girls... sowing wild oats, buzzing the parties, that sort of thing," Mike concluded with a grin.

Alex grinned at the reference, knowing full well what **sowing wild oats** implied. "Sounds... exciting, I guess."

Mike nodded. "Depends on your point of view, I think. It's not the same with all people, I agree, but I've stayed in quiet, out-of-the-way places a few times, and I've witnessed what the teens and young people do for their style of parties, or a good tractor-pull or raceway event. I've been to the Indy 500 a few times, and some rodeos. It's a different way of life, but it is just as full service as anything else out there. I have to admit, too, that I sort of liked being in the fresh air and all, too." He fell silent, however, after the felt the craft begin moving, taxiing out of the hangar bay. As they turned toward the landing field, Alex quietly watched until they reached the end of the runway. After the plane paused briefly, the roaring whine of the engines grew louder, and the craft began accelerating down the concrete path, gathering speed to lift off. Alex felt the G-force pushing against him, pressing his body back into the folds of his seat. Seconds later there was a sudden lift, followed by sounds of the landing gear retracting beneath them. They were no longer on the ground now, and as they progressed, the craft began an upward turn and climb to their desired heading and altitude.

Glancing back at the agent again, Alex saw Mike was casually paging through a magazine he picked up from somewhere. "Um, do you know how long the flight is supposed to be?" the teen asked.

Mike was about to answer when Mandy suddenly appeared, carrying a tray of fruit juices and water. Selecting a drink, the agent addressed the stewardess. "How about it, Mandy? Any idea how long the flight is scheduled to last?"

Mandy moved the tray over to Alex, but the teen shook his head and declined. "No, thanks. My stomach isn't really up to handling anything right now," he explained shyly.

The stewardess nodded. "That's okay, honey. I certainly understand." Standing up, she wrinkled her nose. "I think I heard we have about 75-minutes of airtime, give or take a few. It's a mostly direct route we're taking."

"So," Mike continued, after thanking the stewardess who then walked away. "How about you, any big plans for the future? College, or trade work?"

Alex narrowed his eyebrows slightly, thinking. "I'm not sure, yet. Definitely college, but I'm not afraid to jump into some other things. I just don't think I want to do any kind of assembly, or factory work."

Mike nodded. "Smart thinking, considering. Industrial jobs are not bad, I think, but you have to put up with a lot of heat in the summer months, and that drags a body down sometimes. So, if you can avoid it, I always tell people to look into sales, retail, science, medicine, education... that sort of thing."

"I've thought about teaching somewhat, but I think I would do better, like, in high school or maybe college. Little kids, well, you know what I mean, I'm not sure if I could handle them and all," Alex replied.

"Oh? Education? Any particular field?" Mike asked.

"I kind of like science and math the best," Alex answered. "I like solving problems, and finding answers to things. I don't like a lot of mysteries."

Mike was impressed. "Well, I hear there are a lot of positive prospects for people in those fields. There always seems to be a shortage of teachers in subjects like those. Although, there isn't a lot of money in them."

Alex shrugged. "As long as I can make a living, I don't care that much about money. Plus, who knows? I might get into computers, too - software development or something, like my Dad. There's plenty of money that can be made there, if I need to."

"True. I have a friend who started out as a teacher, but some company hired him out directly to do some work for them, initially. Now he's making a 6-figure salary, and says he'll not go back to teaching unless it's in his retirement years."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Six-figures? You mean, like thousands, or without the pennies, like hundreds of thousands?"

Mike laughed. "Hundreds. When people mention salaries that way, they don't think of the pocket change, really."

"Oh, sorry," Alex apologized, kicking himself for not reasoning that out any sooner. "I guess that's kind of nice. My Dad doesn't quite make that range, but he isn't far off, I think."

Mike sat back and relaxed. "That's good then. How about girlfriends? Any small-town girls impressing you around Greensburg?"

Alex snorted. "No, not really. I mean, I'm just kind of now getting to be around people and everything. You know, even going to school and all." When he saw Mike's curiosity, he explained. "I've been homeschooled for most of my life, so I've never gotten out much to see people, other than a few times like going to church, or something similar."

"Ahh," Mike replied, understanding dawning upon him. "I see. Yes, that might curb things somewhat for a while. I'm sorry, I didn't realize. Kind of stuck my foot in my mouth, I think."

Alex shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry for. I don't regret it. My parents did great, I think. I mean, I didn't get bored or anything."

"Well, that's extra good then." A silence fell between them as Mike began digesting the little tidbits he was learning. Taking a long drink from his bottle of juice, the agent stared out the window for several minutes. He was about to engage the teen further, but he glanced around and noticed that Alex had reclined back deeper into his seat and closed his eyes. The kid - no, the agent chided himself; this was far from any normal kid, and he would do well to remember that. Nevertheless, this teenager seemed to have a keen sense of judgement, and the agent had already noticed how the boy was acutely alert to everything happening around him. That was unusual to find in someone so young, but Mike did not find that detracting from his character. Although guarded and cautious, the boy was more than reasonable with his answers regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of some level of happiness.

This wasn't the first family that had been pulled from normal life by WITSEC, nor would it be the last. Mike had observed enough over the years, to find that most were weary and exhausted by this stage of the game. Anyone in the program generally carried an enormous weight on their shoulders. At times it could feel crushing, even suffocating given everything they had to go through. They wanted their lives back to normal again as soon as possible, which was understandable, but many failed to realize it wasn't always something they could control.

This group, however, was different. After chatting briefly with the patriarch of the family, and given the younger teen's responses, Mike saw a different pattern in that this family was content with where they were in life right now. They actually **liked** the small-town, quieter life. Perhaps they didn't have that much to leave behind, but somehow Mike didn't believe that. They must have, at least, a small family entrenched in some location around the nation, They were all too young, and too well grounded to believe otherwise.

That would be something Mike would have to note in his report later, as well as other things. The agency was always interested in how well the families they protected made adjustments within WITSEC, and they tasked everyone who made contact with the families, in any way, to provide written feedback. His assessment of this boy's profile would go on record, as recognizing the teen was uncharacteristically exceptional. Sharp questions, with little room for bias or uncertainty, and no hesitancy in analyzing the answers, showed a very high level of intelligence. Perhaps, Mike thought, it was a byproduct of having parents that were both college-educated, and in turn passed on the fruits of their achievements to their son. Undoubtedly the teen had acquired high levels of spatial reasoning from somewhere, and it would enhance his place in both school and society in the years to come.

When Mike thought about the particulars of the present situation, however, he frowned. It was a shame that this family had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus witnesses to a double murder. The bedlam created afterwards uprooted them completely, sending them into the fight for their very lives as they had gone into hiding. Mike's own life, as he watched both his father and grandfather deal with their own family business, was not as clean as some of his peers. Sometimes in the most dubious and gory of ways, his family had taught him what the lifestyle of organized crime was like on the other side of the fence. Having grown up in a family of crooks, he was saddened by some of his heritage, and it led him to sympathize with both the victims and families he was tasked to helping in his work. There was little he could do about it other than what the rules allowed, and try to make everyday living work out as smooth as possible.

The man grunted and then stared out the window. In this specific case, Mike's motivations were not those governed by the rules. It had not been easy getting himself assigned into this detail, and he hoped he had succeeded without raising any suspicion. Only through quick maneuvering in the right places at the right time, did he get to join this family in its most crucial hour. For their sakes, he needed this to proceed without a hitch, for a wide variety of reasons. His very life depended on it. He was going to have to be careful, he knew, and he deepened his resolve to do just that.

With that thought, the agent reclined back and closed his own eyes as well, falling into a light doze as the aircraft streaked forward through the sky.

Earlier that morning, Brett had awakened to the sounds of his alarm clock going off rather intrusively. He inwardly cursed, as for once he had been dreaming of something rather frisky between himself and Alex. Although dreaming was not uncommon for the teen, dreaming in the realm of sex so vividly detailed between himself and his best friend was almost unheard of. During the months the two had been together now, they had become practically linked at the hip, in view of how much time they had spent with one another. Simply being close was no longer a question, rather it was an exploration of the fun both had with each other. That had led to some of Brett's best fantasies at times, but none like he had just experienced before waking. He groaned at just having worked Alex's briefs down and off of his friend, while they both lay under the covers. It was as if he could feel Alex on top for real, thrusting himself downward so intimately it was like magic. When the alarm went off, Brett was just about to tell his friend what he REALLY wanted to finally do. Now, he swore to himself, he couldn't follow through because he was cheated from seeing what Alex's reaction would have been like.

Rolling over, Brett finally pressed the snooze button to usher the device into silence once again. Sleep was far from his mind however, as he noted that even in his dreamlike state, a certain part of his groin was on full alert. Knowing he had at least a few minutes to spare, he stretched out, shoving his briefs down to his ankles and taking hold of the hardness he uncovered. Dream or no dream, he was already panting as he started stroking hard and quickly. Although he had jacked off before on plenty of occasions, thinking about his best friend and some of their escapades together already had his aroused state in full swing. This time, there was a super intensity just begging for release, as he imagined what it would feel like if Alex had done 'it' with him... all the way. As his thoughts returned to the dream, he groaned again realizing there was no waiting to be had. With one finger, he found his hole in his backside and slowly pushed inside a part of the way, before forcing it deeper. With a continued stroking in front, that feeling - the vision, his passion, became so genuine that he had to catch himself from moaning out loud more than once. In less than a minute, he flipped over onto his back and then expended himself onto his chest and stomach.

When Brett finished, he lay there panting heavily as he began retreating from his orgasmic high. His thoughts momentarily turned to his friend, and the predicament that he was now having to live through. For a short while the day before, Brett had started to doubt, or at least feel unsure about, the validity of the entire scenario again. Going online for himself, however, the teen researched and found an incredible amount of information surrounding the upcoming trial, the original murder case, and other events where Nick-the-Pick had been suspected of involvement, but it had never been proved. As Brett dug deeper, so many parts of Alex's story checked out, exactly as the teen had described it. Brett also found another story about the fire earlier that year, and saw several details that matched with the timeline and more. Coupled with facts he finally was able to uncover about witness security, or WITSEC, Brett concluded his suspicions were misplaced. There was so much more at stake now, and by the time he had finished, he was convinced of Alex's sincerity even more than before. He had actually felt annoyed with himself, bothered by the fact that his doubts had surfaced. Alex, insofar as Brett knew, had never led him astray or lied to him before. He should have simply trusted his friend more, and he knew it.

Suddenly, the alarm went off again, and this time the teen knew he had to get moving. One snooze was all he had ever allowed before, and now, streaking a finger through his wet mess, he realized the implications of what those few extra minutes may have cost him. Silencing the alarm completely, Brett then sat up quickly on the side of the bed, shaking the cobwebs from between his ears as he turned on the lamp. Looking at himself in the mirror, he grimaced. His head of hair, for whatever reason, decided to become comically curled in various directions. Glancing at the clock, he saw that he might have just enough time to step under the showerhead before he'd have to get dressed. Moving quickly, he made his way to the bathroom, aware that precious seconds were ticking away.

Some 15-minutes later, Brett opened the door to his room to find Gina standing there, arm raised as if ready to knock. "I started to wonder if you were gone yonder to ponder or something," the girl said aloud, before turning back to the stairs.

"Overslept," was the only reply Brett had for her, as they climbed the stairs toward the front entrance. Looking up, Brett smiled as a certain, furry four-legged canine sat on the landing waiting for them, his tail wagging happily. As Brett reached the top of the steps, he knelt down and picked up the dog, immediately flipping the mutt onto his back before proceeding to give him a much beloved belly scratching and massage. "Hi there, buddy!" Brett whispered as Bobba Fett closed his eyes, and extended his tongue to flop off the side of his jaw. Gina giggled and stopped, leaning in and adding her own moment of love to the pup. Eventually, she drew back and sighed. "You'll have to get breakfast at school, bubbles. If we don't go now, we'll miss the bus."

"Lead the way, then," Brett replied, setting the dog down and opening the door. As they exited, they had to use care to make sure Bobba Fett remained inside. Just as they closed the door, Brett felt his cell phone vibrate, and upon pulling the device from his pocket, he saw the text was actually from Alex. Already not expecting his presence, he was curious to the contents, so when both he and Gina reached the road, he read the text. Gina, also curious, leaned in to read the screen as well. **"Sorry guys, I'm going to be out for a few days I think, starting now."**

Brett looked up and across the distance to his best friend's house, scrutinizing it carefully. There were no lights, no activity at all to be seen in the house. It was as quiet looking as if the place were empty. Gina, glanced as well before looking back up to her brother. "What does that mean? Is he sick or something?"

Brett stood in silence, reflecting carefully as everything suddenly hit home. Alex was playing the role out so that Brett, and any curious bystanders, would be able to effectively back him up as being out sick. He smiled as the bus arrived, before finally breaking his trance and nudging his sister. "Yeah, I guess so," was his reply, leaving the girl frowning. They boarded the bus together in silence, and sought their usual morning seats.

Only on this morning, Brett would be left sitting alone.

"Hey, Edwards! What's up man?"

Glancing sideways, Brett grinned as both Steven and Greg caught up with him. The trio took their place in the lunch line, fists raised to bump with one another mid-air, as they sniffed the air trying to determine what was on the day's menu.

After a moment, Steven spoke up. "Hey, where's our other brother at today?"

"At home, sick. I think," Brett responded casually. "I got a text from him this morning as we got on the bus, saying he was going to be out today, maybe more." Brett purposefully tried to play it down in order to create as little suspicion as possible.

It had already been a rough morning thus far, with Brett only able to half-pay attention in his classes. As each hour passed, he wondered where Alex was, or rather, what was the teenager doing just then. It had become a preoccupation, knowing his friend had left quietly for worlds unknown. The cover story of being ill was only implied, but it gave Brett enough substance that he didn't have to outright mislead their friends. At least for right now, as he turned his attention to the overly tall teen walking beside him.

"So, are you finished robbing the blood bank now? Or did they turn you into one of those vampires, where we have to now keep you from biting our necks?" Brett quipped, though he did so with a hushed voice as the three reached the head of the serving line. The menu for the day, Brett thought, did not look particularly appetizing, so he chose to build a salad instead. Aware that the other two boys had chosen otherwise, he began assembling it as quickly as possible as others passed him in line. When he finished, he quickly hurried out to try and join them again, but upon reaching the cashier, he saw that the two had already disappeared. Standing there near the middle of the lunchroom, Brett felt suddenly foolish, and as he tried to seek them out amongst the rapidly growing horde of bodies filling the room.

Brett sighed, and was about to give up when he felt a touch at his elbow. Turning, he was relieved at seeing Greg standing there. "Over here, we got the corner table this time," the teen murmured, turning back in the given direction. Brett followed, and within seconds was placing his tray while sitting down next to Steven. Before he could pull his chair up, however, the tall teen glanced up at him. "You going to dry hack it today or something?" Seeing the confusion on Brett's face, Steven pointed to his tray. "You've got no milk, no water or anything. Did you do that on purpose?"

Brett grunted, feeling stupid as Greg quietly giggled beside him. With Alex gone, his mind was definitely not firing on all cylinders. Without a word, he hurried back to the coolers and picked up two cartons of milk. After paying, he returned to his friends and sat down rather heavily. Both Greg and Steven noted it, and after glancing at each other, Steven leaned in close. "Okay, what gives, Brett? What's wrong, man? You're jumping all over the place, relax."

Brett saw genuine concern in his friend's face, and was tempted to explain, but he knew it was not something he could do even if he wanted to. "Nothing, really. I've just been really off today. You know, like my brain's in another dimension or something."

"Yeah, I can see that," Steven replied. "I have to say though, it's not like you."

"I agree," Greg added. "Even I can see that, and I haven't even been around you that long!"

"Anything we can do?" Steven asked a moment later, when Brett only nodded in response. "I mean, if it's very serious, we could always take you down to the showers in the gym. You know, hang you upside down by your feet underneath some cold water, freezing your gonads and all. That way those extra-terrestrials wouldn't try hiding in your ass or anywhere unpleasant."

Brett suddenly sputtered and laughed out loud. Greg, giggling alongside, spoke up. "Yeah, maybe they'll pop-out the ears and all."

Brett grinned wickedly. "No, they'd be afraid to hide in my ass, I think. Kind of smelly down there." He turned back to Steven, suddenly finding the camaraderie comforting. "I'm... I'll be okay. I just need to focus better, I guess. You know what Monday's are like, sometimes."

"Damn," Steven whispered with amusement. "It might have been fun skinning you down," he teased, which made Brett look up and fist bump with the teen yet again. "So, Branham is at home, sick, huh? I think you two live pretty close to each other, right?"

"Yep, he's across the road and two houses down," Brett replied. Thinking fast, he continued. "He had a spell with something earlier this summer, too. That took him out of action for a few days."

"Really? Well, I guess it happens to all of us at some time or another," Steven remarked, studying Brett carefully. Although the boy's words were normal and almost convincing, the tall teen thought he detected something else. Just what, he was unsure, but he let it go for now. Lowering his voice, he addressed Brett again. "So, did he tell you we had a kind of deep talk the other day?"

Brett looked up and nodded. "He said you two talked a little, yeah. I mean, he was gone most of second-period, remember? It was kind of hard to not notice, I think!"

"Were you in Biology with him? I didn't know that! Where were you?" Steven asked in surprise.

"Right next to him, really," Brett grunted. "It's okay, though."

Steven sat back before leaning in again. "Did he tell you what it was about?"

Brett hesitated, unsure what he should reveal. Alex did indeed tell him about the conversation while they were together Saturday night, but Brett was unsure if it was supposed to be in trust. "Well..."

"It's okay if he did, believe me. I just thought, well... he's not skipping out for anything like that, is he? Because of... you know?" Steven asked, almost whispering.

Brett suddenly felt relieved. "No. I can promise you that, Steven." Looking the other square in the eye, he lowered his voice as well. "I don't think he necessarily told me everything, but we talked for a while the other night about some of the feelings and everything he was going through last week. I can tell you something though, you really did get through to him. I don't know how you did it, but he was feeling a lot better about it and all. I can talk and tell him things, see, but I think hearing it from someone else kind of just does something, you know? Like, some of the stuff we talked about, he wasn't so worried about it anymore."

Steven raised both eyebrows in surprise and then smiled. "I'm glad. Yeah, there are some things that just don't click until you hear them a time or two, or from different people. I mean, I didn't do anything that much, really. I just tried to tell him he wasn't alone in how he felt, that's all."

"I think that's a whole hell of a lot, though," Brett responded, then shook his head. "You guys haven't been around him like I have, I know. He's smart - oh shit, is he smart! - and he's funny, too. He's never been afraid of anything I've put in front of him all summer, either. But this school stuff... and worrying about his shoulder and everything... It just, yeah..."

"It bothers him, I get it. It's kind of like he's still building his confidence, I think, and believe me, there is nothing wrong with that." Steven hesitated before continuing. "Well, just give him some time, he'll do it. But if there's anything I can do, then... tell me, okay?" Steven then took a bite of his sandwich, nodding as if agreeing with his own prognosis. Underneath the table, however, the tall teen slid his leg out and bumped Brett's intentionally, holding for only the slightest of seconds before pulling back. Brett glanced up and nodded too, realizing the teen's purpose. Although recent days had hinted at how much Steven's empathy extended to others, this gesture made Brett feel all the more grateful toward this senior. Glancing at Greg, he saw the sophomore's attention was elsewhere, focused on a group of girls who had sat down at the next table, so he lightly pressed his leg back in acknowledgement, which made Steven smile.

Brett, anxious to change the subject for some reason, tilted his head in the direction of Steven's cousin. Steven, following, suddenly grimaced before shrugging and returning to his lunch.

As the plane touched down on the runway, Alex immediately noticed they had arrived at another, even smaller airstrip, though not unlike the one they had departed from. Watching out the window at the rolling landscape, he saw a few hangars dotted along the side of the runway, each with a flurry of small aircraft parked either inside or nearby. Most of the aircraft were of either single- or dual-propeller types, but occasionally private planes with jets could be seen in the mix. Turning quickly, Alex glanced out the other side of the plane, but saw similar terrain without the hangars. Sitting back, the teen waited as their plane decelerated and began taxiing toward one of the buildings.

They pulled up to the outside of a hangar, just short of its massive doors, and stopped. As the engines began winding down, the high-pitched frequency descending towards a more normal level, Mandy reappeared up front at the hatch. When the door was opened, Alex walked up to her and thanked the woman, before descending to the pavement below. The two agents followed, and Anthony made his way toward the underside of the craft to retrieve Alex's bag.

When the larger man walked up to deliver the carrier, Alex was surprised to see him extend his hand. "This is where I part ways with you, young man, though it has been a pleasure to meet you. Mike here, he'll see you through the rest of your trip," the man said simply, smiling warmly as he shook the teenager's hand. "I wish you the best of luck, and who knows, maybe we'll cross paths again sometime? It's a small world, after all. Right?"

"Uh, yeah, maybe. Thank you, sir. I appreciate you having come along," Alex replied, uncertain what he should say, but feeling at ease as Mike strolled up. Anthony bade them both farewell, and then turned to climb back aboard the aircraft. Mike took Alex's luggage in hand, and then guided them toward the hangar where another black Lincoln Continental sat waiting for them, one which Alex had not noticed before. Two casually dressed men stood by the vehicle, with one attending to something on his cell phone, while the other watched the newcomers' arrival. It caused Alex to glance at his escort and smirk. "Uh, tell me, are Lincolns the standard vehicles for government service like this?"

Mike grinned at him. "They're favored, yes... but then, so are nice, shiny black vans and sport utility vehicles, too!" As they approached, however, Alex noted that Mike suddenly took the lead and casually placed himself between the teen and the agents ahead. When they were within earshot, he called out to them. "Good afternoon, gentlemen."

One of the agents reached very slowly and withdrew a wallet from his back pocket. "Mr. Dory, I presume?" He walked forward, again exercising care until he could show the opened holder for inspection. "Malcolm Green, 4th Division, and this here is my partner William Scarlett."

Immediately Mike frowned. "Where are Craig and Leonard? My understanding is that they were supposed to be our contacts."

"They were caught behind an accident up on I-76, unable to get out. We were called and re-routed to intercept you," came the measured reply. "The status code is 43-Frank-298-Baker."

Mike visibly relaxed then and nodded. "Okay. What's our destination?" Mike already knew the answer, but since it was such a closely guarded piece of information, he figured if these guys were genuine, they'd know it up front.

"We're instructed to take you and your passenger to the Crow Creek residence, in King of Prussia," was the immediate reply from Mr. Scarlett, who had stepped closer and showed his identification to the agent in like manner. Mike nodded and thanked the man, before handing the luggage over. Shaking hands with both, the agent then climbed into the back seat of the Lincoln, with Alex following him closely. Once settled, he leaned down and spoke softly so that only the teen would hear. "It's all good, don't worry. Let's keep it kind of quiet for the time being, though, okay?"

Alex nodded, but had to ask the single-most burning question his mind was wrestling with. "Uh, 'King of Prussia'? That's a ... place?"

Mike suddenly burst out laughing. "Yes, that actually is a real place on the map. Sounds more like a person though, doesn't it? It has quite a bit of history behind it. If we get a chance, I'll tell you about it later. It's about, oh, 20 to 25 minutes away."

Alex sat back amused as the other two agents entered the vehicle. Despite Mike's perceived concerns, the drive was uneventful, and the two arrived without any incidents. They pulled into a parking garage beneath a relatively new office complex before stopping inside near an elevator. Alex and Mike thanked the agents kindly as they got out, and after retrieving their luggage, they made their way to the waiting elevator. As they entered, the doors closed and while on their way to the 4th floor, Mike finally broke the silence. "That was a little unusual, but not unheard of back there. Those guys were probably on the up-and-up, but I hadn't ever seen them before. That's why I was being, how you say, careful."

As they arrived and exited the elevator, Alex replied, "I'd rather be careful now, than be sorry later." Mike nodded, then led the teen through a set of glass, unmarked double doors. Once inside, the two turned down a hallway of some length, but stopped at a door after traveling only about a third of the distance. After he had entered a series of numbers into an electronic device of some sort, the door opened and the two went into what appeared to be a nicely fashioned apartment. The front room looked to be living quarters, complete with couch, tables and a small kitchenette off to the side. On the other side was a short hallway leading away. The area was spacious, not compact by any means, and subtly lit by a series of lamps in various locations. Alex, for some reason, noted that there were no ceiling lights to be found anywhere in his immediate view.

"This is where you and your parents will reside during your stay here. It's a fairly sizable little apartment, I think, with 2 bedrooms and a small kitchen. Just so you know, I've stayed here a few times, and I always thought it was modestly comfortable. It has all the luxuries of a 5-star hotel, really, as we have a maid service that takes care of cleaning and everything on a daily basis." Mike then pointed to a desk phone. "Also, should you need anything, that line will connect you to a station dispatch, which is where I will be at until the other half of our party arrives."

Alex nodded. "Oh, um, okay."

Mike detected a nervousness return to the teen's voice yet once again, before he turned to him with a kindly face. "Now, try to relax, buddy. Your parents should be here, barring any traffic problems, I'd say within about an hour or so, give or take a few minutes. Needless to say, James will also be here later in the afternoon, and all of you will probably discuss a lot of the details about what will happen over the next few days. He'll also arrange for dinner to be brought in, I'm sure, and trust me - he knows how to get good food brought in! Until then, just try to rest." He paused, looking about the room. "I do hate to tell you this, but I guess it's for your own good: you really should not try to leave the apartment until tomorrow. There are alarms all over the place, and any attempt to leave will trigger any number of them into action."

"That's okay, I guess. I understand," Alex replied.

"It's not a bad place though, I think. Certainly not a prison or anything. It's just a managed space we keep for protecting people, and that includes you and your parents. Still, the agency is not stoic or bland about hosting people when they come in. They spend a little money on providing some level of comfort, at least. You'll find all kinds of snacks and drinks in the mini-fridge, and if I'm not mistaken, there are game systems and cable too, including HBO, in each of the bedrooms. You know, Home Box Office, the cable channel. The beds are king-sized, too, with really comfortable mattresses and everything. The only down side, I think, is that there is no outdoor access - no patio or terrace, no windows or anything to see the world outside, but I think you can understand why that is. Short of that, it's not a bad place to chill for a couple of days," Mike explained. He made his way back to the door. "I'm going to go now, hit the men's room and then take a desk near the dispatch office. I've got some paperwork that needs to be filed. If you need something, like I said - just pick up that phone, okay?" With that, seeing the teenager nod, he exited the apartment, leaving Alex alone.

Alex plopped down initially on the oversized couch, which immediately engulfed him with its plush, pillow-like fabric. The room was tastefully decorated, with various prints and ornaments here and there that depicted a style dating back to the American Revolution. Almost no pictures could be seen, understandably so since it was a shared-facility, except for one which hung near the entrance, depicting the current president of the United States. As he scanned the various art prints, he saw one which looked vaguely familiar. Getting up, he walked over to study it before realizing it was reminiscent of a scene at Valley Forge, a place the family had visited before where all of this had started. It was that vacation and its events which had changed their lives for the last two and a half years. The teen grunted, then saw a desk nearby, where a number of brochures and leaflets for the area lay atop. Walking over, he thumbed through several of them along with a binder. It did not take long for him to confirm his suspicion that King of Prussia was, indeed, close to the historic landsite.

Alex sighed, then started to walk around and explore the apartment. He found both bedrooms at the end of the short hallway, and after determining that they both appeared alike, he chose one and stepped inside. As Mike had noted, there were no windows to be found, but otherwise the room was fairly large and comfortable. Off to one side was also a private, moderately-sized bathroom that contained both a shower and a tub. Grunting, the teen stepped over to the toilet and relieved himself, before washing his hands and heading back into the bedroom. Instead of testing the bed out, however, he left and moved back into the hallway. A quick check showed that the other bedroom and bath to be similarly sized with an identical layout.

The teen moved back to the front room and sat down again, this time to wait. Alex did not turn on the TV, but chose rather to lie back and try to relax in the eerie silence. His anxiety intensified with each passing minute, having heard nothing from anyone regarding his parent's status or whereabouts. The teen tried to keep himself calmed, thinking and wondering about what Brett might be doing just then. Checking his watch, he knew it wouldn't be long before his friend would be catching the bus to go home - somewhere he wished he could be as well, for his own purposes. He briefly entertained the idea that maybe they could all have done without this, maybe just hide in Alex's secret room until any dangers had passed. It was that thought, however, that caused the teen to come to his senses and grunt. It was a ridiculous notion, at best. They were committed from day one to see this thing through, and although their faith in the system had been shaky at times, just as his father had said recently, they all knew the stakes and what they had to do. Alex drew a deep breath then and closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself to calm down.

A half hour passed, then an hour. With each passing moment, it seemed every little sound startled the teenager. His watchful eyes were focused on the door, but it never opened the whole time, and after a while the waiting game caused his nerves to become frazzled. Despite Mike's guess and subsequent attempt to soothe him, the teen's feeling of alarm increased. When 90-minutes had passed, he could stand it no longer. Picking up the telephone as instructed, he paused when he realized there was no dial pad, nor any instructions regarding how to place a call. Confused, he suddenly heard sounds coming from the headset, so he held it up to his ear to listen.

"Hello, may I help you?" came the voice of a woman on the other end of the connection.

"Um, yeah, uh... I'm sorry, I didn't realize how this phone worked and all," Alex stumbled.

"That's quite all right, sir. If you're not used to it, I guess it can seem a little strange. What can I do for you?"

"Uh, I was wondering if Mike was still here? I think he said his name was Mike Dory? He said he would be close by the dispatcher, uh, I guess you, for a while," Alex explained.

"Yes, he sure is. Hold for just a few seconds and I'll connect you to his desk," the woman replied. Seconds later, the familiar voice belonging to the agent was on the line.

"Hey, Alex, how's it going?"

"Well, I just... You said an hour, and it's been over that, and..." Alex stumbled again, trying his best to not let the panic he felt seep into his tone.

"Yeah, it has, hasn't it? Tell you what, give me just a couple of more minutes here to send an email off, and then I'll come up there and sit with you," Mike replied. "I've just finished with everything else anyway. I'll check in and see if there are any further reports, too, on your parents."

That wasn't exactly what Alex needed, he felt, but he did not object since the agent promised to look into the delay. "Um, okay. I'd really like that," he replied, and then hung up. Slowly he returned to the sofa and sat down again to wait.

Approximately twenty minutes later, there was a soft knock at the door, and Alex rose to walk over to it. On the other side came Mikes voice. "It's me, Alex," the agent said simply, and upon recognizing it, Alex opened and let the agent inside. "Okay, I've got the low-down," the man said at once as he made his way to the couch and sat down with the teen.

"Is anything wrong?" Alex asked, a level of apprehension creeping into his voice.

Mike hesitated, but then shook his head. "Your parents are safe, they're in Philadelphia, and we're trying to get them here. Remember what the agents told us, about the backup in traffic on one of the interstates? Well, it appears that interfered with some other areas too, and that in turn has disrupted the traffic flow over half the city. Your parents are being re-routed using a series of back roads right now, and that's why it is taking so much longer than we initially expected. James is downstairs now though, on an open connection with the car as we speak. So, there are no problems that we know of, but the estimate is now that it's going to take another 30 to 40 minutes before they arrive."

Alex seemed crestfallen at the news. "That long?" he mused silently, then felt embarrassed at having said it aloud. He looked at the man, but found nothing but understanding reflected back. "But, they're okay, right? You promise?"

"Yep, they're fine. Sorry son, it's just the name of the game for today. A lot of traffic problems are all over the city, let alone in the downtown area this afternoon."

"What's that about? The courthouse?" Alex asked.

Mike nodded. "Yes, the entire block around the federal building has been shut down and blocked off, and that's creating even more havoc, believe it or not." Seeing the teen nod in understanding, he continued. "I know, it's unnerving up here as it is, sitting alone having to wait like this. We got lucky, coming in from a side of the city that wasn't affected yet, see. We could have brought your parents in the same way, I guess, but we had no idea, really. Still, another little bit and all will be right. You'll see."

Alex nodded, but the uncertainty in his stomach was still there. As the silence fell between him and the agent, Alex sighed and sat back.

How he so wished that, for the moment, Brett was there with him.

At that moment, 600 miles to the west, Brett sat back in his seat leaning against the window of the old school bus, wondering about his friend. Gina, who had once again started the ride sitting in his lap, had just taken a normal position when the seat cleared. Watching her brother briefly, she seemed to sense his deep thoughts were elsewhere. Instead of moving to one of the other empty seats nearby, she pulled her knees up onto the seat ahead of them. "Okay, out with it, Mr. Kicket - what's eating you? Are you missing Alex THAT much?"

Brett tore his attention away from the countryside. "What's it to you, ladybug blue?" he asked, exasperated.

Gina pulled back, her face both puzzled and annoyed. "Hey, careful bubble butt! I didn't mean to launch the Spanish Inquisition!" the girl exclaimed. "Besides, when did you start the rhyming sport, and the clever retort?"

Immediately Brett grunted, but settled back into the seat next to her, giggling. "Okay, okay... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump down your throat," he replied, then shook his head before lowering his voice. "You know, I really wish you'd stop calling me that."

"What, do you mean 'bubble butt'?" his sister responded, just as quietly.

"Yeah. I mean, you call me lots of things as it is, but for some reason that's the only one that seems to irk me," Brett admitted.

Gina thought for a few seconds, then shrugged. "I didn't know it bothered you that much, sorry. I'll try and lay off."

Brett stared at her, thinking. "I- I don't know, sis. I mean, I don't know if I really mind it that much, it's just... sometimes the circumstances are, well, weird, that's all."

"Weird? I mean, lately I've only used it around..." Gina stopped herself, thinking hard. "Around Alex... That's it, isn't it?" When Brett did not immediately respond, she faced forward again, but shifted so that she could lean back against her brother. "I'm sorry. I know you two are best friends and all, but... well, I'm sorry."

Brett suddenly felt sheepish over the exchange. He purposefully turned and bumped her playfully, which caused the girl to giggle and return the gesture. It was Brett who broke the silence afterwards. "I like him, Gina. He's my best friend. He's the first person I've ever let my guard down with, I mean besides you. And right now, well... When you call me bubble butt and all, I don't think he really understands, and it just makes me feel weird, I guess. And, well..."

Gina nodded. "Okay, I get it. It's not so much a guy thing anyway, at least like it is with us girls. I can't promise that it won't slip in sometimes, but I promise I'll lay off."

Brett smiled weakly and then nodded. "That's all I can ask for, sis."

When her brother didn't continue, Gina looked up. "Hey, is something going on? Has something happened? What are you so down about today?"

Brett smiled. "Kind of, yeah, but I promised Alex I wouldn't tell anybody."

Gina sat back again. "He's always been kind of a mystery person anyway, hasn't he? Even Mom and Dad said something about it not that long ago. In fact, Dad said something about how that whole family seems a little protective about something or another." Gina suddenly looked up again. "Alex is not in any trouble, is he?"

Brett shook his head. "No, I don't think so." He observed his sister closely. "So, Mom and Dad have noticed too, huh?"

Gina shrugged. "They've noticed something, yeah. Not sure it's anything Earth-shattering, though. They were just talking one night."

"What about you?" Brett asked after a moment. "Do you think its Earth-shattering?"

"Nah, not really. I'm like you, big bro - I love him, too. He's always been good to me, even when others won't even give me the time of day," Gina replied. "And... other things, too. He's been good to me in a lot of other ways, too."

"That, little sis, is why I like him the best of all the people I've ever met," Brett offered, sitting back again. "That, plus he gives me a lot of free-passes, especially when I'm being a hard ass and all. And the funny thing is, he doesn't seem to even know he's doing it." He let out a big sigh. "Like I said sis, he's my best friend."

"Yeah, I get that. You're worried about him though, right?" Gina made a face. "Do you really think he's home and sick? You could always go down there, or call him after we get home today, you know."

"Yeah, I know, but somehow I doubt he's there," Brett replied, before turning to her. "In fact, I know none of them are home sis, but please don't let anyone else know about it, okay? Swear, the most solemn promise you can make me, under threat of, say, me dumping you upside-down naked in a cold shower, and then making you stay there for five minutes freezing your girl parts and all! Swear to me, okay? You won't tell anyone... please?"

Of all the threats her brother had ever made to her, none of them registered like this one did. Although she knew he was teasing, it was the boldest statement of threats her brother had ever made to her. "Why? Where is he, Brett?" she whispered. "What's happening?"

"Swear it, sis. Please?" Brett replied, his head screaming at him. He knew he was on the verge of breaking a promise, and he was trying his best not to betray it.

"Okay, I swear, but... what is it? Tell me?" Gina begged.

Brett sighed with relief, then leaned down so he could whisper to her. "I can't tell you where, okay? But ... they all had to go on a trip so that Richard could testify in some kind of trial this week. A pretty big deal, too. Big enough that the whole family had to go. Understand? That's why no one can know about it at least until they get back. No one sis - not Mom or Dad, not even your best friends. That's why it's so important, okay?"

Gina sat back and observed him. "Well, that might be kind of hard," she started, and then noticed the alarm beginning to register in her brother's face. She held a finger up to his lips, however. "Especially since it is my best friend who is sitting here, sharing it with me." She smiled at him. "Okay, I promise, on threat of you stripping me naked and... whatever it was you just said, bro. I won't tell anyone."

"Not even Mom and Dad, okay?" Brett pleaded, to which the girl nodded.

"If Mom and Dad find out, it won't be from me." Gina rubbed her nose as if it was itching. "Where did you get that one anyway, about putting me in a cold shower and whatever?"

Brett suddenly laughed. The relief in his expression was priceless, as his feelings suddenly calmed. He glanced at her and then slid an arm behind so he could give his sister a hug. That was another first for Gina, one which registered mostly because of how public they both were just then, on the bus, and with all kinds of people around them. Whatever had just happened, it had scared her brother so bad to go to such extremes, or so she thought. When he had squeezed her affectionately, he leaned in close. "Someone threatened me with something like that once, not too long ago," he carefully admitted. "Sorry, I just... it was all I could think of on the spur of the moment."

Gina made a face while melting into the embrace. "That would be... weird, I think. I mean, for guys that would be like freezing your balls off or something, right?" she whispered, but then laughed aloud. "I wouldn't have to worry about that, I guess, since I don't have the extremities like you 'boys' do," she whispered. Gina, seeing her brother blush, decided to return to the subject at hand. "So, bottom line is, you promised me that Alex is not in trouble. They just all need some silent time for a few days, right?" Seeing him nod, she relented. "I can handle that. When is he supposed to get back home, though?"

"I don't know. He told me it will all depend on how the trial goes and everything," Brett answered, again his voice a low whisper.

Gina listened to the defeated spiral she could hear in her brothers voice. "Okay. So, what say you and I watch a movie or something when we get home then. Just you and me? Maybe I'll even curl up in your lap or something."

Brett glanced at her in surprise. "I thought you and the new girl were getting together this afternoon?"

Gina shrugged. "We can do that later this week. Right now, even though you might not want to admit it, I think you need me more."

Brett smiled.

It was closer to another 90-minutes before the door to the apartment finally opened, and several people walked through it. Alex finally breathed deeply with a sigh of relief when he saw his father and mother were amongst them. He moved forward and gave them both deep hugs, closing his eyes as his tension finally began to melt away. Mike stood as well, moving forward eventually to shake Richard's hand and welcome their safe arrival. "This boy has been going nuts waiting for you!" he teased. "Of course, I don't blame him, given everything going down. Good to see you again, sir."

Richard returned the handshake warmly. "Thank you for sticking with him till we got here." They exchanged a few words, and then Mike excused himself to leave. He and two other agents quietly left the room, leaving only James and another individual behind, whom James readily introduced to the family.

"This here, folks, is..." James started, but Alex, having let go of his mother, suddenly interrupted.

"Jonathan Banks," the teen announced quietly. When the others looked at him in surprise, Alex blushed. "I'm sorry. I recognized you from a news story we watched on TV a few weeks ago."

James turned to the U.S. Attorney and grunted. "Didn't I tell you he was exceptionally attentive, and smart?" Both grinned as the older man stepped forward and extended his hand, not only to Alex, but his parents as well.

"How do you do. It's a pleasure to finally get to meet you folks, after all this time," Jonathan announced, obviously pleased. "I've heard a lot about you. Seems you've had a pretty wild ride since this all began."

"Well, it hasn't been any picnic," Patty answered dryly for the group. She sighed though as she put her arm around Alex's shoulders. "Still, I can't say I'm overly surprised. Thank you, both of you gentlemen, for bringing my family back together again, here and now."

"It was our pleasure, ma'am. Let us thank you, too, for putting up with all the craftiness we've just gone through today, too. It may have been unnecessary, but given the history of Mr. Picante, and our fear of there being such a deep-rooted leak within the agency, neither of us felt we could chance it," James stated. The man indicated the couch and chairs within the room, where they each turned and took a seat. "That's not to say we have to let our guard down, but we're almost to the light at the end of the tunnel. We only need a little more luck to stay with us, now."

"Folks," Mr. Banks started, taking up the conversation. "I know you're all probably exhausted and hungry. I've ordered a meal catered up from downstairs, and they'll probably be arriving in the next few minutes. If you will, however, since this is the first time that I've gotten to meet with you up front, I'd like for us all to have dinner and then afterwards, I'll give you a feel for what is being planned tomorrow. James is still handling the security, of course, but as you might guess, I'll be the one in the courtroom with you. Tomorrow, we're going to put your testimony on record, and I'd like to prepare you for what I perceive the defense council's cross examination will try to concentrate on."

"Wh- whoa!" Richard exclaimed, surprised. Patty agreed. "You're saying we're going to testify right away then, tomorrow?"

"Are you ready for that already?" Patty added.

Jonathan nodded. "I've already made my opening remarks today, laying out the basics of our case, but using a timeline that was reversed in order. That makes the way for the eye-witnesses testimony to be called up first, and then the ensuing evidence to follow afterwards. So, tomorrow morning I fully intend to open by calling you two up immediately, so that we get the basic facts on record. Then I'll build the major points of the case behind your testimony, backing it up with all of the substantiated evidence after the fact."

"And then?" Richard asked, listening carefully.

"Then," James answered, "you will be brought back here to stay for a couple of days, or the week if necessary. The idea is to get you on the witness stand and then off, as quickly as possible, but still deliver as much as we need to make and reinforce our case. It protects you, and it protects our case. If I can hit the highlights hard enough, it will hopefully throw the defense off-guard."

"But, why will we have to remain here so long afterwards?" Patty asked timidly.

"It's a fair question. The only reason you're staying here is because the defense could recall you for further testimony. That's usually done when they present their case," Mr. Banks acknowledged, before leaning forward. "You see, generally courts can release witnesses as soon as they're done in trial proceedings, but under Federal guidelines, you're not supposed to disappear immediately. We have got several charges which we are laying at Mr. Picante's feet, with the major one being first degree murder. If we address that up front, and get it out of the way, then you folks should be marginally in the clear. Once the defense has had their round, and rests their case, then you will be allowed to return home to wherever it is you came from, courtesy of the U.S. Government."

"Will..." Alex started, and then fell silent. It wasn't his place to speak in this meeting, but James turned to him and smiled encouragingly. Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Will we be able to stay there? After this is over?"

James nodded. "We're going to try it, son. Your parents have spoken to me at length on the way up here today, and told me there is a strong desire for all of you to remain in the area. Mind you, we'll all have to continue being very careful for a while, but as long as nothing untoward upsets things already in motion, I don't see why we can't entertain the idea."

Alex closed his eyes, sighing in relief. He sat back into the couch between his parents heavily, making the rest of the group smile. Opening his eyes again, he suddenly felt sheepish. "I'm sorry, I just... it's kind of important to me, that's all."

"There is nothing to be sorry about, Alex," Jonathan stated. "I have both a teenage son and daughter at home, and they have forged some very close ties with their schools, friends and people there. They would probably rip me to shreds if I tried to pull them from home right now." He sat back and gave a short laugh. "Which is not easy, believe me. In my job, I can actually be posted most anywhere in the country at a moment's notice!"

James laughed with the man, while Richard and Patty smiled. Alex leaned forward. "Uh, may I ask another question then?" Seeing the nod from the attorney, he forged ahead. "What is the plan for tomorrow? Are both me and Dad going to testify at the same time, or...?"

"We're going to start with your father, I think. We'll probably keep you in a holding room, away from his testimony and any cross examination he may receive. That way, when I call you to the stand, you will not be influenced by anything you have already heard up to that point. Then we'll ask for a short break, during which we will let your father stay in the courtroom, again under careful watch. Then we'll return and proceed, before I call you into the room, while your father leaves. That is when I'll put you on the stand directly. The intention is to show that you two will have had no direct contact between or during your testimonies, see."

Mr. Banks paused. "Understand something, son ... well, both of you for that matter. This defense attorney, he's no pushover. He'll be surprised, I think, but he'll probably come at you the hardest, Alex. There is really no amount of preparation I can put either of you two through tonight that will be enough, so I don't honestly intend to try. The key, however, is that the both of you don't lose your cool. Listen to what he asks, and answer point blank to all of his direct questions. If he tries to draw any conjecture, just shut him down. I'll try to intercept as much as possible, but some of it will have to come from you. Especially you, young man. One of his biggest arguments, I think, will be that legally, you were not of age to be considered a witness when this crime occurred. Being 15 now, however, changes the discretionary age I'm allowed to pursue. Given the things you can recall with such clarity, your testimony will undoubtedly be the most damaging to them, and they'll try to find some way to discredit it."

"Why?" Patty asked.

"Well, for one, consider the order we're taking. Alex will be the second to testify and backing up his father's testimony, which will have already been given. That's the obvious assumption. It is Alex's testimony which is going to provide a lot of minute details however, and being at such a younger age when it happened, those details will be called into question. Remember, he gave our people several minute things we have not yet ever released to the public. For example, the license number, the bumper stickers on the truck, the state of the truck's tailgate being dented in the corner. None of those are things your husband ever identified, but Alex provided clear and unquestionable specifics, all of which were found to match the vehicle Nicholas was driving." Mr. Banks leaned forward. "And then, there is the final argument which I hope the defense presents. If not, then I will, at least. It is one which we will refute, by performing a little courtroom exercise."

"What's that?" Richard asked.

The U.S. Attorney smiled, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. James answered it to find a host of individuals delivering 3 trays of assorted foods and beverages. Recognizing Mike as their escort, the man allowed the servers to bring the food in and sit it on the kitchen counter, before being escorted back into the hallway. Mr. Banks turned toward the food. "We'll discuss that a little later. Right now, I hope you folks like good old-fashioned country cooking, because if my nose doesn't deceive me, I think I smell either some grilled pork chops or fried chicken calling my name... or perhaps even both!"

As Alex lay in bed that evening, he pulled the cell phone he had been given earlier from the nightstand. When asked if he could text his friend, to tell him all was okay, James produced a different prepaid phone from his pocket. "Short calls only, please, but I think it has unlimited texting on it. Beware though, everything is monitored in this building. Sorry about that, but it comes with the territory, really. So, if I were you, I'd leave any questionable communications up in the air, and certainly no pictures, until you get back home!" the man advised with a smirk.

Although it was nearing midnight, Alex knew his best friend would be up. Entering Brett's cell number, he sent a message: **"It's me, using a borrowed phone. Everything alright at Camp You-Know-Where?"**

It was a full minute before Brett replied. **"Really? What did you do the first days we were there in No-Where?"**

Alex grinned. **"Um, taught you how to not lose your shorts in the water, didn't I?"**

**"OMG, it is you! How are you? Is everything alright?"**

**"Everything is fine Big-B, I promise. Listen, I can't say a lot or stay online long. Like I said, this is kind of a borrowed phone, and I doubt I'll get to use it much this week. Understand?"**

**"Sure do! At least I know you're still alive and kicking and that the crud isn't getting the better of you. Little-G said to tell you hi, too! School went okay today, too. So far only thing is some reading from World History, but we've got a week to do it, so no sweat. All will probably be good for the week, if you need it to be."**

Alex smiled. **"I probably will, given what we learned today, but thanks. Tell sis I said 'hi' back, and give her a special hug from me too, if you want."**

**"Will do. Also, Ethan has been trying to get hold of you tonight, just so you know. I don't think it's anything big, he just sounded more lonesome and depressed than anything. We chatted for a bit though, and I told him I'd have you call as soon as you're well enough. That seemed to help."** Then, almost immediately following, he added, **"Sorry, I didn't mean to mention his name like that."**

Alex paused, remembering the boy and his situation. **"LOL, it's cool. Names might not be such a big thing, really, but... just trying to be careful since it's a borrowed phone, that's all. Oh, and yeah, I'll give him a ring when I get back."**

**"It's cool, then. So, will you be able to text me again?"** Brett asked.

**"Not sure, but I'll try. Take care, okay? For once, I need to get some sleep for a change."** Alex replied.

**"I'll bet. Glad you're doing better, bud. Back at you then, get better, and get some extra sleep for me, too!"**

Alex smirked. **"There is never enough sleep in the world for you, I think! But yeah, chat again soon as I can."** He waited a bit, but when nothing else appeared, he placed the phone on the nightstand again and lay back. Although a little awkward in places, they had both understood the stakes from the beginning of the conversation, and had played upon Alex's supposed illness to explain his absence. Anyone reading the exchange should find it to be okay. Alex smiled, recalling it was Brett who had actually suggested the ruse in the first place. His best friend was smarter, Alex thought, than he gave himself credit for.

Aside from everything going on, his mind started wandering until it focused on Ethan and his sister. He wondered if their parents had returned yet, and if so, what was Harry Spalding doing at the moment.

Ethan Spalding sat on the couch next to his sister, looking onward as their grandmother paced the living room floor. Although April had a book in her lap, mindlessly turning the pages, Ethan was doing his best to listen in on the phone conversation his Grandmother was having, seeking any insight that might explain the absence of their parents being so long.

Ruby had spent the last few hours calling around in search for them. Harry refused to answer his cell, as did Casey. Ramona had a cell, but often left it unattended for long stretches of time. She had a notorious habit of letting the battery discharge prematurely, and then absently leaving it lying about for days before she'd discover and charge the device again. Although the negligence annoyed Ruby, she didn't hold high expectations in that department that it would ever get better, so for the time being she let it go.

For once, however, the older woman wished to the high hills her daughter would have had the phone on her right now. Although Harry had dropped the kids off before, often for the span of a few days, never had it taken this long for at least one of them to show up or call. What spurred Ruby into action, however, was when she received a call that afternoon from one of Ramona's friends attempting to track her down. As the conversation continued, Ruby realized that not only had the couple disappeared from her and the children, but seemingly from everyone else, too.

Ruby hopped in the car with the kids and drove over to their house, only to find it looking appallingly abandoned. The grass was growing thick again, needing attention before long, as well as various landscaping and flowers were wilting in their beds. With Ethan's help, they all gained access inside the house, but found no clue beyond what Ethan had already given her about their sudden departure. The grandmother bit her bottom lip, then instructed the kids to gather some of their clothes, which she placed into paper sacks along with an extra pair of shoes for each. Then they left, locking the doors behind them and climbing back into the car.

Ever since arriving home, Ruby had been on the phone, calling anyone and everyone she could find, looking for some clue. When she exhausted her list of contacts, she made one last call to the Decatur County Sheriff's Department. There, she had been placed on hold for quite some time, until someone finally picked up the extension. As calmly as possible, Ruby explained the situation to the woman there, who took some notes and promised to send a deputy out to her address as soon as possible.

Hanging up, she looked at the clock and grunted. "It's almost 8 o'clock now. Ethan, you probably should get your shower before bed."

"But, Grams, I want to be here when the police come!" Ethan whined. Ruby, though not unforgiving, insisted otherwise.

"There is nothing you'll miss, believe me. Knowing them, it'll be an hour or more before they show up. Go on, get ready for bed. If the Sheriff or his deputies want to talk to either of you, I promise I'll get you up, okay? Go on, now," Ruby insisted. "April, you come help me for a few minutes. You can take your bath after your brother gets out."

Almost two hours passed before someone finally knocked on the front door. Ruby, already tense and chastising herself for letting things go as long as they had, answered the door and sighed in relief as she saw it was none other than Sheriff Walt Mackie himself, accompanied by a deputy. "Excuse me, ma'am. Did you call earlier about a missing-persons report, for one Harry and Ramona Spalding?"

"Yes, Sheriff, I did. Ramona is my daughter, and Harry is her husband," replied the woman. "Won't you come in?"

"Yes, thank you kindly," the man replied gruffly, then shook his head. "Forgive us, we've been tied down with a fire up at the museum. I'm sorry it has taken us so long to get out here." The three walked into the living room and sat down, Ruby sitting across from the two lawmen. "If you don't mind ma'am, first give me the basics. What made you call this in?"

Ruby bit her lower lip. "Harry dropped off his children, my grandchildren, to me over two weeks ago on a Sunday morning. No one has heard or seen from him or Ramona since."

"Two weeks," Walt repeated, then drew himself upright. "Isn't that a little long to be waiting for something like this?"

Ruby nodded. "Normally, yes, but my daughter and son-in-law have a storied history of doing this kind of thing before, for maybe as much as a week at a time. But Walt, they've never gone this long, however, without at least a call or something. The kids and I took out and went over to the house this evening, but Ethan, that's their older son, declares it doesn't look any different than the day they were picked up and brought here by their father. And the way it looked to us, it seemed practically abandoned."

"On that Sunday, did you see him that day? Did he give you any reason or clue as to where they were going?"

Ruby shook her head. "No. He dropped the kids off in the driveway and then left them. I wasn't even home at the time they arrived, having gone to church that morning. When I came home and found them in the living room, I was surprised a little, but like I said, they've been dropped off here before. Both children know where I keep a spare key and all, you see."

"So, they've been here before," the deputy piped up, to which Ruby nodded.

Sheriff Mackie grunted as he studied their hostess. "When is the last time you saw your daughter then?"

Ruby shrugged. "Longer, probably a few days before then. I think I talked to her on the phone that Saturday afternoon before they disappeared, though. Nothing seemed amiss or anything. In fact, she was talking about how she needed to get some school shopping done for the kids, and wanted to know if I would like to help her." Ruby sighed and leaned forward. "That's the last time I've heard from her. The kids have been here ever since, even while school started and all."

Sheriff Mackie fell silent for a bit, then withdrew a notebook from his chest pocket. "I'll be honest with you ma'am, we've been looking for Harry ourselves for about a week now. Both he and his brother have seemingly disappeared."

Ruby sat back. "I think Ethan may have heard something about Casey going off to Chicago, or something like that."

The deputy sat forward at that moment. "Chicago? Do the men have any sort of family or relations up there?"

"Not that I know of," Ruby replied. "To be honest though, Walt... I don't know hardly anything about Harry's family, other than he has the one brother, who has been here in Greensburg for the last three to four years."

"That's alright, ma'am." Sheriff Mackie sat back thinking. "Ms. Simpson, let me ask you a question, probably out of the ball park as we say, but it's not without purpose: have you ever known your son-in-law to be mixed up with any gangs, or syndicate groups of any type?"

Ruby looked onward, studying the man, her facial expression giving him the answer before she even spoke. "I have no first-hand knowledge of Harry's dealings, to be honest, but yes - I would not put it past him, in any shape or form, to be mixed up with something or someone." Just then the woman rose and quietly stepped into the hall, checking the bedroom at the end before returning. "Sorry about that, I wanted to make sure the children were asleep."

Sheriff Mackie nodded, then waited until after the woman returned to her seat. "Ms. Simpson, let me be candid, here. Harry has quite a record down at the office, though mostly just misdemeanor complaints and minor incidents. We're familiar with him, to say the least, because reports are that he's gotten more, ah, active in recent months. I mean, he's wanted for questioning in several incidents now, one being the cause of a situation at a local diner, another involving falsifying reports and harassing two local teenage boys. The car lot he runs seems to have been abandoned and closed up. It looks like no one has been present there now for weeks. That, and other things, just do not add up."

Ruby nodded. "The two teenage boys are probably the ones that befriended Ethan this summer. I met them both not long ago, and I must tell you they seemed to be a fairly decent sort, for teenagers," Ruby replied. "I do know that Harry had a beef with them, too. Ramona and I were talking about it not long ago, and she was telling me that Harry seemed obsessed with finding them for some reason or another, and not necessarily for pleasant reasons."

"That would fit what we've been discovering as well," Sheriff Mackie replied. "It sounds like Harry's disappearance coincides somewhat with what you've reported. Perhaps he and your daughter left town to let things cool off, or something similar."

"No," Ruby responded, shaking her head. "You have to understand, Sheriff. My daughter loves these kids, dearly. She often puts up with her husband's bullying behavior just so she can protect them as much as possible. He has threatened her constantly with a wide variety of bullish nonsense, but from what she told me, it was more hot air than anything else. I believe generally their lives were about as turbulent as you can imagine, but... they both seemed to care about the kids, Harry grudgingly and Ramona all out. Still Walt, he was a big man, mean-spirited and always full of surprises. Why she stayed with him, I have no idea, unless it was for the children's sake. That's my point - she loved those kids, and looked out for them constantly. Even when they've left them before, she was always calling, almost every day, to learn how they were doing, and to give us an idea where they were, or when they were coming back." Ruth leaned forward in her chair again. "That's what makes this time so different, see, and so difficult. Neither I nor the kids have heard anything, from either of them, for over 2 weeks now, and I'm getting worried something may have happened, or is happening."

Sheriff Mackie observed the woman carefully before nodding. "I see your point, ma'am. Okay, I'll set up a broadcast throughout the State and see if anything turns up. Perhaps they've been incarcerated, or in a hospital somewhere and are just unable to get in touch right now. If nothing comes back in the next 24 hours or so, then we'll declare them missing and start a search warrant, beginning with their home and the car lot office. Something should turn up along the way, and we'll get to the bottom of it, I'm sure."

"Do you not already have a missing-person out?" Ruby asked in confusion.

"Yes, but only for your son-in-law," the man answered, but paused before continuing. "With what you've told me, however, I can now add your daughter to it and advance an actual search warrant, one that gives me access to their properties and what have you. We can look for clues to their current whereabouts, see."

Ruby's shoulders sagged in defeat. "Is that all that can be done?"

Sheriff Mackie regarded the woman, but not unkindly. "It may not sound like much, but considering ma'am, you've given me enough to make me concerned now. When this goes out on the circuit, and other agencies start getting involved, it won't be long before one of them will make hit on the grid somewhere, or be recognized from their photos. Which reminds me, do you have any recent photo of your daughter which we might make use of?"

Ruby thought for a few seconds, and then rose from her chair. Crossing to a rather worn-looking roll-top desk in the corner of the room, she opened a drawer. Rummaging through its contents, she extracted a photo and carried it over to the couch. "This is probably the latest I have, taken about two years ago at a church picnic. The two children there are hers, Ethan and April."

Sheriff Mackie took it, looked it over and then nodded. "We can get the children cropped out and put the rest of the print on the wire." He then stood up, which his deputy did likewise, and faced the woman. "The way it generally works is that the first 48-hours or so, you won't hear much from anyone. It takes that long for agencies to start tracking details and so forth. Afterwards, however, we'll be in touch as things unfold. At the very least, either I or one of my deputies will stop in to check with you by the latter half of the week." The man then withdrew a business card from his chest pocket. "If you hear anything, see anything, or think of anything more that might help us, that there has my personal cell number listed. Do not, and I mean this whole-heartedly, do NOT be afraid to reach out to me. Call me, day or night - but please, give us a little time to do our jobs, too. I assure you ma'am, I'm going to give this matter a much higher priority now."

Ruby shook the hands offered by her guests. "Thank you so much, Sheriff. I- I don't know what I would do now, if I lost my only child. Find them, please."

"We will ma'am. I'll be in touch," the man said, and then with a nod, Sheriff Mackie and his deputy left.

Ruby returned to her chair and sat down heavily, pondering their visit. **Have you ever known your son-in-law to be mixed up with any gangs, or syndicate groups of any type?** Of course, she had suspected it for a very long time. In fact, not long after he and Ramona married, there were several little things that started happening, things that didn't make a lot of sense at first. The money, which seemed to come in spurts for them, was one thing. Harry's cars seldom ever seemed to sell, many of them she believed now were still present from the day he started the business. The man carried on, however, like he was in the big leagues, buying and selling cars so fast that sometimes they didn't even make it to the lot.

Then there were the late-night meetings. Early in their marriage, her son-in-law had begun a conversation about working really late on some evenings, meeting with potential clients and more. On one particular night, Ruby had just dropped the kids off at home, when she decided to drive by the lot. She could see the man was truthfully in the office, but it looked like he was laughing and cutting on with several men in the tiny shack instead, all of whom appeared to be practically drunk. That particular night, as she'd heard from her daughter, Harry hadn't come home until after two in the morning.

Ruby never liked the man, really. There were times he could seem charming and sweet-natured, especially when he and Ramona were dating. But in the years since, her son-in-law had become abusive, both verbally and physically. After the kids were born, Harry's overall patience and personality had gradually begun to change. The kids started taking rather harsh rounds of verbal abuse, as did their mother and Ruby herself. Then recently, Ramona had confided in her that Harry had resorted to slapping her as of late. Ruby tried to teach her daughter that no man had a right to strike her that way, but she laughed it off.

A sudden and horrible thought engulfed the woman, causing her to gasp suddenly. What if something new had happened, more major than before. Could Harry be keeping her somewhere against her will? He had done it once before, when he discovered Ethan had been sent to summer camp. That particular night, she had never seen the man's face turn so red in anger, practically ready to boil and unleash. Instead, however, he rose and walked out of the kitchen, out of the house, and into their car and rushed away. Both Ruby and Ramona had been prepared to fight with him that night, to pound some sense into the man, but neither had had that opportunity. The deed was done, and since the man had practically no idea of where the camp was to begin with, he only hurled a few expletives and stared Ruby down from his seated position. She had interfered with their lives again, and then their trials really began.

Ruby knew then, as she could see it in his character, that he was slowly going mad.

Ruby sat back, tears falling to her cheeks. Why, oh why, didn't she seek help for them then?

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