"The world is corrupt."
"It needs to be cleansed. A firestorm will rage through this world and destroy it."
"Then we can rebuild a new world."
"A better world!"
"We can do it together!"
Yadda yadda yadda, John thought, keeping his face carefully blank, not revealing his cynicism as he watched the daily spectacle. Thomas Gabriel was good, John had to concede, a tall, lean man with intense eyes that compelled attention. He spoke passionately, inflaming his youthful followers to worshipful devotion, sitting on the big throne-like chair in the middle of the room, dressed all in black, often leaning forward and directing his full attention directly at an individual. The kids' eyes shone with awe each time they dutifully intoned, "Yes, Gabriel," and Gabriel accepted their admiration as his due.
Jeez, they were all so young to John, barely older than his own kids. The white linen shirts and slacks they wore made them look even younger, almost angelic. It wasn't surprising that they'd fallen for a slick huckster like Gabriel. Not that they were too young: Gabriel was careful to reject anyone young enough to get him in trouble with the law, focusing on the 18-24 demographic, like he was an advertiser from Manhattan. Naïve kids who were searching for something better, something meaningful in their lives, but who had found the wrong answer.
Sometimes, John would have liked the satisfaction of just punching guys like Gabriel in their smug faces. To feel a nose break under his fist, to know that someone objected in the most blunt way to taking advantage of kids or the easily led… but that wasn't John's job.
Casually, John glanced around the room, noting the other guys like him, the ones who weren't supposed to have bought into the con, but were there to provide security. Not that they looked like guards. Like everyone else, they were wearing white linen, and the loose drape of the shirts helped hide their guns. Unfortunately, they too were all doing their jobs, one in each doorway of the big room, hands clasped in front of them, apparently as pious and dedicated as John himself. They were an obstacle to be avoided or overcome, but John had dealt with much worse in the decade or so that he'd been infiltrating cult groups and hanging around terrorists. It was an eclectic, occasionally stressful, lifestyle, but it satisfied John's needs.
The catechism was reaching a frenzy, kids practically swooning at Gabriel's feet, and then it was done for the night, Gabriel gently lulling them down to a more sedate mood, lowering his voice to calm and soothe them. He accepted hugs from many as they slowly trailed out of the room, going upstairs to their bedrooms or outside to the bunkhouse. John and the other guards stepped aside to let them pass. He had to give Gabriel credit that he didn't seem to take sexual advantage of any of them, but he supposed a hot piece like Mai kept him occupied.
"That went well," Gabriel said, lounging back in his chair, his face shining faintly with sweat. John and the others stepped closer.
"It always does," Mai answered, perching on an arm of his chair, curling the fingers of one hand through his hair. She was never overt about their relationship in front of the followers, but she always reminded the select loyalists that she was Gabriel's right hand. Like him, she always wore pure black, distinguishing herself from the others.
"We need more."
"We'll have trouble fitting them all in," Frank said. "The beds are full." Gabriel hadn't been in the racket for long, so the buildings on the compound weren't enormous. One big, rambling farmhouse where Gabriel, Mai, and a small group of followers slept, and a hastily constructed bunkhouse for the rest.
"It's time to trim down again to our most devout followers. We need fresh disciples." Gabriel and Mai exchanged looks, and John knew that the rest of them wouldn't be made privy to the whole plan. Something more was going on here, something hidden. Gabriel faked the messiah shtick well, but his heart wasn't in it, not like other cult leaders John had seen. They'd believed their own propaganda completely, to the depths of their self-centered souls, that they had some divine right to control other people, to take on the role of savior, to use and abuse the faithful. Gabriel… John would have said that Gabriel was too dispassionate to believe his own press, that he was in it for the money, except John couldn't see where he was making a fortune off this scam. If nothing else, feeding and clothing all these kids must be costing a fortune.
He was missing a piece, he knew that, and it bothered him. Loose ends had a bad habit of snapping back and twining around him. He wished he knew what had happened the last time Gabriel had 'trimmed down.'
"I'll get you the list of everyone to go through," Frank responded. Gabriel nodded, and that was the end of the discussion. John and the others headed out to do their rounds, patrolling within the compound and around the wire fence. They didn't have a lot of problems generally, but sometimes the kids from the closest town would swing by, drunk on Bud and Coors, and throw taunts or garbage. When you lived in Hicksville, making fun of the local cult group served as an exciting evening of entertainment.
Several hours passed before John walked into the house, made a stop in the kitchen, and went up the stairs, before knocking softly on one of the bedroom doors. He could see light under the doorway and hear the sounds of tapping, so he knew Matt was awake and working. The door opened within a few minutes, Matt standing there and blinking into the darkness of the hallway. Even though everyone else in the house was asleep, he wasn't dressed for bed, just wearing the standard white linen. Maybe he slept in the outfit. It certainly resembled pajamas, and Matt could be forgetful about such things. "Oh, hey. What's up?"
John held out an apple. "I thought your blood sugar might be low."
"Oh, thanks man. Come on in." Taking the apple, Matt stood aside, letting John enter. Like most of the bedrooms, the room was kept neat and clean, furnished with a matching wood bed and a dresser, but this one had a desk too, with a computer, monitor, and a bunch of peripherals that John didn't understand sitting on top of it. Matt wandered back to the desk chair, crunching away. John had learned the hard way, by trial and error, things getting screwed up and his life in danger, that research was an essential component of his job. His information from Matt's parents and his own observation indicated Matt was a night owl with a tendency toward hypoglycemia, so John had carefully developed a routine of stopping by and bringing him food any time he worked late. Matt had learned to trust him; probably thought of him as a nice old guy.
John leaned against the wall. "You weren't at the evening devotional."
"Yeah." Matt winced. "I know Gabriel likes everyone there." With his free hand, he waved toward the computer. "But I got wrapped up. I broke a major code he wanted."
"A major one, really? Things can finally start happening then."
"It's going to be amazing," Matt said, swinging the chair in a circle, still munching. "The end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine," he added, singing the last phrase.
The end of the world? Was there an actual plan to accompany Gabriel's rhetoric? Was he really going to make the firestorm happen, and not simply hang out in the middle of nowhere being admired? John felt a chill down his spine. His instincts were right; Gabriel was more than a garden-variety cultist intent of dominating his own little corner of the universe. "Yeah, it'll be pretty damn amazing." Always agree with the crazy people, one of his mentors had told him. They'll think you understand what's going on and will fill in the blanks for you. It was called active listening, a technique used by counselors and people answering crisis help lines, and it could be really effective.
Unfortunately, Matt didn't seem inclined to chattiness, just nodding in agreement, cheerfully repeating, "Amazing, man. Amazing." John hated when people didn't give him much of an opening to get more information. And then Matt sang again, "And I feel fine." He swung back to face the monitor. "Which reminds me, I should save." He put the apple down on the desk, and John decided he couldn't wait any longer. Everything was lined up for their escape, and if Matt had cracked some major code that Gabriel needed… John pulled his chloroform pad out of his pocket, yanked off the cover, and sprang across the room, slapping it over Matt's mouth. Matt struggled, as John had predicted, but he wrapped his other arm around Matt's torso, pinning his arms, grateful that Matt was nearly four inches shorter than John, and somewhat slimmer. That time he'd had to rescue the high school halfback had been such a bitch.
With a whimper and one last attempt to flail, Matt subsided into unconsciousness. John moved quickly, glad that he'd made so many preparations, binding Matt's hands and feet with thin insulated wire hidden inside his belt. That had been one of his first mistakes in rescuing a kid from a cult, assuming that she wouldn't struggle or fight to return. Even neatly trimmed nails could make nasty scrapes on skin, leaving John looking like the loser in a catfight.
He pulled out the supplies he'd secreted under the dresser, hastily rigging the quarter-brick of C-4 to the computer, grateful that Matt's room was at the front of the house. The explosion would blow outwards, obliterating Matt's computer but leaving most of the room intact, hopefully putting a serious crimp in Gabriel's plans while not injuring anyone. He wasn't being paid to take down Gabriel, but John hated to leave a job half-finished. That had been another hard lesson along the way, discovering when he had to focus on the job he was being paid for, and when he should broaden its scope.
With the rope, he made a complicated loop around Matt's shoulders and torso, and slowly lowered Matt's unconscious body out the window and to the ground. When Matt's body was sprawled by the bushes, John took a last survey of the bedroom, grabbing Matt's laptop. He couldn't risk Matt having transferred information to it. With the laptop bag slung over one shoulder, John slid down the rope. He squatted to lift Matt over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, carefully balancing the position of the limp body. He'd known too many people who had screwed up their backs to take that risk. He had too much left to do with his life that required physical strength. A swift trot to the fence, which he cut with the wire cutters he'd hidden under a bush, and off to his truck, setting Matt in the passenger seat.
Everything was ready to go. He flipped the switch to detonate the C-4. As the farmhouse wall exploded, blowing chunks of sheetrock and wood outwards, John started the truck and drove away. The hard part of rescuing Matthew Farrell from the psycho cult leader was done.
Now he only had the even worse part – breaking Gabriel's hold over him.
John had hoped to get to the cabin before Matt woke up, but didn't succeed, a minor hiccup in his plan. The effect of chloroform on a body was always a little unpredictable. One minute he was driving along, listening to Credence playing softly, everything peaceful and dark, and the next Matt was awake and flailing, making disjointed noises. "Calm down," John ordered.
"Oh god, where am I? What's going on? Did you kidnap me? You kidnapped me!" Matt was panicking, twisting his hands, trying to undo the wire.
"Calm down," John ordered again, checking the rear view mirror. He was driving on back roads, so at least there was no other traffic around. In this day and age, it was too easy for someone to notice a screaming person in a car and call the cops on their cell phone, a distraction John didn't need.
"Calm down? Why should I calm down? Because my kidnapper tells me to?"
"Because if you don't calm down, I'll tie you up tighter. Now stop thrashing around."
Matt stilled, and John took his attention off the road long enough to look at him, see his expression of horror. "Are you going to kill me?" Matt asked, and John had to give him credit for expressing his worst fear. A lot of people wouldn't have the balls to ask.
"I'm not going to kill you. I'm not going to hurt you. Your parents hired me to bring you home."
"My parents? My parents don't even like me."
"Yeah, well, they do still care about what happens to you." In their rebellious teenage years, Lucy and Jack hadn't understood any better than Matt. They thought because he had a job and couldn't always be with them, and because he could be hard on them when he was, he didn't love them. There had been a lot of fights before they accepted he had responsibilities and cared too damn much to let them grow up without values.
He wished he could tell them the full extent of what he did and why, but he couldn't burden them with that knowledge. A deathbed confession rested in an envelope in his safety deposit box, and that would have to be enough.
"Oh great. Great. Now they want to be involved in my life. They – " Matt stopped speaking and John risked another quick glance, but saw only the back of Matt's head as he stared out the passenger door window. "I'm an adult," he said finally. "What I choose to do with my life is my own business."
John grunted. He'd heard that one before. "Not when your parents are paying me."
"So what? What is this supposed to achieve? You take me home, I'll just leave again."
"Possibly," John conceded.
"Possibly? What the hell does that mean?"
"That means you won't want to go back after Gabriel's hold over you is broken."
"Gabriel doesn't have a hold over me." Matt raised his bound hands to make little quote marks in the air as he said 'hold.' "I follow him because I choose to. Because this world is corrupt and needs to be changed."
"You kids always say that kind of thing."
"Did anyone ever tell you that you're really condescending?"
John turned off the highway, onto a road. "Yeah, about every other week."
Matt gave a sigh of exasperation. Sometimes John wished he didn't have to stay in this business where he had to be constantly around power hungry demi-gods or mixed-up kids who thought they knew everything. If he could have stayed a cop, he'd only have to cope with garden-variety criminals: muggers, murderers, embezzlers. Maybe the occasional serial killer.
"This isn't New Jersey. I thought you were taking me home."
Dawn was breaking, clearly revealing a rural landscape, fields of plants in neat rows and orchards, nowhere near Matt's home in New Jersey.
"Eventually? What does that mean?"
"It means you'll go home when you're ready."
"This is kidnapping. I'll have you arrested."
"Kids like you keep saying that. And yet they keep changing their minds." Everyone John had rescued had been ultimately grateful. Often embarrassed for how they'd let themselves be used, but always grateful to be free.
Maybe it was much better to rescue kids from cults than send crooks to jail. Crooks never sent Christmas cards with thank yous written inside.
"I'm not brainwashed," Matt said angrily.
"Yeah, they all say that too," John said, pulling into the long, winding road to the cabin, parking the truck in front of the door. "Here we are, home sweet home. I'm going to untie your hands and feet and you're going to promise not to run off, okay?"
Matt stared at him, his eyes mutinous.
"I can carry you in if I have to but it's bad for my back. And there's nowhere for you to go anyway."
Matt glared, but he looked around, and John could see the change in his brown eyes as he registered their isolation and accepted his imprisonment. Matt was a bright kid. Without speaking, he nodded, holding out his hands. John cut the wire, then massaged Matt's wrists. The wire had made faint indentations in his skin, but it wasn't broken. Matt allowed John's touch only for a few seconds before pulling away. "Aren't you going to do my feet now?"
"Yeah," John said. Yeah. This was going to be as fun as always.
The cabin that Al had found and prepared for him was rustic, but that was exactly what John needed, some place that he could isolate Matt and work on eliminating whatever garbage Gabriel had installed. Not that John was a true deprogrammer. He'd never succeed as a psychologist. He was too blunt, too honest, and not into mental and emotional bullshit. But he'd found that people were drawn to cult leaders because of something lacking in their lives, usually self-worth or purpose. All he needed to do was find the hole and badger the kid into seeing he'd gone the wrong way in filling it, or expose the flaws in the leader's mantra.
Usually, he managed to figure out enough that he could return the kid to his parents with suggestions for what kind of therapy he needed, but occasionally he had to warn them to keep their child locked up.
He'd gotten lucky a few times, rescuing kids who'd been trying to escape. They were so desperate to get home, he'd taken them straight to their parents. He liked happy reunions. Hopefully he'd get one soon for the Farrells, because Matt seemed too intelligent to cling to Gabriel's lies.
The living, dining and kitchen areas were all one room, separated only by how the furniture was arranged. John went straight to the refrigerator. "You hungry?"
"You think I'm going to sit and eat with you?"
"You must be hungry."
"You can't make me."
"Don't be stupid. You can't function well and figure out how to escape if you're suffering from low blood sugar. You're not stupid, are you?"
Matt stared at him rebelliously, which was pretty much the expression John expected to see on his face for the next couple of days. It was a good thing that antagonistic people never bothered him. No one who grew up in New York could be too sensitive. John stared back until Matt said, "I need to go to the bathroom."
John pointed to one of the two doors that branched off the main room. Matt gave another glare but went into the bathroom without another word. John took the opportunity to go into the bedroom and change into a gray t-shirt and jeans. He disliked being in Gabriel's wardrobe.
As he raided the refrigerator and began making breakfast, John contemplated Matt. Sullen, rebellious, defiant, but a lot more restrained than some other kids John had rescued. No spitting, kicking, swearing, yelling, or fighting so far. Matt was either a pussycat who could be put back on track with little fuss, or he was an entirely new experience.
The bacon and eggs were cooking, the bread toasting by the time Matt came out of the bathroom. John caught him glancing at the front door. "The doors and windows are all locked from the inside, and I have the key."
"Do you realize how unsafe it is to lock a house like that? I suppose the windows are unbreakable."
"Don't try to start a fire and we won't have a problem. You can set the table."
"I'm not your house elf."
House elf? "Everyone helps, everyone eats. McClane family rules."
"I bet you're a great dad," Matt muttered, and John stiffened before making himself relax. He'd been the one to bring in his personal life. He knew kids used anything they could. Matt frowned, saying, "I thought your name was McKay."
"Yeah, 'cuz I use my real name when I'm investigating self-important assholes. And you'd have to ask my kids about what kind of dad I am." The door had been opened, so he might as well see how it would work. Bonding over families could be a good technique if the kid had a reasonable relationship with his own; disastrous if his family life was horrible. Just because parents was willing to pay to have their kid retrieved didn't mean they had good parenting skills.
Still, the Farrells had seemed decent sorts. John was gambling that they did love each other, even if Matt was mixed up.
"You have kids?" Matt got out plates and silverware.
"Two. Lucy and Jack. Lucy's the oldest. She's in college now. Jack's a senior in high school." These days he thought they'd give him a pretty good score at parenting, though it certainly hadn't always been so.
"So what, you leave them at home with the little wife while you go off to kidnap people?"
"My wife died at Nakatomi Towers. Jack's with my sister."
"Jesus." Matt looked shocked and sympathetic, the usual reaction. After this much time, losing Holly didn't hurt anymore, though sometimes John woke from nightmares, willing to sell his soul to the devil if he could have traveled back in time and visited California that Christmas. If only he'd gone, she might have been with him instead of attending that office party when terrorists took over the building, and her body wouldn't have been ripped to pieces when explosives tore the roof and the FBI helicopters apart. But 'if only' was for people who dwelt in the past and John believed in the present. "I'm sorry," Matt added.
The toast popped out of the toaster, and Matt pulled it out and began buttering it without being asked. What the hell was this kid doing as a disciple of Gabriel's? He simply didn't fit the hard core profile of most disaffected youth. "We'd been having problems," John admitted, allowing himself a rare confession. "What about you? You got a girl?" he asked, switching the conversation to Matt, not wanting to get too sidetracked.
That was the wrong question to ask, though, as Matt rolled his eyes. "Why do people always ask if I have a girl? Why do you have to impose your own heteronormative world view on everyone else?"
John dished up the bacon and eggs onto their plates. "You got a boyfriend then?"
"I don't have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. I'm bisexual. I don't believe in limiting my sexuality. Didn't my parents complain to you about that?"
"So you could be dating anyone, but you weren't? Why not? There were lots of cute kids at Gabriel's."
Matt gave him a look, and boy, John was going to end up cataloguing every single one of his disgruntled/irritated/incredulous stares before this was done. Stabbing his eggs, Matt began eating, apparently declining to explain his lack of a love life to John.
Eating his own breakfast, John pondered what that reticence could mean.
"So what's so great about this Thomas Gabriel guy?" John asked as they were finishing breakfast. Getting kids to talk was a skill adapted from his training in interrogation techniques. Surprisingly, he found being blunt often worked, as indoctrinated kids frequently wanted to proclaim why their cult leader was worthy of them throwing their lives away to follow him. If they didn't, he adjusted. Being flexible wasn't exactly John's strongest ability, but he was good at doing whatever was necessary.
"What's so great about Thomas Gabriel? You tell me what's so great about America. What do you like about our messed-up status quo?"
"America's the greatest country in the world," John answered. It was a truth he believed, but he knew it would provoke Matt. Angry people could let their mouths run away, making it easier for John to understand what lies they'd bought.
"Oh, great, we're number one."
"Yeah. We are."
"Have you been reading the news? We're in a war that's done nothing but destabilize a country and make other countries hate us more. People are struggling to afford even the basics of life because the price of gas is skyrocketing so Bush and his cronies can make a fortune. Our political process is a joke. Only rich people who sell out to lobbyists get elected. We're destroying our environment for big business to keep making obscene profits. How can you think we're number one?"
"Yeah, I heard a lot from Gabriel, but I never understood how he thought hiding in nowheresville was going to fix it." John let his words imply Gabriel was a coward, a tone Matt was quick to notice.
"It's not fixable. Don't you understand that? Too many people are blind or passive. They're sheep. The only way to survive is to ride it out."
"Huh. That sounds like Charles Manson's philosophy. Only he thought it would be a race war."
Jesus, was Charles Manson already forgotten history? "The Tate-LoBianco murders? They're still looking in the desert for more of his victims."
Matt flushed with anger. "Gabriel isn't a serial killer."
John hoped Matt was right, for the sake of the kids. "Just someone who turns his back on his country."
"You know what? Never mind. I don't even want to talk to you." Matt's hands waved a bit, and he shoved his chair back, getting up to roam around the small cabin. "I can't believe you're going to keep me a prisoner here."
"It won't be for long. Just until you come to your senses."
Matt sighed heavily, perhaps remembering he'd said he wasn't going to talk to John any more. He returned to prowling around the room as John drank his coffee and rested. He'd been awake all night, and he'd probably have to stay awake all day, but he could handle sleep deprivation for a while. The regular hours of a 9 to 5 job had never suited him.
Since Matt had slept in the truck, he was full of agitated energy. He examined the entire room, the comfortably used and sturdy furniture, spending some time in front of the bookcase, before turning away with a snort. Apparently John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Joseph Wambaugh weren't to his taste. He looked around the television, finally asking, "Where's the remote?"
"There isn't one."
"No remote?" Matt gave John another expression of disbelief, then turned back to the TV. "There's no cable."
"Nope. Just rabbit ears." The kid had probably never even seen those in real life. It was weird to think of something that he'd grown up with becoming obsolete, but then, John often felt like a dinosaur in this world.
Matt flicked on the television, clicking through the channels, the three local network syndicates and an independent station. "There are only four channels."
"You missed one." John got up and went to stand by the television, flicking the bottom dial to find the other UHF independent station.
"Oh my god, there is cruel and unusual punishment. Five channels? Please tell me you have an internet connection."
"It wouldn't matter if I did. There's no computer." He didn't mention Matt's laptop tucked behind the seat in the truck. Even if Matt could find a wireless signal or something, John didn't want him to have any connection with the outside.
"No computer? Oh my god, I'm in hell. You left my laptop behind?"
"I blew up your room."
Matt was horrified, to put it mildly. His overreaction was almost charming. "You blew up my room? You destroyed the farmhouse?"
"I didn't take out the entire building. Just your bedroom. I rigged a small amount of C-4 to your computer."
"You blew up my computer and kidnapped me? You are insane. I'm being held prisoner by a crazy man."
"Just a true blue American," John taunted, pouring himself another cup of coffee, adding milk and sugar. Pure black was his normal choice, but today he needed the extra energy boost.
"How long are you going to keep me here? With five channels and no internet and only trash to read? Is there even a radio? Music?"
John kicked off his shoes, stretching out on the couch, making himself comfortable. Maybe he would take a nap, letting Matt fume for a while. "No radio, no music. There are some jigsaw puzzles in the chest." He yawned. "You ought to be thanking me."
"Thanking you?" Matt's voice rose. He was really kinda cute when he was animated. "Are you kidding me?"
"You wanted a firestorm, didn't you? Destroy the world and go back to the basics?" He gestured around the room. "Consider this a test run."
He shut his eyes, conscious of being the target of another one of Matt's stares. Horrified #4, he thought, before he dozed off.
Repeated tapping woke him up. The sound was quiet but constant, eventually filtering into his subconscious. At first, he figured Matt was doing it deliberately to piss him off. If Matt had to survive without email, why should John have a decent nap? But when he glanced around, Matt was seated at the kitchen table, jigsaw pieces spread out on the surface, seemingly unaware that he was drumming his fingers on the table as he studied them.
John stood and stretched. Time for him to get up anyway. The Farrells would be anxiously waiting for news of their boy. He hadn't wanted to call them in the middle of the night, but he should let them know soon that he and Matt were out of Gabriel's compound. He ambled over to the table, taking a seat and examining the puzzle. Matt had done the outside and fitted several clumps together, showing the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. "I love the New York skyline." Not that it looked quite the same since 9/11.
"I haven't done a jigsaw puzzle since I was 10."
"You're doing well."
"Yeah, because it's such a hard skill to remember."
John saw a piece he thought fit and tried it, but it didn't. Lucy had always been the puzzle champ in the family.
"Why don't you find your own puzzle to do? Or read one of your cheesy novels."
"Kinda testy, aren't you?"
"You kidnapped me and you're holding me prisoner in a hut from the dark ages, and you think I'm testy?"
"I could turn off the power, so you could do your puzzle by candlelight. That'd really be a firestorm."
"You are such an ass. I cannot believe my parents hired you." Even as he sorted through the pieces, searching for more matches, Matt was still tapping his fingers.
John wrapped them in his own. "What drugs did Gabriel have you on?"
Matt stared at their fingers and tugged his free. "I wasn't drugged."
"Yeah. You were." John let out a long breath. Withdrawal could make John's task both easier and harder. Easier in that Matt might be more willing to listen after detoxing. But the detoxing itself was going to be a bitch.
"Believe whatever you want to." Matt added another piece to the Statue of Liberty. "You obviously will anyway."
"Look, Matt." John rubbed a hand over his face, feeling weary. "I know you hate me, but you need to listen to me. You were drugged to be compliant. Probably a low dose so it wouldn't interfere with your computer genius. You're going to be withdrawing cold turkey. It'll be hard but it's the best way. I'm going to monitor you and stay with you the whole time. I'll be here for you."
"I don't want you to be here for me. I don't even want to be here. I wasn't drugged."
Kids. They never listened, never believed. They always had to learn the hard way instead of accepting good advice or someone else's judgment. Even after he and his kids had gotten over the bumpy rocks in their relationship, they couldn't ever just listen to him. "Look, I want to check your vitals and then you should have some lunch. Get food in your system while we can."
Matt sighed, but didn't argue. In this case, John didn't mind being humored. It got the job done. He collected the first aid kit from the bathroom, checking Matt's pulse and temperature. Pulse was a little fast, but they weren't anywhere close to the worst of it. John stored the equipment away and made lunch, cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. He always stocked the kitchen with comfort food, even if it was only his definition of comfort food. Kids grew up eating some weird stuff these days, couscous and sushi and other culinary creations that John's mom had never served.
Matt's cooperation continued even if he was far from accepting John's concerns, which John considered a major win. After lunch, John picked a book at random and settled into the armchair as Matt resumed working on the jigsaw. There wasn't much point in goading Matt about Gabriel. The only thing to do now was wait.
As the afternoon crept by, John mentally reviewed all he knew about withdrawal. He'd take Matt to the local hospital if he had to, picturing the route in his mind, but if it didn't endanger his health, keeping him here would be kinder. Only John would witness his struggles, and he wouldn't be locked up with anyone else in similar shape. No one wanted the company of strangers when pink elephants were rampaging through the walls.
Matt worked on the jigsaw a long time, but the gaps between when he would leap up, pace the room, and stare out the window were getting shorter. He hadn't known he was being drugged, so Mai probably slipped it to him once a day. Mornings, John guessed, with his coffee. Mai was the kind of person who'd like to get the chores accomplished early.
"Why do you keep watching me?" Matt said, almost yelling, getting up to pace again. "Stop watching me."
"I'm just sitting here reading," John answered mildly, holding up his novel.
"That's such – crap. You're watching me. You're waiting for me to freak out." Matt stopped pacing, turning to look at John, his fingers paused in the act of running through his hair. "That's why you were so nice to me, wasn't it? Bringing me food every night. You were spying on me."
John shrugged. That could hardly be denied.
"My parents hate me. They didn't hire you to bring me back because they love me, you know."
"They didn't act like they hated you."
"Christ." Matt took up pacing again, fingers restlessly combing his hair back. "I embarrass them. I embarrassed them when I was sixteen and got arrested by the FBI. And now I've embarrassed them again. That's all that matters." In a mimicky voice, he added, "Our poor Matt, run off to follow a wacky cult. What will the neighbors think?" He glared at John, his voice returning to normal. "You can't deny it."
"You'll understand when you have kids of your own."
"You are a condescending jerk."
"Yeah, people have told me that. And worse."
Matt swore, jerking around to pace once more. "I need to get out of here. I can't stand this any more."
"You're not going anywhere, so don't even bother trying."
"I'm – god. My skin feels like it's crawling. Like I have bugs crawling on me or something." He crossed his arms, scratched at his skin under the loose white shirt.
"I'm not on drugs!" Matt yelled, but he didn't stop scratching.
"Hey." Dropping his book, John lunged off the couch, grabbing Matt's hands, holding them away from his body. "Don't scratch your skin off."
"Goddamnit." Matt threw himself at John, and even though the kid was smaller, the move surprised John, who staggered back but didn't release his hold.
John pushed, forcing Matt to the wall, holding his hands to each side. "The itching is in your mind."
"You are such a jerk!" Matt twisted in John's grip, trying to break free. John let him struggle, bringing his greater height and weight to bear, leaning on Matt to hold him in place. It was better that Matt expend his energy fighting John than scratching his skin off. Matt didn't give in easily, flailing his body between the wall and John's, even kicking him a few times until John matched his stance to Matt's, pinning each leg in place with one of his own.
Matt was panting by the time he relaxed in John's grip, his muscles sagging. "Christ. I've never felt like this." His brown eyes were shocked and wide. "What if you're right? What if I'm going through withdrawal?"
He'd known Matt was a bright kid. "I am right. And we'll get you through it."
"Are you insane? Withdrawal can lead to seizures, heart attacks… I have to be at a hospital."
"Trust me, you don't want to be in a hospital. This would be even less fun with a bunch of strangers watching you."
Matt's head clunked back against the wall, his eyes shutting, his expression a cross between miserable and resigned.
John released Matt's hands, cupping his face, brushing a thumb on one cheekbone. "I'll be here for you, okay? We'll get you through this."
"Okay," Matt agreed softly.
Detoxing worked differently for everyone, depending on what they'd been taking, for how long, and what their own body chemistry was like. The commonality for John was a certain surreal atmosphere, as the hours slipped by with nothing to do but watch the person and stay alert in case of a crisis.
Matt was a jittery pacer and a rambler. John wasn't sure if Matt knew what he was saying half the time. He didn't require much exchange of dialogue, just the occasional grunt or question. He talked about childhood pets: two dogs, some guinea pigs, and a fish tank gone badly wrong. His older brother and sister, and what he saw as their perfection, particularly in comparison to himself. His parents, sometimes well meaning to the point of smothering, sometimes angry and unhappy with him. Like many parents, in John's experience.
School sounded exactly like John would have predicted, a bright kid who got sloppy in finishing assignments out of boredom, leading to mediocre grades. "My sister was a cheerleader," Matt said vehemently. "A cheerleader." John wasn't sure what that had to do with anything, except perhaps to emphasize Matt's geekiness compared to her perfection, even as he pictured a feminine version of Matt with longer brown hair and big brown eyes doing high kicks in a cheerleading outfit with a short skirt. He appeared to have enjoyed college, with more choices to study subjects that interested him, and no older siblings around.
He didn't say much about love or sex, and tended to stop himself when he started. Mentions of his first crush in grade school, when he'd kissed a boy at Space Camp, how he'd boycotted all the high school dances as stupid, thinking it was hot when people had worn pajamas to his college classes. John figured he must feel insecure about his bisexuality, particularly since the perfect older sibs were already married.
The arrest by the FBI for illegal hacking had hit hard. As well it should, John supposed, since it was a criminal offense, but it irritated him. The feds seemed to have landed with both feet on Matt because they had caught him and could, while more violent criminals remained on their Most Wanted list. Matt's hacker friends thought he was a hero, but Matt clearly regarded the arrest as one more embarrassment for his parents, who he kept letting down. At least he was young enough that the record had been sealed, so he didn't have to go through life admitting to a criminal past.
"So why Gabriel?" John asked at some point, measured only by the fact that he was on his second pot of coffee. He wasn't letting Matt have any caffeine, but kept encouraging him to drink water.
"Because he wanted to do something," was the answer. "To change things." The rambling rationale looped around Matt's frustration with the significant social, political and economic problems of the world, that he loved but was alienated from his family who lived a suburban status quo life, his disillusionment that nothing would ever be fixed, that Matt's major experience with the government had been so unpleasant. Somewhere in the disconnected mess were mentions of a guy who'd fed Matt's paranoia and was named Warlock, but John never quite figured out where he fit in. It wasn't all that much different from what Matt had been saying all along, but with the blanks of his background filled in, John realized why Gabriel had drugged him. Matt wouldn't have stayed. He was attracted to the concept of change, to a visionary leader, but if he'd rationally examined Gabriel's platitudes, he would have left. Whatever the firestorm nonsense involved, Gabriel offered as much substance as any politician, and Matt hated politicians.
Somewhere around the third pot of coffee and the second short nap, John found himself wishing for a return to the old days. Not the good old days of his childhood, but the really dark days, when bad guys could be punished appropriately. He wouldn't have any problems with hanging Thomas Gabriel up by his thumbs and whipping his back raw. He deserved to pay for what he'd done to Matt to further his own selfish interests.
Matt wasn't blaming Gabriel. He was long past making rational sense about much of anything. He was still wandering around the room a lot, sometimes drifting into the bedroom, all the time mumbling to himself or bitching at John.
"Christ." Matt swept his hands over the puzzle, sending the pieces flying. "I have to leave. I have to get out of here."
John placed his hand on Matt's forehead. Warm, but not feverish. "This is the best place for you to be."
"We have to go back. You have to get me a shot of whatever they were using on me. I can't come down like this."
"We're not going back. We'll get you through this." Fucking cultists and their fucking designer drugs.
"If you won't help me, I'll go myself. Just let me out. I'll hitchhike." Matt stepped around John, heading to the door, throwing himself at it. He began to pound on it with the side of his fists.
John sighed. Was this the fourth time already? Matt was nothing if not persistent. He followed him, spun him around, pinned him with his arms and legs. It seemed to help Matt to burn off his energy, and John's body provided a nice, solid mass to fight. He'd have some colorful bruises when this was done, but they'd fade.
This time was different, as Matt didn't throw his weight against John in an attempt to break free. Instead, his voice sounding broken, he begged. "John, please. I'm serious. You have to let me go. I'll do whatever you want."
Did he mean what John thought he meant? And yeah, apparently he did, because Matt's hips rolled against John's, not in anger, but suggestively, as his lips pressed on John's. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" was a bad question to ask, as John had to open his mouth to speak, and as soon as he stopped, Matt's tongue slipped in.
John groaned, because he was a man, and men liked sex, and he was a father, a widower with the most screwed-up work schedule in the world, which meant he never got to date or have sex enough. For an instance, he relaxed, letting Matt's tongue tease his and explore his mouth, because Ben Franklin was right, and all cats were gray in the dark. A damned hot kiss was a damned hot kiss, regardless of the sex of the person giving it.
"Shit." John released Matt, backing away. "What do you think you're doing?"
"If I'm going to die, I want to die doing something fun." Matt stalked forward, sinking to his knees, hands reaching out to grab John's belt buckle.
"You're not going to die." John stepped away, truly disconcerted for the first time in years. He was being stalked by a kid barely older than his own, and his treacherous dick was insisting on surrender.
"Fine," Matt snapped. "So I've been drugged for weeks, kidnapped and locked up for my own good, and now I want to do something I chose to do." He kneewalked rapidly toward John, who backed up until he bumped against the kitchen table. The cabin wasn't large enough to effectively evade a pursuer.
"Yeah, but you don't want to do this."
"You don't know what I want," Matt said, determinedly trying to undo John's belt again.
Grabbing Matt's hands, John held them. "Yeah, I do. This is the drugs."
"Are you really that stupid? Do you actually think I worked late every night so you'd bring me an apple? Do you think I'm a horse?"
"I – what?"
With his hands out of commission, Matt used his face to nuzzle at John's fly. "You're hot. You're a jerk, but you're hot. I've always liked older men. Come on, let me suck you."
Had Matt truly been attracted to him? Were the drugs leaving his system releasing his inhibition about approaching John? Or was he so spaced out that he didn't know what the hell he was doing?
"No." John yanked Matt to his feet, refusing to let his dick control him. He nudged one of the dining room chairs with his leg, shoving it away from the table so he could sit down, before manhandling Matt over his lap. He'd give him a good spanking, and that would calm him down. Or at least, make him hate John enough that he'd stop tempting him. John brought the flat of his hand down on Matt's ass. His shirt had flipped up, exposing a thin stretch of Matt's golden back, and the linen material of the white trousers and the cotton briefs were thin. John felt like his hand was connecting directly with Matt's flesh. He spanked him again, and again, giving him five hard swats, wondering if it was his imagination that he could see Matt's ass flush rosily through the white cloth.
He rested his hand on Matt's back, and jeez, bad mistake, because Matt's skin under his fingers was as smooth and fine as it looked. "Now are you going to behave?"
"If I say no, will you spank me more?" Matt asked, his voice low and husky. His hips were twitching, rubbing his fully erect dick on John's thigh.
"Matt?" What the hell?
"Please? Please, John, please."
Was he begging for more? Had he liked that? John hauled Matt off his lap, and somehow he ended up sitting on one of John's thighs, his back leaning against John's chest, like he was a little girl sitting on his daddy's lap. Only there was nothing little about Matt's dick, which was hard and solid. John groaned as Matt brought his hand to it. "Please, John, please. I'm dying. I need it."
He was a man, only a man, not a saint. John was a man accustomed to denying his own wishes to do what was necessary, but a man could only take so much before breaking. He shoved Matt's trousers and briefs down, Matt lifting up his hips to help, until Matt was again sitting on his lap, exposed to his upper thighs. John took Matt's dick in his hand, jerking slowly. "You want this?"
"God, yes." Matt's mouth was open, panting, the back of his head resting on the side of John's face. John took hold of his head, turned it so he could kiss his lips, forcing his tongue in. Matt's tongue met his without hesitation, sucking his tongue like he'd tried to suck his dick.
They kissed, and kissed, and kissed some more, all the while John kept a steady rhythm on Matt's dick, catching the drops of pre-come, spreading it around. He liked the feel of Matt's dick in his hand, Matt's body cradled in his arms, Matt's mouth open and eager under his. He released Matt's chin, sliding his hand under the loose shirt, finding Matt's nipples and pinching them, loving the way the sensation made Matt gasp and arch his chest.
"John, please," Matt whined, more needy than he'd sounded so far, and John responded, tightening his grip, setting an almost punishing pace until Matt's entire body was writhing, hips thrusting, and he yelled as he came, spurting out and coating John's fingers. "Jesus," Matt sighed as he melted into John's arms.
A deep breathing sound was his answer, and John realized the exertion had sent Matt into sleep. Good, maybe he'd be out for the rest of the withdrawal. He stood, lifting Matt in his arms, and carried him into the bedroom. He placed him on the bed, contemplating his semi-clothed body. Fearing that he would wake Matt if he tried to restore his trousers, he gently coaxed them off, leaving Matt sleeping in his shirt and briefs.
John retreated into the bathroom, wanting to get away from Matt's half-naked body. He opened his fly, took out his dick, and masturbated, all the time thinking of Matt, how good his young body had felt in John's arms. Christ, he was a dirty old man, but that had been hottest damn thing John had ever known, to make Matt fly apart in his arms. He came with a soft, "Matt," on his lips.
Christ, he was too old for this kind of revelation. No wonder he'd never hooked up with anyone after losing Holly. Plenty of divorcees and single mothers in the neighborhood had expressed interest, but he'd always considered that his job and responsibilities made a love life impossible.
Wearing just his shirt and boxers, he returned to the bedroom. He lay on the bed, telling himself that he needed to be close in case Matt woke up with nightmares. Matt promptly snorted, and rolled over, his head finding John's shoulder. John hadn't anticipated that Matt would be a cuddler. He still seemed to be asleep, so John shut his eyes, prepared to join him. It had been a long, surprising day.
An unbearably chirpy ring tone woke John. He shot out of bed, glancing at Matt, who was beginning to yawn and shift. John followed the sound into the living room, finding the cell phone where he'd hidden it on the top shelf in the kitchen. "Yeah?"
"Oh, hey Al. What's up?"
"I'm glad you're out of Gabriel's compound. Nasty things are going down there."
"What? What's happening?"
Matt stumbled out of the bedroom, still dressed only in his white shirt and briefs.
"There was an explosion in the main house. Locals came out to investigate and found things they didn't like. They're in a standoff now, but the locals have called in ATF, which means it could be complicated. You think this Gabriel guy will want to go out in a blaze of glory?"
John watched Matt, looking for signs that he was clean, and how much he remembered of last night. Matt's expression was bleary-eyed but calm. "Nah, he's self-centered but I don't think he's suicidal."
"You should let ATF know what you know."
"Yeah. Can you get me the best contact?"
"Call you back as soon as I have it." The line went dead, and John clicked the phone shut. Having Al for a friend was the best thing that had come out of his brief time living in Los Angeles, when he'd moved into Holly's house and tried to keep the kids in their familiar environment until they'd gotten over the shock of losing their mom. He was glad they'd stayed in touch after John had accepted that Lucy and Jack simply weren't going to bounce back to normality in a short time and moved them to New York, where they could be closer to his parents and sister.
"You had a cell phone here?"
"Yeah, and I've got your laptop in the truck. Something's going down at Gabriel's compound. The ATF are there. Can you get me information?"
"It'd be a miracle to find a wireless signal out here, but I can give it a try."
"Great." John got his jeans from his bedroom, and pulled them on, digging the keys out of his pocket before going out to retrieve Matt's laptop from the truck.
From the doorway, Matt called, "Hey, I don't suppose you brought a change of clothes for me. I'm tired of white."
"Yeah." It was a good sign that Matt could joke about Gabriel's color scheme. John pulled out the small bag that Matt's parents had given him, bringing both bags inside. "I'm going to shower quickly, okay?"
"Sure." Matt took the two bags, sitting them on the kitchen table. "John?"
John paused in the doorway to the bathroom. "Yeah?"
"Can we talk about last night?"
"Last night shouldn't have happened. I was wrong to let it. That's all I have to say. You're okay now, right?"
"I wanted it. I wanted you," Matt confessed, and John refused to succumb to the thrill that gave him.
"That doesn't matter. I shouldn't have let it happen. Okay?"
Matt's eyes were angry at the rejection, his soft lips tightening into what wasn't a cute pout. "Yeah, I'm fine. You're done your job. I'm all fixed now."
Matt rolled his eyes at him, noticeably relaxing. Good. He was young. He'd quickly get over what John had done to him, and his infatuation with John, if last night's words had been true. "Gabriel's an insane lunatic, and I don't like being drugged into being a good little hacker, is that fine-fine enough for you?"
"Yeah. That's what I wanted to hear." Case closed. He only needed to give what help he could to the ATF and return Matt to his folks, and he'd be done. John went off to shower, knowing he ought to feel better than he did.
The drive back was almost as quiet as the drive to the cabin had been, except Matt wasn't sleeping, so John played the radio a little louder. Matt made an unappreciative comment about his music, then opened his laptop and became completely absorbed.
"Hey, are we going to stop for breakfast soon?" Matt asked, unexpectedly breaking the silence between them. "You know I need to eat regularly."
"Yeah. There's a town coming up soon." If John was alone, he'd probably keep driving, but Matt's system had been through a lot yesterday. He wasn't sure the hypoglycemia was as bad as Matt seemed to think, but there wasn't any point in risking it.
"Try for something other than Denny's, okay? Some place local. I hate corporate chains."
John stifled a smile. Matt wouldn't be Matt without his little diatribes. Not that Matt's character should matter much to John, since they'd soon be separating. "Yes, sir," he said, mock obedient. "So what's so interesting?" he asked, glancing at the laptop, unable to make any sense out of the little he could see of the screen.
"I've been going over what I did for Gabriel. I thought he was planning a firesale."
"A firesale? Like how he talked about a firestorm?"
"Yeah. A firesale is when someone takes complete control of the infrastructure. Power, transportation, financial systems, everything, and shuts it down. Return the world to the dark ages. There wouldn't be any television, much less only five channels," Matt said, giving him a rueful look.
Shutting down the infrastructure would send people into a terrified panic. There would have been anarchy, looting, hysteria in the streets. Even a big black-out was enough to cause havoc. And Christ, what about old people, people on medical equipment, people who needed power to survive? John scowled at the highway. Gabriel could have become the biggest mass murderer in history, if he'd really tried to implement a firesale. "But you don't think that's what he was doing?"
"He was planning it, yes. I mean, we were working on a lot of the coding. But not enough. It would take a massive amount of guys writing all kinds of hacks to do a full firesale. Gabriel had me, Trey, a couple of others. It would have taken us years to develop all the hacks, and by that time, half of them would have been obsolete. A successful firesale has to be developed quickly."
"So what was he doing?"
"I'm not sure," Matt said slowly, clearly thinking. "Trey was always doing financial stuff, which seemed weird."
"Why? You'd said the financial systems would be included."
"Yeah, but he was working on more complicated programming. Not just shutting the banks down, but getting behind their firewalls and controlling their systems. You'd only need to shut them down. Trey's coding was overkill." Matt was silent for a while, staring off into space, and John could almost see the wheels turning in his head. "We need a Starbuck's."
"We can get coffee at the restaurant."
"I need a wireless connection. We need a Starbuck's."
"The pastries suck at Starbuck's. I want a real breakfast."
"You can have a real breakfast afterwards. I need a wireless connection."
Even in the midst of withdrawal, Matt hadn't sworn much. A few curse words here and there, but nothing particularly surprising, given the circumstances. The string of swear words he uttered in Starbuck's was quite a revelation. John wolfed his breakfast panini, happy that Starbuck's was making some semi-substantial foods these days, and waited for Matt to explain the explosion. He'd been hunched over his laptop for ages, discovering… whatever he'd discovered.
"They cleaned out my parents' retirement accounts."
"I remember numbers, and I had to put all their information down on my college financial aid applications. Trey asked one night for their information. He said he just needed a real account to practice on, so I gave it to him. I mean, I didn't think it was any big deal. I thought the firestorm was cool, and I didn't understand why Trey was even doing the financial stuff he was doing. But they must be using information they get from the kids to clean out their parents' bank accounts."
"You think they could get that much information?"
Matt stared in that way he had when he was looking inwards, thinking. "Yeah. I mean, I think about the conversations Trey would have with people. Or Mai or Gabriel. They all asked a lot of questions."
John swallowed the last of his panini, finally realizing what Matt had said. "Did you just hack your parents' bank?"
"Hmm? Oh no, I just hacked their home computer and found their password file. That was faster than doing the bank. I'll have to update their security when I get home. They only have one of those standard firewall programs. It's atrociously lame."
Christ, this kid was good. Hacking his parents' computer from Starbuck's. "Let's go. ATF needs to know this."
"This is good, right? He's in it for the money. I mean, he won't - " have all the kids drink poisonous Kool-aid or anything, like other crazy cult leaders had done, Matt's silence said. If he even knew about Jonestown.
John hated to disillusion Matt, but people needed to face facts. "I'm not a profiler, but if he can't escape with the money, he may not figure there's any reason for anyone else to get free. Let's go."
Before Holly's death, John had been just a plain New York cop. He'd thought feds were assholes but generally didn't have much to do with them. Afterwards, he'd butted heads with pretty much every federal agency that existed, the FBI in particular. They hadn't wanted to admit to the mistakes they'd made handling the terrorists at Nakatomi, and they hadn't wanted to give him any details about their research, as they painfully stitched together what guys had been involved, why they'd done it, how they'd escaped, and where they'd fled. John had kept battering and eventually they'd coughed up the information, because he hadn't given them much choice. He'd needed to know the identities and motivations of the dickheads who'd killed his kids' mother.
He'd banged up against the ATF once he'd started rescuing kids from cultists. Surprisingly, the ATF were marginally better than the FBI. After they'd fucked up badly, publicly, they were willing to take some advice from anyone who'd been inside a cult, especially when it was the one currently surrounded. That didn't mean they were exceptionally graceful or welcoming of his presence, though.
"McClane," the guy on guard duty said. "You been in this one too?" The ATF had established a command center at a bend in the road a short distance from Gabriel's compound, the trees blocking them from being visible. They had their normal presence: a couple of big vans, the smaller armored van that would hold weaponry, a few cars and trucks. The FBI didn't appear to have arrived yet, but John was sure they'd be along in due course.
"Yeah. I called an hour ago. Talked to some guy named Harker?"
"He's in there." The guy stepped aside and waved him toward a van. John and Matt walked up the steps and into a van outfitted with workstations. A group was huddled around a table in the back, studying topographical maps of the area.
"McClane," one of the guys said, "about time you got here," which John knew was as much of a welcome as he was going to get, recognizing Harker's voice from the phone.
Harker was like most of the ATF guys, white, middle-aged, balding, stressed, hard-looking, weathered. Unlike the FBI and their penchant for black suits, the ATF guys all wore browns and grays, more suitable for blending in. Not so different from John, except John was closer to retirement age and completely bald. "This is Matt Farrell." John jerked his finger at Matt. "He knows about the hacks that Gabriel's people are doing."
Harker nodded, absorbing the information. "We know a lot of it." Of course, he would say that. Feds never admitted to not being well-informed. "It's part of why we were here so quickly. We've gotten reports from some of the kids they used up and tossed out." Tossed out, and not killed. That was a relief. "You," he said pointing at Matt, "talk to him," he said, pointing to another guy, obviously their staff geek. "McClane, come help us go over the territory."
"Jesus Christ, are you fucking insane?"
John munched on his burrito and wondered what minion had incurred Harker's wrath. It was a pretty nice day, really, weather very pleasant. If he wasn't waiting for the ATF to make up their minds about strategy, it would be a nice day to be sitting on the tailgate of his truck, eating lunch from the Taco Bell run that one of Harker's guys had made. He wasn't all that hungry yet, but he'd learned on these stake-outs to eat when the opportunity was presented.
"McClane! Get your ass in here!"
John arched his eyebrows in the direction of the trailer, tossed the rest of his burrito in his mouth, and kept his pace to an amble. He didn't believe in toeing the line with the feds. "What's up?" he asked casually, leaning in the doorway.
"Your goddamned kid hacked Gabriel's accounts!"
Matt was sitting in a desk chair, several feet from the bank of computers in the trailer, mutinous #3 on his face. Harker stood between Matt and the computers, so presumably he'd pushed Matt's chair away. The staff geek was hovering anxiously in the background, worried, but the other ATF guys were like Harker, annoyed.
"I only took back my parents' money. I owed them that much."
"That's where he started," the other geek finked, "but then he kept on going."
"It was just sitting there. Why should I leave it for Gabriel to use?"
"Yeah, why should he?" John asked.
"This is about strategy, McClane, and tactics," Harker gritted out. "And no snot-nosed kid has the right to determine how we handle guys like Gabriel. He could trigger a violent response."
The mention of strategy and tactics made John see red. That had been one of the facts the FBI had hidden as long as possible – that the terrorists at Nakatoni had clearly relied on FBI procedures, needing them to cut the power to steal the bearer bonds. Not that this situation was identical and the ATF wasn't the FBI, but John refused to fall into line.
"Yeah, 'cuz you jerks sitting around watching him will make him surrender like a pussy cat."
"It's not up to you to decide either, McClane!"
"It's not his goddamned money! Christ, you're supposed to be seizing assets from bad guys, not helping him keep what he's stolen!"
They yelled a bit more, because even the semi-reasonable feds always seemed to need to be yelled at. John never understood why feds had to be such control freaks. A whimper from Matt interrupted them.
"He's taking it back! Look!" They both did, staring at the scrolling numbers on the screen. It was garbage to John, but it was certainly active.
"Come on, Harker," he said in a calmer tone. "The kid wants to do the right thing. We take the money back, it'll be a bargaining chip to get the other kids out."
"You'd better be guessing right, McClane."
"Gabriel's in it for the money. He's not stupid. He's not going to jail for acts that don't benefit him."
Harker nodded grudgingly, and Matt immediately scooted over to the computer, fingers flying as he hacked back. John stood by him, and squeezed his shoulder, taking advantage of the tension easing in the room, and people shuffling about, making conversation, to lean down and whisper, "Take it all. Take everything he's got."
Matt nodded imperceptibly and just kept going. Hopefully only Harker's geek would understand what he was doing.
John faded out of the trailer, trusting Matt to take care of his end. Despite his words to Harker, he was less positive that Gabriel wouldn't turn violent if thwarted. It had been too easy to believe that Gabriel was killing the kids he no longer needed, rather than sending them packing. John headed to the porta-john, acting like he needed to take a leak, making sure the feds weren't paying attention to him before he headed to his truck, collecting his handgun, his ammunition, and teargas.
John hated long stand-offs, and this could be a long one. The ATF only had Matt's testimony of criminal financial activity for solid evidence. Gabriel had never fit the profile of a cult leader, and John had no clue which way he'd react to the ATF's presence, but he had way too many potential hostages with all those devoted kids around. It was time to get them out and take Gabriel down.
When John was a cop, he'd learned certain methods of breaking into places where suspected criminals were located. He'd been trained in the highly urban environment of New York, mostly to storm into the apartments or houses of drug dealers and similar lowlife types, all the while respecting procedures and the rights of the accused to ensure that the case didn't get tossed out of court.
Leaving the Force and taking up cult work, with the occasional foray into terrorists, had expanded his horizons significantly. Cults tended to be in more isolated places, frequently with little surrounding cover. He was lucky in that Gabriel's little empire still had some forest around it, so he was able to get fairly close, before having to run crouched down to the bunkhouse. No shots were fired. Hopefully Gabriel's goons were focused on the front, knowing that the ATF had massed around the bend in the road.
There were kids in the bunkhouse, scared kids who knew something was going down but didn't understand what or how much they were in danger. "You. All of you. I want you to go out the back. Run through the forest. Up where the road curves, you'll find an ATF team. Surrender to them."
One of the guys, wet behind the ears and too loyal, said, "We can't leave Gabriel."
"Gabriel wants you to leave," John said flatly, hoping that Gabriel hadn't made a big fuss when he and Matt disappeared. "He wants you out of this. It's better if he doesn't have to worry about you."
"We should talk to – " the kid started to protest, but John interrupted by shooting three bullets into the ceiling. As traces of white paint and plaster drifted down, John yelled, "Get out! Now!" Shrieking and clutching at each other, they went, running into the forest and disappearing. John crouched down in the doorway, peering out, holding his gun ready. He could see one of Gabriel's goons in an upstairs bedroom window, watching them flee, and shouting into his radio. The goon didn't move, didn't try to fire or stop them. Good. John would rather not kill people if he could avoid it. He had other things to do with his life than defending himself from manslaughter or murder charges.
John waited, muttering a little under his breath, and was finally rewarded when the goon moved away from the window. He ran quickly across the expanse that separated the two buildings, crouching until he reached the house and could straighten up. He circled the house carefully, checking in the windows, staying close so he'd be less noticeable if more goons were on the second floor and looking down. Only one guy was upstairs, moving from room to room, with the other three stationed at the front of the house, watching the road. Thankfully, Gabriel had relied on his own persuasive personality more than hired guns.
Gabriel was with Mai in the study, yelling at Trey, who was typing furiously, and looking even more unhappy. "Go, Matt." John whispered, before he fired a shot through the window, angling upwards to hit the ceiling, and tossed the teargas canister through the shattered glass. John didn't wait to see their reaction, but ran to the front of the house again, shooting through the living room window, tossing in another teargas canister. Crouching by the front steps, he waited for gas to drive them out.
The three goons who'd been at the front of the house came first. That got messy, since all three went for John, but he'd had a lot of training and experience in disabling people quickly. Gabriel was waving a gun and coughing when he came staggering through the door. "You!" he yelled, looking pissed off. Apparently he didn't like the hired help causing problems. John smacked the gun away and drew back his fist to punch him squarely on the jaw. Gabriel dropping to the ground to join his goons was the most satisfying event of a long day. Glass jaw, of course. Mai was a surprise, getting in a few good kicks before he laid her out. She was almost more of a threat than the three goons combined. Trey didn't even try to fight, falling to his knees as he coughed violently.
The guy who'd been upstairs must have passed out, because he didn't emerge. John surveyed the incapacitated bodies with satisfaction before pulling out his cell phone. Time to let the cavalry know that it was safe to come clean up.
John sipped his beer, contemplating his life. His local bar was always a good place for thinking, in his opinion. It was peaceful, no blaring music, only the comfort of a game on the television in the background, and no one bothering him. He hadn't worked for six months, feeling like he needed a break. Jack had started college in the fall, so it was the first time he'd been on his own since Holly had moved to California.
Money wasn’t a problem. It hadn't been since he'd tracked down Hans Gruber to where he was spending his days lounging on a beach in a foreign country, stalked him until he'd gone back to his hotel room, and broken his neck. The part of John that was still a cop wished he'd been able to take Gruber in and make him stand trial for his crimes. But the John that had emerged when he'd learned that Holly's body was too mangled for his kids to see was quietly glad that Gruber had fled to a country with no extradition policies. Gruber's choice had forced him into drastic action, because he really couldn't see the two of them as some real life version of 'Midnight Run.'
One of the advantages of countries with dubious reputations was that no one made a lot of fuss when he'd showed up at the bank with Hans' ID and a safety deposit box key, removing the bearer bonds that Hans had killed Holly and her co-workers to steal. They rested now in his own safety deposit box, used mainly when he got a tip from one of his group of carefully cultivated contacts and needed to take off instantly to a foreign country to corner another one of the terrorists. Five down and ten left to go, if the FBI had correctly identified them all.
Holly's life insurance and the sale of her house in California had meant he could buy the Brooklyn house outright, the Gennaros were generous grandparents, and the trust fund established by Nakatomi Corporation covered the kids' educational expenses. John was able to take his cult jobs for less than people thought, and keep his lifestyle looking reasonably middle-class, without anyone knowing he occasionally dropped several thousand dollars at a time to take care of Holly's murderers. Traveling to foreign countries, occasionally to those that officially didn't allow Americans in their borders, could be pricey.
One of these days Lucy and Jack would learn the truth, but he'd be dead by then. He thought they would understand what he'd had to do and how he'd chosen to do it.
But still… he hadn't had a tip for ages, and he couldn't hang around his house and the neighborhood forever. He'd repainted all the rooms that needed a fresh coat, repatched everything that needed mending, cleaned through the junk in the basement, and done an incredible number of chores for some of his elderly neighbors who weren't very spry. It was time for him to let people know he was available to rescue the next unruly kid who'd fallen for the latest slick huckster.
The thing was… when he thought about going back out there, doing the research, watching through binoculars, interrogating the locals, setting up a fake identity, spending days or weeks pretending to be someone else… his thoughts would flash back to Matt. Matt writhing, Matt pleading, Matt over his lap, the feel of his butt under John's palm, Matt's breath in his mouth as they kissed, the warmth of his body in John's arms, the golden softness of his skin…
John gasped, feeling his dick thrum. He needed to forget Matt, block these thoughts from his brain. He drained the last of the beer.
"Can I buy you another one?" someone asked, and fuck, that could not be the man who haunted his mind.
John turned his head and it was. Matt Farrell, living and breathing in John's local bar, and looking fabulous. He had replaced Gabriel's white uniform with a brown sweater and black trousers. His hair was a little shorter, a little neater, and a laptop bag was slung over one shoulder. "Matt."
"Hi, John," he answered, before looking at the bartender. "Two of what he's drinking." He jerked his head toward a table in the back. "Can we talk?"
"Sure." John waited until Joe poured another two beers, picked them up and carried to them to the table where Matt was waiting, his laptop open and powered up. "You're looking good."
"Thanks." Matt sipped his beer. "I took some time to get my head together. Since you said I should."
"Good." During the long drive to New Jersey, Matt had tried again to talk about what had happened between them in the cabin, and John had finally shot him down by pointing out that Matt wasn't exactly in his right mind. He supposed he'd invited Matt to show up again when his head was clear, but at the time he'd just been trying to shut him up, anything to resist the temptation to stop at one of the many convenient motels by the freeway and resume where they'd left off. He was sure Matt would have let him, and that knowledge had been enticingly dangerous.
"I made the ATF pay me consultant wages to go through Gabriel's records and find all his bank accounts. They think he really was setting up for a firesale. The cult was convenient for starter cash and to recruit computer geeks like me."
John nodded. "Harker told me. He said you did a great job."
"So how are you doing?"
"I've been taking some time too. Doing house projects." He didn't add he'd been getting his own head together too. Matt didn't need to know the crazy state of John's thoughts after he'd dropped him at his house and driven away, watching his parents hug him in the rear view mirror.
"John McClane, handyman extraordinaire."
John shrugged carelessly, using his normal grumpy facade to disguise his craving to know why Matt was here. "You didn't come from New Jersey to chat about my gutters."
"Wow, you're just never very good at chitchat, are you?"
Matt swung the laptop around to face John. A webpage was open, 'McClane and Farrell, Security Consultants.' It was a classy website, very elegant, with pictures of the two of them, and several links: Biographies, Services, FAQs, Contact Us. "I'm tired of not being in control of my life. I want to do what I'm good at, and that's hacking. You've been dealing with cultists and terrorists. You know criminals. We could work together, me covering the electronic end, you handling the physical end."
"You already decided this and put a website up?"
"It's just on my laptop, not on the web. Come on, McClane. You can't enjoy putting your life in danger regularly and lying to jerks with delusions of grandeur. We could make a great business, working together. I've worked out a business plan for you to review. What we'd need to charge, the profits we'd make, the kinds of clients we should find, everything."
John looked at the website, thought about it, two men who'd met in weird circumstances, going into business together. Security consulting could become a 9 to 5 job, which had the potential to be problematic for his little trips. But he'd be working with Matt, a clear-eyed, level-headed Matt who'd spent time developing a plan and tracked him down. Matt, who was showing him he was an adult who knew what he wanted.
Matt, who was barely older than his own son. "You don't know what you'd be getting into."
"I survived being in a cult and an ATF raid. I can take care of myself."
"I'm not a good person for you to be around."
"Because of what you do? Of what you've done?" There was something about the way Matt asked the questions that made John tilt his head, trying to figure out what Matt meant, what he knew. "I talked to my parents about how much they'd paid you. And to some of the ATF guys about how long it takes to infiltrate a cult. I've done a lot of research."
John gave him his most intimidating look. "Spit out what you think you know."
"I don't know anything. Nothing that can be proved, anyway. But I know there are some interesting patterns between your activities and when three of your ex-wife's killers died in mysterious circumstances.
"At least, there were. Those patterns may have been disrupted."
"Three, huh?" So he hadn't doing near as good a job as he thought. But then, he didn't have Matt's computer skills. He felt almost absurdly proud that Matt had fitted the puzzle pieces together.
"Yeah. Three." Matt hesitated, and John waited, curious to see what he had to say. "I'm not saying that I believe in… " Vigilantism, John filled in mentally, as Matt left the word unsaid. "But I can understand doing what you have to do. I admire you for being that kind of person."
"You're not the kid I knew."
"I never was. I was drugged and then I was withdrawing and then I was…" Matt waved his hands as if he couldn't contain his emotions. "So furious at how I'd been taken."
"Letting your emotions control you can screw you up in this business," John warned.
"I know," Matt nodded, and John hoped he did. "But corporate security would be calmer. You could have less stress in your life. And I could… help you do what you need to do."
"You hate corporations."
"I hate people taking advantage more. Gabriel taught me there are all kinds of bad guys in this world." Matt licked his lips, making them shiny. John already knew how soft they felt. "Besides, I figure most of our work will be for start-ups, the little guys. Big corporations mostly have their own security."
Jesus. Jesus. Could he truly share his life with someone? "I don't want to just work with you."
"Just?" Matt asked, and from his expression, hopeful but wary… John slid his fingers through Matt's soft hair, cupped the back of his head, and brought their faces together, giving him a kiss, long, hard and bruising.
"Do you get my point?"
Matt licked his lips. "That would work for me. That would really work for me."
There was a tiny groan from across the room, and John glared at Joe, who was watching them with an expression of dismay. "You got a problem?"
"Jeez, McClane. What is it these days? It's in the damn air, or something."
"Welcome to the 21st century, Joe," John growled, and Joe shrugged, resuming polishing a glass. Satisfied that Joe's objection had been squelched, John looked at Matt again, who wasn’t trying to dislodge his head from John's hand, waiting for John to continue the conversation. Like he didn't mind being held in place. "Once I get started on a project, I don't stop until it's done," John felt obliged to warn him. He'd blown it with Holly, letting her go and not following her, and she'd ended up dead. He wasn't going to make the same mistake with Matt.
"Yeah, I got that impression."
John released Matt, standing, pulling out his wallet and dropping a bill on the table. "Let's go home."
Matt shut his laptop, sticking it back into the bag. "And seal the deal?"
For that, John had to grab him, kiss him again. Joe might as well get used to seeing this picture. Matt's body yielded, conformed to his own. "This is more than sealing a deal. This is starting a partnership that'll never end."
"Okay," Matt said, and he smiled, sweet and shy and all John's.
"Honey, I'm home!" John called as he entered the house, dropping his pack on the floor in the entryway. To his surprise, Matt came out of the kitchen instead of the computer room. "You cooking?"
"I ordered take-out."
Thai, probably. Neither of them cooked much, but Matt had introduced John to lots of culinary options beyond pizza, hamburgers, and meatloaf. Food wasn't top of the list of new experiences he'd shared with Matt that interested John at the moment. "We can heat it up later."
"I just put it in the refrigerator," Matt admitted, before he was in John's arms, melting against John's body, as John tilted his head back, taking possession of his mouth. Damn, Matt always felt so good in his arms, warm and welcoming when John came home from a trip. It didn't make what he had to do easier, but it made it better, to know he could share with someone who was watching his back, covering all his tracks electronically, and waiting for him. Eleven down, four to go. Matt was managing to locate Holly's murderers for him a lot faster than waiting for tips from his sometimes questionable contacts.
What he'd been doing wasn't uppermost in John's mind now, only what he was planning on doing next. He cupped Matt's ass, and the smaller man obediently wrapped his legs around John's hips, letting himself be carried down the hallway. John's strength turned Matt on, and John was happy to display it.
Matt released his hold on John's shoulders, tugging his shirt over his head and tossing it away as John kicked open the door.
"Finish up," John ordered, setting Matt down.
Matt grinned, pulled his sweat pants off, and turned around, displaying a butt plug in his ass. "You like it? I thought I'd be ready for you."
"Fuck." John squeezed his dick fiercely, once, imagining Matt fingering himself with lube, sliding this piece of black silicon into his own ass. He'd been skeptical about learning anything new from the younger generation, but once Matt started bringing sex toys home, he'd learned the error of his thinking. It had been wild-crazy to fuck Matt with that first dildo, making him writhe and come, and then to wind him up again and use the real thing on him.
John's hands were almost shaking as he stripped off his own clothes. Matt sprawled back on the bed, watching appreciatively. John never quite understood why he found a battered, scarred old body so hot, but he did, and for that John was forever grateful. He paused for a moment, letting Matt look, then grabbed the lube off the nightstand, slicking up his dick. Matt spread his legs, but didn't remove the plug. He was sex incarnate, John's lover waiting for John to fuck him hard.
The plug came out with an obscene 'pop' and then John shoved in, the lube and Matt's loosened muscles letting him keep going in one long stroke until he was buried balls-deep in Matt's ass. "Christ." He claimed Matt's mouth in another fierce kiss. "What did I do to deserve you?"
"You got lucky that I know a good thing and go after it," Matt said, laughing into his mouth, arms and legs clinging.
"Yeah," John agreed, and then he couldn't talk. Dirty words could be fun sometimes, but he couldn't divide his focus now. He could only thrust or withdraw, pounding into Matt's tight ass, kissing him all the time, burying his tongue as deeply in Matt's mouth as his cock was in Matt's hole. Matt could still speak, mostly little gasped swear words, and an occasional, "Do me harder, god, John, yes," as if John wasn't already fucking him with the ferocity of a jackhammer.
Matt came first, because he usually did. John liked to tease him that the young were impatient, though laughter wasn't the first thing that came to John's mind when Matt squeezed him, threw his head back and yelled, his come flooding between their bodies. Matt went boneless then, his eyes sleepy and satiated as John stroked in a few more times before his own orgasm took control and he emptied everything he had into Matt.
"Jesus," he said, gingerly moving off Matt, lying down next to him. Matt curled up to him, his head resting on John's shoulder, one hand toying with the curls on John's chest. White was mixed in with the black, but Matt never seemed to mind.
"That was hot."
"I'm going to take a nap and eat, then do you again in the shower," John announced, because it sounded like a good plan.
"Hmm," Matt agreed. They fit together so well, in so many ways, though living together and being accepted hadn't always been easy. When Matt had introduced John as his lover to his parents, they'd thrown a major hissy fit, and the accusations that John had taken advantage of Gabriel's brainwashing to substitute his own had been incredibly disturbing. Matt had stuck to his guns that it was his life, his decision, and yes, he really was in his right mind, and John had been proud of his steady determination. And grateful that he'd never had to deck his pseudo-father-in-law, though he'd come close a couple of times. John's kids had been a little more accepting, as they'd known how long he'd been alone. Matt's age had bothered them more than the change in John's sexual orientation, but they'd slowly seen the benefit of a pseudo-stepdad who was a computer genius. He'd had to endure a lot of ribbing from his old friends on the Force, but he hadn't minded. They'd be lucky to have someone like Matt in their lives.
Still toying with John's chest hair, Matt added licking on his nipples, which liked the attention and perked up. "I was going to nap," John protested, though not strenuously.
"Go ahead. I can molest your naked body while you're sleeping."
It was John's turn to give an agreeing, "Hmmm," his eyelids closing as he wondered what Matt would do next, if he'd wake up to Matt blowing him or riding him, John's body unable to resist getting hard from Matt's touch, even in sleep. Or maybe Matt wouldn't, maybe he'd just play a bit, and they could stick with the original plan, sex with the water pounding down on their bodies.
Either way worked. It was all good with Matt.
~ the end ~