There were rare occasions when he got to go patrolling the Park on horseback - and this was one of them. As the place he wanted to check out was almost fifty miles away, Roy had towed the horse trailer most of that distance, pulling in at the closest ranger's station. Although the station was unmanned at this time of year, it still provided a secure place to leave the pick-up and trailer, not that he was too concerned with thieves. At this time of year there were very few hikers about so the thieves had migrated to the ski resorts.
If he had been more of a student of human behavior then Roy might have found the idea of these migrating predators fascinating, but humans, in general, were one animal species he preferred to avoid as much as possible. Of course, his job required a fair amount of human contact: meetings, school lectures, representation at fund-raising events. However, he did not have to deal with too many people on a one-to-one basis - and that suited Roy just fine.
It did not take long for Roy to saddle up the mare even though he could feel her growing excitement; she snapped up her head and side-stepped eagerly, snickering and snorting gently as Roy ensured everything was secure. When he mounted up, she leaped forward at the slightest dig of his heels, and Roy found himself smiling at her eagerness.
"Seems someone's keen on a ride today."
The mare snorted as if in response, hooves clicking on the road as they crossed to the other side before entering the forest.
It was a good day for a ride. The late Fall sun was low in a clear blue sky but there was no wind, not even a gentle breeze to further chill the fresh mountain air. Most of the deciduous trees were already shedding their leaves, the gold and russet forming a thick damp carpet beneath the horse's hooves, muffling her steps. Gradually, as they made their way up the mountainside, the deciduous trees gave way to the evergreen pines of Spruce and Douglas Fir.
Roy gave the mare a free rein, allowing her to set her own pace as they climbed steadily, pulling her to a halt every once in a while when he spotted or heard something of interest; the cry of an eagle overhead, the rustle of some small animal. He watched as a chipmunk gathered up some seeds to add to its winter store before urging the horse onwards, not wanting to dawdle too much as he had come out here for a reason.
The reason was bears or, more precisely, making a final check on the bear population before they went to ground for the winter. One of Roy's fellow rangers had been out this way not more than a week ago, but he had seen less than half the number of bears that Roy had expected. Roy had decided to go check it out for himself but other tasks - and poor weather - had kept him closer to home until today.
Several hours later, Roy reined the brown mare to a halt and pulled the binoculars from his saddlebag. He swept a strand of hair from his face before drawing the binoculars up, eyes scanning the forest ahead of him as far as the ridge then sweeping from side to side. A frown made two vertical lines above his nose and he rubbed a hand over his stubbled chin.
Last Fall there had been a number of black bear in this particular area, preparing dens for their winter hibernation. They tended to come back to the same places, year after year, but none at all could be seen today. He chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully as he replaced the binoculars, and then he dug his heels into the horse's flank, gently, to spur the mare onwards once more.
A little way further on, Roy came across a strange set of tracks. He dismounted and stood beside them, looking first one way and then the other. It was if something heavy had been drawn through the undergrowth, but the ruts in the ground were far too even to be anything other than man-made. Roy nodded his head at further physical confirmation that men were involved in this mystery, noting the boot print that stood out clearly in the damp earth.
Making an assumption that whoever it was would be taking something off of the mountain, Roy debated whether to follow the tracks downwards through the trees until he came to the old logging road, or to trace them back up to their origin.
Kneeling down, he studied the set of markings more carefully. They were relatively fresh, possibly only a few days old, but he realized that whatever had been hauled to this point would later have been attached to some mechanical form of transportation. Therefore, the chances of finding anything down on the logging road, other than some more tire tracks, was pretty remote.
As yet, he still had no idea of what was being taken away. There had been plenty of illegal logging operations in the past, and it occurred to Roy that men working in this area would have scared off any bears from using their hibernation haunts. If it was loggers then it made sense to follow the tracks back up the mountain so he could assess the ecological damage.
For now, though, it was time to call this in; time to let someone know what he had found. Roy drew the radio out of the pouch on his belt as he moved over to where his horse had drifted in her search for some succulent grasses to nibble on.
"Ranger McLean to base, you there, Jeanie?"
The disembodied voice of the Rangers operator brought a smile to Roy's face. They had given up using code words with Jeanie Marriot after she got the codes mixed up and sent them racing to a forest fire that turned out to be some lost hikers in distress. Turning up in full fire-fighting gear had frightened the life out the guys and, judging by their reaction, Roy could only presume they had been watching too much X-Files and thought Roy and his team were in biohazard gear. It took Roy twenty minutes of chasing through the forest, and a couple of bruised ribs, to convince one of the guys that he was not going to be abducted for experimentation.
"I'm up... on Dawson's Peak. Found some tracks up here, man-made, probably illegal loggers and I suspect they may have something to do with those missing bears. I'm going to backtrack, check out where they've been working. I'll call you if I find anything else."
Okay, sweetcheeks. Bye for now.
Roy shook his head, gazing at the silent radio as if it had grown a limb.
Jeanie never ceased to amaze him, and Roy wondered what her husband of forty-six years would say if he ever heard some of the pet names that she called her 'charges'. He laughed as he thought of Bill Marriot, wondering whether she called that grizzled old bear of a man, sweetcheeks, too.
Roy patted the mare, softly crooning to her for a moment before mounting up and turning her back up the steep incline. He took a moment to enjoy the late Fall scenery, noting the smattering of snow on the higher ground. The snow line was gradually lowering as Winter drew near, the snow settling beneath the trees and in the deeper crevices where the sun's weaker rays could not touch it. He slowed his pace, not wanting the mare to slip on the hard, rocky ground lying beneath her hooves, allowing her to pick her own path but nudging her every so often to keep the tracks in sight.
After another hour of travel, the tracks seemed to end within a small clearing and Roy dismounted so he could take a closer look, tying the reins to the low branch of a nearby pine to ensure the mare could not wander too far.
It was harder to see footprints in the hard-packed earth but a small, bright red item caught his eye, and Roy went to investigate. He knelt down some five meters from the track marks and picked up the spent end of a tranquillizer dart.
Until now he had assumed it was loggers stripping some of the forest but now he was almost certain that wasn't the case. Loggers tended to drive off or kill any bears, but it seemed that whoever was disturbing his bears was actually taking them.
That was a mystery in itself. Normally the bears were hunted for their thick, almost black pelts, usually to adorn the wall - or body - of some rich collector. Taking them alive was unusual. A full paper trail was required for selling bears to a zoo; there had to be process orders signed at various levels, and a ranger had to be on hand if the bear was to be removed from one of the Parks. Roy recalled no such notices coming through his office, and the bears here fell under his control.
There were two options here. The first was that someone in the Park's office was acting outside the rules by not informing him of the legitimate request for the trapping and transportation of bears, and the second, that the bears were being poached. The first option was impossible. He had been speaking to his team only yesterday about his plan to check out the bear population prior to hibernation, and no one had made mention of anything even remotely connected to the bears - and he trusted them all implicitly.
That left option two.
It would not be the first time the Park had been forced to deal with poachers. However, whether this was the work of a few individuals hoping to lay a false paper trail before offering the bears up for sale to a foreign zoo, or whether there was a private collector behind the poaching, remained to be seen.
The sound of a young bear growling just beyond the break in the undergrowth caught his attention and Roy strode over to investigate. He pushed through carefully, lips tightening into a thin line of anger when he spotted the cage in the center of the next clearing. Inside was a large female, lying unconscious, her labored breathing becoming more audible as he came closer. Her young cub was outside, trying to get to its mother through the side bars.
Roy glanced around, aware that the men who had done this had to be close by, especially as they were using darts rather than drugged meat. After all, someone must have dragged the bear into the cage after she had succumbed to the sedative. He could still see the ends of rope that they had used to haul her inside, but he must have disturbed them before they had time to load the cub or seal the cage.
Roy felt a moment of true vulnerability, his hackles rising as he realized how quiet it was in the forest around him, as if every living creature was holding its breath, and he knew that he was probably being watched at that very moment.
"Definitely time to call this in."
With nervous fingers, Roy pulled out his radio, but the sound of snapping twigs brought his head up sharply and he found himself looking straight into the face of a poacher, poorly concealed nearby. Time seemed to stand still as he stared into startled brown eyes, the moment shattered by a stabbing pain.
He cried out in shock, his hand flying to his right buttock as the pain radiated outwards, wondering what had managed to take such a huge bite out of him. His fingers found something embedded in the muscle and he pulled on it, gasping as it slipped out. He brought the object up to his eyes, blinking hard as his head began to swim, recognizing the red tuft as the end of a tranquillizer dart.
Roy tried to turn in the direction that the dart must have come from but his legs wouldn't obey, turning to rubber beneath him. He sat down hard, his slowly numbing fingers scrabbling for the radio, but he only succeeded in dropping it to the ground. Attempts to pick it up failed as his vision doubled, then tripled. Roy felt himself falling again, so slowly that it seemed to take forever until he felt the hard ground beneath his shoulder and head. As his vision dimmed to blackness, he saw several copies of the same pair of boots approaching him, and several hands reaching down to grab the radio.
"Greg! What the hell did you do that for?"
"He saw the bears. And he was going to call for help."
"So we still need those two bears to fill our quota."
Mark Faulkner knelt down beside the Forest ranger, pulling back an eyelid to check his condition.
"And what are we going to do with him then? He ain't gonna sleep forever... is he?"
"Nah... gave him a cub dose. Should knock him out for a few hours, maybe more. By then we'll be well away from here."
Faulkner rose back to his feet, rubbing sweaty palms on his pants as he gazed anxiously at his nonchalant looking partner.
"Can't just leave him here. He saw me! And what if a bear sniffs him out... kills him?"
"What bears? We got most of them--"
"But not all of them. What if one decides to make this guy its last snack before hibernating? Poaching bear is one thing, murder is something else."
"Murder? Getting a little dramatic there, aren't you?"
"Well, what do you call it when you deliberately leave a man in danger... and he gets killed?"
"By bears! Not by us!"
"Don't matter. Anyway, he saw me. He could give the Police a description of me."
"Damn you!" Greg Masters rubbed a hand through his short brown hair and snarled as he glanced back down at the unconscious ranger. "Okay. We take him with us. Let Carlisle figure out what to do with him."
"What about his horse?"
"Use it to get him down to the logging track then we'll let it go. It'll take it hours to get anywhere, and they'll assume he was thrown. Take them a few more hours searching before they realize he ain't around here anyplace. By then we'll be miles from here - and Carlisle would have figured something out."
Masters reached down and pulled the ranger into a fireman's lift over his shoulder. He staggered over to the horse and, with the help of his partner, they draped the unconscious figure over the saddle. Using a little rope, they secured him to the horse.
"Let's get that cub loaded."
They pushed back through the underbrush about twenty feet to where the mother bear was lying deathly still in the cage. It took a few minutes to drag the cub inside and then Masters slammed the door closed and padlocked it.
"Could use that horse to take some of the strain."
Masters grinned, liking that idea. He grabbed some more rope and tied a length, firmly, to each side of the saddle. He ran the ropes parallel and tied them, one to each side of the cage at the rear. The horse would be used to stop the cage from sliding too fast down the slope. Masters and Faulkner took one rope apiece, standing beside the horse and together they eased the cage down towards the logging track.
With gravity in their favor and the horse taking most of the strain they made it in less than half the time, no longer needing to rest so often. Faulkner made certain the coast was clear and then they carried on down the logging track for another three miles to where it widened. They had left the truck out of sight under the cover of the trees, just in case a patrol should come by. With a lot less effort they hauled the cage into the back of the truck and secured it, the horse coming in useful once more.
"He ain't gonna stay out of it for much longer." Faulkner indicated towards the still unconscious man.
"We can leave him here. On the horse."
"But he saw me!"
Masters grimaced, having forgotten why Faulkner was so concerned about the ranger.
"Then how about we use that other cage? Don't need it for that cub; it can stay with its momma."
They dragged the ranger from the horse and shoved him into the remaining cage, but Faulkner grabbed at Masters arm before he could slam the door shut.
"What if he wakes up and starts yelling?"
Masters raised his eyes to the sky, this was becoming more complicated with every passing moment. Without a word he went to the cab of the truck and withdrew a roll of duct tape from the glove compartment. He shuffled inside the small cage and wrapped several layers around the rangers wrists, tying them together before attaching them to one of the bars, then he ripped off several strips and effectively gagged their captive. Masters crawled back out of the cage, looked at his handiwork approvingly then turned to Faulkner.
Faulkner gave a grimace of his own and nodded tightly then he wandered off and got into the passenger side of the cab leaving Masters to secure the back board and pull down the heavy tarpaulin. Once all was tied down, so no one would be able to see inside, Masters got into the driver's seat and started up the engine.
It was the joggling that awoke him. His head was muzzy and he discovered that he couldn't move his hands nor take a breath through his mouth. He tried to make out where he was through bleary eyes but it was dark - or he was blind. Neither thought gave him much comfort. A low growl nearby sent a shiver of fear running up his spine, sending the short hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
He tried to move and found his legs could obey his commands, but not his hands. As the fog gradually dispersed from his brain, Roy realized that his hands were tied in some fashion and he could feel the hard metal of an upright pole between his palms. He tried pulling his hands away and he tried wriggling them too, but whatever held him was pretty secure. Roy decided to give up trying to free his hands and concentrated on his feet, pushing them out as far as he could. He felt a barrier and heard the dull clang of more metal. Dragging one foot along he recognized the sensation of a series of metal poles - bars - but was he inside or outside of this prison? He stretched out and let his feet drag around the perimeter as far as possible.
Inside. He was inside a cage.
His face still seemed frozen, his mouth sealed, but he knew it had to be some form of gag rather than a physical ailment. Roy tried rubbing his face against his shoulder, hoping to dislodge the binding. It soon became apparent that it was tape rather than cloth as he could feel the edges gradually raising, pulling at his skin uncomfortably.
Now he was more aware of his surroundings, he knew he was in the back of a moving truck but he had no clue as to where it might be heading. His last memory before losing consciousness came back to him and he recalled the features of the man he had spotted trying to hide, unsuccessfully, in the undergrowth. Roy frowned. He could clearly remember the man's face but he knew this was someone he had never seen before. What he was certain of, though, was that this man had been concerned at being spotted.
The truck made a sharp left and drew to a halt, the engine cutting out leaving him with just the low growl of the nearby bear. He recalled the large female lying in a cage in the clearing and had to assume it was she. The smaller growl of a cub confirmed his suspicions and he felt a moment of relief knowing the mother was securely caged up too. However, to be on the safe side, Roy decided to keep well away from that side of his own cage in case she was close enough to take a swipe at him through the bars.
Roy froze as the truck doors creaked open and then were slammed shut. He could hear voices outside.
"Hey Reeves. We got them last two bears Carlisle wanted."
"Everything go smoothly?"
"Well... not exactly."
The tarpaulin was pulled back and Roy squinted as the weak late afternoon sun shone directly into his eyes.
"You fools! Why did you bring him here?"
"We couldn't leave him there. He saw Faulkner."
"And what if he got killed by a bear while he was out of it?"
"So you decided to abduct him instead? I take it you aren't aware that abduction is a federal offense. Once they figure out he's missing, the Feds'll be poring all over that damn mountain."
"We figured the boss would know what to do with him."
"You want the boss to learn of this? I say we kill him right--"
"No way! I'm not gonna be party to no murder..."
Roy looked from one man to the next as they debated what they could do with him, his eyes widening with fear as the man called Reeves talked of killing him and burying his body somewhere remote, but, fortunately, nothing was resolved due to Faulkner's qualms about committing murder. Eventually, Masters called a halt to the debate.
"Look, it'll be dark soon. Let's just get him and the bears inside with the others. Let the boss figure out what to do with him."
Roy got a good look around as they used a forklift to haul his cage out of the truck, taking note of the low ranch style house at the far end of the courtyard. He held on tight, fingers wrapped around the bar to which they were tied, his feet braced, as they settled the cage onto the dirty floor of the barn. He could see at least six more cages further in, all spaced slightly apart, and each containing a dark mass that was most probably one or more of his missing bears.
The men disappeared, turning off the overhead light, and when they closed the doors behind them the barn was plunged into near darkness. Time passed slowly as the last of the remaining daylight, filtering through the cracks, was slowly extinguished by nightfall.
He spent that time worrying at the tape over his mouth but it was a painfully slow process even though it was gradually working loose. It would have been far easier if they had taped his hands so his fingers could reach the gag but, no matter how hard he pressed his face against the bars, they were too far away to be of any use to him.
The sound of an approaching car brought Roy's head up sharply and he listened carefully as the engine cut out. The slam of a car door preceded the crunching of footsteps on the gravel outside, but they were moving away from him. This had to be Carlisle, the boss that the men had referred to.
Ten minutes later the light inside the barn came on and four men entered. Roy watched as the newcomer moved from cage to cage inspecting the bears, small murmurs of approval filling the air. At last the man stopped beside him and hunkered down, gazing at Roy through cold grey eyes, and slowly inspecting him from head to toe.
"Not exactly what I commissioned you to obtain for me."
Roy's eyes flicked towards the sound of shuffling feet before returning to the steely gaze. He pulled his head back sharply as Carlisle reached towards his face, but halted when he saw the raised eyebrow. Stilling himself, he allowed Carlisle to reach for the duct tape.
Tears of pain filled his eyes as the tape was pulled aside, his skin smarting as the sticky material dragged at several days' growth of beard. Carlisle handed the removed tape to one of the men behind him and then snapped his fingers. A small cup was placed in his outstretched hand and he held it through the bars towards Roy.
"You must be thirsty by now. Drink."
Although his mouth was dry and uncomfortable, Roy pulled back, memory of that heated debate over whether or not they ought to kill him taking away any desire to taste the liquid being offered. For all he knew it might be poisoned.
"No? Perhaps a little later."
Roy decided to pretend ignorance, deciding it might be better if the man believed his name was unknown to him.
"Who are you?"
"Ahh! So you can speak? I think the less you know about me the better... Roy." Carlisle raised his eyebrows again, and gave a smug smile at Roy's startlement. "Yes. I know your name, Ranger McLean. They've already started looking for you, after your horse was found wandering along the highway... riderless."
"What are you going to do with me?"
"I really don't know. The bears, however, will make a fine addition to the private collections of various wealthy acquaintances... at a price. Unfortunately, I suspect many are only interested in displaying the fur but a few, like myself, will enjoy adding a black bear to their small, personal wildlife parks."
"What about the paperwork? The Inspectors?"
"You really shouldn't concern yourself with the fate of the bears. You've far more important things to worry about; yourself, for instance. After all, I can hardly add you to my private zoo."
The one called Faulkner approached and pushed a bowl of stew through the feeding slot, and the suave newcomer gave his employee another order couched as a request.
"Perhaps we should untie Ranger McLean's hands so he can eat."
Roy held still while Faulkner sliced through the duct tape with a sharp pocket knife. He grimaced in pain as he pulled at the tape still wrapped around his wrists, feeling the hairs being torn out from the root. Roy rubbed his wrists briskly to aid the circulation and to ease away some of the sting. He ignored the food lying before him.
"No appetite? Well, we'll just leave it there in case you change your mind."
Carlisle rose to his feet, gave Roy a slight nod and a small smile then turned and walked away. The other men followed him, turning off all but a single light situated close by, leaving Roy barely enough visibility to see the stew still lying at his feet. Roy pushed it aside, his stomach churning too much from fear to allow him the luxury of hunger. He checked every bar of the low cage, tried pulling on the padlock but everything was secure.
He was trapped, at least until morning.
When the sun came up the next day, the bears grew agitated, growling and shifting in their cages. The noise increased when the doors opened and the three employees entered carrying buckets of meat and water. They ignored Roy for the most part, just glancing at him from time to time, uneasily. It made Roy nervous, wondering what fate they had in store for him. He glanced up as another figure entered the barn but, again, Roy was ignored, the man not even bothering to glance in his direction.
Roy sat back in the small cage and watched as Carlisle directed the others, pointing to one bear and then another. Separately, those two cages were lifted, and taken back outside. Roy heard the engine start on the truck and listened as it pulled away, gradually receding into the distance, but once it was gone, the suave leader of the poachers came forward and dropped to his haunches beside Roy, staring at him directly in the face.
Carlisle's eyes glanced down at the untouched bowl of stew.
"You weren't hungry then? Never mind. Perhaps you'd care for some breakfast." Carlisle turned aside and raised his voice. "Masters. I believe our guest requires some breakfast."
"I'm not hungry."
"You may change your mind." Carlisle looked at Roy askance, gray eyes narrowing. "It's unfortunate that you've seen my little operation. Most unfortunate. I'm in a bit of a quandary, really. If those fools had given themselves up - or run for it and been caught - then the worst I would have suffered is a little loss of face, a fine and a slap on the wrist. That's if they gave me up to the Police. But kidnapping? That's a whole new ball game. Kidnapping equals jail time--"
"But not as much jail time as you'd get for murder."
"True. But then that would depend on if I got caught. So. Do I let you go and risk being sent to jail for kidnapping? Or do I kill you and dispose of your body where no one would ever find it? Perhaps feed you to your bears?"
Roy swallowed hard and looked uneasily towards the five remaining bears, hearing them growl angrily as they tried to stretch out in their small cages.
The man looked over his shoulder as Masters approached with a fresh bowl of food. Roy felt his stomach flip as he considered the man's words, all thought of food fleeing from his mind. He watched as the mess of porridge was pushed inside the cage, but made no move towards it.
"Still not hungry?" Carlisle sighed. "I do understand. If I was drugged and woke up bound and gagged in a small cage then I guess I'd lose my appetite too."
Roy frowned, his memory flipping back almost a year to when he had uttered similar words to his nephew, Jesse, when they had first brought the injured silver wolf down from the mountain. Silver had refused to eat, upsetting Jesse who had become convinced the wolf would die of starvation.
"If I was abducted by strangers, put in a metal box, I'd lose my appetite too."
His own words seemed so prophetic now. Obi-Roy Kenobi. Roy found himself holding back a grin as he thought of his nephew.
"I don't think you want to kill me."
"Oh? If you are under some misguided assumption that I don't have it in me then think again."
"No. I know you're capable of killing me... but I don't believe you want to."
Carlisle stared hard at Roy for almost a full minute before a leisurely smile crossed his face, the hard glint in the steel grey eyes softening.
"You're right, of course. But that still leaves me with the dilemma of what I am going to do with you."
"You could let me go. Take your chances with the law. I'll even tell them to drop the kidnapping charge."
The man grinned.
"Let's see. So I'm left with my smacked wrist, confiscation of my property and a hefty fine that could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. On top of that I lose my standing in the public eye, and I am ostracized by my peers." Carlisle scratched his chin in mock thoughtfulness. "On the other hand, I could keep you under wraps while I conclude my business dealings, move all my not inconsiderable wealth into a Swiss bank account, and then skip the country to live a life of luxury in some tropical paradise. And to hell with my peers."
Carlisle seemed to be watching Roy in the expectation of some reaction. He gained it as Roy glanced uneasily at the small cage surrounding him.
"Oh, I'm certain I could find far more pleasant accommodation for you while I make my preparations. This cage is so primitive, after all." The man stood up and gestured to someone just outside Roy's field of vision. "Perhaps it is time we were formally introduced. My name is Justin Carlisle... and this is Reeves. Mr. Reeves will be preparing you for travel to your temporary new home."
Roy backed up as far as he could within the cage as Reeves approached bearing a hypodermic needle.
"Don't be alarmed, Roy. I can call you Roy? Just a little relaxant for the journey."
Roy looked up as Masters and Faulkner edged in on both sides, grabbing at his arms through the bars of the cage. He was held firmly as the needle slid into the flesh of his arm, and then he was released. It did not take long before the drug began to work.
"Don't fight it, Roy. Just relax."
The sedative washed over him, his vision blurring then tunneling as he fought in vain to keep his eyes open. He could hear voices but they were muffled, as if he had been smothered in cotton wool. Roy felt hands touching him, pulling at his body, dragging him forward but he couldn't resist. His limbs were no longer under his control... and then there was nothing but darkness.
Roy opened heavy eyelids and gazed blearily around the sparsely, but tastefully, furnished room. He realized that he was lying on a comfortable bed with soft, clean linen draped over him but he had no idea where this room was or how he got there. The image of a brute of a man coming towards him, a hypodermic angled ready to plunge into his flesh, returned with force. He sat up, too quickly, his head spinning as the lingering after effects of the sedative rippled through him, the sheet dropping to his lap and, with a start, he realized he was naked.
He let that thought sink in before wrapping the sheet around him and crawling out of the bed. Despite the luxurious surroundings, Roy was not foolish enough to believe he was in no danger. He had to figure out a way to escape from this gilded cage before they pumped him full of something lethal rather than a sedative. Slowly, he began to investigate the windowless room, wandering around and trying all the doors.
The first door opened onto an empty closet; the next revealed a small bathroom. Roy ignored the bathroom for a moment, checking the few pieces of furniture for his clothes but they were not in the room. He wandered into the bathroom and was caught by his own reflection in the mirror above the sink. He was clean-shaven and his hair gleamed as if freshly washed. Roy's cheeks reddened in embarrassment. Someone had stripped, bathed and shaved him while he slept off the effects of the sedative, and he was not sure if he wanted to know who had carried out those tasks.
The thought of someone touching him while he was unaware sent a crawling sensation over his flesh, and he decided to wash away that feeling. He quickly undressed and then stepped under the warm spray of the shower, reveling in the soft water, and in the expensive soap that seemed to glide across his skin. He even rewashed his hair, trying to push away the thought of someone else's fingers running along his scalp while he lay unconscious.
Once he felt physically clean, Roy stepped out of the shower and dried himself on one of the large fluffy towels hanging nearby. When he stepped back into the bedroom, with the towel wrapped tightly around his waist, Roy was not surprised to find Carlisle sitting on the bed waiting for him.
"I see you are making good use of the facilities."
Roy glanced back at the bathroom, feeling a little vulnerable clad only in a towel. He berated himself, internally, for his unwarranted fear and drew himself up to his full six-foot of height, forcing a show of bravado.
"It's certainly a little more civilized than my previous cage."
Carlisle grinned, obviously not fooled for a moment, and indicated towards a small table where a covered tray had been placed.
"I'm afraid you missed lunch and the evening meal. However, Cook prepared a cold meat salad before she left. I hope it's to your liking."
"How long are you going to keep me here?"
Carlisle pursed his lips. "For as long as it takes."
"And then I'll be gone and you'll be free to leave." Carlisle slapped his hands on his thighs. "Well. I'll leave you to settle in... and eat." Carlisle rose to his feet and brushed some invisible pieces of lint from his suit, then he walked to the door but turned, glancing back at Roy. "Oh, and don't bother trying to escape. I wouldn't want to have to keep you permanently sedated... but I will if I have to."
Carlisle opened the door and stepped outside, giving Roy a fleeting glance of another man waiting outside before the door was closed and locked. With a sigh of defeat, Roy went over to the small table and raised the cover on the tray, one eyebrow rising when he saw the healthy salad. He began to pick at it but his appetite was still missing. Instead, his mind lingered on Carlisle's earlier words.
Reading between the lines, he knew he was in a lot of trouble. Despite Carlisle's claim that he intended to leave the country, Roy was almost certain the man's preference would be to stay. However, that meant silencing any witnesses to his crimes.
Roy had a strong feeling that he might be living on borrowed time, the sensation crawling over him, forcing his memories back to the past when a similar feeling of impending death had overcome him.
He had just turned sixteen and his father had dropped him off deep in the forest with no food, no water, and no equipment. By the end of the tenth day he had been cold, hungry, lonely and incredibly frightened. Every snap of a twig, every strange cry in the forest had spun him around in fear. He was lost, spending his nights huddled and shivering beneath the tall trees, his days stumbling along, going around in circles. He remembered marking a tree, and falling to his knees, tears streaming down his face, when he found himself back at that same tree having spent most of the daylight hours walking. His clothes were shredded from falls and from where he had been snagged by the thorny undergrowth; his feet were a mass of blisters, his lips cracked from lack of water and his stomach had ceased to protest the lack of food though the hunger still gnawed at his belly. He was barely surviving on the seeds and nuts that he found scattered on the forest floor, too afraid to try anything unfamiliar in case he poisoned himself, and unable to figure out a way to trap some small animal, let alone light a fire, skin it and cook it.
On that tenth day he had dropped to the ground, curled into a ball beneath that same marked tree to await his death.
The daylight was waning when he felt the presence of something close by and he had screwed his eyes shut, imagining it was a bear about to make him its supper. A soft, familiar voice called to him and he opened his eyes, and cried again.
His brother had handed him food, drink and a map then, with a quick hug, Frank had disappeared into the encroaching darkness.
It still took Roy two more days to find his way home, even with the map, but he never believed for one moment that he would not make it. Frank had been there, watching out for his baby brother as always. His guardian angel.
The full weight of that knowledge dropped upon him, sending a shock wave through his body and mind. He had been so wrapped up in dealing with the funeral, with sorting out Frank's disastrous finances, and taking care of Jesse that he had never found time to deal with his loss.
Now it struck him brutally hard. This time there was no guardian angel, there would be no big brother to come and rescue him. This time he was truly alone.
Frank was dead.
Roy pushed back the darkness that threatened to engulf him, refusing to let the memory of his loss tear him apart. He would be strong - for Frank.
Several days passed in a haze and Roy was convinced that he had been kept drugged despite Carlisle's assertion to the contrary. He had a hazy recollection of Reeves standing over him on more than one occasion, of light glinting off a slender needle - of a stinging sensation as that needle slid into the soft flesh of his inner arm.
On the fourth day of his captivity, Roy was awoken by the sound of raised voices. He sat up in the bed, groggily, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and he was about to reach over and switch on the lamp when the key turned in the lock.
The door flew open; light from the hallway spilling into the room and falling directly upon him, and he felt a moment of fear when Reeves large figure, silhouetted by the back lighting, stepped into the room.
A familiar voice came from behind the hulk of a man, the voice of Carlisle, but it was not the friendly tone he had last heard. This voice had a cold, hard edge; of fear, anger and desperation.
Roy tried to fend off the man who grabbed at him, one fist striking the square face, the other glancing off the man's rib cage, but Reeves merely hissed between clenched teeth and caught both of Roy's wrists. He pulled Roy from the bed, dragging him out of the room and halfway along the corridor while Roy twisted and turned, trying to gain his feet under him but to no avail.
His chance to stand came when they paused at the top of a flight of stairs. The massive man let go but only so he could alter his hold, one thick arm tightly encircling Roy's chest, dragging him back against the larger frame, the other hand clamped over Roy's mouth to keep him silenced.
Roy could hear the sounds of many men moving below them and then a dark shadow stepped out into the lit hallway at the bottom of the staircase, light reflecting off the metal of a gun barrel.
It was then that Roy realized Carlisle had a gun, it's physical presence only becoming apparent when the muzzle pressed hard against his temple.
"I suggest you lower your weapon or I will splatter Ranger McLean's brains all over this hallway."
Carlisle nudged the gun harder against his head for emphasis, ignoring Roy's muffled protest of pain, but the FBI agent had taken notice, dropping the barrel to a slightly less intimidating level. Two more agents joined him but they took their cue from the first agent.
"That's better, gentlemen. Now, move aside."
The agents stepped back from the stairs but their eyes remained focused on Carlisle and his henchman as Roy was maneuvered down the flight of stairs, still held in the iron grip of Carlisle's large associate, the gun still pressed against his head. Carlisle drew them to a halt halfway down.
"Here are my demands. You will give me, my employee, and my hostage, safe passage to the marina. You will allow my private yacht to leave the marina unmolested. Once beyond the harbor, no-one... not FBI... Not Harbor Patrol... not even a lifeguard, will come closer than one mile. In return, when we reach international waters, I will release Ranger McLean... unharmed." Carlisle sneered at the FBI agents. "I don't believe you need me to spell out the consequences for Ranger McLean should you disregard my demands."
Roy felt so impotent. He was powerless to stop Carlisle or even to help himself because of the gun held to his head, and because of the strong arms holding him. He could see one of the agents speaking softly into his headset and knew the situation was being relayed to others. After a moment the agents fell back further giving Carlisle room to pass between them and out through the open door to the expensive car lying just beyond. Carlisle pushed Roy into the backseat, following him inside, the gun never wavering from its aim at Roy's head. Reeves climbed into the driver's seat and they were soon in motion, placed snugly within a convoy of FBI vehicles.
Fifteen minutes later Roy spotted signs for a marina and hoped the car would slow down enough to give him the chance of throwing himself to safety. The opportunity came but was lost just as quickly as Carlisle jabbed the gun into the side of Roy's neck.
"Don't be getting any stupid ideas, Roy. I've already disposed of Faulkner and Masters. It'll be no hardship disposing of you too."
The car pulled to a halt and Reeves dragged Roy out slowly while Carlisle followed on behind, the gun still pressed against Roy's temple. Roy knew Carlisle would never let him live despite his assurances to the FBI, and he decided he had to take a chance to save himself. He stepped backward, pulling Reeves off balance, and then he sidestepped quickly, intending to have Reeves fall between him and Carlisle.
Two shots rang out during this moment of confusion, blood and brains splattering over Roy as Reeves was taken out by one sniper, but searing agony blossomed in Roy's back as Carlisle twisted during that split second. Roy found the ground racing towards him as he fell, hearing a third rifle shot echo around the marina.
Unfamiliar faces appeared above him, faces full of concern, barking orders and pressing hard against his back. He couldn't make out the words, his mind numbed by the incredible pain that had taken his breath away in its intensity. The world seemed to narrow around him, tunneling until there was only the shocked faces above him and the sound of his own gasps of agony.
Epilogue: Two months later.
As Roy settled down on the overstuffed couch, he glanced around the interior of the place he called home. There were a few items out of place, but that was to be expected when you had a house guest. His eyes roamed to the spare bed where he could just make out the sleeping form of Jesse. Jesse had become a regular visitor following the death of his father, but he had originally planned to spend only a week of his summer vacation in the Park, the rest would be spend closer to his new home in Seattle.
However, as his only family, Jesse had been informed when Roy had gone missing on Dawson's Peak, and he had come back to the Park immediately. Jesse had even joined one of the many search teams before the FBI had determined that another party was involved in Roy's disappearance.
Roy sighed as he remembered the look in Jesse's eyes as his nephew related how he had overheard the agents talking. They had already decided that Roy was dead, probably buried in a shallow grave somewhere up on the mountain after having stumbled across an illegal bear trapping operation. Instead, Jesse had needed to deal with the fact that the poachers had kidnapped his uncle, and then with the knowledge that Roy had been shot in the back by an FBI marksman during the rescue attempt.
Roy sighed. He hated seeing that haunted look in his nephew's eyes, and he would have done anything to prevent it. As far as he was concerned, Jesse had already suffered too much in his short life. Dealing with the loss of his father was hard enough without Jesse having to cope with the possibility of his uncle having been killed too.
Roy could only be grateful that his captivity had lasted but a few days, and that the gunshot wound had not caused any major damage. However, he knew it would take a lot longer before either of them recovered from this most recent trauma.
He rolled his shoulder, wincing at the dulled pain. The summer recess was almost over and Jesse would be returning to school in a few days but Roy was already dwelling on the loss. Until Jesse had come to live with him he had never realized how lonely he was for human contact, always shying from it before. At first he wondered what would have happened if this had occurred before Jesse had forced his way into his life. Would he have been left here to heal on his own?
There would have been no one to help him dress, no one to run errands or pass him his medication when he awoke in pain during the night.
Roy smiled wryly. Frank would have been alive. Frank would have been here... or Frank would have insisted that Roy packed some belongings and went to live with him and Jesse while he healed.
Roy felt a prickling sensation at the back of his eyes but was unable to hold back a sob as the tears escaped. Frank was dead. He had lost his guardian angel.
It had been over a year since Frank's death but finally, Roy began to grieve for his lost brother.