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King Harbor, California.  Wednesday - 1 PM

 The three members of the Riptide Detective Agency sat in rapt silence while Jessica, Nancy, and Bridget Sanders slowly explained the details of what was most certainly going to be their next case.  The three stunning sisters' story was laced with just enough tragedy and selflessness that the detectives knew they couldn't turn them away, even if it did mean a long trip out of town.

"Look, ladies," Cody said, his voice softened with sympathy.  "We'd be more than happy to take your case.  If you could just provide us with a picture of the man who defrauded your grandmother and the address of his business in Colemesa, we'll head up there tomorrow and see what we can do.  Right, guys?"

"Yeah.  Yeah, sure," Nick agreed, finding it difficult to pull his attention away from Bridget's large tear-dampened green eyes.  "We'd be, uh, happy to help you.  Really."

"You don't need to worry any longer, ladies," Murray added, leaning forward to gently pat Nancy's hand.  "I'm sure we'll be able to bring this— this... scoundrel, to justice.  Taking advantage of a lovely woman like your grandmother, why, it's– it's criminal!"

"Huh, Murray?" Nick said, the thin man stopping long enough to glance at his partner.  "It is criminal."

"Well, of course it is!  I mean the very idea of—"

"Why don't you drop the picture and address off tomorrow," Cody interrupted before Murray was completely wound up and running, "and—"

"We can do better than that," Jessica interrupted the blond, pushing a single tear off her smooth, tanned cheek.  "I have that information right here."  She reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope and handed it to Cody.  "Along with a five hundred dollar retainer.  Will that be enough for you to start?"

Cody opened the envelope and pulled out a picture of a kindly-looking older woman and a younger man seated on a park bench.  A business card and cashier's check also rested in the envelope.  "Yeah, that'll be fine."

"That's the man, and that's the card he gave my poor, sweet grandmother," Jessica said, sniffing softly.  She dabbed her eyes with a damp kleenex.

"Oh, can't you please start today?" Nancy asked, her expression sweetly imploring Murray.

"Oh, yes.  Yes, of course we can.  I'm sure we could leave in just a few hours, right, guys?"

Nick and Cody exchanged half-annoyed glances, but the profuse gratitude expressed by the three women cut short any ideas they might have had about waiting until the morning to leave.

"Sure," Cody finally said, forcing a smile.  "We'll leave today – this afternoon."

"How can we ever thank you?" Jessica asked, leaning forward to kiss the blond lightly on the cheek.

Cody blushed.  "It's— It's no trouble at all."

"We'll get this miscreant," Murray assured, helping Nancy to her feet.  She reached out, resting her hands lightly on Murray's shoulders, then leaned forward and kissed his cheek.  His eyes rounded and he grinned.  "You betcha, we'll get 'im," he sighed.

Nick extended his hand, helping Bridget to stand.  Taking a step forward with his tug, she gave Nick a quick hug.  "We really can't thank you enough," she whispered into his ear.  "But when you get back, we'll try…"  She pressed her hips forward slightly, adding, "…real hard."

Nick cleared his throat and gently pushed her back, the first tingle of doubt racing down his spine.  The large green eyes staring back at him looked sincere, but the buzz in his gut told the detective the woman was trouble.

"We'll, uh, call from Colemesa," Cody assured them, leading the way up the stairs and out the wheelhouse door.

Standing on the deck of the Riptide, the three detectives watched the sisters until they were out of sight.

"Wow," Murray sighed.  "They were nice.  Weren't they nice?"

"Yeah, they were nice," Cody agreed wistfully.

Nick folded his arms across his chest.

"Don't you think they were nice, Nick?" Murray asked, curious at the dark-haired man's lack of response.

He shrugged.  "I don't know.  Something doesn't feel right about their story."

Cody shot his partner a disapproving glance.  "Oh, come on, Nick.  They—"

"It's really not at all uncommon for younger men, con-artists, really – gigolos – to take advantage of older women like dear Mrs. Saunders," Murray interrupted.

"I know that, Murray," Nick defended.  "But I'm telling you, there's something up with those girls."

"Jealous?" Cody teased with a grin.

"No, I'm not jealous," Nick snapped back.  "Look, if we're gonna do this we better get ready."

"I wouldn't want to keep them waiting," Cody said.

"I for one am looking forward to bringing this rogue to justice," Murray proclaimed as he headed back into the wheelhouse.  "Why, the nerve of the man, defrauding a wonderful woman out of her entire life's savings!  For shame!"

"For shame, Nick," Cody echoed with a grin, following after Murray.

With a heavy sigh Nick trailed after the pair, the buzz only growing louder.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Dodd?" Jessica asked into the cellular phone while Bridget drove their silver BMW out of the Pier 56 parking lot.

"Yes?"

"They'll be leaving this afternoon.  It's a red and white Jimmy.  California license plate," she said, giving him the number as well.

"Good work, cupcake.  We'll take care of the rest.  See Thacker tomorrow and pick up your money."

"Ten thousand apiece, right?"

"That's what we agreed to, sweetheart.  But you and your, uh, 'sisters' gotta take a vacation for a few weeks, understand?  Go to Mexico or someplace."

"I hear the Caribbean's nice this time of year," Jessica said with a smile, then disconnected the call.  She smiled.  "Thirty thousand dollars, ladies."

The three women squealed with delight.

"I can't believe they fell for that!" Nancy giggled.  "That Murray guy is sooo gullible!"

"All men are gullible, honey," Bridget said with a predatory grin.  "All it takes is the right story, and the right storyteller."

"I think a long weekend in a beach cottage sounds just heavenly," Jessica said, leaning her head back against the seat and sighing deeply.

"Mmm," Nancy concurred dreamily.  "But we'll absolutely have to do a little shopping first."

"Of course," Jessica said.  "That's the second stop we'll make tomorrow."

"Second?" Nancy asked.

Jessica nodded.  "First we stop and pick up all that money!"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

On the road

Wednesday, 9 PM

 

"How much further to Colemesa?" Cody asked as Murray hunched over the California state map spread out across their restaurant table.

"Well, if the scale's accurate," he reported, double checking the distance with his pocket ruler, "I'd say we have approximately seventy-five miles to go."

"Not too bad," Nick said, fishing his coffee cup out from under the map and finding it empty.

Murray carefully folded the paper back up, smoothing each edge with deliberate care.

"More coffee?" Cody asked when Nick reached for the plastic decanter at the far edge of the table only to find it empty as well.

"I could use it, how 'bout you?"

"Yeah, sounds good," the blond agreed.

Murray nodded.

Cody flagged the waitress, requesting a refill.  The young woman took the carafe, returning a couple minutes later.  "Here you are," she said.  "Want some dessert to go with that?"

"Sounds good, doesn't it?" Murray asked his partners, smiling widely and rubbing his hands together.  He giggled, then glanced at the pie menu.  "I'll have a piece of your banana cream pie…"  He paused, looking up at the young woman.  "You do use real bananas, don't you?"

"Of course," she replied with a smile.  "We get 'em right out of the can.  Can't get any fresher than that."

"Oh," Murray said, mulling the comment over.

"Lemon meringue," Nick said before Murray could launch into an interrogation of the grinning waitress.

"I'll take the coconut cream," Cody finished.

"Be right back," she promised.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

On the road

Wednesday, 10 PM

 

Murray sat in the back seat of the Jimmy and gingerly rubbed his stomach.  "I don't know about you guys," he said, "but that last pot of coffee tasted a little funny and my stomach's getting upset.  Or maybe it was the pie… or the coffee and the pie.  Then again, it could be a virus, or some microbe.  Do you think the bananas could've been an old can?"

"It wasn't the best coffee I've ever had," Nick replied, "but my pie was good.  I feel okay."

"Me, too."

"Maybe it's just me, or it is something else.  Maybe a mild case of stomach flu."

"Is it bad?" Cody asked, turning slightly in the Jimmy's passenger seat to get a better look at their computer expert.  Murray looked fine, if a little tired.

"No, not yet."

"Well, hang in there, we're almost there," the blond said.  "We'll find a hotel and get started on the case in the morning."

Murray nodded, frowning and gingerly palpitating his abdomen.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Outside Colemesa, CA

Wednesday, 11 PM

 

The threesome rode in silence, the dark highway deserted except for the Jimmy.  Nick shrugged his shoulders, then twisted his head side to side in an effort to rouse himself.

"You doing okay?" Cody asked quietly, not wanting to wake Murray.

"Yeah, just getting a little fuzzy around the edges, you know?"

"Want me to drive for a while?"

"Naw, that's okay, the last sign said Colemesa's only twelve miles away.  I can hold out that long.  We should find some hotels pretty soon."

Cody peered out at the dark countryside.  They were nearing the foothills of the Sierras, but on the map Colemesa looked like it was still in the Central Valley.  "Looks like this place is pretty remote."

"Reminds me of a few of the hill communities we ran into around Ft. Polk.  Remember?"

Cody chuckled softly.  "Hard to forget, considering a couple of those good ol' boys took a few shots at us."

Nick grinned.  "You remember that time when—"

A pickup, its headlights off, rumbled out of the darkness, cutting them off and nearly scraping the side of the Jimmy as it passed.  Nick jerked the wheel to the right in order to avoid hitting the truck, the wheels squealing across the pavement before they caught in the loose gravel along the shoulder.

Despite Nick's frantic efforts the Jimmy drifted into a slow revolution, the tires spinning on the loose rocks until they reached a shallow ditch and caught, flipping the truck over once.  The outline of someone flashed by in the beams of the headlights and Nick thought he heard a scream as they hit and everything went black.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Colemesa, California

Thursday, 6 AM

 

A deep stabbing pain attacked Nick's head and side, warring for supremacy as he slowly climbed toward consciousness.  His thoughts were disjointed and confused, but the same images kept flashing through his consciousness:  a pickup roaring through the dark, the wild flip of perspective, dancing colored lights, voices, a young woman's face, hands, a cold barking laugh…

He groaned and forced his eyes open, only to close them again to shut out the glare from a bright overhead light that came on in response to his groan.

Raising a hand to block the light, he tried blinking again.  His vision was blurred, but it wasn't hard to identify his stark surroundings.  "Jail?" he groaned disbelievingly, glancing around the otherwise empty gray cell.

Despite the pain, Nick pushed himself up to a seated position.  "Cody?  Boz?" he called, but the words echoed hollowly and remained unanswered.

He reached up, gingerly touching the left side of his head.  His fingers came away sticky with blood.  "Great, just great," he sighed, leaning back against the cold wall.  His throat began to close and he swallowed several times as his stomach threatened to turn over.  "Not now," he hissed softly to himself.  He glanced around, looking for a sink or a toilet and finding nothing.

He felt terrible, but it looked like there was no help coming for a while.  Closing his eyes, Nick tried to concentrate on his body, wanting to know if there were other injuries, but the constant pounding in his head made it impossible and he quickly gave up.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Cody flexed his fingers and toes, glad to feel them respond.  He wasn't dead.  At least he didn't think he was, not if his fingers and toes were moving.

"Hey, you awake?  You hear me, mister?"

"Yeah, yeah, I hear you," the blond said, forcing his eyes open.  A large gray-haired man in a green uniform started down at him, a slight grin on his lips.  "Where am I?"

"Colemesa City Jail.  You Cody Allen?"

The detective nodded, sitting up to face the man.  "Where are my friends?"

"In their own cells."

"Why are we here?" he asked, confusion adding to the generally fuzzy feeling in his head.  "We were run off the road just outside of town…  Who found us?"

"You say you were run off the road?"

"That's right," Cody replied, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his neck; looked like he was all in one piece, just a little sore where the seatbelt had bruised him.  "A pickup came out of nowhere.  No lights, drivin' like a refugee from Hell.  Nick swerved and we caught the shoulder and rolled."

"We didn't see any signs of another truck.  All we found were your tracks."

"That's impossible," Cody half-growled, rubbing at his bruised and aching shoulder.

"That's the truth.  Looks like you and your friends are in a little bit of trouble."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"An automobile accident is no reason to hold us in jail!" Murray argued with a young deputy, who was obviously enjoying the detective's agitation.  "We should've been taken to a hospital.  I want to see my friends.  Are they hurt?"

"No, they aren't," the deputy snapped, then grinned.  "Well, not too bad, anyway.  When you rolled into that ditch you hit a little girl, Jack.  That's why you're here.  Murder in cold blood."

"What?  That's impossible, deputy.  And my name's Murray.  Murray Bozinsky, deputy…?"  He checked the name badge.  "Gorgan."

"Loretta Grassin was walkin' home from her sister's house.  She was down in the ditch so she wouldn't be up on the road, just like her daddy told her.  You hit her all right.  Killed her dead."

The blood drained out of Murray's face, leaving him as gray as the cell walls.  "That's— That's terrible.  But Nick didn't mean to hit anyone, that driver—"

"She was fourteen years old.  Pretty as a picture, too."

"Nick couldn't have seen her.  I mean he'd never—"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"There was nothing else I could do!" Nick yelled at the leering deputy, anger, pain, and frustration evaporating what little patience he had left.  "A car— a truck forced me off the road.  Look, I think it was a truck.  I can't remember!"

He stopped, rubbing at his aching head.  "I— I…  I know there was some kind of truck, or something.  I don't think they had their lights on.  I swerved.  I didn't have time to look and see who or what was in that ditch.  I don't remember seeing her.  You think I wanted to roll the Jimmy?  I couldn't see that girl, and I couldn't stop the truck!"

Nick sucked in several deep breaths, trying to force the dizziness away and settle his stomach.  Was that what happened? he wondered.  It was hard to remember the details, but there was a truck.  A truck without lights…

"Well, Mr. Ryder, I might believe you and your partners were tired.  I might even believe you fell asleep at the wheel.  I mean, Bozinsky admits he was asleep for most of what happened."

"Yeah.  Yeah, I think he was.  But I wasn't.  Cody and I were talking, I remember that.  We were talking when that pickup came up on my— my… left!  It came up on my left and nearly hit us.  I had to swerve.  The tires caught in the gravel, then the ditch… and we rolled.  That's it.  End of story."

His stomach threatened to rebel again and Nick leaned back, breathing deeply through his nose and willing it to settle.  No way was he barfing in front of the glowering deputy.

"One more question, Mr. Ryder."

"What?" Nick snapped, his eyes dropping closed as his vision began to blur again.

"How do you explain the fact that all three of you had cocaine in the blood samples that we took?"

The blue eyes popped open, his gaze immediately going to the crooks of his elbows.  "What?  There's—"

"And," the deputy snapped.  "How do you explain the pound of uncut coke we found in your truck?"

"A pound of cocaine?  Look, there's a mistake happening here, friend," Nick growled, wishing the throbbing in his head and side would go away long enough to let him think through this new turn of events.  "My friends and me, we don't do drugs."

"Yeah, there's a mistake all right, Ryder, and you and friends made it.  We don't tolerate junkies and drug pushers around here, especially junkies and pushers who kill little girls!"

"I didn't kill anybody!" Nick argued.  "And we don't do drugs!  How many times do I have to say it?  I wanna know, are my friends all right?  Were they hurt?"

"They're fine.  We'll be moving the three of you to the Colemesa Penal Farm later this morning."

"A work farm?" Nick asked, then snorted and shook his head, instantly regretting the movement.  "Guess you guys never heard of due process or a trial, right?  Innocent until proven guilty?"

"You watch your mouth, boy," the deputy snapped, stepping up to grab the front of Nick's T-shirt and giving him a shake.

The sharp motion sent shards of fiery agony through Nick's head and chest and he brought his hands up to fend off another attack, moaning softly.

The deputy released him and took a step back, his hand coming up to rest on the butt of his revolver.  "You'll get your damned trial soon enough, Ryder.  In the meantime, we don't post bail for drug dealers, or murderers."

"Wait a minute!" Cody yelled, climbing to his feet.  "We have the right to make a phone call and have a lawyer appointed to us."

"I see you watch TV," the gray-haired deputy said.  "But we don't do things here in Colemesa county like they do on TV.  You'll go to the Farm until your trial.  We'll make sure you have a lawyer.  The judge'll be back from his fishin' trip in a week or two."

"A week or two?  This is completely illegal!"

"Once you're convicted you'll be sent back to the Farm to serve out your sentences."

"I don't believe this!" Cody snapped.

"Well, you better believe it, son.  You screw up and you'll never leave this county."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"People 'round here are real fond of their own, and little Loretta was a real favorite, so you're going to be here a while, puke."

"You won't get away with this," Murray said.  "We have friends who'll be looking for us—"

"Let 'em look," the young deputy smirked.  "They won't find a thing."

"Look, I want to see my friends.  I want to make sure they're all right," Murray stated firmly.

The deputy chuckled and shook his head.  "You're real mouthy for a geek," he said.  "You'll see 'em, four eyes.  When we take y'all to the Farm."

Murray watched the deputy leave, locking the door behind him, then dropped onto the cement bench that served as chair and bunk.  He shook his head.  This is wrong.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Thursday, 10 AM

 

The three detectives were herded across an almost empty parking lot toward a small school bus that had been painted lime green.  Chicken wire covered the windows and large black letters spelled out:  Colemesa Penal Farm.  The chains that linked their feet together made it necessary for the three detectives to shuffle along, single file.  Another length of chain ran up from between their feet to handcuffs attached to leather belts, securing their hands near their laps.  Relief at finding the others relatively healthy was evident on each of their faces.

When they reached the bus, the older gray-haired deputy unlocked the chain securing their feet and tugged it free while the younger deputy stood guard, a shotgun leveled on them in case they tried to bolt.  The chain pulled free, and they were waved into the bus.

They took seats in silence, another deputy locking a mesh door to confine them before leaving to gas the bus.

"We've been set up," Cody said softly.

"And it's a good job," Nick agreed, panting slightly as he sank back against the seat and closed his eyes.

"You okay?" Cody asked.

Nick shrugged.  "No one knows where we are."

"That's my fault," Murray moaned.  "If I hadn't been in such a hurry to help Nancy—"

"It's no one's fault, Murray," Cody interrupted.

Nick leaned forward slightly as another wave of dizziness swept over him.  He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed, silently commanding his stomach to stop climbing up his throat.  "We were all too quick to help those girls…  I knew something was wrong…  Joanna'll start looking for us when Dooley calls her."

"The question is, will Dooley call," Cody sighed.

"I told him we'd be back in two or three days, or we'd call…  I figure he'll start worrying in five," Nick said.

"I hope you're right," Cody told his partner, watching Nick rub at his temples and noticing the dried blood for the first time.  "I've got a bad feeling.  This is like something out of a really bad movie."

Nick shifted, grimacing as he did.

"Nick, are you okay?" Cody asked again.

Nick nodded, opening his eyes.  "Think I might've bruised some ribs.  And my head's killing me."  He looked around the bus.  "Where are we?"

Cody frowned, but answered, "Colemesa, Nick.  We were arrested, remember?"

"This is wrong," Murray said, shaking his head.  "Nick should've been taken to see a doctor.  This is just wrong.  It's illegal, immoral, and—"

"Shut!  Up!"

The three men looked up to find a large red-haired man standing at the front of the bus.  He held a thick nightstick in one hand, pointing it at them.  "There'll be no talkin', unless you're directly spoken to.  Understood?"

They nodded.

The man opened the mesh door and sat, stretching out along the first seat and turning slightly so he could watch the detectives.  The deputy who had gassed the bus returned, sliding into the driver's seat.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Colemesa Penal Farm

Thursday, near noon

 

"They should be here any time now," Warden Conners told his guests as he smoothed down the few strands of hair that traversed his otherwise bald head from temple to temple.  The pair made him nervous.  Conners was a vindictive, vicious man, but he prided himself on being straightforward.  These two were much more subtle and that set him on edge.

One of the men nodded, a self-satisfied smile spreading over his handsome face.  Turning to his companion, he chuckled.  "So, Matthew, what do you have in mind for my entertainment?"

"From our conversations on the phone it's my understanding that you want these men destroyed.  Correct?"

"Yes, but I want to see them suffer in the process.  It can't be fast.  They're responsible for my brother's death and I want to see them pay, and pay dearly."[1]

"The mind is a wonderful instrument, Mr. Balmer.  And I am a master conductor.  Are the rest of the files I requested here?"

The warden nodded toward a small building marked:  Warden Conners.  "They're in my office."

"Good."  He turned back to his employer.  "I'll need a day to read them over and come up with something you'll enjoy.  In the meantime, Warden, see to it that they're placed in isolation cells.  No solid food for a day."

Conners nodded and walked off, glad to escape the pair.

"I'm going to drive back into town.  Would you like to meet later for dinner?" Balmer asked.

The psychiatrist nodded.  "Just let me pick up the files."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Thursday, noon

 

The bus passed by the Colemesa Penal Farm's main gate, a set of double chain-link rolling partitions topped with razor-wire.  Two men stood guard at the gate, each holding a rifle.  At the four corners of the large compound towers stood fifteen feet high, each with two more armed men keeping watch.  Three large Quonset-style buildings dominated the center of the enclosure, labeled: A, B and C.  Next to the C building sat three smaller wooden structures stenciled on the outside: Warden, Infirmary, and Mess Hall.  At one edge of the compound sat a large three-story Victorian house complete with wide lawn, trees, white picket fence, gazebo and several outbuildings.  Several smaller houses sat on either side of the Victorian.

Two more lime green buses sat parked behind the Mess Hall.  Next to building A were three other small buildings, but the angle made it impossible to see what they were.  Beyond the chain-link fences were acres of cultivated fields.  Cody made a quick count, finding twenty men dressed in pale-blue overalls working in the fields while five guards watched them.

"Get up," the redhead snarled.

Cody and Murray complied, Nick moving a little slower than his partners, favoring his ribs and fighting lightheadedness.  The deputy immediately stepped forward, shoving Murray out of the way and reaching out to grab Nick's shirt, jerking him the rest of the way to his feet.

Nick grabbed for the back of the seat in front of him, the world suddenly spinning out of control.  His legs went weak and he leaned over the back of the seat to help support his weight.

"Hey!" Cody barked, taking a step toward his friend.

The deputy smoothly slid his billy-club out of its ring and shoved the tip under Cody's chin.  "Back off, pal," he hissed.

"Look, officer, he's hurt," Murray tried.  "He—"

"Hurt?" the man interrupted.  "Well, ain't that just too damn bad."  Using the club to keep Cody at arm's length, he jerked Nick out from behind the seat and into the center of the bus.  "I said let's go."

Using the back of the seats to guide and support him, Nick made his way to the front of the bus before everything whirled again and he swayed on his feet.

"What's the matter?" the second deputy asked, a taunting smirk on his face.  "The junkie-kid-killer a coward?  Afraid of doin' a little hard time?"

Nick tried to focus on what the man was saying, but his words made no sense.  He didn't do drugs.  He hadn't killed anybody.  Why was he in jail?  Nothing made sense.  He tried to put it together, but the soft buzz that filled his head escalated into an overpowering roar, sweeping all the fragmented thoughts away in a surge of pure agony.  He tried to raise his hands to his ears, but the cuffs stopped him far short.

"Come on, get out," the second man ordered them.

Cody's hands pressed gently against the middle of Nick's back and the dark-haired detective whimpered once, then staggered half-blind down the bus steps, feet landing in the dusty earth.  With no breeze, it was hot at the Central Valley work farm and he squinted against the glare that seemed to be lancing straight through his eyes and into his head, adding to the building agony.  He sensed more than heard Cody and Murray step down behind him.

"Move," Red commanded, gesturing toward the building labeled:  Warden Conners.

Cody stepped up beside Nick.  "You okay, buddy?"

Nick tried to nod, but the slightest movement made the pain unbearable.  "Think so," he said thickly.  "M'head hurts – bad."

Red gave Murray a shove that nearly knocked the slender man off his feet, but he pulled himself up and started forward, leading the way.  Nick ground his teeth together and forced himself to take a step, then another, managing several before his stomach finally rebelled at the pain.  He stumbled and fell to his knees, heaving bile into the dust.

Cody knelt, reaching out to help his friend the best he could.  "Easy, Nick," he soothed.  "Come on, maybe we can get you some help."

Forcing himself to straighten, Nick stood soundlessly.  With Cody's help he shuffled painfully after Murray.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The warden studied the three men carefully, wondering what they'd done to deserve what was coming.  Not that it really mattered; he was being paid well enough not to think too much.

"Gentlemen, Colemesa Penal Farm might not look like much, but let me assure you that this facility is run tight.  We do not tolerate any insurrection.  You follow orders and stay out of trouble and you'll find that the time will pass a whole lot more pleasantly," he said, delivering his well-memorized speech for new inmates.

"Sir…" Cody said, glancing at the name plate on the building.  "…Warden Conners, my friend's hurt.  He needs to see a doctor."

Conners' eyes narrowed as he looked at Ryder.  The man's gray complexion, hunched shoulders, and wheezing breath suggested that Allen was telling the truth. "What's wrong with him?"

"I think it might be a concussion," Murray volunteered.  "And he has the right to be seen by a physician."

Conners grunted.  It wouldn't do to have Balmer's fun interrupted, for any reason.  Glancing past the three detectives to the guards, he said, "Tork, take him over and have the doc look at him.  Red, put these other two in isolation."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Red escorted Cody and Murray to one of the smaller mystery buildings near Building A.  Stepping inside the small structure, they were struck by stale, hot air.  The deputy gestured Cody into one tiny cell and Murray to another so that there was one empty cell between them.

Another guard entered, tossing a pair of light blue overalls into each cell.  "Put 'em on," he growled.  "Shove everything out through the window.  Hold anything back and you'll be breakin' rocks."

Red slammed the solid metal doors shut, sealing both men into a silent, oppressive darkness.  The guard opened small six-inch by six-inch windows at eye-level in the doors, then left.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Nick stumbled into the dark, cool building and slumped down into one of the two plastic chairs in the small, stark waiting room.  He clutched the chair arms, squeezing them as his throat tightened again.  His left arm trembled and he tried to bear down on his grip, but the muscles refused to obey, his hand slipping off the plastic.

"Hey, Doc!" the deputy called.

A young woman entered from another room.  "What is it, Tork?" she asked, her gaze flickering from the leering guard to Nick and back.

"Says he's hurt.  Take a look.  We'll be back for 'im later."  With that the deputy turned and left.

The doctor crossed to Nick.  "Do you think you can make it back here so I can take a look?" she asked, helping Nick to stand.

"I think so," he said thickly.  "Feel… sick."

"Okay, easy."  She slipped an arm around his waist and guided him as he shuffled into a treatment room.

Nick climbed carefully onto the examination table and sat, glancing around the room.  The infirmary wasn't exactly state of the art; in fact, it looked more like a kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator.  But there was other medical equipment scattered around.  Glancing through the door to the small waiting area, Nick realized that there were bars on the only windows and multiple locks on the door.

"What's wrong?" the woman asked, stepping up to him with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope.

"Our truck rolled over," he said through gritted teeth as she helped him lie down on the table.  "Pounded my ribs… got a headache that won't quit…  Dizzy…  Stomach's tryin' t' escape up my throat."

"Okay, just relax and I'll have a look," she assured, raising the head of the examination table to ease his nausea.  She retrieved a small rolling table and placed a silver kidney-shaped basin on it.  "If you get queasy--"

"Thanks, Doc."

He watched as she took his blood pressure, checked his pulse and respiration, then lifted his shirt and checked his ribs.  She wasn't exactly pretty, but there was something captivating about her appearance.  Her light reddish-brown hair was cut boyishly short, and she had pale jade-green eyes set above high, prominent tanned cheekbones.  Her angular eyes were almost too big, giving her a startled-doe kind of look.  Too-large pale-blue coveralls hid her figure, but her touch was light, efficient, and caring.

She paused to make notes on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard, then said, "It looks like you have a couple of bruised ribs, although they might be fractured.  There's definite tenderness and swelling of the overlaying tissue.  Does it hurt when you breathe?"

He nodded.  "Some."

"I'm going to take an X-ray, just to be sure."

Nick lay still as she rolled the portable machine over, set up the film and took the x-ray.  Finished, she pushed the machine back to its corner, saying, "I don't want to bind your ribs if I can help it.  It makes you breathe shallowly and that can lead to pneumonia.  I know it'll hurt, but the best thing you can do is take several deep breaths while you're pressing against the injured ribs.  Do it three or four times a day for several minutes."

"Okay," he agreed.  "My name's Nick.  Nick Ryder."

"Megan MacKenzies," she supplied blandly.

"Work here long?" he asked as she used a penlight to check his pupils.

"No."

"Guess it's against the rules to talk to the doctor, huh?"

She paused, meeting his gaze and he could see her trying to decide how much to trust him.  "Mr. Ryder, I'm a prisoner here, just like you.  After a while you'll learn that it's better not to get involved with the other inmates."

She walked away, gathering several items onto a tray that she carried back and set on the wheeled table.  "It looks like you might have a concussion, too," she said, cleaning the laceration along the side of his head.  "Still dizzy?"

"Comes and goes."

"Blurred vision?"

"Yeah, a little sometimes."

"Nausea?"

"Yes," he said emphatically.

"Do you remember the accident?"

"Sort of.  I mean, it's… fuzzy – like a dream.  I remember bits and pieces, but I'm not sure if it's what really happened."

She nodded.  "That's not unusual.  You need to rest for a day or two, long enough to make sure there's no bleeding or swelling between the skull and the brain.  I'll speak to Warden Conners.  I have one treatment bed here."

She walked over and retrieved the developed x-ray.  Sliding it under a metal clip, she turned on the backlight to illuminate it.  "Looks like you're lucky.  No fractures.  Just bad bruises."

"Guess that's something."

"Around here it's more than something.  Do yourself a big favor, Mr. Ryder.  Don't draw attention to yourself and don't piss off the guards.  They're sadistic brutes who enjoy inflicting pain.  You're not up to that.  Not yet."

As the room titled slightly, Nick grabbed for the edges of the exam table and snorted.  "Guess I'm not."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Red stalked into the infirmary an hour later.  "Hey, Doc, where's Ryder?"

"In here," Megan called from the treatment room.

The deputy tramped in, scowling.  "All right, Ryder, let's go."

"Go?" she echoed, stepping up to the side of the treatment table.  "But he can't leave – not yet."

Red shook his head.  "My orders say different," he growled at her.  "Come on."  He threw a pair of pale-blue overalls at Nick, the detective catching them with a fumbling gesture.  "Get 'em on and let's go."

"Look," she tried again.  "He has a concussion.  He needs to rest for—"

"Take it up with the warden," Red snapped, the hard edge to his voice forcing her to take a step back.

"Fine," she breathed.

Sitting up, Nick watched Megan leave the room.  Despite her claims about not getting involved, she still had a professional ethic, if not an ability to care.  Sliding to the floor, Nick stepped out of his clothes as quickly as he could, and pulled on the overalls.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dressed, he started for the door.  The guard gave him a shove as he passed and Nick stumbled outside the landscape tilting dangerously.  Grabbed Nick's arm, Red escorted the detective to the outbuildings, pushing him into the empty cell between Cody and Murray.

Red slammed the metal door shut and Nick flinched as the sound echoed in the small space.  In the cool darkness, he sank down to the cement floor and drew his knees up, resting his forehead on them.  His skull pounded, his chest burned, his shoulder and hip were starting to ache, and he wanted to throw up.  "Great," he muttered aloud.  "Just great."

Lifting his head he looked around, but the darkness made it impossible to make out anything.  I should've listened, he chastised himself.  I really should've listened to my gut…  Where the hell are Cody and Murray?

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Colemesa, CA

Thursday, 6 PM

 

Michael Balmer and Dr. Matthew Carver sat at a corner table, enjoying their dinner at Colemesa's nicest restaurant.  Around them, the restaurant buzzed with customers.

Carver savored another bite of his roast beef, then took a sip of the strong coffee.  "I've skimmed the files, and Warden Conners called.  It seems that Ryder is hurt.  The doctor thinks he might have a concussion.  This is going to be much easier than I anticipated."

"What do you have in mind?" Balmer asked, finishing off his meal and pushing the plate back.

"Ryder's the weakest link.  We'll use his death to break the other two."

"How?" Balmer demanded, leaning over the table slightly, his dark eyes flashing.  "I want details, Carver.  Those pukes are responsible for my brother's death.  I want to hear exactly how they're going to suffer."

Carver chewed another bite, nodding.  "Fine, fine.  We start by having the guards focus on Ryder, wear him down.  He's already hurting, so it'll be more obvious and heighten the protectiveness in the other two.  If Allen and Bozinsky try to interfere – Ryder pays.  They'll back off and Ryder will feel abandoned.  Once we create a wedge between them…"

Balmer nodded.  "I like the sound of this."

Carver smiled.  "I thought you might."  He sipped at his coffee again.  "But this is contingent on Ryder being up to anything long term.  If not, Allen and Bozinsky will watch him die rather quickly and then we'll start on them. . ."  He paused, regarding Balmer momentarily before continuing.  "If you don't mind me asking, exactly what was the relationship between these men and your brother?"  Noting the dark look that crossed Balmer's face, he added hastily, "It might help me in preparing their… treatment."

Balmer drew a deep breath and nodded.  "You understand that my brother was involved in, uh, questionable, activities, shall we say?"

Carver nodded.

"One of the men working for my brother was a friend of these three bastards. I don't know if it was their idea, or if their friend decided on his own to get out of the business, but when he did he cost my brother a lot of money.  Naturally, he sought compensation.  Then these assholes set my brother up and in the process he was killed.  It's taken me eighteen months to get the business back on its feet and get my sister-in-law squared away.  Now it's payback time."

"Yes, it's as they say," Carver said.

"Yeah, payback's a bitch," Balmer chuckled.

Carver's eyebrows rose slightly.  "Actually I was thinking of the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold."

Balmer shook his head.  "You have it your way, I'll have it mine.  Besides, just thinking about these guys still makes my blood boil."

"Well, then, I'll go make a call," Carver said.  "We might as well get the ball rolling."

Balmer nodded, a heinous grin curling his lips.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Thursday, 7 PM

 

Nick jumped when his cell door creaked open.  He looked up, squinting against the raw glow from the bare light-bulb that hung in the room outside.

"Let's go, Ryder."

Nick stood, wondering if he was being taken to eat.  Despite his surly stomach he was hungry.  As he stepped out of the cell he realized that he hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours.  A nice milkshake sounds good, he thought as he was grabbed by the arm and shoved outside.

Red led him across the dusty compound to what looked like a small outhouse. Several other inmates passed by, their heads down and their eyes averted.

"Inside," the guard snapped.

Nick reached for the handle, but Red stepped in front of him, forcing Nick to stop.

Ryder sighed heavily, in no mood to play games with the man.  "Yeah?"

Red grinned.  "Nice friends you got," he chuckled.

"Who?" he asked.

"Allen and Boz-weird-sky."

Nick's eyes narrowed.

"They traded you, pigeon."

"Look, I don't know what you're trying to—"

"They traded you.  It was you or them out here for the night.  They said you.  Guess we'll get to do whatever we want with you, pussy, and they'll get it easy.  That's the way it works in here.  Them on top gets it easy… provided they've got something to trade.  Your friends traded you."

"I don't believe you," Nick hissed.

Red shrugged.  "Believe whatever you want," he said.  "You'll see."  He shoved Nick into the small metal box and padlocked the door shut.

Inside Nick examined his new lodgings.  He guessed that the shed was about three feet by three feet – cramped by any definition.  The walls were corrugated metal sheeting that would absorb the heat during the day and the cold at night.  An A-shaped frame at the top of the structure was also covered in the same metal, but a foot high opening about eight feet up allowed air to circulate through the enclosed space.  A man wouldn't suffocate inside, but he might wish he would.

Leaning back against a still-warm wall, he slid down slowly to the concrete slab that served as a floor, trying to minimize the jarring to his head.  He couldn't stretch out his legs, but he could rest, and he knew he needed rest.  His head continued to pound, his ribs still ached, and his stomach seemed to be in a permanent state of revolt.  Resting his head in the corner, Nick licked his thick lips and wished for a cold glass of water.  A moment later, dry heaves forced him over to his hands and knees.

It was going to be a very long night.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Friday, 8 AM

 

Cody squinted against the bright morning sunlight and watched as Murray was pulled out of his isolation cell.  Together they were led to the Mess Hall for breakfast, then herded outside to stand with the rest of the prisoners who were also filing out of the Mess Hall and barracks.  He sighed.  Barracks… there was a vague echo to his boot-camp days in Officers Training School.  At least there he'd known the drill instructors were there to teach him how to stay alive in Vietnam.  He wasn't so sure about these guys.  This is more like being a P.O.W.

He glanced around.  Where's Nick? he wondered.  Why haven't they brought him out, too?  Maybe his injuries were worse than I thought.  Maybe the doctor kept him in the infirmary.  That would be a best case scenario at this point.

The men silently lined up while another guard stalked out from the Mess Hall. Tall, with almost snow-white hair, the man radiated a coldness that made Cody shiver.  "Line up!" he commanded from a foot in front of Allen's nose.

Cody did what he was told.

"Now!" the man barked to the rest of the men, moving to pace along the line of inmates.  "We ain't got all day, ladies!"

Cody kept his eyes focused straight ahead, hoping Murray would do likewise.  Despite his slight stature, Murray Bozinsky wasn't one to keep his mouth shut if he saw injustice in the world, and here that kind of backtalk might just get him killed.

He blinked, sweat already running down his temples.  It was going to be another hot day.

The rest of the inmates fell into formation, their continuing silence eerie.  Several guards kept watch over them, prowling the lines, shotguns in hand.  Still no sign of Nick.

Cody sucked in a deep breath, knowing he was about to tempt fate, but said, "Excuse me, sir, but where's my friend?  Nick Ry—"

The tall white-haired man whipped his billy-club from the ring on his belt, driving one end into Cody's midsection.  The detective doubled over, clutching his abdomen and sucking in gulps of air.

"No talking," Ice said flatly.

Red walked down the line, stopping when he reached Murray.  He grabbed the sleeve of the man's overalls, yanked him out of line, then led him away.

"Hey!" Murray yelped, but one threatening glare from the burly man silenced any further comments.

Forcing himself to straighten, Cody watched Red escort Murray across the compound to the infirmary.  Maybe he'll see Nick, he thought, but that notion died when a wiry blond guard walked over to one of the sweat boxes, pounding on it with his billy-club for several seconds.  Then, grinning, he unlocked the box and reached inside, dragging Nick out.

Cody almost took a step forward when his friend crawled out and promptly threw up in the dirt.  The guards laughed, and Blondie reached down, jerking Nick to his feet.

One arm snugged close to his ribs, Nick shuffled over to stand in line.

"Okay, listen up, ladies," one of the guards barked.  "Allen, Green, Vickers, you're on clean-up.  McBride, Price, Ryder, Wilson – the rock pile.  The rest of you in the fields."

The announcement hit Cody like a second blow from Ice's billy-club.  Are you crazy?  Nick's hurt!  Can't you see that?

He watched his partner step out of line with the other three men.  Nick looked terrible, his face drawn, skin sallow.  Dark circles clung under his eyes and pain radiated from his hunched shoulders and compressed lips.  Red gave the man a rough shove and Nick stumbled forward, not even bothering to glare at the guard.

Ice gave Cody a nudge.  "Come on," he said, jerking his head to the side.  He and the two other men followed the guard away.

Risking a quick glance over his shoulder, he managed to catch Nick's gaze and they exchanged furtive nods.  Damn, Cody thought.  What're we going to do?  He sighed heavily.  At the moment there was nothing they could do.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Murray was shoved into the coolness of the infirmary.  He found it hard to believe that it was already getting hot outside, and it wasn't even mid-morning.  He blinked to let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside the building, then looked around.

"What am I supposed to do here?" he asked the young guard who had escorted him.

"Whatever the doc tells you, pigeon."

"I'll take over, Craig."

Murray turned, surprised to find a young woman standing in a doorway, her hands on her hips.

"Okay, Doc, but you keep him in here.  Understand?"

"I understand," she said simply, nodding toward the door.

Craig turned and left the two alone.

The doctor moved to the window, watching to be sure the guard had actually left before turning to face Murray.  "Whatever you do, don't get Craig mad at you.  He might look like a teenager, but the man's a sadist.  He likes to hurt people.  If you give him an excuse, he'll hurt you, bad."

Murray nodded.  "Thank you."

She nodded.  "Come on back here, I'll show you what to do."

He followed her into the treatment room.  "Did you see my friend yesterday?  Nick.  Nick Ryder?"

"I saw him," she said, pulling out a metal bucket, gloves, and a scrub brush from under the sink.

"Is he all right?"

Twisting the faucet, she let the bucket fill with hot water.  "No."

Murray moved closer, glancing nervously around the room.  Were they being watched?  Listened to?  "Uh, what's wrong with him?  Is it a concussion?  Will he be all right?"

She turned the water off and lifted the bucket out, carrying it over to the stripped treatment table.  Walking over to a cabinet, she removed a bottle of disinfectant and returned to the bucket, pouring in a cup full.  She replaced the disinfectant in the cabinet.

"Doctor?"

"Concussion," she said.  "Bruised ribs."

"Why isn't he here?  A concussion—"

"Look, Mister…?"

"Bozinsky.  Murray Bozinsky."

"Mr. Bozinsky—"

"Please, call me Murray," he interrupted.

She sighed.  "Murray.  I'm a doctor, but I don't work here.  I'm a prisoner, just like you.  I do what they tell me.  They told me to examine your friend.  I did.  What they do to him, or why, isn't my business.  And if you're smart, you won't make it yours either."

"But he's my friend.  My—"

"Scrub this table down – every inch.  I have to get my paperwork caught up."

She turned and started for her small office, Murray scrambling to block her path.  "Wait, Doctor, please, if he's hurt—"

"Murray, there's nothing we can do," she insisted, her voice dropping.  "The best thing you can do to help your friend is to do what you're told and stay alive."  With that she brushed past the thin man and escaped into her doorless office.  "Call me when you're done," she instructed, then sat down at her desk.

Murray turned back to the table and bucket, but found himself wandering back to the tiny waiting area.  He stared outside.  Nick stood near the far end of the line, his shoulders pinched and his head down.  He was obviously hurting and Murray wished he could do something.  Cody stood in line at the opposite end of the line, looking healthy, but concerned.  The computer expert watched as the men were herded off in three different directions, then turned back to the treatment room and the waiting task.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Friday, 11:30 AM

 

Nick concentrated on the job at hand, carrying cantaloupe-sized rocks from the bed where two of the inmates broke them up to waiting wheelbarrows.  The fourth man carted the full wheelbarrows from the site to the men conducting clean-up of the grounds so they could use the rocks to line flower and garden beds at the Warden's home, walkways, and rings around the various trees scattered across the facility grounds.

Each trip was an ordeal for Nick.  His arms were weak and shaky, forcing him to cradle each stone against his chest as he staggered from the rock pile to the wheelbarrow.  As the morning wore on the trip grew harder and harder as muscle cramps in his arms, back and legs made each step an agonizing trial.  When the pain grew too severe his stomach rebelled and he stopped to throw up.  When that happened, guards quickly descended upon him, pushing him, slapping him, forcing him onto his feet and back to work.  White and yellow spots exploded in front of his eyes, but he didn't pass out.

After a few hours the clean-up detail shifted and Nick could see Cody as he worked to whitewash the picket fence that edged the Warden's front lawn.  Not for the first time he wished he was there, helping his partner.  We really got ourselves into a fix this time, he said silently to Cody.  I just hope we can find a way out – soon.

Nick dropped another rock into the wheelbarrow and wiped the back of a shaking hand across his forehead.  His head throbbed painfully and he realized that he was flinching slightly with every heartbeat that pounded pain through his head.  He tried to draw a deep breath, but his ribs burned with an insistent fire that flared agonizingly each time he bent down to heft another rock.  I'm in damn poor shape, he chided himself.

He guessed he'd been working for less than four hours, but it was already gruelingly hot.  It was hard to imagine what it would be like in the afternoon when the heat would be at its peak.  At noon they'd been promised water, and that thought motivated him forward.  Licking his dry, cracked lips, Nick forced the thought away, concentrating on the seventeen steps that carried him from the wheelbarrow back to the rock pile.

He stumbled as his calves cramped again and a guard was there, giving him a shove with the butt of his shotgun.  "Move it, pigeon," the man snarled.

Nick ground his teeth together and forced himself to take the remaining three steps to the rock pile.  Bending, he grabbed another stone and tried to straighten, but his muscles refused, beginning to tremble uncontrollably.  He dropped to his knees, the cramps twisting his leg muscles into small painful knots.  He released the stone, grabbing at his legs, groaning.

The guard roughly shoved his shoulder.  "Get up, pussy," he growled.

Nick tried, but his legs refused to move.  Oh, man, he thought.  They're gonna kill me…

The guard grabbed Nick's overalls, screaming, "I said, get up!  Get up!  Get up!"

Nick nodded, forcing himself onto his hands and knees.

"Get up!  Now!" the guard screamed, slamming the butt of his shotgun into Nick's shoulder.

The detective blinked, his vision blurring.  Where am I?  What the hell's going on?

The guard grabbed Nick's overalls again, pulling him up.  This time, Nick managed to regain his feet, but swayed dangerously as he tried to meet the guard's gaze.  Sweat poured off his forehead, nearly blinding him.

"Get movin'!" the guard snarled, using the butt of his shotgun to push Nick forward.

He shuffled closer to the rocks, panting shallowly.  He bent over and grabbed the next rock, snugging it close to his chest while his arms shook uncontrollably.

"Move, damn it!"

Nick turned and tried to focus on the wheelbarrow.  Seventeen steps.  Just seventeen steps.  Seventeen.  One… two… three… four… five…

Nick pitched forward, collapsing.

Cody worked steadily on the three-foot tall picket fence, his brush moving mechanically up and down while he stole as many glances in Nick's direction as he dared from under the brim of the pale-blue baseball caps he and his fellow prisoners had been given to protect them from the sun.  Once he was finished with the front of the fence it would be easier to keep a concerned watch on his partner.

He knew Nick was struggling with the heavy stones he had to carry to the waiting wheelbarrows.  Several times he'd seen the man stumble and once he fell.  Two of the guards responded, yanking Nick to his feet, slapping him.  He doubled over, heaving and almost collapsing again.  Cody finished the last few swipes with his brush, his jaws tightening against the memory.

He picked up his paint bucket and walked around to the inside of the fence.  Kneeling on the well-manicured green grass, he dipped the brush and started to work, keeping watch on Nick.

God, Nick, you look like hell, he thought, grinding his teeth.  I have to do something…  Why the hell weren't they given caps?  This sun is brutal.

He glanced at the two guards who watched over him and the other two workers.  The shotguns they carried ensured complete cooperation.  An angry scream from across the yard drew his attention and Cody saw the guard strike Nick with the butt of his gun.  He scrambled to his feet, fists curling into two tight balls.  The baby-faced guard yelled at Nick, shaking and finally violently dragging the detective to his feet.

"Whoa there," Ice said, moving to stop Cody from bolting to join his friend.

Cody trembled with indecision.  He knew the man wouldn't hesitate to shoot him.  Looking back at Nick, he watched his best friend struggle to the rock pile and heft another stone.  Five steps later he was lying face down in the dust.

"Back to work," Ice hissed.

Cody ground his teeth to keep from saying anything that might get himself killed and watched two guards drag Nick across the compound and into the infirmary.

Damn it, Nick, you'd better be all right, Cody thought, squatting back down and picking up his paintbrush again.  We've got to get the hell out of here…

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Nick?" Murray yelped, bolting out of the chair he'd been occupying for the past ten minutes while Dr. MacKenzie carried in several bottles of chemicals from cabinets in her office.  When she was done he would mix solutions for her.  He reached the door just in time to open it and allow the guards in.

Craig lowered his shotgun, gesturing for the thin computer expert to move back.  Murray scrambled away, calling, "Doctor!  Hurry!"

Megan rushed into the waiting room, wiping her hands on the stained lab coat she wore.  She looked from Nick and the guards to Murray and back again.  "In here," she instructed, turning and leading the way back into the examination room.

The guards dragged Nick in, Craig standing to one side while his companion hefted Nick onto the table.

"I'll take it from here," Megan said, reaching for her stethoscope.

"Come on, pigeon," Craig said, grabbing Murray's arm.  "The rock pile's short one."

"No," Megan snapped.  "He's mine.  I'll need him."  She looked up, meeting Craig's hard-edged gaze.

"I said I need 'im."

Normally she would have backed down, knowing full well what the young man was capable of, but this time she couldn't – not and still call herself a doctor.  "I said I need him.  This man could die," she hissed.

The muscles in Craig's jaw twitched while he made his decision.  He knew Conners wanted the three men kept alive, even if they did have the okay to give Ryder a hard time.  He shoved Murray toward the table, forcing Megan to catch him. "Fine.  He's yours," the man growled.  "But it's gonna cost ya, Doc."

She squeezed her teeth together to keep from saying something she knew she'd later regret.

Craig motioned to the other guard and the pair left.

Megan turned to Murray, instructing, "Mix up a quarter teaspoon of salt in a liter of tepid water."

Murray looked from Nick to the doctor, then nodded, moving to the sink counter.  "What's wrong?  Is it the concussion?"

"I'm not sure.  I think it might be a mild form of heat exhaustion exacerbated by the concussion," she said, checking Nick's heart, blood pressure, pulse rate and respiration.  "Damn," she breathed.

"What?" Murray asked immediately, stirring the salt into the water while trying to watch her.

"His lungs are a little congested, his pulse is rapid and weak, and his respiration's fast and shallow—"

"What does that mean?" Murray interrupted.

"It means he's in trouble," she said, reaching under the table to a shelf there and pulling out a tubular, padded roll.  She slipped that under Nick's feet, saying, "Pour a glassful of the salt solution and see if you can get him to drink it.  Just a sip at a time, any more and he'll just throw it back up."

"Why weren't Nick and those men out there given caps like the rest of the prisoners?" Murray asked as he did as instructed.  "It's-It's sadistic."

"The men sent to work on the rockpile are being punished for infractions," she said.  "It's part of their punishment."

"That's… barbaric!"

"Tell me about it," Megan mumbled, going for a thermometer.  "I see a lot of heat-related problems in the summer."

"Nick?" he said, slipping a hand under the man's head and lifting it slightly.  "Nick, can you hear me?"

"M-Murray?" the dark-haired man slurred, his eyes cracking open slightly.

"Yes, it's me," he assured.  "Nick, you have to drink this," he stated firmly, bringing the glass to the man's lips.

Nick took a sip, then made a face.  "'S salty," he grumbled.

"I know, it's a saline solution, that's a salt and water mixture, but you need it."

Nick rolled his eyes and tried to shake his head, but his body refused to cooperate.  He met Megan's gaze and she grinned, then checked his temperature.  "Elevated, but not dangerous," she told both men.  "Murray, keep working on that salt solution."  She looked at Nick.  "And you – cooperate."

Murray pressed the glass to Nick's lips, instructing, "It'll help, Nick.  Really."

With a soft sigh the detective took another sip, the briny concoction not tasting so bad the second time.  With a little coaxing, Murray was able to get Nick to drink the entire glass.

While Murray worked, Megan moved off, grabbing several plain white towels and tossing then in the stainless steel sink.  After running warm water over them until they were soaked, she turned the water off, then wrung each towel out, stacking them on the counter.  When the last was prepared she carried the damp clothes over to Nick and blanketed him with them.

As the coolness penetrated his overalls Nick sighed and closed his eyes.  "Feels good, Doc."

"How's your head?" Megan asked, rechecking Nick's vital signs.

"H-Hurts like h-hell," he mumbled.  "W— Why 'm I—"

"Shivering?" she asked as his teeth chattered.  "Don't worry, it's a natural reaction.  Your internal thermometer's off-line.  How does your stomach feel?"

"B-Better."

"Vision."

"D-Dark," Nick replied and Murray giggled.

Megan tried not to smile as she half-growled, "Mr. Ryder—"

"B-Better, but s-still f-f-fuzzy," Nick amended.  "S-s-spins s-s-sometimes."

"I want you to just lie there and rest.  Drink as much of the salt solution as you can."

Nick's face twisted into a complaint, but he nodded his acquiescence.

She looked at Murray.  "Stay with him, keep him sipping that solution.  If he starts having any trouble breathing, or starts cramping, call me."

Murray nodded, walking over to fill the empty glass.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Less than twenty minutes later Megan was running back into the treatment room in response to Murray's high-pitched cry for help.  She came to a stop at the edge of the examination table where the slender detective was trying to hold his friend down.  Nick, his legs and back cramping, groaned and tried to grab the edge of the table, but even his hands were out of his control.  She leaned over his legs to help keep him from rolling off and ordered, "Nick, deep breaths, deep breaths."

He drew in a bottomless gasp, his face twisting in pain.

"Easy," she soothed, "it'll pass soon."

Murray met her gaze, the concern flashing as clearly as neon on his face.  She nodded.  He really would be okay.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Friday, 2 PM

 

Conners waited for Carver and Balmer to settle into the comfortable leather chairs in his living room before he handed the psychologist Dr. MacKenzie's medical report on Ryder.  As he sat down, he noted the sadistic gleam that sparked in the man's eyes as he read.

Carver finished the report and handed it back to Conners, then turned to Balmer. "This is perfect.  Ryder's concussion is magnifying his condition."

"Which means?"

"Killing him will be much easier than I expected."  He turned in his chair to meet Conners' unreadable gaze.  "Tomorrow I want you to work Ryder – hard – until he collapses.  He'll be working himself to death and watching his friends skate by."

Conners nodded.  "And then?"

"With luck Bozinsky will get to watch him die in the infirmary.  I'm guessing that your doctor doesn't have an extensive treatment facility, right?"

Conners nodded again.  "Our doc's just an intern we, uh, picked up.  She's got the basics, but nothing fancy."

"Perfect.  If we can drive Ryder into shock I doubt she'll have the experience and wherewithal to save him."

Balmer grinned and nodded.  "That'll send Allen and Bozinsky into a tailspin."

Carver nodded.  "I would suggest we target Bozinsky next.  A few days of hard labor for a man his size should do the trick.  We can use the sweatbox for a day or two beforehand to hasten his death."

"All while Cody Allen watches," Balmer said softly.  "I want to kill Allen myself. I owe my brother that much."

Carver turned back to Conners.  "Tell your men to… enjoy themselves with Ryder tomorrow."

"Whatever you say," Conners replied.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Friday, 4 PM

 

"Dr. MacKenzie?" Murray called, walking up to her doorless office and stopping just outside.

She looked up from where she was working at her computer, asking, "Yes?"

Murray's attention immediately focused on the machine and he slipped into the room, searching for a modem line.  There was none.  "May I?" he asked, sidling up to her chair.

"Uh, I guess…" she said, standing and letting the slender man take her place at the keyboard.  In seconds data like she'd never seen was scrolling across her screen.  "What is that?" she asked.

"Yes," Murray cheered softly.  "Yes, yes, yes.  Oh, yes.  This is perfect, just perfect."

"Murray—"

He looked up at her.  "What?"

"What is that?" she asked again, pointing at the data on the screen.

Murray looked back.  "Oh!  Your computer has an internal modem.  All I need is a phone line and a phone—"  He stopped, reaching for the instrument at the corner of her desk.

"But I can't call out on that.  It just connects to Warden Conners' office.  It's not a real phone."

"But I might be able to use this and the computer to dial out, but I'll need another phone line."

She shook her head.  "Murray, I don't have one.  They won't give me anything I might be able to use to escape, or help someone else escape, or call for help."  She noted the time.  "Murray, you need to go.  They'll be coming for you soon.  They can't find you in here."

Murray noted the trepidation on her face.  "Will you be all right?"

Megan nodded, escorting him back to the examination room.  Nick was resting peacefully minus the blanket of damp towels, all signs of his earlier cramps gone.  She checked him one last time as the door opened and Red stepped into the room.  "All right, boys, time to go."

Murray shook his friend's shoulder, waking him.

"Wha—?"

"The guards," Murray said softly.  "Come on."  He helped Nick off the table, Boz slipping an arm around Nick to support and protect him.

The pair made their way to the door without a backward glance.

Red led the two men across the hot, dusty yard, stopping at the sweatbox.  He opened the door and motioned for Nick to enter.

"Now wait one minute," Murray said.  "He's sick.  And what about food?  We haven't—"

Red backhanded Murray, knocking him off his feet, but he scrambled to his feet, his eyes flashing.

Nick extended a hand, stopping any further complaints or action.  "It's not worth it," he said softly.  "Murray, please, don't do anything stupid."

"But, Nick—"

Ryder stepped inside the hot box and Red locked the door behind him.  "You better listen to your friend," he said darkly, then lowered his voice, adding, "Or I'll see to it Ryder meets with the business-end of a billy-club.  Understand?"

Murray's glare was deadly, but he nodded.

Grabbing the computer expert's arm, Red escorted the thin man to the Mess Hall where the rest of the inmates were assembling outside in two long rows.  "Get in line," the guard snapped.

Murray looked for Cody, and spotting his friend, walked over to stand next to him, neither man speaking while they waited to be ordered inside.

Once they were in and their trays were filled, the two men sat at one of the long tables, each attacking their meals, hunger overriding their guilt over Nick's absence.

"We have to keep our strength up," Murray stated just before devouring the rest of his greasy chicken.  When he was almost finished with his grayish mashed potatoes, he glanced casually around, checking the locations of the guards.  He watched one man move over to pour himself another cup of coffee, then leaned forward slightly and said softly, "I think I found a way to call for help.  But I need a phone line."

Cody glanced around to make sure no one was listening to them, then asked, "Phone cord?"

"The line between the wall and the phone—"

"I know, but—"

"Megan has a computer," Murray said, then shoved the last of his bread into his mouth and chewed as Ice passed by.

Cody waited until Ice's attention shifted away from them before he asked, "You think you can reach the authorities?"

Murray nodded.  "Just get me a phone line."

"From where?" Cody asked.

"The warden's house?"

Cody's eyes widened.  He'd already been told he'd be painting the man's house tomorrow, maybe he could slip inside… but they were watched so closely… "Maybe."

"Nick's very sick.  We need that phone line, Cody."

The blond nodded, his expression turning hard.  "I'll get it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Saturday, 8:00 AM

 

Nick shivered in the sweatbox, and wished fervently for a tall, cold glass of water – or better yet, several.  He was thirsty, hungry, sore and mad.  And another night in the cramped box had left him weak and despondent.

I'm just letting this get to me, he scolded himself, but the memory of the traitorous thoughts that had crept up on him during the night refused to go away.  They clung tenaciously to the edge of this thoughts and added guilt to his already crowded conscience.

Maybe they did sell me out

That was the mutinous refrain that had started as a whisper deep in the night and kept echoing back again and again.

But I know they didn't, Nick argued with himself.  If I know Cody and Murray, they're both wishing right now they could trade places with me.  They'd never sell me out.  Never.

But what if they did?

They didn't!

Maybe this is what I deserve, Nick considered.  Maybe I did kill that little girl…

The pounding began, the sharp noises lancing through his skull and disorienting him.  He pressed the balls of his hands against his ears, trying to shut out the pain, but it was a useless exercise.  His stomach immediately began to tighten, but before he got sick the door opened and he was dragged out into the too-bright glare of the morning.

"On your feet, pussy," Ice growled.

Nick stood, the landscape rippling and twisting.  He swallowed and closed his eyes momentarily, but the end of a billy-club shoved him forward and he shuffled along to join the line of waiting prisoners.

One step at a time, he told himself.  Just one step at a time.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Murray stepped into the infirmary and Craig closed the door behind him, a nasty grin on his face.  The detective shook his head, worry clawing through his mid-section.  Nick had been absent from breakfast.  Were they trying to starve the man to death?  When they'd dragged him out of the sweatbox he'd looked terrible.

Murray shuddered, forcing the image out of his mind.  Cody had to get that phone cord.  Today.  With a deep breath he went looking for Dr. MacKenzie.

 Megan stood at the sink, filling the bucket again.

"Good morning," he said.

"Hi, Murray," she said, turning off the water.  She added the disinfectant, then lifted the bucket out of the sink and turned.  Murray gasped.  Her face was bruised, her lower lip cut.

"What happened?" he asked, rushing to take the bucket and carry it to the treatment table.

She shook her head.

"It was that— that— guard, that— wasn't it?" he asked.  "When he said you'd— you'd owe him?"

"Look, Murray," Megan said with a sigh, "it's just the way it works around here, okay?  The female prisoners are… perks for the guards.  So long as we can still do our jobs the next day Conners doesn't care what happens to us the night before. Just forget about it."

"But that's— that's… terrible!  That's—"

"Look, just forget it, okay?  I don't want any more trouble."

Murray opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again.  What could he say? What could he do?

"I'll, uh, get started on the cleaning, but— I mean, you did that for us, and— and I'm sorry."

"Thanks, Murray," Megan said, giving him a sad half-smile.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Saturday, 1 PM

 

Cody watched his partner as Nick struggled for a second day with the melon-sized rocks.  At least Nick was still on his feet, although given the man's gray complexion Cody couldn't imagine how.  And for how long? he wondered, reading his best friend's body language with ease.  The hunched shoulders meant Nick's head still hurt.  The lowered chin meant the sun was too bright.  The careful shuffling walk meant his ribs still hurt and his vision was still blurry.  Bottom line, he's hurting – hurting bad.

Just fake it, Nick, he solemnly commanded.  Pretend to pass out and let them take you to the infirmary.  But even as he thought it, Cody knew that wouldn't happen.

He watched Nick's hand come up regularly to push the sweat off his forehead and knew that sooner or later he was going to collapse again.  And they have to know that, too! Cody fumed silently.  It's like they're trying to kill him.

He swallowed hard.  Maybe that was exactly what they were trying to do.  The realization struck him as hard as Ice's billy-club: That's why we're here.  Someone wants us dead.

And they want us to watch it happen, he realized, noting Murray standing at the Infirmary window, watching Nick.  Why else would we be put someplace where we can see Nick?  But why not out there with him?

Cody shook his head.  Maybe they want to kill us off one by one…  Oh, man, we've got to get the hell out of here.  Today.

He might not understand exactly what was going on, but he knew he had to get that phone cord for Murray and get it quickly.  He glanced at the other two inmates, who worked silently at their painting tasks.  Two guards stood under the branches of a tall maple tree, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the shade while they watched the working men.

Cody dipped his brush and put the finishing touches on the shutter he'd been working on for the last half hour.  That done, he picked up his equipment and moved to the next window.  Someone had already stripped the paint off the wood and sanded it smooth – another inmate, he realized and wondered if that man was still a prisoner.  Probably, given the expressions on these men's faces.

The guards watched him as he set up his paint and started to work on the wood, but they quickly lost interest when one of the female inmates who worked in the Warden's house carried out two tall glasses of ice tea.

Cody inched further away, rounding a corner and looking for a way into the house.  An unlocked French door a few feet away was his ticket.

"Allen!"

He quickly stepped back into sight.  "Yeah?"

"Stay where I can see you, boy," Ice snapped.

"I was going to start working on the big shutters around the French doors while this coat dries, sir," he said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

"I said you stay where I can see you," Ice repeated, raising the shotgun to emphasize the point.

Cody nodded.  "Yes, sir.  Then can I go get some paint to work on the window trims while these shutters dry?"

Ice nodded.

Cody walked across the lawn to one of the small storage sheds.  The door was open, giving Ice and the other guard a clear line of sight into the small building.  He paused inside, looking for paint cans labeled "raspberry," and spotting them on a shelf. He reached up and pulled one can down.  Setting it on the workbench, he pried up the lid with a screwdriver and looked inside.  The reddish-purple paint looked fine.

Reaching for another brush hanging on a pegboard he noticed a wall phone.  Bingo!

He glanced over his shoulder to find Ice watching him.  Great.  How do I do this without an audience?

"Hurry up!" the guard called.

Think, damn it!

"The paint's getting thick, I need to add some thinner, sir," he called back.

"Then add it!  Don't just stand there!"

"Yes, sir.  Where is it?"

"How the hell should I know, look around and find it!" Ice snapped.

Cody nodded and turned back to examine the shelves.  He inched closer to the phone, reaching up to turn cans around so he could read the labels.  When he was standing in front of the phone he reached up with one hand to grab a can while he unhooked the cord from the receiver with the other.  The cord fell to the floor.

He pulled a can down and carried it back to the bench.  Okay, half done, he thought, following the cord back to where it was plugged into the wall.

He opened the can of thinner and added a tiny amount to the paint, then stirred.  That done he resealed the can of thinner and re-shelved it.  Returning to the paint, he shoved the brush into the pocket of his overalls and grabbed the can's wire handle, then started out.  As he neared the door he purposefully stumbled and the brush fell out of his pocket.  He bent down to grab it and unplugged the cord, quickly wrapping it around his hand.

"What the hell are you doing, Allen?!" bellowed Ice.

Cody stood, shoving his hand into his pocket as he did and slipping the cord off.  He bent over again and picked up the brush.  "Sorry!  I dropped the brush," he explained, waving it.  "Got to get a clean one."

"Just hurry the hell up!"

Cody tossed the brush on the workbench and grabbed another, then headed immediately back to the first floor windows and set to work painting the trim.  The other two inmates finished their shutters and headed into the shed to prepare the paint for the detail work around the warden's front door.  Cody sighed; at least now they wouldn't know he was the one who'd taken the cord – it could be any of the three of them.  Maybe lady luck had finally found them.

Now, all I need is a way to get into the infirmary before they pat us down before supper…

Ice walked up to join him, his eyes narrowed.

Cody continued his work, his heart trip-hammering in his chest – even a cursory search would turn up the cord.

The guard snapped gruffly, "Make sure you get that coat on nice and smooth."

"Yes, sir," Cody said, his brush never pausing.

Ice walked back to the shade of the tree and Cody allowed himself a soft sigh. So far, so good.  Spotting a nail sticking up in one corner of the window frame he smiled thinly.  Go directly to the infirmary, he thought, do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars.

Leaning his weight over the hazard, then jerking his hand forward, Cody ripped a furrow through his palm.  "Damn!" he gasped.

"Now what?" Ice demanded.

Cody dropped the paint brush into the bucket and turned, blood already beginning to fill his palm.  "Cut myself on a nail I didn't see."

"Ah, Christ, he's gonna bleed all over the porch," the second guard moaned.

"Get your ass over to the infirmary," Ice snapped.  "Move!  And don't drip on the porch!"

"Yes, sir."  Whatever you say, sir.  Whatever you say.

When the door opened, Murray jumped and looked up from where he was scrubbing the waiting room's linoleum floor on his hands and knees.  "Cody?  Are you all right?" he asked, scrambling to his feet.

Three large drops of blood splattered onto the clean floor.  "Sorry, Murray," he said sheepishly.  "But it's all I could think of to get in here."

Megan stepped out from her office.  "Cody Allen, I presume?"

The blond nodded.

"In here," she said, escorting him to the sink in the treatment room.  She turned the water on low and had him hold his hand under the stream.  "Looks like a nasty cut."

Fishing into his pocket with his free hand, Cody pulled out the phone cord and handed it to Murray, who had trailed the pair in.

"Oh, boss," the computer expert breathed.  "This is perfect, Cody.  Perfect."

"Just hurry up and get some help out here," he hissed as Megan turned off the water and checked the wound.

"Well, no stitches, but this hand isn't going to be much use for a few days."

"A few days from now we'll be back home," he said, meeting her skeptical gaze.

Murray reached out, resting a hand on the woman's shoulder.  "I'm going to go see if I can make this work, but it might take me a little while."

She nodded.  "Okay, if you hear someone come in, grab the iodine and get in here quick.  Find the bottle before you start so it's ready to go."

Murray nodded, and headed for the waiting computer.

"Wait," she called, rushing after the slender detective.  "Let me call Conners first about your friend."

She picked up the phone and waited for a moment before saying, "Warden Conners?  I'm treating Cody Allen for a bad cut.  I'm going to have to put some stitches in.  It might take me an hour or so since I'll need to make sure it's debrided first; can you please inform his detail guards?  Yes, sir…  No, sir, he'll be able to do light work once I'm done…  Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir."

She hung up and glowered at the phone.  "I hate that man," she hissed.  Looking at Murray, she whispered, "Good luck."

Returning to Cody, she explained, "I told Conners I have to stitch your hand. I'll put in some shallow ones, just for show."

Cody nodded.  "We appreciate all your help."

"I don't think I could live with myself if I let another man die here without doing something.  I just hope you can get someone out here before they kill your friend."

"Murray'll make it work.  He's a genius with computers."

"I hope you're right."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Nick worked on auto-pilot, moving from rock pile to wheelbarrow and back again without thinking.  It was hotter than it had been the day before, but he'd felt a little better – at least he did until about mid-day.

Across the dusty yard he had watched Cody working on the Warden's three story house, painting the man's shutters and window trim.

And watching me, Nick noted.  No way in hell Cody and Murray sold me out… These guys are just playin' mind games with me.

He had watched Cody's "accident" and his hike across the compound to the Infirmary one hand clutched in the other, but that had been a couple of hours ago and nothing had changed.  I hope you and Murray have a plan—

A hard slam between his shoulder blades forced Nick to his knees.  "Get up, pigeon," Craig snarled, a malicious grin on his face.  "You gotta move a little faster.  This ain't no Club Med."

Nick grabbed the rock he'd been carrying and struggled to his feet.  "No kidding," he mumbled under his breath.

The guard waited until Nick had taken two steps, then brought his foot up and kicked the back of the detective's thigh.  Nick went down with a groan.  Craig laughed, his booted foot contacting soundly with the man's bruised ribs in a series of kicks.

Nick cried out and curled into a ball, trying to protect himself.

Craig pounded the detective's shoulder with the butt of his shotgun, yelling, "Get up!"

White and yellow spots flashed in front of his eyes, but Nick managed to regain his feet.  He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry, the guards refusing to allow him any water until he filled five of the wheelbarrows.  He still had one more to go.

"Now, you get your ass in gear," Craig instructed, "or I'm gonna beat the shit out of ya, hear me?"

Nick didn't bother to reply as he picked up the stone he'd dropped and carried it the remaining seven steps to the waiting wheelbarrow.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Saturday, 3 PM

 

Two more hours, Cody told himself.  His hand throbbed, but he ignored it, concentrating on watching Nick and finishing the window trim one-handed.  Not for the first time he wished that Murray had been able to work his magic in the hour he'd been in the infirmary.

He'll do it, he reassured himself.  Nobody, but nobody can stop the Boz from making a computer do whatever he wants it to.

He watched Nick stagger back to the rock pile.  Even from across the compound he could see the man was shaking like a signpost in a strong wind.  I just hope help gets here in time.

Damn it, Nick, just take a dive now.  You let that damned pride of yours kill you and I swear I'll track you down in Heaven or Hell and kick your ass for the rest of eternity!

He watched as Nick stooped and gathered another stone into his arms and immediately dropped it.  One of the guards slapped the back of the detective's head and Nick dropped to his knees.  Cody ground his teeth, wanting very badly to beat the baby-faced guard into a bloody pulp.

Nick tried to stand, but his legs gave out and he pitched forward into the dirt. The guard kicked him hard in the lower back, forcing Nick to curl up.

Cody dropped the paintbrush as the baby-faced guard raised his shotgun to use as a club.  "No!" he bellowed.

Ice and his companion bolted for Cody as the blond lunged off the porch, headed for the man who was attacking Nick.  They tackled Cody in the grass, holding him down while Craig proceeded to beat Nick with the butt of his shotgun.

"Stop him!" Cody yelled at the men.  "You've gotta stop him!  He's gonna kill Nick!"

Craig stepped back, panting.  He wiped his face and grinned at the unconscious man lying in the dirt.  Blood trickled from Nick's nose and the corners of his mouth.  "Think that'll do it?" he asked one of the other guards who had watched.

"Looks dead to me," the man replied.

"Take him over to the doc, let the little geek watch his buddy die."

The second guard nodded and dragged Nick away.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The door to the infirmary slammed open and Megan rushed into the waiting room, her gaze immediately going to Nick.

"What the hell did you do to him?" she demanded.

The guard smiled.  "He wasn't workin' fast enough."

Murray stepped out of her office and the guard's eyes narrowed.  "What was he doin' in there?  You know the rules."

Megan drew herself up, her eyes narrowing.  "He's typing in medical reports," she snapped.  "He's also not allowed to handle certain chemicals and I sure as hell can't do two things at once!"

The guard's jaw muscles twitched, but he didn't argue the point.  "Well, looks like you're gonna have another report to write," he said snidely, then turned.

"Nick?" Murray said, moving to his friend's side.

"Here," Megan said, lifting Nick's feet.  "Let's get him into the treatment room."

Murray reached down and grabbed Nick under the arms, lifting him as best he could.  Together they managed to maneuver the injured man onto the table.

"What did they do?" Murray breathed, turning away from the sight of his battered friend.

"They tried to kill him," Megan said, already working.  "And if you don't help me, they might just succeed."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Saturday, 4 PM

 

Cody's hands shook with the anger he was still fighting to hold in check.  Getting himself killed wasn't going to help Nick, but if he didn't find out something – soon – he was going to explode.

From the way the two guards were shifting from foot to foot he guessed they had maybe an hour before the work details ended and the inmates were marched to the Mess Hall.  Maybe Murray would be able to tell him how Nick was then.

He damn well better, Cody decided.  Or I'm going to see him for myself.

It was a cry from one of the tower guards that finally broke through the detective's dark, brooding thoughts.  Cody looked up from his painting, noticing the plume of dust rising from the road that led to the main gate.  Glancing around he saw other dust clouds rising along the sides of the prison fields as well.

He did it!  Murray, you're a genius!

Ice and his partner quickly rounded up the workers and herded then into the center of the compound where Conners joined them, racing from his office.  "Put them in their cells," he ordered the two guards.

Ice gave Cody a rough shove and took him back to his cell while the second guard followed the other inmates to one of the Quonset huts.

"What's wrong?" the blond asked.

"Shut up," Ice snapped, pushing Cody into the small cell and immediately closing the door.

Sitting down, Cody took a deep breath and wiped the nervous sweat off his face. Hang in there, Nick.  Help's on the way.  You just have to hang in there a little longer…

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Murray worked alongside Megan, an unintelligible, angry command from a bullhorn causing her to jump and drop the BP cuff she was about to wrap around Nick's upper arm.

"Are you all right?" Murray asked.

She nodded, laying the cuff on the small wheeled table and heading into the waiting room.  Murray hesitated a moment, then trailed after her.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," she said, watching the guards scurrying around the compound.  "It looks like a lock down."

Murray allowed the first stirring of hope to enter his thoughts as he moved closer to the windows to watch.

"It looks like there's someone at the front gate," she whispered.  "Oh, Murray, do you think…?"

He nodded.  "I think so.  I hope so."

She reached up, grabbing his arm and squeezing lightly.  "I can't believe it," she said, her throat tight.

He nodded.  "I knew the lieutenant would do something about this – this– this travesty of criminal justice."

Megan looked back toward the treatment room.  "I just hope they're in time."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Cody stood as his cell door was opened.  He blinked and squinted against the brightness outside, then sucked in a sharp breath.  "Joanna?"

"Cody, come on," the attractive blonde policewoman said, reaching out to take his arm.  "I've called in a medical helicopter for Nick."

"How is he?" Cody asked, suddenly leading the way outside and toward the infirmary.

"Not good, I'm afraid.  The doctor's done all she can, but—"

"He'll make it," Cody snapped, his head immediately dipping.  "I'm sorry," he apologized.  "But he will make it."

Joanna nodded, but her expression was far from reassuring.

Reaching the infirmary Cody headed for his best friend.  Nick lay on the treatment table, covered with a light blanket.  The dark-haired man's face was discolored and puffy and each breath was a nerve-grating wheeze.  He looked up, meeting Megan's gaze.  "Will he—?"

She offered a small smile.  "I hope so.  I did all I could, but they won't give me the equipment—"

"You did more than anyone could expect," Murray reassured her, stepping up alongside his partner and resting a hand on Cody's back.  "And you know how strong Nick is," he said softly.

Cody nodded.  "Yeah.  Yeah, I know."  Needing to change the topic before he lost control of the tangle of emotion twisting in his gut, the blond grinned at Murray. "You did it, Boz."

The computer wizard's chest puffed slightly.  "You know, I've broken into the King Harbor PD's computer so many times I just immediately dialed them up."  He giggled softly.  "It was a boss and bodacious piece of rerouting and node hopping if I do say so myself.  The lieutenant was online, reviewing the duty roster.  I told her everything."

"I was already looking for you," came Joanna's voice from behind them.  "Dooley called me yesterday."

"Yesterday?" Cody echoed.  "I'll be damned.  That kid's all right."

An officer leaned into the waiting room, calling, "Lieutenant, the chopper's here."

Megan released the wheels on the table and with Murray's help they wheeled Nick outside.  Cody reached out, resting a hand lightly on the unconscious man's shoulder and leaned down so he was only a few inches from Nick's ear.  "Listen to me, Nick, you have to hang in there, you hear me?  It's over.  We're going home, buddy.  Just hang in there."

Two paramedics reached the injured man, Megan filling them in on his condition. Together she and the two men moved Nick into the chopper.  Cody started to follow, but Joanna grabbed his arm.  "There's not enough room, Cody.  Come on, they'll be taking him to Modesto Community Hospital.  I'll drive you and Murray."

Cody looked back to the chopper, watching as the doors were closed, then nodded.  "Let's go."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Modesto Community Hospital, Modesto, CA

Saturday, 8 PM

 

Showered – compliments of the hospital – and dressed in their own clothes – compliments of Joanna, who asked one of her men to see if the detectives' personal belongings were available – Cody and Murray sat across a small desk from the doctor who had treated Nick.

Cody leaned forward as the middle-aged Hispanic man explained Nick's condition –  mild concussion, heat exhaustion, fractured ribs, and the trauma of the beating.  He swallowed hard as the physician explained that they were flying Nick back to Los Angeles – to a hospital that had a head trauma unit.

"How badly is he hurt?" he asked.  "I mean, it sounds bad."

The doctor shook his head.  "I don't think so.  There's been no sign of internal pressure and his neurological work-up was well within expectations.  But concussions are tricky injuries, Mr. Allen.  Symptoms can surface weeks after an injury, and they can linger for months."

"What kinds of symptoms?" Murray asked.

"Limb weakness, lethargy, headaches, mood swings, personality changes," the doctor recited.  "With these kinds of injuries it's a day to day kind of thing.  But I can tell you, Mr. Ryder is out of immediate danger."

Cody slumped back into his chair and glanced at Murray, who looked as relieved as he himself felt.  He glanced back to the doctor.  "When will you be moving Nick?"

The man checked his watch, "About forty minutes."

"Is he awake?  Can we see him?"

The doctor hesitated, then nodded as he stood.  "I suppose it wouldn't do any harm.  Mr. Ryder's still unconscious, but if you'd like to see—"

"We would, Doctor," Cody said, hastily standing.  Murray did the same.  "We really appreciate this."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Stepping into Nick's room, Cody paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. The noise from several monitors filled the small room with muted beeps, chirps, and whirrs.  Cody took a step closer, the ever-present smell of the place making his throat tight.

Reaching Nick's narrow bed, he studied his best friend's battered face and the multiple IV's that replenished the man's body fluids.  It looks like someone tye-dyed your face, buddy.

"Nick?  Man, how many times have we been in places like this, huh?"  Cody shook his head and sighed deeply.  "Sometimes I think it's not worth it, you know?  Sometimes I think we should finally grow up and get real jobs, something where no one's going to shoot at us, or come at us with tire irons and fists."

He reached out, carefully pulling the cover up from where it had slipped off one of Nick's shoulders.  "But I know what you'd say.  'What else are we gonna do?' And I've never had an answer to that one."

"Good," Nick mumbled softly.

Cody's eyes widened.  "Nick?"

"'Cause if you… ever suggest we… sell shoes… or som'then… I'll deck ya."

Cody grinned.  "Hi ya, buddy.  How're you feeling?"

Nick blinked owlishly.  "Like hell."

"At least that matches how you look."

"Gee, thanks," Nick muttered, a small smile tugging at the corners of the man's puffy lips.

"Any time."  The blond reached out again, taking Nick's hand in his own and giving it a light, reassuring squeeze.  "Next time go down a little sooner, okay?  You had me scared to death."

Nick snorted softly.  "What happens next?"

"They're flying you back to LA.  Murray and I'll drive back with Joanna."

"Who did this, Cody?"

The detective shook his head.  "I don't know.  Joanna said that guys from the state prison board are checking out the whole place.  I think some of the prisoners will probably be released right away.  Conners and his people were running some kind of extortion racket."

"Somebody was trying to kill us."

"I was thinking the same thing," Cody admitted.  "But whoever it was, they missed."

"This time."

"We'll find out who it was, Nick.  Don't worry about that now.  You just concentrate on getting well, okay?"

"Can't concentrate on anything," the dark-haired man complained.

"That's the concussion.  The doctor said you might have a few side effects, but they'll fade over time.  Look, I better get out of here.  You rest, enjoy the flight."

"Think they'll have a pretty stewardess?"

"I don't know," Cody smiled.  "But I'll see what I can arrange."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA

Sunday, 10 AM

 

Nick leaned back against his pillows and waited for the bed to finish its contortion, delivering him to a seated position.

"Knock, knock?"

Nick looked, then grinned.  "Hi guys, come on in."

Cody pulled the door open, he and Murray entering, the Boz hidden behind an enormous bouquet of flowers.  He staggered to a nightstand and carefully set the large hula-girl vase down, then giggled as he stepped away.  "So, whatdaya think?" he asked.

Nick studied the scantily clad woman with the wild collection flowers erupting from her head.  "It's, uh—"

"It's from Joanna and some of the guys down at the police department."

Nick's eyes widened.  "You're kidding."

"Nope," Cody said.  "Oh, and I talked to your doctor, looks like you'll be able to go home Tuesday."

Nick nodded carefully, quick or sharp motions still triggering flashes of blinding pain.  "I saw him earlier and got the same speech."

"The follow-up tests and therapy sound really fascinating," Murray added.

"Only to you, man," Nick replied.  "I just want to go home and get back to normal, you know?"

"I know, buddy," Cody assured.  "But head injuries—"

"Aren't something to fool around with," Nick finished.  "I know, I know."  He reached for a glass of water, but Murray beat him to it, handing him the glass.  "Thanks, Murray.  Any news on whoever it was who set us up?"

"Some guy named Matthew Carver," Cody said.  "Ring any bells?"

"No."

"I ran a computer check on him," Murray explained.  "He's a psychologist, but he's been in trouble with the authorities.  They even suspended his license."

"Why would a psychologist want to kill us?" Nick asked.

"I don't know," Cody sighed.  "Unless he was employed by someone else.  They found files on us in his car trunk.  He was staying in Colemesa at one of the hotels.  Problem is, he's refusing to cooperate with the investigation."

"I couldn't find anything in the records that would link Carver to our past cases," Murray said.  "But that doesn't mean he might not be working for someone."

"Did you check to see if anyone we've put away's out?" Nick asked.

"I did.  Nothing.  I'm afraid we might never know who was responsible for this."

"Until they try again," Nick replied.

Cody nodded, his expression somber.  "Joanna said they're doing all they can to find out what happened."

Nick swallowed hard, his eyes focusing on Cody's.  "There's one thing I've gotta know.  That girl, did I—"

"No," Cody interrupted.  "You didn't kill anyone, Nick.  It was all part of the frame.  I guess this Carver guy was all set to really screw with our heads, and you being hurt was all that stopped him."

"Little Loretta was just part of some psychological scenario Dr. Carver was attempting to set up," Murray reiterated.  "Then he planned to pit us against each other."

"But the accident—"

"The accident was real," Cody said.  "The Jimmy's totaled, but there wasn't any girl and there wasn't any drugs – in our blood or in the Jimmy."

"I knew they were lyin'!" Nick said, his eyes flashing.  "What's gonna happen to Conners and his thugs?"

"Conners is under arrest," Cody told him.  "And all of his guards are under investigation – some are in jail."

"A lot of the people were being held there illegally," Murray said.  "The state review board is going through each case, case by case—"  He paused and giggled at the play on words.  "I'm sure everything will be sorted out in no time."

Nick closed his eyes, suddenly feeling drained.  "Good.  That's good."

"Get some rest, Nick," Cody said, giving the man's arm a light squeeze.  "We'll drop back later, okay?"

"Yeah, thanks, guys," Nick said, not bothering to open his eyes.  "I'll, uh, see ya later…"  He was asleep before they reached the door.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

UCLA Medical Center

Tuesday, 9 AM

 

"Where is he?" Nick grouched.

Murray ignored the question, carefully checking each drawer and the closet for items they needed to take home with them.

"Murray, where's Cody?"

"He's getting some stuff from the doctor," he replied, stopping to rearrange the slightly wilted flower arrangement.  "I suppose we should throw the flowers away and take the vase—"

"No," Nick interrupted.

"No?  But Nick, the vase is—"

"Promised to one of the x-ray guys."

"Oh," Murray replied.  "Well, I guess the lieutenant won't be too upset."

Nick reined in a grin.  "Come on, let's get out of here.  We can meet Cody in the lobby."

"Not so fast, Mr. Ryder."

Nick turned.  "Dr. Abell," he said.  "Murray, this is Dr. Lynn Abell, my neurologist.  Doc, this is Murray Bozinsky, one of my partners."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bozinsky," she said, extending a hand.

Murray grinned, smitten by the young woman's engaging smile.  Petite with red hair, green eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks, Dr. Abell looked more like a student than a doctor.  "Please, call me Murray, Doctor."

"It's Lynn," she corrected him, then turned to Nick.  "I just wanted to drop by and give you a list of dos and don'ts, and the schedule for your first week's appointments."

"Appointments?"

"Afraid so, Nick.  Then we'll see how you're doing and go from there."

He nodded.  "I really do appreciate all you've done–"

"I understand.  I'm not a very good patient myself.  Now, do you want a wheelchair for the trip to the lobby?"

"No," Nick said quickly.  "I feel pretty good.  Just a little weak.  I'll be fine."

"All right, but if you start getting dizzy, call for a nurse, okay?"

"I will," he promised.

"Good, then I'll see you day after tomorrow."  With that the young woman left.

"Wow," Murray sighed.  "She's…  She's…"

Nick grinned.  "Come on, let's go find Cody and blow this place."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Back on the Riptide Nick sat down on the stern seat cushions and enjoyed the mild sunlight that warmed him.  In his hand he held the can of 7-Up and two aspirin Murray had handed him as he made his way outside.  His head was hurting, but not too bad, and he took the pills, then rubbed at his temples.

"Feeling okay?"

Nick looked up, a sheepish expression on his face.  "Yeah, just a little throb."

"Want some aspirin?" Cody asked.

"Naw, I just took two.  I'll be okay.  If it gets worse I'll take some more."  He looked out over the pier and drew in a deep breath of the tangy sea air.  "Man, it's good to be home."

"I know what you mean," his partner said, sitting down next to Nick.  "For a while there I wasn't sure we'd— Well, you know what I mean."

Nick nodded, still staring out at the ocean.  "He's out there, Cody."

"I know."

"He'll try again."

"Yeah."

"Part of the game they were playin' with us was 'divide and conquer.'"

"What do you mean?"

"They told me you and Murray sold me out.  Traded what they did to me so you'd get it easy."

"We did not!  We—"

"Cody," Nick interrupted, meeting his partner's eyes.  "Come on, man.  I know you didn't."

The blond relaxed slightly.  "Guess we really pissed somebody off."

"Guess so.  I just wish we knew who the hell it was."

"Tell me about it.  But Murray's working on it and I'm absolutely convinced he can do anything with a computer now."

Nick smiled.  "You won't get any argument from me."

Cody reached out, lightly clapping Nick's shoulder.  "I'm just glad you're all right." He dipped his head, saying, "You had me pretty damned scared, Nick.  I—"  He stopped, forcing himself to look up and meet Nick's steadfast gaze.  "I thought I was going to lose the best friend I've ever had."

Nick looked away, but then back again.  He nodded and smiled.  "Yeah…  Hey, why don't we go out tonight?  Celebrate."

"Nick, the doctor said you're supposed to take it easy."

"I'll take it easy.  We can go to Straightaways.  Get some steak, maybe steak and lobster."

Cody grinned.  "Whatever you want, buddy.  Whatever you want."

"Really?"

Cody stood, trying to look benevolent.  "Well, within reason.  Somebody's gotta watch out for you."

"Watch out?  For me?"

"Yeah, for you.  I'm not the one with the concussion.  Not to mention the cracked ribs, the bruises…"

"Watch out for me, huh?"

Cody grinned, nodding.

Nick put his thumb over the soda can opening and shook, an evil grin spreading across his face.

"Nick?"

"You know, one of the things I have'ta watch out for is mood swings."  He shook the can again.

Cody scrambled back several steps.  "Nick, you wouldn't."

"I wouldn't?" Nick asked.  "You gonna mother hen me to death?" he asked, shaking the can a third time.

Cody's hands came up.  "Never.  You know me, Nick.  None of that mushy stuff.  No hovering, no playing mom, you have my word."

"Your word?" he repeated, shaking the can once more.

"Nick!"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

 

 

 

On Board the Riptide

Wednesday, 1 PM

 

"I can't believe it's been a week since all this started," Cody said, helping Megan step onto the Riptide.

She glanced up at him, her eyes damp.  "I can't believe I'm actually free, and I have the three of you to thank."

"That's not true," Cody corrected.  "If it wasn't for you, Nick wouldn't have survived."

"He was strong.  He would've been okay."

"Come on, he'll want to thank you himself."  Cody led her along the edge of the boat to the salon door.  Inside Nick lounged on the couch while Murray poured water into the well on the Mr. Coffee.

"Hey, look who's here," Cody announced, leading the way inside.

Nick forced his eyes open, then smiled broadly as he sat up and ran a hand over his hair.  "Doctor, it's good to see you."

She grinned, her cheeks turning a rosy pink.  "Please, call me Megan."

Stepping further into the salon, Megan was immediately greeted by Murray, who wrapped her in a heartfelt hug.  "This is great!  Are you free?  They dismissed your case?" Murray asked, leading her, his arm still around her shoulders, to the couch and sitting down.

"Yeah, the review board looked at my case and released me.  I'll be testifying against Conners in the grand jury investigation."

"Us, too," Cody said.  "We received our subpoenas today."

She glanced nervously at Nick, asking, "So, how're you doing?"

"Uh, I'm good," he said.  "I'm really glad you dropped by.  I wanted the chance to say thank you."

"Like I told Cody, it's me who needs to say thanks.  If it wasn't for the three of you I'd still be in that… place."

"If it wasn't for Cody and Murray, you mean," Nick said.  "They're the real heroes.  All I did was lie there."

Megan shook her head.  "No, it was all three of you.  Nick, it was your courage and strength that gave me the strength to stand up to them.  And Cody's loyalty and determination, they made me remember who I was."  She looked up at Murray.  "And your faith that you could find a way out…  I'd lost hope—"  She stopped, her voice catching and her eyes filling with tears.

Cody reached over and handed her a kleenex.  She accepted it, wiping her eyes.

"So, what now?" Nick asked.

She took a deep breath and said, "Now I go back and finish my internship and practice medicine."

"That's great," Murray said.  "Isn't that great, guys?"

"Yeah," Cody agreed.  "That is great.  And we expect to hear from you, okay?"

She nodded.  "I think I can do that; I'll be finishing up here."

"In Redondo Beach?" Nick asked.

"Well, at the UCLA Medical Center," she explained.  "I wish I could stay longer, but I have to get going.  I'm supposed to meet the head of the intern program to go over my schedule.  With the grand jury thing it's going to be a little tricky, but he knows about what happened and he's willing to help me work around it."

Nick stood and offered Megan his hand.  She accepted it and he pulled her to her feet, and into a hug.  "You take good care of yourself," he said softly.  "Put this behind you and make sure you have a good life.  You deserve it."

She squeezed him, but not too tightly, remembering the bruised ribs.  "Thank you, Nick," she whispered thickly.

He patted her back, then gripped her shoulders and pulled her back and kissed her cheek.

"My turn," Cody announced.

Megan laughed, but the tears were on her cheeks when Cody pulled her into a tight hug.  "And I'm serious.  Stay in touch."

"I will," she promised, stepping back.

"I'll walk you out," Murray said.

She nodded and the pair left.

Nick brushed the back of his hand over his eyes and cleared his throat.  "I'm really glad she's getting her life back together," he said.  "Murray told me— That guard— She—"

"I know.  She's got a lot more courage than she thinks she does.  She'll be fine," Cody said, taking a step closer to his partner.  "But, uh, I have a favor."

Nick looked up at his best friend.  "Sure, anything," he said, his emotions under control again.

Cody took another step, closing the distance between them.  Without hesitation he opened his arms and folded Nick into a hug that was returned.  They moved apart, their faces red.

"What was that for?" Nick asked.

"I just needed to make sure you're really here."

"Cody, I've been eating and sleeping and lying in your way for two days.  I'm here."

The blond chuckled.  "I know, but—"

Nick held up a hand.  "I know what you mean.  Really."

Cody nodded.  "So, what do you say we go out?  Celebrate."

Nick grinned, recognizing the ploy.  "Sure," he replied.  "Whatever you want."

Cody draped one arm over Nick's shoulder and together the two friends headed for the door.



[1]  In the episode "Requiem for Icarus" Nick, Cody and Murray help stop Balmer, a man who is pretending to bring illegal aliens into the country for a better life, but he is really bringing them here as slaves.  Balmer is killed in the process.