WARNING: Something more than sexual innuendo, but not involving Johnny.
DISCLAIMER: After due consideration and several conversations with the voices inside my head, I’ve decided that writing a disclaimer would make about as much sense as telling SF to feed those damned plot bunnies birth control. She never listens to me anyway.
SF’s Disclaimer: I always listen…it’s the heeding part I haven’t quite conquered yet…not that I have over extended myself in my efforts because I am easily distracted…oooohh look that bunny has a target on its back.
Author’s note: We’d like to thank our friend, Pete Brandvold for graciously agreeing to appear as one of our characters. Pete is a well known and many times over published western author. Any of you who’d like to strap on a six-gun and ride a dusty, action-packed trail check out Pete and his works here: http://www.peterbrandvold.com/
Author’s note 2: Pick up Cheerwine, dog treats and Milky Ways. And Brownies; for God’s sake, don’t forget the Brownies.
Will work for Double Stuffed Oreos served with cold milk.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Where we left off: Meanwhile back at the ranch:
Scott entered the Great Room, a smile lighting the pale eyes as he saw his father standing at the fax machine behind his desk. Today is the day, he thought. The great adventure. In less than an hour, he, Johnny and his father would be on their way to Los Angeles.
Today was Johnny’s first appointment with the plastic surgeon that would be removing the tattoos. No more monkeys, he mused. Once again, his kid brother was actually going to be able to venture out of his room without so much as a t-shirt.
“Sir,” he called out in greeting.
Murdoch turned slightly to face his son, holding his hand up and indicating that the younger man should remain silent. His cell phone was pressed against his right ear, and he was pulling sheets from the receive tray as he spoke in hushed tones. When the conversation concluded, he stood for a time, staring out the arched window; as if gathering himself. Finally, he turned completely around; a sheaf of papers in his hand. “Paul,” he said. “Paul O’Brien’s humvee struck an IED at 0800 hours yesterday morning in Afghanistan. He didn’t make it.”
Scott crossed the room to the desk. “Dad, I’m sorry.” Paul O’Brien and Murdoch had enlisted together, and although their career paths had often led them in different directions; they had remained close friends. A bad marriage and a troublesome wife had caused O’Brien problems that on two occasions had prevented him from making rank; but the man had persevered.
He had also raised a daughter as sole custodial parent.
Murdoch was massaging his right temple. “You know that Paul’s daughter, Teresa, is my god-child.”
Scott’s head came up and he felt his right eye twitching. Paul and his daughter had often joined the Lancer clan on occasional family outings. The girl had been adorable when she was a small child, but somewhat of a brat as she got older. “And…” he asked.
“…and Paul has named me as her legal guardian.” He hefted the stack of papers he had taken from the fax machine. “She’s the same age as Johnny,” he continued.
“And…” Scott asked a second time, the volume rising.
“Teresa will be arriving here at Lancer prior to Paul’s funeral.” Murdoch had placed the papers in a neat stack on his desk. “After the funeral, she will be staying.”
Scott’s eyes closed momentarily. The idea of two teenagers in the same house was enough to make him reconsider having taken compassionate leave. “Sir, I’ve been thinking that it’s about time to confirm what my next posting will be.”
Murdoch looked across at his elder son, and smiled. “That’s already been taken care of, son.” The smile grew. “I was going to save it as a surprise.”
Just then, Johnny came walking through the doors. He had intended to bitch about the clothes Maria had laid out for him -- the damned dorky slacks and the stupid short-sleeved shirt -- but changed his mind when he saw the stunned look on his older brother’s face. “What surprise?” he asked.
“You’re brother has been assigned here as my adjutant, it’s no longer temporary duty,” Murdoch answered. The General’s smile grew as he addressed his elder son. “It worked for Dwight Eisenhower,” he teased. “What’s the point of having the stars if you don’t use them on occasion?”
Johnny was doing a poor imitation of an Irish jig as he danced closer to his brother and clapped him on the back. “Whooee,” he crowed, side-steeping away as his brother took a playful swing at him. “No she… kidding!” He caught himself just as Harlan Garrett came into the room.
Harlan was carrying a briefcase; which he handed off to Scott. “You can deliver these for me to Stefanos?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, Grandfather.” He turned again to his sire. “About our trip to Los Angeles, sir? I’ve got the ‘copter prepped and we can leave any time. Our…” he grinned across at his brother, “…appointment is at ten.”
Johnny sighed; fighting the urge to argue just for the sake of arguing. Truth be told, he was getting pretty tired of Maria forever tugging at his shirt to look at the damned tattoo and then smacking his ass with that fuckin’ spoon if he wasn’t fast enough to get away. He turned to his brother, “I’ll take Ha’s briefcase and stow it in the chopper,” he wiggled his fingers at his brother. “Ain’t like we got all day,” he groused.
Murdoch glanced at his younger son. Night and day, he thought to himself. The boy was actually pouting. “Good idea, son,” he said. His gaze shifted to Harlan, and the two men shared a smile as the elderly Bostonian mouthed an encouraging ‘One day at a time…’
The General made a shooing motion with his hands. “Proceed,” he ordered, ushering his sons towards the front door. “I need to speak with Cip and Frank before we leave…”
Almost immediately, the big man made an about face and turned to face his father-in-law. “Harlan,” he began, pausing just a moment as he mentally organized his thoughts. The next words came softly, filled with great restraint. “Paul O’Brien was killed in Afghanistan.” He was silent again for a brief moment. “I’ll be attending to preparations for his funeral while I’m with Johnny and Scott in Los Angeles; including making provisions for his daughter, Teresa.” He smiled at the older man. “It appears, Harlan, we’re going to have a second teen-ager living here at Lancer.”
There was the sound of soft laughter as the silver-haired Bostonian shook his head. “It never stops, does it?” he smiled. He gestured with his right hand, as if grasping for something tangible. “You think you’ve regained a measure of control over your life, and God in His infinite wisdom…” he chuckled, reconsidering his words, “…or because of His rather wry sense of humor, tosses yet another challenge into the mix.” Reaching out, he laid a reassuring hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder. “We survived the debacle when Jelly and Ms. Ferris were here…” had it only been two weeks? “…and I’m sure we’ll survive this, Murdoch,” he cajoled. The smile grew. “Of course, if things become too intense I’ll simply return to Boston or the house at Newport Beach, while you on the other hand...”
Murdoch snorted. “Thank you, Harlan,” he grimaced, pretending to be annoyed, “I knew I could count on your support.”
The front door opened, and Scott stepped hurriedly into the hallway. “Johnny forgot his billfold upstairs, and he’s whining about not having any gum or anything to read,” he grinned. He sprinted towards the stairs, pausing midway up the stairwell; turning around. “I’ve told Cip and Frank you want to see them before we leave and they said they would come up to the house.” Message delivered, the blond resumed his upwards trek.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was standing on the tarmac; hands behind his back, twiddling his thumbs. He had already stowed Ha’s soft leather briefcase in the ‘copter and was now getting bored. He shot a look at the front door of the hacienda; wondering how the Hell it could take big brother so damned long to fetch a billfold, a magazine and a couple of sticks of gum.
The old man was being unusually pokey, too. That one was hard to figure. Everything at Lancer ran on military time, and tardiness was not tolerated, a lesson that Johnny was still learning.
Absently, the youth began pacing, every once in awhile turning to gaze at the front door. Doing an abrupt turn, he stopped his solitary back-and-forth tracking, watching as Cipriano, the ranch manager, and Frank, the estancia’s jack-of-all-trades, crossed the courtyard. Shit, he thought. Now what?
He scratched at his right ear, and then his right foot began its usual dance, the toe tapping against the black asphalt. Giving up, he headed towards the ‘copter, and climbed in. Settling into the pilot’s seat, he picked up the high-impact, gloss white helmet; hefting it for weight. A small grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as he fingered the name embossed across the front: Lancer, S. Good old Boston, he thought. Nothin’ fancy or flashy; just tellin’ it like it is.
He eased into the seat harness and fastened the buckles, and then-- just for the hell of it -- put on the helmet; feeling the pressure as his hair was compacted against his forehead and his neck. Bet this gets hotter’n Hell, he mused. Just as quickly, he dismissed the thought. There was so much more than the helmet to pique his interest.
He stole another quick glance at the house. Nothing and nobody was stirring, and he immediately turned his attention back to the cluster of instruments. So many read-out screens, he pondered; so many buttons and switches…
…so little time? Again, he glanced toward the house. Then, grinning, he pulled down the polarized helmet visor and took another long look at the control panel. All those read-out screens and no light. Click. Almost without thinking about it, he flicked a single switch.
Snap! he thought, watching the screens come alive. He was really concentrating now. So how hard can this be? Unbidden, the tip of his tongue slipped out at the right-hand corner of his mouth; the action somehow pushing his brain into high gear. Hell, it ain’t as if I haven’t seen Scott do this a gazillion times. All I gotta do is get everything workin’ just right; and all together. Multitasking, he remembered his brother saying. Well, it ain’t like I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
He pushed a second button and the quiet whine of the engine sounded as the beast purred alive; followed by a steady whup-whup-whup that increased in rhythm. Still focused, the youth gripped the control stick; a snicker coming as he remembered a particularly raunchy joke Scott had told him re: why ‘copters had joy sticks instead of modified steering wheels. His brow furrowed a bit as he forced himself to think of something -- anything -- else.
And then he felt the chopper lift off the tarmac…
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Deep in conversation, Murdoch Lancer and the three other men stepped out onto the front patio to be greeted by the distinct sound of shattering Plexiglas and the grinding crunch of metal cutting into asphalt. Gut instinct prompted their next move; all four men belly-flopping immediately to the ground as they sought cover. A chunk of macadamized tarmac the size of a man’s head tore through the air above them, slamming through the three-inch thick front door of the hacienda with the same devastating force as an antitank missile.
Scott was the first to regain his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his Grandfather’s pale countenance appear in the gaping hole in the front door. Then, like a sprinter responding to a starter’s pistol, he came from a half crouch and began running towards the airstrip. Frank followed him at a similar pace; Murdoch and Cipriano falling in behind.
The blond was the first to reach the helicopter, which was now nose down on the tarmac, the tail still suspended in the air as the engine died and the rotor slowly churned to a near-standstill. Scott dropped to his belly, snake-crawling across the tarmac towards the chopper’s cabin. “Johnny!” he called, edging into the narrow space between the sprung cabin door and the now damaged runway.
Johnny was hanging upside down in the cockpit; held in place by the safety harness. Four inches separated him from the spider-web of Plexiglas that was now buckling beneath the weight of the over-turned chopper. Scott watched in macabre fascination as his little brother removed the borrowed helmet, the tangle of dark hair momentarily hiding the boy’s eyes. There was, he realized, no blood, anywhere.
“Johnny…y…y,” the words came from between clenched teeth.
Immediately, the younger man turned to face his brother. “A…Scott…”
Reaching inside the cockpit, Scott slapped the palm of his right hand against the safety release on the seat harness; at the same time grabbing the front of his brother’s shirt. Assisted by the natural pull of gravity and ignoring the muffled ‘ouch’ as the boy’s head made sudden contact with the windshield, the blond tugged at his brother and pulled him free of the belt, physically hauling his compact sibling out through the collapsing cockpit door.
Murdoch pulled to an abrupt halt, sucking in a great lung full of air as he watched his elder son pull his youngest from the wrecked chopper. Both young men were on their feet now, Scott giving Johnny a thorough once-over and a vigorous patting down. Struggling to stay in control, the big man finally found his voice. “Is he hurt?”
Scott snorted. “No, sir,” he ground out, “he fell on his head.”
Around them came the noise of several vehicles as a half dozen of the ranch hands arrived; Cipriano and Frank immediately taking charge as they directed the small red fire truck closer to the twisted remains of the chopper. A stream of white foam began to cover the tarmac.
The single word was more than enough. Johnny’s head snapped up, and he saw the look on his father’s face. The words ‘discretion is the better part of valor’ suddenly assaulted his brain, and he took off at a full run.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Harlan Garrett stood at the open front door of the hacienda, a severe frown marring his otherwise benevolent features as he watched his youngest grandson racing towards the house full bore. He opened the door wider and stood back, aware of a sudden breeze as the boy rushed by him and headed for the stairs.
“Oh, no, you don’t, young man!!”
Johnny was a third of the way up the broad staircase when he came to an immediate halt. He turned, his mouth dropping open. “Ha?”
“Come down here, now, John!” the older man ordered.
It suddenly occurred to Johnny that the hallway was getting crowded. Maria had just come in from the kitchen, Murdoch and Scott had just come through the front door, and Ha -- the old man he had always considered as his second grandfather…
Unable to stop himself, Johnny laughed. Three generations stood before him; all of them fair-skinned and light of hair. His own skin was a subtle blending of his father and his Latino mother, not dark, not light… The laughter came again and just as quickly ceased. One by one, he explored the faces of his family: faces that were growing redder by the second.
Finally, his gaze rested on Ha. He bit his lip to stop the now-nervous laughter that was threatening to erupt; the effort making him want to cross his legs in a very dire need to keep from pissing his pants. Ha’s face was now nearing a shade of plum that was all too familiar, the same shade of purple he’d seen all too often on his father’s face. It made him wonder -- in a moment of even further insanity -- if his father and Ha weren’t more closely related than they let on.
“Now, John!” Ha ordered a second time, pointing to the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs. It was clear from the expression on his face he wasn’t going to make the same request a third time.
A random thought came to the boy: how -- during the horror flicks he and Kevin loved to watch -- they always laughed at how stupid the characters behaved when they were in danger; running towards the trouble instead of away from it. Resigned, he headed back down the stairs, one slow step at a time, his feet dragging.
Johnny turned to face Maria, his eyes watering as his right hand fanned at the seat of his britches. “Jesus, Joseph and Mary!” he shouted. “That fuckin’ hurts!!”
There was a harsh sound as Harlan Garrett cleared his throat. “Maria,” he admonished, reaching out to relieve the woman of the wooden spoon.
The housekeeper frowned, as if she had been asked to surrender a weapon. Reluctantly, she gave up the ladle, silently handing it across to the older man. Without a word, she made a quick exit; fully aware of Johnny’s smirk as she made her way back to the kitchen.
Johnny was grinning like an idiot as he gloated over the housekeeper’s comeuppance. It was the first time in his memory Maria had ever acquiesced to a mere mortal, and he couldn’t resist tip-toeing after her a bit while mouthing a barely audible nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nahhh…
There was a collective intake of breath as Murdoch and Scott Lancer failed to hide their surprise when Harlan applied the wooden spoon to a totally shocked teen-ager. Johnny wisely said nothing, his mouth opening and closing as he concentrated on the most current assault on his behind: the second swat hurting a hell of a lot more than the first.
Harlan half-turned, nodding at his grandson and son-in-law before turning back to the youngest Lancer. “We,” he emphasized the word, “will be taking the Lear to Los Angeles. As to what occurred here…” his brow furrowed as he cast a baleful eye at the gaping hole in the front door and then to the chunk of asphalt still impaled in the wall at the end of the hallway, “I’m sure your father will take appropriate actions once we return home. Now march!” This time, gesturing with the spoon, he pointed to the now widely open front door and the world beyond.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was sulking. He was seated at the rear of the jet on a cushioned bench style seat that allowed him a great view of the clouds; his knees drawn up to his chest, his chin resting on his forearms. A lot of shit had come down after they boarded the plane; not the least of which was his father’s quiet announcement about Paul O’Brien. That one had hit him hard. It had brought home the fact that his father was all too often in harm’s way as well; something that had shook him to his very core.
The next bit of information had roused him from a state of worry to pure aggravation. Paul, it turns out, had named Murdoch as his daughter’s guardian, and Teresa -- snot-nosed, spoiled pain-in-the-ass, only child Teresa -- was going to be coming back to Lancer; to live. “You will think of her as your sister,” the Old Man had said, in that tone of voice that made it clear he wasn’t going to stand for any foolishness. Like that had a chance in Hell of happening. He didn’t need -- didn’t want -- any stinkin’ sister.
Scott reached out, tapping his brother on the shoulder and frowning when the younger man didn’t respond. Gently, he pulled Johnny sideways on the small couch; making room for himself. “Are you ready to talk?” he asked as he sat down.
The brunet’s head snapped up. “You fuckin’ ready to listen instead of hollerin’?” Johnny’s ears were still burning from the scolding Scott had delivered after he’d made a crack about Teresa coming to live at the ranch.
Raising his hand and hiding the smile, Scott nodded. He wisely decided not to bring up what they had actually discussed. “I told you, little brother. You’re free to leave any time…” He gave an ambiguous wave of a long-fingered hand.
“Yeah!” Johnny shot back. “You said the same thing when we were goin’ down the highway a hundred twenty miles an hour comin’ back from Big Bear. And that you had no intention of stoppin’ to let me out.”
“I wasn’t going a hundred twenty miles an hour,” Scott intoned. “It was more like a hundred five.”
Johnny bolted up from his seat. “So I should just pop the freakin’ emergency door and jump?”
Scott reached up, taking his brother’s arm. “Sit down, Johnny,” he ordered; not letting go until his brother had dropped back into his seat. “Whatever possessed you to try and fly that chopper?”
Because it was there, Johnny thought. Aloud he said, “Wasn’t thinkin’ about flyin’ the damned thing.” He shrugged, “I just started flippin’ switches and pushin’ buttons…”
Scott sighed, deeply, and briefly closed his eyes; rubbing them. “And what part of ignition did you not comprehend?” he asked.
“Jeez, Scott. It’s not like the Old Man has to pay for the damned thing!”
The blond peered out from beneath spread fingers. “What?” he croaked.
Johnny’s left shoulder lifted as he shrugged. He was scratching at his belly, thinking now of the doctor’s appointment and not some stupid helicopter. It wasn’t until Scott thumped his head right behind his left ear that he came back to the here and now. “Insurance,” he said, with all the wisdom of an eighteen-year-old that still didn’t grasp the concept of balancing a checkbook.
Scott actually laughed, but not very hard, and there wasn’t too much humor in the sound. Keeping the words private, he leaned in toward his younger brother. “This is how it works, Johnny,” he began. “I am the commander of a small destroyer.” The sarcasm was starting and he was actually maneuvering an invisible ship with his right hand. “I park it in a harbor, and then go on shore leave. When I come back, the ship is gone.” He snapped his finger. “Bingo. Next pay check, I don’t get any money and there is this big minus telling me I owe the government…say…” he shook his head, “half a gazillion dollars.”
The brunet snorted. “C’mon,” he scoffed, not believing one word his brother was saying. He brightened. “So you end up payin’ the deductible,” he teased, remembering something he had heard his Gramps bellyachin’ about after he’d had a fender-bender with the Ram.
Scott was beginning to wonder just how much he was going to have to teach his kid brother before he was ever allowed out to play by himself. “Our father is personally responsible for the equipment he’s assigned,” the blond announced. He came forward slightly in his seat, his elbows resting on his lean thighs. “Unless, of course, some miscreant actually had the balls to declare war on him, and in an act of aggression stole the helicopter and crashed it in a foolish attempt to escape.” He stood up and stretched. “In which case, the thief would be responsible for all the damages…” Fighting the smile, he turned away from his sibling and made his way back up the aisle to where the two older men were lounging. If he felt guilty about the half-truths he had just spun it didn’t show.
Johnny had swung his legs back up onto the cushioned bench, his back curling slightly as he drew his knees up tight against his chest; once again resting his chin on his forearms. A fuckin’ helicopter! he cursed. And I still ain’t worked off the money for the fines in Mexico. He closed his eyes, mentally doing the math. At the rate he was going, his children -- if he ever had the time to make any -- would be spending their golden years working to pay off his debts.
Murdoch watched as his elder son approached. He canted his head; his eyes narrowing as his gaze shifted towards Johnny and then back to the blond. “The conversation you were having with your brother,” he said, “appears to have been very intense.”
Scott smiled at his father and slid into his seat, fastening the seatbelt as the lights came on and the landing gear engaged. “I was just giving him a little something to think about, sir,” he grinned.
Harlan Garrett had just buckled in. “Scotty,” he murmured; a hint of rebuke in his voice.
The blond raised his right hand in a sign of peace. “If he’s worrying about something, sir, he doesn’t have time to think up any mischief.” Or making plans for dispatching a recently acquired sibling.
Teresa temporarily forgotten, Johnny responded to the Fasten Seat Belt sign. Already, he was beginning to cogitate; mulling over in his mind just what he’d have to do to dig himself out of this current mess over the wrecked helicopter. Show business, he thought, perking up. Hell, I don’t even live that far from Hollywood. How hard could it be to be a movie star?
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The doctor’s office was on the fourteenth floor of a steel and glass tower that was retro art deco with a strange whisper of early Frank Lloyd Wright. The three older men exchanged some mild commentary regarding the structure, enough of a discussion that it caused Johnny to stand back and take a look for himself. He didn’t like what he saw. As far as he was concerned, the building was an eyesore: it blocked the early morning sun. “Jeez,” he muttered, giving his brother the elbow as he swung his gaze to the adjoining buildings and gauging their lesser height against the horizon. “Looks like the guy was givin’ the city the finger.”
Scott shook his head and laughed. Leave it to his kid brother to put more description in one sentence than a skilled writer could plaster over ten pages of Architectural Digest. “Come on, Johnny. If you’re a good boy, I’ll see if I can’t convince the doctor to give you a lollipop.”
Harlan Garrett gave his son-in-law a sympathetic handshake, and disappeared back into the chauffeured limousine.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The receptionist, Mari Kit Hardwick, was a perky little auburn-haired thing who had a perfect French manicure and a mischievous smile. She gave Johnny a quick once-over, a bit of a sigh coming as she realized just how young he was; but knowing he was going to be a heart-breaker. The older Lancer son wasn’t so bad, either. “Doctor Jenkins’ forwarded your son’s records, General Lancer,” she smiled, turning to the older man. “Along with the snapshot,” her blue eyes were dancing now, “of the…tattoo.” She bit her bottom lip to stop the laughter; her chin dimpling at the corner of her mouth as she handed the General the clipboard.
Johnny’s face flushed, his cheeks coloring; one side of his mouth coming up in a smile that creased the skin at the corners of his eyes. He was half-tempted to ask the young woman if she wanted to see the real thing but quickly changed his mind when he caught his father’s gaze in the large mirror on the back wall. Scott caught the look, too, and snagged his brother’s arm.
Murdoch watched as his sons made their way to the main part of the waiting room. He’d read the look in Johnny’s eyes, and thanked whatever gods that were listening that the boy hadn’t performed even a partial strip-tease to show off the artwork. Shaking his head, he concentrated on the stack of forms.
Scott strolled over to the rack on the wall containing informative pamphlets on the many procedures offered by the office of plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Weiss. Scanning the choices, he quickly selected the ones on laser tattoo removal. Internalizing the wicked laugh that wanted to bubble from his mouth, he pressed his lips tightly together as he pulled brochures that detailed some of the more painful methods of removing body art; perfect implements of torture for use with Johnny.
Hearing a muffled giggle coming from the direction of the receptionist’s desk, the blond Lancer turned his attention to that portion of the office. Miss Hardwick was valiantly trying to enter information on the computer, while occasionally glancing across the room, her shoulders shaking in laughter. Shifting his observation to his little brother, Scott groaned when he caught Johnny in the act of baring his belly art. The scamp undulated his stomach muscles, so it appeared the first monkey’s anus was protruding and expanding with the ripple of his skin. This made it seem as though the finger of the second chimp moved closer to the inked orifice…and then Johnny added flatulence sound effects with his mouth.
Marching across the room, Scott slapped the brochures clutched in his hand against his little brother’s abdomen. “Pull you shirt down, now,” he hissed through the fake smile plastered on his face and directed towards their father, who was looking at them curiously.
“Lighten up, big brother. I think she’s impressed with what she sees,” Johnny declared, winking saucily at the woman.
“There’s definitely something wrong with your thinking skills. You’re about to crash and burn just like this morning when you thought you could fly a helicopter. That is not the look of a woman who is impressed, that’s morbid fascination.” His voice lowered. “She is also probably wondering how you’ve been allowed out of the house without a leash and an electronic training collar.”
Johnny snorted, shifting in his chair as he pulled his shirt down. “What cha got there?” he asked when he noticed the colorful papers gripped in his brother’s hand.
“These?” Scott pondered, nonchalantly shrugging his left shoulder as he arranged the procedure pamphlets in order of least amount of pain to most. “They’re brochures explaining the methods available for tattoo removal.” As if what he was holding was nothing more significant than a simple how-to manual, he offered the trifold leaflet to his brother. “Take a look at this one. Dermabrasion, a process where, over a period of weeks, they apply a caustic acid to your skin until they reach the middle layer where the tattoo ink is, and exfoliate it…of course it does tend to leave a scar.”
“You’re lyin’, tryin’ to scare me,” Johnny snapped, snatching the paper from his brother and scanning it. His face paled at the graphic before, during and after photos. “Ain’t no damn way I’ll let anybody put acid on me,” he declared, balling up the paper and bouncing it off the end of Scott’s nose.
Delighting in the discomfort he was causing his brother and well aware of his baby brother’s aversion to what he deemed needless pain, Scott turned the worry up a notch. “Perhaps you would find cryosurgery more to your liking,” he stated, handing over the next in full living color sheaf of paper. “The surgeon freezes the tattoo and then peels it off.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open in shock. “That can’t be a real medical treatment…peelin’ a person like a grape. That’s like medieval torture!” Ripping up the colorful sheet, Johnny added, “Besides, you know how I hate to be cold, there’s no way in Hell I’d let some quack freeze practically half of my body.” Damn…they probably call it cryosurgery because it makes the patient cry for mercy!
“Well, that’s true,” Scott conceded; fighting the urge to laugh as Johnny squirmed in his seat. He figured by the time he got around to showing Johnny the explanation of how the practically pain free laser removal process worked his little brother would be ready to comply with anything requested of him. Before he could hand the next brochure over an impatient Johnny plucked it from his hand.
“I’ll probably go with this one,” Johnny stated boldly, winking at the receptionist before turning his attention to the third pamphlet. A soft moan escaped his lips at the pictures under the title Tissue Expansion/Staged Excision.
Scott managed to fake a very real looking shudder, his eyes widening. “Frankly, I’m rather surprised you would choose to have a balloon placed under your skin, have it slowly inflated to a large and larger size over a period of weeks until your flesh stretches far enough they can just cut out the tattoo and pull the new ends together. You would, of course, lose your belly button…not to mention the scarring,” he sighed, his lips twitching as he watched the look of horror creep across Johnny’s rapidly paling features.
Dropping the brochure like a coal from the fires of Hell, Johnny hissed, “No fuckin’ way. I ain’t walkin’ around for weeks lookin’ like a pregnant man while my skin stretches. Where the Hell did Dad find this quack’s name? In a box of fuckin’ Cracker Jacks?” Damn…how can I get out of this?
Seeing the familiar ‘plotting something’ look transform his baby brother’s face, Scott decided it was time to let him off the hook before he had a full blown case of rebellion on his hands. The last thing they needed was a showdown between his father and brother in the middle of the waiting room. “Doctor Weiss is an excellent plastic surgeon, Johnny. He does a lot of work with war scarred veterans and civilian burn victims,” Scott stated as he handed the last pamphlet over. “Here’s the literature on tattoo removal by laser. You’ll note it’s practically painless. Your appointment today is to determine just how deeply your tattoo was placed and the quality of the ink. It’s possible they will start the removal treatments today.”
“Treatments,” Johnny questioned loudly, his voice raising an octave. “Just how many times am I gonna have to go through this?” His eyes began darting about the room looking for possible escape routes. He didn’t want to read the last brochure; the ones he had already seen had progressed from bad to worse to no damn way.
Detecting the signs of flight in his youngest, Murdoch stacked the finished forms, and then stood and marched towards his sons, arriving in time to block Johnny’s path as he popped out of the chair. “What’s going on here?” Murdoch asked as he grabbed Johnny’s arm with one hand and pushed the forms at Scott with the other. His head canted slightly as he caught the guilty expression his eldest son was wearing; the frown coming.
“Nothin’ is goin’ on and nothing is gonna go on. I’m leavin’,” Johnny vowed, his nervousness acerbating his Texas drawl. “I ain’t lettin’ nobody cut on me with lasers,” he declared trying to free his arm from his father’s iron grip.
“Calm down,” Murdoch ordered, giving his son a little shake as he forced him back down into his chair. “First of all, there is no cutting involved in laser tattoo removal.” Prying the crumpled brochure from his son’s white clenched fingers, he instructed, “Take a deep breath and let’s read this over together.” Groaning, the big man lowered himself into the chair next to his sons.
Subconsciously seeking the strength and security of his father’s presence, Johnny leaned against the big man’s arm as he smoothly read the description of the procedure in his deep soothing voice.
“Lasers are used to destroy the pigments in the tattoo. Tattoo ink is a colored liquid, the laser crystallizes the ink...making it a hard substance. The body recognizes this crystal as a foreign object and either digests (metabolizes) it or pushes it out through the skin’s surface. The surface of the skin is transparent to the laser beam while the heat of the laser focuses at the precise level of the pigment. The pigment chars and breaks down into small particles that are removed by the body’s immune system.” Murdoch read, wrapping an arm around Johnny’s shoulder in a bid to further calm and comfort him.
“Are we experiencing a case of nerves?” asked an amused voice.
The three Lancers looked up and found a tall, fortyish looking man standing before them in a crisp brilliant white lab coat, embroidered with the name Dr. Robert Weiss.
“I’m afraid we have a case of him being fed too much information by his older brother,” Murdoch stated, reaching out to shake the man’s hand, and then casting a ‘we’ll talk about this later’ look at Scott, making his older son swallow in guilty apprehension.
The physician managed to suppress the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Let me put your mind to ease before we even go to the exam room. I’ve reviewed the case files sent to me by Doctor Jenkins and I am fairly certain due to the lack of the tattoo artist’s skill and the low quality, single hue blue ink we should have no trouble removing the tattoo in just one session. The only drawback is it will take a longer session due to the size of the area it covers. If you’ll follow me, we’ll go look at the equipment and I’ll explain things in a little more depth.” Dr. Weiss stepped back and motioned to the door that lead to the exam rooms.
As the physician walked away, Scott followed, his steps stalling when he realized his father and brother had yet to move. Looking back he watched as his Dad, head leaning down, lips positioned next to Johnny’s ear, spoke with his little brother. Johnny nodded his head though his body quivered slightly, the action stopping when Murdoch embraced him quickly in a one armed hug and then rubbed his back in a soothing gesture. Sighing inwardly, Scott felt remorseful for teasing his baby brother with too much information. Johnny was so adept at projecting an aura of cocky bravado that it was easy to forget he had faced many things that would have the average teen running for the comfort of a parent.
Catching the regretful look on his older son’s face, Murdoch smiled encouragingly and winked as he once again wrapped a long arm about his youngest son’s shoulder’s and gently guided him forward. Scott waited on the two and as they drew even, his father embraced him with the other arm.
Standing outside of the room he intended to use, Dr. Weiss watched the small family as they lent emotional support to the youngest. As they stepped into the access hall, he motioned to the open door to his right, “In here, gentlemen. You’re the only clients here right now because I blocked off the majority of the day for Johnny as a favor to our old friend Sam Jenkins.” The doctor failed to conceal his surprise when his patient stepped forward, away from the safety of his family and a mask of cool indifference momentarily replaced his youthful features.
The dark expression left as easily as it came. “Hey, doc, I hope you don’t think you’re gonna be makin’ me wear one of those sissy gowns where my bare ass is gonna be hangin out,” he joked. He quickly brushed past the man and took a flying leap; landing on the exam table with such force the paper ripped.
The doctor grinned as the youth’s father and brother shook their heads, the emotions on their face warring between irritation and resigned amusement as they followed Johnny into the room. “There’s no need for the gown. Just remove your shirt. Laser light tattoo removal is non-invasive,” Dr. Weiss stated as he rolled his stool and tray closer to the table.
“I think Johnny was wondering about any pain involved with the procedure,” Murdoch announced, catching Johnny’s wadded up and tossed shirt as he eased his long frame into the chair Scott had just slid across the floor. The blond moved to stand behind the exam table.
“There is a slight amount of discomfort; a light stinging sensation that may increase to a more intense burning feeling; rather like a sunburn. It really depends on the person and their pain threshold,” Weiss stated, pulling on a pair of gloves. He picked up a tube of numbing gel and applied a thin coating to the very small tattoo of the crossed revolvers on Johnny’s wrist.
“Wheeeewwwww,” Johnny whistled through clenched teeth, “That’s cold.”
“We’ll give the gel time to do its job while I give you a concise explanation of what the laser light does. I know Sam gave your father a more detailed report of what to expect,” Weiss paused making sure he had their attention. “Basically, the laser breaks the ink down so it’s absorbed by the body. Different colored lasers work on the various inks. Black, blue and red inks are the easiest to remove. There are three levels of lasers used in tattoo removal, the shortest is the green laser, the medium is the red laser and the longest is the infrared laser, which is attracted to black, blue and brown ink.” Powering up the machine, the doctor picked up the wand apparatus. “This clear tube supplies a flow of cool air across the area, the light emits from this aperture, it’s attracted to the ink because your skin is transparent to it,” he finished, gripping Johnny’s arm he pulled it forward and turned it over, exposing the small tattoo.
Suddenly nervous, Johnny pulled his arm back. Swallowing the growing lump in his throat, he gagged a bit as his mouth went dry and gummy; his tongue momentarily stuck to the roof of his mouth. Finally he managed to speak. “How many times will I have to have this done?”
Renewing his grip on the youth’s arm and studying the tattoo closely, Dr. Weiss determined his initial assessment after viewing the medical record and photo was correct. “Due to the poor quality ink -- which from the looks of it was diluted with water -- and the fact the tattoo doesn’t extend very far down in the epidermis, I’m quite sure we can completely remove it today…at most it might take 2 sessions, though I sincerely doubt it.”
“Wonderful,” stated Murdoch, startling everyone when he clapped his hands loudly to the good news.
Re-adjusting his grip, the doctor spoke directly to his patient before he started. “You going to hear a rat-a-tat-tat sound, Johnny; like a toy machine gun. Don’t be alarmed. It’s just the laser finding and displacing the ink.”
The Lancers all jerked at the first burst of sound and watched intently as the doctor followed the colored design. Murdoch gasped and rose from his chair when he realized that though the blue ink miraculously disappeared, the skin was puffing up like a raised scar in the shape of the crossed revolvers. “What’s it doing to his skin? Is that a permanent scar?” Murdoch questioned, ready to reconsider his decision if the solution was more unsightly than the problem.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” the doctor chuckled, “It’s a temporary reaction. It will fade in a couple of minutes.” Turning his attention back to the patient the doctor noticed his slight grimacing, “Are you experiencing much discomfort?”
“It feels like someone keeps pinching me and kind of warm and tingly like when you scratch an itchy spot over and over,” Johnny admitted, as he chewed his lip apprehensively.
Two minutes later the doctor announced, “All done with that one.” He reached around and flipped the switch to the machine, and then picked up a cold pack from the tray, squeezed it to start the cooling action and pressed it to Johnny’s wrist.
Just as the physician started to speak, Murdoch’s cell phone rang with the military siren ringtone that signal a call from his office. Holding his finger up, asking for a moment, the General flipped the phone open and barked, “General Lancer.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged curious looks at the change in their father’s demeanor as he listened to whoever was calling. He raised his frame to his full height, pursed his lips into tight lines of displeasure and furrowed his brow in obvious anger. “Give me the address, Lieutenant. I’m in Los Angles now. I’ll take care of the matter myself.”
“Uh oh…somebody is in trouble,” Johnny sing songed.
“It certainly sounds like it,” Scott agreed, wincing at the familiar clenching of his father’s jaws.
Snapping the phone shut, Murdoch ran his hand through his hair in agitation. “The Family Services Officer went to pick Teresa up from her campus this morning to get her set up to come here and she was not there.” Grinding his teeth so tightly his jaws made a popping sound when he went to speak again, Murdoch announced, “Apparently, Teresa has a problem staying where she’s expected to be. She accompanied a friend home to L.A. for a three day weekend and failed to return to her school.”
Scott immediately tensed. “Were they able to reach her to inform her about her father?” he asked, concerned that his Dad might have to break the bad news to the teen.
“She knows. They had her cell phone number to contact her if all else failed. She’s not fifteen minutes from here,” the General replied, huffing out a breath and chewing his lip much like his youngest was doing only moments before.
The blond was shaking his head. Young lady, you are definitely starting off life with General Lancer on the wrong foot. “If you’ll give me the address, sir, I’ll get a cab and go pick her up,” he offered. “Or I can call Grandfather, have him send the limo back here, and pick her up with that.”
Before Murdoch could decide who should go after his ward, Dr. Weiss called for his attention. “General, if you’ll look at your son’s wrist, I’m sure you will be pleased and relieved with the outcome.” Removing the cold pack, he gestured for the tall Scot to join him; revealing a remarkably unblemished area on Johnny’s exposed wrist.
“WOW!” Johnny exclaimed, “That really wasn’t bad and it didn’t take long at all. Will this big one on my belly come off just as easy?” he asked gesturing to the cavorting monkeys on his stomach.
“This looks really good,” Murdoch murmured, as he gently inspected Johnny’s wrist. Turning the appendage over in his much larger hand, the big man recalled the heady thrill of inspecting Johnny’s limbs in much the same manner on the day he had been born. Even then he had been in awe of the physical beauty and perfection of his youngest son.
The physician was tracing a long forefinger just above the upturned tail of the foremost monkey, an amused smile on his face. It took him a little time to regain his professional demeanor. “I see no reason why the precocious primates can’t be just as easily removed as the wrist tattoo. It will take longer; because we’ll need to rest every few minutes to apply cold packs to the area we’ve just lasered before moving on to the next,” he informed them. Picking up the tube of numbing gel, he spoke again to the boy. “Johnny, I need for you to push your pants lower on your hips so I can get a coating of this over the entire tattoo.”
Biting his lip in indecision as he watched the doctor spread the medicine on Johnny’s abdomen, Murdoch finally spoke. “Johnny, if you think you can get along fine without me, I’d like to go retrieve Teresa myself,” Murdoch ventured, studying his son’s body language for any indication of a negative reaction to the plan.
The youth shrugged. He was actually mellowing somewhat regarding Teresa; could even understand her acting out. Hell, if anything happened to his father, he’d be a basket case; but he’d have Scott to lean on. Teresa didn’t have anybody. “I’ll be fine, Dad. It smarts some, but nothin’ I can’t handle,” he assured his father, waving his hand in a nonchalant manner. “Hey, maybe we’ll be done by the time you get back and we can all go to Taco Bell for lunch…I’m hungry.” As if to confirm his declaration, Johnny’s stomach rumbled loudly.
Scott laughed; lightly smacking his brother’s upper arm. “You’re always hungry! And why would you want to go to a Taco Bell drive-thru when there are many excellent restaurants here in downtown L.A.?”
“I like Taco Bell; that new box thing they got with the black tortillas. Besides, we can park and go in if that’s all you don’t like about it,” Johnny grumbled, the beginnings of a pout pushing his bottom lip outward.
Smirking at his little brother, Scott refused to give up. “I should get to choose our lunch locale. Unlike you, I’ve been very well behaved this morning, and I didn’t land a very expensive helicopter upside down.”
“Boys,” Murdoch admonished, ending the brotherly banter. “We’ll decide after I return with Teresa. I’ll be just long enough to allow her to pack her bags,” he promised. Reaching out, he gave a squeeze to his youngest son’s shoulder; at the same time shooting a ‘you better take care of him’ look to his eldest. Then, without another word, he marched resolutely out the door.
Dr. Weiss waited until he heard the door shut. “I’d like to hear this story about the helicopter landing,” he said, trying to draw his patient’s attention away from his departing father. Despite the youth’s assurances that he would be fine, the physician had noticed the tensing of the boy’s body as his Dad left.
Picking up the laser wand and switching the machine on, Dr. Weiss snickered as the blond brother related the events of the morning and Johnny’s experiment with flight. The longer he listened, the more certain he was he needed to call his wife and ask her to reconsider her recently expressed desire to try for a second son.
“I’ll be workin’ for the REST of my life just to pay Dad back,” Johnny was complaining; just as quickly morphing into a more upbeat mood. “Unless, o’ course, I can find a job that pays really good.” Lying so still was making him tired and he yawned. And then he began to daydream. Aloud. “I’m thinkin’ I might give movie actin’ a shot,” he announced. “Action star, I think.” He raised his head to look at the doctor. “Mel Gibson’s gettin’ on, ya know. Pretty soon, they’re gonna want to be remakin’ Road Warrior; the Lethal Weapon stuff.”
Scott doubled over in laughter, his eyes tearing. “Keep dreaming, little brother. You still have high school to finish and then it’s off to college…not to mention you’re basically under house arrest after this morning’s stunt,” he reminded his sibling, delighting in the annoyed glare the youth sent is way.
Realizing the interaction with his older brother was taking Johnny’s mind off the slight discomfort and stinging sensation of the tattoo removal, Dr. Weiss encouraged the blond to share more stories of the misadventures of his little brother, including the story of the tattoo’s origin; each tale convincing the physician that zero population growth for the next decade or so might be a really good idea. The ploy worked, though every once in a while his patient flinched as he methodically worked on removing one section after the other; working from the outside of the design inward, pausing every few minutes to apply a cold pack before advancing to the next area.
Nearly an hour later all that remained was the inked design around Johnny’s navel. Weiss could tell from the frequent cringes and twitches that the effect of the numbing gel was wearing off. “Johnny, all I have left is this small area around your umbilicus…” he smiled, “…your belly button. We can stop and apply some more numbing gel if it’s getting to be too painful.”
Johnny was clenching his teeth, and he exhaled; slowly. “Nah, it’s okay. It’s just feelin’ really warm, kind of like sittin’ on a hot vinyl car seat in shorts,” he explained, shifting slightly from the discomfort of being still for so long. “Go ahead; just let ‘er buck. I’m ready to be done with this.”
So am I, Scott thought. He had been lounging against one of the three foot plastered and encased steel support beams that separated the eight foot wide tinted picture windows. “Dad is back,” he announced spying his Grandfather’s limo in the street below.
Johnny shifted on the table; rising up slightly as he attempted to see out of the window as well. All of a sudden he heard and felt a sizzle, his body jerking as a searing pain caused the muscles in his lower abdomen to flex. It was as if he was sitting in a puddle of water and someone had just poked him in the belly with a cattle prod. “Whoa!”
The pain momentarily robbed Johnny of breath but before he could bring the doctor’s attention to his extreme discomfort the rat-a-tat-tat of the laser resumed along with a burning agony. Yelping again in pain, Johnny knocked the doctor’s hand and laser wand away from his stomach. Struggling to sit fully up he blew out a lung full of air. “I need the cold pack,” he rasped, his breath hitching slightly; a lone tear trailing down his face as the doctor immediately pressed the cold packet to his belly. Johnny clenched it tightly to his navel; at the same time trying to get away from the pain. It wasn’t working, and his body convulsed as his heels slammed against the table. “Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ!” he cursed, his eyes watering. “That fuckin’ smarts!!”
Murdoch entered the office just in time to hear his youngest son’s breathless outburst. The obvious pain in his boy’s voice caused a total disregard for the cursing. Grabbing Teresa by the arm he pulled her along with him as he burst into the exam room. He was shocked to find both Scott and Weiss trying to control Johnny’s agitated movements. Turning loose of Teresa and rushing across the room, the worried father pushed the other two men out of the way and pulled his distressed son to his chest.
“What the Hell is going on here?” Murdoch demanded. His large right hand was making slow steady circles on his son’s back just between the shoulder blades.
“If you would give me access to my patient, that’s what I intend to find out,” the doctor snapped.
Murdoch was still cradling his son against his chest. Lifting the boy’s chin, he peered deeply into Johnny’s eyes. “What happened, son?”
The pain had eased somewhat, and Johnny’s breathing was less labored. “It got too hot…I could feel my skin burnin’,” he complained, shaking his head. Carefully, he pulled the cold pack aside to get a better look at his navel.
Weiss took charge when he spied blood on the chilled plastic bag. “Let me see,” he ordered sternly, motioning for Murdoch to stand aside as he eased Johnny back down onto the table. Pulling the exam light down for a closer look, he gingerly probed the youth’s navel, his touch surprisingly gentle. “I’ve never seen anything like this occur from a laser treatment.” His brow furrowed. “There’s a split in the skin, just on the inside edge of his navel.” Pressing lightly around the tender area with both forefingers, the doctor gasped when what appeared to be a miniscule metal button popped out of the small cut.
“Shit,” Scott exclaimed hotly as he recognized the small device the doctor was now cradling between his thumb and forefinger for their inspection. He had used them many times on SEAL missions.
“What is it, Scott?” Murdoch inquired, a bad feeling washing over him as he fought to keep his emotions under control in a conscious effort to not further alarm Johnny, who had just grabbed his hand.
“It’s a tracking device, sir,” Scott replied, a steely sternness hardening his voice and face. “The question of the day is just when was it inserted, and by whom!” Reaching out, he plucked the metallic disc from the doctor’s hand; and in the next instant was using his Swiss knife to carefully disable the device.
Turning his attention back to Johnny, Murdoch addressed the physician. “How bad is the wound?”
Weiss was still probing the injury. “Minor, and…” he looked directly at Scott, “…in answer to your question, fairly recent. The last month or so; probably at the same time he received the tattoo.” The doctor was removing his gloves. He discarded them and pulled a new pair from the dispenser on the wall. “I just need to clean and disinfect it. I’ll give you some antibiotic cream and he’ll need to keep a dry clean bandage on it,” the doctor instructed as he worked. “It wasn’t planted very deep and the opening doesn’t even require stitches. If I were you I’d take that straight to Sam Jenkins over at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They have the tools and knowledge there to find out when and where the device was made.”
“I think that’s a very good idea,” Scott agreed as he slipped the dismantled device into his shirt pocket. He shook his head negatively at his father before the older man could ask more questions in front of Johnny.
After more specific instructions from Dr. Weiss on post and preventive care, the adult Lancers, with one brooding teen female and an unusually pensive young man in tow, left to seek out the wise counsel of Sam Jenkins.
End part one
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was getting surly, the usual indication that he had gone too long without food. Taco Bell, however, was out of the question. After a whispered discussion with his father, Scott instructed his Grandfather’s chauffeur, Lucas Marshall, to head for a local sport’s bar not far from the airport. The Goal Post, a place Scott often met his married friends when in town, was family oriented and kid friendly. It also had the best sirloin burgers and French Fries on the West Coast.
When they pulled into the parking lot, Scott took just enough time to ask Marshall if he would care to join them; nodding his appreciation when the driver declined and said he would use the break to attend to some personal errands. Then, joining his family, he led the way into the restaurant.
Johnny was practically drooling at the aromas that permeated the air as they entered the main room. “Man, Scott; whatever they’re cookin’, I want two of ‘em.”
Scott snagged his brother’s arm just as the hostess approached them. “Table for four,” he smiled at the little redhead, “near the game room?” Then, addressing his brother, he nodded towards the double doors that separated the dining room from the gaming area. He dug into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. Two crisp twenty dollar bills appeared with remarkable speed. “Why don’t you take Teresa in there,” he nodded towards the banks of air hockey, billiard tables and assorted video games. “You can order your food on the touch screen by the door, and play some games while we wait.”
Murdoch Lancer watched as his younger son snatched the cash from his brother’s fingers; smiling as Johnny approached Teresa and the two teenagers -- without even speaking -- headed for the electronic playground. “Very smoothly done, Captain Lancer,” he complimented.
Scott’s cheeks colored slightly at his father’s compliment. “Our table, sir,” he smiled. Once seated, he signaled for the waitress. “The eight ounce sirloin burger, medium, with the works; skins-on fries and creamy coleslaw,” he ordered, “and sweetened tea. Dad?”
The General handed his menu to the girl without opening it. “I’ll have the same as my son,” he smiled. He turned to his eldest. “And you won’t be mentioning this to Sam.”
The words almost sounded like a threat, and Scott raised his hand as if taking an oath. But he had seen the twinkle in his father’s eyes. “Not one word,” he promised. “About Teresa?”
Murdoch inhaled. He took a long drink of water before responding. “I’m not sure, Scott. The last time I saw her was at her sixteenth birthday party two years ago, when Paul was still stationed at Bragg. She seemed to have a decent group of friends, and Paul’s sister was helping out. But when I talked to Paul just before he deployed, he said he had decided to enroll her in a private Catholic school while he was gone. He didn’t go into any detail, and I didn’t push…” His gaze swung to the glassed off room where Johnny and the girl were now engaged in a pretty intense game of air hockey. “I think she’s in shock right now; that it really hasn’t hit her.”
Scott nodded. He had experienced a number of losses during his time in the military -- was still experiencing them -- and understood first hand that sometimes reality was slow in coming. It wasn’t quite like a civilian death: someone close dying and put in the ground in a relatively short span of time. A service related loss, especially during a time of war, meant delays and a degree of ceremony; and in Paul’s case -- because of the IED -- a sealed casket that meant no last look, no final good-bye. He reached out his hand, grasping his father’s forearm. “We’ll deal with it, Dad. We’ll help Teresa deal with it.”
One problem addressed, the older man mused. “The tracking device, Scott. Has Johnny ever discussed what happened -- what he actually remembers about what happened -- when he was in Juárez?”
The blond was also ready to move on. He shook his head. “No.” The food had arrived, and Scott leaned back to make room for the over-sized plate. “He’s also done a good job of not telling me who was with him when he made that ride. Every time I try to bring it up, he manages to change the subject. I just assumed it was out of some misplaced loyalty to some of his older friends in Sabinal. I do know that Kevin Jackson wasn’t with him.”
Murdoch was studying his burger, as if reconsidering his choice of food. And then, thinking of the carefully planned, heart-wise meals Maria insisted on serving him -- she was constantly on him about his cholesterol -- he dug in. “I was wondering about that.” He took a bite of the beef, savoring the grease and the thick slice of Vidalia onion. “He’s only spoken to Kevin once since he’s been home, and I think that call ended in a quarrel.”
Scott looked up to see his brother and Teresa heading for the table. Both youngsters were carrying their baskets of food and super-sized plastic drink containers. “Maybe we should talk to Kevin,” he suggested quietly. He grinned up at his brother, his voice rising. “Out of money, or did she beat you?”
Teresa chose the seat next to Scott. She was wearing low cut jeans and a light weight ivory colored turtle neck; long sleeved. Her long hair was pulled back in and held in place by a thick tortoise-shelled clip. “I beat him,” she crowed, picking up a French fry and nibbling on it. “Three games out of five.”
Johnny snorted. His basket contained not one, but two burgers and he was already half way through the first one. “Letchewin,” he said around a huge chunk of beef and bun.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Murdoch scolded.
The boy frowned and washed down the food with a long drink of tea. “Said I let her win,” he groused.
The girl simply giggled.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The ride to Pasadena, only twelve miles from the Goal Post, took longer than anticipated because of a five mile stretch of road construction. Murdoch took advantage of the delay, finally locating Sam at a restricted air strip NASA used to field test new technologies. Once he had the precise location, he provided the co-ordinates to their driver. “Sam will meet us at the main gate,” he said, turning to face Scott. “He’s arranged for VIP passes for Johnny and Teresa.” Eyes narrowing, he turned to his younger son. “Don’t let that go to your head, son,” he cautioned. “If you divulge any secrets, your brother will have to shoot you.”
Johnny’s mouth quirked up in a lop-sided grin. “Aw, he wouldn’t do that, Dad. Ha and Maria would get all pi… ticked off.” Aware the car had just made a right turn from the concrete highway onto a gravel road; he leaned forward in his seat and punched the power window button. A blast of warm air invaded the cool interior. “Well, that don’t look like much,” he observed, staring out the window.
Scott had to agree. He opened the rear door and stepped out on to the roadway. The surrounding country-side was remarkably barren except for miles of eight foot high cyclone fence topped by barbed wire. He could see several hangars in the distance, along with a strip of freshly painted and well maintained asphalt tarmac; but little activity.
Murdoch had stepped out of the car. He watched as a camouflaged humvee headed towards them; smiling when the vehicle pulled up on the opposite side of the gate and a casually clad Sam Jenkins climbed out. Waving the others forward, he approached the locked gateway. “Sam,” he greeted.
“Welcome to Area 52,” Sam joshed. He watched as the M.P. unlocked the gate and gestured for his guests to join him.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They were together in the private office Sam used when he was at the facility; a tidy 12 x 14 room filled with the latest in electronic gadgetry. The doctor was standing at a long table that contained a row of specialized microscopes; all of them capable of generating high resolution images on the bank of flat screen LCD monitors that lined the wall above. He was focusing the multi-powered lens on a scope that was linked to a computer, using the wireless mouse to grab the image on the screen and enlarge it even more. Finally satisfied with what he was seeing, he tapped out a series of commands on the keyboard. “I’ve scanned the device front and back, and produced a 3D image of the microchip; which is an excellent example of nanotechnology. The technicians at the main lab will run a check, and we should have the results in time for you to head back to the city to pick up Harlan for the flight back to Lancer.” He turned to face his companions. “Where did you say you found the device?”
Murdoch grimaced. “It was implanted in Johnny’s,” he cast a severe look at his youngest, “navel.”
Sam sucked in his bottom lip in an attempt to keep a straight face. “And it got there how?” he asked. It took everything he had not to reach out and pull up the younger man’s shirt.
“Don’t know,” Johnny ground out. “We got some other things we can see while we’re here? Me and T’resa are gettin’ kinda bored.”
“John,” Murdoch admonished. Rudeness was yet another of the one hundred one things he did not tolerate.
Sam waved the other man’s warning aside. “We’re field testing something here tomorrow -- nothing top secret; old technology with a new twist. There’s even going to be some limited press coverage. Come on.”
Scott had been checking out the microscopes. He was almost reluctant to leave, but changed his mind when he saw Johnny falling in behind Sam. Murdoch had just swatted his youngest son on the behind. A field trip, he decided, could prove interesting.
Sam led the way down the corridor that linked the office complex to one of the larger hangers. He was conducting a mini-lecture as they walked. “This was originally a World War II training base,” he was saying. “It was retired, reactivated and retired again during the first Gulf War. Now it’s used strictly for testing short range personnel carriers and remote-controlled transport equipment being designed for potential use on a proposed lunar base.” He turned to face Murdoch. “Something we may yet see in our lifetime.”
Murdoch slapped his old friend’s shoulder. “And our grandfathers served with Blackjack Pershing, and didn’t think the airplane would last,” he laughed.
Johnny shot a look at Teresa and rolled his eyes. The girl simply shrugged. Behind them, Scott shook his head; seriously wondering if they ever taught history in schools anymore.
It didn’t take them long to reach their destination. Sam hit the power switch that activated the double rolling doors, and together all five people stepped into a massive hangar with a convex roof that was several stories high. A half-dozen tyvek-suited technicians were busy working in the concrete floored building, intent on their labors.
The hangar doors leading to the tarmac were open and Johnny was the first one to spot a cluster of men dressed in what appeared to be flight suits standing just beyond the doorway. Curiosity tugged at him, and he followed it towards the open door. “What’s up?” he asked, looking back at Sam.
“Hopefully that young man who is preparing for flight,” Sam answered, nodding towards the tarmac. He hurried to catch up with the youth.
Johnny stepped out into the sunshine. “Holy shit,” he breathed. Eyes widening, he watched as the uniformed test pilot shrugged his shoulders and adjusted the weight of the dual-tanked fuel pack that rested against his back. There was a muffled sound -- not quite a roar, not quite a hiss -- as the man seemed to levitate, and then a sudden puff of dust as he lifted into the sky.
Scott, Murdoch and Teresa had joined the physician and Johnny. Murdoch was the first to speak. “Jet packs,” he exclaimed.
Sam shook his head. “The new terminology is Personal Aeronomic Transport System,” he announced. “PATS for short. They’ve developed a new fuel system -- I don’t completely understand the technology -- that is much quieter and can be renewed through a system of small solar panels that activate electro magnets enhanced…” Realizing he was sounding like a very boring audio recording of a science textbook he shut up.
Teresa had sidled up beside Johnny. “Now that has potential,” she said, shading her eyes to look up at the jet jockey.
Johnny was watching as the pilot executed a series of maneuvers. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I could see where havin’ one of those could be…interestin’.’”
It was the girl’s turn to roll her eyes. Like she was interested in the stupid military toy. “Well maybe your Daddy will buy it for you,” she snorted. “Like you could even handle one.” Tossing her head, she gave her companion a smug smile and leaned in. Having feigned sleep during her ride in the limo, she had listened in on Murdoch’s telephone conversation with Harlan Garrett. “I heard about how you wrecked the helicopter, you know.”
The youngest Lancer boy knew a challenge when he heard one. “Is that right?” he asked. He wondered which one had told on him: Scott or his Old Man. Either way, he was pissed.
Teresa had turned back to watch the airman. She drew in a sudden breath, watching as the young man did a series of slow spins before he started his descent. Catching his eye, she sucked in her already flat belly and pulled her shoulders back. It was suddenly very evident she was not wearing a bra.
Scott had caught the not-so-subtle moves of the teen-aged girl, a very derogatory and decidedly uncomplimentary phrase coming to mind. He decided to nip the flirtation in the bud. Quietly walking up behind the young woman, he placed both hands on her shoulders and gave her a moderately gentle shake. “I think we’ve had enough sight seeing, Teresa,” he declared in his best big brother voice; the one that usually worked quite well on his sibling. “What do you think?” He turned her around until they were facing each other.
The girl’s frown rivaled Johnny’s, but it quickly faded. Scott, she realized, was not going to be quite the pushover she had first assumed; and she was still testing the water with his father. “I am getting tired,” she sighed; loud enough to know she had been heard.
Murdoch was engaged in a quiet discussion with Sam, but had still been watching the test flight. He had also heard Teresa’s comment about being tired, and found himself feeling a bit guilty. “Do you think we might have the results of those scans you sent over to the main lab?” he asked.
“Possibly,” the physician answered. He was looking at the young girl Scott was talking to. “I never did tell you how sorry I was to hear about Paul, Murdoch.”
The big man inhaled. “My primary focus has been on Johnny today,” he murmured. “I should have handled this differently…”
The doctor shook his head. “Keeping her occupied -- providing her some diversion -- is probably the best course of action right now, old friend. You can’t change what happened to her father, but you can give her a stabilizing influence until the reality of what has happened sets in. She’ll have plenty of time to grieve once Paul’s body is returned to the States. Don’t rush things. Just take it one day at a time.”
Murdoch laughed. “Sound advice, Sam. It’s the same thing Harlan says to me about dealing with Johnny now that he’s home.” Turning slightly, he called out softly to his ward. “Teresa. Sam thinks the information we need has been e-mailed from the main lab.” He extended his arm. “I think it’s time to head back into the city.”
Teresa immediately responded to the older man’s gesture. She moved quickly towards him and allowed herself to be tucked under his arm and to accept a quick, reassuring hug. “It’s been ever so long since I’ve been at Lancer,” she murmured. She had always loved her visits to the hacienda; trips that had occurred a lot more often when she was younger. The memories of being waited on and catered to by the adults inside and outside of the house had made her feel like a princess; and she longed to feel that way again.
Murdoch turned to his sons. “Boys,” he called.
Scott and Johnny had been in deep conversation with the air force test pilot and his two technicians; examining the PATS unit. Both of them were impressed with the simplicity of the apparatus and its controls, as well as the compactness and light weight. So accommodating was the young major, he had actually suggested Johnny try the PATS unit on.
Teresa had chanced a look over her shoulder at the Lancer sons, the smirk appearing again when she caught Johnny’s eye. Seeing he was unbuckling the jet pack’s harness, she mouthed a quick and very obvious ‘double dare you’ before turning away.
“Johnny,” Scott called, waggling a finger at his brother. “Come on.” Certain the youth was right behind him, he headed out.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Teresa was walking right next to his father; was, in fact, tucked under his right arm and damned near crawling up his arm pit. And the Old Man was patting her shoulder. He started to shrug out of the jet pack; instantly changing his mind when Teresa turned to look back at him again. She was actually laughing, and he knew exactly what she was thinking. That he couldn’t fly the PATS unit.
Yeah, right, he smirked.
Scott half turned, frowning when it was apparent his brother was not behind him. Then, his eyes exploring the hangar’s front entrance, he called out: “Johnny.” His voice rose, the single word coming from between clenched teeth. “JOHNNY!!”
Recognizing the mix of outrage and concern in his elder son’s voice, Murdoch Lancer stopped dead in his tracks. Abruptly, he turned around and began the short march back to the tarmac; Teresa running behind him in an attempt to keep up. His younger son was no-where to be seen; wisps of dust and dirt billowing up from the runway where Johnny had just been standing.
Sam Jenkins arrived at the doorway just behind Murdoch. Out of breath, he used his right hand to shade his eyes as he stared up into the late afternoon sky. “I don’t believe this,” he muttered.
“JOHN MADRID LANCER! Get down here, NOW!!” Murdoch’s voice thundered into the sudden quiet, the young test pilot and his two-man crew immediately snapping to attention. Without taking his eyes off his airborne son, the general addressed the man -- as tanned and as buffed as a California surfer -- standing directly to his right. “And would you care to tell me, Major, just how my son managed to liberate your jet pack?”
The officer’s gaze was fastened on the young boy hovering a good thirty feet above his head. “I let him try it on, sir, for feel. I had no idea…” Desperation prompted the next. “I thought his brother was watching him.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Giddy with excitement, Johnny was enjoying his bird’s eye view of the airfield. From where he was, he could see Teresa quite plainly, and he gave in to the urge to flip her the bird. Whoa! Major mistake, he realized. As soon as he let go of the right-hand joystick, there was a sudden decrease in power in the corresponding fuel tank that caused his body to list to one side. Beneath him, he could hear the faint but collective shouts of “Oh, No-o-oo!” And then, above the cacophony of voices, the louder and more distinctive roar of his father. “JOHN MADRID LANCER!” It was just like the man was standing next to him, shouting in his ear.
Leveling off, the youth tried to remember everything the major and his brother had discussed, and for once he was grateful for Scott’s attention to boring detail. The harness and controls were very straight forward; a series of push and twist hand maneuvers for up, down, forward, back; with subtle movements and shift of body weight for turns and spins. Just for fun -- and totally ignoring the shouts of his angry father -- he manipulated the controls; doing a series of pirouettes that would have done an Olympic figure skater proud.
Only trouble was, he had done them at breath-taking speed, and now he was not only dizzy, he was sick.
Scott instinctively jumped back as the undigested remains of his brother’s lunch splattered against the tarmac. The major and his crew were not quite as quick on their feet, and Murdoch, Sam and Teresa…
Teresa’s scream, Scott reckoned, was in all likelihood heard in downtown Los Angeles; Murdoch’s litany of Marine corps curses at the very heart of Lancer, and Sam’s… Scott was quite sure Sam Jenkins’ strangely eloquent diatribe in Latin had reached the very ears of the Pope.
And Johnny was still up there, hovering above them. Ignoring everyone else, Scott stepped farther out onto the tarmac, carefully sidestepping the slippery remains of his brother’s lunch. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted his brother’s name. “Johnny!”
“He’s got about three minutes of fuel left,” the major declared.
Johnny was beginning to feel a sluggishness in the jet pack’s maneuverability. He took a quick reading of the small gauge to the right of the breast-plate buckle; a slow whistle coming as the digital read-out began to pulse and a high pitched beep sounded. “Shit!”
He hit the ground light on his feet; dog-trotting a bit forward, as if he had just dismounted from a running horse, and feeling more than a bit proud. And then he felt his father’s hand close around his upper right arm. “Hey, Pops,” he greeted.
Murdoch Lancer was having none of it. “Don’t you ‘hey, Pops,’ me, young man,” he growled. Deftly, he began unbuckling the jet pack’s harness, pulling it off and shoving it into the hands of the nearest airman. Then, determinedly, he led his youngest son back into the depths of the hangar and to the hallway leading to Sam’s office; Teresa trailing along behind.
The Air Force major was standing next to Scott. “Please tell me he’s never going to enlist,” he breathed.
Scott laughed. He turned to face the man. “You’d rather have him working for the other side?” he asked.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Sam Jenkins tapped the F12 key and watched as print menu came up on the screen. He quickly selected the Brother Color Laser, highlighting the two files he wanted to print: the scan of the tracking device he had done earlier, and the data file from his secure e-mail site. The printer engaged and cranked out three pages; high-resolution color pictures of the scan, and 1200 dpi text of the message he had received. He handed the latter document off to Murdoch. “Warburton Industries,” he said, his bent forefinger tapping the heavy stock. “Multi-national with corporate offices in London and Beijing.” He shook his head. “I’m not familiar with the company.”
Murdoch quickly scanned the paper before handing it off to Scott. “The name ring any bells, son?” he asked.
Already, Scott was shaking his head. “Grandfather would undoubtedly know,” he murmured. He continued to read the document he was holding. “There’s not much here beyond the technical specifications and a confirmation that Warburton Industries manufactured the product. But there is no point of sale record to provide any information regarding who purchased the device, or who was responsible for implanting it in Johnny’s navel.”
Johnny was perched on the edge of Sam’s desk, studiously eyeing the sole stitching on his Doc Martins; his head down and his arms wrapped around his chest in a tight self-hug. He knew what was coming next and was already formulating his answers. His lies.
Scott was the one that asked the question. “Who was with you when you made that ride to Juárez, little brother?” When Johnny refused to look at him, he crossed the room to the desk and cupped his brother’s chin in his palm; forcing the boy’s head up. “No lies, Johnny, none of your masterful little flights into fantasy. This isn’t a game anymore.”
The brunet tried to pull away and failed. “I don’t have to tell you nothin’,” he snapped. If he answered the question about who had taken him to Juárez, he’d have to fess up about the motorcycle racing and the gambling, and the fight with Kevin and a whole bunch of other things his Dad and brother didn’t know about. And, hell, he’d just gotten the Harley back.
“Answer the question, John,” Murdoch ordered. It was clear from the expression on his face he was not going to tolerate any more foolishness.
Johnny was desperate for a diversion; any diversion. It came when he saw his father take out a small dispenser of Rolaids. “Hey, Doc? You know what my Dad had for lunch today? An eight ounce sirloin burger with all the trimmings, French Fries this,” he measured the alleged thickness with his thumb and forefinger, “thick and…”
Sam shot a harsh glare in the direction of his old friend, remembering the heart attack scare that had occurred two years earlier; and was about to ream the man a new anus when he suddenly realized what Johnny was attempting. “That’s not going to work, young man,” he groused. “After a morning with you, I wouldn’t blame him if he chose to wash it down with a double shot of Scotch. Now answer your father’s question!”
Johnny stubbornly remained silent, still seeking a way out. His gaze drifted to the door leading to the large bathroom just off Sam’s office. Teresa was in there, cleaning up the chunks of vomit that had landed on her head and shoulders. “She gonna be in there forever?” he asked. “I need to use the john.”
Murdoch had just popped yet another stomach mint. “Teresa is washing her hair,” he intoned. “And you aren’t going anywhere until you tell me just who it was that orchestrated that little fiasco south of the border.” He hesitated a heartbeat. “Now, John,” he commanded.
Avoiding his father’s harsh scrutiny, Johnny thought long and hard before answering. “A guy I met in Sabinal,” he said finally, knowing it wasn’t going to be enough. His arms wrapped tighter around his chest, the fingers of his right hand kneading the flesh of his upper left arm. He could hear his father’s deep breathing, and was aware of the warmth of the man’s breath across the top of his head. Suddenly, the words just tumbled out. “A biker. Owns a place out on the old highway where they hold races…”
“You were racing the Harley?” Murdoch’s arms were folded across his chest, the words coming whisper soft.
“Yeah.” The fact his father was whispering prompted a belligerence guaranteed to evoke a heated response. “Won fifteen hundred bucks racin’ that first night!” Big mistake.
“I want a name, John.” Murdoch reached out, his rigid forefinger thumping hard against the boy’s chest.
Instinctively, Johnny’s hand went to the spot where his father had just poked him. “Pardee,” he answered. “Day Pardee.”
Scott’s gaze swung from his brother’s face to his father’s. He knew at once from what he was seeing -- the sudden tightening of the older man’s jaws, the growing prominence of the blood vessel at the man’s right temple -- that his father had recognized the name. “Sir?”
It took a long minute for the older man to totally regain his composure. “We’ll be needing a ride to the front gate, Sam,” he announced, purposely avoiding his elder son’s steady scrutiny. “We’re going to collect Harlan and head back to Lancer.”
The blond remained silent. Mentally he was already planning the telephone call he was going to be making to his contact at NCI.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Harlan Garrett ducked to enter the door of the limo that Lucas held open, and before his shoulders even cleared the door frame he could feel the palpable tension, oppressive and silencing. Briefly glancing at Teresa, who had plastered herself to Murdoch’s side, Harlan almost felt uncharitable for thinking they had not even made it back to the ranch with the girl and her presence was already undermining the progress they had made with Johnny since his return. At least that was what the visual evidence pointed to: Johnny was pressed into the corner of his seat as far away from his family as possible.
“Hey, Ha, sit next to me,” Johnny requested, patting the seat, smiling when the elderly man slid into place next to him, and then relaxing to slouch against his grandfather, their shoulders touching.
Settling into the comfort of the plush leather cushion, Garrett grinned when Johnny’s hand slipped into his coat pocket seeking the handful of York peppermint patties the boy knew his grandfather always had. Scott and Murdoch had never acquired a taste for them but Johnny was as addicted to the strong spice and chocolaty flavor as his second grandpa.
“Mmmmmmm,” Johnny moaned as he crushed the soft concoction to the roof of his mouth with his tongue, relishing the initial creamy sensation of the chocolate followed by the cool burst of peppermint.
Murdoch frowned severely at his youngest son’s rudeness. The boy, of course, knew his father and brother did not care for the treats but he had purposefully ignored Teresa. “Johnny, don’t you think it would have been polite to offer to share the candy with Teresa?”
Irritated by the condescending smirk the girl tossed his way, Johnny’s attitude soured even further towards this female interloper into his world. Knowing how insecure teen girls could be about their looks, Johnny struck back. “I was doing her a favor not giving her any,” he paused to smile, though his eyes were throwing daggers. “Don’t wanna tempt her; ‘specially when I know girls try to cut back their on their calories when their clothes start gettin’ that tight,” he added, pointedly looking at the extremely snug pants.
Scott snorted. There’s no way in Hell the fit of her clothes is from weight gain! You can bet the ranch on that. Miss Tease O’Brien buys them that way.
“Johnny!” Murdoch exclaimed, shifting away from Teresa so he could raise his right arm and shake a long finger at his recalcitrant son. “I won’t tolerate this ‘dissing’ each other. Do I make myself clear?” I also won’t abide this provocative dress style but that’s a battle for another day.
“I didn’t want any,” Teresa declared, pushing in closer to her godfather and reaching up to pull his arm back down. Somebody doesn’t like to share…thanks boy…you just showed me what buttons to push to get your goat. “Johnny can have them. After all, I’m sure he’s hungry after throwing up his lunch,” she smiled; faking a concern she really didn’t feel. “The mints will probably help settle his stomach.”
Feeling the youth next to him tensing, Garrett turned to assess his youngest grandson’s condition. “What’s this all about? I read all the literature on the laser tattoo removal process your father had and I didn’t see anything about nausea as a side effect,” Ha stated, palming Johnny’s cheek with his hand as he checked for fever.
Sliding forward to the edge of her seat, Teresa eyes glowed. “Oh just wait until you hear about what caused him to be sick,” she crowed, warming to her game of goading the other youth.
“That will be a conversation for the adults when we’re on the plane,” Murdoch declared, grasping the girl’s arm and pulling her back. If his god-child thought she was going to indulge in a teen-aged pissing contest she was sadly mistaken.
The ride to the airfield was completed in silence, with the two youths glaring at each other from opposite sides of the opulent limo. The three adults watched them intently, each considering how the house was about to be thrown in turmoil due to teenage angst. Johnny was still dealing with issues from his kidnapping, albeit surreptitiously; since the boy wasn’t aware the Marine he practiced sharpshooting with had been hand-picked by Murdoch. The officer, Peter Brandvold -- a major in the Medical corps -- was a board-certified psychologist, specializing in PTSD.
And now they would have to add Teresa’s grief to the mix.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Boarding the jet, Johnny stomped to the rear and chose a corner swivel seat so he would have an unimpeded view of the entire cabin and a window as well.
Murdoch pointed Teresa to a seat at the opposite end and side of the plane from Johnny. Harlan and Scott both noted the disgruntled and harsh look that crossed the girl’s face as she plopped down into the chair, glaring at Johnny. The three adults chose a bank of three seats grouped around a small table.
The cabin door hissed as it locked into place, the seat belt light dinged on, and the engine whined as the jet prepared to move out on the runway. Over the mechanical noises Murdoch snapped out to the pouting youths, “Buckle in, now!” Turning back to Scott and Harlan, Murdoch suggested, “We can wait to start the discussion until we level off so we can have a drink to fortify ourselves.”
After leveling off to a cruising altitude of 44000 feet, Scott released his seat belt and strode to the wet bar. Harlan watched the tense actions of his oldest grandson. Something had concerned the blond enough that he was robbed of his normal fluidly graceful movements. He moved with a tightness that showed rigid control.
Scott trudged back towards his father and grandfather, a small serving tray containing three glasses of whiskey clasped in his hand. Stopping in front of them, he handed each of them a glass. Tossing the tray onto the cocktail table in front of their chairs, Scott took a sip of his drink, grimacing at the burn of the liquor and the thoughts of what they were about to tell his grandfather.
Studying the severity of Scott’s expression, Harlan raised his eyebrows and commented, “You must really be upset. You seem to have forgotten that I always take two ice cubes in my drink.”
“Oh no, I didn’t forget. I just didn’t want to give you anything solid to choke on when we tell you what all transpired today,” Scott replied drolly as he dropped wearily into his chair and took another sip of his drink.
Murdoch’s snort at his son’s declaration was enough to make Harlan nervously gulp his first mouthful of drink. “You’re both beginning to worry me. I’m not sure I want to know what’s going on. Perhaps this is one of those times when ignorance would be bliss.”
Shifting to stare at his father-in-law, Murdoch rubbed thoughtfully at his chin, and then issued a long, dramatic sigh. “Oh where shall I start this little tale?”
“I’ve always found it best to start at the beginning,” Harlan suggested, wincing as the burn in his stomach increased with his anxiety over the coming revelation.
“I concur,” Scott stated, swishing a gulp of whiskey in his mouth before swallowing it. “What happened last would not have happened if not for the first event,” he added cryptically.
Knocking back his whiskey in one protracted guzzle, Murdoch revealed all in concise military reporting style. “After calming Johnny down enough to begin the tattoo removal process, we breezed through the procedure for the one on his wrist. All signs of it are gone.” He gestured at his own wrist. “Before the process could be performed on the stomach tattoo I received a call from my office stating the Family Services Officer had discovered Teresa was in LA, failing to have return to school after a break. I left Scott to oversee the procedure on Johnny’s belly tattoo while I went to retrieve Teresa.” he paused, casting a displeased look towards his ward, who was feigning interest in a magazine. “Upon our return, I entered the office in time to hear Johnny shouting in pain. I rushed into the exam room and found Scott and Dr. Weiss battling to keep him on the table,” his attention turned to his youngest, who appeared to be asleep. “They had succeeded in removing all of the monkey tattoo, except a very small bit right around his navel. When Dr. Weiss started there, apparently the laser burned and split the skin on the inside edge of his belly button because there was a metal tracking device embedded there,” Murdoch reported.
The quiet in the Garrett Corporations jet was shattered as Ha jerked upright spilling a portion of amber colored liquor on his white shirt as he shouted, “WHAT?” His eyes darted back and forth from Murdoch to Scott to Johnny, who had roused at his loud shout and was squirming in his chair. “So that’s when he threw up?”
“Nooooooooooo,” Murdoch replied, drawing out the word to an extremely extended o sound. “That came later when we took the device over to Sam Jenkins at his laboratory. He ran some tests on the device and while we waited for the results we toured the facility,” Murdoch paused, huffing in exasperation before continuing. “We watched a test flight of a PATS unit. And then Johnny got the bright idea to try one out. Apparently the pilot had no better sense than to let Johnny try it on and even more stupidly turned his back on him because he thought Scott was watching him. Needless to say, the next thing we knew Johnny was thirty feet in the air, spinning like a top and spewing his lunch like that possessed girl in The Exorcist,” Murdoch pinched the bridge of his nose as the pressure built in his head that promised an oncoming headache.
Reaching over to pat his son-in-law’s arm in sympathy and solidarity, Ha stuttered, “You handled it very well, son. You didn’t kill him.”
“Only because I didn’t have my Luger,” Murdoch confessed somewhat sarcastically.
“Grandfather, we’d like you to look over the report on the tracking device. It was made by some company called Warburton Industries,” Scott requested, chewing his lip as he detected a fleeting look of recognition on Ha’s face.
“If I’m not mistaken, that is one of the companies that bid against Garrett Corporation for contracts with NATO to supply the forces with weaponry. I’ll have our Security, as well as Research and Development division fax all the files we have on them to the ranch.” Blowing out a stilted breath, Harlan added, “Does Johnny have any idea where, when or how he acquired the device?”
Carefully watching his father’s face, Scott replied, “The doctor feels it was implanted at the same time the tattoo was applied. Johnny has admitted he rode down to Mexico with a biker named Day Pardee,” Scott paused as he noted that his father flinched and exerted extreme control to keep from reacting further to the name. “I think one of our first courses of action is to ascertain where Pardee is now, as well as do an extensive back ground search on him.” I’ll definitely be getting my friends in Intelligence to help me with this. As Johnny would say, ‘the Old Man is still keepin’ secrets’, and it is damned sure he knows more than he’s telling.
The thirty-eight minute flight time passed quickly for the three adults, who remained in deep conversation about these newest developments in the Lancer family. The two youths pouted from opposite ends of the plane, occasionally throwing hateful glares at each other. The plane had barely stopped moving from its landing when Johnny released his seat belt and stood at the ready as the cabin door began to open. He heard his father calling him back but he ignored him as he scampered down the still lowering steps, jumping the last few feet and racing off towards the house.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He should have known Maria would be waiting for him at the front door! Johnny’s steps faltered as soon as he spied the woman; his first instinct to make a complete about face. He reconsidered when he saw his father and brother marching double-time towards the house; Ha and Teresa trailing along behind. Shit. Shit, shit, shit! Giving up, he squared his shoulders, and headed for the front portico. He was relieved to see the old door had been removed, and the new one already installed.
Grimacing, he immediately raised his hands, knowing the humiliation of Maria pulling up his shirt front for the inevitable inspection. Her eyes narrowed as she spied the bandage covering his navel, and he shook his head as she tapped the piece of gauze with his forefinger. “It’s nothin’,” he muttered. Then, aware that his father and brother were right behind him, he began to dance in place. “Gotta go,” he announced, pointing towards the stairs leading to the second floor bathroom. “Like now!”
The housekeeper didn’t buy it; not for a minute, but she did let him pass. And then she spied Teresa. A mixture of melancholy and pleasant memories brought a genuine smile to the woman’s handsome face. Like Johnny, Teresa had been born on Lancer; both babies choosing to arrive early and unexpectedly. Teresa was older than Johnny by twenty-two days, and when the two were growing up had delighted in pointing out that she was the eldest.
Maria stepped out onto the patio and wrapped the young girl in her arms. It had been almost four years since she had seen Paul O’Brien’s daughter, and the change was remarkable. Gone was the teen-aged acne, the braces and the baby fat. “Teresa,” she crooned; and then held the girl at arms length. Her head canted a bit at the girl’s attire: the hip-hugger jeans and the much-too-tight jersey turtleneck.
Murdoch smiled as he recognized the look on the housekeeper’s face; recognizing an ally. “Teresa’s belongings are being shipped in from her school in North Carolina, Maria,” he said, guiding the girl through the door and into the hallway. He handed off the single bag Teresa had brought with her from Los Angeles. “She may need to do some shopping until then.”
At the word shopping, Teresa perked right up. Then, spying something in Scott’s face she didn’t like, she turned on the pout. “I’m really tired, Uncle Murdoch,” she whined, a hitch in her voice. “If I could just…”
Oh, please, Scott grimaced. He stepped forward, taking the girl’s arm and retrieving the girl’s bag from the housekeeper. “I’ll show her upstairs to her old room,” he offered. “If that’s all right, Maria.”
The woman reached out, patting the girl’s arm. “Everything’s ready,” she assured him. “Go.”
Murdoch reached out to touch his son’s arm. “Get Teresa settled, Scott. And then get your brother from wherever he’s hiding, and bring him down to the Great Room. We’re going to get some things sorted out, and before supper.”
“Seven?” Maria asked, recognizing the General’s tone. Murdoch nodded his consent.
Teresa in tow, Scott headed up the stairs, making no effort at all to slacken his pace. Holding his peace, he led her down the long hallway and deposited her at the threshold of her bedroom door. “I would suggest, Teresa; that you just relax until dinner time.” When she started to protest, he pressed two fingers against her lips to silence her; his mood and tone softening. She had, after all, just lost her father. “Think about it,” he cajoled. “A nice, leisurely bath, a decent shampoo; fresh clothes.” He nodded towards the large bathroom that adjoined the room. “You’ll find everything you need in there.” Then, to sweeten the pot. “The tub has a Jacuzzi now.”
The girl’s gaze shifted to the open door of the bathroom. It was, she thought with her usual self-pity, bigger than her bedroom in the officer’s housing unit at Bragg. She realized, then, how much she had missed her time at Lancer. “All right,” she sighed. She reached out, taking her bag from the older man. “I do need to change.”
Scott gave the girl a gentle pat on her shoulder and then took his leave. Carefully, he shut the door behind him and headed out into the hallway. He hadn’t even taken a single step when he heard the click of his brother’s bedroom door.
He entered his sibling’s room without knocking. “So, little brother, did you get an earful?” he asked.
Johnny was in the process of putting on a clean tee-shirt; bright crimson. “She really gonna be livin’ here?” he asked, his back still to his brother as he slipped into his boot-cut Levis.
“Paul did name our father as her guardian,” Scott answered. He was picking up the clothes Johnny had discarded. “I don’t know all the details of the arrangement, but she is still in school, which means she is still considered Paul’s dependent. It’s something Murdoch is going to have to work out, and until he does, we just have to live with it.” He dropped the dirty pants, sock and shirts into the overflowing laundry basket inside Johnny’s closet. “You know, brother, the idea is for you put the clothes down the laundry chute when the basket is full,” he scolded.
“Aw, Maria’ll take care of ‘em,” Johnny tossed back. He was at the window now. “So, is Ha mad?”
Scott’s right eyebrow shot up. Johnny never failed to surprise him with his sometimes skewed logic. “I don’t think it’s Grandfather you need to worry about. The General, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.” He shook his head. “Whatever possessed you to think you could fly that PATS unit…”
“I did fly it,” Johnny interrupted. “Pretty damned good, too,” he bragged. He turned around and shot a lop-sided grin at his brother.
Scott was about to speak when he suddenly sucked in a lung full of air. Eyes widening, he stared hard at his brother. “You can’t be serious,” he growled, shaking a finger at his sibling. “You take off that shirt, NOW!”
Johnny pulled the tee away from his belly, grinning. “Neat, huh?”
The blond’s face was an interesting shade of red. “Neat my ass,” he fumed. Johnny’s bright red tee-shirt bore a white image of the very tattoo he had just had removed: same monkeys, same obscene pose. “Take it off.”
Johnny shook his head. “Found a company that could print any design I wanted,” he boasted. He tossed his head in the direction of his computer. “Took a picture of my belly with my web cam and ordered it direct.” He smoothed the cloth over his stomach. “Only cost me thirty bucks.” The sly grin came then.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Dad’s waiting in the Great Room for us. If you think you’re going downstairs wearing that shirt, little brother, you truly are out of your mind. Get another shirt now and put it on.”
“Nope!” Johnny refused. He’d figured on using the shirt as a diversion. Making a break for the door, he feinted to the right, and then successfully shifted to the left as he ducked beneath his brother’s outstretched arm. Laughing, he scurried into the hallway and headed for the stairs.
Scott pounded after his brother, claiming a near miss as Johnny mounted the banister and shoved off. “Damn it, Johnny!” he swore. He raced down the stairs.
Johnny had landed at the bottom of the steps. His intention was to get out the front door and far away from the house.
“JOHN!” Murdoch roared the single word as he strode across the Great Room. He stepped up into the hallway before his son could make good his escape, and grabbed his youngest boy by the right ear. Ignoring the boy’s yelp of pain, he made an abrupt turn and pulled the boy into the room.
Harlan was standing in between the two chairs that stood in front of Murdoch’s large desk, his cheeks coloring as he spied his younger grandson. His eyes shut briefly as he composed himself. “And just where do you keep your Luger, Murdoch?” he asked quietly. He was now looking directly at the boy. At his tee-shirt.
Murdoch’s brow furrowed at the reference to his hand gun, remembering what he had said on the airplane about why he hadn’t shot his son. Turning to take a good look at his boy, he spied the decorated tee-shirt. “What the Hell!?”
Johnny grinned up at his father, who had finally turned loose of his ear. “Now you see it,” he pulled the shirt out a bit to display the artwork before scrunching it up in his fingers, “now you don’t.” God, he was funny! And the look on his father’s face…
The General had obviously lost his sense of humor, if he ever had one. He grabbed Johnny by the nape of the neck, turned him around, and gave the boy’s rear end a good dusting. And then he planted him in the chair directly in front of his desk.
Scott had followed his father and brother into the room. He headed for the drink table and helped himself to a tumbler of scotch, taking a long drink before filling glasses for his father and grandfather. These he carried over to the desk. Then, turning slightly, he sought out his brother’s face. Told you, he mouthed when he caught his sibling’s eyes. He leaned in. “Maybe next time you’ll listen,” he whispered.
Johnny’s mouth turned down in a deep frown, his lower lip pursing. “Used your credit card,” he pouted. “Maybe I’ll just tell the Old Man you ordered it.” He was not about to admit that wearing the tee-shirt had been a bad idea.
“My credit card?” the blond hissed; pausing mid drink.
Johnny shrugged. No point in makin’ this conversation public. “Machine ate mine in Big Bear if you’d care to remember,” he whispered, as if it were a good explanation. “Murdoch still ain’t got me a new one.” He sensed from the look on his brother’s face he needed to change the subject. Turning, he stared up at his father. “How come you never pop him on the as… butt?” he demanded. Hoping to generate some sympathy, he massaged his rear-end.
Murdoch was at the drink stand pouring a refill. “Because,” he shot a look at his elder son, “for the most part, your brother has out grown his foolishness.”
Ha chuckled as he settled in on the couch; turning to look at his grandsons. While the brothers shared many common traits -- their devotion to each other, their stubbornness and their love for the father -- Johnny was, by far, the most impetuous and inclined to mischief. “For the most part,” he murmured.
Johnny’s face brightened considerably. He wet his upper lip with his tongue; anticipating a major distraction on the horizon. “Yeah, Ha,” he said, jumping up from his chair and moving quickly across the room to where the older man was sitting. He did a one-handed hop over the top of the couch, planting his butt as close to his grandfather as he could. “For the most part…”
“Johnny,” Scott warned.
“Unless his brains drop to his balls,” the brunet declared. He was smirking up at his brother now. “Ask him about his date with Julie, Ha,” he snickered.
“Scotty!” Harlan’s spine went rigid as he addressed the blond.
Scott nailed his brother with a look that would turn scalding hot coffee to ice. Two can play this game, little brother; and you are a novice. “I’ll explain everything later, sir,” he promised. “Right after my brother tells us everything,” he repeated the word, “everything he knows about Day Pardee,” there was a raw edge to his voice now, “and how he could have been so stupid as to get so thoroughly inebriated he put himself into a truly dangerous situation with a total stranger.”
Murdoch had drained the last of his scotch and had just placed his glass upside down on the coaster atop his desk; the all too familiar signal he was about to get down to business. He was perched on the edge of his desk, long legs extended and crossed at the ankles; his arms folded against his chest. “Day Pardee,” he began. “I want to know how you met him; what he looks like; if he’s a loner or if he’s running with a crew. I also want to know just how long he’s been in Sabinal.”
Johnny’s chin dropped, his eyes hidden now by the long hair that had cascaded into his eyes. Even Ha’s gentle pat on his shoulder wasn’t the reassurance he needed right now. Knowing it was expected, he stood up in front of the couch; grateful the piece of furniture was between him and his father. He swallowed. “‘Bout as tall as Scott,” he murmured. “Older.” His gaze was locked on the floor. “Moustache, kinda buffed.” He whispered the next. “Snake-eyes.” It was Pardee’s eyes that had sucked him in when he first met the man; the danger he saw there.
The general’s expression was markedly impassive; the way he looked when he was playing poker with his service buddies and about to take them to the cleaner. But it didn’t mean he was calm. He didn’t like what he was seeing in his younger son’s face; that flicker of misdirected hero worship that boy’s sometimes exhibited when they found themselves under the spell of someone who lived outside the law. “Go on,” he ordered.
Not really sure of what more his father wanted -- or how much he wanted to tell -- Johnny was quiet for a time. “He’s been in Sabinal awhile,” he said finally. “Bought the Cadillac place out on the old highway, started sellin’ and repairin’ Harleys.”
Murdoch sucked in a deep breath. “How long is awhile, John?” he asked; knowing full well the boy knew.
Johnny shrugged. “He was there before…” he swallowed again and wished he had something to drink, “…before all the shit happened.”
Getting Johnny to talk was, Scott thought ruefully, like pulling hen’s teeth. “Dad asked you if he was a loner, Johnny, or if he had a crew.”
The brunet shot a harsh glare at his brother that clearly said butt out. “How the fuck am I ‘sposed to know, Scott? Bein’ as I was so stupid and so fuckin’ inebriated?”
Murdoch bolted upright. The floor actually shook as he crossed the room to stand with his hands knotted atop the thickly upholstered back of the couch. “You listen to me, young man,” he growled. “I’ve had just about all your attitude I’m going to tolerate. If you think those pops I’ve laid across your rear-end or the love taps Maria gives you with her spoon are all that traumatic, you have another think coming! You are about this far,” he measured the minute distance with his thumb and forefinger, “from discovering that you come from a long line of people who firmly believe that a trip to the woodshed or the barn and a session with a belt make much more sense than putting up with your insolence!”
Johnny stole a quick look at Ha, hoping for some support. It was not forthcoming. Shouldn’t of cussed, he thought miserably. He turned back to face his father. “He’s got ten, maybe twelve, people workin’ for him at the track.”
The tall Scot nodded. “And they all accompanied you on the ride to Juárez?”
This one was harder to answer. “I don’t remember,” Johnny replied. There wasn’t any point in lying now. “We…I was drinkin’ pretty hard the night before,” he confessed.
Surprisingly, Murdoch remained reasonably calm. “You go on upstairs, John. You take off that damned t-shirt and get into something more appropriate. I expect you to be at the dinner table on time.”
Johnny was unable to hide the surprise. “That’s it?” he asked.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Unless you want to take that walk out to the barn,” he declared.
The youth shook his head. Somehow, he had the feeling his Dad wasn’t kidding. Without another word, he headed for the hallway.
Scott waited until he heard Johnny’s footsteps in the hallway above them. “You know Pardee,” he said; something accusatory in his tone.
Murdoch didn’t miss the reproach but chose to ignore it. “Yes,” he said; fully aware Scott would be checking out the man himself. “Career military until he was dishonorably discharged; a mercenary of sorts for a short time after that. The last I knew he was in Leavenworth.” He inhaled. “I’m going to make it my business to find out why he’s not.”
End part two
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The long delay as the body of Murdoch’s best friend Colonel Paul O’Brien was processed and then shipped stateside had afforded Murdoch the much needed time to notify others of the impending funeral. Val Crawford had flown in for the service, bringing Jelly and Kevin Jackson with him. Curiously, Angeline was not with Jelly; and the elderly man had had a hauntingly vacant look on his face when he entered the house. Without saying anything, he grabbed Johnny, frantically hugging his surrogate grandson for a long time before letting go. And then, after supper he disappeared into Murdoch’s study for a meeting, along with Scott, Val and Ha.
Johnny was left behind in the Great Room. Kevin Jackson was with him; and -- for a time -- there was nothing between the two youths but an awkward silence.
Kevin was the first to speak. “Sorry about hangin’ up on you the last time we talked,” he murmured. A small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “And for not pickin’ up when you called back.” The smile grew. “And for cuttin’ you off from my Facebook.”
Johnny was rubbing the back of his neck. He was standing beside the fireplace; carefully studying the tile work at the raised hearth. “Sorry I told you to quit stickin’ you nose in my business,” he breathed. When he looked up at his friend, he was smiling. “And for blockin’ you on my Yahoo IM.”
Both boys laughed. It was a good sound. And then Kevin took a deep breath. “I never met Mr.” he corrected himself, “Colonel O’Brien. Your Gramps said he and your Dad go ‘way back.”
There was a soft plop as Johnny dropped down onto the leather ottoman in front of Murdoch’s big chair. Immediately, his fingers began plucking at a loose thread. “All of ‘em,” he said. “Paul, my Dad, Jelly and Val.” He shrugged. “Even old Doc. Jenkins.” The next words came tinged with a modicum of bitterness. “Just one big happy military family.”
Wisely, Kevin remained quiet. He was well aware of his friend’s love/hate relationship with the military; the fact that Johnny blamed a lot of what had happened in his life on his father’s choice of careers. Johnny hadn’t been very happy when Scott had opted for the military, either.
“How come you came along with Gramps?” Johnny asked suddenly.
Kevin shrugged. “He came by to talk to my Mom; tell her he was leavin’, about what happened to the Colonel and that his daughter was comin’ here to live.” It was a small lie; Jelly had talked to his mother about all of those things, and a lot of more. He leaned in, tapping Johnny’s knee. “It’s spring break, and Mom thought maybe you’d like some company.” The smile again, crinkling the skin between the red head’s ears. “I think she just wanted to get rid of me for a couple o’ weeks.” His face colored a bit. “She is kinda cute,” he grinned.
Momentarily puzzled, Johnny frowned and looked at his buddy as if the youth had lost his mind. “T’resa?” he snorted. The girl had been with them at supper, but had quickly disappeared afterwards. “She’s a pain in the ass.”
“C’mon, Johnny,” Kevin admonished. “She just lost her Dad.” He was quiet a moment. “I remember how that feels; even if it was a long time ago.
“You need to cut her some slack,” he suggested.
Johnny’s head dipped. The reality of the situation had finally hit home for Teresa when the guests began arriving for her father’s funeral. The teenager’s stoic indifference failed her and she had retreated to her room as soon as they were done eating, closing and locking the door; her muffled sobs voicing her grief. It was the sorrowful sounds of her weeping that had driven Johnny and Kevin from his second floor bedroom to the Great Room. He considered his friend’s words; suddenly ashamed and more than a bit shaken by his own dark thoughts. His Dad and his brother were both active duty; and Paul O’Brien was almost exactly the same age as his father.
Hearing the heavy oak door to his father’s study creak open, Johnny turned and watched as five somber men exited. His stomach fluttered nervously at their expressions. Tapping Kevin on the shoulder, Johnny rose up from his seat. “I think we should get outta here and make ourselves scarce for awhile,” he suggested. “It looks to me like they might be needin’ a shot or two of liquid courage.”
Kevin didn’t make a move; he simply stared up at his friend, a guilty look on his face. It was clear from his expression he knew something Johnny didn’t know, but was about to learn.
Murdoch motioned for Johnny to stay; watching as the youth dropped back down onto the ottoman. “We have some things to discuss, son” he began, gently. “First of all, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that Gramps is going to move here to the ranch with us,” he stated; gesturing for the others to take their seats.
A brilliant smile bloomed on Johnny’s face as he leaped up. After his last set-to with his surrogate grandpa over the Ferris woman, he’d almost given up hope they would ever reconcile their differences. “You are? Hot dang…” his joy withered at the look of defeat on Gramp’s face. “What are y’all keeping’ from me?” he demanded, accusation clear in the sharpness of his words. “And where the hell is that…” Just in time, he stopped himself. Collecting himself, he made his way across the room to sit down on the arm of the chair where Jelly was sitting.
Murdoch’s eyes warmed as he watched Johnny slip his arm protectively around Jelly’s slumped shoulders. “There’s no easy way to say this. Your Gramps is moving in with us because four weeks ago his ranch house burned down; and two weeks after that Angeline disappeared with the insurance money.”
Johnny’s body trembled, his mouth dropping open in shock. For a span of a few seconds he held his breath. “Why didn’t you call me?” he whispered, his eyes sweeping the older man’s face.
“Weren’t nothing you could do, boy,” Jelly said, patting Johnny’s back as he sought to comfort the youth; the need to reassure his boy overcoming his own remorse over the loss of the home they had shared for the past sixteen years. “Angeline played me for an old fool. I added her name to all the accounts soon as we got back from Vegas,” he paused and scratched at his whiskered chin. “That’s all she needed to cash the insurance check and drain the accounts.” He nodded towards Val Crawford. “I’ve been stayin’ with Val because the only thing left of the old home place is the garage, storage sheds and barn.”
“Does this mean you have to sell the rest?” Johnny choked out, swallowing the bile that threatened to gag him.
“No, sir-re, I ain’t doin’ no such thing. I’m havin’ our horses brought here. I’m selling off the cattle and leasin’ out the pastureland.” He straightened a bit. “I talked with the banker in Sabinal. With the money I get from that, I’m gonna set up a trailer park on the acreage the house was on; for all them snow birds that come down from the north for the winter. I’ll have the income from that and my military pension to live on,” he declared, forced bravado strengthening his determination. “Besides, from what I been told, I’m needed here,” he added, swatting Johnny’s thigh, and then shaking a finger at him.
Frowning, Johnny turned to glare at Kevin, who threw his hands up and blurted, “Don’t get mad at me! Yeah, I knew but I promised your Gramps that I wouldn’t say anything.” He grinned up at his friend. “Besides, we weren’t talkin’, if you remember.”
Jumping up, Johnny strode to the fireplace on shaky legs. He grabbed the mantle and clung to it, leaning his head against it. He sniffed and fought the sting of warmth building in his eyes, wishing he could be as rock solid and cold inside as the length of marble. From the corner of his eye he saw Scott stand up and start his way. He waved him off, fearing if his brother touched him he would disintegrate into a million pieces of misery. Calling upon the control he employed when he focused on targets in shooting, he reined in his emotions and slipped on the mask of indifference he used to psych out his opponents. He knew he had to keep his eyes on the goal or all he would see would be the obstacles. He could hear Major Brandvold’s voice saying, as he often did while they practiced together, ‘you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude towards what ensues. In that way you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.’ In that moment of clarity he understood that to accept this latest change in his life -- the loss of the Texas ranch where he had grown up -- he needed to remember he had been blessed to have had that home, instead of crying because it was gone. It was just a house, he reminded himself. Jelly had made it a home.
Murdoch watched as his youngest fought for control, a myriad of emotions playing across the boy’s face until it went momentarily blank. Finally the tension seemed to leech from the youth’s body and a timid smile pulled his lips into a slight upward curve. Silently, the General breathed a quick prayer of thanks that the twice weekly sessions with Brandvold seemed to be helping his son.
The Grandfather clock began chiming the hour of ten, startling the occupants of the room from their quiet contemplation. “I suggest we retire for the night, tomorrow will be a long and trying day,” Murdoch stated, his suggestion sounding more like an order, especially when everyone moved towards the staircase.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Puffy white clouds floated in a bright blue sky, a stiff breeze rustled through the trees causing the leaves to whisper in song. . A deep pall had settled over the hacienda in contrast to the beautiful weather. Today was the funeral for Teresa’s father. All of the arrangements and plans had fallen squarely on Murdoch’s shoulders. Teresa’s only request had been that her father be buried in the hill top private cemetery of the Lancer family, where generations of Lancers lay. Teresa’s great great –grandfather was also interred there, having been the foreman of Lancer Ranch back in the 1870s when it was the largest cattle operation in the San Joaquin Valley. Also at rest on the sweeping hilltop was her great grandmother and namesake, a young woman who had scandalized the valley by becoming pregnant by an outlaw, her standing in the community forever defamed; but her child accepted because the Lancer patriarch and his two sons had helped raise him.
While Teresa mourned in self-imposed solitary confinement, Johnny nervously traveled from room to room, subconsciously seeking security from the adults in his life. Murdoch observed his son’s restless wandering. He had been concerned when the teenager had shown up to breakfast, his eyes dark ringed and heavy with sleepless grief. His worry had increased when the boy listlessly pushed his breakfast around his plate, disinterested in eating even when Maria tried to entice him with the offer of homemade chocolate syrup for his pancakes.
As the hour for the arrival of Paul’s body drew near, the occupants of the ranch began appearing in the Great room. Murdoch nodded in approval as Jelly, Scott and Val entered, regal looking in their dress uniforms; Harlan immaculate in his black Armani. Kevin stepped in looking stately in a black western cut suit with a bolo tie, a Stetson hat clutched in his hand. Murdoch couldn’t stop the wince as Johnny ghosted into the room, his dark navy suit emphasizing his sorrow paled features. Worse, the boy hadn’t even complained about having to get dressed up.
A cool wind current rushed the smell of late spring into the room through the open French doors. The jingle and creak of tack and the rumble of wooden wheels in motion drew everyone’s attention to the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk. The horse-drawn caisson was being moved into place, an indication the hearse would soon be delivering the casket.
Johnny slipped in front of his father, sighing despondently as he watched the preparations. He felt cold to his soul and when his father wrapped his arms around him -- bending so he could rest his chin atop his head -- Johnny relished the warmth of his embrace and backed closer to his father.
The soft powdery scent of Johnny’s shampoo tickled Murdoch’s nose and he fought off the urge to sneeze, reluctant to move even a fraction of an inch away from his youngest. The older Johnny got, the more reticent he was to be coddled by the adults around him unless he was ill, and even then he balked. Regardless now of the circumstances, Murdoch found himself relishing his son’s closeness; the boy’s obvious need and desire for comfort.
Knowing his father would want to oversee the arrival of Paul’s body, Scott spoke up. Even he was hesitant to interrupt the moment of intimacy. “I’ll go make sure Teresa is ready,” he said, the words coming softly; “ and tell her that we’ll be lining up soon.”
Taking his leave, the blond Lancer hurried towards the stairs; ashamed of the guilt he felt at leaving the others to deal with the oppressive silence in the Great room. Arriving in the hallway, Scott strode directly to Teresa’s door, hesitating only slightly before knocking softly.
“Who is it?” Teresa called, in a voice slightly hoarse from crying.
“It’s Scott, Teresa,” he replied. “Are you ready? It’s about time.” He cocked his head as he heard the faint tinkle of metal clinking against metal. The sound grew louder as the girl’s footsteps approached; and he came to the conclusion Teresa must be wearing a wrist full of shiny bangle bracelets popular with young girls.
The door swung open and Scott’s eyes widened in shock at the sight before him. Teresa’s hair hung in dark limp strings around her white painted face. Her eyes and lips were outlined in a matte black, giving her a ghoulish appearance. The black Vera Wang sheath dress Maria had shopped all day with the girl to find had been accessorized with a thick chain around her waist; a heavy faux padlock hanging at her right hip. And instead of the black pumps with two inches heels that had been purchased to go with the dress, Teresa was sporting a pair of Harley biker boots, complete with chain harnesses.
Well that explains the tinkle sound, Scott though wryly. Dad will flip if she shows up downstairs like this. I should have known better, but I volunteered for this job; and I’m damned well going to see it through. “You, young lady will not be attending your father’s service dressed like a dark clown.” Firmly, Scott took the girl by the elbow and escorted her to the bathroom. “Wash your face,” he ordered, as he set about unclipping the chain from her waist and tossing it aside.
Surprisingly -- Scott had expected tears -- Teresa glared at him and then obediently began to scrub her face clean. When she finished, Scott handed her a brush. “Do something with that hair,” he instructed, watching intently after she snatched the brush from his hand and began to yank it through her hair.
Teresa pulled the long locks away from her face and secured them in place with a tortoise shell barrette. “Excuse me for not feeling the need to look like sunshine and lace,” she snarled as she rounded on Scott. “I’m not a hundred years old, and the Jackie Kennedy look went out in the sixties.”
Well, at least they must teach some history in school, Scott mused bitterly. “No one expects you to look like little Miss Mary Sunshine, Teresa,” he ground out, “however; you will not dishonor your father’s memory by making a spectacle of yourself at his service, or in front of his friends.” He reached out, once again taking her elbow and leading her back to her bedroom. “Now take off those boots and put on your dress shoes.”
The fact Teresa was displaying an inclination towards organized group rebellion was discomforting for the blond; making him wonder if she was a leader or just a rank and file follower. He didn’t know which to hope for; a feeling deep in the pit of his stomach that whatever the case might be, she was sure to try and drag Johnny into whatever turmoil she was intent on creating.
Now that the girl was presentable, Scott escorted her down the stairs. The air around them was thick with discontent. Their appearance in the Great Room coincided with the arrival of the hearse. Without saying anything, the group moved out onto the front portico.
The caisson stood next to the flag pole as the hearse backed up behind it. Disturbed by the purr of the vehicle’s engine and then the clunk of the doors shutting, the horses stomped restlessly; the sounds of their rubber-shod hooves sounding hollow against the hard-packed turf. The wind picked up and swirled away the dirt kicked up by their feet and causing the flag flying at half-mast to snap and pop as it unfurled its star spangled glory in the breeze.
Scott, Jelly and Val marched into the yard to join the five other servicemen who would make up the eight member honor guard, as well as the Chaplain. Murdoch pulled Teresa forward and wrapped his left arm around her shoulder and his right around Johnny’s. Harlan stood on Johnny’s right side and Kevin next to him, Maria hovered in the doorway. They watched somberly as the funeral director opened the back of the hearse and the honor guard moved into place, four to each side of the casket as it was pulled out.
The gun metal gray casket, draped with the flag slowly advanced between the two rows of servicemen as they stood at attention. When it was free of the hatch of the hearse, it stopped. Jelly, Paul’s designated parent service representative, softly issued the orders which began the synchronized movements to transfer the casket to the limber and caisson. At his words, the men executed an about face, eyes straight ahead, and then their white gloved hands lifted their burden to shoulder height. On the next command they moved forward as one until the casket hovered above the conveyance. At Jelly’s instruction they slowly lowered it to rest on the wooden framework.
Scott’s brilliant white uniform gleamed in the sunshine, in stark contrast to the other seven men’s dress blues as they snapped off a smart salute at Jelly’s command and then turned to stand at attention. The men waited patiently as the hearse departed to go ahead to the gravesite, and then the comparisoned riderless horse was guided into place behind the caisson. Murdoch, Teresa and Johnny lined up next, followed by Harlan, Kevin, Maria and the extended members of the Lancer family.
Paul O’Brien was a simple man and it had always been his wish for a simple service; and so it was. The funeral party marched in procession behind his horse drawn caisson the fourth of a mile to the Lancer cemetery, using the time for quite, private self-reflection on Paul’s life.
The winding dirt path which led to the hilltop cemetery had been scraped and graded to level it out; so the short march was not tedious, just somber and silent. The creak of the caisson was interspersed with sniffles from the mourners. Teresa clutched a handkerchief in her hands and wiped periodically at her eyes. Johnny hid behind a pair of dark shades, which only made the portion of his face that was visible look that much paler. Murdoch marched forward, his back ramrod straight, his eyes trained on the large spreading oak on the hillside, which marked the center of the graveyard.
The procession crested the rise of the hill and was greeted by the sight of a hundred or more servicemen, currently TDY at Lancer, lining the last three hundred yards of the path. As the cortège passed by them, they snapped off salutes in honor, respect and remembrance.
A canopy stood over the open gravesite, its fringe flapping in the breeze. An explosion of color from the many flower arrangements glowed under the shade of the tent, the combined floral scents drifting in the air. A bugler stood on the rise, fifty yards beyond and facing the west. Off to the right of the tent, a contingent of seven Marines stood at attention, their rifles held securely by their right legs.
The caisson lumbered into position next to the gravesite. The honor guard waited until all the members of the funeral party arrived under the shelter. At a nod from the Chaplain, they reversed the process they had used to load the casket to unload it. When their task was done they formed a line to the backside of the casket, standing at attention and facing the mourners.
The Chaplain stepped to the front of the casket, pausing to lay a sympathetic hand on Teresa’s arm when a strangled sob sounded from her trembling lips. Murdoch pulled the child closer, wrapping his arm around her waist to lend her support. Also needing an anchor, Johnny sidled up next to his father, linking his arm with his Dad’s as the realization came that life wasn’t always forever. Sensing his grandson’s distress, Harlan patted the boy’s back to comfort him. Jelly watched from across the tent, mentally kicking himself for forgetting to tell Murdoch that Johnny had never attended a funeral before. Johnny and Kevin hadn’t been much more than tadpoles when Kevin’s father died; and Maria…
Johnny had just been a baby when his mother died.
Clearing his throat, the Chaplain began to speak. “We are here to honor the life of Colonel Paul O’Brien of the United States Marine Corps, father of Teresa, a friend and a brother in arms to many. Paul left specific instructions that his death was not to be dwelt upon, that dwelling was for living not death. It was his wish that few words be spoken before his interment. He was a career solider by choice; he willingly put his life on the line to insure that those he loved, as well as his countrymen, would continue to enjoy the freedom of choice. He felt should he ever make the ultimate sacrifice that the words of this poem would appropriately express his philosophy.”
‘He is Gone’ by David Harkins.
You can shed tears because he is gone,
Or you can smile because he lived,
You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back,
Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love that you shared,
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember him and only that he is gone,
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on,
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes; love and go on.’
The Chaplain paused and smiled as the assembled mourners murmured and nodded their heads in agreement. “Paul was concise in actions and words. He didn’t always have a lot to say therefore when he did speak, people tended to listen. I will not dishonor his request by adding anymore to his last words.”
The rifle party formation of seven Marines, upon command, lifted their rifles. In synchronized movement they presented arms, readied arms, aimed and fired, three times in succession for the three gun volley. When the last booming report echoed in the air, twenty-one brass casings lay glittering in the sun next to their polished shoes.
When the sorrowful sounds of Taps wailed out from the bugle, Teresa visibly winced, whimpering she laid her head on Murdoch shoulder and pressed her handkerchief firmly to her mouth. Johnny’s sunglasses slid partway down his nose caught in the flow of his tears. He raised a shaky hand to push them in place, still clutching his father’s arm with his other hand.
As the last refrains from the bugle died away, the honor guard moved into place and reverently folded the flag with precise steps. The flag ended up in a triangular shape, with the blue field and stars showing. Jelly marched towards Teresa, flag cradled in his hands. Stopping, he presented it to her and solemnly recited, “As a representative of the United States Marine Corps, it is my high privilege to present you this flag. Let it be a symbol of the grateful appreciation this nation feels for the distinguished service rendered to our country and our flag by your loved one.”
“Thank you,” Teresa whispered, taking the flag with trembling hands, her eyes widening as she observed the final salute, and then she pressed her tear stained face into its’ folded glory as the casket was lowered into the vault.
At Murdoch and the Chaplain’s prompting, Teresa moved forward and scooped up a handful of dirt to drop into the grave. Murdoch stepped up to be next, pulling Johnny along with him as he was still attached to his sleeve. When he tried to get his son to do the same, Johnny refused, choosing instead to go stand by Scott.
Murdoch frowned at Johnny’s reaction, his face warring between irritation and confusion until Jelly slipped up next to him and whispered, “I should have told you this is the first time Johnny has been to a funeral.”
For the next thirty minutes Murdoch stood by Teresa as she shook hands and thanked people. His eyes kept wandering to his sons. Scott had taken Johnny aside and was wandering about the gravestones, pointing and talking. He was, Murdoch knew, gently diverting Johnny’s attention as he purposely guided him away from Paul’s casket.
Teresa, begging for some time alone, finally slipped away from the crowd. Instead of following the path back to the hacienda, she took off her high heels and, clutching them in one hand and the folded flag in the other, she took a shortcut across the grassy hillside. Murdoch watched as she walked away, looking small and alone, adrift in a great big sea of green. When she disappeared from sight he turned his attention towards Johnny, worried about how all of this might affect him.
The big Scot felt a small smile crawling across his countenance. Scott had succeeded in guiding Johnny down the gently sloping hill. Deep in conversation, the two brothers were walking as if they had been born conjoined twins; perfectly in step as they moved towards the great house.
“They do well together,” Harlan observed, coming up on his son-in-law’s left. “Even with all the foolishness they manage to get into, they do extremely well.”
Murdoch nodded. “I take it Scott confessed regarding the fiasco at The Bistro.”
Behind the two men came the subtle, steady sound of Paul’s coffin being lowered into the ground. Instinctively, they moved away from the noise. “He’s given me his word he will not see the Dennison girl again,” Harlan announced; the relief evident in his voice.
They had reached the bottom of the hill. Maria had already returned to the house, and people were gathering for the meal she had set out. “I need to send someone to find Teresa,” Murdoch said. He was surprised when Kevin Jackson suddenly tugged at his sleeve.
“I’ll go, sir,” Kevin volunteered. “Johnny’s with Scott,” he said, nodding towards the house. “Me and Teresa…” He looked up at the older man. “I know what it’s like to lose a father, sir. I know I was just a kid when my Dad died, but I remember what I felt.” Swallowing, he turned away. “I can talk to her,” he murmured.
Grateful, Murdoch nodded. “She was headed toward the meadow, Kevin. You remember how to get there?”
The teenager nodded. He’d visited Lancer with Johnny on more than one occasion in the past; and had considered those trips a great adventure. “Yes, sir,” he answered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Barely a week after Paul’s funeral, life had returned to some semblance of normality; as normal as life at Lancer could be. It had been a time of great activity. Jelly’s menagerie -- trucked in from Sabinal -- had arrived; the six quarter horses he had decided to keep, two of the prize Guernsey milk cows, and Dewdrop.
While Johnny had missed Texas, Dewdrop was another matter. Jelly’s pet goose, who Johnny complained to everyone was not a goose, but a demon from Hell; had taken over the hacienda’s courtyard. The bird was, the boy declared, a fucking pain in the ass! It was an on-going war.
It didn’t help that Dewdrop had taken a fancy to Teresa. The goose followed her everywhere, and she didn’t even seem to mind. No, to the contrary (and Johnny’s consternation), Teresa seemed besotted with the damned bird. So much so, every time Johnny took a swipe at the goose with his hand or his foot, Teresa pitched a fit.
“Just leave her alone!” Teresa screamed for the umpteenth time.
Johnny was on his butt on the tiled patio; pushing himself up with his hands. He had just slipped -- once again -- on a pile of fresh goose droppings. “I’m gonna cut off her fuckin’ head, and Maria’s gonna cook her!” Johnny shouted.
Kevin Jackson reached down to help his amigo up. “C’mon, Johnny,” he cajoled. “She’s only doin’ what comes naturally.”
“T’resa or the fuckin’ goose!” Johnny groused.
Teresa had already scooped up the bird and was holding it cradled in her arms. “You better stop swearing, Johnny Lancer, or I’m going to tell your father!”
Johnny was on his feet; brushing off his pants. “What do I care?” he shot back, covertly stealing a look at the French doors.
Ever the peace maker, Kevin decided to try a new tact. “It’s really gettin’ warm, Johnny. How about I see if Maria won’t pack us a lunch, and we head up to the pond again? We haven’t taken the horses out since Jelly had ‘em trucked in, and it’d be a good chance to give ‘em some exercise.”
Teresa was petting Dewdrop like the bird was a cat. “We can go, Kevin, if Johnny doesn’t want to,” she smiled, tilting her head.
That was enough to make up Johnny’s mind. “I’ll talk to Maria,” he volunteered. “You get the horses ready.” He turned and smiled at Teresa; just to spite her. “We gonna skinny-dip, or you gonna wear that string thing Kevin,” he punched his friend, “likes so much?” He could only hope. Murdoch had seen the bathing suit the day before when Teresa was sunbathing on the back patio and had nearly had a coronary.
The girl put the goose down. Just the mention of the bikini was enough to make her ears burn. “Don’t you worry about what I’m going to wear,” she smirked. “You just get the food.” Turning on her heel, she marched back into the house.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch looked up from his desk; a bemused smile on his face. “Johnny,” he called.
The brunet skidded to a halt in the hallway. He was wearing cut off jeans and a plain, royal blue t-shirt. “Goin’ swimmin’,” he announced, lifting his hands to display a large insulated bag. “Maria made us a picnic lunch, and we’re gonna take the horses up to the pond.”
Scott was sitting in his father’s overstuffed chair beside the fireplace, his long legs resting on the ottoman, his laptop perched atop his slim thighs. “You and Kevin?” he asked.
“Me, Kevin and Teresa,” the boy answered.
Murdoch exchanged a brief look with his elder son. He wasn’t quite sure if he was happy to hear what his son was saying. Johnny and Teresa were still pretty much oil and water. Or, he thought, reconsidering, fire and ice. “All right,” he nodded. Kevin’s spring break ended in another week, and he wanted the two boys to spend as much time together as possible. Still, he couldn’t let completely go. “I know it’s been unseasonably warm, Johnny; but I don’t want you staying out there once the sun goes down. I want the three of you back here,” he looked to the large grandfather clock, “by four o’clock.”
Scott was watching his brother’s face; a smile coming when he saw the subtle nod.
“No problema,” Johnny shrugged. He looked up as Teresa came thumping down the stairs; Kevin trailing doggedly behind her. “The Old Man,” he grinned, “my Dad says we have to back by four,” he informed the pair.
Teresa was feeling like being cute. She turned to face Murdoch, smiling brightly as she gave him a sharp salute. “Yes, sir!” Like Johnny and Kevin, she was wearing cut off jeans.
Together, the three teenagers clambered out the front door. “It is truly a shame,” Scott murmured.
“What’s that, son?” Murdoch asked absently as he went back to his paperwork.
“That all that energy goes to waste on three people with nothing more to do than play.” He readjusted the screen on the laptop and went back to work. An electronic dossier with the heading, Pardee, Dayton had just appeared on his screen.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“She’s a pretty good rider,” Kevin said as they pulled up beside the pond. He watched as Teresa dropped to the ground.
“For a girl,” Johnny grimaced. He turned to look at his companion. “I figure on swimmin’ in my cutoffs since Miss Tag-a-long is with us. You gonna give her a show?”
Kevin lifted his right leg over the saddle horn and slid down to the ground. “I’m wearin’ my cutoffs,” he said, squinting as he looked up at his friend. “I heard your Dad yellin’ at Teresa yesterday. What do you think she’s gonna wear?” He sounded almost hopeful.
“As little as possible,” Johnny answered uncharitably. He dismounted; lifting himself up over the cantle and dropping down off the bay gelding’s hind quarters. He gave the animal a pat and moved forward to join his friend. Teresa had disappeared behind a cluster of thick shrubs. “Scott says she kinda likes to show off her body.”
The redhead frowned. “She’s not like that,” he said. “You just don’t like her crowding in on your space. It’s like when your Gramps was seein’ the Ferris woman.”
Johnny shot his companion a dark look. “Yeah. Well, I was right about her, wasn’t I?” He brushed by the other boy and, stripping off his t-shirt, headed for the water.
Teresa chose that particular moment to step out from behind the bushes. She had removed her cut off jeans and was wearing the bottom half of the string bikini, the outline of the side thongs soft ridges beneath the red jersey knit. “Like my t-shirt?” she called, facing Johnny before turning to show off the garment to Kevin.
Kevin laughed. He leaned slightly to the right, peering around Teresa’s shoulder. “That’s the tattoo you had on your belly?” he snickered, jabbing a finger at the red t-shirt the girl was wearing. He hadn’t missed that she was not wearing a bra. “Man!” He smiled broadly at Teresa. “I want that shirt,” he declared. “I’m gonna take it back to Sabinal and wear it to school.” He was grinning like a Cheshire cat now. “Wait until the guys see this,” he teased; reaching out. His fingers hovered just above the tail end of the monkey that had been the centerpiece of Johnny’s belly.
Johnny stormed back from the edge of the pond. Not caring that the girl was still wearing her Sketchers, he bent forward as if tackling her, and hoisted her onto his shoulder. Turning around, he carried her to the pond and tossed her backwards into the water. Into the green slime at the pond’s edge. And then, for good measure, he jumped in after her and flattened her even deeper into the thick mud.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
SLAM!! Squish, squish, squish.
Scott had been standing next to his father’s desk; both men staring intently at the screen on his laptop. He immediately looked up. “Teresa?”
Murdoch echoed the word. “Teresa?”
Teresa was standing just beyond the doorway to the Great Room. She looked, Scott thought, like a contestant in a wet t-shirt/mud wrestling competition. She was covered head to toe in pond slime, her long dark hair plastered against her head. There didn’t appear to be an inch of her body that wasn’t covered in mud. Stomping her right foot; the squish sound came louder this time, globs of wet mud dropping to the floor. “Johnny threw me in the pond!” she sobbed.
Murdoch slowly rose up from his chair. “Where is he?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” Teresa shouted, “And I don’t care!!”
Scott was shaking his head. “Go on up stairs and take a shower, Teresa. I’ll send Maria up to help you with your hair.”
The girl was sniffling. “These were new shoes,” she whined, lifting her right foot. “A hundred twenty dollars and they are RUINED.”
Murdoch closed his eyes, his right thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of his nose as if by cutting off the blood supply he could stop the headache. “Scott,”
“I know,” the blond interrupted, “I know. Go find my brother.” He headed for the hallway, gracefully sidestepping Teresa as he shouted for Maria. “Towels, please, Maria,” he called.
Murdoch watched as the housekeeper scurried into the hallway. When he saw the look on the woman’s face, he was tempted to let her take care of everything: Teresa, the mud, and especially, Johnny.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott double-timed it across the courtyard. Johnny and Kevin were in the corral; stripping the saddles from the horses they had ridden. Both boys looked just slightly less muddy than Teresa; and Kevin was sporting the beginnings of a minor black eye. Johnny had a small cut on his upper lip. They were arguing.
“I’m going to ask this question once,” Scott announced, his voice cutting into the bickering. “What happened up at the pond?” He was standing at the corral fence; his hands knotted against his hips. “John?”
The brunet turned to face his brother. “I tossed her fat ass into the mud,” he answered. There was, he knew, no point in lying.
“Whataya askin’ him for?” Johnny shouted. “I already told you.”
“Why were you fighting?” Scott asked. He purposely avoided looking at his brother.
Kevin was trying his best to dislodge the mud from his hands; a useless task. “It wasn’t all Johnny’s fault,” he said finally, giving up. “Teresa was wearing a t-shirt,” he sighed. “A red one with an outline of that tattoo Johnny had…” he shrugged. “I was raggin’ on him pretty good, and…” Another shrug.
Scott’s head canted. Kevin was doing the teasing, but Teresa ended up dumped in the mud. He exhaled. “The two of you are going to clean up that tack,” he ordered. “And groom those horses. Then you are going to use the showers in the machine shop to wash up. I’ll have Maria bring you a change of clothes.” He felt like he was giving orders to two really green recruits. “Then both of you will get your sorry rear-ends,” his voice was rising, “up to the house and to the Great Room! Understood?” When neither boy responded, he repeated the word. “UNDERSTOOD!?”
Even Johnny was impressed by the Captain Lancer tirade. In unison with Kevin he said, “understood.”
Kevin watched in awe as Scott executed a perfect about face and strode purposefully across the yard and back to the house. “Kinda makes me glad I’m an only child,” he muttered.
Johnny looped an arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Aw, it ain’t always this bad,” he sighed. “Sometimes, he even takes me on dates.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer was standing in front of the fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back. He had finally stopped pacing. Eyes narrowing, he surveyed the three faces that were looking up at him; carefully gauging their expressions. Johnny, Teresa and Kevin were seated on the couch; perched on the very edge of the cushions, their fingers dug into the thick upholstery. All three of the teen-agers looked like they were poised to flee.
Struggling to keep his voice below bellow, the General slipped into his severe father mode. He had heard all three versions of the story, and had determined exactly what his course of action was going to be. “Kevin, while you are not completely innocent in all of this, you are the least culpable.” He saw from the boy’s face he needed to translate. “You are the most innocent,” he said. “You need to understand, however, that I won’t tolerate any more fisticuffs between you and Johnny. If you two can’t resolve your quarrels without fighting, then perhaps its time for you to go home. Is that what you want?”
Kevin was shaking his head, and Johnny was mirroring the action. “No, sir,” he answered. He turned to his buddy. “Sorry, Johnny.”
The apology prompted Murdoch to ask a question. “Who threw the first punch?”
Kevin ducked his head, and shyly raised his hand. Beside him, Johnny did the same.
“I see,” the older man nodded. “You can go, Kevin.” When the red-head stood up, the other two followed his lead. Murdoch stopped them with a single, harsh glare. “Not you two,” he growled. “We aren’t done here.”
Sighing, both youngsters settled back down on the couch. Accidently, Johnny’s hand brushed Teresa’s; and he pulled back as if he had been burnt. But not before the girl’s hand snaked out and she smacked him. Hard.
Murdoch grabbed his son’s hand before the boy could retaliate. “You are going to apologize to Teresa for throwing her into the pond,” he announced, his grip increasing when he felt Johnny try to pull away; “and you will be paying for her new pair of shoes.” Still holding on to Johnny’s wrist, he swung his attention to the girl. “And you, young lady, will apologize to John for taking his clothing without permission.” When she started to protest, he held up his free hand. “I don’t care that you found the shirt in the laundry,” he ground out -- not that he believed it was true -- “it’s Johnny’s shirt, not yours, and you had no right wearing it.” He let the words sink in. “Now apologize.”
Johnny slumped back on the couch, his arms folded tightly across his chest. Teresa did the same; but only after she had scooted over so their shoulders would not touch. Both of them were stubbornly staring straight ahead at invisible spots on the wall.
“Fine,” Murdoch ground out. “You can both stay right there until you decide to speak.” Already, he could see Johnny’s right leg dancing.
Scott had entered the room just in time to hear his father’s ultimatum. Unable to stop the smile, he raised his right hand, covering his mouth with the Overnight Express Mail envelope he was holding. Finally composed, he continued his trek to his father’s desk. “Would you care to make a wager on who gives in first?” he murmured when his father approached.
“Since I’d be betting on Teresa,” the big man smiled, shaking his head, “I’d feel like I was stealing your money.”
The blond persisted. “On how long it takes, then?” he teased. He laid the envelope on the desk. “From Edwards Law Firm in North Carolina,” he said, tapping the red, white, and blue cardboard with his forefinger.
“The hardcopy of Paul’s will,” Murdoch murmured, careful to keep the words private. He stole a quick look at the couch, seeing nothing but the backs of two heads. He silently wondered how much more complicated his life could become; and then mentally chastised himself. It was time to soldier on.
Teresa had shifted slightly on the couch, turning her head to look back at the two older men. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she whimpered.
Murdoch studied the girl’s face. “Then I would suggest, young lady, you make peace with Johnny.”
The girl’s mouth dropped open. “Maria would let me go,” she argued; pouting.
Scott actually laughed. “Oh, no, she wouldn’t,” he snickered. “Maria has never been that gullible.” He was speaking from personal experience. Between Johnny and himself, they had tried every trick in the book with the housekeeper over the years and none of them had worked.
Teresa caved. She knew her bluff wasn’t working. Turning to face Johnny, she ground out the words. “Sorry about the shirt.”
Sensing victory, Johnny grinned across at the girl. “Yeah. And I’m sorry about the shoes.”
The young woman stood up; hesitating as she sought out the older man’s permission. When Murdoch nodded, she stalked out of the room. Johnny took it as a blanket green light and immediately headed for the French doors.
“You do know, sir,” Scott said, watching his brother’s strategic withdrawal, “he did not apologize for throwing her in the pond.”
Murdoch was rubbing his chin. “Yes,” he acknowledged. “Neither one of their apologies had a mote of sincerity, either; but they did do as they were told.” He smiled across at his son. “I’m beginning to learn -- when it comes to being a father -- you take what you can get.”
“Really?” Scott beamed.
The General’s eyes narrowed. “Within reason,” he cautioned. He picked up the envelope bearing the return address of the North Carolina law office. “I need to tend to this,” he said. “How are you coming with your inquiries regarding Pardee?”
Scott’s demeanor immediately changed; his mood now serious. “I’ve run into a major communication problem with the alphabet soup people,” he grimaced. “DOJ, ATF, FBI; CIA. Seems they’ve all, at one point or another, had contact with your Mister Pardee.” He failed to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve been less than forthcoming with any information regarding Pardee and how you know him.”
Murdoch’s jaws flexed. “It’s Major Pardee, or was,” he said finally; the words coming as if they left a bitter aftertaste in the man’s mouth. “Special Forces, Black Ops. Guatemala, Somalia; anywhere else there was a need to infiltrate or establish guerilla forces supported by our government. Later, he was brought in to work against the drug cartels.” The next words came begrudgingly. “Going native was Pardee’s special talent.”
The blond was quiet for a time. “He served under you?” he asked.
“Yes.” Murdoch pointedly avoided saying where or when. “I brought him up on charges when it turned out he was diverting arms shipments and supplies to the enemy in exchange for raw heroin.” He raked his hand through his hair; shaking his head. “It was like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now,” he said. “He disappeared into the interior, set up his own operation with native runners; pipelined drugs into the cities. And the entire time he was operating with the blessing of our government because he was supposedly undercover.”
Scott’s long index finger was tracing a wide circle atop his father’s desk; his blue eyes almost slate colored now as he worked the thing over in his mind. “How did you deal with him?” he asked.
“Val,” Murdoch murmured. “The only problem was someone on the inside tipped Pardee off; that’s how far his network extended. It almost cost Val his life.” He turned to study his son’s face. “The investigation was far-reaching, Scott. There were people in Washington -- the ones who subscribed to the theory of victory no matter the cost -- who supported Pardee’s methods. It took more than a year to get a conviction via a military court martial, and it amounted to nothing much more than a slap on the wrist in lieu of what he had done. He was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to fifty years in Leavenworth.”
“You’re saying he should have gotten the death penalty,” Scott reasoned.
Again, Murdoch’s face tensed. “I’m saying I’d volunteer for the firing squad myself, and there would be a long line of men behind me -- good men -- wanting to participate.”
Scott nodded. “Have you told Val?”
“I talked to him before he left; after Paul’s funeral. He’s got resources of his own he can call on to help.” The General was staring out the window behind his desk. “This much I know. Pardee was using his own name when he was in Sabinal. Something smells. We need to find out how he managed to get released from Leavenworth, and what he was doing in Texas.”
Scott’s mind was working. “He was there to get close to Johnny,” he announced. “To put that tracking device in my brother’s belly; and to send you a message.”
“You think this is a personal vendetta,” Murdoch breathed.
The blond nodded his head. “I think it’s that and something more,” he ventured; recalling the psychological profile he’d read regarding Pardee after his arrest and incarceration. “Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Pardee’s tracking device was manufactured by Warburton Industries; a firm that trades in military technology and weaponry?”
Murdoch had just crossed the room to the drink table as was pouring a generous measure of scotch; filling two glasses. “Call Val,” he instructed; impressed by his son’s analytical thinking. “Tell him what you suspect. And then have your Grandfather do some more digging.”
Both men turned to face the outer door; visibly surprised when Harlan Garrett entered the room. His face was flushed; and he was carrying a full briefcase. “I’ve already done a substantial amount of digging,” he said, helping himself to a brandy. “Warburton’s personal law firm handled a very interesting legal case a year ago; pro bono.” He grimaced at the phrase. “Pardee’s case was supposedly reviewed and his conviction overturned on constitutional grounds. He was also granted a full pardon in the watershed of unpublicized political paybacks that occurred at the end of the last administrations’ term in office.”
Murdoch’s cut glass drink tumbler sliced through the air, hitting dead center at the back of the brick fireplace; the crystal shattering. “Of course,” he roared, “yet another Washington cluster-fuck!”
Scott exchanged a wary look with his Grandfather. “Dad,” he said, cautiously.
Murdoch raised both hands, forcing the disciplined calm that he knew would be required to regain control of the situation. “I’m all right,” he breathed. “We’ll get through this; and we will figure it out.”
End part three
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The slow, constant drag of the heavy pendulum of the grandfather clock was, Murdoch realized, somehow comforting. He had risen early after a restless night, preparing himself an early breakfast before Maria woke to make the coffee. They had enjoyed a companionable meal, relishing the early morning quiet; which quickly disappeared when Johnny, Kevin and Teresa arrived in the kitchen.
Murdoch had taken his coffee and headed for the relative calm of the Great Room. And so he sat, pouring over the four-page long document Paul’s attorney had sent him.
Scott entered the room, carrying an insulated coffee urn. He topped off his father’s cup. “I know I probably shouldn’t ask, Dad, but Paul’s affairs…”
Murdoch hid a smile with the coffee cup, taking a long drink before he responded. “There are things you need to know, Scott; and this,” he tapped the document with his forefinger, “is one of them.” He took another prolonged drink of coffee. “After all, son, if something should happen to me, you will be responsible for both Teresa and your brother.”
The blond choked on his coffee. “You’re not serious, sir?”
The older man chuckled. “I have no plans of dying anytime soon, son. I plan on living long enough to see this house filled with grandchildren; grandchildren I can indulge the way Harlan and Jelly indulge you and Johnny.” He leaned back in his chair. “Yes. I can see it now. Filling them with chocolate, sugar and carbonated beverages, and then retiring to my room.”
“Not funny,” Scott declared. “About Teresa?” He’d had enough talk about grandchildren and threatened sugar highs.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Thanks to your Grandfather, Paul’s made some wise investment over the years. He’s left a pretty decent estate; in trust until Teresa turns twenty-five. Her income as a military dependent, however, will only continue as long as she is in school.” He picked up a letter than had been included in the packet. “Paul made it very clear he wants Teresa to not only finish high school, but to go on to college, which can be accomplished with VA free tuition and a monthly stipend.”
Scott’s tongue suddenly flicked against the corner of his upper lip. “I made that call you wanted me to make to Teresa’s school in North Carolina,” he breathed. “It seems Teresa’s recent stay there was a near match to Johnny’s little fiasco in Sabinal. The good sisters have informed me that Teresa won’t be welcome back after spring break.” He turned to look at his father. “We’ve already decided to home-school Johnny for his senior year, Dad. I can’t see Teresa contributing to that effort, and she’s already made it pretty clear to Kevin,” he raised his hand, “I know, I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping,” he apologized and then moved on, “that she doesn’t want to go to school here.”
Murdoch laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “What does she think she’s going to do?” he asked. “Paul was pretty indulgent regarding extra-curricular activities -- tennis, dancing, and voice lessons -- and I don’t think Teresa has ever had so much as a part time job.” A work ethic was important to Murdoch Lancer: Harlan Garrett shared the same passion. Both Johnny and Scott, for all their privilege, had worked to earn extra spending money. “Paul’s estate, handled right, will provide a monthly income for Teresa; but nothing lavish. And she will not stay here and play pampered princess without some significant effort on her part.” He leaned back, tenting his fingers beneath his nose. “She’s going to at least complete high school. I can’t force her to go to college, but she is going to finish her senior year.” He exhaled. “It’s just a question of where.”
Scott sat down on the edge of the desk, perching on the corner. “The good sisters,” he began, “well, the Mother Superior,” he wondered if nuns still wore the traditional black habits, “suggested a school she knows about in Charleston, South Carolina, Ashley-Cooper Hall. It’s run by a woman named Rachel Fairchild. Her family established the school in 1900. She also said Miss Fairchild is attending a National Education Association conference in Sacramento during spring break, where she is the keynote speaker on the subject of effective strategies for teaching and managing unmotivated and/or disruptive students.”
Murdoch’s fingers had gone to sleep, and he rubbed them together to restore the feeling. It was obvious from his expression he was pleased with the news. “Sounds like two teenagers we know, doesn’t it?”
“I thought perhaps we could contact her; ask if she would consider flying here to Lancer to discuss Teresa attending her academy.” He shrugged. “I looked her up on-line, and her credentials are pretty impressive. She’s actually a trend setter in developing effective IEPs, individual education plans, and I was hoping she might even provide us with some advice regarding Johnny.”
Hearing the sounds of another argument between the teens drifting down the stairs, Murdoch swiped a broad hand across his face. “See if you can’t contact her,” he instructed. “I’ll speak to Teresa.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The golden strands of Scott’s hair glowed in the sunshine as he sat on a golf cart parked behind the barn and across from the area used as helicopter pad. His slender fingers drummed impatiently on the steering wheel. The familiar thumping of rotary blades drew his attention to the sky; where a few seconds later the Garrett Corporation copter crested the hillside and then began its descent. Even above the noise of the engine and blades Scott could hear the shrill voice of Teresa once again screaming at Johnny. What have you done now, little brother? He reconsidered, or what the Hell has Teresa done to goad you into retaliation?
Figuring he’d find out soon enough, Scott turned his attention back to the helicopter. Lifting a hand to shade his eyes from the sun, he sucked in his breath when a petite and curvy young woman -- dressed in a pale yellow, two piece linen pant suit -- was helped from the copter by the co-pilot. When she stepped out into the sunshine her shoulder length, curly hair sparkled with hints of burnished copper highlights. She appeared to be in her early thirties…a peak age for women.
A slow grin crawled across Scott’s face as he strode forward to meet his guest, his pale eyes sweeping her compact frame. WOW, there’s something to be said for those Carolina girls. If she can’t help us with our teenager problem; perhaps she might at least be a nice distraction for me. Stopping in front of the woman, he took the time to admire her gorgeous green eyes when she removed her shades. Scott extended his hand, “Miss Fairchild, I’m Scott Lancer. We spoke on the phone yesterday. Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with us.” Tipping his head slightly in greeting, he reached out and relieved her of the small travel bag she was carrying.
“My pleasure, Mr. Lancer,” she stated though her eyes were looking over his shoulder towards the hacienda. Her lips trembled in the effort not to laugh. Her mauve painted bottom lip disappeared into her mouth, held in place by her brilliant white upper teeth.
Filled with a wary trepidation, Scott turned to see what she found so amusing. He groaned; the sound morphing in to a soft growl as he spied just exactly what she seeing. Teresa was jumping around and shrieking; pulling on the ropes to the flagpole, from which, high atop, flew a colorful collection of bras. With the way she’s bouncing that has to be every bra she owns fluttering in the wind up there, he thought, because she’s certainly not wearing one!
Agitated honking sounds joined Teresa’s siren-like screams as Johnny ran into view being chased by a ferociously flapping Dewdrop. Jelly appeared from the patio pulling a loudly protesting Kevin by the ear, the tall teen bent at an awkward angle due to old man’s shorter stature. Maria was rushing after them brandishing a rolling pin and ranting in Spanish. Into this scene marched Murdoch, bellowing madly, who raised his arm and fired off three shots into the air from his Luger.
Scott buried his face in both hands, using his long fingers to massage his forehead. “Welcome to Lancer,” he groaned. So much for a good first impression. By now, I’m sure she thinks we’re the local branch of Kaiser-Permanente’s psych ward.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Getting right to work, Miss Fairchild spent several hours conducting interviews with Johnny and Teresa; observing them individually and then scrutinizing them carefully as they interacted with each other during a pop-quiz session. After lunch she joined Murdoch and Scott in the study to review their educational records.
Less than an hour later, Rachel Fairchild closed the thick folder containing Teresa’s less than stellar academic records. Standing, she crossed the room, stopping in front of the large desk where the General and Scott were reviewing files of their own.
Dropping Teresa and Johnny’s folders onto the desk, Ms. Fairchild settled into the chair beside Scott and across from his father. “General Lancer, I’ve never been one to sugar coat unpalatable news. I also don’t believe in making excuses for poor behavior.” She paused briefly, studying both men’s face before continuing, the next words coming with quiet authority and determination. “My ultimate goal is to find solutions,” she stated bluntly, arching a perfectly shaped eyebrow so high it disappeared for a second in her soft fall of bangs.
Murdoch sat back and motioned with his hand he was ready to hear whatever it was she was about to say. “You have my full attention, Miss Fairchild.”
Pointing to the top file she had just put on his desk, Rachel said, “Your ward basically squandered the wonderful educational opportunities that world travel as a military dependent afforded her. I understand all about those chances, General, as my father was a rear Admiral.
“From the reports I’ve read, Miss O’Brien has never truly applied herself and there were no consequences for her failures. She is of average intelligence, which means she needs to really apply herself to achieve her potential. Once she masters a skill her retention of it is not a problem. The dilemma is motivating her to mastery. It’s clear from her records,” she tapped the girl’s folder with an immaculately manicured forefinger, “she has been more concerned with attracting boyfriends, hanging out with questionable acquaintances and shopping. It also appears she has no work ethic what-so-ever.” She paused, seeing Murdoch about to speak.
“Paul was always very indulgent. Teresa was his only child and he always felt somehow responsible her mother disappeared from their lives when Teresa was very young. I’m afraid he wasn’t prepared to see any wrong in her actions.” Forcing out a heavy breath, he continued, “Teresa excelled at making him feel guilty for not always being there.” And, God help me, I know how that feels.
Rachel smiled. Men were sometimes hopelessly naïve when it came to women; and particularly to their female offspring. “I sincerely doubt Miss O’Brien was truly disturbed by his prolonged absences. It seems her main agenda has always been to have a boyfriend at her beck and call, and from a very early age. I certainly don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but he absolutely did not do her any favors by letting her change schools every time things didn’t go her way. All that taught her was to walk away from her problems rather than work to resolve them,” she observed knowingly, shaking her head at the situation.
Shifting in his chair, Scott joined the conversation. “And how do you think Ashley –Cooper Hall can rectify the gaps in her character and education?” His respect for the woman had increased ten fold the moment she had first begun speaking.
Miss Fairchild answered the question without hesitation; confident in her knowledge of the program. “Ashley-Cooper Hall produces educated women who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to meet the challenges of society with confidence. We do this through single-gender education and an IEP based curriculum tailored to the different learning styles of girls. This eliminates natural co-ed distractions, resulting in improved academic performance. We strive to educate the whole person by focusing on intellectual, physical and personal development.”
Clearing his throat, Murdoch leaned forward, “That sounds like a wonderful plan on paper…but just how do you implement it?”
Raising her head proudly, her chin set at a stubborn angle, Rachel said, “We implement it by refusing to allow them to give in or quit. We work on a demerit system. Every wrong choice, every misstep is a potent learning experience because they lose privileges and do not earn them back until they apply themselves towards a solution. Our faculty and staff endeavors to inspire, affirm and motivate every girl to achieve her highest potential.”
Murdoch smiled at the stated method; it rang of boot camp mentality, something he was experienced with and knew was a productive system. “And are you willing to accept Teresa to finish out her senior year?”
“Yes and no,” she smiled at the General’s sudden frown, and then explained. “I can just about guarantee you it will take what is left of this school year to acclimate Teresa to our methods. Once we achieve that, she can spend the summer performing the work-study job we require as a credit for graduation. When she completes that she will have the 2010 through 2011 school year to earn her senior academic credits. Let me assure you, she’ll receive no free ride from Ashley-Cooper Hall.”
Scott and Murdoch glanced at each other, the same broad smile splitting their faces in a shared expression of genuine relief. Turning his attention to Miss Fairchild, Murdoch asked, “How soon should we have her there?”
“If you like, you may bring her to Sacramento on Friday and I will escort her to the school,” Rachel suggested.
“Shall we ship her belongings to the school?” Scott asked, almost feeling guilty about sending Teresa away, despite her daily rants that she couldn’t wait to get away from Johnny.
“You may,” she answered. “But I warn you now, other than her personal clothes for off school hours, the young ladies who attend the academy wear uniforms during the school day. She will need a laptop, which is required for school work, but the right to have a television, dvd player, cell phone, music, all the things teenagers take for granted and think they are owed; well, we consider those things to be privileges, and they must be earned.” The young woman’s stern countenance made it evident she was quite serious.
Murdoch was nodding his head in approval. “Trust me, Miss Fairchild; you do not need to concern yourself with any lack of cooperation on our part. I want what is best for my ward,” he announced, “but I am also determined to not repeat Paul’s mistakes.”
Scott visibly relaxed at his father’s declaration; relieved to feel that at least half of their problem with petulant teen-agers was well on its way to being resolved. “Now that we’ve reached some accord regarding Teresa, would you be willing to develop an IEP for home-schooling Johnny?” he asked.
Shifting her attention to the young blond, Rachel voiced a question of her own. “May I ask why Johnny is not being enrolled in an academy or at least a public high school?”
There was no uncertainty in Murdoch when he immediately answered the woman’s question. “Miss Fairchild, suffice to say there are some security issues regarding why Johnny can’t attend a traditional high-school, or a private institution. I can’t expound upon all the facts; but I will tell you he has already been kidnapped once and we have reason to believe future attempts are possible.” His gaze drifted briefly to a photo on his desk of Johnny in his Olympic uniform, gold medals hanging around his neck. “He has endured some physical and mental issues from that abduction. He’s under a MD’s care and he has twice weekly sessions with a psychologist, Major Brandvold, who specializes in PTSD.”
The woman failed to hide her surprise. “Johnny willingly goes to these sessions? He really didn’t strike me as the type to be closed up in a room talking about his problems,” she said, studying the worried frown on the General’s face.
“He doesn’t actually sit in an office. Major Brandvold is also a sharpshooter. They just happened,” he replied making quotation marks in the air, “to meet up at the shooting range. Johnny feels at ease talking to him in his element. I suspect my son might realize Pete is more than just a shooting buddy but he’s smart enough to know talking with him helps. He’s quoted the Major several times now as well as heeded his advice.”
Miss Fairchild’s smile was radiant. “Oh, Johnny is very smart, make no mistake about that. After what I observed this morning, read in his academic record and know of his sharp shooting skills; I would say he borders on being what is known as a lightning calculator,” she revealed, stunning the Lancers.
Scott found his voice first, “What,” he stuttered, “Did you not see where he’s failing math?”
“Indeed, I did,” she answered. “He’s not failing because he doesn’t understand mathematical computations. He fails because he has no desire to reveal just how intelligent he is; because he knows more would be expected of him.” The woman’s smile grew and she chuckled, tickled by the gob smacked looks she was seeing. “He knows what he knows and he doesn’t care whether anyone else is cognizant of his ability or not.”
Slapping his thigh with the flat of his hand, Scott laughed. “I can believe it! He speaks Spanish fluently, yet he flunked it last semester.”
Elbows firmly planted atop his desk, Murdoch leaned forward; not quite convinced. Johnny had done some things -- was still doing things -- that often made the older man question if his younger son had advanced beyond the stage of a particularly impish five-year-old. “For my benefit, would you explain exactly how you arrived at this conclusion?”
Smiling, Rachel explained. “I watched him rack up millions of points on a sharp shooting game on his WII earlier. As I observed him, I realized by his eye and hand movements and the speed at which he struck targets that he was able to visualize lines of trajectory and calculate speed. He has exceptionally capacious memory and rapid recall. Such arithmetical ability enables him to carry out complicated calculations without pen or paper and remember the results for use in future problems. To break that down further, that’s why practicing works so well for him. Once he makes a shot under certain conditions, if he’s ever presented with those conditions again, his brain recalls the exact movements he needs to make and duplicate the original results.”
Murdoch’s gaze fell on his oldest son, “I’ll be damned,” he exclaimed, “Scott has that type of recall for languages. He also excels at decoding and encryption.”
Miss Fairchild relaxed slightly, sitting back in her chair and enjoying the amazement displayed by the two men. “It’s not unusual for memory capacity and recall skills to manifest in different skill areas within a family. Johnny’s is obviously in the mathematical realm and Scott’s is language,”
His brow furrowing in a mixture of wonder and parental exasperation, Murdoch voiced his thoughts aloud. “Johnny always surpassed his teacher’s expectations in grade school. He seemed to strive to please them,” he continued, remembering Adele Jackson’s glowing reports, “and was, in fact a star pupil until high school. I don’t know what happened then,” he admitted with a rueful shake of his head.
Rachel laughed, somewhat condescendingly. “Nature happened, General Lancer. Like most teenagers he reached a point where he felt he knew all he needed to know to survive in this world. It became more fun to expend all his efforts in bending the rules as opposed to following them, and then the hormones kicked in.”
Scott had long suspected his baby brother was a con man in the making. “What do I have to do, Miss Fairchild, to persuade you to develop that IEP for Johnny?” he asked. “I’m certain if I had a guideline created by your capable mind, I would be more than able to help him fulfill the requirements for a high school diploma.” Allowing the ghost of a smile to touch his lips, he tossed a saucy wink in the auburn haired beauty’s direction. “I’d be more than willing to personally compensate you.”
“You certainly will,” Rachel pledged, lowering her eyes and peering seductively from beneath long, velvety lashes. Both Lancer sons, as physically different as they were, were extremely good looking and definitely charmers. Her voice lowered, the sweet drawl even more pronounced. “And I can assure you the manner of compensation shall be decided later; at my discretion.”
Fingers tented prayerfully beneath his nose, Murdoch Lancer smiled as he silently watched the subtle foreplay. So much for Harlan’s concern about Julie Dennison, he mused. The smile quickly changed to a frown. Feeling like an unwanted third wheel, he addressed his son. “Scott.” There was no response. The blond was giving his full attention to the woman seated beside him. Murdoch tried again, the volume rising. “Scott!”
This time, the young man acknowledged his father. A faint hint of pink touched his cheeks. “Sir?”
Murdoch shook his head, pointedly ignoring his eldest as he turned to face the woman. “I believe, Miss Fairchild, when Scott spoke to you he suggested your services might be required for more than the afternoon,” he hesitated, mentally berating himself for his choice of words as he watched his son’s face color even more. “I’d like you to discuss what you’ve determined about Johnny with both of his grandfathers.” He knew Scott had given the woman a heads up regarding the unusual family relationships. “I am of the opinion that we are going to have to present a united front regarding Johnny’s education, and our expectations regarding his progress.”
Miss Fairchild was nodding in agreement. “I think that would be a good idea,” she said. “I also would like to speak with,” she bit her bottom lip in concentration as she summoned the man’s name, “the psychologist, Major Brandvold.”
Scott had regained his composure. “You aren’t concerned about the doctor/patient confidentiality issue?” he asked.
The woman shook her head. “What I’m interested in is the Major’s take on Johnny’s behavior when he’s asked or instructed to do something he doesn’t want to do, or doesn’t feel he needs to do,” the young woman answered. “And I have a feeling, as a professional, the Major has probably pushed Johnny’s buttons on occasion, just to gauge his reactions.” She smiled reassuringly at the elder Lancer. “I have no intention or need to intrude on Johnny’s treatment for his PTSD. That’s not my area of expertise, and I’m not in the habit of trespassing.”
Both Lancer men nodded their approval. Scott was the one, however, to speak. “I believe I promised you a tour of Lancer,” he said, lifting himself up out of his chair. “Johnny and Kevin were both scheduled to be at the target range this afternoon, and we can just show up there without raising any red flags.”
The woman stood up, stretching a bit and smoothing her jacket. “As opposed to bras,” she laughed, remembering her first view of the hacienda. She canted her head, looking up at the tall blond. “I’d like to change into something more comfortable,” she smiled. “I seem to remember you also said -- aside from a helicopter or an airplane -- the best view of Lancer is from the back of a horse?”
Murdoch shoved back his chair, grimacing as the wheels made more noise than he normally tolerated. “And she rides, too,” he smiled, his mood improving. He waved the two away. Then, changing his mind, he called out to his son. “Ask Major Brandvold if he would care to join us for dinner tonight, Scott. And send Johnny and Kevin back. Jelly has a list of chores for them to perform after that little fiasco with Teresa, and I assured him they would complete those tasks before they turn in for the night.”
Scott acknowledged his father’s request with a wave of his hand, and then turned back to his companion. “I’ll see to the horses,” he said, gesturing to the stairs.
Turning, his hands clasped behind his back, Murdoch Lancer stared out across the landscape beyond the arched window. Feeling more than a modicum of guilt over his decision regarding Teresa’s schooling -- the remorse that came with the presumption he was somehow letting down an old friend by not keeping Teresa at Lancer -- he began mentally rehearsing what he would say to the girl. He was not looking forward to the discussion.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“That was a nice save you made, Captain Lancer,” Rachel Fairchild said, the words coming softly. She had just kicked her booted left foot free of the stirrup and was slipping to the ground. Wearing boot cut Levis and a man’s styled tailored chambray shirt, the young woman looked right at home.
Scott was still in the saddle. He had debated a quick dismount when they topped the hill, but had stopped himself; sensing that Miss Rachel Fairchild would not have been duly impressed by any old-fashioned act of gallantry in helping her to dismount. He was sorry about that: the thought of his hands around her tiny waist had been…invigorating. He shook the thought away. “And what save was that, Ms. Fairchild?” he smiled. Removing the flat-crowned tan Stetson he had been wearing, he rotated the hat against his elbow, drying the inside headband.
Rachel was standing beside the bay gelding she had chosen to ride, stroking the animal’s neck. “The one where you handed Teresa a robe before she paraded into the Great Room from the pool.” The teen-aged girl had been wearing a bright red bikini that left little to the imagination. Brass hoops secured the fabric at strategic points: her hips, between her breasts. Miss Fairchild had seen more material used to diaper a preemie’s tiny butt than all of the fabric that made up the girl’s swim suit.
Scott laughed. Like the woman, he was now on the ground. He led his horse forward until he was standing shoulder to shoulder with his companion. “Anything to keep my father from having the big one,” he grinned. “It’s one thing when Teresa sunbathes at the pool behind the house; another when she’s taking her turn in the sun up here,” he gestured with his arm, “at the pond.”
It didn’t take long for the woman to realize what the blond was saying. The large, earth-bermed pond that dominated the small valley beneath them was visible from not only the main house, but the surrounding hills where the troops often trained. “So I was right,” she murmured. “Our little Miss Teresa is a bit of a cock-teaser.”
Scott almost choked. “I was thinking of a more politically correct euphemism,” he laughed, “something that would look a bit better on her transcripts or her resume.”
Rachel had bent down, her long fingers raking at the shoots of new spring grass poking up from the rich soil. “Teresa’s an attractive girl,” she said nonchalantly, “and I’d be willing to bet her physical development was quite precocious.” She shrugged. “It’s not a very good situation; a child’s mind in a woman’s body.” Brushing her hands, she stood up. “Teresa’s school records indicate she flirted her way to passing grades with every male instructor she had, while just scraping by with her female teachers. That’s why she failed so badly at her last school; the nuns didn’t put up with her little games.” She sighed. “If she’s going to have any kind of future, she needs to learn she is something more than a great set of boobs with good hair and a pretty face. Hopefully, that can still happen.”
Scott was quiet a moment as he considered the woman’s assessment. Over the years, he had dated his share of vacuous young women, and he had always ended up feeling relieved when he ended the relationships. He was roused from his thoughts by the distant crack of gunfire. “That,” he said, seeing the woman tense, “would be my brother.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Major Pete Brandvold looked up to see two riders approaching; a slight smile coming as he found himself thinking of the classic western film he had watched the previous night. He was a die-hard fan of the period pieces: films, old TV series, and literature. In fact, as a small boy, his plan was to grow up and become a cowboy; a loner with a good horse, a couple of dogs and a lot of open country to explore.
There were times now when he still wondered how the Hell he had ever become a marine: and a psychologist to boot.
He liked his current assignment, however. Murdoch Lancer knew him by reputation and was impressed enough that he had requested his services. Life at Lancer was good. Meeting and working with the young sharpshooter, Johnny Madrid, was a definite plus. The older Lancer son wasn’t too bad, either. He moved out, nodding in greeting to the blond. “Sailor-boy,” he grinned. Behind him, he heard Johnny snicker.
Scott hoisted his right leg over the saddle horn and dropped down to the ground. His lop-sided grin matched the other man’s. They had played chess several times in the past weeks, and enjoyed not only the board game but the verbal sparring they also indulged in. “Major Brandvold,” he greeted formally, snapping to attention and giving a perfect salute. The major, he knew, hated pretension in any form; and to soften the insult he ended the salute in a covert and obscene gesture.
Brandvold’s eyes narrowed at the younger man’s playful indignity. He was already toying with the idea of an appropriate revenge. “Are you joining us in anticipation of learning how to handle a weapon?” he asked. “Or are you still stuck in that Navy mode: you know; where you require a full cadre of assistants and a ship-load of cannon to hit a single target?”
This time, Johnny laughed aloud. “Bull’s eye,” he snorted. Then, stepping forward, he displayed the rifle he was holding. “The Major’s,” he said. “He’s into antique firearms, and just finished restoring this one. He’s letting me test fire it.”
Scott reached out, relieving his brother of the now pristine Winchester 94. “Nice,” he breathed.
“Very nice,” Rachel Fairchild agreed. She was standing just to Scott’s right. Reaching out, she touched the rifle’s polished stock, her fingers caressing the wood; tracing a small imperfection. “My father collects Civil War and post Civil War firearms,” she announced, smiling at the Major.
Brandvold dipped his head. “Ma’am,” he said, extending his hand.
Scott caught the look in the Major’s eyes. The man had actually kissed the woman’s fingertips, for God’s sake. Not quite sure he wanted to exercise what he knew was good manners, he turned to the woman. “Miss Rachel Fairchild, may I present Major Brandvold,” he intoned; the words Boston proper. “Major, this is Miss Fairchild.”
“Pete,” came the single word, colliding with the woman’s firmly spoken “Rachel.”
Oh, shit, Scott swore. Dejectedly, he watched as the Marine sharpshooter took the woman’s arm and headed over to the Hummer where a trio of other vintage firearms were lined up on a bed of soft wool blankets in the open back.
Johnny sauntered up to where his brother was standing. Gingerly, he retrieved the Winchester, canting the rifle over his shoulder. “Marines, one, Navy zip,” he crowed, shaking his head in mock sympathy. “Talk about outflanked, out maneuvered and out gunned…I think he just sunk your battleship.”
Scott was not amused. “I have not yet begun to fight,” he muttered. Then, feeling vindictive, he turned to his sibling. “Dad said that you and Kevin have some chores to do for Jelly, and he wants the two of you to come back to the house. Now.”
The brunet shot his brother a dark look. “Hey, just ‘cause you got shot down, don’t mean you need to be such a pain in the ass.”
“Go,” the blond ordered. He reached out, taking the rifle back.
Kevin was already leading the horses he and Johnny had ridden to the firing range to the place where the brothers were standing. “C’mon, Johnny,” he grinned, shading his eyes against the sun. “Maybe we can get Maria to make us something to tide us over ‘til supper.” He patted his stomach. “If I’m feelin’ hungry, I know you’ve got to be starved.”
The mention of food was enough of a diversion to quell Johnny’s natural inclination to argue. “Race ya,” he challenged, already taking off for his mount.
Scott watched as his brother executed a perfect pony-express running mount. “No running back to the barn!” he shouted. The words were lost in a cloud of dust.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Dinner had been a pleasant affair. Brandvold and Scott had carried on a spirited conversation that ended in a challenge for a chess game; a dare that was picked up by Rachel Fairchild. She announced quite firmly that she was going to play the winner and whoever that was had best be prepared for a thorough trouncing. Both men eagerly rose to the bait.
Murdoch had decided he was going to watch the combat. He’d had a long afternoon. Teresa had thrown a major temper tantrum before finally settling down to listen. When it was over, several things had been decided, and the necessary telephone calls made.
The officers’ wives at Fort Bragg had agreed to close up Paul’s quarters at base housing; a good thing, since Teresa had no desire at all to go back to the post. The girl had also come to some understanding regarding her financial situation, and was smart enough to realize that she was going to need the military stipend as well as the monthly income from the trust her father had established to maintain something even close to her current life style. Not that she was happy. She had, it seemed, accepted what was to come. For now, anyway.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny watched from the patio doors as Teresa flipped on the underwater pool lights. She had changed into the red bathing suit right after supper; and was now strutting her stuff for Kevin’s benefit. And Kevin… Johnny shoved his hands into his back pockets. Kevin was playing good little lap dog, using the long-handled pool net to clean out the bits of tree bark and dead seed pods.
Not that either the three of them had much of a chance to do anything else. Murdoch had declared the recreation room off limits. There has been, he declared, too much tomfoolery going on; what with the bra incident, Teresa’s temper tantrum and Kevin and Johnny’s mad race back to the barns.
Disgusted, the brunet headed for the kitchen. Maria had made something she called a mousse for dessert, something he equated with Chinese food: five minutes after he had eaten the light fluff he was hungry again. Real hungry. He swung the door open, surprised when he found Maria had already had everything cleaned up and the dishwasher going. “Hey,” he greeted.
The woman canted her head, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “And you are in my kitchen why?” she asked.
He shrugged. A direct approach wasn’t going to work; and neither, he knew, would whining. Maria was still upset about the bra thing; the fact all of them had to be rewashed after the ropes on the flag post were yanked loose from their pulleys and the undergarments had fluttered to the ground. So Johnny tried a new approach. “Thought I’d get somethin’ for Kevin and T’resa,” he ventured, “take it out by the pool. Kinda make up for this mornin’.”
The housekeeper was not buying it. “Of course,” she said, drawing the words out. She pointed to the dishwasher, which had just gone from the prewash cycle to wash. “My kitchen is clean,” she announced, “and it is staying clean.” She lifted her hand, displaying a new book. “And I’m going to my room to read.”
Johnny read the title, Time Plains Drifter, at the same time appraising the book’s thickness. Once Maria started reading, she stuck to her guns until she was finished; no matter what. “You gonna be done with that by breakfast?” he asked hopefully.
The woman closed her eyes and shook her head. “There are soft drinks in the refrigerator,” she began the inventory, “and plenty of micro-wave popcorn in the cupboards, along with pudding cups and plastic spoons.” But she was not really yielding; not completely. She shook the book at him, making it clear it could easily become as effective a weapon as one of her spoons. “There is no reason for any,” she stressed the word, “any dirty dishes.”
“Chocolate pudding?” he asked.
“Arghhh!” Maria tossed her hands up in utter frustration. She immediately turned away and headed for her small suite of rooms just off the kitchen.
Johnny watched as the woman made her departure. He decided he wasn’t really hungry: at least not for any of the crappy so-called convenience food Maria had just mentioned. Even at his most desperate moments, that kind of junk food had never appealed to him.
He began wandering around the large kitchen; like Hansel looking for bread crumbs. Taking the lids off the different canisters that lined the kitchen counters, he selectively dipped his fingers into the interior of the ceramic jars. White sugar, brown sugar, cocoa; even the flour.
And then he found the round jar atop the shelf above the compact washer and dryer Maria used for daily laundry needs. He picked up the container, unscrewing the lid, and immediately realized the items were things Maria had found in their pockets or the bottom of the washing machine. There were buttons, clips from mechanical pencils, and coins of varying denomination; wadded up tinfoil. He laughed, scrunching up his shoulders in anticipation of being discovered, and then continued his treasure diving.
A horse shoe nail, he marveled; using his thumb and forefinger to dig the flat, headless nail from the container. He set the jar back down, mesmerized by the flat piece of metal. He’d been around horses all his life, and was fascinated by the shoeing process. Jelly was pretty good at it, but his Old Man… Hell, his father still took a turn at the old forge that still stood just south of the stock barn.
A slow, lop-sided grin crawled across the youth’s face. He was remembering something else about horse shoe nails: a prank some older boys in Sabinal had pulled on him and Kevin when they were in fourth grade. It was a stunt that had become generational; a tradition of sorts that the sixth graders passed down to the fourth graders, and it continued sometimes into high school. Especially if a new, green kid happened to move into town; or some smart-ass tourist brat showed up at one of the “guest” ranches that had popped up in the area.
Sticking the nail into his shirt pocket, Johnny headed for the pool.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Teresa watched warily as the two teen-aged boys stood at the edge of the pool; their heads together. She was floating on a large, inflatable pad, using her hands to maneuver around the pool. Both boys were laughing, staring hard at something Johnny was holding in his hand. The conversation was pretty animated.
Dropping off the float and shoving herself away from the opposite side of the pool, Teresa dog-paddled towards where the two youth’s were standing. “What’s so interesting?” she asked, treading water.
Kevin smiled down at the girl. “Aw, we were just talking about when we were kids.”
Teresa laughed. “When you were kids,” she smirked. “I’m older than both of you,” she bragged. She wasn’t really sure about Kevin, but she knew she was twenty-two days older than Johnny.
“Yeah,” Johnny drawled. “Too bad you aren’t smarter.” He held up the horse-shoe nail. “You know what this is?” he asked; sure and certain she didn’t.
Teresa, her elbows resting on the tiled edging of the pool, was pulling herself up out of the water. “A horse-shoe nail,” she announced smugly. “I had a boyfriend when we were stationed in Hawaii who had a ring for his little finger made out of a horse-shoe nail.” She was on the concrete now, and she grabbed the nail out of Johnny’s hand. “He had it curved to perfectly fit his finger, and had this part,” she fingered the flat head, “turned up to stick out.” She shifted her gaze to both boys, her right eyebrow arching. “He filed it until it was as sharp as a razor and wore it whenever he got in a fight.” The smirk again. “He fought over me one night at a beer party on the beach and cut my initials into the other guy’s face.”
Johnny was doing a little mental math. Paul, he knew, had served in Hawaii when Teresa was maybe fourteen. “You’re full of crap,” he snorted.
“You wish,” she shot back. “He taught me how to french kiss, too.” She raised her arm to toss the nail into the pool.
The brunet caught her arm. “Kevin and I know a trick you can do with this,” he said, holding up the nail. He turned to his friend. “Isn’t that right, Kev?”
Kevin was still thinking about Teresa’s Hawaiian boyfriend and the beer party. He and the girl had played a little tongue-tag after he had cleaned the pool and Teresa had pulled him into the water; and she had told him that she had never been kissed like that before. He lifted his hand to scratch his nose. “Yeah,” he answered. “A really neat trick.”
Teresa was interested now; sort of. What was really going on was that she didn’t like the fact the boys knew something she didn’t. “Like what?”
Hooked, Johnny thought. “Actually, it’s more like a bunch of tricks that combine to make one really good one,” he answered straight faced. “You ever see the old movie Frankenstein, the one with Boris Karloff?”
The girl snorted. Who hasn’t see it, she thought, wondering how someone could be so dumb. “Sure,” she answered. “The Bride one, too.”
Kevin was standing with his arm around Johnny’s shoulder now. “You know that part where the electricity sparks and moves up and down those wire things?”
“Well, we can show you somethin’ even better than that,” the red-head grinned. He was really getting into it now.
“Like what?” she asked.
“We know how to shoot electricity out of the ends of our fingers,” Johnny answered. “And it don’t hurt.”
Teresa’s eyes narrowed to mere slits. “I don’t believe you,” she said finally.
“We can show you,” Johnny volunteered. “If you ain’t too chicken to find out.” On cue, behind him, Kevin began flapping his arms and making quiet cluck, cluck, cluck, sounds.
“You’ll show me first?” she asked, still not convinced.
Johnny’s smile was angelic. “Hell, yes,” he answered. He scanned the patio, looking beyond the concrete deck to gaze through the French windows. He could see his brother, Major Brandvold, Miss Fairchild and his father quite clearly, which meant if they looked in his direction -- damned if his father just didn’t -- they could see him. “Hey, Kev,” he called softly. “You thirsty?” He gave a covert nod towards the Great Room.
“Coke’d taste good,” Kevin answered; understanding what his friend wanted. If they were going to play the horse-shoe game, they weren’t going to be able to do it standing around the pool.
Teresa didn’t seem interested; so Johnny decided to sweeten the pot. “Hey, T’resa. I still got a couple a cans of Cheerwine the guys from Bragg left here last Christmas.”
That got her attention. “And you’re still going to show me this great trick?” she responded.
The cherub smile again. “Yep,” he answered. “We can do it in the kitchen.” He turned, knowing full well the girl would be right behind him. He caught her arm as she started to flick off the switch powering the pool lights. “Hey, we’ll be comin’ right back,” he fibbed.
“But your father…” There was no way she was going to risk another lecture from her guardian about waste, watching money, and conserving resources.
“Like I said,” Johnny cajoled, grabbing her hand, “we’ll be coming back.” His real concern was that in turning off the lights, his father would notice they had left the pool area.
He led the way into the kitchen; Kevin and Teresa padding a long behind. In his head he was already figuring out how they were going to pull this off with maximum results. “Ladies first,” he said, opening the door and bowing slightly as Teresa passed. It gave him the opportunity to snag Kevin’s arm. “Grab your boots,” he ordered.
Kevin shot him a look. He was wearing swimming trunks. “I’ll look like a dork,” he protested.
“You’ll need your boots.” Johnny persisted.
The red-head’s face lit up as if a bulb had gone off behind his eyes. He headed back to the pool area, grabbing his jeans and his boots.
Teresa had already gone to the fridge and was digging into the deep interior. When she withdrew her hand, she was holding a can of Cherry pop. She didn’t even bother to offer anyone else a can. “So,” she said, using the back of her hand to wipe the excess pop from her lips, “about this big trick?”
Kevin came into the kitchen. He’d already put on his boots and pants; his Levis hanging unbuckled from his slim hips. “Which outlet?” he said, exploring the far wall with his hands.
Johnny reached out, unhooking the coffee pot. “This one for the small trick,” he said. “We need some wire.” Inspired, he went to the one drawer Maria maintained that wasn’t as immaculately organized as all the others where she kept the tableware and her cooking utensils. He pulled the drawer open, rummaging around until he found what he wanted; the collection of thin, copper colored egg-dippers the house keeper had collected over the years. “These’ll work,” he said. He tossed them to Kevin. “Start unwindin’,” he ordered.
Kevin knew exactly what to do. He began reshaping the wires into hair-pin shapes. “What’re we goin’ to use to make ‘em stand up?”
“Cork,” Johnny said, digging into the drawer again. He produced a handful of wine stoppers and a pair of heavy duty kitchen scissors.
Finally, everything was prepared. There was a row of copper arches, placed just inches apart and wired together at the tops. Johnny had a doubled piece of wire in his left hand. He positioned himself at the counter. “Now turn out the lights, and watch.”
Teresa did as she was told. Johnny inserted the horse-shoe nail into one side of the socket and then touched the wire to the first copper arch. There was a bright blue flash of electricity that arced from the rod Johnny was holding to the first arch, then the second, and then the third. At the final arch the blue line of miniature, man-made lightning sizzled up and down the thin wire.
Kevin reached out and moved his finger up and down between the charges. Then, when Johnny moved his wire wand away from the cork-based arches, he extended his forefinger towards the single wire. This time a large stream of blue energy appeared, bridging the gap.
His thumb and forefinger smarting, Johnny pulled the horse-shoe nail out of the socket and put down the length of doubled wire. “Now watch this one,” he instructed. The pale light of the waning moon outside was all the light inside the room now, and Kevin’s face appeared pale and seemingly hovering above his body. “Ready, Kev?” Johnny asked.
“Yep,” Kevin answered, bracing himself. He knew there was going to be a pretty intense tingle since it was just the two of them. “Let ‘er buck.”
Johnny inserted the horse-shoe nail again. He felt the surge as the electricity coursed through his lean frame and flowed through his fingers as he grabbed Kevin’s hand. Kevin held out his free hand, a sudden spark of electricity shooting from his finger tip. Johnny quickly broke the connection.
Teresa’s eyes were the size of silver dollars. The stunt had some real potential, and she had paid really close attention to what was going on. Johnny saw the look on her face. “You can line up a whole bunch of people,” he said, “and only the last one feels anything. Ain’t that right, Kev?”
Kevin nodded. His entire body was tingling; and he felt the familiar prickling in his nether-regions, the sensation that had sent him into spasms of giggles when he was just a kid. “Yep.”
The girl had finished her pop and put it down on the counter. “And it doesn’t hurt?”
“Nah,” both boys answered in unison. Johnny grinned across at her. He shrugged. “It ain’t any worse than what you get when you pet a dog and the static electricity pops.”
“I want to do the spark from my finger thing,” Teresa said. She still didn’t really trust Johnny, though. “But I want Kevin to hold my hand.”
“Kev?” Johnny asked.
“Sure,” Kevin answered. “Why not?” He knew damned good and well the girl was going to get more than a little tingle; but he was still pissed about the French kiss thing.
“Great.” Johnny moved back to the counter; horse-shoe nail between his thumb and forefinger. “Grab her hand, Kev.”
Teresa sidled up closed to Kevin. She shivered a bit; dislodging some of the pool water from her hair. There were also little puddles on the floor from her bare feet. She took a final swig from the almost empty can of pop and put it down on the counter. “Okay.” She reached out, grabbing Kevin’s hand.
Johnny moved closer to the counter, reaching back with his fingers to feel for the outlet. He was to the left of the one he had used the first time; closer to the outlet next to the sink; a GFI. Without looking back, he manipulated the horse-shoe nail into the larger slot and grabbed Kevin’s hand.
The results were amazing. The hair on Teresa’s arms stood straight up; as did the dry hair at her forehead and ears. Her eyebrows actually appeared to be smoldering. Bright blue sparks of electricity haloed her head, and St. Elmo’s Fire danced like fiery little warriors in circles atop the brass hoops securing red bikini. The strain was too much for the girl, who had begun to scream, and her bladder surrendered. The urine combined with the smaller puddle of pool water at her feet and she began to dance.
“Holy shit,” Johnny swore. He jerked the horse-shoe nail from the outlet and dropped it onto the counter, but it was too late: the GFI kicked in and the lights went out.
End part four
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The high-pitched screech was the first indication something was very wrong. The next warning was the sudden and total darkness that descended on the entire hacienda.
Scott was the first to react. “We have a generator,” he called out to his companions, his voice cutting into the darkness; the only light the banked fire from the fireplace. Quickly he moved across the room, more by feel than sight. To his right, he heard the distinct sound of his father working the mechanism on the .45 automatic normally stored in his desk drawer. Scott retrieved a second weapon from its hiding place beneath the end table.
Brandvold had already engaged the .25 caliber Baretta ankle gun he always carried. “Are you all right, Rachel?” he whispered.
“Fine,” she answered firmly. “But seriously regretting I’m not armed.”
From beyond the Great Room, the screaming continued, only now it had become a series of shrieks. Murdoch was already moving towards the hallway. “Why the hell hasn’t the generator…”
Suddenly, the lights came on; flickering at first before reaching their full luminance. “Kitchen,” Murdoch ordered. He turned toward the front door at the ready, relaxing as Jelly bolted across the threshold.
The old gunny was armed as well. “Cip and the others are checkin’ things, but none of the security alarms went off.” Lowering his weapon, he nodded to the man who had just come down the stairs. “Mr. Garrett.”
The screaming had stopped; the house now filled with the sound of uncontrollable sobbing. Above that noise came the loud scolding of the housekeeper, who was obviously berating whoever was in the kitchen.
“Johnny,” Scott breathed; inhaling deeply before expelling a lung full of air. Shoving his automatic into this belt, he led the way towards the kitchen.
Teresa was rooted in place in the center of the kitchen. She was standing in a large pool of water, leaning into Maria as the housekeeper swathed her in a piece of thick toweling. The air reeked of urine and charred plastic or perhaps burnt wire.
“What happened here?” Murdoch ground out.
Johnny wasn’t too happy by all the fire power he was seeing. True, with the exception of Major Brandvold, they were all family; but that thought didn’t bring him any real consolation. He opened his mouth to speak only to find himself rudely interrupted by -- who else, he fumed -- Teresa.
“He…sob… tried…sob…to…sob… electrocute…sob… me!” she wailed, pointing a shaking finger at him. “With a horse-shoe nail! And look at this,” she demanded, pulling the towel open. She jabbed a finger at the now tarnished brass hoop that held her bra together; a bit harder than she should have. The fragile fabric was scorched to the point it was disintegrating. And it did. The girl’s eyes widened in horror as she did an unintentional Janet Jackson and exposed a breast. Maria quickly moved in to cover her nakedness.
Murdoch turned around to face Miss Fairchild as she strolled casually into the room. He didn’t miss the smile that was creeping unbidden across her face in spite of her valiant attempt to stop it. “Explain to me again,” he rasped, “how intelligent he is!” His voice was rising in direct proportion to the increase in color in his face and he was still holding his weapon. “And why I shouldn’t just forget about school and simply have him committed?”
Scott looked at the woman as if he wanted the same questions answered. Those, and why a certain Major Brandvold was standing next to her with his arm around her shoulder laughing like a jackass.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny sat on his bed, his hands tucked under his thighs to keep from rubbing his physically and verbally abused ears. After snapping, snarling and practically foaming at the mouth downstairs, his father grabbed him by the ear and dragged him up the stairs, alternating on moving him along by yanking his ear or smacking his butt. Johnny sighed, wishing Gramps had been the one to take him to task, but Jelly had been real quick to offer to take Kevin aside and deal with him. A sharp pop to his leg brought Johnny’s thoughts back to the present. He jerked in surprise when he realized his father was standing right in front of him, growling right in his face.
“I asked you a question, young man and I would like an answer,” Murdoch demanded, his fists planted firmly on his hips.
“Errr…rrr, what was the question?” Johnny replied, shrugging his shoulders sheepishly over being caught not paying attention.
Slinging his hands up in agitation and gritting his teeth so hard his jaw squeaked, Murdoch ground out, “I asked if you had any idea just how dangerous that stunt was? If we had experienced a power surge, not an uncommon occurrence in the valley, all three of you could have been seriously hurt. As it is Teresa has burn rings from the brass hoops on her swimsuit!”
He knew it would make his father mad but once the retort popped into his mind Johnny was powerless to keep his mouth from shifting into gear, “I think you should look on the bright side. That swimsuit of Teresa’s looked like somethin’ you’d see someone wearin’ to do a pole dance! Now you don’t got to worry about her struttin’ about in it no more; since it’s toast,” Johnny grinned, his eyes twinkling over the memory of Teresa flashing them all. OH SHIT! I’ve never seen Dad’s eyes protrude that far…damn it looks like his head is expandin’ in size! Christ Almighty, I think it’s gonna pop!
“YE-OUCH! That hurt Dad,” Johnny complained as he rubbed his stinging leg.
“I meant for it to,” Murdoch stated, shaking his hand to throw off the flare of pain coursing through his arm. “Your little trick on Teresa was cruel, Johnny.”
Slinging himself back on his mattress so hard his head bounced from the action, Johnny scrubbed at his face. “Jesus Christ! I can’t win for losing.” Springing up from the bed, he paced, gesturing wildly with his arms. “I wish ta hell y’all would make up your minds how I’m supposed to treat her Highness Miss Teresa O’Brien.” Striding over to his stunned father, Johnny jabbed a rigid finger in his chest. “First you chew my ass out because I tried to ignore her, despite the fact she kept baitin’ me. Then you ordered me to treat her like a sister. So I start doin’ that and you’re still pissed as hell at me!”
Snatching Johnny’s wrist to stopping his thrusting finger, Murdoch’s reply was short and to the point. “That is not how to treat a sister! You can rest assured; I never tried to electrocute mine.”
All of a sudden the fight melted from Johnny like fragile frost under the sun’s rays; present one moment and gone the next. Leaning into the comfort of his father’s chest, he mumbled, “Well you didn’t have a sister like Teresa. Besides, Aunt Anne would have kicked your butt ten ways to Sunday and back you ever tried somethin’ like that.”
“Yes, she certainly would have,” Murdoch agreed; frowning at the extreme mood swing Johnny just exhibited as he rubbed his back. Dear God, he seems to be reverting to the chaotic behavior from before the sessions with the Major. “You are going to stay in your room the rest of the evening. You may read a book or turn in early but under no circumstances are you to leave this room. And we will be discussing your punishment in the morning.” Seeing, Johnny was about to protest, Murdoch held up his hand; immediately stopping the argument before it could be voiced. “Good night, John.” He made the mistake of looking back before he clicked the door closed and his heart ached for the forlorn look on his son’s face. Johnny was standing dead center of the room; his arms wrapped around his upper torso in a tight self-hug, and it took everything the man had to not turn back and pull Johnny into the safety of his arms.
Entering the Great room, his brow furrowed with worry, Murdoch’s steps faltered when he noticed there seemed to be a meeting in progress between Harlan, Jelly, Scott, Major Brandvold and Miss Fairchild. Groaning, the General headed for the drink cabinet and poured a measure of scotch into a large tumbler. “I’d appreciate it if, when I turn around, I didn’t feel like I was being analyzed regarding my actions,” Murdoch stated flatly. Taking a long drink, he did an about face and met their scrutiny dead on.
“We’re not analyzing you, old dog, we’re analyzing the pups,” Brandvold announced, raising his glass in salute.
“Rabid pups,” Murdoch muttered, biting back the retort that had threatened to erupt before he caught himself. He lowered himself into his favorite leather armchair. Taking another sip, he shook his head as he spoke, “I just don’t understand what happened. Johnny and Teresa always got along fairly well as children…”
“I beg to differ with you,” Harlan spoke up, pursing his lips tightly for a second, and then continuing, “They got along, as you stated, but only when Johnny went along with what Teresa wanted.”
“Harlan’s right,” Jelly agreed, lifting his chin and jutting his jaw out, his eyes flaring with righteous indignation. “That little lady was always a bossy one.” He was unable to keep the disdain out his voice. “She’d turn on the tears and have that boy playin’ tea party with her damned dolls…” Seeing his chance to voice his beliefs, Jelly continued, “She played him like a country fiddle, steerin’ him into trouble and pushin’ him until he’d finally push back. And then she’d stand back grinnin’ like a she cat, watchin’ him take the heat.
“I never had the heart to say anything about her to Paul; but truth is, that child was more Angel Day than she was Paul O’Brien…and from what the little lady says,” he nodded in Rachel Fairchild’s direction, “…she’s headin’ down that same road.”
Harlan Garrett nodded in agreement. “I concur with your assessment one hundred percent, Jelly,” he said. “I’m afraid we all indulged that little girl, and all too often, at Johnny’s expense.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed and he raked his long fingers through his thinning hair. “Spoken like two grandfathers. You’ll forgive me for thinking you might be a tad biased?”
Clearing his throat, Scott spoke up. “Not in this case,” he sighed. “Teresa has a bit of a mean streak…or perhaps I should say a jealous one. Did you ever notice on the vacations when Paul and Teresa joined us, whatever gift you brought for Johnny was broken before we parted ways?”
“And I’m just being informed of this now,” Murdoch demanded, his face reddening as his anger rose.
“Hell, no, you ain’t just bein’ informed,” Jelly snapped, leaping from his chair and stomping to the fireplace. “I tried to tell you years ago but you and Paul always claimed it was just kids bein’ kids. But I knew it weren’t no such a thing when Johnny got to the point where -- when I told ‘im we were all goin’ on vacation -- he’d ask me right off if Teresa was goin’, too. He’d pitch a damned fit every time, and…” He stopped mid-sentence, realizing that he, too, on occasion had bought into the little girl’s intrigues. Hind-sight could be a bitch when it reared its ugly head and bit you in the behind.
Detecting a look of defeat on the General’s face, Miss Fairchild spoke up. “This is exactly why they need to be kept apart. Those two are like oil and water. Teresa is a product of her environment and her environment was that of a coddled female around males older than herself.” Her perfectly shaped eyebrow arched as she expounded. “She became very adept at manipulating them. However, it never really worked with Johnny. He was closer to her age; in a similar situation where he was also being raised as an only child. It would be quite natural for Teresa to resent what she perceived as a threat; and that resentment would only grow as she realized she wasn’t able to make Johnny conform to her wants like she did with every other male she had been around.”
Major Brandvold nodded his head in agreement with Rachel. He stared into his glass for a moment, considering his words before speaking. “She can’t accept gracefully that her feminine wiles won’t work on Johnny. They have too much past history for him to be even remotely interested in her in that way and she views that as rejection. She’s too used to boys, especially her peers, falling at her feet in an effort to please her.” Dropping an arm across Miss Fairchild’s shoulders, Pete added, “This is the exact reason why Rachel’s school is the best solution. Teresa needs to concentrate on getting her life together, preparing for adulthood and independence and she’ll never accomplish that with the distraction of males.” He took a sip of the scotch, and decided to not mince words. “The last place that little girl needs to be is at a military training base with scores of potential boy toys who have a steady income. She’s a prime candidate for someone who’s going to find herself knocked up, looking for a free ride and someone to take care of her just like her father did, with no regard for the long term consequences.”
Reaching up to grasp Pete’s hand and patting it with a familiar ease as it gently rubbed up and down her arm, Rachel turned her attention back to the subject at hand. “General, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to stay on for a few days and make plans for Teresa’s departure with me. I’m not needed at the conference as I have already made my keynote speech. I feel my presence here is more important since I’ve agreed to mentor Teresa. I think it would be in the best interest for all if Teresa and I leave in two day’s time for Ashley-Cooper Hall.”
Sighing heavily as guilt threatened to smother him, Murdoch asked, “Major, in your professional opinion do you think this would be for the best?”
Shifting closer to Miss Fairchild, Pete bit back the smirk that trembled on his lips at the disgruntled look on Scott’s face. Sailor boy isn’t too happy I’ve already made a beach landing while he’s still in the boat. “I agree with Rachel. Johnny has been dealing with a lot of issues and while he’s made great progress; I have noted he’s lost a little ground since Teresa’s arrival. The plain truth is he’s just not ready to deal with the needs of someone else when he’s experiencing so much turmoil of his own.
“Johnny has a core group of people in his life he feels secure with; all of you, Kevin… Tossing Teresa into the mix has changed the dynamics -- disrupted his comfort zone -- and his recent behavior is his way of combating that disruption. I think, right now, the most important thing is to restore some semblance of order to his world.”
Murdoch was having a bit of difficulty digesting the Major’s words. He swung his gaze to Harland and Jelly, glaring at both men. “Well he’s not going to restore order by continued acts of disobedience and dare devil stunts. Regardless of the ‘turmoil’, I am not going to tolerate his bad behavior or his current attitude!”
“Good,” Brandvold stated emphatically. “I wouldn’t want you to. Believe it or not, Johnny’s counting on you to react just as you have; subconsciously he needs to know that you will be there no matter what.” He was quiet again, his expression reflective as he considered his next words. “However, he is going to continue to test you; and often.” His own experiences with Johnny had told him much the same. Johnny was always testing the limits.
With the advantage of Major Brandvold’s vast knowledge of psychology and Miss Fairchild’s understanding of teenagers, the meeting settled into an informative brainstorming session that found the group able to commit to a strategy they all felt they could follow as well as implement. They adjourned at one-thirty in the morning, tired but pleased.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Yawning as he entered the horse barn, Scott blinked; his eyes watering as they adjusted to the dim interior after crossing the yard in the bright morning sun. He heard Johnny before he saw him, and he stayed back to observe his sibling. His younger brother was busy tacking up his palomino, preparing no doubt to ride to the shooting range; his soft case covered rifle lying off to the side on a hay bale. Instead of his usual Texas riding gear, the teen was clad in his motorcycle leathers. Dream on, little brother, Scott mused, I don’t see Dad letting you have your Harley back for quite a while. If it wasn’t for the fact your sharpshooting practices were also ‘sessions’ with the Major, he probably wouldn’t even let you off the leash long enough for that.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Johnny chided, letting his brother know he was well aware of his presence. Turning to look at Scott, who was once again caught up in a jaw cracking yawn, Johnny laughed, no humor in the sound. “You wouldn’t be so damn tired if all you old folks hadn’t been up so late last night discussin’ the rebellious youth of America.” The sarcasm hit its intended mark.
Grabbing Johnny’s Stetson from the short post of the stall wall, Scott advanced on him and swatted him several times with the hat before shoving it down onto his dark head. He noticed the bay gelding’s stall was empty, the same horse Rachel had ridden the other day. “Did Kevin ride out already?”
“Nope. Kevin’s busy sniffin’ all over Teresa like she’s a bitch in heat,” Johnny retorted, tipping the hat back with one finger. It was clear from the expression on the boy’s face as well as his tone he was none too pleased with his best friend’s infatuation with his childhood nemesis. His bad mood began to dissipate as he saw a chance to aggravate Scott over his failure to make any headway in his planned conquest of Rachel.
“Then who’s out on Sweet Tea?” Scott asked. He smiled a bit, remembering how Johnny had come up with the bay’s name. Although the tag fit the gelding’s color; the horse’s disposition was all too often the exact opposite of anything even remotely sweet.
Doing a little Texas Two Step, Johnny advanced on his brother; his eyes twinkling with good-old-boy devilment. The drawl was pure Texas hill country. “Why Ah do declare, Ah saw Miz Rachel ridin’ out on Sweet Tea, bright and early this fair mornin’.” He tapped his chin with his forefinger. “Now which direction did she go? Oh, yeah. Towards the shootin’ range.” He watched as his brother’s eyes dilated at the news. Oh you got it bad, big brother, but not even your suave and debonair style can change the fact you’re twenty-four and she’s in her thirties. You might be into older women, but she sure in hell ain’t into bein’ a cougar.
“Brat,” Scott muttered, thumping Johnny’s nose by flicking his middle finger off his thumb. “Give me a minute, I’ll ride with you.” Gathering up his gear, the blond quickly and efficiently tacked up his mount, named for the character Maverick in one of his favorite movies, Top Gun, released the year he was born.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Walking their horses, the brothers exited the barn, mounted up and headed northeast across the grassy fields that would take them to the shooting range. The entire time, from deep within the nearby mountain that housed the secret military installation, their progress was viewed on multiple monitors constantly streaming a satellite uplink feed. The uniformed technician at the desk manipulated the camera to zoom in on the brothers; capturing them with breath-taking clarity as they leaned forward and urged their animals into a full-out run. Both young men were laughing; the image so vivid the Air Force lieutenant was convinced he could hear their voices.
Striding into the security operations room and seeing the candid shot of his sons, General Lancer smiled. He placed the file he was carrying on the desk. For the moment, Day Pardee was forgotten. “Something going on?” he questioned, watching as the tech concentrated on the LCD screen just above his head.
The lieutenant felt his neck coloring. “No sir, General. I’m just practicing zooming and tracking with the satellite camera,” he answered. I’m sure you’re proud of your handsome sons, he thought, biting his lip to stop the smile, but the little escapade with the bras and flagpole the other day was a lot more interesting than watching them ride.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Barranca and Maverick’s hooves churned up dirt and grass as they galloped towards the hill that overlooked the shooting range. Three hundred yards before the crest, they slowed the horses and by the time they arrived they had dropped from a canter to a slow walk. Reining the horses in, they peered down upon the range. To the front left end of the range stood a stand of live oaks, and parked near them was the RV of Major Brandvold. Like an oversized rucksack, the vehicle was always packed and ready to go to his next assignment.
Scott’s eyes narrowed in displeasure when he saw Sweet Tea tethered to the bumper of the camper. He glared intently at the RV wondering why Rachel felt the need to seek out the Major, when they had pretty much ironed out all the details of their plans last night. The blond really didn’t understand what the petite beauty saw in the earthy outdoorsman; although he grudgingly had to admit Brandvold -- for a Marine -- did have a certain appeal. Not that he was self-centered or anything. But, damn it, he was Navy, he was young and good looking and he had never lacked for female attention.
He was also used to being pursued; not being the pursuer.
As if reading the blond’s mind, Johnny leaned sideways in the saddle and smacked his sibling’s midsection with the back of his hand. Smirking, he pointed a tanned finger at the RV. “What’s that old saying, big brother? If this van is rockin’, don’t come a knockin?” The laughter came then, and he didn’t even have the good manners to try and hold back. “I guess that applies to campers, too, huh?”
Snatching Johnny’s hat off and cuffing his recalcitrant kid brother on the ear, Scott replied, “That RV is not rocking, it’s just a distortion of light due to our angle and line of sight.”
More laughter from the brunet. “Right. And when’s the last time got your eyes checked?” It was really getting hard not to toss out a nah-nah-nahh-nah-nah-nahh. “I think the Major is showin’ the Rear Admiral’s daughter some mattress maneuvers,” Johnny taunted. He ducked as his brother twisted in the saddle and jammed the Stetson back in his face.
“Come on,” Scott ordered as he kicked his horse into motion and began the slow diagonal descent down the slope of the hill.
Just as the brothers arrived at the RV, dismounted and stepped under the shade of the camper’s retractable awning, the door opened and Rachel appeared, straightening her shirt. Right behind her Pete was doing something to his belt. They were laughing, unaware they had an audience. When Rachel reached out and cleaned a smear of lipstick from the Major’s mouth with her thumb, Scott ground his teeth in irritation. It was becoming very clear that Ms. Fairchild was getting far too comfortable with Brandvold.
Johnny snickered at his brother; sure he could hear the enamel cracking on Scott’s teeth as the man’s jaws tensed. Quietly mimicking the pings and whooping pulse sounds of the sonar from their electronic Battleship game, he leaned in closer. “Looks to me like a direct hit to the rear by a Marine torpedo, sailor boy.” He bit his lip and plunged on. “Or maybe she just captured his submarine!” Johnny’s white teeth suddenly flashed in a shark-like smile. At that moment Scott thought his baby brother looked just like Grandfather Ha as he just pulled off a major coup d'état in the corporate boardroom.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
If Brandvold was affected by the arrival of the Lancer boys, it didn’t show. He nodded in greeting to both young men, his gaze settling on the blond. “Captain,” he grinned, certain the maneuvers were about to commence.
Scott acknowledged the greeting with a curt nod. “Major.” He studied the enemy for a time. “Showing our Ms. Fairchild more of your gun collection?” he seethed.
Brandvold didn’t miss a beat. His arm was still looped about the woman’s shoulder, and he drew her into a quick, one-armed hug. “More a case of educating her to the fact that you should never underestimate the fire power of well maintained and extremely high functioning technology that has withstood the test of time,” he answered smugly.
“I see,” Scott parried. “Did that discussion also touch on the improved reliability of newer weaponry capable of delivering multiple loads over a longer period of time?”
Whoa, Johnny thought, his eyes widening, this is gettin’ real interestin’! He was about to advance some theories of his own when Ms. Fairchild slipped from beneath Brandvold’s arm and took a step forward.
“Now, gentleman,” she drawled, “and I am using that term loosely,” she was smiling, “if there is about to be a pissing contest, I’d just as soon you’d take it somewhere where my boots aren’t going to get wet.”
Zing! Johnny fairly danced in place. He felt a sudden brotherly need to defend his sibling. “Scott don’t piss on the ground,” he bragged. “Fact is, he can piss pretty damned high up on the …”
Scott smacked his sibling’s arm. “Target practice,” he interrupted. “With your rifle,” he finished, seeing the look on kid brother’s face.
As straight-faced, and almost as sincere as a Mescalero about to propose a temporary truce, Brandvold raised his hand. “He’s right, Johnny. We have work to do.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Kevin Jackson knew he was in deep shit. The plan to liberate Johnny’s Harley had gone pretty well so far. Knowing the boy was bored, Jelly had given in to his wheedling about wanting to do something nice for Johnny, and allowed Kevin to take the Fat Boy out of the locked machine shed, where the bike had been gathering dust ever since Johnny’s return from Texas. So Kevin had rolled the machine out on to the tarmac behind the stock barn, and set to work.
And then Teresa showed up. There she stood, playing with the hose like she was really helping him wash the motorcycle. She’d been very careful at first, regulating the adjustable nozzle until it was a gentle, misty spray. Then, in a perfectly calculating move, she manipulated the gadget until it produced an intense jet of high pressure water. Just the right amount to splash back, covering her hip-hugging cutoffs.
It was also enough of a back spray to soak the jersey crop top she was wearing. So much so, that as soon as the cold water hit her chest, the nipples of her copious breasts peaked beneath the thin cotton.
So much for the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. As far as Kevin was concerned, the Great Pyramid of Giza had just dropped to the bottom of the list. “Holy shit,” he breathed; his hands dropping immediately to his crotch in a valiant attempt to hide his sudden erection.
Teresa giggled. She knew exactly what Kevin’s hands were hiding. Her right eyebrow arching, she raised the hose and fired a direct shot at the boy’s midsection. Laughing, she dropped the hose and took off running towards the barn, Kevin hot on her heels.
The girl headed for the ladder that led to the loft. She gauged her retreat carefully, looping her left arm around a flat rung of the wooden ladder, allowing Kevin to snag her foot before shoving him away and continuing her climb. Her right shoe came loose, dropping to the floor below, and she paused again when it looked like Kevin might stop to pick it up. To assure he didn’t, she pawed at the top of his head with her bare toes; pulling herself up higher as he continued his pursuit.
Reaching the top of the ladder, Teresa scampered away. She reached down and grabbed a handful of loose hay, turning back to toss the dry strands in the boy’s face.
Kevin tackled the girl; both of them collapsing onto the alfalfa strewn planks. Familiar with the game, Teresa managed to flip over onto her back before she was completely down. With Kevin landing solidly against her chest, she reached up and wound her arms around his neck, pulling him even closer. The kiss was sudden and intense, Teresa using her tongue as a probe until they were locked in a passionate, deep-throated kiss that left the boy gasping for breath.
He tried to pull away. It was a half-hearted attempt, the youth’s body at war with his mind. It didn’t help that Teresa’s right hand was fumbling with his belt, and then the metal buttons on his Levis. She was actually fondling him now, clutching at him in a way he had never been touched before; and he felt as if he were on fire.
Their coupling was sudden; a flurry of -- for the young man -- awkward activity that was almost over before it began. Kevin rolled off, feeling a wave of embarrassment as he tugged his shorts and pants up from his ankles. His mind was awash with a myriad of confused emotions. It had been his first true sexual experience; somehow not quite what he thought it would be, although the twinge of guilt -- the same feeling his Southern Baptist roots prompted the first time he had jacked off -- niggled at the forefront of his mind.
“Well,” Teresa sighed, “that was…interesting.” She stretched, no shame in her at all at her near nudity. Dropping her right arm, she toyed with the hem of her shirt.
Kevin stood up, his back to the girl as he fastened the buttons on his jeans and tucked in his shirt. Behind him, he heard the girl’s soft laughter, and he blushed. “We shouldn’t a done this,” he muttered.
Teresa had turned over onto her side, a piece of alfalfa between her pursed lips. “First time, huh?” she asked, clearly not impressed.
Kevin turned around; his cheeks still flushed. “No!” he declared.
The girl laughed. “Sure.” Stretching like a cat, she sat up and began reorganizing her clothes. “Now all you have to worry about is did you get me pregnant.”
“Kevin!” Jelly’s voice cut through the silence like a hot knife slicing through butter. “Boy! Where the hell are you?”
There was a sudden rush of air as Kevin sucked in a deep breath, the sound not quite as harsh as he slowly exhaled. “Up here,” he yelled. Dragging his feet, he walked over to the edge of the loft floor. He dropped down to one knee and peered over the edge.
Jelly’s eyes narrowed as he stared up at the boy. “And you’re up there why?” he groused.
Teresa had joined Kevin. “Why, hello, Mr. Hoskins,” she greeted, the honey fairly dripping.
“Kevin Leroy Jackson, you get down here, right now!” Jelly’s right forefinger was jabbing at the floor, and it was clear from his expression he meant business.
Wishing it would make everything go away, Kevin closed his eyes. It wasn’t working. It didn’t help that Teresa had just grabbed at his right buttock and squeezed. He was sorely tempted to jump. “Yes, sir,” he said finally. Without looking at the girl, he stepped away from her, turned, and slowly descended the ladder.
“You, too, Missy!” the old gunnery sergeant ordered. He was having a hard time controlling his temper.
Hips swaying, Teresa took her own sweet time. She was one step from the bottom when Jelly smacked her across her bottom. He didn’t hold back. “You git yourself up to the house, little girl.”
Blinking back the tears, Teresa backed away from the old-timer. Then, turning on her heel, she took off like a shot. Jelly turned his attention to the young man that stood before him. Kevin’s head was hanging down, his posture similar to a whipped puppy’s.
Jelly was torn between his desire to give the boy a good whuppin’, or grab him in a bear hug. He had no doubt at all what had occurred up in the hayloft. It had been a long time since he’d been a tadpole, but he knew damned good and well what the kid was feeling. Still, he wasn’t willing to let him completely off the hook. Digging into his front pants pocket, he took out a key ring, nudging it against Kevin’s chest. “You take this,” he instructed, “take yourself a ride on that Harley, get some of that piss and vinegar outta your system.” He fought the smile as the kid’s head came up. “Don’t you git it in your head we’re done here,” he warned, shaking his finger beneath the boy’s nose. “You and me got some serious talkin’ to do when you get your sorry ass back here. You think on that, and on what you’re gonna be sayin’ to your Mama when you call her tonight.”
Kevin grabbed the old man in a fierce hug and just as quickly let him go. “Thanks, Mr. Hoskins,” he murmured. He juggled the key ring against his palm, his fingers closing around the metal as if he were a drowning man clutching a life preserver. And then he was off.
“And you put on that helmet!” Jelly yelled.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was getting restless. He stole a look at his watch, wondering what the hell was taking Kevin so long to show up. They had worked it all out, right after breakfast. Murdoch had already left for the command bunker (like he hadn’t known where his Old Man was going); Harlan had taken off for a meeting in Sacramento, and Gramps was going to be in charge. It was going to be just a simple matter of conning Gramps into letting Kevin wash the Harley, and then -- after a few hints and a couple of sighs -- get the old softie to allow him to take a spin. Hell, he and Kevin were always ridin’ their bikes; and Jelly knew exactly how much they both missed the freedom of riding the hill country and just being…
He heard it then, the familiar roar that distinguished his Harley from the motorcycles the majority of his classmates in Sabinal rode. Grinning, he shaded his eyes and looked up towards the ridge; the smile widening as Kevin topped the hill and geared down for the descent. Behind him, he heard Barranca and the other horses snort their displeasure at the approaching bike; along with Scott’s soft voice as his brother calmed the animals. Scott still being around wasn’t a part of the plan; but big brother hadn’t been about to leave with Ms. Fairchild still cozying up to the Major. Slipping his rifle into the lambs-wool lined case; he stepped away from the firing line to greet his bud; putting on a good act at being surprised. “Hey, Kev!”
Kevin down shifted the Harley and rolled up beside his friend. He remained seated, shifting to rest his weight on his left foot as he kept the bike upright. He pulled off the helmet, scratching at his right ear. “Hey, yourself, Madrid.” The words slipped out before he caught them.
Johnny caught something in Kevin’s voice and expression that worried him, but just for a moment. He figured his friend was missing his Mom; probably even sleepin’ in his own bed. “Good job,” he said, giving Kev a soft tap on his upper arm. “Knew you could do it.”
Kevin’s brow furrowed, and then it hit him. “Oh, yeah. The bike.” He reached out, stroking the Harley’s gas tank. God, he wanted to talk. He started to speak, changing his mind when Scott approached.
“Kevin.” Scott’s greeting was cordial enough, but there was obviously something on the blond’s mind. “I’m assuming Jelly gave you the key.”
Johnny recognized his brother’s tone, and it was making him uncomfortable. “Hey. It’s not like Kevin would take the Harley without askin’,” he said.
Scott’s hand was resting on the Harley’s left-hand side mirror. “Well, he has been hanging around you for the last two weeks,” he observed drolly.
At least he’s smilin’, Johnny thought. He tapped the motorcycle’s headlamp with his right hand. “Looks good, don’t it?”
The blond was circling the bike. “So, little brother, is this why you wore your leathers?” He speared Johnny with a particularly harsh look.
Damn, Johnny thought. One of those stupid fuckin’ questions he don’t want answered. Like I’m gonna play that game. “Meanin’ what?”
Scott used his right foot to engage the bike’s kick stand and he gestured for Kevin to dismount. “Meaning you and Kevin came up with some hare-brained scheme to get the Harley away from the house, figuring you’d meet up someplace out there,” he nodded in the direction of the hacienda, “and you’d go for a ride.”
Johnny was looking everywhere but at his brother. It didn’t help when his gaze settled on Major Brandvold and Rachel Fairchild who were watching him just as intently as his sibling. “You know how long it’s been since I got to ride?” he asked belligerently.
“Right down to the hour and the minute,” Scott answered back, his tone sharp. Not wanting to make a scene, he took his brother’s arm and led him away; keeping a tight hold until they reached the back end of Brandvold’s RV. “Take off your jacket,” he ordered, holding out his left hand.
“Fuck you!” Johnny twisted away from his brother’s grasp only to find himself pulled up short.
Scott repeated his original demand. “Take off the jacket, now.” Sucking in a deep breath, Scott counted to ten silently in four different languages. It didn’t help. “Either you take off the jacket on your own, John, or -- so help me God -- I’ll take it off you.”
Johnny’s response was the same as before, only louder. “FUCK…YOU!”
Scott drew back and backhanded his brother; right across the mouth. The return slap landed just as solidly on the boy’s left cheek. “If you think Dad’s the only one that’s getting fed up with your mouth and your behavior, little brother, you have another think coming. You are going to take off that jacket, give it to Kevin, and then you and I are going back to the house.”
Johnny’s lower lip was trembling, his dark eyelashes fluttering like moth’s wings as he fought back the tears. He swallowed, hard, his throat burning. Staring straight ahead, he shrugged out of the jacket and let it fall to the ground; finishing the job by giving the coat a good kick.
“Pick it up,” Scott ordered. Arms folded, he watched as his brother did what he was told. Finally relaxing, he pointed to the place where Kevin was standing. “Go.”
Johnny went. He could sense Scott falling in right behind him. When he reached the motorcycle, he shoved the jacket at his friend. Kevin stepped back, almost falling over his own feet as he shook his head.
Scott took the leather coat and attempted to hand it off to the red-head. “Put it on, Kevin. You’re going to take the bike back to the hacienda, and you should be wearing something more than a t-shirt.”
Still, Kevin hesitated. Johnny made the decision for him. He grabbed the jacket from his brother and rammed it hard against the other boy’s chest. “Take it,” he snarled. “You already got the goddamned helmet. May as well have the fuckin’ coat.” He knew it wasn’t fair to take his anger out on his friend, but couldn’t help himself. Scott’s right hand across his ass stopped any further outburst.
“Go on, Kevin.” Scott’s tone was softer now; regretful, his sympathy for the boy’s awkward position genuine. “We’ll see you back at the house.”
Kevin was holding on to the jacket with both hands. Still uncomfortable, he nodded. He slipped into the coat, and mounted the Harley. Turning the key, he cranked up, and was gone.
“Happy now?” Johnny sniped. He was watching Kevin; sorry that he had let his anger at his brother spill out onto his friend.
Scott ignored the question. “Get your rifle. We’re going home.”
Rachel Fairchild watched as the two brothers headed for the tethered horses; noting the sullen attitude of one and the stoic calmness of the other. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, her hat lying at her side. “That went well,” she said quietly; her fingers stroking the long grass at her right knee.
Brandvold was lying on his side; his head propped up, jaw resting on his cupped right hand. “Scott takes his role as big brother seriously,” he observed. “Johnny might resent it sometimes, but he’s smart enough to know his brother does a pretty good job of watching his back.” He swatted at a pair of flies that seemed determined to copulate on his pant leg. “You don’t see that kind of concern in families very much anymore.”
Rachel could only nod in agreement.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch looked up from the clipboard he had been holding, completing yet another signature before he turned his full attention to the Lieutenant who was monitoring the bank of computer screens mounted in rows on the far wall. “Yes?”
“I’m picking up a signal from a GPS, sir. It’s been…intermittent…” the officer was tapping at the keys on his keyboard; his fingers flying. “I think I can focus in on the source.” Tap-tap-tap.
The general was standing directly behind the young man now; momentarily envying the easy grace the officer displayed. Several of the monitors flickered as the different satellites scrambled and then unscrambled the signal. The images were momentarily distorted as the technician played with the fine-tuning, finally focusing on the figure of a solitary motorcycle and rider.
Murdoch’s jaws clenched as the camera zoomed in; centering the image mid frame. His eyes were locked on the black bike, the helmet and the familiar black jacket. The rider was going almost full bore, the Harley gaining speed as it approached the sparsely treed hill at an angle. He could clearly make out the logo on the back of the leather coat, the word Madrid emblazoned across the back; and his reaction was pure anger. “So help me, God, if that boy…” Certain he was watching his younger son in yet another episode of pure defiance, he leaned in for a closer look.
There was, of course, no sound. Just the false signal to his brain that he could actually hear the roar of the engine as the bike continued its climb. And then it happened. A sudden splash of bright red appeared against the black leather, everything seeming to happen in slow motion as the youth’s hands went up in the air and the motorcycle careened crazily out of control. Fists knotted around the back of the Lieutenant’s chair, Murdoch watched in horror as the motorcycle balanced precariously on the rear wheel, flipped upwards and then…
The signal began to waver, distort; the world turning topsy-turvy.
“I want a medevac helicopter dispatched to those co-ordinates,” Murdoch roared, his rigid forefinger stabbing at the fast scrolling number on the right hand bottom of the screen. Turning to the Colonel in charge of the security detail for the mountain bunker and the training facility he added, “Get an investigation team on this stat. I want to know how the hell someone infiltrated us. Have all the footage from the surveillance cameras reviewed as soon as possible and I want my personal chopper here, now!”
End part 5
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The thump of the helicopter blades vibrated in Murdoch’s chest keeping time with his wildly beating heart. The fact that his body was rigid with fear was the only thing keeping him from collapsing into a quivering mass of despondent flesh. He prayed the doctor and medics that had already been dispatched would be needed…the thought that this could very well be a recovery instead of a rescue made him swallow convulsively against the acid rising up his throat, causing an intense burning.
Looking down, he battled to keep the contents of his stomach in place. He turned his hand over and stared at the cut across his left palm, acquired when he crushed his sunglasses as he waited impatiently for his chopper. Murdoch cringed, his face paling when he noticed the smear of blood on his pant leg from the injury. The memory of the sudden explosion of blood against his youngest son’s dark leather jacket replayed in his mind, his frightened imagination seeing the bloom of red growing to encompass Johnny’s whole body.
Murdoch’s body swayed instinctively as the helicopter banked to come in for a landing well behind the medevac flight. Before the corpsman could slide the hatch open for him, the General grabbed the latch handle, pulled it up to release the catch and slid the rolling door back with a resounding slam. Ducking, he ran under the still rotating blades, shading his eyes against the blinding sun as his long legs quickly traversed the expanse of field. A flare of hope began to warm the cold fear coursing through his veins when he realized the doctor and medics were indeed performing life saving measures on the prostrate form.
“Oh…Johnny,” Murdoch called breathlessly as he stood next to the limp body, fighting the urge to push away the others so he could pull his youngest into the safety of his arms and kiss away his hurts as he did when he was a toddler.
“He’s alive but unconscious, General,” Doctor Elbin stated, never pausing in her assessment. She pulled her hand out from under the slender youth and announced, “No exit wound. Let’s prepare to roll using spinal precautions.” The back injury was drenched with saline and covered with surgical pads and gauze.
Murdoch watched as the two medics straightened the limbs, and then the doctor slipped a backboard in place. All the while he was reliving the moment of horror when the cycle reared back throwing his son. He chewed his lips as the youth was settled on his back and strapped in place. The leather jacket and helmet had protected Johnny’s head and torso but his jeans were shredded in places. Had he not been in worried father mode, Murdoch might have noticed the legs were too long and the feet too big to be Johnny’s.
“Drew, get me another set of vitals,” the doctor instructed as she reached to release the strap to Johnny’s helmet. “Burke, I’ll hold his head steady, you gently pull his helmet off,” Doctor Elbin ordered, motioning the other man to move to her patient’s head.
The helmet inched carefully upward, a pale lax face coming into view in increments. Murdoch blinked in confusion, what were those stains on the ashen skin of his face, finally the entire head was revealed and sunlight glinted off the disheveled red hair, blinding him for a second, and then it dawned on him the stains were freckles.
Relief washed over Murdoch so forcefully it pushed him to his knees, his hands clutched at the long blades of grass as he attempted to anchor himself. He wanted to shout for joy but a rush of guilt tempered his elation and voice. “This isn’t my son; this is his best friend Kevin Jackson. He’s been staying with Johnny over Spring break. I’ll authorize whatever treatment you feel he needs.” Oh God…the helmet and jacket… I thought it was Johnny…just like the shooter did!
Placing a c-collar around Kevin’s neck, the doctor called out, “Where’s my update on the vitals?”
“Pressure is falling, weak but extremely rapid heartbeat, rapid and shallow breathing, pupils equal and reactive.” Drew announced as he removed the stethoscope from his ears.
“He’s headed for extreme shock, start an IV with D5W, TKO…” the physician paused and looked to the General, “Do you know if he has any drug allergies?”
“I don’t know but I can find out,” the General declared, whipping out his cell phone he hit the speed dial for Jelly. The older man and Kevin’s mother had been alternate emergency contact persons for the boys ever since they had started Kindergarten. As he waited for the call to go through he reached out and tenderly brushed Kevin’s hair back and winced at the cold clammy feel of his forehead. “Jelly,” Murdoch barked when he answered after the third ring, “does Kevin have any drug allergies that you know of?” After a brief pause, “He does not.”
The doctor and medics flew into action, starting the IV, administering medicine and pulling off Kevin’s boots and testing his responses. Dread dulled Murdoch’s hearing and Jelly’s wild ranting faded into the background when he realized there were no reflex responses in Kevin’s legs or feet when the doctor ran a pen from his heel to toes.
“JELLY! This is very important; we can discuss whatever problem you’re having at hacienda later, right now I need you to make sure Johnny is in the house. I’m in the area southwest of the shooting range. Kevin has been hit by a sniper’s bullet while riding the Harley. I believe he was mistaken for Johnny. I’m going to send armed guards to cover the house.”
“General, we need to go,” Doctor Elbin interrupted his conversation, as Kevin was being loaded into the stokes. “We’ll stabilize Kevin in the sick bay at the base, and then he will be airlifted to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, it’s our most technologically advanced medical facility for this area.”
“Jelly, I have to go,” Murdoch huffed as he ran behind the swiftly moving medics carry the stokes to the medevac copter. “I’m going to go in with Kevin. I’ll call you when I know more.” Snapping his phone shut, the General followed the doctor into the helicopter, barely having time to sit before the door was closed and they lifted off, followed by his own personal chopper. As they took to the air a third helicopter, carrying a crime scene investigation team from the security force, landed in the field they had just vacated.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Twisting in his saddle to look behind him as he heard the distinct rumble of rotorcraft, Scott spied the copter and knew from the shape it was a Chinook military craft. Leaning forward to reach across the distance between their horses, Scott tapped his brother’s shoulder. Johnny was pouting. He had refused to even acknowledge his older brother’s presence since leaving the shooting range; pretending his brother wasn’t there. “That’s the third helicopter to fly over in the last half hour, Johnny.” Somehow, voicing the concern out loud caused Scott a twinge of nervousness that felt like icy fingers against his spine. Flights over Lancer were always kept to a minimum to avoid unwanted scrutiny. He took a deep breath. “Something’s going on. This isn’t good.”
Johnny still refused to acknowledge his brother. He kept his eyes straight ahead, concentrating on letting the relaxing gait of Barranca help him calm down.
Sighing heavily, Scott moved ahead slightly to grab the cheek strap on Barranca’s bridle; pulling the palomino to a stop. “Are you going to give me the silent treatment for the rest of the day?” Nothing. He tried again. “Would you please say something?”
Slowly turning his face towards Scott, Johnny used the tip of his tongue to swipe at the corner of his mouth, his lower lip slightly swollen from the slap Scott had delivered earlier. His blue eyes glittered with hurt and indignation. “Why? You want to practice your backhand some more?”
Before Scott could respond, the brothers’ attention was drawn to the rattle and roar of a Jeep speeding and bouncing across the field towards them. The slight anxiety Scott had felt before morphed into a full blown sense of danger. Fighting to maintain control of their mounts, which were shifting fitfully under them, they reined the animals into a series of tight circles. Once the horses were calm, Scott held up a hand in a stop motion; turning the gesture into a signal for the driver to cut the engine.
The Jeep stopped fifty yards away and a MP immediately jumped out and raced towards them, rifle clutched in his hands. Halting approximately ten feet away, he shouted, “There’s been a breach of security! The General has ordered that you both return to the main house, now!” His message delivered, the guard turned and dashed back to the vehicle.
Scott kicked his gelding into a run as he herded his brother’s horse ahead of him. “Let’s go,” he demanded.
The hairs on the nape of Johnny’s neck stood up and his awareness of trouble tingled like static electricity over his body. Their earlier confrontation and battle of wills was immediately forgotten as he pushed Barranca into motion and rode hell bent for the barn, the Jeep following behind them.
Jelly met them in the front yard, waving his arms and putting an abrupt end to their headlong flight to the barn. “Leave those horses to the men,” Jelly ordered, pointing to the hands rushing over from the barn. He turned his gaze on the younger man. “Johnny, get on in the house.”
The old man’s mood warred between aggravation and concern, the ready stance of his body convincing Johnny to follow along for now and ask questions when the opportunity arose. Taking off at a run, his body trembling with nervous energy; Johnny burst through the open front door, and took a flying leap into the Great room; totally ignoring the step down. Giving in to the whim to hurdle the sofa, he never broke stride as he approached, bracing his arms on the back of the couch and lifting his legs as he vaulted over the thick cushions and immediately settled in.
A sniff from the corner told him he wasn’t alone in the room. Peering across the room, he saw Teresa huddled in the leather chair next to the fireplace. She was sitting with her legs drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them and her chin resting on top of her knees. Her face was red streaked and puffy, sure signs she had been crying.
Fearing she knew something he didn’t, Johnny’s normal animosity vanished and he scooted forward and inquired, “What are you cryin’ for?”
“Jelly hit me,” Teresa complained, pausing to sniff and wipe at her face with a tissue that had been wadded up in her hand. “And then he yelled at me!” She dabbed at her nose again, wincing at its tenderness, and resumed the rant. “He kept shaking his finger in my face and poking me in the shoulder with it,” she rubbed her at the tender spot, “talking to me like I was some two-year-old!” Her shoulders straightened in indignation. “He has no right what so ever to lay a finger on me,” she finished, her eyes glittering with anger.
Johnny’s mouth dropped open in surprise. Although his Gramps often threatened to resort to corporal punishment, and did on occasions, it took a lot for the old man to get riled up enough to actually smack someone. He sucked in a breath. “You must’ve really done somethin’ wrong for Gramps to hit you and then chew your ears up.” Whispering, he leaned in. “Fess up. If Gramps really got on your a… butt… it’s gotta to do with drinkin’, drugs or sex.” A wicked grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as it occurred to him how good it felt that -- for once -- he wasn’t the one in trouble.
Irritated at the smirk on Johnny’s face, Teresa decided to wipe it off; well aware of the friction she had caused between the two Texas friends. “The old fart caught me and Kevin in the hayloft. He smacked me on the ass and sent me to the house! But I stuck around long enough to know all he did to Kevin was give him the keys to your damned Harley.” She flopped back in her chair. “Typical. Just because that old man figured out it was Kevin’s first time, and Texas boy was so embarrassed at being caught. What is it about you country boys that the best you can come up with is wham, bam,” falling back even farther into the chair, her hand across her forehead, she began to whine in an exaggerated drawl, “‘Oh, golly gee, ma’am, we shouldn’t a done this’ crap!”
Johnny pulled away from the girl; his back going rigid. “We got a word for that in Texas,” he breathed. “Puta!” When he saw the blank look on the girl’s face, he enlightened her, his voice rising. “Whore, slut, skank! Take your choice.” He was furious that Teresa had used his best friend in one of her manipulative games. Kevin was a good guy, a true and loyal friend who certainly didn’t deserve to have his emotions played with by a man piranha like Teresa.
Laughing derisively, Teresa crowed, “Oh grow up, Johnny! All we did was enjoy a little play time in the hay.” She tossed her head, her long hair flying as she struck a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model pose. “It’s not like it took long or that he was good at it.” Wanting to twist the proverbial knife a little deeper, she continued; her words filled with a barely concealed sadistic glee. “Maybe if I end up pregnant, we’ll make you,” she jabbed a finger at the youth’s chest, “the godfather.” She started to laugh again but her eyes went wide with horror and her face tinged crimson red.
Whipping his head around, Johnny spied the cause of the reaction. Scott, Jelly, Brandvold and Miss Fairchild were standing in the door way. Johnny couldn’t believe they weren’t ripping the hide from Teresa’s body with their tongues; instead they all had a stunned and subdued look on their faces. All of a sudden they parted and an armed MP walked into the room, drew the drapes, closed and locked the French doors. From outside came the distinctive noise of booted feet of men scrambling into position, and the familiar muted rattle of assorted armaments. It was obvious from the activity the house was being surrounded.
“What’s goin’ on,” Johnny asked, his piercing gaze falling on each of their faces in turn; gut sure they all knew something that he didn’t.
The four adults moved into the room. Miss Fairchild sat on the ottoman in front of Teresa’s chair. Scott and Jelly joined Johnny on the sofa and Pete perched on the edge of the coffee table.
Picking up his surrogate grandson’s hand and patting it comfortingly, Jelly swallowed his apprehension and spoke. “There’s been an incident and there ain’t no way to soften the news. Your Dad called. Kevin was shot and wrecked the motorcycle just southwest of the shootin’ range. They’re stabilizing him over at sick bay, and then he’s gonna be airlifted to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.”
It took some time for Johnny to comprehend what the older man was saying. “Stabilizing.” He felt like he was spitting the word; his mouth so dry he couldn’t swallow. He wet his lips with his tongue. “But he’s alive?”
“Yes, he’s alive,” Scott assured him. “Dad is going on the medevac flight with Kevin. Val’s already on his way to Mrs. Jackson’s, and Ha is taking the Leer to Sabinal to pick them up for the flight to the hospital. We’re,” Scott motioned with a circular gesture between himself, Johnny, Jelly and Brandvold, “packing some gear and flying down to San Diego tonight.”
“What about me?” Teresa interrupted, miffed that it seemed she was being left out of the arrangements.
Scott immediately and smoothly slipped into his role as the head of the Lancer family, his tone decisive. “You’re going to be packing too. You’re going to Sacramento with Miss Fairchild, and then catching a flight to South Carolina to your new school.”
“I can’t pack for a move across country in one evening,” Teresa shrieked, huffing and crossing her arms over her chest.
“I’ll help you select the items you will need until the Lancers can have your other belongings shipped to you,” Miss Fairchild stated, frowning that Teresa seemed unconcerned about the boy she had just claimed might have made her pregnant.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott, Jelly and Johnny sat at the kitchen table; toying with the food Maria had prepared for them to eat while they waited for the Major to return with his duffle for the trip. The two older men observed the subdued, almost depressed state Johnny was in. Earlier in his room, he had silently and stoically filled a suitcase with several changes of clothes. Now he was picking at his deep pan pizza, having already crushed up his potato chips.
Maria fussed and clucked about her niño, trying to coax him into telling her what she could fix that he would be willing to eat; visibly distressed when the boy simply shook his head and remained silent. Throwing up her hands in frustration, she harrumphed loudly and stomped to the pantry. She disappeared briefly, coming back to retrieve a glass from the cabinet above the sink; moving to the ‘fridge and using the door slot to fill the tumbler with chipped ice. Making her way to the table, she set the mug down, pulled a can of the sugar laden, high caffeine count Cheerwine from her apron pocket, popped the top and poured it in the glass. Her glare dared Scott and Jelly to say anything about the cola the General had forbidden his youngest to drink. She dropped a kiss to Johnny’s bowed head before walking off.
Sighing for what seemed like the hundredth time since sitting down, Johnny picked up the glass and took a half-hearted sip before putting it right back down. Propping his elbow on the table, he rested his chin in his hand and mumbled, “I wish Dad was here.”
Into this scene of morbid dejection, Rachel Fairchild strode. She startled all three men causing them to jump when she slapped what looked like a round make-up compact on the table. She withdrew her hand, uncovering the object. “I hope you didn’t have your heart set on being a godfather, Johnny,” she announced with a perturbed twist to her lips. Teenagers could be so damned frustrating at times; and it was toss-up which was worse -- the boys or the girls.
“Birth control pills,” Scott stated, turning the package over and studying it. “According to the fill date on this she has been taking them over a year.”
Jelly snorted, laced his fingers together applied pressure, making them pop. “Well, I reckon we should be glad she had enough sense to take precautions.”
Major Brandvold had just entered the room. He stood in the kitchen doorway, his duffle still slung over his shoulder. “There’s more to safe sex than pregnancy prevention, Jelly. There’s also disease prevention; something I’d be willing to bet she hasn’t even considered. That young lady needs a stern lecture about the facts of life,” he observed; “all of the facts of life.”
Showing the first bit of life and humor since being told about Kevin’s accident Johnny reached across the table and snatched the pill container from Scott’s hand. “And I know just the person to be lecturin’ her,” he crowed.
Pushing back his chair, Johnny’s eyes sparkled with delight as he stood and crossed the kitchen to the pantry. Not a minute later, furiously ranting in Spanish, Maria stalked towards the back staircase with the pills clutched in her hand.
The occupants of the kitchen cringed at the loud sound of a wooden door slamming back and the high pitched shriek from Teresa that floated down the stairs.
Pointing to the foyer where the luggage was stacked, Rachel smiled up at the three men. “Since it appears we women have the situation well in hand, why don’t you gentlemen be on your way?”
The four men didn’t need to be told twice. They gathered their gear and exited the house; the last sound they heard as they closed the door the melodious tinkle of Miss Fairchild’s laugh.
Laughter would be in short supply in the coming days.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Val Crawford stepped out of his SUV. He was dressed for comfort and travel, wearing dark brown twill trousers and an ivory colored shirt tailored to his lean build; a casual jacket completing the ensemble. He stood for a time, preparing himself for what he knew was coming, and then shut the car door.
Adele Jackson came out onto the porch; a smile coming as she recognized the man who had taught both Johnny and her son about firearms and competitive shooting. She waved in greeting. “Val!”
Crawford had left his Stetson on the front seat of the car. He tapped his forehead with two fingers in greeting, and moved forward. “Adele.”
She waved him up onto the porch; blushing a bit as she brushed the dust from her hands. Reaching up, she pulled the bandana from her head. “Spring cleaning,” she murmured, smoothing her hair and then opening the screen door and ushering the man inside. “I thought while Kevin was at Lancer, I’d take to opportunity to give his room a thorough cleaning.” Going to the counter beside the sink, she poured the man a mug of coffee, the chatter continuing. “He’s such a pack rat…”
Val reached out; his left hand cupping the woman’s right arm as he gently took the coffee cup she was holding. He put the mug down on the counter. “There’s been an accident at Lancer,” he said softly. “Kevin’s been hurt.” He paused, studying her expression, her eyes. “I don’t know all the details,” he continued, “but Murdoch has had the boy airlifted to the Navy hospital in San Diego.”
The petite woman seemed momentarily to wilt, instinctively grabbing onto Val’s upper arm for support. “I’ll need to make arrangements…” Her eyes were darting around the room, seeking familiar things that would bring her comfort; security. “I…”
Crawford drew the woman into his arms; holding her for a moment, talking the entire time. “I’ve spoken to your brother, Carl. He should be headin’ back here from town right about now. Harlan Garrett’s flyin’ in on his jet; and we’ll be meetin’ him at the airport in less than an hour.” He gently pushed the woman away, holding her at arm’s length. “Just grab enough things for a couple of days,” he suggested. “You forget anything, we’ll take care of it at the other end.”
Adele Jackson was, and had always been, a survivor. She drew in a deep breath, slowly exhaling as she pulled herself together. “I’ll shower right now,” she said. She patted the man’s arm. “I can be ready in twenty minutes.”
Val watched as the woman headed up the stairs. He thought of how much he had admired her through the years, her character; how impressed he had been with her ability to persevere in even the most difficult times. She had survived the unexpected loss of her husband, the death of her parents -- both of whom had been in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s; a bank failure and a twister that had reduced the top floor of her house, her barn and other out buildings to toothpicks. And throughout it all, she had carried on.
He hoped it would be the same this time. He prayed to God she would once again beat the odds.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny made it as far as the front door of the hospital. He passed under the canopy at the entrance to the emergency room; breaking the beam that activated the double automatic doors. The whoosh of the glass panels parting was followed by a blast of cool, filtered air, heavy with the scent of Lysol. Johnny immediately backtracked, his stomach rolling in protest.
Scott’s first instinct was to grab his brother’s arm; but he hesitated. Major Brandvold was just to Johnny’s right, and the marine reacted immediately. He moved quickly to the younger man’s side; just as Johnny doubled over. Although Brandvold was quick on his feet, he wasn’t quick enough to avoid what he suddenly realized was coming. The entire contents of Johnny’s stomach spewed with the force of a great river bursting through a fracture in a failed dam, completely drenching the front of Brandvold’s shirt.
The blond winced, a feeling of guilt prompting a strange sympathy for the older man suddenly assaulting his conscience. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief; offering it to the Major. “I should probably have told you that Johnny has a propensity for…” he shrugged; surveying the damage.
“Puking his guts out without warning?” Brandvold ground out. His hand momentarily hovered at his shirt front, but he changed his mind and offered it to the teen-ager.
“And here I thought Marines were well known for their ability to monitor, adjust and adapt,” Scott quipped, the brief moment of delight shining in his eyes impossible to miss. Finally a hit for the Navy.
Embarrassed, Johnny shook his head at the offer; using his shirt sleeve to swipe at his mouth. “Sorry,” he whispered. Desperate, he turned to his brother. “I…I can’t go in there,” he stuttered.
Scott slipped his arm around his brother’s shoulder. Because of their position on the rubber carpet at the entryway; the doors had remained open. “We’ve got to go inside, Johnny,” he said. He hesitated. “For Kevin.”
Johnny swallowed. He bent forward slightly, grateful for Scott’s support, the soothing feeling that came as his brother’s right hand made slow circles on his back; just between his shoulders. Taking in a slow, deep breath, he fought another wave of nausea.
Brandvold’s right hand was resting lightly on Johnny’s upper arm. “Slow, easy breaths, John. In and out,” he instructed, mentally counting. “That’s it, son,” he encouraged.
It was working. Biting his lower lip, Johnny nodded; grimacing a bit as he straightened. “I’m okay,” he whispered; not quite believing the words even as he said them. Two more deep breaths, pants almost; and then his breathing became more normal.
Still leaning into his brother, Johnny nodded at the door. “One step at a time,” he murmured, more to himself than the others, his voice lowering as he repeated the words; as if they were a mantra. But he was moving forward.
Brandvold fell in behind. He tapped Scott’s shoulder. “Care to tell me how me manages this,” he swept the back of his hand across the front of his shirt; “to throw up on someone else while he stays damned near immaculate?”
Scott led his brother through the second set of glass door. “It’s one of those great mysteries of life, Pete,” he said over his shoulder, using the man’s first name for the first time. The Major had been duly initiated into the brotherhood. “It’s something he’s been doing since he was a baby, and even my father can’t figure out how he does it.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch looked up from his seat in the CCU waiting room, the subtle ding of the elevator alerting him to its arrival. Poised on the edge of his chair, he watched as the door slid open; relief washing over him as he watched his sons and their companion stepped out of the lift. Forgetting the clipboard he had been resting against his knees, he stood up; catching the sheaves of paper by the bottom edge. “Boys.” He immediately went to Johnny’s side. He surveyed the trio, not missing the remaining trail of vomit on Brandvold’s shirt.
Johnny’s eyes were surveying the waiting room. “Kevin?” he asked.
Murdoch ushered his youngest over to the bank of chairs near where he had been sitting. “Still in surgery, son,” he said quietly. He maneuvered Johnny into the middle chair and then set down beside him; his hand still on his arm. “I’ve spoken with the head surgeon; a neurologist. They’ve just taken Kevin into the operating room…”
Johnny’s head came up. “His Mom,” he said, something akin to panic in his voice.
“Adele’s about twenty minutes out,” Murdoch said. “Ha just called.” He reached out, cupping the boy’s chin in his palm; tilting Johnny’s head up until he could see his eyes. “We couldn’t wait, son. The injury is life-threatening and required immediate attention.” He watched the youth’s eyes; seeing the myriad of emotions that swept across the pale orbs, the color actually appearing to change; to darken. Right now he didn’t like what he knew he was seeing. Guilt.
“My fault,” Johnny whispered. He pulled away from his father. “I told him to bring the bike up to the shootin’ range.” Instantly, he folded his arms across his chest and he began kneading his upper arms; using enough force to create pain. It was Johnny’s way of punishing himself as he withdrew.
Scott chose a chair directly across from his brother, moving it closer until their knees were touching. “It is not your fault, brother. If we follow your logic, we need to take it one step further. I’m the one who told Kevin to take the Harley back to the ranch…”
Brandvold was standing behind the blond; but he was watching all three men. He could see where this was going, and decided to stop it. Moving across to the table where the coffee was, he picked the cappuccino machine and filled a large cup which he dosed with extra sugar; secretly wishing he had a good bottle of whisky. He took a drink before turning around, grateful for the caffeine buzz. “Alright, gentleman,” he began, keeping his tone neutral; but the words coming succinctly. “You have a choice here. You can keep passing around the pity pot, or you can focus the blame where it belongs.” He paused as three faces lifted simultaneously to look in his direction. “The shooter,” he announced. “The blame for this entire incident lies with the man who picked that boy off the Harley.”
Johnny was already shaking his head. “But it was supposed to be me,” he croaked out, his breath hitching. “You don’t fuckin’ understand,” Johnny’s voice was rising and he was pushing himself up out of his chair. Only his father’s firm grip kept him from crossing the room.
Brandvold shook his head. He held up his right forefinger. “Kevin,” he said, bluntly. His left forefinger joined the other. “The shooter.” His tone softened, “Unless you pulled the trigger, Johnny, the only valid conclusion we can draw here regarding what happened to Kevin is that someone else, not you, is responsible.” He repeated his earlier words, making the same gestures. “Kevin…Shooter. We know what happened to Kevin. Now what we need to find is the shooter. Once we’ve accomplished that, the rest will all fall into place.”
Scott turned back to his sibling. “He’s right, Johnny.” Reaching out, he laid his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You’re going to need to be here for Kevin, Johnny.” He eased his brother back into the chair. “And for Mrs. Jackson, too,” he added.
The muted ping of the elevator came at the precise moment Scott finished speaking. Everyone turned to face the metal doors.
Adele Jackson, immaculately turned out in a navy blue man-tailored linen pants suit and crisp white shirt, stepped onto the highly polished floor. Val Crawford was on her right; Harlan Garrett immediately to her left.
Murdoch rose up from his chair, crossing the woman and enfolding her in a gentle embrace. He held her for a time, patting her back; nodding to the two men who had accompanied her. Then, one hand on each shoulder, he stepped back. “He’s in surgery,” he said.
The woman inhaled. “Mr. Garrett -- Harlan -- told me the moment they took him in.” She turned, smiling at the older man. “You’ve all been so kind…” the words drifted off into nothingness.
Scott and Johnny approached their father. They joined the tight circle around the petite woman; intent on protecting her, giving her comfort. She seemed to sense, and gather, their strength. Reaching out, she wrapped her arms around Johnny and pulled him close. “It’s all right, Johnny,” she crooned. “Kevin is going to be just fine.”
Johnny closed his eyes; drinking in the woman’s softness, the scent of her perfume. Evening in Paris, he remembered; thinking of Kevin’s quest for a bottle of the stuff that had taken them on a scavenger hunt through estate garage sales in two counties. The woman had been thrilled when they handed it to her on her birthday the previous fall; a tall, stately dark blue bottle with a fancy stopper and a seal that had never been broken. He held her for a long time. And he cried.
End part 6
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Kevin was alive. What he wasn’t; was fine. Seventy two hours after the surgery there was no neural response in his lower body; no matter how many pin pricks, how much poking and prodding.
Johnny stood beside Kevin’s bed, feeding his friend ice-chips with a spoon; his eyes busy. They were surrounded by machines; little computer monitors mounted on wheeled pedestals, more computers above the bed. And there were tubes everywhere; most of them running under the thin white bedspread and leading to Kevin’s body.
“Your turn,” Kevin rasped, turning his head away from the spoon. He managed a small laugh when he saw the look on Johnny’s face. “You chew on that stuff for awhile,” he said, nodding at the glass. His voice lowered. “I heard your Dad tellin’ my Mom you haven’t been doin’ much but chompin’ on ice and drinkin’ pop.”
The brunet’s face colored. He shrugged. “I ain’t been hungry,” he muttered. Using his right hand, he raked his fingers through his hair, grabbing a handful of curls and giving them a rough tug before letting go. He looked up to see a team of doctors just beyond the venetian-blinded window; Kevin’s doctors. “Look, Kev. I’m…”
Kevin raised his hand. “You tell me you’re sorry again, Johnny, I’m gonna hav’ta kick your ass.” He laughed, but it was a hollow sound.
Johnny’s lips compressed in a tight line and he was frowning. His eyes sought out his friend’s, and he was startled by what he saw: Kevin looked old; old and…
Before Johnny could say anything else, the room was swarming with white jackets; the sickly sweet smell of hand sanitizer seeming to fill the cramped space. He found himself being shoved aside; pushed, almost, towards the door. He felt ashamed, but he was relieved to escape.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“You need to take him home, Murdoch.” Adele Jackson blew into her cup of coffee, her gaze locked on Johnny’s slim frame. He was standing outside of Kevin’s room, staring through the window at the activity beyond. Not that he could see much anymore. A nurse had just moved to the window, and was twisting the rod that controlled the slats; the room disappearing from view. Johnny stayed right where he was; one hip cocked, his weight shifting to his right leg.
Murdoch was studying his son. Johnny hadn’t slept or eaten a decent meal since their arrival at the hospital; in spite of the threats and the cajoling. “He still feels responsible,” he said.
Shocked, Murdoch looked down at the woman. “Adele…”
She was blushing when she turned to look up at him. “My husband used to say that. Every time something unexpected -- bad -- occurred. Those two words seemed to sum up all the empty platitudes other people were so prone to repeat: ‘God only gives you as much as you can bear’, ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’.” She shook her head. “I stopped questioning how God works a long time ago,” she mused. “I find it best just to accept what’s happened, and to move on. Life, one step at a time.”
My God, Murdoch thought. His acquaintanceship with the woman had begun almost immediately after Johnny went to live with Jelly, and -- while he knew her fairly well -- he had never realized the depth of her inner strength. He had only known one other woman in his life that had the same quiet, steely faith: Catherine Garrett, his first wife. She had faced her own death with a calm resolve that had angered and frustrated him: in the end he had learned to simply soldier on.
He considered her words. All of them. Scott, Jelly and Brandvold had already returned to Lancer; and Val had gone with them. He realized now that he -- and Johnny -- also needed to go home. “I’ll be leaving this evening after supper,” he said. “It will give Johnny some time with Kevin.
“Adele, if you need someone. Is there anyone I can call for you?”
She bit her bottom lip. “Jelly,” she said finally. “If he would be willing to come, I’d appreciate Jelly being here with me.”
Murdoch did a good job of hiding his surprise. However, after some consideration, he realized he understood. “I’m sure Jelly would be more than happy to fly in, Adele.” Leaning forward, he planted a gentle kiss on the woman’s forehead. “If you need anything,” he repeated the word, stressing it, “anything, you call. I’ll be checking in daily.”
The woman’s smile was radiant. “Harlan Garrett has said the same thing, Murdoch. I’ll be fine. Really. I’ll be just fine.” She gave his arm a small squeeze. “You need to see to Johnny.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white with the effort he was exerting not to, borrowing one of Johnny’s favorite expressions, go postal with his youngest. It was now the fifth day since Kevin’s surgery and Johnny was still refusing to eat. He had been living on sugar laden colas and ice. Currently the youth was slouched in the passenger seat of the rented Escalade with a melting chocolate shake balanced on his knee, the condensation dripping from the cup leaving a wet splotch on his jeans.
Inspecting his son’s pale face and the dark rings surrounding his dull eyes solidified Murdoch’s decision that it was time to take Johnny home. The teen was letting his feelings of guilt eat him alive and each day he seemed to shrink more within himself. The loud grumbling of Johnny’s stomach spurred him to speak. “Johnny, you can’t go on like this. You absolutely have to eat something or you’re going to end up in the hospital just like Kevin.”
Frowning at his father, his eyes firing to life with anger and remorse, Johnny retorted, “No, not just like Kevin.” He was staring straight ahead, his voice suddenly whisper soft. “In case you don’t remember, Kevin won’t be walkin’ out the hospital. No, I ain’t nothin’ like Kevin. Not anymore.”
Resisting the urge to drum his fist upon the dash in useless fury, Murdoch settled instead with occupying his right hand with removing the milk shake from Johnny’s grasp and placing it in the cup holder. I never should have let you stay. I should have sent you home so Brandvold would be nearby to help you.
As his father braked for a red light, Johnny noticed this was not the familiar route they had taken the past four days from the hotel to the hospital. Shifting around in his seat, he tried to get his bearings. His gut clenching in fear, he rolled his window down and stuck his head out, frantically trying to identify any landmarks. “This ain’t the way to the hospital,” he accused; drawing his head in and preparing to unbuckle. He had no idea where he was going; but he knew he had to get out. Get away.
Reaching across the car, Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s hand before he could release the seatbelt. “We’re going to the airport to pick up Gramps. Adele asked for him to come back.” And then even if I have to carry you kicking and screaming, we are boarding the jet and going home. “I suggest if you don’t want Jelly reading you the grandpa riot act, you try to drink that chocolate shake because you know he’s going to ask when you last ate.”
Sighing heavily, like drinking a milk shake was a chore and imposition, Johnny reached for the cup. He slowly sipped the cold creamy treat, relieved when the icy drink actually helped calm the churning and burning cramps in his belly.
Arriving at the private airstrip, the guard at the gate directed Murdoch to hangar C with the message that Mr. Hoskins had requested them to meet him on the plane.
Gliding to a stop next to the metal building, Murdoch chewed his lip in consternation at the scene he was anticipating from Johnny when the youth found out he had their overnight bags with them. He was momentarily saved from the drama when Johnny spied Gramps motioning to him from the open hatch of the plane. The youth unbuckled and was already bounding up the stairs by the time Murdoch was able to get out of the SUV and retrieve the bags from the back seat.
Murdoch entered the plane to the sounds of Jelly’s clucking and fussing.
“Gol durn it, boy! You look like you ain’t eat a thing in days. You’re gonna make yourself sick as a suck egg dog. I bet you ain’t even got the strength to hold your rifle steady to shoot,” Jelly quarreled, actually patting the boy down and tugging at the waist of his pants to check for weight loss.
Stepping back from the prying hands, Johnny pressed his chin to his chest and wrapped his arms defensively around his torso. “Awww, Gramps, don’t make such a to-do. I had a milkshake in the car on the way over here,” Johnny claimed, neglecting to mention that he was battling to keep the small bit of nourishment down.
Wincing at the vulnerability displayed by Johnny’s posture, Jelly snapped his mouth shut and opened his arms in invitation. His eyes misted up when the youth readily stepped into his embrace, dropping his head onto the older man’s shoulder. Gone was the lecture as Gramps mood mellowed and he began murmuring words of comfort in the teen’s ear as he rubbed and patted his back.
The tender moment ended as soon as Johnny saw his father standing in the doorway with their luggage. Pushing away from Gramps, he pointed at the bags clutched in his Dad’s massive hand. “What the hell’s that?” he asked, his voice rising in open rebellion.
Trying to head off the fight he knew was coming, Murdoch went into commanding General mode. “Our clothes. Adele asked Jelly to come back and help her get Kevin ready for transfer to Texas and settled into rehab while the house is fitted for his special needs.” He stepped forward, recognizing at once his son’s furtive glances towards the open door. He knew without a doubt that -- given the chance -- his son was about to bolt.
Positioning himself between Johnny and the open hatch, Murdoch dropped the bags and tossed the car keys. “You saw where we parked. Keep the SUV until you’re ready to leave and then turn it into Hertz agent at the airport. I’ve already seen to the bill.”
Johnny was having none of it. “I’m not goin’ home! I’m goin’ to stay here and go back to Texas with Gramps.” Determined, he attempted to push past his father.
Murdoch reached out and snagged Johnny’s elbow and the struggle was on. Johnny twirled, turned and twisted in his father’s grasp worse than laundry on a clothesline during a tornado; but he was no match for his father’s long arms and determination. He was pulled back and captured against his Dad’s large frame.
“Let me go, God damn you,” Johnny shouted as he struggled within the confines of his Dad’s bear hug. Desperate to gain his freedom, he stomped his feet, pushed back up off the floor and slung his head back in an attempt to hit his father in the face with his head. The move was futile. Murdoch’s right hand cupped Johnny’s chin firmly as he drew the boy even closer.
The solid thunk against his chest caused Murdoch to grunt and step back but he did not loosen his grip. He shook his head as Jelly started to intervene. “Go, Jelly. I have this under control. I’ll talk to you later.”
Watching as Gramps picked up his suitcase and started down the steps; Johnny bucked and fought harder, desperation flared in him as he kicked back with his right foot, the heel of his boot colliding with his father’s unprotected shin. The force of the kick propelled Murdoch backwards, and he dropped heavily in to a chair, pulling Johnny with him.
“Gramps,” Johnny yelled as the mechanical stairs began to fold and move upward. He called out again as the mechanism ground to a stop; the hatch firmly sealed. Defeated, he went limp in his father’s arms; a despondent sob wracking his body as he realized his Gramps was gone.
Feeling warm tears plop down on to his clasped hands, Murdoch blinked against the salty moisture building in his own eyes. He hated knowing he was the cause of his son’s current distress. For the next few minutes he held Johnny close; forcing a calmness he didn’t feel as he mentally willed his son to calm down. Finally, the boy’s breathing returned to normal. Murdoch still held him cradled in his arms, listening as Johnny’s heart beat thumped in time with his own.
“I have to go, Dad. It’s all my fault,” Johnny mumbled wretchedly, “I gotta be there for Kevin. Please.” He gagged around the lump that crawled painfully up his throat as he fought his emotions and stomach.
It was heartbreaking for the older man to hear his son pleadings. “It’s not your fault, Johnny,” he murmured. “You have enough problems of your own to deal with without trying to take on Kevin’s as well. Adele, Gramps and most especially Kevin do not have time to deal with your misplaced feelings of guilt.” Lifting a finger and putting it against Johnny’s lips when he turned to argue with him, Murdoch’s face softened as he added, “there’s also the chance that whoever did this might try again. For your safety and theirs as well, it’s best for you to stay at the ranch.”
With one arm still wrapped around Johnny’s waist, Murdoch felt the convulsive contractions of his stomach. He released his hold and Johnny leaped up and sprinted to the bathroom. There was no room in the small space for Murdoch to attend his son, so he stood helplessly by, listening to the painful retching sounds and moans.
The crew delayed take-off while Murdoch helped Johnny up and to a seat. As soon as they were airborne, Johnny’s exhausted body gave in to the sleep it so badly needed. His concerned father whipped out his cell phone and punched in his good friend Dr. Sam Jenkins’ number to seek advice.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch ‘s lips pressed together in a peeved manner as Scott’s cell phone rang for a fourth time, and he was just about to disconnect and try the landline to the house when his oldest son finally answered.
“Captain Lancer,” Scott responded, somewhat breathlessly.
“What took you so long to answer?” Murdoch grumbled, unfairly taking his worried mood out on his oldest.
Knowing his father was probably drained from the drama of informing Johnny they were returning to the ranch, Scott ignored the bite in his bark and calmly replied to the question. “I was helping our friends, the Magnificent Seven, get settled in with their gear. They’ve come to help us get to the bottom of this situation. We need their expertise, especially Vin’s. He’s a certified tracker with ISPT credentials.” Pausing because he wasn’t really sure he wanted the details, Scott asked, “How did things go with Johnny?”
Scrubbing wearily at his face, Murdoch glanced briefly at Johnny, who was sleeping in the seat next to his. “Not well. I had to physically restrain him to keep him on the plane. When he realized he wasn’t leaving the jet with Jelly he became violently ill and threw up what little he had in his stomach. It wasn’t good, son. He was vomiting bile.”
“He’s still not eating?” asked Scott.
“No. I called Sam and asked for his advice and that’s why I’m calling you now. Sam said until his nerves settle to have plenty of Gatorade on hand; and when he refuses food, to make him drink a can of Ensure, even if we have to pour in down his throat,” he paused to rub Johnny’s arm as he shifted restlessly and mumbled. “I’d like you to make sure the refrigerator is stocked with both by the time we arrive.”
Scott cleared his throat before responding. “I’ll call as soon as we hang up and put in an order and have it delivered.” There was a moment of silence as he considered his next words. “I’m going to have all the evidence we have in the case delivered to the house. Larabee and his men are going to go through it, while Vin and JD review the surveillance tapes.”
As if his elder son were with him, Murdoch nodded his head. Sensing Scott wasn’t telling him everything, he posed a new question. “Where’s Val?” he asked.
For a moment, it was as if the cell phone had gone dead. At the other end of the line, Scott considered his answer. “Shadowland,” he said finally, knowing his father would understand.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. Shadowland had always been Val’s ambiguous euphemism for the black ops assignments he still carried out. The General had a feeling that this mission was more of a personal nature.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The shouted name echoed through the house, immediately breaking Scott’s concentration from the surveillance disc playing on the large plasma screen in the media room. “He’s baaaccck,” Scott quipped, pinching the bridge of his nose, and then shrugging at the members of ATF Team Seven, who stared at him with inquisitive looks.
Stomp stomp stomp
“Young man, you return to the kitchen right now!” Murdoch commanded.
Stomp stomp stomp
“Don’t make me come up there,” Murdoch threatened.
Stomp stomp stomp SLAM!
“Scott, do you have the key to your brother’s bedroom?” Murdoch asked from the doorway to the media room, aggravation clear in his body stance and voice.
Standing up to retrieve the key from his pocket, Scott replied, “I take it his mood didn’t improve during the flight home.”
Murdoch didn’t miss the teasing in his eldest son’s voice. Shaking his head, he scrubbed a weary hand across his face. “The trip was absolutely delightful,” he observed drolly, “until I made the mistake of waking him up just prior to landing. You know how he gets when he’s tired. Nothing pleases him and add hungry to that mix and you have a pissed off to the tenth degree teenager.”
Moving towards his father, Scott patted his shoulder as he handed him the key. “I had the frig stocked with Gatorade and Ensure. I tried to get some of every flavor to entice his appetite.”
From the couch behind them, Vin spoke up. “The blue Gatorade is the best, red is purty good, the orange tastes like medicine and the green is worse than anti-freeze,” he announced knowingly, the soft Texas drawl as smooth as silk. Beside him, JD bobbed his head in agreement. The two youngest members of team seven often toted around bottles of the stuff when they were hiking, biking or horseback riding. It had become a joke with the older members of the team; who constantly teased the youths with threats of an end to the “bottle feeding” and a need for “the babies” to be weaned.
“Scott said he hasn’t been eating, sir. He really needs to drink some medicinal formula first,” piped up team seven’s medic, Nathan.
“I wouldn’t call it that in front of Johnny. That’s the best way to turn him off to it,” Josiah, the team profiler, stated.
Buck snickered and elbowed Larabee in the ribs, “Hey, you remember that time the doctor put Vin on Ensure to get his weight back up after he near died from that hanta virus? I had to hold him down and you poured it down his throat.”
Shaking his head Chris added, “I remember it was like trying to baptize a cat, the way he was yowling and snaking his body around trying to get away from us.” Smacking Vin on the back of the head, Larabee continued, “Once he calmed down he realized he liked the flavor and he still drinks a can with his breakfast every morning.”
Vin’s cheeks colored beneath his tan. “Y’all should have told me to begin with they had flavors like French ‘niller, strawberries and cream, butter ‘pee-can’, wild berry and chocolate…they’se real good with pop tarts in the morning’, he declared, the tip of his tongue appearing to lick his upper lip.
Ezra sighed loudly and brushed his shirt sleeve at the lint only he ever saw. “Mr. Tanner, only you would drink medically fortified milk with the most nutritionally devoid food item made, pop tarts.”
“I wouldn’t mind a can now, my belly‘s getting so ‘holler’ it thinks my throats been cut,” Vin half moaned, rubbing at his flat abdomen.
“I could eat a little something too,” JD replied; his stomach punctuated the statement with a rumbling gurgle sound.
Looking at his watch, Buck quipped, “Well it’s time to feed the youngins’, it’s been three hours since the last feeding.”
Chuckling, Scott added, “That’s about how often Johnny eats. He has a high metabolism and is so energetic he needs refueling often.”
Murdoch beckoned to the younger men. “Come help yourself to anything in the kitchen. Perhaps Johnny will join us if everyone is having something,” he said, as he led the way into the kitchen.
The gang descended on the kitchen and a party like atmosphere ensued as they debated upon what they wanted to eat and banged open and shut drawers and cabinet doors.
“Don’t look, but we are being observed,” Scott warned as he stepped closer to his father and surreptitiously nodded his head towards the staircase where Johnny was hiding in the shadows.
Intrigued by the eclectic group of men raiding the cabinets and refrigerator, Johnny ghosted into the room. Slowly, recognition dawned in his eyes. This was the ATF team that had aided in his rescue. He didn’t know them as well as his father and brother did because he had gone straight from the jungle to the hospital for several days; and it made him curious.
“Hey…y’all have nanner flavor.” Vin’s happy shout drew everyone’s attention, including Johnny’s. Backing out of the refrigerator, Vin had a can of banana Ensure clutched in his hand. “Do y’all have some niller wafers?” he asked as he vigorously shook the can to thicken the drink to be more milkshake like. “I can dunk the wafers and it’ll be like having some of Miss Nettie’s nanner pudding,” he crowed excitedly.
“Oh snap,” JD interjected, “there’s a whole big bowl of fresh fruit salad in here.” He hefted out a large two gallon sized container brimming with watermelon balls, pineapple chunks, diced pears, sliced peaches, white grapes, banana slices and mango.
The majority of the crowd went for bowls to help themselves to the fruit while Johnny, at the request of his father, found the vanilla wafers for Vin.
“Awwww…man…you have Graham crackers too,” Vin whined indecisively. At the strange look Johnny gave him, he explained, “If’n you mix chocolate Ensure with the butter ‘pee-can’ and eat Graham crackers with it, it tastes like chocolate ‘pee-can’ delight.”
“I wouldn’t mind trying that,” JD mumbled around a mouthful of fruit. “Hey, Johnny you want to make some and share it since we’d have to open a can of each flavor?”
“Sure,” Johnny agreed, surprised by the sense of camaraderie he felt with the easy going young men.
“Y’all got ice cream,” asked Vin as he whirled around and opened the freezer. “Yes,” he crowed in delight upon seeing vanilla and chocolate containers, “I can make some real tasty shakes out of this.”
Afraid to break the spell of instant friendship between Johnny and team seven’s two youngest members, the rest of the men departed the kitchen and left them to make their snacks.
Ten minutes later the three young men strolled into the media room, carrying not only their milkshakes and cookies, but also three bowls of the fruit. They chose to sit on the floor in front of the coffee table and carried on a lively discussion about Play Station games versus WII as they ate. Murdoch relaxed considerably seeing Johnny acting more like himself in the company of the two young ATF agents.
The snacks were consumed and Johnny and Vin were dispatched to the kitchen with the dishes and instructed to fill the dishwasher. By the time they returned JD was loading the next surveillance disc into his laptop, which was being used to play the dvd on the large screen because of the programs he had that would allow them to change angle and zoom.
“Hey, Johnny, git on over here with them sharpshooter eyes of yours and help us catch the bastard responsible for hurtin’ your friend,” Vin called, scooting over to make room for the teen.
Johnny glanced nervously at his father to see what he would say.
“Come on, son. Vin is right, you might see something the rest of us could miss. This is the best way you can help Kevin. There was no way you could have prevented the incident but you can help catch the culprit,” Murdoch suggested.
JD cued up the disc, announcing, “This is sixth disc we’ve watched and it’s from the camera that records and pans to the east of the sector where the accident occurred.”
The picture on the screen blinked, and then a slight panning motion began. The men studied the scene before them, their concentration so great no one made a sound. Vin and Johnny called at the same time, “Hey! Zoom in on that bush, JD.” Everyone chuckled when the zoom view showed the motion the two sharpshooters had noticed was two rabbits humping. The disc ended without further incidence.
Disc seven was loaded into the computer. This view was from the northeast of the sector. Ten minutes into the disc, both sharpshooters suddenly stiffened and lean forward. “Pause,” they both called.
“Didja’ see what I saw?” asked Vin, his eyes trained on the screen.
“You talkin’ about the flower?” Johnny inquired.
“Yep,” Vin replied. Turning to JD, he instructed, “reverse about five minutes and zoom in and pause on that oak tree.” JD did as Vin requested and on the screen they all saw a full grown yellow poppy.
“Now fast forward about two and half minutes, zoom and pause,” Johnny requested. JD again performed the maneuver asked for and this time the flower was just budding from the ground.
“Now go back to our first stopping point, pause and zoom,” Vin demanded. Quick as a flash the full grown poppy was back. “That’s the tree the sniper was hiding in.”
JD bounced with excitement as he announced, “Someone recorded over a five minute section of this disc using footage from before the flower bloomed.”
“The five minutes it took the sniper to get into place,” growled Larabee.
“And you can bet we’ll find the same thing occurred on the disc for the time period after the accident when the sniper retreated,” Scott added.
Slamming his fist down on the coffee table, Murdoch roared, “Which means the son of a bitch had inside help from someone on my God damn security team!”
“No offense, General,” JD stated, his eyes bright with enthusiasm, “But whoever tampered with the disc was no computer expert or he would have know these discs are encoded. All I have to do is call up the properties of the disc and I can read the coding that will tell when, where, and who was logged on to the system when the disc was modified,” JD declared as his fingers flew across the keyboard. “According to this, it was Sergeant Coley McHugh.”
“How did you do that?” Murdoch demanded. “You should have hit a firewall that required my password to access that info.”
Buck laughed, “JD is a computer expert, General. He might be young but he knows his stuff.”
Johnny’s face was awash with a myriad of emotions; his blue eyes suddenly turning to ice. “Y’all can sit around here gossipin’ like a bunch of old women, but I’m gonna find this son of a bitch Coley and beat the hell of him until he tells me who shot Kevin,” he vowed. He bolted up from his seat, both hands balled into tight fists as he yielded to his temper and suddenly headed for the door.
“No sir, you are not,” Murdoch proclaimed, snagging Johnny’s arm and halting his departure. “We cannot tip our hand. First we need to gather all our evidence. I’ll call and have him detained in an isolation cell until we can ride out to that tree and Vin looks for any clues that might have been missed.”
Johnny recognized the expression on his father’s face and ignored it. “I’m goin’ with you,” he declared, hoping his determination would win out.
Murdoch was shaking his head. “You can’t, Johnny,” he said firmly. “For all we know that sniper might still be laying in wait for you.” He tempered the words with a quick, one-armed hug, his tone softening. “You stay here and see if you can help find the disc that confirms the shooter’s departure.”
Larabee had been watching the exchange between father and son, acutely aware of Johnny’s reluctance to do as he was told. Hoping to avoid any further discord, he spoke up. “General, I think it would be best if just me and you, Vin and Scott rode out to look over the scene. We don’t want to draw too much attention to what we are doing.” He shifted his gaze back to his team, asserting his position as their leader; more for Johnny’s benefit than the others. “The rest of you will stay here and look over the reports to see if anyone besides McHugh was in on it,” he ordered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Twenty minutes later, Murdoch, Scott, Chris and Vin rode leisurely away from the barn on four horses. To any onlookers it appeared the Lancers had company, and were just giving them a horseback tour of the ranch. While they rode along, Scott entertained the two ATF agents with the history of the ranch. Murdoch was strangely quiet, content to let his son do all the talking.
As the oak tree came into view, Scott addressed his father. “Johnny will be all right, Dad. Larabee’s team will keep an eye on him, and we still have a full contingent of guards around the house.”
Twisting in the saddle as though he would still be able to see the hacienda, Murdoch sighed and then turned back to face his eldest. “It rips my heart out when he looks at me with those eyes so full of expectation.” His voice lowered. “And censure.”
There was a subtle sound of leather creaking as Chris Larabee stood up in his stirrups; stretching. “I used to feel the same way when I would have to drop my son, Adam, off at pre-school. He would stare at me and I swear it felt like his eyes were accusing me of abandoning him,” he commiserated.
Snorting, and then laughing, Murdoch replied, “No one can make you feel as guilty as your children or make you do things you always swore you wouldn’t.” He removed his Stetson and playfully swatted at his son’s head.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The four men reined in just to the outside of the canopy of the live oak. Dismounting, Larabee, Murdoch and Scott stayed with the horses while Vin moved closer to the tree, inspecting the ground around him. A couple of times he crouched and lightly fingered at something on the ground and took pictures. He stood and stared up into the lower branches and took a few more pictures.
Unable to stand it any longer, Murdoch asked, “What did you find?”
Pointing up into the lower limbs, Vin stated, “It looks like he broke a small branch out right here and swept the ground with it to erase his boot prints. There’s a black mark on the trunk, probably from the sole of his boots, which shows he climbed this tree.” He clicked off a couple of shots of the tree trunk mark and placed the camera in the pocket of his cargo pants.
At Vin’s motion for them to join him, the other three men strode into the shade under the tree foliage. Vin removed his jacket and handed it to Larabee, and then scurried up the tree, climbing the gradually ascending limbs like ladder rungs.
Hearing the click and whirr of the digital camera, Larabee called out, “What did you find, Vin?”
“Oh, he fucked up big time,” Vin announced from his lofty perch. “Either he’s not as good as he thought he was or he got too cocky.” The tracker descended from the tree, dropping lightly and silently the last few feet.
“Let’s see what you found,” Larabee requested.
Grinning devilishly Vin held up a clear evidence bag that contained a wad of gum pressed onto a piece of foil paper. “Whoever it was chewed gum while he waited for his target. He should have pocketed this but he forgot and left it pressed to the branch. Kevin must have taken him by surprise and he took the gum out so he didn’t make the mistake of chewing it and throwing his aim off.” Shrugging, Vin arched his eyebrows and declared, “Now we have DNA evidence on him.”
“Let me hold that,” Murdoch ordered, pointing at the evidence baggie. Vin handed it over and the General closely inspected it.
Standing next to his father, Scott also perused the bag. “The name Blackjack is embossed on the foil wrapper. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone with that brand, for that fact I’ve never heard of it. Have you?”
“Yes, I have,” Murdoch admitted. His mind traveled back in time. As if it were yesterday he could see the foil covered sticks of gum being unwrapped, one after another, remembering the distinct fragrance of licorice that seemed to permeate the entire room. Piece after piece of gum, methodically folded in half and then popped into the smirking mouth of Day Pardee at his court martial trial. He recalled with sick clarity the last time he saw Pardee perform the little ritual. It was just after his sentencing; when he turned to his former General and brazenly made a motion with his right hand, as if he were cocking a pistol and pulling the trigger.
Scott called to his father again. “Dad?”
The sound of his son’s voice jerked Murdoch back to the here and now. “Day Pardee,” he said flatly. “He was addicted to that damned gum, chewed it the entire time he was on trial.”
An ominous hiss came as Scott sucked in a deep breath, his pale eyes turning a gun metal grey. “The bastard has brass balls to chance sneaking in here and taking the shot himself,” he breathed, his hate for the man intensifying every time he heard his name. It made his skin crawl to think how close in proximity Johnny had been to the mercenary.
“He had the training and skill to make the shot and you can bet your ass somebody paid him handsomely to take the risk himself,” Murdoch glowered. “He also knows by now that he failed, so he’ll go to ground.”
Larabee’s mouth quirked into a sly grin, the humor failing to reach his eyes. “Then we need to draw him back out by baiting a trap for him with money. If he’s the black hearted merc he seems to be, he’ll sell his loyalty to the highest bidder.”
Slapping his hand to Larabee’s in a high five, Vin drawled, “Fine line ‘tween hunter and hunted.” He was already anticipating the pursuit.
Day Pardee had made more than one mistake in addition to leaving behind a wad of discarded chewing gum. Unwittingly, he had called down Heaven’s thunder; and would now have to deal with the lightning of a band of fierce and determined warriors.
None would be more zealous than Johnny Lancer’s father and brother. The mercenary’s days were numbered, and fate’s hourglass had been turned for the final time.
Southernfrau and Kit (667)
ANC Lancer Saga will continue in story four, Web of Deceit.