Frank’s strong hands battled the steering wheel, attempting to keep it under control. Traffic was still fairly tight, but Frank’s quick eyes spotted one opening and, keeping the van as steady as possible, he headed for the side of the road.
Once stopped, everyone heaved a shaky, but grateful, sigh of relief.
“Fantastic driving there, buddy,” Biff mumbled. He glanced out at the traffic speeding by while still trying to comprehend they had actually made it to the side alive. Not one to be easily scared, Biff knew that had been an awfully close one.
Frank jumped out of the van and went to look at the left front tire. Examining it closely, he had the distinct impression the tire had been shot.
His deep dark eyes looked down the road to where a shooter would have had to be. Someone was deadly serious about stopping Frank and the others. Unknown to him, the bullet had missed where it had been aimed. The shooter had gotten thrown off his target by a small squirrel scurrying about nearby where the gunman had been set up. The tire hadn’t been the target – Frank had. If the shooter had been successful in hitting the driver, likely everyone in the van would have perished.
“I have to tell you that even after you testify, for your loved ones’ safety and yourself, you should get a new identity and disappear. We can help you with that,” Winston told Joe, although he had a feeling Joe had no doubt of the evil reach of the Assassins and the danger everyone was in. “So this might be short term only, but it probably shouldn’t be, for everyone’s sake. We take our job very seriously and keep witnesses safe.”
Nodding his head, Joe knew that the U.S. Marshal Service had an exceptional record in apprehending fugitives as well as keeping witnesses alive. In fact, anyone in the WITSEC program (Witness Security), when the rules were followed and with active protection, was successfully kept alive despite the relentless danger.
“Joe, these people are ruthless and evil.” Chambers got up and went over to select a file from an open briefcase on the glass-top coffee table. Flipping through it on the way back over, he handed it to Joe. “Take a look at some of their ‘work’.”
Joe’s blue eyes swept down to look at the closed folder he was now holding, but didn’t open it at first, dreading seeing the pictures. He was well enough aware of the inhumanity done by some humans.
At Chambers’ continued insistence, Joe reluctantly opened the folder. Closing it back abruptly after seeing only a few, he felt seriously ill.
Joe quickly left for the bathroom, which had been pointed out to him by Winston. Closing the door behind him and trying to breathe and calm his stomach, Joe went directly over to the sculpted porcelain sink. Turning the cold water on, he cooled off his face, his strong hands shaking. His mind tried hard to forget what he’d seen. Yet as other atrocities from the past were forever seared on his heart and soul, he would never forget. Never forget.
He wondered where his brother was right then, and whether Frank believed that Joe was no longer there on earth. Somehow he doubted his wise older brother would simply believe it without question. Neither of them were ever ones to be too quick at accepting just anything.
Splashing some more cold water on his face, he still felt miserable. Joe knew it wouldn’t be as bad if his brother were there. He remembered one time when he was little and he had suddenly come down with the flu. The brothers were four and five.
“It’s okay, little brother,” Frank’s five year old voice held a confidence that calmed Joe as he shivered under the blankets his mom had placed over him. Frank sat on the edge of the bed, sometimes cooling his brother’s forehead with a cold cloth or telling him stories to get his mind off how he felt.
Joe hated being sick, and he sure hoped Frank wouldn’t get sick, too. He’d heard his mom and dad talking about the fact they’d both already been exposed to it. His brother seemed okay, but then again, so had Joe until just a few hours ago.
“You….should….go….,” Joe managed to say through chattering teeth. How in the world could it be possible to be chilled and feverish?
“Why?” questioned Frank, as he reached over to get tea, which was contained in Joe’s favorite sippy cup. “Here drink some. It’ll make your throat feel better.”
Joe complied and let the refreshing liquid soothe his throat. His big brother was right, his throat felt a bit better. Once his curly blond head was back against the pillow he remembered Frank’s question of why Joe thought he should go. “’Cause. Don’t want you to get sick.”
“If I’m going to get sick, I’m going to get sick,” Frank said in that matter-of-fact way of his. “I’ve been around you and probably around the person you got it from.”
“Aren’t you worried?”
“Just about you.”
“Just about you….just about you….” The memory of his five year old brother’s compassionate words echoed its heartfelt emotion in Joe’s very soul.
Looking in the mirror, Joe wondered if he would ever see his wonderful big brother again on earth. Laugh with him, talk with him, play baseball with him, solve cases with him, hear him say everything is going to be okay. The brother he adored so much, whom Joe would do whatever he could to keep safe….even if it meant disappearing….for however long.
Frank had no intention of that happening and he was working hard to make sure he found his brother as quickly as possible. He didn’t know that at that point Joe had just determined to keep from being found.
After getting a new tire on the van, they finally reached Abdel’s apartment building. They learned from the manager that he’d moved out a couple of hours ago, even though he was paid up through the end of the month.
As they checked out the apartment, having told the manager they’d like to see it, which he took to mean they might want to rent, it was pretty obvious Abdel had cleared out.
Frank sighed in disgust, “Someone tipped him off.” And he planned to find out whom.
After a thorough search, which didn’t turn up anything, they decided to head back to the hotel, determine what to do next, and check in with Fenton.
Joe leaned his head back against the top of the plush white sofa, his head still spinning. Winston was on the phone in the other room and Chambers had gone out.
To never be able to see his family again. The anguish they would go through thinking he was gone. He knew how he would feel if Frank was the one in this situation. It wasn’t hard to imagine their sadness and devastation. Could he put them through that….to save them?
And could he himself handle such a thing? He needed his family; his very being needed that love and affection. To know his family was there for him and loved him, helping him deal with stuff in life. That love he counted on each and every day, how could he survive without that?
Joe was willing to put himself through that loss….to protect his family. With the Assassins thinking he was killed, they wouldn’t be trying to get to him by hurting his family. Plus, with the Assassin thought to be dead, this erased the possibility of other Assassins trying to force his release with violence.
With a sigh, he glanced around the room. He’d asked where his phone was and Chambers had informed him he didn’t have one when they got to him, which was almost immediately. Joe frowned, trying to remember if he’d dropped it or what had happened. The Assassin had grabbed it out of his hand as he was trying to call Frank. The marshals apprehended the Assassin so they should have found the phone.
Joe’s eyes rested on a briefcase that must have been forgotten on one of the chairs. It was partially hidden by a pillow that had obviously fallen over.
Listening for anyone coming, Joe slipped over quickly and picked up the case. Perhaps he could find out a little more of what was going on. Chambers and Winston had answered most of his questions, but Joe’s dad had taught him to always figure more could be found.
Taking the briefcase back over to the glass-top coffee table, he examined the lock. Not a problem.
In moments he had it unlocked and open. After again making sure no one was coming, he began to carefully sort through the stack of files inside. When he found the one with his name typed on it, he quickly selected it.
Joe perused it speedily, scanning through the pages, looking for anything that caught his attention. On the twelfth page, he stopped and stared, hardly daring to believe the words on the page could be true.
Heart pounding, he read the words again. Seeing the picture, Joe’s long fingers tenderly picked it up, tears filling his eyes. It was a picture of his love, Iola Morton, and according to the papers he’d just read, she was presently in WITSEC.
The next page he picked up indicated her identity had been compromised. The statements and forms didn’t reveal how, just that she was in the process of being relocated while in hiding until the trial, which, from the looks of it, kept getting changed to a later date. So where is she right now?
There had been times when Joe believed and felt Iola was still alive. One of several reasons being that Frank and Joe hadn’t seen her get in the sedan; she had disappeared from view. Then there were plenty of times when he doubted his instincts. Yet his gut feelings that Iola hadn’t been killed had proven to be accurate. He again silently sent a prayer of thanks from his soul to the Creator.
Looking through another file, Joe found the information he had hoped for. Joe’s eyes drank in the details of where Iola was. She was actually in New York right then as well. There were numerical indentations on the paper that he hoped would prove helpful. He quickly memorized the information before putting the files, then the briefcase, back.
Sitting there quietly, he mentally made plans, sorting out what all information he had. Winston seemed like a good guy, but Chambers, Joe didn’t like. And he had seen the name of the marshal who had been in charge of Iola’s case. The marshal was Chambers.
Joe agreed with the marshals that his family would be safer if he went into hiding. And he knew the people after Iola were the same ones after him. Feeling she would be more secure with him than trusting someone else with her safety, Joe needed to go get his girl.
He went over to the sliding doors and looked out over New York City. The twinkling lights of the city winked up at him. In a few hours he hoped to be out of the hotel and on his way to Iola. He had a couple ideas of how to go about getting her and would decide which one at the time. His spur-of-the-moment worked out many times.
Then his eyes turned sad at his next thought. The reason for his spur-of-the-moment ideas working. Frank. He couldn’t think about that right now. He needed to focus and then after he and Iola got somewhere safer, they would decide what to do. It would be easier and work out best if he had his brother’s help. Right now, though, as far as he knew, Frank was safe and Iola wasn’t.
“You’re probably exhausted, Joe, and it couldn’t hurt to get some rest after being poisoned. Why don’t you go get some sleep?” Marshal Winston said quietly, having just entered the room.
Joe nodded, “Thanks, Marshal, for saving my life.”
Winston grinned, “It’s what we do.” He pointed over to another door. “You can have that bedroom there.”
“And if you have any more questions or need to talk, don’t hesitate.”
“Thanks again.” Joe then went to catch a few hours of sleep, definitely needing rest. He hoped Marshal Winston wouldn’t get in trouble when the Hardy brother disappeared.
Hours later, but before the sun began its daily climb in the sky, Joe opened the window of his room. After considering the options, this was the best exfil possibility. And not just because it was more fun. His eyes took in the large amount of air out there before he quietly and easily climbed out; his feet gingerly stepping down on the ledge.
Don’t look down, don’t look down, he kept telling himself. His idea had sounded a lot better in his head, but despite the dizzying height, he kept on. He had to. He felt very strongly about that.
Thankful they weren’t on an even higher floor, Joe started moving very carefully, also thankful the ledge was big enough to accommodate his feet.
He had stuck his blond head out the window earlier, spotted the ornate glassed-in elevator several room-lengths away, but on another floor, and had decided that could maybe work. It ran along a well-constructed track outside of the hotel, allowing guests to enjoy the view. Helpful architecture and design, he thought to himself. Plus, Chambers had mentioned earlier that the elevator didn’t go all the way to the roof.
The elevator had moved since he’d looked out earlier and was now stationary one level below his floor. He figured no one was in the car and hoped it didn’t start moving before he landed after jumping.
I just need to shuffle carefully along the ledge, jump to the elevator roof, ride it down, and hope no one sees me.
Listen to yourself! Your brother’s right; you have some of the craziest ideas. Actually Frank has had quite a few crazy ideas himself. Of course, most are a result of my actions. Hey, I help him show his brilliance. Joe grinned. His brother was helping him, even though he wasn’t there, as Joe made his way along the ledge. And I’m being cautious!
Joe lifted his sneaker carefully and made each step deliberate without throwing himself off balance by overdoing it. It had a lot to do with balance. Okay, so maybe Frank wouldn’t consider walking along the ledge of a hotel as being cautious. I’m being cautious while I’m on the ledge, though! Man, Frank would kick my butt for this.
Blue eyes worked hard not to travel over and look down. Way down. Focus, Joseph. Falling is NOT something you want to do. Won’t even think about falling. Nope. Frank and I have been rock climbing plenty of times. Of course that was with ropes and all, safety stuff, which I don’t have right now, so I won’t think about that. I don’t have that to fall back on….will you forget about the falling business? How much further? Yeah, elevator’s getting closer….actually I’m the one getting closer to it….just a little further….stay focused and don’t look down….Okay, once I get over to the elevator, I’ll jump to the roof of it, just gotta be careful not to slip off of it….
Or off of here! Joe felt the uneven part of the ledge, which seemed somewhat loose, underneath the sneaker he had just put down. He struggled to compensate for the sudden imbalance to his equilibrium.
And then he felt himself begin to fall.