Pain. It shoots through his nervous system like leaden fire, threatening to plunge him back into the dark void of unconsciousness he's just clawed his way out of. He clings to the pain, to the state of awareness it represents. He knows in some far off part of his brain that his continued survival hinges on his ability to stay awake and devise a way out of this newest mess he's gotten himself into. No one is coming to his rescue this time.
Peter Caine would have laughed at the bitter irony of that last notion if he didn't hurt so damn much. When was the last time he's ever admitted to needing a rescue? Not that such an admission is going to do him any good now. As his head clears a little, he remembers that he has once again gone off half-cocked after the bad guys without telling anyone where he was going. And the three people who might have found him in spite of his foolish actions have once again abandoned him when he needs them the most.
Anger briefly eclipses the pain as Peter wonders for the thousandth time why they continually did this to him. They had to know how much it tore him apart every time they left without a good-bye, every time they returned without an explanation. Hell, he's told them how it feels! Yet they still did it, always denying him their hearts and their honesty while always demanding both from him. Peter couldn't hide much from his fathers or his 'big brother,' but they damn well knew how to keep their secrets from him!
And where were they when he needed them? Paul had been gone for almost a year, and not even Annie seemed to know where he was, though Peter suspected that Kermit does. Pop had gone walkabout two months ago with his customary lack of warning, and Kermit had left the precinct in such a rush four days earlier that he had nearly run over Skalaney with the Corvair. An impressive set of tread marks now scarred the brand new parking lot, but the ex-mercenary hadn't stopped to see if his fellow detective was okay, just swerved and kept on going.
They are gone. No way to reach them and no way of knowing when or if they are coming back.
Well, to hell with them! He'll get out this without their help and show them that he doesn't need them any more than they need him.
He'll show them all.
"Anybody seen Peter?" Detective Blake called out to the room in general as he stalked into the precinct. Those who didn't just ignore the question shook their heads before going on with their business. Setting his black bag of electronic gadgets on his desk, Blake threw himself into his chair with a sigh of frustration.
"Something wrong, Blake?" T. J. Kincaid asked as he hobbled awkwardly past the other detective's desk to the coffee machine. A nasty tumble down two flights of stairs during a foot chase had left the red-haired cop with a broken leg. He still wasn't used to the cast or the crutches yet, but he could console himself with the knowledge that Skalaney had caught the man they'd been chasing.
"I'm not sure," Blake answered, tapping a finger on the arm of his chair. "Pete was supposed to meet me an hour ago to help set up the surveillance equipment for his new case. He never showed."
"Maybe he got a new lead or something," T. J. suggested, then realized how unreassuring that statement was. Peter Caine attracted trouble the way a lightning rod attracted lightning, and the man stubbornly refused to wait or even ask for backup. Meeting Blake's gaze, T. J. saw the same knowing concern reflected in the other man's eyes.
"Or something is right," Jody Powell muttered sarcastically as she joined T. J. at the coffee maker. "I think he broke Kermit's speed record when he left. At least no one was crossing the parking lot this time."
"When did he leave, Jody?" Blake asked casually, though his stomach began to churn. He had a bad feeling about this.
Jody took a sip of her coffee before answering. "About an hour ago, maybe longer. He was talking to someone on the phone, then he took off like the proverbial bat." Her eyes widened as she studied his face. "You think he's in trouble, don't you?"
Blake shook his head and rose from his chair. "I know he is," he replied ominously. "Of course he is. Blaisdell's gone, Caine's gone, Kermit's gone. Now would be the perfect time for him to get himself killed!"
"What are we going to do?" T. J. asked quietly.
Blake shrugged. "Find him. We may not be Shaolin priests or," he smiled in self-deprecation, "gun-toting ex-mercenaries, but the three of us should be able to come up with something. We are detectives."
Voice hard with determination and suppressed panic, Jody said, "Then let's start detecting." She crossed over to Peter's desk, T. J. and Blake right behind her, and stared down at it thoughtfully. "I think Peter was writing down notes while he was on the phone. Maybe he left something behind, some clue . . ."
"Allow me." T. J. reached for the Post-It notepad beside Peter's phone, then took a pencil from the missing cop's desk drawer. He rubbed the pencil lightly over the top sheet.
"That's not what I meant, T. J.!" Jody protested. "That only works in the movies!"
T. J. grinned. "Wanna bet?" He tore off the sheet and handed it to her. In delicate contrast to the dark graphite surrounding them, the words 'Rucher -- Key West' stood out in Peter's distinctive scrawl.
"Key West? Isn't that a bar over on the corner of Antioch and Verse?" Jody asked.
Reading the message over her shoulder, Blake swore, "Damn him, he did it again!" Snatching his keys from his desk, he made for the exit in a near sprint.
"Hey, wait for us!" Jody yelled at his retreating back as she and T. J. hurried after him. By God, Peter, you better be alive when we find you, so we can kill you ourselves for this stupid stunt!
With a monumental effort, Peter forces all other thoughts from his mind and concentrates solely on his present predicament. He already knows he is badly hurt. There isn't a part of his body that isn't letting him know just how much it hates him at the moment, but his lower right side seems particularly spiteful. Cracking open one blood-matted eye, he sees why. A jagged piece of wood about three fingers' width in diameter protrudes several inches above where his skin stops.
How did that get there? Peter wonders hazily. An unwise twist of his head answers the question. A low moan of terror breaks from his lips. He'd thought Rucher had been joking about tossing him off a cliff.
Panting in fear, Peter turns his head away from the heart-stopping view and squeezes his eyes shut. He should've known that a man that ugly wouldn't joke about omething like that, especially with Vogelman Ravine only a twenty-minute ride from the city. The only thing that has kept him from doing his very best Wile E. Coyote impression on the bottom of said ravine is the thick trunk of a small tree growing sideways from the rock wall. Upon which he is now impaled.
Peter can't think of any situation he's been in that was more hopeless or more terrifying. How the hell is he supposed to get out of the damn ravine when he's already broken the first rule of climbing and looked down? Even if he weren't badly injured, fear would keep him helplessly paralyzed.
I've really got to do something about this fear of heights thing, Peter tells himself shakily, trying desperately not to think about the five hundred-foot drop beneath him. Can anything else possibly make this worse?
In answer, a ragged splinter of lightning splits the darkening sky, followed by a deafening clap of thunder.
I had to ask.
There were now three sets of tire marks scarring the precinct parking lot. The three would-be rescuers had piled into Blake's Eagle Talon, and he had wasted no time in pointing the silver car in the direction of the Key West. What should have been a fifteen minute drive took five as Blake broke every traffic law on the books, thoroughly terrorizing his passengers in the process.
"Simms is already going to be pissed when she sees the parking lot, Blake," T. J. pointed out through clenched teeth as a particularly sharp turn mashed his bad leg against the door. "I don't think reports of reckless driving and endangerment are going to make her any happier."
Blake's only response was a scathing sidelong glare before he slid the car to a halt alongside the curb. Yanking the keys out of the ignition with a vicious twist, he shifted in his seat to face his co-workers.
"You don't know Mathias Rucher. He's one of the new drug lords in Chinatown, one known for his cruelty. If he finds out who and what Peter is, there's no telling what the bastard will do to him!" Blake paused and slowly took his wallet out of his coat pocket. "Don't try to stop me. I've seen what was left of the last two people who crossed him. I won't let that happen to Peter." He set the wallet down with deliberate care between T. J. and himself, then silently climbed out of the Talon.
Jody and T. J. stared at each other in astonishment. They'd never seen this side of Blake before, and they weren't quite sure how to react. Jody picked up the wallet and opened it. Blake's badge glittered in the lamplight.
Shaking her head in disbelief, she exclaimed, "He's acting more like Kermit than Kermit!"
"If he starts wearing green glasses and saying 'Oh yeah,' I'm outta here!" T. J. joked weakly. When Jody didn't laugh, he sobered up and asked, "So, what do you want to do?"
The blond detective shrugged helplessly as she slid out of the back seat. "What else can we do? Just pretend he is Kermit for now and back his play."
"And people call me crazy," T. J. muttered as he limped after her into the bar.
Blake had started the party without them. After a quick scan of the room, he had spotted Burnell, one of Rucher's lieutenants, and two of his friends playing poker in the corner. Crossing the room, Blake snagged a chair from a nearby table and set it down with a thud.
"May I join you?" he asked mock politely. Without waiting for a reply, he dropped down into the chair and regarded them with an air of false innocence.
The trio traded bemused glances. Burnell slowly looked Blake over, then nodded slightly at the other two, who relaxed and sat back to watch the show. Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Burnell blew the smoke into Blake's face and asked, "What d'you want, four-eyes?"
"Peter Caine's location."
All three men were suddenly much more attentive. "Caine, huh?" Burnell remarked with forced nonchalance, his right hand slowly reaching for his gun. "You a cop, too, four-eyes?"
Blake smiled at him, a shark's grin that those who thought they knew him had never seen before. It was the only warning he gave. In one swift motion, he rose from his chair, curled his fingers into Burnell's dirty blond hair, and slammed his head face-first into the table's oaken top.
Blood erupted from the man's nose, and the acrid stench of singed flesh filled the air as his cigarette burned a hole in his lower lip. His friends reached for their own weapons, so intent on freeing Burnell from the lunatic's hold that they did not hear the approaching footsteps. They did hear the unmistakable click of guns being cocked as something cold and hard was pressed against their temples.
"Uh-uh, gentlemen," Jody cautioned darkly. "Let's keep it fair, shall we?"
"I'd listen to her if I were you, guys," T. J. warned cheerfully. "I've seen how mean she can get."
Blake ignored the banter, confident that his friends could keep the other two low-lifes busy while he dealt with Burnell. Pinning Rucher's lieutenant to the table with one hand, he pulled out his .9 mm with the other and tapped it lightly against the man's cheek.
He said in a softly menacing voice, "My name is Blake, not four-eyes. And to answer your question, yes, I am a police officer. Now. I used to be a mercenary, though, and I killed people like you before breakfast." Leaning closer to his captive's face, he continued in a grating whisper, "You are going to tell me what you did with Peter, or I am going to blow you fucking brains out. Got it?"
Staring into the dark eyes scant inches from his own, Burnell saw a crazy deadliness behind the glasses that convinced him that the ex-mercenary was not joking. "Vogelman," he choked out.
Blake eased his grip a little. "What was that?"
"Vogelman Ravine," the blond drug dealer gasped. "We roughed the cop up home, then Rucher and Karey took him to the ravine. Rucher said he was gonna toss him off Lover's Leap personally."
The communications expert heard Jody's soft exclamation of denial, heard T. J.'s creative and fluent swearing, as if from a great distance. His heart suddenly felt as though an incredibly powerful fist was trying to squeeze the life from it. Shock held him still for one long, distorted moment as the full impact of the words hit his brain, then fury seized him and he bounced Burnell's head against the tabletop several times before demanding, "When?! When did Rucher leave?"
"N-not more than thirty m-minutes ago," the terrified thug stammered, certain he was about to die.
With a supreme effort at control, Blake released his hold on Burnell's hair and shoved him back into his chair so hard that both he and the chair hit the wall. "You and your friends here will go to the 101st precinct," Blake ordered in a tone that allowed for no arguments, "and turn yourselves in. If you are not there when I return with my friend's . . . body," he choked the word out past the grief and rage that threatened to consume him, "I will hunt you down and make each of your deaths as slow and painful as possible."
With these words, Blake turned on his heel and strode out of the tomb-silent bar. His two accomplices joined him outside, and all three got into the Talon. It had begun to storm while they were inside the Key West, but that didn't stop the 101st's resident tech from breaking major traffic laws once again as he drove towards the ravine.
Everyone in the car knew that there was little chance of finding Peter alive, but each hoped to be in time to catch Rucher. What they did to the drug lord once they caught him would probably not be in accordance with proper police procedure, but none of them really cared. Mathias Rucher had killed their friend, and for that he would pay.
Peter knows he is dying. It is now only a matter of what will kill him first Ä his injuries or the thunderstorm. He's betting on the storm. With every gust of the treacherous wind, Peter can feel the tree branch give way just a little more. With his added weight, it will be snap before the storm ends. Whoever eventually comes looking for him will find his body in a tangle of wood and rock somewhere along the ravine's bottom.
Always knew heights would kill me.
In the increasing delirium brought on by shock and blood loss, he wonders what they will do when his corpse is brought in. He has dreamed before that his father will stand calm and dry-eyed at his grave. Will Paul and Kermit be as stoic?
Probably,Mercenary rules. Never let your true feelings show. No matter what.
That was the whole point of those damn green glasses of Kermit's, wasn't it? Maybe when he reaches Pop's and Paul's age, his control will be as perfect as theirs, and he won't need them anymore.
A sob rises in the back of Peter's throat, and he sets it free. Just like they don't need me.
Opening his eyes to the thundering sky, Peter pleads, "Please don't let me die like this. Not alone. Not all alone."
"Pete!" a familiar voice with an unfamiliar ring of command in it echoes from the wet darkness above him. A sudden bright light slices through that darkness, making him wince and screw his eyes shut. "Hold on, Pete! We're coming to get you!"
Peter's eyes open wide as his pain-hazed brain finally recognizes the voice. It can't be . . . Blake?!
The silver car had screeched into the small clearing of Lover's Leap just as two men were about to get into a dark red Blazer. For an instant, the pair had looked like deer gone tharn as the Talon's headlights pinned them in their bright beams. The instant quickly faded and the shooting began.
A spider-web pattern of cracked glass crawled across the windshield as Rucher and Karey opened fire on the 101st trio. Blake slammed the car into park and flung open the driver's side door. Taking shelter behind it, he returned fire. A moment later, Jody and T. J. had joined the shoot-out from the other side of the car. Their combined gunfire caught Karey, one slug high, the other low. The gunman tumbled backwards and did not get back up.
Seeing his man fall, Rucher cursed and lunged for the Blazer. A bullet grazed the door handle just as the drug lord reached it, showering sparks over his naked hand. Yelping more in surprise than in pain, Rucher whirled, gun hand rising. Another well-placed shot sent his .357 Magnum flying into the stormy night. Clutching his wounded hand to his chest, Rucher saw a black silhouette of a man come around the glare of the headlights directly towards him. He took two stumbling steps away from the shadowy marksman and tripped over the inert form of Karey. The marksman advanced upon him inexorably, lightning illuminating the gun he wielded so well. Staring up into the barrel of the .9 mm, Mathias Rucher knew this was the end.
Blake stood over the cowering figure and trembled with the strong, dark emotions coursing through him. He desperately wanted to pull the trigger, as he had so many times in the past. It would be so easy, and it would be doing the world an immense favor by ridding it of this scum. Even T. J. and Jody seemed to agree. Neither one was making a move to stop him.
Sighting along the barrel, finger poised on the trigger, Blake looked past the end of his gun and into his victim's wide, terrified eyes. He suddenly knew he could not kill him. This man may have just murdered his friend, but he was an officer of the law now, not a mercenary. His days of cold-blooded retribution had long since passed.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Blake holstered his gun and pulled out his handcuffs. Crouching down beside the fallen men, he snapped one cuff around Rucher's wrist and the other around the wrist of his unconscious friend.
"Mathias Rucher," he began in a flat monotone, "You are under the arrest for the murder of Peter Caine. You have the right . . ." He finished the required speech, then straightened to his full height and walked slowly to where T. J. leaned against the Talon.
"You're a better man than I am," the red-haired cop told him when the communications expert reached his side.
"No," Blake shook his head wearily and took a flashlight from the glove box. "I'm just too tired to kill anyone tonight."
He left T. J. at the car and trudged over to the railing where Jody was staring out over Lover's Leap. Blake was certain she saw nothing, nothing but the emptiness Peter's death would leave in all their lives. God, how was he ever going to be able to tell his fathers and Kermit that he was dead? Curling one hand over Jody's, Blake opened his mouth to say a word or two of useless comfort when a low murmuring caught his ear. It sounded almost human, but it couldn't be . . .!
"Pete!" he cried out and switched on the flashlight. Leaning precariously over the railing, he shone the beam over the cliff's edge and squarely onto the sprawled form of his friend below. When he saw Peter flinch at the sudden illumination, Blake could scarcely contain his jubilant shout.
Peter was alive!
"Hold on, Pete! We're coming to get you!"
"Are you sure you know what you're doing, Blake? Wouldn't it be better to wait for the rescue team?"
Blake rolled his eyes at Jody's question. "I'm just going down to see how bad he is. It's not like I'm asking you to come with me."
"Yeah, well, we don't need two people to rescue."
"He might not have the time to wait for the team," Blake said in a softly blunt tone of voice. He waited a beat until the meaning of those words sunk in, then gestured meaningfully at the Leap. "Now if you'll excuse me . . ."
She stepped aside reluctantly and watched as he tugged one last time on the buckles of his safety harness before disappearing over the edge of the cliff.
The blond detective shook her head. Chalk up camping and rock climbing to Detective Blake's list of unlikely hobbies, she thought sourly. What else don't we know about him?
Her joy at finding Peter alive had been quickly tempered by the realization that he wasn't safe yet. Staring down at the man she secretly loved, she had had not idea how they were going to get him up from there, but Blake had never hesitated. Tossing her the flashlight, he had hurried back to his car and popped open the trunk. Inside was an impressive array of camping gear. At T. J.'s surprised look, Blake had simply shrugged and said, "Now you know what I do on my vacation."
While T. J. called for an ambulance and reported in to Strenlich, Blake had carried a large coil of rope and a climbing harness to the edge of Lover's Leap. Jody stared as he deftly tied one end of the rope to the metal railing and looped the other end through the harness. She had spoken up then, not believing that he was actually going to climb down there when rescue crews were on their way.
Her concern had not stopped him. There was no hesitation in his movements as he carefully lowered himself down to where Peter lay. Bracing himself against the rock wall, he directed the beam of the flashlight over the other man's prone body. He did not like what was revealed.
"Maybe we should change Rucher's name to Vlad," Blake muttered under his breath when he spotted the tree trunk poking through Peter's side. He could see that Peter had lost a lot of blood because of it. A fever had set in, too, and the younger man shook with the chills. Nasty cuts and bruises darkened Peter's face, and Blake glimpsed similar damage through Peter's torn shirt.
More immediate than the injuries was the condition of Peter's resting place. Upon inspection, there was little doubt that the tree would give before the storm did. Despite Jody's wishes, they couldn't wait for help to arrive. They were going to have to get him out on their own.
"You sure don't make it easy, do you, Pete?" Blake grumbled quietly as he began the climb back up the cliff.
A cold hand clamped down on his wrist, spooking him enough that he lost his grip on the slippery rock wall and swung out over the open ravine. His free arm pinwheeling madly, he somehow managed to find another handhold and pulled himself back to safety.
"Blake . . .?" Peter whispered hesitantly, not sure if the man before him was real or some fever phantom.
"Jesus, Pete!" Blake exploded. "You want us both to fall to our deaths?! I thought you were unconscious."
Peter didn't hear the rebuke. Fingers tightening convulsively around Blake's wrist, he begged hoarsely, "Don't leave me alone."
For the first time that night, Blake didn't know what to do. He had to get topside before the tree gave way completely, but, looking into the haunted eyes of his friend, he couldn't just leave him down there in the dark. Peter had been left alone by those who loved him too many times recently, and he'd seen the pain it caused him. Blake didn't want to be counted in that number, especially not tonight.
Twisting the hand Peter held fast until he could clasp the younger man's fingers, Blake met Peter's feverish hazel gaze with a serious one of his own and said, "I won't, Pete. I promise you will always know where I am." Gritting his teeth in the knowledge that Peter wasn't going to like his next statement, he continued, "But right now, I need to go get some supplies to get you out of this mess."
As Peter's mouth opened to protest, inspiration struck Blake. "Here, Pete, I'll tell you what I'm going to do," he interrupted before Peter could say a word.
Steadying his position with his feet, Blake reached into his pants pocket with his free hand and pulled out a handful of wires and electronics. He set the bundle down carefully on Peter's chest and quickly disentangled the gadgetry. Holding a piece of wiring up, he explained his idea slowly and distinctly, aware of the delirious state Peter was in.
"This is your half of a two-way surveillance mike. I'll just put this headphone in your ear and clip the microphone to your shirt here, and I'll do the same with my half. There," he remarked as he completed the operation. "Now you can talk to me even when I'm on the top of the cliff, and I can talk to you. You won't be alone, no matter what, OK?"
Peter fingered the small headphone in his ear, finding the sound of Blake's voice coming from two directions disconcerting and reassuring at the same time. He looked up uncertainly at the communications expert. "You promise to come back?"
Blake gave the younger man's hand a squeeze. "I promise." Tapping his ear, he added with a small grin, "Yell if you need me. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Peter nodded his acceptance of his promise and let him go. Pausing only long enough to wrap his suit coat around the injured man, Blake reached the top of Lover's Leap in record time. T. J. was waiting for him beside Jody, an unhappy look on his face.
"I've got some bad news."
"Join the club. You first," Blake invited as he unsnapped his harness and crossed over to his car.
"The rescue team can't get here for another half an hour. There was some kind of explosion at the chemical factory across town, and everybody's needed there. The lives of the many over the lives of the one," T. J. observed bitterly.
"So what's your bad news, Blake?" Jody demanded worriedly.
Blake did not look up from his rummaging through his camping equipment as he replied, "It wouldn't have made any difference if they could have gotten here any sooner. The tree that's holding Peter up is about to snap. We have to pull him out ourselves."
"Are you crazy?! How? We don't have any rescue equipment!" Jody exclaimed.
Blake gave her a hard look. "So we improvise." Looking down at the gear he had strewn on the ground, he formulated a plan out loud. "We can punch some holes through the sleeping bag and string some of the rope through it into a makeshift stretcher. By using that tree over there," he pointed to the gnarled oak on the cliff side of the railing, "we can make a sort of pulley system so T. J. won't have any problem helping us pull Peter up."
"What do you mean by 'us'?" Jody asked suspiciously.
"Do you know anything about rock climbing? 'Cause I can't do this on my own," Blake admitted reluctantly.
"I knew it! Blake, I haven't rock climbed since my academy days, and then it only in daylight when it wasn't raining!" She took a deep breath and added more calmly, "But I know it's Peter's life that's at stake, so I'll do it."
"Atta girl," the 101st's tech man said approvingly. "But, ah, there's something else you should know before we go down."
Blake looked her in the eyes. "Peter's impaled on the tree trunk. We're going to have to cut him loose before we can pull him up."
Jody paled, but her determined expression never wavered. "I understand. Let's get this stretcher made and go get him."
Frowning thoughtfully as the duo bent to the task, T. J. asked, "You have anything in that magickal trunk of yours that'd help transporting Peter to the hospital?"
"Clean out the back of the Blazer," Blake responded after thinking a moment. "We're going to have to take him to the hospital ourselves, and my car isn't big enough to let him lie flat. Make it as dry and as comfortable as possible." He gestured to two small black boxes in the trunk. "Those are space heaters. They have a special jack to hook up to a cigarette lighter. Those should help, too."
"Aye, aye, Captain," T. J. mock saluted him. Picking up the heaters, he hobbled around the shackled owner of the Blazer and set about making the back end suitable for transporting a seriously wounded man.
Blake turned back to the task at hand. While they worked, he talked constantly to Peter, trying to keep the injured man awake, reassuring him over and over again that he was still there. He didn't like the way Peter's speech was starting to slur.
Jody listened in quiet amazement at the words he directed towards the younger man. She hadn't realized how much Peter meant to Blake. She hadn't realized much about Blake, come to think of it. Jody was determined to change that after all this was over.
Quickly finishing with the sleeping bag, the pair dragged the makeshift stretcher over to the railing and swung its ropes around the oak tree. Tying the pull line for the sleeping bag beside the knot he'd made for his own line so that T. J. could easily access it, Blake tossed it over Lover's Leap.
Glancing over at Jody, he asked, "Ready?"
Tugging on the buckles of the spare safety harness in an unconscious imitation of his earlier action, Jody picked up the small hacksaw and handed it to him. "Let's go."
"T. J., we're going down!" Blake called to the red-haired detective, then both he and Jody went over the side of the cliff.
It was relatively easy for the two rescuers to reach the injured man. With Peter's life depending on her remembering the long ago lessons with that cute instructor she'd had such a crush on in the academy, Jody found that rock climbing in the stormy dark was not so different than it had been in clear sunshine. Blake, much to her disgusted amazement, scaled the cliff with the surefootedness of a mountain goat. The sleeping bag/stretcher bounced lightly against the rock wall to the left and just below where Peter lay, right at his feet. Jody had to admit that Blake couldn't have set it up any better.
Dropping down to a spot beside Peter's head, Blake took his ice-cold hand into his warm ones and said softly, "Hey, Pete, I'm back. How're you doing?"
Peter did not answer. This time, he was unconscious, and Blake knew they didn't have much time before the young man never awakened again.
"Jody, why don't we get as much of the sleeping bag around him as we can before I try any sawing," he suggested as calmly as he could.
Brushing wet strands of blond hair out of her eyes, Jody silently shifted position on the slippery rock and caught at the 'stretcher.' Easing the mouth of the sleeping bag over Peter's feet, she carefully tugged it up over his legs and waist until she reached the point where the tree trunk pierced his body. Knowing what her partner was going to do next, Jody wrapped a strong arm around Peter's chest to hold him steady.
Nodding his thanks, Blake lowered himself further down the cliff and began the nerve- wracking process of cutting the young detective free. It took only minutes, but to the man with the saw, it seemed to take days. When the saw finally did slice through the trunk, he almost wished it hadn't.
As he made the final cut, a violent gust of wind struck at the dangling trio. Blake was thrown away from the wall only to be smashed back up against it with thunderous fury. The saw fell from his half-senseless fingers, lost forever. Jody, Peter, and the tree all slewed sideways as the wind tore at Peter's resting place. With a tortured groan, the tree gave up the losing battle it had been fighting since the storm began and fell. The three detectives hung precariously over the ravine's deep drop for several heart-stopping moments, the wind desperate to send them after the tree.
Nature lost that battle. Giving his head a clearing shake, Blake laboriously hauled himself up to where Jody was struggling to keep Peter inside the sleeping bag. Together, they got their friend the rest of the way into it, then rested for a few minutes, trying to catch their breaths.
T. J.'s head poked over the top of the cliff. "You all right down there?" he called worriedly. "I heard a crash . . ."
"We're fine, T. J., start pulling!" Jody answered him. She wanted nothing more than to get Peter and herself topside. She'd gladly leave all future rock climbing to Blake. She'd had enough tonight to last her the rest of her life!
The rest of the ascent, despite further attempts by the wind to dislodge them, went as smoothly as a midnight rescue in the middle of a storm could get. With T. J. pulling and the other two guiding the makeshift stretcher up the cliff side, Peter was on solid ground in minutes.
Wasting no time, the three friends quickly loaded the wounded man into the back of the Blazer. True to his word, T. J. had made it as warm and as comfortable as he could. He had collapsed the back seat to make one large space and had padded the floor with blankets and extra clothing. The space heaters were on full blast as was the truck's own heater. It was easily the driest and warmest spot for miles.
"Let's get him to a hospital," Jody commanded, stroking Peter's hot forehead with one hand, the other lying possessively on his shoulder. T. J. sat on Peter's other side, hunched over his friend's body as if to protect him from any further injury. His eyes were fixed on the bulge in the sleeping bag where he knew the tree trunk was lodged between Peter's ribs. Nothing was going to make him move from Peter's side until they reached a doctor.
"No arguments here," Blake responded and slid into the driver's seat. Leaving a protesting Rucher and his lieutenant in the rain and mud, he carefully set the Blazer on the fast track to the hospital.
Peter woke slowly. He didn't know where he was at first, then the muted beeping of heart monitors and the antiseptic smell of cleansers assaulted his senses. He was in a hospital. God, he hated hospitals! What had he done this time to be put in one?
Memory returned with a vengeance: the phone call, the incredibly stupid confrontation at the bar, the fall over the cliff. He remembered being angry with his fathers and Kermit, and he remembered why. They couldn't have brought him here, could they? He remembered not wanting to die alone. Someone had answered that desire, but who?
He heard someone stir to his left and carefully opened his eyes to see who it was. The light wasn't very good, and at first all he could see was a shadowy silhouette sitting in a chair.
"Father?" he guessed.
The dark figure jerked as if awakening from a nap and leaned forward. "Pete? You awake?"
"Blake," Peter whispered with sudden comprehension. The rest of his memory returned. It had not been Pop or Paul or Kermit who had come down that cliff to save him. It had been Blake. Blake, who had promised not to leave him alone and who had kept that promise. And here he was, sitting by his bedside, continuing to keep that promise. Tears formed in the corners of Peter's eyes.
"Hey, it's okay, Pete," Blake reassured him, mistaking the tears for ones of fear or pain rather than gratitude. "You're safe now. You're off the cliff. Rucher and his men are in jail and can't hurt you anymore. T. J. and Jody are asleep right here in the room with us. You're safe."
Peter shook his head and reached for the hand Blake had rested on the blankets, "You kept your promise, Bl - " he paused, then asked, "What is your first name, anyway?"
Blake gave him a funny look but answered, "Tristan." He shrugged. "My mother liked Germanic mythology. So do I, actually. Why?"
"Named after a hero, huh? It fits. Can I call you that?" Peter grinned at him lopsidedly. "It'd seem kinda rude to call you by your last name after all you did for me."
"Yeah, right, Pete," Blake chuckled, not believing his excuse for a minute. Knowing he was probably going to regret it, he added, "But since it's you, I guess I'll let you."
"Hey, at least you were named for a Muppet," Peter pointed out, then yawned hugely.
"And you need to get some more rest," Blake ordered. "Lie down and go to sleep. You need all your strength if you're going to harass the nurses in typical Peter Caine style."
Peter let himself be coaxed into a prone position, but he didn't release his hold on Blake's hand. "Tell me a story, Tristan," he requested sleepily. "Tell me about Paul, back before the precinct."
Blake hesitated only a moment before beginning, "Well, there was this one time . . ."
Peter smiled and closed his eyes.