The sun was starting its downward arch when Collin set Angie down beside the barn. As he dismounted, Michael and Kayden landed. They had an uneasy peace between them, but Collin knew Kayden was still hurting over Michael’s admission that he still planned to leave the planet.
The horses were in the field, and Collin noted that only three wingdeer played in the sky. Kayden reached him, staring into the pasture also. “Tess is gone. So is Bambi and Berry.” She ran into the barn, not waiting for Michael to dismount. She returned a moment later. “They’re not there. The stalls are cleaned out!”
Collin rested a hand on her shoulder to calm her. Jamel was still in the mountains until nightfall, so he couldn’t ask him. “Why don’t you and Michael take care of these two, and I’ll go ask Quinn where they are.” He grabbed his extra baggage which included the new medicine for the clinic. In the waiting room, a man and woman sat. Collin greeted them with a brief smile and set his luggage just inside his living room. Then he took the medicine back. He stopped at the desk, his gaze immediately going to the note and the pegasus with the medically stitched wing.
As he read, his concern turned to anger. He’d warned Gaben not to touch Quinn’s wife, and now Quinn suffered as he had years before.
Quinn led a woman through the office. He looked worn, haggard, as if he hadn’t had much sleep. He didn’t see Collin standing back in the shadows. When Quinn returned to make out his report, Collin shut the door to the waiting room Quinn whirled around. “Alex!” His eyes were red, almost haunted with pain like they’d been when he first met Quinn fifteen years ago.
He wanted to ease that pain. Protect him from the pain still to come. He wanted to reassure him that it was just a bad dream -- a nightmare. But all he could do was grab Quinn into a tight hug.
At first Quinn was stiff, and then he began shaking. He’d always kept everything inside, and now he clutched on to Collin with his mouth against his shoulder to muffle his sobs. Collin rubbed his back, knowing it was years of blows being released. Marriage to Tara had been almost as trying as living with his selfish and erratic parents. When he seemed to quiet, Collin stepped back and helped Quinn into the chair.
“I want her back.”
Collin rubbed his shoulder. “I’m afraid it’s impossible to keep a woman who doesn’t want to be kept.”
“Shanika.” Collin loved the little girl like his own granddaughter. “We’ll find a way to get her back.”
“When,” Quinn asked, wiping his face with the bottom of his tunic.
Quinn took a deep breath and ran the palms of his hands over his face. “Sorry about being a girlbaby.”
Collin gripped his shoulder. “Don’t say that. This is a hard thing. You’re not babyish at all. You’ve been able to keep working and helping our people. I’m proud of you. Now you go wash up, and I’ll see those people waiting for us.”
When Quinn left through the back, Collin opened the door and ushered the man to the examination room, grabbing his file on the way. When Michael and Kayden came in, he set Kayden to work on dinner. He suspected Quinn hadn’t eaten much all day. Then Collin took inventory. One microscope was missing, his older one he rarely used. If Gaben had left on good terms and asked, he would have given it to him, but not now. Gaben would learn never to cross an employer again.
Unfortunately he’d have to shock poor Geoff. The last time he’d seen Geoff, he was going to a house call. Then Collin had planted his evidence in the garden -- his ripped pack with his medical supplies and notes, as well as his boot with a foot he’d grown at the lab. He also left a hand with a ring he normally wore. Then he’d smeared it with a half liter of blood he’d drawn and saved for his death. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Geoff, but he’d known it was time to move on. Reba was dead and was no longer able to try to lay claim to Geoff’s inheritance. And Geoff would recognize his boots, his ring and his pack and be able to publicly verify his death for the legal transfer. It was all necessary for Collin to make a clean break. Now for Quinn, he’d have to give Geoff an even bigger shock; he had to tell him he was older than a man had a right to be.
At the dinner table Quinn, Kayden, and Michael silently began eating. But then Kayden flung down her fork. “You’re not going to let him steal Bambi and Berry, are you?”
“I am more concerned with Shanika. Wingdeer can be replaced.”
“But he can’t get away with stealing from you.”
Quinn seemed to be withdrawing with each word. Any moment he’d bolt from the room.
“Kayden,” Collin chastised. “Rest assured Gaben will not profit by his actions. Quinn and I are going to Shade tomorrow morning. That means you and Michael must watch the clinic. Do what you can, tell the others we’ll be back by the following noon at the latest.”
“And emergencies?” Michael asked, sounding alarmed.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to do what you can. Kayden is right. We can not let this go. Not for the sake of the wingdeer, but for Shanika.”
Kayden glanced at Quinn. “We’ll do what we can,” she murmured and then refocused on her food. She wasn’t a good cook, but no one cared today.
After dinner Collin shut himself in the office and prepared the papers he would need for the next day.
Collin and Quinn left the next morning before Wilma came to make breakfast. Speaking was impossible with the wind of flight, so they rode in silence. They arrived in Shade an hour before noon.
The city was not quite as large as Alexandria, and he had lived on the northwestern side so he wouldn’t have to fly over the city when he took off to the cabin. He assumed Geoff Napier was still on the same property he’d inherited from Hans Vita -- from him.
Collin settled Angie down before a one story brick building with stables behind. Quinn and Rae landed and walked to him. “This is where he’s working?”
“Will be if he doesn’t cooperate.” He pointed to the sign. ‘Shade Law Enforcement -- North Branch.’ Collin slid from Angie’s back, and when Quinn was down also they walked to the building.
“What are we doing here?” Quinn asked quietly.
Collin led Quinn to the counter just inside the door. A receptionist greeted them. “I’m here to report a theft and ask assistance in recovering my property.” The woman left to get the appropriate deputy.
“I thought we were coming for Shanika.”
“We are, my friend. This is just leverage. If he doesn’t do what we want, he’ll be in a large amount of trouble. Wingdeer theft is a high priced crime.”
“But . . . .” Quinn’s initial doubt disappeared as his jaw tightened.
A deputy returned with the receptionist, a metal badge on his pocket announcing his rank. He was solid, but not overweight, most likely due to the strict physical requirements of the police department. “Pete Framer. How may I help you?”
Collin smiled, remembering the last time he’d seen Pete as a gangly teenager. Pete wouldn’t remember the old doc, or that Hans Vita had been the physician attending his birth. He explained his problem with his former employee, bringing out proofs of ownership for the wingdeer and the list of missing medical equipment. Then he told him he was willing to let the matter rest if they could come to an agreement, but he’d hoped Deputy Framer would accompany him so that he wouldn’t need use the full force of the law. Pete agreed to ride out with them.
A little after noon they arrived at Dr. Geoff Napier’s office. Collin saw the wingdeer gazing out behind the building and pointed them out to Deputy Framer. Inside, no one was in the waiting room, but Deputy Framer opened the door to the back and called out. “Hello? Dr. Napier? Dr. Blanne? Law Enforcement here. I need to talk to you.”
Gaben and then Geoff entered the waiting room. The signs of the last seventeen years had etched themselves on Geoff’s slight features. Grey streaked his mid-brown temples, and lines creased the corners of his eyes.
Gaben’s eyes narrowed when he saw Collin and Quinn. “Why are you here? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
But Collin didn’t answer. Instead he watched as Geoff glanced over the group. His gaze went to Pete Framer and then shot back to Collin. His face drained of color. “Oh, gods, Hans.”
Collin stepped forward. “Geoff, old friend. You remembered your co-apprentice, Alex Collin. We sure had some times with old Hans, didn’t we?”
Geoff was usually pretty quick to catch on when they’d needed to bluff for one reason or another. This time he just stared at Collin. “I . . . .”
“I know it’s been years. Quite a shock, isn’t it? We’ll reminisce after we settle this little legal matter with Gaben. Did he tell you he used to work with me? No? Did he tell you he stole my wingdeer? No? I didn’t think so. I knew you wouldn’t tolerate deceit like that.”
“Wait a minute,” Gaben said. “You gave Tess to me last year. You can’t say I stole her now.”
Collin decided that he could leave Geoff with a light cuff to his shoulder and give him a little time to recover. He turned to Gaben. “I gave you Tess. I didn’t give you Bambi and Berry.”
“They were her calves!”
“Born before I gave you Tess. Wingdeer theft carries a pretty steep penalty. Plus that microscope and the other supplies. Deputy Framer has the list.”
Gaben backed away, his eyes darting from Pete Framer to Collin. “Wait a minute. I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t think you wanted that microscope. You never used it. And the wingdeer, take them.”
“Oh, I’ll take them,” Collin said. “But you still stole them. You’re still going to jail.”
Pete Framer grabbed Gaben’s arm.
Tara burst through the door from the back of the clinic. “Wait! You can’t do that. You can’t.” She ran to Collin and beat his chest.
Collin grabbed her hands. “Tara, what a surprise to find you so far from home. Is Shanika here also? We were so afraid you’d been dragon-eaten. I never imagined Gaben would be a kidnapper also. Oh, Deputy, can you believe such deceit? Quinn took him into his own home, and he kidnaps his wife and child.” He briefly met Geoff’s gaze. Geoff silently slipped through the clinic doors.
“Oh, no!” Framer exclaimed. “Wingdeer you’ve at least got a chance for sympathy, but kidnapping, Lord have mercy.”
“I didn’t kidnap her! Tara asked to come with me. Tara!”
Tara rushed to his side and slipped her arm around his waist. “I want to be with Gaben. I love him.” She looked right at Quinn, and then she stretched up to kiss Gaben. He turned his head slightly to meet her lips. The act of brazenly claiming Quinn’s wife threatened to make Collin’s anger override his carefully thought out plans. He wanted to throttle the guy. He wanted Quinn to throttle the guy, but Quinn was sinking, retreating, breaking again. He backed away until he bumped into a waiting room chair, slumping into it.
Just then Shanika ran into the room, followed by Geoff. She saw Collin first and ran up to him, hugging him. “You’re here. I knew you’d come. I wanna go home to Daddy.”
Collin turned and guided her attention to Quinn. She ran to him. “Daddy!” Quinn grabbed her into his arms.
“Looks like kidnapping to me,” Collin said firmly. He met Gaben’s defiant gaze. “Theft and kidnapping, and it looks like he’s contemplating murder now. I wish you’d try it, Gaben, because right now I’m too angry to hold back.”
“You’re a damn liar, Alex Collin. I worked for you for years, trusting I was going to marry your daughter. Then you . . . .”
“Kayden decides not to marry you, and you blame me? You had four years to woo her, but instead you were too busy with Quinn’s wife.” Collin shook his head. This was leading nowhere. “If you don’t want to go with Deputy Framer, you’ll return everything you took, including Tara and Shanika.”
“But I don’t want to go back to that pathetic girlbaby. I want to stay with Gaben.”
Collin could feel each insult as if they were his own. “But Gaben is going to prison and then to his death,” he said in an icily even voice.
“But you can’t!” Tara lunged at him again. Always predictably emotional.
Collin grabbed her hands again and looked into her face. “I can. But maybe I’ll drop the charges if you come home.”
Collin chuckled. “She loves you, Gaben. Loves you to death. Aren’t you so lucky?” He focused on Tara who was now trying to free her wrists from his grip. “Perhaps you two deserve each other, but you won’t take Shanika from her father.” He released her. “Make your choice, Tara. Quinn and Shanika or Gaben and no Shanika.”
Her eyes grew wide and her face white. “You can’t do that!”
Collin shrugged. “We can take her home now, and you’ll have to fight for her anyway. And Deputy Framer agrees that I have a legal grievance against Gaben. I can press charges or not. My whim.”
He focused on Quinn, still holding Shanika who clutched the mended pegasus. “Quinn, why don’t you and Shanika start home. No need to subject her to any more of this unpleasantness.”
Tara made a lunge for Shanika, but Collin grabbed her around the waist, hauling her back. “You didn’t give Quinn a chance to say goodbye the other day. I guess this is only fair.” He nodded to Quinn, and Quinn carried Shanika from the clinic.
“You damn Hansell lover.” She lashed out at him, but he kept the blows from him.
Collin turned her toward Gaben and released her with a push. Then he reached into his pack for his papers. “Now, let’s get down to business. If I can get you first, Tara, to sign this paper, and then Gaben the other, and then both Deputy Framer and Dr. Napier to sign as witnesses, we can be through with this thoroughly unpalatable mess.”
“Mercifully, yes,” Deputy Framer said, still clutching Gaben’s right arm. “I sure do hate to send a man to the pit if we can work it all out amongst us. I know Judge Harrison is particularly edgy if he hears a thief is also a wife stealer. Feels there’s nothing closer to a man you can take. He’s been fighting for laws, but some are against it, saying it makes women look like property. Being new in town, you might not have heard all that, so as I feel compelled to give you every chance to avoid his court and warn you of your rights.”
Collin hid his smile as Gaben realized he’d get no help whatsoever from the law. Deputy Framer was a good one. He probably sincerely hated to send anyone to the pit.
“Tara, are you returning to Hope with me?”
“Never, you bastard Hansell lover.”
“Ouch, Gaben. What does that say about her love for your hide.”
“I do love Gaben! There has to be some other way.”
“Perhaps. As I’d hate to subject Quinn to your slurs and tempers any more, I may just have another option.” He lifted the first paper as if to read, but he knew each point. “You must sign this. You will agree to relinquish all parental rights of Shanika to Quinn.”
Collin ignored her. “You will understand that you can visit Shanika, but you cannot remove her from his property. You will never denigrate Quinn to Shanika, and it is understood that he will likewise not denigrate you. You will never call some other man Shanika’s father. And finally you understand that this document is only revocable upon Quinn’s death.” He glanced up at her. “Are you ready to sign?”
“No! You can’t do that.” Tears wet her face.
“I’m sorry, Gaben. Your lover would rather see you dead.”
“Oh, Ma’am, ‘tis no mercy in your soul.” Pete Framer pulled on Gaben’s arm, jerking Gaben off balance.
“Hey, wait,” Gaben said, regaining his footing. “Tara.” He motioned her to him. She hugged him, her face against his shoulder. “Tara, listen. Do you understand what’s happening here?”
“They want to keep Shanika.”
“Yes, Sweetheart. But if you don’t let them they’re going to kill me. You’ve got to save me. I did this for you. You’ll still see her. And we’ll have a lot more children. I know we will. You’ve just got to sign that paper.”
With another round of coaxing, Tara stalked to Collin, grabbed the pen he held out, and signed the paper. Geoff came forward and signed after her.
“I’ll wait ‘till both are signed,” Pete said. “Best not to release the criminal until I’m sure I don’t have to catch him again.”
“Okay, Gaben. Here’s your conditions of release. First, you return all the things on the list I gave Pete. Look it over.”
Pete handed it to him. Gaben scanned it and then nodded. Obviously Collin had guessed right on the few items he wasn’t sure of.
“Then you will agree never to come on or near my property nor any property Quinn may own again, or we may use this document as proof that you were ordered away once for stealing.”
“But you said I could see Shanika . . . .” Tara protested.
“And you may. Your lover will just have to wait at the pub for you. He’s not allowed near our clinic unless he’s unconscious and I bring him in myself. And you will understand that as long as these conditions are met, and you do not slander us, we will keep this incident to ourselves. If you or Tara continue to cast aspersion on my character, Quinn’s character or any in my household, I will be forced to retaliate with the truth contained here.” He tapped the paper and then held out the pen.
Pete Framer allowed him to come forward and switched his hold to his left arm so that he could write. Gaben read the page and then signed.
Pete released him. “You’re free. What a relief. I hate seeing men die in the pit, hearing their screams at night.” He quickly signed both papers. Collin guessed he had a whole repertoire of frighteningly casual remarks to scare the guilty into complying with his wishes.
Collin held out his hand. “Thank you for your help. I’m glad things could be resolved.”
Pete shook his hand with a firm grip. “Whenever you need a bit of help, don’t hesitate to stop in again. I appreciate a merciful man over a vengeful one.” Pete nodded to Gaben and Tara and left.
Gaben sunk into a waiting room chair. “You’ve thoroughly destroyed my career, and he thinks that isn’t vengeance.”
“I didn’t destroy your career. If it has suffered, it’s your fault. I would have helped you start your own practice if you’d asked, instead of ripping Quinn apart.”
Gaben glared at him. “You make such blithe promises. You promised Kayden . . . .”
“I didn’t promise Kayden. I said you could woo her after a four year wait. I could never guarantee her affections to anyone. Now get my things together while Geoff and I catch up on old times.”
Gaben stood and walked to Geoff. He was six inches taller than Geoff’s five foot five inch slight frame, and his stance looked almost menacing. “So you’re kicking us out?”
Geoff met his gaze unflinchingly. “I will not make a hasty decision. I need another doctor in here, but I do not tolerate thieves. I will tell you in the morning. In the meantime, after Hans . . . Alex Collin’s belongings are gathered you may continue with in-office patients for the rest of the afternoon. Lunch is about over, we should be getting some soon.”
Geoff motioned, and Collin followed him back through the clinic. “I must check Lenora.” They stopped before a back bedroom.
“She’s sick?” Collin asked in concern.
“Diabetes. Diet has helped, but she always rests after lunch.”
“Let me take a blood sample before I leave.”
“I’ve been to Alexandria. They’ve done tests, but they just don’t have the insulin we need.” Geoff entered the room, kissed his wife’s forehead and told her he would be out for a while.”
Then Geoff silently led him outside. They walked back behind the barn to the small pond. Geoff sat at the table there, and leaned forward waiting for Collin to sit also. “Okay. I saw your hand and your foot and here you sit with two hands and two feet and not a day older than when you left.”
“And that’s why I had to leave you. I was getting too old to believably hold my age. The hand and foot were props. They were never attached to me.”
“Realistic props.” He closed his eyes and his jaw tensed.
Collin touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Geoff. It had to be real so that you wouldn’t have to fight the authorities over inheritance for years.”
“You could have told me!”
“Would you have believed me?” Collin shifted to look back toward the clinic. “One thing I learned over the years was to trust no one with my life.” He glanced back at Geoff. “But now too many people are finding out. I may be killed sooner now than later.”
“Killed? Hans, you never did anything to deserve death.”
Collin shot him a look. Should he tell him? No. Even he occasionally cursed Collin Hansell. “Let’s talk about Lenora. Let me help you.”
“You apparently have some small practice in Hope that’s only had electricity for two years. I went to Alexandria. There’s nothing left to do.”
Collin sighed. “You change your mind, you look me up.”
“Unless you disappear again.”
Collin reached across the table and grabbed both Geoff’s shoulders. “You’re angry with me.”
Geoff twisted away from him and paced to the pond. “Yeah, I’m angry. For years I mourned the loss of my father and here he’s living just down the road in some back woods mountain village.”
Collin hadn’t thought his death would trigger that feeling of abandonment Geoff had experienced when his parents, apparently overwhelmed by their chronically ill child, left him with Dr. Hans Vita.
Collin walked to him and stared into the water. “You’ve never been in a riot, Geoff, and I pray you never are. People latch onto an idea, a course of action, and they feed on each other’s anger until it boils over into a sort of group rage. They’ll stop at nothing to get what they want, kill anyone who stands in their way, anyone remotely connected to their target. Things are happening, Geoff. I’ve been compromised several times this year. People are going to start connecting names. Right now you’re safe, but I worry about Kayden and Quinn. If they still didn’t need me, I’d disappear again. I’ve missed you. I’ve wanted to see you again, but I’ll let you decide if you want to take the risk. And don’t forget, it wouldn’t be just you, but your whole household.”
He sighed. He needed to get off this depressing subject or he was going to have to go kill a dragon tonight, the cause of all his problems. No. Not all. Even in anger he couldn’t simplify life that much. “So how are the kids? Vince and Misti.”
“And Raini. The girls are both married, Raini last year, although Lenora and I wanted her to wait until she was a little older. Vince, as you might have noticed, decided not to be a doctor. He’s actually working at the city council as assistant to the mayor. Married, too. Wife due soon.” Geoff seemed as eager as Collin to change the subject, and they talked about Geoff’s family for a while, and then some of the other doctors who had passed through the clinic. Then Geoff asked about Quinn. “How’d you get a new son and daughter?”
Collin reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “You’d have taken him in also. Brought to my clinic with four broken ribs, his right arm broken in two places, his face a bloody mess, and bruises everywhere. And I find his father is the one who did it all to him. I never let him go home, and after three months he finally started speaking again. He’s been with me fifteen years now, and you still see how he backed away when Gaben and Tara attacked him verbally. He’s been doing so well, too, but I really wish Quinn had just stepped forward and punched him. But he won’t, not because he’s scared, but because he feels defeated before he begins.” He grinned to break the mood. “He’s a great doctor though. Learned from the best.”
Geoff smiled. “Can’t argue with that. Still don’t know how you saved my life.” He shook his head. “No, I’m not asking again. You’ll probably still tell me it was a miraculous recovery.”
“Hey, you get those once in a while.”
“Once in a while,” Geoff conceded. “What about the girl Gaben seems so hung up on?”
“Rape and torture victim. Found her in the mountains not quite six years ago. Gaben is a good doctor. I was even starting to like him quite a bit before this. I wouldn’t have minded him as a son-in-law, but Kayden may never marry, and I won’t force her to. Not with her nightmares and fears.”
“So about Gaben. Should I dismiss him? He reminds me of Sergen now.”
Collin chuckled at the name of the man he’d taught as an apprentice and who then turned on him and took his wife. Surprisingly he was no longer angry. “Sergen probably did me a favor back then, but I was too blind with anger to see it. All these years, I never miss Reba. I just miss Vita, my first wife.”
Geoff’s eyebrows raised a moment, but then he shook his head, apparently deciding not to ask about Vita. “About Gaben and Tara. What do you want me to do?”
“Me? I can’t tell you how to run your practice.”
“Yeah. Right. I’ve been agonizing over selling the place and moving to Alexandria for Lenora’s health, and all I can see is you entrusting this place to me.”
“Don’t, Geoff. Don’t let the past trap you like that. I never intended this place to be a dragon on your back. If you want to sell it, then do it and don’t look back.”
“You want part of the money?”
“Me? Come on, Geoff. I’ve been gone seventeen years. This is all yours to do with as is best for you and your family. A gift with no strings. I don’t even care if you sell it to Gaben, but I’d hope you’d get all the money up front from him and get the going rate.”
Geoff stared back at the water again as if thinking. Collin let him, shifting to look back at the clinic and noticing the small changes in the shrubs and trees, the new blue paint on the house and barn.
“Think I could get work in Alexandria? I just don’t want the pressure of my own practice. Not with Lenora ill. With all the kids gone now, I hate leaving her alone to care for others.”
“I would love to have you in Hope. I’m working on a new plant-derived insulin substitute. But don’t take me up on it unless you are willing to live dangerously. Very dangerously. And Quinn will inherit that place when I go. If it’s not burned to the ground in a riot.” He glanced at the sky. The clouds seemed a little heavier. “I better get going.” He stood and waited for Geoff. “Do what’s best for Lenora. You never get another chance.”