A/N: This story takes place approximately two months after Vanished.
Summary: Just as the Hardys break up a ring of jewel thieves a new case quickly materializes when a distraught father hires them to find the person who attacked and paralyzed his son, ending a promising NFL career.
Frank, Joe and Fenton quickly realize it was not a random act of violence, as more victims are discovered – each a highly gifted professional whose career was ended by the attack.
When Joe discovers the connection between all the victims, solving the case takes on a new sense of urgency as he comes to the shocking realization that someone he loves may be next on the list.
Judge Simon Grant stared at the defendant not even attempting to hide his repulsion at this tragic turn of events.
"At times like this I realize we still have work to do on our criminal justice system. I wish to God I could sentence you to one hundred years in prison, as that is exactly where you deserve to be. However, my hands are tied. Make no mistake, Mr. Gregory, you are a most contemptible human being and deserve to spend the rest of your life rotting in the state penitentiary. But I have no choice but to drop the charges against you. You are free to go. And don't ever let me see your face in my courtroom again."
With a bang of the gavel the court was adjourned. As the people slowly filed out of the courtroom, a heavy silence hung in the air.
Zane Gregory, a non-descript, sandy-haired man in his early thirties looked at his public defender, Colton Banks and smiled. "Thanks, man," he said insincerely.
"Don't thank me," Banks replied in disgust. "Judge Grant was right. Everyone knows you're guilty including me. You destroyed a young man's life in a drunken rage and for some ungodly reason got off scot-free. Take it for the sign that it is and straighten out your life. Get sober. But do it far away from here." He snapped his briefcase shut and left the courtroom.
"I just might do that," Gregory mumbled to himself. "I really hate this city."
Just a few yards away, New York City District Attorney Everett McConnell took a deep breath, trying to find the strength to face the couple directly behind him. Slowly he turned around, barely able to look them in the eye.
"I'm so sorry," he said, realizing how utterly ridiculous it sounded.
Surprisingly, the woman reached out and squeezed his hand. The horrific crime and ensuing trial had taken its toll on her. In her early fifties, she had often been mistaken for a woman of forty, but that was before the agonizing night that had torn her family apart. She now had the look of a woman much older than her years; a woman who had lost everything that was important in life.
"Thank you," Gloria Sansom said bravely, tears in her eyes. "You did the best you could. It wasn't your fault."
Glancing at the woman's husband, George Sansom, McConnell gasped at the look in the man's eyes. Seconds later it was gone and he wondered if maybe he had imagined it. He hoped so. Revenge was never the answer, although if an exception were to made this would be it. The criminal justice system had failed these people miserably, made worse by the fact that it was an honest mistake; a human error. George Sansom graced the D.A. with one curt nod before turning on his heel and exiting the courtroom.
Sixty-five miles away in the seaside town of Bayport, 23-year-old Joe Hardy sat across from his brother, one leg dangling over the arm of the chair, and stared at him with an impish grin.
Frank Hardy tried to remain focused on the computer screen on his desk, finding the weight of his brother's stare immensely distracting. "What are you staring at?" he finally asked in frustration, purposely keeping his eyes glued to the monitor.
"Just looking for the signs." Joe leaned forward slightly and squinted at his older brother.
Frank finally looked up. "Signs? What signs?"
"You know - the signs. Wrinkles. Gray hair. Bifocals," Joe replied, his blue eyes dancing with mischief.
Frank rolled his eyes in silent reply and returned his attention to the computer.
"Less than a month, bro." Joe shook his head in mock-sympathy.
"Shouldn't you still be under house arrest?" Frank countered.
Although he had spoken light heartedly, Frank still shivered whenever he thought about Joe's doctor-ordered month of complete rest, confining him to the apartment he shared with his fiancée, Vanessa Bender.
Almost two months earlier, while waiting for a flight home from O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Joe had stumbled onto an assassination plot against a U.S. Senator and the President of the United States. In the twenty-four hour period that followed his discovery, Joe had been kidnapped, tortured and severely beaten by the alleged assassins in an effort to get him to reveal what he had done with the information he had uncovered. Although Joe had managed to leave a brief message for Frank about his discovery, he had been critically injured before Frank and their father, Fenton Hardy, were finally able to locate him.
After almost two weeks in the hospital and another week recuperating at a local hotel until his doctor deemed him recovered enough to fly, three more weeks of bed rest at home had been ordered, which Joe had quickly dubbed his "house arrest". Under the watchful eye of his fiancée, Joe had not been able to leave the apartment one second earlier than recommended, despite his numerous failed attempts to sneak out.
Even with the rather lengthy convalescence, Joe still wasn't close to being one hundred percent recovered. A fact brought home to Frank with painful clarity when he caught a glimpse of the heavy elastic bandage peeking out from under the left arm of the long sleeved t-shirt Joe was wearing. He knew it began just below Joe's shoulder and stopped just above his wrist and was vital in helping Joe recover from the second-degree burns that had covered his arm.
"Hello? Earth to Frank?" Joe waved a hand in front of Frank's glazed over brown eyes, snapping him back to the present. "Man, where did you go?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry," Frank mumbled, not wanting to dredge up the painful memories for his brother, although he was sure the whole ordeal was still fresh in Joe's mind. "What did you say?"
"I said I was paroled two weeks ago. And you're just trying to change the subject."
"What subject?" Frank said, attempting to sound defensive, not wanting to disrupt Joe's good-natured teasing, happy to see his brother finally starting to act like his old self again. Lately Frank had been catching frequent glimpses of the happy, carefree, wise-cracking brother he hadn't seen much of since the beginning of the year.
"See. It's started already," Joe said knowingly. "The memory is the first thing to go."
"Don't you have work to do?" Frank asked in exasperation.
"I am working. I'm helping you," Joe retorted, swinging his leg back and forth.
Frank looked at his brother in disbelief. "That's what you call this? Helping?"
"Hey, the doctor said I couldn't do anything too strenuous yet," Joe replied in his own defense.
"I see. And that's why I saw you playing one on one with Biff the other day, right?"
Joe grinned. "That was physical therapy."
"Uh-huh." Frank picked up a large manila envelope from the corner of his desk and tossed it to Joe. "Make yourself useful. I stopped by a couple of pawn shops this morning and picked these up," he explained as Joe opened the envelope and pulled out several eight-by-ten color photographs. "See if you can find anything matching a description of the stolen jewelry."
"You can change the subject but you can't change the fact," Joe said ominously as he began looking through the pictures.
"And what fact would that be?" Frank knew he was playing right into Joe's hands and enjoyed every minute of it.
"Face it, Frank. In less than a month you're going to be twenty-five."
Joe looked up, grinning wickedly. "That's a quarter of a century old, big brother. Shoot, you're almost ancient history."
"This coming from the guy who is all of one year younger than me," Frank said sarcastically.
"Yup. And no matter how old you get I will always be younger than you!" Joe replied smugly.
Frank couldn't suppress a smile at his brother's teasing, realizing how much he had missed it.
"So, what do you want for your birthday?" Joe asked only a bit more seriously. "Maybe I'll even splurge and get you something besides socks this year. After all it is a milestone."
Frank had been asked that question by most of his friends and family in recent weeks and hadn't given it much thought until it was posed by his younger brother. As he looked at Joe it occurred to him there wasn't anything he really wanted.
When Joe had been abducted and almost died from the beating he had taken, Frank only wanted him to recover. Aside from some mild scarring on his left arm, and given a little more time, Joe was expected to make a full recovery. As far as Frank was concerned, nothing could top that gift.
Frank's family had forgiven Callie for the inadvertent part she had played in Vanessa's kidnapping several months earlier, and even Joe was willingly giving her the chance to earn back his trust. Another prayer answered.
Vanessa's progress in dealing with having been raped at the beginning of the year was better than anyone had expected, despite several setbacks that would have left anyone else reeling. After a rocky start, Joe had been making great strides in therapy in dealing with the trauma he had suffered as a little boy and only remembered when he had been on trial for murdering Vanessa's rapist. They still had "bad days" but Frank could definitely see a change for the better. He realized Joe and Vanessa seemed more and more like their old selves. Yet another wish granted.
Watching as Joe perused the pictures in his lap, Frank knew there was only one thing he truly wanted for his birthday. Yet it wasn't his for the asking. Like Callie, he knew he had to earn back what he wanted – Joe's complete and total trust. But he was becoming more confident that, with time and patience, he would do just that.
"Well?" Joe pressed him, having lost interest in the pictures. "You must want something."
"Nah," Frank said quietly. 'I've already got everything I could possibly want...'