This was supposed to be a short epilogue but I've discovered it's very hard to end a story... A huge thank you to all of you who've read and reviewed - you've made all the hard work worthwhile and inspired me to keep going. I've got a few more story ideas and I'm looking forward to getting on with the next one. Whirlgirl - I haven't been able to reply to you personally, but I've really appreciated all the reviews - thanks for all the support you've given me. Bee
At the Tracy house Grandma was sitting tensely by the phone, just as she'd done ever since she'd brought Alan and Gordon back from Charlie's. It was now well into the early hours and she was completely drained, but she knew there would be no sleep that night, not while Jeff and Virgil were still missing. The news that Jeff had offered himself as a hostage in order to save his sons hadn't come as a shock and a fierce pride burned in her as she thought about her son's selfless act. She just wished he'd been able to get Virgil released too. Pride turned to anger for a moment, then to a deep sadness as she thought about her grandson - why did this have to happen to Virgil, who had endured so much already? It just wasn't fair... it wasn't fair to any of them. She didn't know which was worse – last summer's long wait for news of Virgil, knowing that he was all alone and in terrible danger, or the knowledge that this time two people she cared deeply about were in trouble. What she did know was that the waiting was no easier the second time around. She felt paralysed by the need to wait by the phone with nothing to do but think about all the possible outcomes of the night's events. And whilst she tried to remain positive for the boys' sakes, she knew that there was every chance that this time there wouldn't be a happy ending. As the hours passed she was finding it harder to stop the tears from falling and to stop her voice from shaking when she tried to comfort the other boys.
To Grandma's relief Alan was asleep, though Gordon still wandered around fretfully, refusing to rest until he knew what had happened to his father and Virgil. She'd tried to get him to bed but he'd flown into such an uncharacteristic fit of temper that she'd given up. At least the reunion with his oldest brothers had lifted his spirits for a while. She sighed as she looked over at Scott. The doctors at the hospital had wanted to keep him in for a few more hours but he'd protested so vehemently that they'd finally given Grandma the option of having him moved home; obviously hoping she'd make her grandson see sense. But Grandma was desperate to have as much of her family as remained safely back at the house and – to Scott's surprise and John's frustration, since he'd spent two hours trying to get Scott to behave for the doctors – she'd agreed that Scott could come home. She'd almost regretted her decision when she'd seen him so bruised and shaken. He'd been on edge ever since he'd got home, anxiously pacing around the lounge muttering dark threats against Carl and Mitch until he'd suddenly been overcome with exhaustion and fallen asleep in a chair. John sat quietly now, lost in uneasy thoughts, having long ago given up trying to get Gordon to sit down. Knowing that everyone was reaching breaking point, Grandma looked at the clock again. How much longer was this going to go on?
The sudden ringing of the phone shocked all of them, jerking Scott awake and causing Gordon to let out a startled cry. The boys looked at their grandmother who had snatched up the phone before it could ring a second time. Time seemed to stand still and John felt himself holding his breath as he waited to find out whether this was good or bad news. It was only a second, but it seemed like longer before Grandma let out a cry of relief,
Scott, John and Gordon looked at each other, barely able to believe what they were hearing. Virgil was calling? They'd expected the police, or maybe another journalist – they'd already had a couple of tactless requests for interviews. But for it to be Virgil... What was going on? Was he safe or was this just the start of more trouble?
Grandma had recovered from the shock and was firing questions at her grandson almost faster than he could answer.
"What's going on? Where are you? Are you alright? What about your father? Talk to me, darling..."
As the boys crowded around the phone they heard the welcome sound of Virgil's voice and were flooded with relief as he let them know that they were both okay before passing the phone over to his father, who confirmed everything Virgil had said before anxiously enquiring about the other boys.
Grandma had reassured him that everyone – including Scott – was fine, and was just about to pass the phone over to her eldest grandson when Jeff ended the conversation. The police were there he told them, and the relief in his voice was clear. With a promise that both he and Virgil would be home soon, he was gone, leaving the others to celebrate the good news. They knew that eventually every one of them would have to reflect on their experiences and, after what Virgil had gone through in the aftermath of his kidnapping the previous summer, no one was under any illusion that they would just be able to carry on as if nothing had happened. But for now they could just enjoy the feeling of relief that Jeff and Virgil were safe. Gordon seemed back to his usual excitable self as he rushed upstairs to wake Alan and break the good news. Grandma sighed. She was exhausted and all she wanted to do was sleep – there wouldn't be much chance of that now with all four boys awake and waiting impatiently for the missing members of the family to return. It was going to be a long couple of hours...
Jeff had let Virgil make the call home, thinking he deserved to break the news and take the credit for their safe return. He'd have liked to have spent longer reassuring his mother and talking to his other sons, especially Scott, who was the only one he hadn't seen since all this began, but the sound of someone approaching had led him to cut the call short. He was 99 per cent sure that it would be the police – they'd heard the helicopter come in to land a few minutes ago – but there was always the chance that it would be Carl and his hand tightened on the gun. Not that the gun was any use to him just then – his right hand was useless and he'd always been clumsy with his left. But it would do for show at least. Both he and Virgil tensed as a figure emerged into the clearing, only relaxing when they saw the uniform. A second officer followed close behind and Jeff allowed himself to believe that it really was over.
Mitch made one last futile attempt to buck Jeff off his back, but he had no chance. The police were there and taking over and within seconds he was handcuffed and dragged to his feet. Jeff stood back and watched in satisfaction as he was marched away, still cursing and complaining, then turned to Virgil, noticing the flicker of anxiety which crossed his face as his eyes moved to the gun Jeff still held. Handing it over to the remaining policeman and glad to be rid of it, he smiled across at his son and held out his good hand, but Virgil kept his distance, confusing Jeff for a moment – he'd assumed it was the proximity of the gun which had stopped Virgil from seeking the comfort of a hug. He wondered what was going through his son's head right now. With a sigh he realised that although the initial ordeal was at an end, all his sons, especially Virgil, would have a long road ahead as they came to terms with what had happened. He was going to have a hard job himself, he thought, remembering the mistakes he'd made last time. Now he'd have to deal with the after effects of his own experiences as well as helping his five sons. Despite the fact that he could have used a hug himself at that moment, he understood Virgil's need to deal with this in his own way and forced himself to adopt his usual matter-of-fact demeanour.
"Let's go home, son." The simple words spoke volumes.
Virgil smiled, trying to keep his jumbled feelings of anxiety and relief under control.
"Good idea, Dad. It's been a long night."
Jeff nodded his agreement. "But probably not over just yet. I've got a feeling that we're going to have to answer a lot of questions before we get the chance to sleep." The police were going to need statements, he thought, and then there was the inevitable barrage of questions they'd face from their family.
Keeping his good hand on Virgil's shoulder, he urged his son on through the trees, following the policeman back to the helicopter. By now a couple of police cars had reached them and Mitch, quiet now but still glaring sullenly at everyone around him, was soon sitting in one of them. The police were sensitive enough to understand that neither Jeff nor Virgil would want to spend an hour sitting in a helicopter in close proximity to the man who had caused them so much distress that night.
As Jeff had anticipated there had been a long series of questions to be answered and he had to fight to control his impatience at times. As they told their stories another helicopter flew overhead, its searchlights illuminating the scene for a few moments and Jeff wondered how long Carl would be able to hide. Despite his anger towards the man he felt a certain grudging sense of gratitude towards him. Not that that would stop him doing everything in his power to find him if the police search didn't reveal his whereabouts. No one was going to put his sons through something like this and get away with it, no matter how much their conscience might have pricked them in the end. The amount of reward money he could offer would ensure that eventually Carl would have to pay for what he'd done.
Despite the pain, Jeff refused the offer of a trip to the local hospital to get his hand treated. He just wanted to get home. But it was almost dawn before he and Virgil were finally strapped into their seats ready for takeoff. It was only once they were inside the helicopter and Jeff could see Virgil clearly that he wondered if he should have gone for the hospital option after all. Virgil was bleeding from a number of deep scratches to his face and hands. With his pale face and the dark smudges under his eyes, he looked terrible.
Virgil was surprised and a little worried when he saw the look on his father's face.
"What's wrong? Is your hand hurting?"
"Never mind me, look at the state of you!"
He'd immediately demanded a first aid kit, much to Virgil's annoyance. The boy had only been able to take so much of his father's clumsy one–handed attempts to clean him up before shrugging him off, his frustration obvious.
"I'm fine, Dad. Just stop fussing, will you?"
He'd felt guilty immediately as Jeff's face fell, knowing that looking after him was helping his father and probably taking his mind off his own pain. But he remembered how his father had become so overprotective last time and he really didn't want him to fall into the same trap again. He knew that although the events of the night were over, the aftermath was just beginning and, quite apart from his own concerns about how he'd react this time, he worried about his brothers, already feeling responsible for ensuring that no one else in his family fell into the kind of depression he'd suffered after the events of last summer. He knew the next few weeks weren't going to be easy.
Jeff sat back a little guiltily, realising what Virgil was thinking. His son was probably right. At that moment he just wanted to lock all his boys away in order to keep them safe. Looking over at Virgil, who right now, he thought, was handling this a lot better than he'd expected, he wondered how they were going to deal with this. The thought of any more of his sons going through all that Virgil had experienced over the last year was unbearable. He knew that Virgil's original experience had been a whole lot worse than anything anyone had endured that night, but that didn't mean that anyone was guaranteed an easy time of it. As soon as he got home, he thought, he'd be on the phone to Antonia, booking them all in for a few sessions – well, all the boys, at least. His mother too, if she wanted it. He knew the waiting couldn't have been easy for the only member of the family who hadn't been in any danger that night.
It was early morning when the helicopter got them back to the city. They stopped at the hospital first so that Jeff could get treatment for his broken hand. He'd protested, arguing that since he'd put up with it for this long he could last a little while longer- at least until after he'd seen his boys- but Virgil, who'd spent most of the flight anxiously registering every wince and grimace of pain from his father, had insisted he get himself looked at. Jeff had grudgingly agreed. After all, when he finally got home he wasn't going to want to leave his family again for a while.
The police had offered to take Virgil home to save him waiting around in the hospital and he'd hesitated for a long moment before refusing. Actually he wanted nothing more than to get back to the safety of his home, but he knew how easy it had been to hide himself away after the last time. He was scared of how he might react this time, constantly on the lookout for any sign that he might be falling back into his old habits, so he stoically insisted on staying with his father. He had a moment of the old anxiety when his father had been taken off for x-rays and he'd been left alone, but it was just a flicker, nothing like the horrendous panic he'd experienced before and he was able to calm himself down fairly quickly.
As he sat in the waiting room – the same one where he'd endured the long wait for Scott's arrival after Grandma's fall - he passed the time with another phone call home. He was relieved to hear that Gordon and Alan were fine, though a little taken aback to discover that they'd had to trek through the dark streets and take refuge in a bar. Alan seemed none the worse for his experience, babbling happily about Charlie and Barclay and the thrill of a ride in a police car and Virgil was glad that at least someone had got something positive out of the experience.
He ended the call when a nurse arrived to take a look at his face and hands. This time he sat quietly and let her do her job and it was soon over. The friendly nurse disappeared for a few minutes then reappeared with a drink and a bar of chocolate. By that point even the welcome boost of sugar hadn't been enough to help him fight the tiredness and he'd drifted off to sleep.
Jeff had been given VIP treatment and he and Virgil were soon on their way home. When they finally alighted from the police car, they found the rest of their family waiting on the porch to welcome them back. It was an enthusiastic reunion and it was some time before Scott, John and Jeff finally got a hold of themselves and broke away from the others. Everyone was finally ushered inside by Grandma, ready for a late breakfast and a sharing of stories.
An hour later, with everyone sitting comfortably in the lounge, Jeff and Virgil told the others everything that had happened to them. Alan listened in wide-eyed interest and Virgil tried to play down his ordeal, glad that his brother seemed to be dealing with everything well and not wanting to unsettle him. If he was young enough to see this as some kind of adventure, then all well and good, though remembering how terrified he'd been during the initial capture, he had his doubts that his brother would escape completely unaffected. Gordon snuggled up close to him, having run out of words to tell his brother how glad he was to see him again and how grateful he was to him for saving him. Gordon's unnatural quietness worried Virgil and he knew that his next youngest brother would need a fair bit of reassurance over the days to come.
Scott and John were being typically Tracy and showing little emotion, though Virgil wasn't fooled, noticing how Scott's hands shook a little and sensing that it wasn't entirely because of the blow to his head. John was always thoughtful and most people wouldn't have noticed anything amiss, but Virgil could see that right now there was a faraway look in his eyes which suggested that he was having a tougher time dealing with all that had happened that night than he was letting on. Virgil felt relieved that he'd have distractions from his own struggles over the next few days. How could he drift back into the state he'd been in before when he was the only one who could help his brothers? He was determined to keep his composure and show them that they could get through this. He'd have to put any negative thoughts aside now or risk sinking into that abyss of misery once more. But would he be able to? There was something he had to know. Did everyone blame him? He couldn't help his brothers – or his father – if they thought all this was his fault.
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly.
"What for?" John asked, concerned when Virgil turned to him with an anxious look on his face.
"For making you buy Barclay, then for suggesting we go back to look for him. I wouldn't blame any of you if you thought it was all my fault."
The chorus of disapproval at this comment was loud and forceful. It was left to Grandma to put an end to it.
"It wasn't your fault, Virgil. It was all down to those men. Don't you dare blame yourself!"
Well, there was never any arguing with Grandma!
Jeff added his own words of reassurance and Virgil finally looked happier.
"I guess so. I just thought maybe..."
"Don't be silly," Scott said, giving him an affectionate punch on the arm. "I could have refused to go back. Goodness knows I wanted to leave that stupid bear there. Blame me for giving in."
Alan looked hurt. "We had to go back for Barclay. I told you, he's my lucky bear."
Gordon laughed bitterly.
"Lucky? How do you make that out?" It had never occurred to him to blame Virgil. He still nurtured an irrational belief that the bear was to blame.
"Well, we're all back safe, aren't we?"
Gordon couldn't argue with that, but he cast a thoughtful gaze over the bear – it was his fault and he'd pay. Okay, Alan had fallen in love with it so he couldn't do anything too bad, but there were any number of possibilities and Gordon was determined to explore each and every one. That bear was going to suffer. It was something to look forward to and he decided he needed that right now. He didn't see Virgil watching him with a smile as he guessed just what his brother was thinking.
Jeff had been quiet, but now he had something to say. He needed to get his own issues out into the open.
"If anyone should be apologising, Virgil, it's me."
"What for?" Virgil asked in surprise.
"For letting those men take you with them. I should have guessed they'd try something like that."
Virgil was silent for a moment, taken aback by his father's apology. He was remembering the way he'd doubted his father when he was kidnapped before, wondering if he'd given up on him as the days had passed and there had been no sign of rescue. The past year had shown him just how much his father cared for him and his actions in sacrificing himself for his sons had just confirmed it.
"It wasn't your fault, Dad. I know you just wanted to get us out of there. You tried to save us both, I know."
"Anyway, Dad," John chimed in, "It's just as well Virg was there to stop Mitch shooting you."
"Yeah," Scott agreed. He turned to his brother, "I guess you saved all of us last night, didn't you, Virg?"
Jeff, John, Gordon and Alan agreed enthusiastically, expressing their thanks once again.
Scott smiled as Virgil blushed and shuffled uncomfortably, knowing how much his brother hated to be the centre of attention like this. Tough, he thought – Virgil deserved all the praise and he'd just have to put up with it for a while. Looking at Virgil he felt a sense of immense pride at the way his brother had risked not just his life, but the emotional stability which he'd worked so hard to regain over the past year. His own experience hadn't been pleasant and he thought he might have had it easy by spending most of it either unconscious or in a slight daze, but he knew that Virgil must have had to battle not just the fears of everything which had happened that night, but everything which had happened to him before, plus the terrible aftermath. He felt a surge of admiration and affection for his brother. He couldn't quite believe that Virgil hadn't fallen apart now that it was all over.
"Virg, how come you're so calm?" he asked. "No offence, but after what happened last time I thought you might start panicking again. I can't believe you're coping so well."
"I should thank Antonia, I guess," Virgil said. "But it's not just that. Last time, it was personal, you know – they wanted me, no one else. And it was a lot worse then..." He broke off, remembering some of the more terrifying moments of his kidnapping before determinedly pushing the thoughts away. He'd thought a lot about this at the hospital as he'd waited for his father to be treated. Last night hadn't been pleasant, but it hadn't been nearly as bad as before. He realised his family were watching him and smiled, determined to show them he was okay.
"This time it was just bad luck. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just coincidence. And to be honest, I'm more worried about the rest of you. I've been through it before – I know I'll be okay this time. I just don't want any of you to feel like I did after the last time."
Jeff shivered as his son echoed Carl's words. He wondered if the man had been found yet. Before he could comment, Gordon spoke up, a slight waver in his voice.
"Virg," he said. "What if I have nightmares like you did?" He looked anxiously at his brother who hugged him tightly. Grandma wondered if that had been part of the reason why the boy had been so reluctant to go to sleep while they waited for news and felt a moment's guilt for not thinking of it at the time. A sign of how badly she'd been affected herself, she thought.
"You'll be fine, Gords." No one heard what Virgil whispered to his brother after that, though John, who was closest, thought he heard Barclay's name mentioned. Whatever Virgil had said it brought a smile back to Gordon's face.
Scott broke the comfortable silence which had fallen. "Hey, Virg," he said suddenly. "The press are going to love this. You'll be famous again. And you get to be the hero this time."
Virgil groaned. "Great. I've had enough of being in the news. Last year was bad enough."
Jeff frowned and began to consider what he was going to say to the press. Time to call his lawyers and put out a statement, he thought. His mother had taken the phone off the hook and he didn't even want to guess how many calls there'd been. At least no journalists could get to the house. Frank Linley hadn't quite managed to hide his annoyance when he'd greeted Jeff as he'd disembarked from the helicopter, but he'd told him he'd stationed officers outside the house to stop the press getting near. He and Virgil had returned via the back entrance to avoid their attention, but he knew he'd have to face them eventually.
When I'm a racing driver I'm going to be famous," Alan said sleepily. "And Gordon, when he's a champion swimmer."
"John can be a famous astronaut," said Scott.
"And you can be poster boy for the air force," John laughed. "What about you, Virgil? Famous artist? Composer? Superhero?"
"No thanks," Virgil laughed.
"What? No more adventures?" Scott teased.
"Scott, I've had enough adventure in the last year. More than most people have in a lifetime. The chances of anything else exciting happening to me are zero and that's fine by me. You guys can have all the fun from now on." He yawned, setting off a chain reaction around the room.
"Right," said Grandma, looking around at the array of sleepy boys and their equally exhausted father. "Bedtime, all of you. You're all worn out."
There was no argument and one by one the boys followed their grandmother out of the room until only Virgil and Jeff were left. John had been the last to leave and Virgil had been surprised when he'd ruffled his hair affectionately. The gesture had conveyed a lot. John would never admit just how scared he'd been, but it had given him a whole new insight into his brother's bravery – both that night and during his kidnapping - and his respect for Virgil had shot up that night. Virgil understood what his brother couldn't actually bring himself to say and the gesture made him feel a whole lot better.
"Virgil?" Jeff asked, as his son rose to leave.
"Are you really going to be okay?"
Virgil considered the question.
"I think so. It might be hard for a while, but I don't feel like I did before. I'm not scared of going out or facing people – at least I don't think I am. It wasn't the same – I wasn't alone this time. And it was my choice to be there... well, some of the time, at least. I think I'll be okay."
"Good." Jeff still looked troubled.
"Will you be alright?"
Jeff looked at him in surprise. "Of course, why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, before... it was obvious you were really upset and then you got really overprotective. I know you probably don't want us leaving the house for a bit, but you have to let us. Especially Gordon and Alan – it would be easy to smother them, but you can't. There's another game next week, you know. I think we should all go - just to show them there's nothing to be scared of."
Jeff looked at him long and hard.
"You've thought it all through, haven't you?"
"Guess so." He wandered across to the piano, running a hand across the lid. Jeff watched anxiously – Virgil had done that a lot after his return home the last time, apparently needing to feel as well as see familiar things in order to reassure himself that he really was home again.
"Will the police bring the car back?"
Jeff was surprised by the question. He wasn't sure he wanted it back, considering the memories which would now be associated with it.
"I guess so. I don't know if I want to drive it again, though. Not after tonight."
Virgil looked at him in surprise.
"But you love the Porsche."
It was true – it was a classic model which Jeff had paid a fortune to have restored.
"But every time I'll drive it I'll think about those two men. It won't be the same. It's been... contaminated."
Virgil frowned and shook his head.
"Then you'll have to get rid of all of us too. We've been contaminated as well, if you follow that argument. Come on, Dad, you know you'd miss that car."
Jeff looked at his son, taken aback at the maturity of his words. He knew that what Virgil was saying made sense, but he felt a sudden sadness that his son should have experienced so many terrible things and been forced to grow up so fast. He wasn't even thirteen yet. He felt a blaze of anger towards Mitch and the others before realising that really he was directing his rage at the wrong people. All the fury he felt should be directed further back - at the Redmans. It was their fault that Virgil's last years of childhood had been ruined. But then if Virgil hadn't had such a terrible experience the previous summer and had to work so hard to recover, would he have acted so bravely last night? Would all his sons be here now if Virgil hadn't made such an effort to help them? Everything that had happened last summer had helped mould Virgil's character, he thought, and at that moment he was prouder than ever of his son. So if Virgil thought he should keep the car...
"Well, if you think so. Would you ever be able to ride in it again, though?"
Virgil surprised him by laughing. "I hardly ever got a ride in it before, Dad. And you've never let Gordon or Alan in it at all, remember?"
Well, he thought defensively, it was his pride and joy and no place for the inevitable crumbs or sticky fingers. Still, things like that didn't seem important any more.
"Okay, how about the two of us go off for a drive – once I can hold the steering wheel, that is..." Jeff looked at his strapped-up hand.
"Okay," Virgil smiled. "I'd like that."
He yawned again. "Night, Dad, I really need some sleep."
"Sleep well, son" Jeff said affectionately, rising from his chair and stretching his arms above his head as he yawned.
"I will. You too."
Jeff looked grim. "I think I'll have nightmares about this for the rest of my life."
Virgil thought for a minute then smiled.
"Well, I know a good counsellor."
Laughing at his father's appalled expression he headed off to bed. It seemed like weeks since he'd been in his own room. His thoughts drifted back to his return after his kidnapping when everything was so strange and unsettled and he felt a momentary resentment that he should have been put in this position once again. Crawling into bed he thought gratefully that he'd soon be thirteen – twelve had been a horrible age and he found himself hoping that whatever the future held it would be far less traumatic and eventful than this last year. As he drifted off to sleep he considered what he'd told his brothers and decided he was right - there would be no more drama, just a quiet, normal life from now on. After all, what else could possibly lie in store for him?