Sleight of Hand

Chapter 26

"DRIVE SLOW!"

"Really, really slow."

The comments that only moments earlier were said and received with light hearted laughter reverberated in Frank's head, sounding like a death sentence. Spurred on by the chill that ran through him, Frank pressed the gas pedal to the floor. Taking a sharp turn he didn't let up, thinking that right now time was his worst enemy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Callie throw out a hand to brace herself on the dashboard.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"They only left a few minutes before we did. We'll get there in time," Callie tried to reassure him.

"Joe wanted some time alone with Vanessa. He can cut through the woods on that snowmobile. There's no speed limit for him to worry about. There's no way we'll get there before them," Frank countered grimly.

'Why is this happening? Why now?' Frank thought angrily. With Vanessa's final HIV test coming back negative, she and Joe no longer had that ominous threat hanging over their heads. 'They have everything to live for! This isn't fair!'

Frank felt the sting of tears as the lead weight in his stomach told him no matter how fast he drove, he'd never make it in time. His nerves were already shot as he kept expecting to hear a massive explosion with each second that ticked by. He felt as if the silence were mocking him, waiting for him to let his guard down, waiting until he truly believed he had a chance of saving his brother before his hopes would be obliterated in a thunderous roar.

'So you think you can beat me?' the voice in his head ridiculed him. 'You think you can beat Father Time?'

Memories of a giant fireball exploding into the sky tore at his heart. Frank often wondered how Joe was able to survive losing someone he loved so deeply without losing his sanity; how he was able to pick up the pieces of his life and go on without Iola. Especially since the bomb that had killed her was really meant for him. Frank shivered; he couldn't stop thinking of the parallels – the bomb in the cabin that Joe might detonate any second was meant for Frank and Callie. Would they ever learn how to live with the fact that Joe and Vanessa were killed in an explosion meant for them? Impossible. Knowing Joe and Vanessa died in their places would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Callie's voice thankfully broke into his thoughts. "We're almost there. Less than a minute." Frank felt her hand on his leg, trying to offer him hope. "We'll make it, Frank."

Slowing for a split second, Frank made the left turn onto the isolated road that led to their cabin and then pushed the speedometer to the limit, the tall pines on either side of the car rushing by in a blur. He allowed himself one brief moment of hope as he heard sirens in the distance behind him. The local authorities had called in the bomb squad, banking on the fact that Frank would catch Joe and Vanessa before the bomb was detonated. Glancing above the tree line, he took a small measure of comfort at the sight of a clear blue sky, unmarred by smoke or flames.

'Maybe they aren't here yet. Maybe they had trouble with the snowmobile. Maybe they just couldn't keep their hands off each other…' He prayed the young couple had pulled over along the way to indulge in a little romantic prelude.

As the clearing came into view, Frank saw the cabin in tact with the snowmobile parked haphazardly in front of it.

"There they are!" Callie cried out in relief as she simultaneously pointed to the porch with one hand while squeezing Frank's leg with the other.

Joe and Vanessa were standing on the porch just inches from the front door, locked in a passionate kiss and completely oblivious to their surroundings. Frank slammed on the brakes, the car fishtailing in the snow. He opened the door and bolted from the vehicle, running as if his life depended on it – Joe's and Vanessa's did.

'Don't stop!' he thought watching the two, noting the irony. Normally his brother's enthusiastic displays of affection for Vanessa left him flushing with embarrassment. And since Joe assumed he and Vanessa were alone, he wasn't holding back.

Frank could feel his heart pounding in his chest, his feet flying through the snow, his arms pumping furiously. 'Faster!' his brain ordered. 'Come on, just a little further… NOOOOO!'

Frank's pounding heart suddenly tightened in his chest as he watched Joe finally release Vanessa and turn towards the door.

'No, no, no, no, no!' Joe's hand was just about to make contact with the doorknob when Frank took a deep breath and yelled for all he was worth.

"JOE!" Frank's voice was all but drowned out by the blaring of a car horn. He watched both Joe and Vanessa jump, literally, at the unexpected noise and silently thanked his wife for the life-saving distraction.

With a surge of adrenaline, Frank put on a final burst of speed covering the last few yards in what he knew had to be record-setting time. Vaulting the three steps leading up to the porch, he ducked his head and tackled Joe and Vanessa sending all of them flying through the air. Frank's momentum carried them forward several feet where they landed with a loud, bone-jarring thud on the hard wooden floor of the porch.

Frank looked up to see Vanessa sandwiched between himself and Joe, who was on the bottom and took the brunt of the blow, cushioning both him and Vanessa. He silently apologized to his younger brother for the latest assault and then wasted no time in getting to his feet, pulling Vanessa up with him. Despite Carper's assurance that the bomb could only be detonated when someone touched the door, Frank still wanted them as far away from the explosive device as possible.

Looking down at Joe, who appeared to be dazed from the force of the landing, Frank quickly filled Vanessa in and enlisted her help in getting Joe on his feet.

Joe very reluctantly released his fiancée and gazed at her for a moment before turning towards the door. He hoped the authorities would have an endless list of questions for Callie giving him and Vanessa plenty of time to continue with the celebration they had started the day before.

Flushed and breathless, Vanessa stared into his eyes, pressing herself against him. "Open the door already," she said huskily.

Her words sent his heart plummeting to his feet in spine-tingling anticipation. Joe reached for the doorknob predicting he would spend the rest of the day locked in the bedroom with Vanessa. He was sure Frank and Callie wouldn't even notice their absence since they had some serious celebrating to do themselves.

With his fingers only centimeters away from the doorknob, Joe's thoughts of a romantic evening were annihilated by the sound of a car horn booming through the peaceful valley. Nearly jumping out of his skin, Joe had no time to process where the noise was coming from as he suddenly felt himself being propelled through the air. He grasped that he was airborne for several seconds before being slammed to the floor. The sudden and extremely painful impact knocked the wind out of him and left him dazed. As he lay on the cold wooden boards, Joe felt a crushing weight pressing down on him, which was immediately followed by a painful jab to his ribs.

'Can't…breathe!' Dazed, Joe was at a complete loss as to what had just happened. He frantically attempted to push off whatever was on top of him, vaguely wondering if Vanessa were in danger.

The weight suddenly lifted and a voice yelled. "Come on, Joe! MOVE!" It sounded like Frank, but Joe couldn't figure out what his brother would be doing at the cabin or why he would be so angry.

Concentrating, he decided the voice definitely belonged to Frank who was now talking excitedly to Vanessa, although Joe couldn't catch the words through his haze of confusion. He heard Vanessa gasp and then more talking.

'Are they talking to me? What's going on? Why is Frank so mad?'

Joe couldn't dwell on those thoughts as hands suddenly grabbed him and roughly yanked him to a standing position. The abrupt movement sent a new jolt of pain through his still very sore midsection. As the arms pulled him forward, Joe's back screamed in protest at an apparently new injury received from the hard contact with the porch.

"MOVE IT!" Frank's voice echoed around him, as Joe was unceremoniously dragged off the porch.

'Why is he yelling at me?'

"Please, Joe, hurry!" Vanessa's voice was pleading with him. Why did she sound so scared?

'What's going on?'

Before Joe could protest, he was pulled forward and forced to run. Each step sent new ripples of pain through his aching body. Joe tried to slow down hoping it would ease the increasing discomfort, when he stumbled and fell to his knees. He was immediately hauled to his feet and propelled forward.

"OWWWWW!" Joe felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. Being jerked upwards caused the muscles to cramp in a desperate signal for him to cease all movement. As his back began to throb incessantly, anger suddenly mixed with the pain - Joe had had enough. Digging in his heels, Joe pulled them to an abrupt halt and yanked his arms free. He waited for Frank and Vanessa to turn around and then glared at them angrily, oblivious to their matching looks of panic.

"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU TWO?" he bellowed, immediately regretting it. "OW! Ow, OW, OW! Ouch…that hurts," he moaned miserably. Sinking to his knees in the snow, Joe hunched over, wrapping his arms around himself.

"Joe, we can't stop! We're still too close… come on!" He felt Frank's hands on his arms again and roughly shoved his brother away, wincing at his body's instantaneous and sharply painful response to the movement

"Joe? Joe, are you okay?" Frank was breathing very heavily, his voice harsh and ragged. Joe thought it sounded more like panting.

'Am I okay?' Joe thought incredulous, his anger reaching the point of no return. Infuriated, Joe tried to pull away from his brother, grimacing at the additional pain it caused.

"No, I'm not okay!" he yelled, suddenly wondering why Vanessa was so intent on helping Frank instead of him. Looking up, Joe graced his brother with a look that could kill. "Have you gone crazy?"

Joe saw the look in Frank's eyes slowly change. The concern and – was that fear? – gave way to a little bit of shock and a lot of rage. Frank towered over Joe, his shoulders still heaving from the exertion of the last thirty seconds.

"Maybe you'd prefer it if I let you and Vanessa get blown to smithereens!" Frank roared as his runaway emotions got the best of him.

Joe flinched at the words but noted that Frank's hands were balled into fists and he was visibly shaking. The memory of a long ago explosion flashed in his mind. He couldn't believe Frank had made a reference to Vanessa meeting the same fate Iola had! That wasn't just mean – it was downright cruel.

Frank continued shouting, now waving his arms in the air. His eyes bored into Joe's with uncharacteristic bitterness. "I'm so sorry I interrupted your little rendezvous, but I thought you might actually like to make it back to Bayport alive! Forgive me for being so insensitive!"

Joe felt a chill as he listened to his brother rattle on, realizing Frank hadn't been intentionally cruel or mean – Frank Hardy wasn't capable of that. He was however scared – very scared – although Joe wasn't quite sure why. A delayed reaction to Callie's kidnapping maybe?

"You wanted some time alone with Vanessa so I knew you'd be coming back here at top speed," Frank gestured helplessly his voice no longer hostile. "I wasn't sure we'd get here in time to warn you."

"Warn us?" Joe repeated. "About what?"

Frank rambled on as if he hadn't heard Joe's question. "When I saw you guys standing on the porch, I was so relieved. But then you reached for the door and all I could think was…was…" Frank stopped speaking abruptly and stared at his brother a look of unbridled fear in his eyes. "What else was I supposed to do?" Frank asked quietly. "I thought you were going to die."

Joe stared, silent and utterly confused. "Why would you think that?"

"Didn't you hear me back there?" Frank waved an arm towards the porch.

Joe shook his head no.

"There's a bomb wired to the front door. If you had touched it the only thing left of the cabin, you and Vanessa would have been a big hole in the ground."

'A bomb? In the cabin?'

Joe felt the color drain from his face and was sure he was as white as the snow that surrounded him. Comprehension hit him like a freight train and he choked on the thought that Vanessa had come within seconds of meeting the same fate as Iola.

Squeezing his eyes shut at the fiery image that hadn't dulled over the years, Joe reached out blindly grabbing for Vanessa. Pulling her down to him, he held her as tightly as possible, knowing it was probably uncomfortable for her, but he couldn't let her go…not yet. She returned the embrace with just as much force. A moment later Joe felt her warm breath on his cheek as she spoke to him softly.

"If Frank hadn't reacted so quickly, we'd be dead. He saved our lives."

Joe opened his eyes and looked up at Frank trying to find words that wouldn't come to him. 'Thank you' was clearly inadequate. Frank dropped to his knees in front of Joe and put a hand on his shoulder.

"You never answered my question," he said quietly.

"Wh-what question?" Joe asked, his own voice sounding strangely foreign to him.

Frank gave him a hint of a smile. "Are you okay?"

Joe heard the little catch in Frank's voice and knew he had been visited by the image of the same long ago explosion Joe had. But in Frank's vision, it had been Joe going up in flames. Suddenly Joe felt chastened and embarrassed at his angry outburst. And then he began to laugh. 'This could ONLY happen to us!'

Shaking his head, still a bit bemused, Joe reviewed the events of the past twenty-four hours before answering his brother's query. "All things considered, I'm very okay."

Frank chuckled and then turned to Vanessa. "How about you?"

"I'm fine thanks to you." She smiled gratefully as the sounds of sirens caught her attention.

"Bomb squad," Frank said pushing himself up.

Joe tried to follow suit and stopped, hissing in pain as new and old injuries alike reminded him of their presence. Frank's hand appeared in his line of vision and he gratefully let his brother pull him up. As he stood he threw a sidelong glance in Frank's direction. "Forget quarterback," the comment a vague reference to his brother's position on their high school football team. "You should've gone out for tackle."

Frank chuckled, the sound mingling with Callie and Vanessa's outright laughter as they walked towards the car.

Joe gingerly settled into the backseat, with Vanessa quickly scrambling in next to him. As she gently took his hand, Joe closed his eyes and sighed to himself, savoring her undivided attention. 'Definitely worth the massive bruises I'll have tomorrow,' he thought, as her fingers ghosted over his forehead and through his hair.

Hearing Frank clear his throat, Joe opened one eye slightly and saw his brother leaning over the front seat, staring at him. "You know I have to ask," Frank said, a cryptic statement Joe seemed to understand completely.

Joe opened both eyes, for the sole purpose of rolling them at Frank. "No, you don't," he replied, balefully.

"Yeah, I do. It's my job as the big brother," Frank said quite seriously.

Joe groaned, adding another eye roll, but didn't miss the wink Frank threw at Vanessa and Callie.

"Are you sure you're not hurt anywhere? Do you need to see a doctor?" Frank interrogated him, smiling all the while. "Maybe we should take you to the E.R. just to be safe."

"No, no and most definitely…NO!" Joe responded loudly. 'Gotta remember not to yell,' he thought, grimacing involuntarily at the muscle spasm in his abdomen.

"Are you sure, Babe?" Vanessa asked anxiously, shifting closer to him. "I mean you did land on the bottom; Frank and I kinda flattened you like a pancake."

"Mmmm, pancakes. I'm hungry," Joe announced, attempting to change the subject. "I predict that with a good meal and round the clock attention from my private nurse…" he looked at Vanessa meaningfully, "…I'll be good as new in no time."

"Thanks for the warning," Frank cracked as Arthur Gray approached the car. He rolled down the window allowing the Network agent to lean in.

"You're both all right?" he asked bluntly, looking at Joe and Vanessa.

"Gee, it almost sounds like you care," Joe said sarcastically, knowing deep inside it was true.

"No, I'm just doing my job," Gray responded in kind, although his eyes showed genuine relief. "It would look bad on my record if a couple of civilians got hurt on my case."

"Of course; just so we're clear," Joe winked, shifting so he could put an arm around Vanessa.

"Why don't you all go to the lodge and warm up; get something to eat," Gray suggested. "Once the bomb squad has removed and detonated the bomb, we'll do a thorough search to make sure they didn't leave you any other surprises. I'll give you a call when we're done," he said, addressing Frank.

"Is dinner on the Network's tab?" Joe raised an eyebrow. "As a small token of their appreciation for our assistance in this matter?"

Gray huffed and rolled his eyes for show before finally conceding. "Fine, I'll call ahead and tell them to add it to my account. Now go before I change my mind." Straightening up, he turned and strode towards the small group of agents, police officers and bomb sniffing dogs restlessly waiting for the signal that it was safe to search the cabin.

oooOOOooo

Frank lay on the blanket spread on the floor in front of the fireplace, leaning against the cushions behind him. He gazed down at Callie who was smiling contentedly, her head resting on his chest. With only the soft glow from the fire to light the room, Frank thought his wife had never looked more beautiful.

After getting the all-clear call from Arthur Gray, the foursome had quickly returned to the cabin. After a hurried exchange of "good nights" with Joe and Vanessa, he and Callie locked themselves in their room, intent on shutting out the rest of the world for just one evening.

A slight jostling brought his attention back to Callie, who had propped herself up on one elbow and was staring at him, her lips curved up in a teasing smile. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to his at the same time tugging him down on the blanket beside her. His last coherent thought was lost forever as Frank gave himself up to his wife's complete and undivided attention…

oooOOOooo

Joe emerged from the bathroom feeling decidedly better. Upon returning from the lodge, Vanessa suggested a dip in the hot tub might help soothe Joe's various aches and pains. They asked Frank and Callie to join them but were politely turned down as the older couple quickly disappeared into their bedroom. Joe and Vanessa had taken full advantage of the solitude, reluctantly getting out of the hot, bubbling water only when Vanessa pointed out they were starting to look like prunes.

Now back in their room, Joe eased himself onto the bed and sat back against the headboard. Wrapping his arms around Vanessa, Joe pulled her close to him silently admitting she had been right – the warmth of the hot tub had done wonders in relieving the tightness in his sore, aching muscles. He smiled as Vanessa leaned back against his chest and let out a soft sigh. Resting his chin on her shoulder, Joe looked at the paper she was holding in her hand.

"I don't know, Babe," he said seriously, looking over the list of favorite boys and girls names they had come up with while soaking in the hot tub. "According to this list, you're gonna have to have at least fifteen kids."

Vanessa burst out laughing, with Joe savoring every second of the sweet sound. "I guess that's one way of looking at it. Or we could just narrow down the list a little more to say, four names?"

"Six names," Joe immediately corrected her.

"I thought we were still in negotiations," she said slyly, peering at Joe over her shoulder.

Joe stared at her in mock horror. "You doubt my powers of persuasion?"

Vanessa erupted in another round of giggles at the look on Joe's face. As her laughter subsided, she stared up at Joe through lowered lashes. "Not at all," she replied seductively. "But I'm enjoying the negotiations way too much to give in just yet."

"Well then," Joe began huskily as he pulled the paper from her hand and tossed it on the floor. "Looks like I've got my work cut out for me."

Sliding down onto the bed, Joe pulled Vanessa along with him. As her muted laughter filled his ears, Joe realized the days of worrying if that beautiful sound would be silenced forever were over. They had lived through a year of hell and come out that much stronger, ready to begin a long and happy life together.

THE END