Thank you so much once again, sorry that this is a day late.
With Grandma around, it didn't take long at all before things were falling into order. No one knew quite what she had said to Flinn, but the man couldn't throw Jeff out of the room he had been stuck in since this whole thing started quickly enough. Whatever words Grandma had uttered in his ear had made the man almost pale. Scott and John had found themselves sharing a small smirk at the time, despite the fact that their hearts weren't in it. If anyone could sort things out, it would be their grandmother. The family were escorted through to the restaurant, but rather than sitting in the main part, they were taken off to one side where they could have some privacy. Even Grandma couldn't get the policeman accompanying them to leave the family in peace, but as he stood far enough back and was obviously good at his job considering the way he blended into the wall, they found that they could still talk with relative ease.
The boys had been somewhat shocked by the amount of food that had then been delivered to the table, but their grandmother's stern look made it apparent that they weren't moving until it had all been eaten. Even when Alan slid from his chair, climbed up on Jeff's lap and fell asleep, the rest of them carried on. The old lady had a feeling that although they said they had eaten, with no father to make sure they ate enough, the boys had just been picking, filling themselves up on sugar and then not wanting to eat properly when the time came for it. Gordon and Alan would have leapt at the chance to get away with that behaviour and the elder two would have been too preoccupied to either stop them or eat correctly themselves. As for their father, she knew Jeff well enough to know that he would have barely even touched food since this whole thing had begun. She was not going to let them make themselves ill with their worry.
When it became apparent that even John (who could put away a surprising amount of food, often beating Scott) couldn't manage any more, she finally gave in and allowed them to all be escorted back to the rooms. Alan thankfully remained asleep and Scott had been forced to give Gordon a lift on his back to be able to get the little boy up the stairs. Jeff had taken one step back towards the conference room, but a firm hand on his arm stopped him going any further. Now that they had been fed, Grandma was adamant that they were going to get a decent amount of sleep as well. They were no good to Virgil if they couldn't function properly simply because of not taking care of themselves. Not to mention that whilst she had those five to fuss over, it stopped her thinking too much about the fact that there should be a sixth there, whinging that he wasn't the slightest bit tired so why did he have to go to bed at same time as the younger ones? In fact, there was no whining from any of them. Even Scott crashed down on the bed and was practically asleep before his head hit the pillow. His father and grandmother were there to take care of things; it was no longer up to him to look after the others.
The lack of protests was something that truly made the old lady realise just how wrong things were. Even Jeff – who she had honestly expected to try and make a run for it – fell asleep quickly. If she was honest, the old lady wasn't sure she had ever seen that happen before - one of them was always kicking up some sort of fuss. Grandma had only been able to sigh, realising just how quickly the boys could fall apart if they weren't made to look after themselves. The frown never left Jeff's face, and whilst his eyes might have been closed, she knew that it was far from a restful sleep that her son was finding himself in. Sure enough, he only managed a few hours and whilst Grandma might have sent any of the children back to bed, she knew that she couldn't do that with Jeff. It was lucky he had got any rest, sheer exhaustion having obviously caught up with him. Instead, the adults had spent the rest of the night talking until Grandma had taken her own advice and got some rest. The last thing she had seen before she had fallen asleep was Jeff sitting between the beds, watching his sons closely.
Once they had all been able to think straight again, Grandma found herself taking charge. She couldn't help the fact that Jeff did genuinely need to be in the conference room the majority of the time. The security teams were working with the police and making another thorough search of the area, slowly beginning to expand it as they realised that they were getting no closer to finding the missing children.
More to keep them out of trouble than anything else, Grandma had managed to get them to take Scott and John on their searches. She had heard what had happened with Swinger's bodyguard, and was torn between a mixture of anger and pride that the boys had tried to help by potentially putting themselves in danger. At least this way, they were truly doing something to help, yet someone had their eye on them at all times. She knew that Jack had gone out with them most of the time, and was just glad that he was someone Scott considered to be a friend rather than a babysitter. She had taken Gordon and Alan, trying to distract them by taking them down to the pool and generally keeping their minds busy. It worked on Alan, but Gordon was often uncooperative and uncharacteristically silent.
It hadn't helped that an almost unnatural hush fell over the pool as soon as they had arrived. Grandma had noticed it more and more over the last few days. Parents were seen to be clutching their children to them fearfully as they made their way around the buildings, ignoring the protests they were getting for their efforts. When anyone came near any of the Tracys, they seemed to give them a look that was a mixture between empathy and suspicion that they were mixed up in something like this in the first place, despite it being no fault of their own. No wonder Gordon couldn't enjoy himself, all eyes were on them and yet no one was prepared to say anything.
For four days the pattern continued. Jeff would return to them for dinner and Grandma knew she wasn't the only one seeing that he was looking more and more haunted with each day that passed. The boys were picking up on it, and the same lost look she had seen after their mother's death was beginning to make itself present again. Scott wasn't sleeping and John was often moodily picking at his food regardless of the scolding coming from his grandmother. Still there had been absolutely no sign of Virgil.
Cowlishaw's story was still being published on nearly every edition of the papers. The reaction had been almost scary, members of the public coming by the hotel to try and help (and resulting in security having to be even tighter and the well-wishers turned away), and several other press companies had been trying to get in one the scene. She personally had no liking for the man and had made that quite clear when he attempted to approach her. He had pretended that he wanted some information about the case, but when his questions became far more personal than that, Grandma had grown a little suspicious. He seemed to want to know all about her family rather than anything that would actually help them find Virgil, and she hadn't liked it. Despite the fact she had no knowledge of what had already passed between him and the rest of the family, Grandma had refused to answer any other questions. Then Scott had turned up and she had been forced to sharply remind him that he was in public and she wouldn't accept behaviour like that, only just stopping the teenager going for the man. After that, she had managed to get the full story out of her grandson, and was just thankful that she hadn't known it beforehand. After all, it wasn't only the boys who were fiercely protective of each other, and the elderly lady wasn't sure she would have been able to stay quite so civil whilst talking to the reporter if she had known how much he had terrified John. But regardless of their personal feelings for the man, his story had sparked off an interest and the search teams had almost doubled in size as local people tried to get involved. They all knew that it was because of the names of the families involved and the reputations the fathers had – both Tracy and Swinger – but who were they to argue? The more people looking meant the more chance someone would find something.
An unnatural hush seemed to have fallen over the family and they could do nothing but wait each day and hope that something was found. Jeff didn't tell them how Virgil was doing in the messages that he received at exactly the same time each day, and his mother knew that was because he couldn't voice it. To say it out loud was admitting that these things were really happening, that Virgil was truly in danger and it was getting worse each day.
All she could do was try to make sure that her family didn't completely and utterly fall apart. That, and pray that her middle grandson knew how much they were fighting to get him back.
Virgil sat slumped on the floor, leaning back against the wall in absolute exhaustion. The hours were disappearing into days, and yet they had no way to keep track of how long they had been here for. The only marker that they had to let them know that another day had passed was the fact that they were aware that the messages they broadcast to their fathers – or rather, their kidnapper did - were sent at the same time each day. Four more messages had gone out since the original one, and Virgil was beginning to give up. If no onehad found them by now, then how on earth were they ever going to be able to? He had seen the look on his father's face, he could see how haunted the usually strong man was. It told him enough, though – they still had no idea where he was.
Ignoring his growling stomach, Virgil just picked idly at the edge of his tee-shirt, beginning to tease a thread loose. They were given three bottles of water and four sandwiches between the two of them each day, but for growing boys, it simply wasn't enough. Considering the only time they were outside of the room was when they were forcibly escorted to the bathroom and then back again, Virgil found that he was simply getting more and more tired as each day passed. He still wasn't sleeping, he was hungry, thirsty and had a headache had been building for at least the last day if not longer. It was hard to stay positive when he took all that into account.
Oscar sounded just as bad as he was feeling. Something had changed in the last day or so. There seemed to be almost a defeatistair lurking in the room. The rational part of Virgil's mind knew it was because they didn't have the strength to continue to fight back, yet all the ten-year-old could really think about was the fact that the room was slowly sucking the life out of them and that they were never going to be found. They didn't speak unless one of them had a particularly pressing matter on their mind - it seemed pointless otherwise. Vader had made it quite clear that they were not getting out of there, restraining them both whenever they made an attempt. Even Virgil had stopped trying now; it just hurt too much considering how tired he was.
"I..." It was unusual for Oscar to sound this hesitant and Virgil found his head twisting to the side in order to get a better look at the boy. They had watched each other gradually begin to look worse and he didn't notice the change in the same way as he would have if Oscar had just turned up looking like that.
"What is it?"
"I'm sorry, okay?"
Virgil felt a shadow of a smile cross his face. There was a slight hint of the old Oscar underlying the tone, something that told Virgil that he didn't want to be saying this. Judging by the way the other boy was refusing to meet his gaze and a slow flush was beginning to work its way up his neck, Virgil had a feeling that he had been building up to this all day.
"Not for this!" Oscar protested hotly, and Virgil felt his smile widen. It was a tired grin, by no means reaching his eyes in his usual manner, but it was still better than nothing. He knew precisely what Oscar was apologising for, but he wanted to hear the boy say it properly. Making sure Oscar didn't see his smile, he tried to lace confusion into his voice.
"For what, then?"
"For... for before. About how I treated you and your brothers. I'msorryokay." Despite it sounding like it was clearly a physical effort for Oscar to say the words, Virgil let his smile show. Oscar saw it, and his mouth dropped open.
"You knew what I was apologising for, you little brat."
Virgil nodded, still smiling as he resettled himself against the wall.
"I still wanted to hear you say it, though," he muttered, wondering whether shutting his eyes would allow him the sanctuary of sleep or just make him even more bored than he already was. There was nothing to look at in the room, nothing to distract them from the fact that they just had to sit there, do as they were told and secretly hope beyond hope that someone would hurry up and find them.
"Guess I deserved that one," Oscar muttered, and Virgil chuckled slightly.
"Guess you did."
"How are you feeling?"
"Oh just peachy. You?" Virgil didn't even try and make an effort to sound interested in the conversation. He knew it was the type of tone that would put a scowl on his grandmother's face as she sharply reminded him about manners. But she was miles away right now, and at the moment, Virgil wasn't sure if he would ever see her again. Biting the inside of his lip in order to try and keep the tears of frustration to himself, Virgil let his head thump back on the wall with more force than was strictly necessary. This was just so unfair!
"Meh." Oscar shrugged, an action that seemed to be something of a habit of his. In fact, Virgil hadn't even seen him do it, he was looking pointedly ahead. But he just knew that was what the other boy would do; he had seen it so many times over the last few days.
"Yes?" Virgil sighed, trying not to sound frustrated as he once again turned to look at Oscar.
"You know how you said you wouldn't leave me on my own here?"
Virgil nodded, a small frown crossing his face. He didn't understand why they were having this conversation again, not when it just made Virgil feel uncomfortable. Oscar had made it more than apparent he would not return the favour. That was why his next words made Virgil's jaw drop.
"I won't leave you either. I know before I said that I would. But now? No, I won't leave you on your own. You don't have to be afraid of that anymore."
Virgil didn't know what to say. Over the few days they had been trapped together, Oscar had discovered that Virgil's fear wasn't just something childish, but a deep-rooted terror. His mother had gone and left him, and even after a year,the nightmares were still just as vivid as ever. The underlying fear that one day he was going to wake up to find that the rest of the family had left him as well had made itself apparent whilst being trapped, and he knew he had cried out more than once on the rare occasions that he had managed some sleep. Aware that Oscar was watching him closely, Virgil could only nod, not trusting his voice.
But in that split second, something changed between them. Virgil wasn't sure what it was. It wasn't the same determination that they had experienced before when they still believed that they would be able to escape. It was more of a quiet hope, an unspoken message that whatever happened, they were in it together. The two boys locked eyes across the room, and Virgil suddenly saw Oscar as an equal for the first time since he had met the spoilt child.
"My dad will find us," Virgil said determinedly, and Oscar offered him a tentative smile in response. Neither of them mentioned Oscar's father, knowing that would do nothing to help them feel positive. But the pact had now been made between the two ten-year-olds – where one went, so did the other. Clearing his throat self consciously, Virgil glanced away, but his sigh as he leant back against the wall was different from before. The very atmosphere in the room seemed to have changed, a spark of hope being ignited once again. As the well-known sound of a lock being turned sounded throughout the room, the boys glanced at each other once more. Virgil nodded, and Oscar returned the gesture, scooting up the wall in order to sit by his side.
The door opened and the masked figure entered once again, a plastic bag clutched in his hand. Virgil's stomach growled in anticipation and he could hear Oscar's doing the same.
"Dinner time, boys," the man said, his voice not having lost any of its effect compared to the first time they had heard it. He threw the bag at their feet and turned to leave, but something seemed to stop him. Virgil found himself glaring back, and got the sense that Oscar was doing the same next to him. The last time Vader had been in here, he had been faced with two defeated children. Now he seemed to be looking at two adamant, determined little boys. It just showed how much of an impact Oscar's apology had had, for Vader quickly turned away, slamming the door shut behind him and locking it once more. There had been no degrading comments, no snide remarks about how bad Jeff was looking. He had just dumped the food and gone.
As Oscar dived for the bag, Virgil found himself smiling softly. He felt like they had a chance again now.
"Jeff? Jeff, wait up."
"Harry?" Turning around, Jeff frowned as he saw Flinn hurrying after him. They had given up the formalities the day before, after Jeff's mother had threatened to bang their heads together when she caught them arguing over the best course of action. Somehow, being strictly professional with each other didn't seem to work too well after that.
"I need a word with you."
It showed how much Jeff had come to trust the man when he swiftly nodded. Flinn gestured to a nearby room; one Jeff had learnt was soundproof. Why Flinn had chosen to wait until Jeff was on his own, the father didn't know, but he didn't want to wait to find out so swiftly entered. Flinn followed him in and shut the door.
"What do you think about Arnold Swinger?" The question was so random, so direct, that Jeff could only blink for a moment.
"Swinger. What do you think of him?"
Jeff couldn't stop a small smirk spreading over his face.
"I think you know." He hadn't exactly kept his feelings a secret. The only reason he would even be in the same room with the man was because they both had to be there to receive the latest message from their sons.
"And how do you think he feels about his son?"
"What?" Jeff had no idea what Flinn was getting at here, but the man looked grave and serious as he sat down.
"Mr Tracy, have you seen what has happened to your share prices since Cowlishaw published his story?"
Jeff started, both at the randomness of the question and the return to formality.
"No, I...I haven't looked at anything business-related since Virgil went missing. I don't see how that is relevant. What has that got to do with anything?"
"Potentially nothing and possibly everything."
"I saw what yours had done after I saw Swinger's. By looking over his shoulder. The man was checking his stock prices whilst his son is missing."
Jeff could feel his heart in his throat as his stomach clenched uncomfortably. He had a horrible feeling that he knew where Flinn was going with this.
"Hang on, you don't think..."
"That's precisely what I think, Jeff. Your stock prices are through the roof at the moment, both of you are earning a fortune. I told you what Howard said. Swinger would do anything if it meant that he could expand his business. Answer me this truthfully: are you thinking about your business right now?"
"No! How could I? My son is missing!"
"Meaning it could potentially start to lose value again in a week if it is clear that nothing has been done to keep it at the top of the market. I don't know much about business, but won't the share prices drop? Anyone wanting to make money will buy them at their lowest, then sell them on again when you have got Virgil back and are at the top of your game."
Jeff could only blink, trying to process what he was being told.
"Are you telling me that you think Swinger has something to do with the boys' disappearance? Just so that he can make money out of the business? How? He is with us each time contact is made."
"He doesn't have to be working alone. You've heard what is being done about the ransom. You've yelled out every number that came into your head, you've offered him absolutely everything you own, and I've seen firsthand the look of desperation in your eye as you've tried to bargain with Vader-"
"Oh come on, you mean to say that's not who that mask reminds you of?"
"Good point. Sorry, you were saying?"
"Anyway... I've seen you desperate, I've seen you try every trick in the book to get him to give you your son back. And what has Swinger done?"
"Refused to name a price," Jeff whispered, sitting down suddenly as he realised what was being implied, all the colour draining from his face as he did so.
"That's not all." Flinn pulled out a chair, swinging it around so he could face Jeff even as he sat down himself. Momentarily, Jeff closed his eyes, not being sure how much more he could take of this.
"You know Cowlishaw has been sending out daily reports about what is happening with the boys?"
Jeff nodded, but didn't say anything. He knew why they had to have the damn reporter on the scene, but that didn't mean he had to like it. If he'd had the energy, he might have protested, insisted that they got someone else in, especially after hearing about the man's run-in with his mother. But right now, the only thing he could think about was Virgil. It had been almost a week since he had last seen his little boy, and Jeff would have given the world to have him back in his arms right now.
"Swinger insisted that we gave him some stills from the last message."
"Please tell me you didn't?"
"I had no choice, we need the man to be putting out a story that will grab the public's interest. But he's been slipping in things about malnutrition and dehydration, blowing things out of proportion. I'm not sure, but what if Swinger knew that he would do something like that, that's why he wanted him to have the stills?"
"Why would he want that?"
"The worse Virgil seems, the less focused you are, meaning the more vulnerable your business is." Flinn said bluntly, and Jeff sighed. The man had a point, as much as he didn't want to be thinking about business right now. If Swinger was using Cowlishaw – even if the journalist didn't realise it – as a way of manipulating the shares, then they needed to do something.
"So what do we do about Swinger?" he eventually mumbled. Cowlishaw was just an annoyance on the side, he wasn't the main problem here. But if what Flinn was saying was true, and Swinger was involved somehow, then he had been playing them for fools from the very beginning. Flinn seemed to sense Jeff's anger and put a calming hand on his arm, grounding and reassuring.
"This is where I need your help. I need you to try and corner the kidnapper tomorrow."
"What do you mean? How can you be sure that something like that won't put Virgil in danger?"
"Because you are going to be giving him what he wants. You told him ten million today. Are you still prepared to go with that?"
"It's all I've got, but yes. If it means getting Virgil back."
"You're not going to lose a cent, Jeff, you have my word. But I need you to push that, make it apparent that that is all you've got there, you can't go any higher,and ask where to send it, things like that. Vader should then turn to Swinger, believing that it is a plan for you both to have agreed amounts or that he too will offer everything. Police don't do things by halves, we wouldn't have told one of you to make a deal and not the other. If Swinger doesn't give in, if he doesn't name an amount, if he doesn't show even a hint of frustration that we are keeping him in the dark, then we take this further. Oscar is the man's only son, he surely won't risk it if he feels like he is being cornered."
"But then what? What if Vader agrees to my demands?"
"Then he is potentially about to give us a lead. The money has to go somewhere, right? Meaning that we can trace it and get Virgil back."
"And you're sure Virgil will be safe?"
"Jeff, trust me. I'm going to get your boy back to you if it is the last thing that I do. Besides, I've been hearing rumours about your mother and her wooden spoon, I wouldn't risk that. Now go on, I have work to do and you have to go and play Daddy for the rest of your boys."
Jeff knew a dismissal when he heard one and stood up, moving to the door. There was a certainty in Flinn's voice, something that made Jeff feel like the man truly knew what he was doing. It seemed that this potential lead with Swinger had given him a direction to go in, something to focus his attention on in order to work the case properly and find the missing children, rather than just stumbling in the dark.
As he headed down the corridor in order to find the rest of his boys, he could only hope that the officer knew what he was doing.