"So here's the thing, guys." Joanna Parisi stood on the pier looking up at the Riptide. The three detectives, seated on the wheelhouse deck, looked back at her. "I need an undercover sting, and I need it fast. I can't get a helicopter or detectives briefed in time. Let alone approval to operate outside jurisdiction. Will you do it?"
Nick and Cody looked at each other, and shrugged as Murray's excited tones invited the lieutenant aboard. She sat in a deck chair, refused a beer, and leaned forward, eyes intent.
"Two loads of cocaine were intercepted coming in cross-country. Really unusual - as you know, most of the stuff comes in from Mexico and South America." She sat back. "We need to find out what's going on, and we need to do it fast."
"Any leads?" Cody mirrored her pose. Beside him, Nick sat forward, his shoulder bumping Cody's.
"Just some odd coincidences. Funny money turning up in Ohio. A dead guy in Cleveland with a kilo of coke in his pocket. What I want, I want you to make a connection with this man." She slipped a business card from her pocket and held it out. Cody reached out and took it.
"A lawyer in Concord, Ohio. He was the dead guy's attorney. His name came up in connection with the counterfeit cash. Just sniff around, see what you can find out."
"You said you want the chopper?"
"A couple of vets, down on your luck, looking to make some easy cash," Joanna said with a small smile.
Nick put his head in his hands. "Cody, tell me I haven't heard this one before."
Cody slung an arm around Nick's shoulders. "C'mon, big guy. Lightning never strikes twice."
"Actually, Cody, that's not exactly true. When lightning strikes a tall tower or pole, then the chances of a second strike are -"
Nick held up a hand. "Yeah, thanks, Boz. I get the picture." He sighed, looked at Cody and gave a small nod. "Okay, man. Okay. When do we leave?"
"Nick! Cody! Are you guys okay?" Murray's voice floated up to the cockpit of the Mimi. Nick shook himself and raised his head.
The view wasn't comforting. Directly in front of him, where Mimi's windshield should have been, were the contorted branches of a pine tree. The ship listed alarmingly to the left and Nick grabbed for the stick, then realized it was too late for that.
He leaned sideways cautiously and, out the side window, saw Murray standing on the ground, staring worriedly up at the cockpit. Murray looked remarkably undamaged.
Nick gave him a small wave, then turned to the left-hand seat. "Cody? You okay, man?"
Cody didn't answer. He was hanging in his harness, head lolling against the cracked side-window. His eyes were half-open, but when Nick reached out for him, he didn't register the movement.
"Cody! Hang on, man." With fumbling fingers, Nick got his harness undone. He struggled out of it, half-falling against Cody, then Murray was reaching up from the hold, trying to help him down.
"Cody's hurt," Nick said tightly, resisting. "I don't know how bad or-or anything. Just wait a minute."
"There's no time," Murray said tensely. "We're on the side of a mountain, Nick, the Mimi might fall at any minute. You'll have to get him out."
Feeling sick, Nick braced himself between Murray's support and the cockpit seats. "Cody. Cody, you listening to me, man? I gotta get you out of here."
Cody didn't respond, but as Nick got a grip on his shoulders, he shuddered and flinched. "It's okay, Cody. It's okay, I got you."
Nick had no idea if Cody could hear him or not. Somehow, he got Cody free of his harness and maneuvered his inert body out of the cockpit. Murray helped, and together the two of them carried their third partner clear of the stricken chopper.
A safe distance away, Nick could see what Murray meant. The Mimi was resting precariously between two slender pines that looked ridiculously inadequate to support her great bulk. Feet below, the steep mountainside gave way to a sheer drop.
Cody was still unresponsive. Nick watched for a moment as Murray tried to make a pillow from his jacket, then ran back toward the Mimi. Murray shouted after him, but Nick ignored him.
It was dangerous to re-enter the chopper, Nick knew that. But Cody's condition terrified him, and the thought of being trapped on the mountain with no way to get Cody help of any kind was unthinkable.
It was the work of a moment to activate the emergency beacon, then Nick wrenched the first aid kit from the wall. He threw Cody's duffel out the big door, then dived after it as he felt the metal deck tilt beneath his feet.
He landed hard, all the air going out of him. His head hit the ground with a thud.
"Nick! Nick, are you all right?"
Someone was shaking his shoulder. Nick raised his head with a groan and saw two Murrays peering into his face. He closed his eyes, vaguely aware that what he was seeing wasn't a good sign.
"Nick!" Murray shook him again, and this time, when Nick opened his eyes, there was just one Murray, albeit somewhat blurry around the edges.
"Where's Cody?" he rasped out.
"I left him by the trees." Murray gestured.
"Don't," Nick advised, and forced himself to his knees. "Someone oughtta stay with him."
"I know." Murray looked solemn. "I was kinda worried about you, though."
"Me? Never better." Nick put his hands on the ground and somehow got his feet under him. Murray grabbed him around the waist and somehow Nick ended up vertical, swaying.
Panting, Murray guided him over to the edge of the clearing and Nick sank thankfully to the rock at Cody's side. "How you doing, big guy?"
Cody was silent. Nick leaned close. Cody was pale, too pale. Lips slightly parted, he was breathing shallowly but steadily. His eyes were closed now, but Nick could see movement under the lids. "You dreaming there, buddy? You wanna wake up soon, let me tell you, get back here." Nick watched as Murray headed back the way they'd come and picked up the duffel. "God, my head hurts, Cody. Hurts so bad I can't hardly think. Need ya to wake up, buddy. Need you here with me."
But Cody didn't wake up. Nick hardly blamed him; the longer he sat, the colder he felt. "You dreaming somewhere warm there, big guy? Tell you what, you dream I'm there too, huh?"
Nick methodically went through the duffel, using the contents to construct a soft bed for Cody. "Lucky he had his coats with him, huh, Boz? They make a great mattress. Looks like we were goin' somewhere cold."
Murray made a strangled sound that ended in a cough. Nick looked up, surprised. He was proud of his deduction. Maybe it wasn't up to the Roboz's level, but still, Sam Spade'd be proud of him.
"Nick," Murray said quietly, laying a hand on his arm, "just how much do you remember about... about what we're doing here?"
Nick wrinkled his brow, concentrating on covering Cody carefully. Cody hated to be cold above all else. "We crashed," he said slowly. "S'not California... too cold for California. S'not the Guard, cos you guys are here. Must be a case." He gave a decisive nod, then whimpered at the pain the movement caused him.
"Do you remember anything about the case?"
Nick wanted to shake his head, but he was too smart for that: the last time he'd moved his head it had hurt. Bad. "Nope," he said instead. The dismay on Murray's face made him feel bad. "Sorry, Boz. But don' worry, when Cody wakes up, he'll tell me, you know? An' that'll be just as good as me remembering on my own."
"Concussion," Murray said tightly. "Concussion often leads to short-term amnesia - confusion - slurred speech. Nick, you have a headache, right? For God's sake, tell me you have a headache."
"I sure do," Nick agreed.
Murray nodded. "That's the only good news I've heard all day. Listen, I'm gonna see if I can find a trail - anything. Some way out, some way to let people know we're here."
Nick concentrated. He'd done something important. "Emergency beacon," he said at last.
"Emergency beacon? What do you mean?"
"The Mimi. Emergency beacon."
Murray looked over at the smashed pines where the helicopter had been suspended. There was no sign of the great pink bulk.
Nick followed his gaze. "Hey. Where's my chopper?"
"We'll find her later," Murray said hastily. "First we have to get medical help for Cody - and for you."
"I'm fine." With sudden clarity, Nick knew what he'd been trying to tell Murray. "I activated Mimi's emergency beacon. Unless she burns right up, that'll help them find us."
Murray stared at him intently. "Are you sure, Nick? I mean, it's obvious you've taken a terrible knock to your head."
Nick closed his eyes against rising nausea. "Beacon," he said vaguely. "I went back..."
"Yeah, you did." Murray sounded relieved. "Well, for all our sakes, I hope you really did activate it, Nick."
"Activate what?" Nick shook his head, trying to clear the cloudy, woozy feeling rising in his brain. A blinding pain shot up his spine and exploded inside his skull. With a soft moan, he dropped to the ground, struggling for any kind of relief.
Eventually, the pain passed, leaving him with white hot circles behind his eyes and a terror of movement. Murray was patting his shoulder. "Nick! Nick, keep on breathing, Nick. That's it, deep and slow."
Nick had no idea where he was or what had happened, but one thing he did know, and that was that breathing deep wasn't on the cards. Breathing deep meant moving. "Where's Cody?" he managed, in a small tight voice.
"He's right here, Nick. He hasn't come round yet."
Nick lay still for a beat, then opened his eyes, white circles bedamned. He could see dirt and pine trees. No Cody. "Is he okay?"
"I'm starting to think he's in better shape than you," Murray said frankly. "C'mon, there was a canteen in the duffel. See if you can drink a little water."
Shivering, Nick got himself an inch off the ground, with Murray's help. Providing he kept his head facing straight ahead, the blinding pain stayed at bay. He managed a single swallow of water, then shoved it away when his stomach protested. "Not yet, Murray, okay?"
He got a glimpse of Cody, snug in a nest of coats, before his strength gave out and he subsided to the ground.
Murray tried to make him lie still, tried to pillow his head on a sweater that smelled like Cody, but Nick wasn't having any of it. He rolled onto his stomach, breathing deep, gathering his strength, then raised up and crawled the three feet necessary to bring himself alongside his injured partner.
"He's too pale," Nick declared. "He's breathing okay, but I'm worried about him."
Murray sat down beside Nick, grabbed his hand and rested his other hand on Cody's thigh. "I'm worried about you both," he said firmly. "Nick, you're concussed. We've got no way of assessing Cody's injuries. I think it's going to snow. I'm really scared right now, Nick. I just hope like hell you really did hit that beacon."
Nick barely heard him. Calling on all his reserves, he got himself to a sitting position and by shuffling sideways managed to lean against a tree. "What was that, Boz?"
"Nothing, Nick." Murray scrambled to his feet and walked out into the clearing, staring up at the gray, lowering sky. They weren't equipped for a night in the open. And if the bad guys who'd shot the Mimi down in the first place had any idea of coming back to check on their job, the three of them were sitting ducks. "Listen, you watch Cody, okay, Nick? I'll be just a minute."
"You got it." Nick blinked hazily and Murray's stomach knotted. But he had no choice. Unless rescue arrived in the next hour, they were sitting ducks for the weather and whatever other malicious forces lurked in the hills.
Nick watched as Murray disappeared among the trees. His vision kept blurring and his head was spinning, and he hoped like hell Murray wasn't planning on staying gone for too long. He groped at his waistband, but his gun was missing, as was his canteen.
He blinked, then saw the canteen lying a foot away under a tree. He moistened his lips with his tongue. When he was feeling better, he'd pick it up, check how much water they had left. "Cody, buddy. How you doing there?"
Cody didn't answer. Nick's gut clenched. "Whatever I gotta do, I'm gonna get you out of here, pal."
Using the tree for support, Nick inched himself upright. He made it to the canteen, and then he made it another three steps. He had an idea they'd come in by chopper, and that meant the Mimi was somewhere around. All he had to do was find her.
Murray ran back through the lightly falling snow, half-elated, half terrified. Fifty yards back in the trees he'd found some kind of shack, maybe a hiker's bivouac or maybe something used by trappers or hunters. Whatever its purpose, it would provide shelter from the elements, and a measure of cover against anyone hunting them from the sky. Tucked in against a cliff, hidden by trees, it was hard to spot even from the ground.
But fifty yards was a long way with two injured men.
Two injured men. Murray stopped, staring. At the edge of the trees he could see Cody's makeshift pallet. But Nick no longer sat beside his partner. Murray started out in a wide arc, gut cold and twisting. If someone had been waiting on the ground - if someone had gotten to Nick while he, Murray, had been away -
Then Cody groaned. Murray threw caution to the winds. He had one live partner, if injured, and the first thing he was going to do was see to it Cody stayed that way.
There was no sign of a struggle, and nothing to indicate anyone else had been there. Cody was moving restlessly and as Murray squatted at his side, grabbed Murray's hand. "Nick... gotta find Nick..."
"Yeah, Cody, I know." Murray stared at him in dismay, clutching his hand hard. He reached out for the canteen, and realised it was gone. Swearing under his breath, he scrabbled in the duffel, wondering if there was another. He came up empty-handed.
"How you feeling, Cody?"
Cody turned his head, looking at Murray through feverish, too-bright eyes. "Nick's gone for the chopper... gotta find him, sergeant. Gotta find him."
Murray bit his lip. Cody was only half conscious, and Nick was missing. He hesitated, then the gently falling snow, whitening Cody's hair, made Murray's mind up for him. "C'mon, big guy," he said in the toughest voice he could muster. "You'n me are gonna go find Nick."
Cody didn't respond, but when Murray took his arm and helped, he made it to a sitting position. Murray was afraid Cody wouldn't be able to stand - there was no way Murray could carry him fifty yards - but as Murray supported him, he staggered upright, leaning more than half his weight on Murray's shoulder.
"Leg hurts... ribs... broken..." Cody wheezed, reeling against Murray. He seemed more alert with every moment. "Where's Nick?"
"Waiting for us," Murray lied. "C'mon." He was worried his own strength might give out at any moment. By dint of walking from tree to tree he was able to give Cody a rest every couple of yards. They covered the short distance to the cabin in an interminable ten minutes, and Murray helped Cody onto one of the two bare wooden bunks inside with a sigh of relief.
"Wait for me, Cody. I'll get the coats."
"Nick," Cody said weakly. He hadn't complained once on the journey, but it was clear to Murray it had taken all his strength and then some.
"I'll get Nick too." God willing. Murray patted Cody's arm. "It's gonna be okay."
Outside, the snow was getting heavier. Murray made the longest search he dared, but there was no sign of Nick, and no indication which way he had gone. Murray's gut roiled in horror and fear but in the end, he knew he had no choice. Left alone without blankets, injured as he was, Cody would die. That much was certain. And Murray knew for sure that faced with that possibility, Nick himself would order Murray back to Cody's side.
Terrified and sick at heart, Murray collected the snow-covered bedding and the half-empty duffel, and headed for the hut.
"Come in, you damn fool." It was an order, and Cody never had been one for giving orders. Even in his present situation, Nick appreciated that. Huddled underneath the root-bowl of a fallen tree, the temperature gradually falling with the snow, he kept his head down.
"I know you're right, man. But I gotta find Mimi. She's our only chance of getting out of here in one piece."
"That damn chopper got us into this mess. Forget it, and get in here right now, Captain, before I bust your ass."
Nick allowed himself a half-grin. When Pitbull got on his case too, it sure meant he'd better shape up. But with Cody in rough shape, they needed a chopper, it was as simple as that. "How you hanging in there, guy?"
When Nick looked up and saw an empty, snow-filled landscape, his heart dropped. Cody was gone. Pitbull was gone. "Cody!"
"Just come in, Nick. Come in." Cody's voice sounded weak and far away, but it was clear enough. "I'm doing what I can... it'd go a hell of a lot better if you were here, you know that?"
Nick flinched, staring out across the bleak mountainside. His jaw worked. "I gotta find us help, Cody. I just - I don't know -"
There was no answer save the blowing flakes, twisting up off the ground, obscuring his vision.
Murray made it back into the cabin, dropping the duffel just inside the door then staggering to Cody with the pile of coats. Cody had his eyes shut, but when Murray touched him, he gave a grunt of recognition. "It's cold."
"I know, Cody." Murray tucked the coats in and around him, wrapping him warm, then delved back into the duffel and found a thick sweatshirt. He pulled it on over his own damp clothes.
"You didn't find Nick." It was a statement, not a question.
Murray flinched. Somehow Cody's words felt like an accusation. "I couldn't tell which way he went," Murray said miserably. "It's nearly dark out. I'm scared for him, Cody, but I daren't leave you."
Cody grunted again. "Leave it to me, Boz. Stubborn jackass... 'm gonna find 'im..."
Murray perched on the edge of the bunk and lightly stroked Cody's forehead. He didn't even try to stop the two large tears which rolled down his face. "Sure you are, Cody. You always find him. You're gonna find him and everything's gonna be okay."
"Never follows orders... kamikaze goddamn pilots..." Cody's voice died away and Murray, watching, decided there was no point in trying to keep him awake. Cody had been unconscious earlier and come out of it - sleep might go some way to restoring his strength.
There were voices. They brought Nick snapping awake, aware of cold, of a killing head, of curling, frightening thirst. Silently he freed his canteen, sipped at the half-frozen contents, swallowed the cough the chill water wanted to start.
In his experience, voices in enemy territory led to death.
He reached out for Cody, felt empty air, but before the jolt of shock reached his brain heard Cody's low whisper. "Eleven o'clock. Three of 'em. Keep it low, I'll go out on the flank."
Nick started to nod, then remembered that was a bad idea. He made it to his feet, his legs unsteady, his feet burning with chill, and crept in Cody's wake.
There was no sign of his partner but the path opened up ahead for Nick, blazed and easy. He followed a low ridge until he could look down at three men in lumberjack gear, standing around in the gathering dusk.
"We saw the broken-up chopper. C'mon, no-one survived that."
"No bodies, though."
"Under the wreckage. Thrown out a couple miles back. Eaten by bears. Come on, man, there's no way anyone survived that crash."
"Without a photograph, Bowers isn't going to be happy." One of the guys swung around, and Nick went even colder. Slung over his shoulder was a semi-automatic. Someone was trying to be very sure they were dead.
"Cody," Nick hissed, very low.
There was a light touch on his hand - follow me - and even though Nick couldn't see his partner for the swirling, falling flakes, he started off away from the criminals hunting them, blindly following where Cody led.
"They're coming." Cody sat upright, startling Murray into dropping the can of slowly-melting snow.
Murray swore, righted the can, and went to Cody's side. He laid a hand on Cody's forehead, checking for fever, and stared into Cody's eyes. Cody looked confused, maybe frightened, but no longer feverish.
"Who's coming, Cody? Were you dreaming?"
"Guys with guns..." Cody shivered. "Nick's out there."
That much at least was true. Murray put an arm around Cody's shoulder. "Try and get some rest. We might have to hike out of here tomorrow."
Cody blinked at him and shook his head. "Not safe," he said distractedly. "Where're the guns, Boz?"
Murray considered for a minute, then pulled Cody's gun out of the duffel and handed it to him. It couldn't hurt, in his opinion. "We lost the rest."
"Damn. Is Nick armed?"
Cody swore, and swung his legs off the edge of the bed.
"No, Cody!" Murray pushed him back down in alarm. "You have to rest. Please."
Cody hesitated a moment, then allowed himself to be pushed back into his makeshift bed. "I'll take second watch," he said, and Murray nodded eagerly.
Just to lay his mind at ease, he slipped outside the hut and looked around. But there was nothing moving outside save the wind and the snow.
Nick was hidden at the edge of a familiar clearing. He had an idea it was a Landing Zone, that they'd gotten stuck there. Cody had been under that tree, out in the open.
There was nothing there now. Nick hunkered down, blinking slowly around. He hadn't seen Cody in a while, not since Cody had slipped away to reconnoitre the enemy. It was starting to make him nervous.
"East south east," Cody murmured in his ear. "Thirty yards, then you'll see the target. But we can't risk leading Charlie in."
Nick grunted in acknowledgement. He reached back to grasp Cody's hand, but closed his fingers on a scrubby branch instead. It came away in his hand.
He shoved at it in disgust, then realized it might be of help. Leaning heavily on the makeshift staff, he slipped through the trees, following the heading Cody had given him. "Are you ahead or behind me, big guy?" he muttered.
Cody didn't reply, then suddenly he had Nick by the shoulders, dragging him to the ground. "They're ahead of us. Goddamn it, they must know this place."
Nick stared through the snow. The three woodsmen were marching purposefully toward a tiny hut, not ten yards from Nick's hiding place. "Something tells me they ain't singing carols, pal."
"Got it in one." Cody blew out his breath. "Let me see if I can cut 'em off."
Nick raised a hand to stop him, but Cody was already gone into the snow.
Clambering back to his feet, relieved at having the staff for support, Nick took an intercept heading. Protecting the hut was important, he knew that much, and if he could draw the guys' attention, then maybe Cody could take them out.
A moment later, he realized Cody had the same idea. Cody stepped out of the trees on the cliff above the hut, signaled Nick, then kicked a large rock down toward the approaching men. He ducked out of sight, slow enough to give the enemy an eyeful - quick enough, if Nick was any judge, for them to be unsure how many men were on the ridge.
Nick gave a grudging nod. As much as he hated seeing his partner put himself in danger, it had been a great move. Even if Nick had no idea how Cody had scaled the ridge so fast.
The three men had taken cover, then as Nick watched, they headed off scattershot toward the ridge, cabin forgotten. Their movements looked haphazard, but watching their synchronized pauses, the way only one ever broke cover at a time, Nick knew they were a trained team.
Rogue marines? Nick frowned. That didn't feel right. But then neither did the snow, nor the slim pines. He grabbed a tree for support, blinking at the cabin, willing his eyes to stay focused. "Cody..."
Murray peered out the window, shivering. The three men approaching might have been on legitimate business, but judging by their weapons, he didn't think so. But something had sent them hightailing it into the trees, and Murray was terrified it was Nick.
"Cody. Cody!" Cody muttered in his sleep, but didn't stir. Murray looked at the gun clasped loosely in his fist and sighed. "We might need that gun, Cody. Wake up, c'mon." But Cody showed no sign of obeying.
With one more glance at him, Murray slipped out the cabin door into the snow.
There was no sign of the three men. Shivering, Murray crept toward the clearing, glancing this way and that. He'd made it to the edge of the treeline when the tremendous thunder of rotors sent him staggering back, and a helicopter rose out of the gorge and hovered almost level with him.
Murray stood frozen in terror for an instant, and then he saw the Search and Rescue badge on the doors. With a whoop, he ran toward the machine, waving his arms above his head.
"I still don't understand," Murray said sleepily. He was ensconced on a cot in a large double room in Ohio State Hospital, Cleveland. His partners occupied the two hospital beds. One of Cody's legs was heavily bandaged, there was tape on his ribs, and an oxygen tube rested on his mustache. Nick, propped up to a half-sitting position, was wrapped in blankets and had an IV in his left forearm.
"What don't you understand, Boz?" Nick said. There was an untouched cup of soup on a tray beside his bed.
"How you found me and Cody. How you managed to scare off the bad guys."
Nick frowned a little. "I don't remember much." He shot a glance at Cody, and his hand strayed across the sheet toward his partner's bed. "Cody helped me."
"Take it easy," Cody advised. "Drink your soup. You gotta warm up, Nick."
"Sure." Nick grimaced at the soup, picked up the cup and sipped a little.
"But Cody was in the hut with me." Murray drank half his own cup of cocoa. "I was terrified we'd lost you out there, Nick. When you wandered off..."
"Went to find the chopper." Nick frowned again. "Mimi... couldn't find her..."
"Hey, easy, Nick." Cody sat up in bed, then awkwardly swung his injured leg over the side so that he could reach out and take Nick's hand. Nick gripped back hard. "No more talking. No more thinking tonight, okay?"
"Okay," Nick agreed equably.
Cody slipped to the ground, taking his weight on his good leg, and adjusted Nick's bed so Nick was lying down. He pushed the tray out of the way, then Murray was at his side.
"Cody, you have to rest."
"Yeah, I know." He looked at his own bed, two feet away. Too far away. "Murray, give me a hand, okay?"
Ten minutes later, his partners installed in their own beds, now a more comfortable six inches apart, Murray returned to his cot and his cocoa.
Nick had fallen asleep, his hand still clasped in Cody's, and Cody was slowly finishing Nick's soup.
Nick was warm now, and the concussion wasn't serious. It had seemed to Murray they'd been out there half the night, but in reality it had been only a little over two hours. They'd all gotten off lightly.
Cody only hoped the party of killers they'd left on the hill were going to suffer a long, cold, uncomfortable night. The sheriff would be waiting for them when they came in.
"At least we know Joanna was right, Boz. It was Bowers all right."
Murray sighed and set down his empty cup. "I thought for sure our cover was good."
Cody shrugged and yawned. "There must be a leak in King Harbor PD. And I bet if we ask Joanna, we'll find out she knew, and that's why she sent us. If she'd sent an undercover squad of her own, she couldn't have kept it under wraps."
"Well, we certainly got a warm welcome." Murray snorted. "Next time I'm gonna tell her to sacrifice her own officers!"
"All's well that ends well, Boz. And it'll give Joanna even more ammunition to make her bust." Cody sent a tender look at Nick, then reclined his own bed. "Get some sleep, Murray. We got a long drive home tomorrow, and I hate to have to tell you, but I guess you'll be doing most of the driving."
"I guess I will." Murray lay back. "At least we're all going home together." He sobered. "Back out there... I thought we'd lost Nick, Cody. I don't know how he found us. And I don't know how you knew the bad guys were coming. I never heard anything."
"I guess Nick was right there all along. Concussed like he is, he couldn't have gotten far, you know? As for hearing the bad guys, I was dreaming, Boz. It was just a coincidence."
Murray turned on his side. "We owe our lives to those coincidences. That makes me nervous. I prefer a rational explanation."
Cody grinned in the dark and squeezed Nick's hand. Tight. "I prefer what we got, Boz. All of us out in one piece."
"You have a point, Cody." Murray closed his eyes. "Maybe there's something to be said for coincidence after all."
Nick Ryder stood beside his helipad, shifting impatiently from foot to foot as a hydraulic crane lifted his chopper from the flatbed truck to its accustomed place. The Mimi was battered but mostly intact, but even in her present state, Nick was thrilled to have her home.
As soon as the crane set her down, he ran forward, hands sliding over her pitted skin. "You did your best, girl. You saved us all."
"Easy, Nick." Cody caught up, a hand on his shoulder, ready to steady him. Since the accident, Cody hadn't let Nick out of his sight. Nick didn't blame him: although his memory of the whole thing was still pretty hazy, he knew it had been a close one. Way too close.
Nick tripped on the bent skid and was glad of Cody's instant support. The concussion had left him with lingering headaches, dizziness and nausea, more of a nuisance than anything else. Cody's ribs were still sore, and the Boz hadn't forgiven Joanna yet for holding out on them about the leak, but other than that, with the return of the Mimi Nick felt like things were finally getting back to normal for the Riptide Detective Agency.
"We got some work to do, big guy," Nick said slowly as he finished circumnavigating the pink aircraft.
"Yeah, we do." Cody squeezed his shoulders. "And you know what? By the time we're done with it, I'll think about letting you fly."
Nick grinned ruefully and rolled his shoulders. "I'll be cleared to fly in another week."
"Try a month." Cody left Nick beside the chopper and went to sign the pages taking delivery of one damaged helicopter, pink.
Nick looked after him, unobtrusively letting the Mimi take his weight. His memories of the crash were all bound up in Cody - Cody hanging in his harness, unconscious; white and still on a makeshift pallet in a pine wood. Cody's voice, guiding him through the snowy windswept night.
Except from what Murray had told him, that part couldn't be true.
Nick straightened up, turning and heading back toward the Jimmy. His head was starting to throb again. He climbed into the vehicle, watching Cody head back across the lot.
"You feeling okay?" Cody slid into the driver's seat, looking at him narrowly.
"Another headache coming on." Nick sighed. "Wish they'd quit."
"Give 'em time. You know what the doc said."
"Yeah, yeah. Could be a month or more, and my memory might never come back."
"Not worth remembering anyhow."
"I remember you. Helping me in the snow."
Cody froze in the act of starting the Jimmy. "I was in the hut. But I dreamed... I still remember the dreams. You were lost... you were looking for Mimi... I had to bring you in."
Nick blinked, reached out and took Cody's hand. "You did, big guy. You brought me home. Without you -" He stopped, his throat constricting.
Cody nodded, gripping Nick's hand tight. "Murray couldn't find you. I told him I'd find you." He dashed a hand across his eyes. "Oh, damn." He released Nick's hand and started the Jimmy.
"However it happened, you were with me out there." Nick leaned back, watching the familiar landscape of Pier 56 roll past the window. "I couldn't've done it without you, man."
It was late. Murray had made a celebratory dinner in honor of the Mimi's return, and the three of them had sat up late, drinking toasts to each other and to the sturdy old chopper. As Nick had pointed out and even Cody had been brought to agree, it wasn't Mimi's fault they'd been shot down.
Cody had drawn a line at agreeing their survival could be laid at Mimi's door. That, he maintained, was Nick's skill, Murray's reactions and pure dumb luck in about equal portions.
Cody leaned back into the corner of the booth. Nick still tired easily - they'd only let him have one beer - and he was sprawled against Cody's shoulder, dozing. Murray was in the rattan chair opposite, feet up on the bench, beer cradled against his chest.
"I keep thinking about that," Murray mused. "That string of coincidences, that pure dumb luck as you call it. I think it's more than that."
"What do you mean?" Cody eased his arm around Nick, glad of his partner's closeness. Any time he thought about the crash, the mountain, he found it imperative to touch Nick, hold on, reassure himself they'd come through it.
"He means we needed each other, and we all came through," Nick said without opening his eyes. His weight was on Cody's shoulder, warm and vital.
"I meant - " Murray stopped, raised his bottle and took a healthy slug. "Yeah," he interrupted himself. "That's exactly what I meant."
Cody looked around the warm light of the salon, at the Christmas tree in the corner Nick hadn't even protested about. At Murray's smiling face. "You know what, guys? I'll drink to that."