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Title: Unraveling, Chapter 18
Author: dragontatt
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Neither Shelter nor Without a Trace belong to me. No profit is being made from this work of fiction, and no disrespect is intended.
Word Count: 2855




Shaun sank slowly into the supple leather of the bucket seat that enveloped his body like a warm caress, and sighed – loudly. It had been a long couple of days, and he was currently running on an overdose of adrenaline and a hastily gulped cup of long-ago brewed coffee he’d gotten at the convenience store down the street from the pay phone he’d used to call Larry.

He closed his eyes wearily and his mind flashed back without warning, to the last few seconds of that call. He’d heard Cody holler his name, had heard the sound of footsteps running down the hall, and still he’d hung up the phone. His heart ached to do it, but he knew it would ache more if he tried to explain to Cody he still hadn’t found Zach, that neither of them would be coming home just yet, that all signs pointed to Cody’s own mother being involved somehow in this whole fiasco. It would all just break Cody’s heart even more than it had broken Shaun’s, and so he pretended not to have heard Cody yell, “Wait, wait! I wanna say hi to Shaun,” and he hung up the phone, tears prickling in the corners of his eyes.

There was a muted swoosh as a curtain drew back, and then a carefully modulated male voice said, “Mr. Andrews, we’ll be ready for take-off in about half an hour. The pre-flight check is almost done, and then we’ll have to wait for some bigger traffic ahead of us to clear out. The weather looks good all the way to our destination, so if you want to go ahead and fasten your seatbelt, you can just relax and get some sleep. I’ll wake you if the need arises.”

The pilot drew the curtain closed again before Shaun could even open his eyes, but he said, “Thank you,” to what seemed like no one before reaching down to fumble with his seatbelt. He gave it an experimental tug to make sure it was tight, twisted a bit to the side so he could rest his head against the soft cushioned leather and closed his eyes again. He was so tired.

----

Shaun was finally at the cabin, the one that Ashley had told him about. The flight had lasted forever and by the time he found the cabin, it was the dead of the night. The cabin stood in a clearing on the side of a mountain, starry skies yawning wide overhead. He stood on the covered porch, steeling himself to open the door. He could feel the night pressing in like a hand on the small of his back as he fumbled with the doorknob. He grimaced at the faint moan of the ancient hinges as he swung the door open. A rush of warm air came wafting out at him, dry and stale against his cheeks as he stepped carefully in through the door, eyes squinting as he tried to see through the darkness that surrounded him.

The floorboards squeaked beneath his feet and he paused, listening carefully. He could hear his heart trilling in his chest, his blood pulsing through his veins at a million miles an hour and he took a deep breath to calm himself. He was so close, this would be over soon, he was going to find Zach, take him out of this wretched place and bring him home where he belonged.

He shuffled forward through the darkness, one hand groping his way in front of him like a blind man’s. Something soft brushed against his face, and he gasped, bringing his other hand up to wipe it away. Cobweb he thought, just relax.

Some tiny creature ran in front of him – he couldn’t see it but he could hear its claws chittering across the floorboards. He paused, swiveling his head in vain, trying to hear anything that would tell him which way to go. The darkness in front of him was so complete he could be stepping off the edge of a cliff and he wouldn’t know it till he started falling.

He looked over his shoulder, back at the way he had come, relieved to still be able to see the outline of the door, a space where the darkness wasn’t as complete, a place where he could see a star or two above the tree line far away. He turned toward the door, planning on heading back outside until he could find a light to pierce this unbreakable darkness with, and then something brushed his face again.

He gasped louder this time, and brought his hand up to scrub frantically at his cheek, and as he did so, a part of the darkness that surrounded him moved. Smoothly, fluid as a drop of mercury, it slid over without a sound and blocked the doorway, and Shaun’s exit. The darkness filled most of the doorframe, eclipsing the few stars that Shaun had seen only seconds ago, and that darkness was shaped like a man.

----

Shaun sat up with a gasp, seatbelt holding him down firmly when he would have bolted from his chair. A loud, whooshing noise filled his ears, and drowned out the sound of his frantic panting. He relaxed back into his seat gradually, his heart thumping wildly in his chest. He looked out the window next to him, and could see they’d taken off, the Phenom 100 private jet that Larry had chartered for him screaming into the sky from LAX to land him some ninety minutes later at KAAT – Alturas Municipal Airport.

He looked down and realized he was digging his fingers into the leather armrests of his seat, and he forced them to relax. Once he and Larry had figured out a private plane was the only real way for him to get to Alturas, he’d had a fleeting hope that if nothing else it would be a relaxing, calm flight. But thinking back over the nightmare he’d just had – he closed his eyes and saw that shape again in his mind’s eye, moving like black silk through the darkness that surrounded it before blocking his only exit – well, he knew nap time was over. He wasn’t going to risk it again.

Besides, he’d have enough time to sleep once Zach was home safe where he belonged, and a strained look passed quickly over his face at that fleeting thought. He always slept better when Zach was next to him. He sat a bit more upright and looked out the window again, at the California coastline passing by to his left, at the beautiful Pacific rolling in towards the shore, and he tried to relax.

----

Danny took one look at the plane that Detective Cooper had directed them to and felt his heart drop. He vaguely recognized it as a Cessna of some sort, white with a bold red stripe down the body. It looked ridiculously small compared to the SUV he was riding in, how could something that small be safe way up in the sky?

They were heading down a badly-patched single lane road on the other side of a chain-link fence from the runway. The plane looked even smaller as Danny watched someone he assumed was the pilot walk around inspecting the tires, the wing struts, the propeller before making a series of marks on his clipboard.

A propeller, seriously?

Danny glanced at Martin in the back seat next to him, but Martin’s head was leaned back against the seat behind him and his eyes were closed. Damn, I swear that man can sleep anywhere.

The SUV slowed down as the uniformed officer who’d been pressed into driving them all the way out here pulled into a graveled parking lot next to a small, squat beige building. A sign on the front read ‘Portland Police Aviation Command.’

Martin opened his eyes and lifted his head when the car stopped. “We’re here already?”

Danny glared at him for a slow count of three before opening the door and sliding out – he hated flying and right now he hated Martin for being able to drop off to sleep so nonchalantly in the car while he spent the entire ride dreading the flight to come.

Detective Cooper had said bluntly borrowing a helicopter was out of the question, the two they had were kept strictly for emergencies, but he’d finally relented enough to offer them a plane. He really hadn’t been too pleased about it, but he’d finally done so with the promise that once Martin was finished with this case, he’d never come back to Portland on another one. But he’d made this pronouncement with a bit of a chuckle, and so Martin agreed before shaking the man’s hand. As it turned out, the only plane they had available today was this ancient Cessna, which didn’t seem to bother Martin too much as he headed over to it, but Danny surely wasn’t looking forward to it. He snuck a glance in through the open door of the place – one pilot seat up front, and a bench seat with room for two, maybe three if they were small in the back. Terrific – guess I won’t have any good looking stewardess to flirt with this flight. And he glanced over at Martin again, a tiny uncertain smile playing about the corner of his mouth.

The pilot spoke up as they approached, “Afternoon, gentleman. The name’s Jack - I’m guessing you’re the FBI agents I’m supposed to fly down south?”

“Yes sir,” said Martin, shaking the man’s hand congenially. “To Alturas, wherever that is.”

“It’s in California, about 270 nautical miles from here – piece a cake,” he said, glancing at Danny’s pale face with concern. “Honest.”

“So about how long will that take?” Martin said, glancing at his wristwatch.

“Hmmm – a little over two hours, maybe less if we get a good tail wind.” He glanced down at his clipboard. “We’ll be ready for takeoff in just a few minutes, so if either of you need to hit the head, now’s as good a time as any, ‘cause you won’t be to once we take off.” He grinned and waved his free hand at the back of the building. “Right through that door.”

Martin took off toward the building, Danny following closely behind.

“It’s going to be pretty dark by the time we land,” Danny grumbled.

“I know – sorry about that,” Martin said, pulling on the door handle. The door opened with a rusty groan.

“What? Oh no, I’m just wondering if we’ll be able to make it out to that cabin tonight or if we’ll need to wait till the morning.”

“I’m not gonna wait,” Martin said firmly as he shouldered his way into the men’s room. “If the local law doesn’t want to help, I’ll commandeer a car and head out by myself. This has gone on long enough.” He turned his back on Danny as he took up a position in front of one of the urinals.

Danny stared at his back for a moment before turning to the other urinal to take care of his own business. “If you end up doing that, I’m going with you. Remember? We promised a long time ago we were gonna ruin our careers at the same time.”

Martin chuckled, zipping his fly. “Is women’s shoes still a good retail niche?”

“Oh, I’m thinking we should expand into purses and accessories as well – got to milk the market for all it’s worth,” Danny said cheerfully.

Martin laughed again, heading for the sink as behind them the door opened. Jack stuck his head in and said, “Whenever you’re ready, we’re all set and cleared for takeoff, gentlemen.”

Danny groaned – he couldn’t wait.

----

Jeanne perched on the edge of her seat, her knees bouncing unevenly underneath the table. She was sitting in a tattered booth in the back corner of a small diner that smelled like burnt toast and old coffee. Her hands held on tight to one another on the table in front of her, one thumb picking at the other’s ragged cuticle. Her lank brown hair was pulled back in a greasy ponytail, and there were dark circles under her eyes that were hardly visible among the bruises. She’d long ago pushed her half-full plate away, chicken-fried steak with its blanket of congealed brown gravy mostly untouched. Her coffee cup, on its third refill, was close by, and with a little grimace of effort she pulled her hands apart, wrapping them around the cup, feeling its meager warmth seep into her pores.

She glanced down at her lap - her phone was tucked into the front pocket of her brown jacket, but she wasn’t sure why she’d brought it along – she honestly had no clue.

She glanced up at Alan, sitting across the table from her. He had eaten heartily, cheeseburger and fries and a slice of apple pie. He was turned sideways in the booth now, back pressed against the wall and legs stretched out along the seat, so he could talk with the occupant of the booth behind him. It was an old man, skinny with an ill-shaven beard and grimy blue baseball cap. He’d started the conversation a few minutes ago, asking Alan in a gruff voice if he could borrow their salt shaker, and now they were talking football, both opining loudly about Redskins versus Seahawks.

Jeanne didn’t care the slightest about football, but she was perfectly content to sit there and let their words wash over her, as long as Alan was ignoring her. She took a long, slow sip of her coffee – it was getting cold and she wondered vaguely about a refill. She set her cup back down, as gently as possible, not wanting to attract attention.

She looked toward the counter, hoping to catch the eye of one of the waitresses. But they were both at the other end, near the register and she heaved a little sigh. She dropped her gaze to the end of the table and noticed Alan’s pack of Marlboros laying in a heap with his lighter and keys.

Alan had heard her sigh and spoke up, voice full of concern, “What is it, babe?”

“Oh, I just wanted a refill,” she said, and to her own ears her voice seemed full of eerie calm. “I’ll go get it though,” and she slid smoothly out of the booth and stood before turning back toward Alan. “You want another cup?” she asked, knowing full well the answer would be no – Alan refused to drink decaf but more than one cup this late in the day and he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“Naw, I’m fine. Hurry back, though,” and he grinned at her before turning back to his conversation with the grizzled old man.

Jeanne leaned over for her cup, sliding it carefully across the table next to the cigarette pack before picking it up. She turned, walking slowly toward the register, concentrating on putting one foot in a straight line in front of the other. As she got closer, one of the waitresses, the one whose bright red hair had to have come from a box, and not from nature, gave her appraising look before glancing at Alan in the booth behind her.

“Fill that up for you, hon?”

“Yes, please.” Jeanne paused, glancing quickly over her shoulder. “Where’s your rest room?” She handed her cup to the waitress.

“Over there, around the corner” the waitress said, cocking her head to the right. She lifted a glass coffee pot from behind the counter and carefully filled Jeanne’s cup before looking up and catching her eye. “It’s right next to the emergency exit – stupid alarm on that door’s been busted for months, but the boss is too cheap to pay to have it fixed. Don’t tell anybody, it’s a fire code violation.” She raised her eyebrow a moment, and then said a bit louder, “I’ll take it back to the table for you, hon. You go on to the ladies.”

Jeanne stared at her a moment, took a deep breath and then gave a little nod. She headed around the corner, past more grimy booths and into the dim recesses of a darkly paneled hallway. At the end were two wooden doors with faded signs that read Men’s and Ladies. There was also a white metal door with a big silver push bar. There was a sign on it that read Emergency Only in fluorescent orange letters.

Jeanne paused at the end of the hallway, listening carefully. Above the hum of the air conditioner, she could hear the waitress talking to Alan and the old man, engaging them in that easy flirty way most good waitresses had, and she pulled her hand out of her jacket pocket. She opened her fist and looked down at it – in her palm lay the keys to Alan’s car. She glanced over her shoulder, saw only the empty hallway that led back to the bright lights of the diner, took a deep breath and pushed open the door.