BUSINESS AS USUAL
by TB's LMC
While visiting a Tracy Corporation facility in India, John's excited as he looks forward to reuniting with his best friend. But what should be fun times for the two of them turns into a harrowing nightmare.
Warning: Harsh language.
Story Note: The five major chapters of this story are named for the five basic phases of business project management. The sub-chapters within Chapter Four are the components of that particular project management principle.
Author's Note: Devrat Verma is my own original character. He first appeared in my story Ascent, which is referenced in this story. However, you do not need to read that one in order to understand this one.
Thank you to Jaimi-Sam for the multiple edits it took to whip this story into shape. Thank you also to A & B for your generous assistance.
CHAPTER ONE: INITIATION
John Tracy stretched his six-foot-two frame like a waking leopard. A piece of cartilage in his shoulder popped and he felt something shift in his spine as he leaned forward and grasped the round metal railing that topped the low wall of his private twenty square-foot concrete balcony. Breathing in deeply as the first rays of the rising sun warmed the top of his head, he held the breath for a few beats and then exhaled slowly, feeling the last remnants of sleepiness drift away.
It was good to be able to just stand there for a moment and appreciate the dawn in peace, knowing that the most dangerous item on his agenda today was negotiating the traffic on the way to the offices of Tracy Nanotechnology. Unlike his last visit to India, which had had nothing to do with business, and everything to do with saving lives.
Just under three months earlier, he and his brothers had been fighting the aftermath of both an 8.6 earthquake and the flood it'd prompted in the city of New Delhi. In their capacity as International Rescue, they had saved nearly one thousand lives, mostly thanks to Thunderbird Two's passenger capacity. They'd stayed there, sleeping and working in shifts, for eight entire days.
John remembered very clearly having seen the Tracy Nanotechnology towers in Gurgaon as Two had flown in a wide southeasterly arc to approach from the south side of New Delhi. He'd known at the time, of course, that this division of Tracy Engineering fell under his purview.
Smiling to himself as he reentered the family's lavish suite at the Leela Ambience Hotel, John moved past the furniture and decorations done all in dark wood and browns and beiges and headed for the pot of fresh coffee that was just gurgling to a finish in the sleek black-and-silver-toned kitchen. He couldn't recall having ever felt happier or more fulfilled in his life than he had for the past six months. Since his college years he'd accomplished a lot wearing his astrophysics, astronomy and, later on, astronaut hats. He'd published books. He'd given lectures. He'd discovered new galaxies, new quasars, new black holes. Spending roughly half of every calendar year on Thunderbird Five for the past eleven years had allowed John the luxury of indulging in his love of space and the universe at large in a way none of his peers could hope to match.
But there'd always been another side of John which, rather than gazing starry-eyed at the vastness of the cosmos, had both feet firmly planted on the ground and liked nothing more than the very thing his eldest brother Scott wanted nothing to do with: the business end of Tracy Corporation.
Around ten years ago, now, Jeff Tracy had begun incorporating John into the running of various divisions. And while the past several years had seen John actually handling more and more of the work himself as Jeff quietly and slowly began to retreat, it wasn't until six months ago that the man who'd built a monumentally successful multi-billion-dollar corporate entity had approached his middle son one morning and said, "It's time."
Grinning like the cat who'd eaten the canary as the moment played out for him in vivid Technicolor, John stopped his introspection long enough to pour himself a nice, big mug of steaming coffee, and dump a generous amount of half-and-half into it for good measure. His first sip, as always, made his senses come alive, even as his mind wandered to the reason he was here in Gurgaon now.
As soon as Jeff had made the decision to formally hand six of Tracy Corporation's eleven divisions over to John, plans for doing just that had rapidly taken shape. John was now the Chief Executive Officer of Tracy Aerospace, Tracy Engineering, Tracy Robotics, Tracy Tectonics, Tracy Magnetics and Tracy Nanotechnology. And while at times the sheer weight of these new responsibilities threatened to overwhelm him, the basic truth of the matter was that he was in his element. One by one, he and his father had been visiting all the locations around the globe that fell under these six divisions. And in front of all their employees, plus the ever-present press, Jeff had made the announcement that he was now taking on the role of Chairman, leaving John officially the CEO.
By and large, all had gone well. The first two weeks had been spent in Manhattan. Then two weeks back on Tracy Island. The next two found them in both Manhattan and New Jersey. Then back to the island. The next week they'd traveled to Tokyo, followed by Hong Kong. Then back home. Last week he'd visited the relatively new Tectonics research facility in Palana, Kamchatka Krai, Russia. He had to admit that he much preferred the roughly seventy-degree weather in Gurgaon to the forties he'd experienced in Palana. Note to self, he'd thought last week when his hands had nearly frozen on his way into his hotel, don't come to Palana in any month other than July and August.
It was a beautiful October Sunday morning in Gurgaon, and now that he'd had his standard cup of coffee, it was time to hit the Leela's massive gym for a good workout. Then it would be on to reviewing the documentation that Dr. Achal Manda, President of Tracy Nanotechnology, had been sending him for the past few weeks. There was so much to learn that, even after all these years being involved in the business, he simply didn't know. Yet with each word he read, each chart he devoured, each graph he memorized, John's satisfaction with life grew exponentially.
He knew, as everyone did, that eventually he would become the next Jeff Tracy: in control of the entirety of their family's privately-held corporation. Scott had even joked a few months back that their parents must have had an attack of prescience when John was born, because they'd given him the same initials as Jeff. For the time being, John was spending a lot of time with his dad going from place to place, always learning and becoming used to really being in charge, while at the same time remaining a full-fledged member of the family's much more secret life. When John was on the island, his time was fair game. If a rescue call came in he went out with his brothers like always.
But niggling at the back of his mind, as he exited the suite and jabbed the elevator button in the hall on his way to the gym, was the thought that at some point there might come a time when he wouldn't be able to keep up both jobs. At thirty-six years of age, he was nowhere near ready to stop saving lives...and hoped like hell that he wouldn't have to stop any time soon.
CHAPTER TWO: PLANNING AND DESIGN
Of all the languages John had mastered, only Modern Standard Hindi had been of equal difficulty to Japanese and Mandarin. He supposed that was why he'd put so much effort into not just being able to understand these languages audibly, but also making sure he could read and write in them as well. And while every single one of their eighty-eight Tracy Nanotechnology employees spoke perfect English, John knew how important decorum and propriety were to many cultures. So on Monday morning, John placed his hands together with a slight bow and said, "Namaste" to Dr. Manda. He then shook his hand firmly and proceeded to inquire in perfect Hindi as to the health of Manda's two well-schooled sons. In that moment, he knew from the man's pleased reaction that this series of meetings would go just as well as all the others had.
Being in charge of a worldwide conglomerate was about an awful lot more than knowing the nuts and bolts of what they did, after all.
The first day's eight hours' worth of presentations from each of this sub-division's departments had been exactly what John had expected. He'd asked questions, requested clarification, and discussed obtaining further data on the development of certain brand-new mechanical components being developed in conjunction with Tracy Robotics. He would, of course, be handing all of that information over to Brains for verification. The only reason John had taken on Tracy Robotics in addition to the original five Jeff was going to give him control of, was because of this one particular sub-division's ground-breaking work on solar-powered nanoparticles capable of recharging themselves to power and maintain machinery of all shapes and sizes.
Of course, no one here knew that the Tracys also wanted this new technology for International Rescue. The amusing thing about the businesses at this stage of the game was that much of what Tracy Corporation developed either stemmed from or was a direct result of their work saving lives and endeavoring to help people around the world have the necessary technology to save themselves. John knew this fact was always something that had secretly pleased his father. It was a hand-in-glove relationship between the two parts of their lives, with the Corporation providing financial stability for IR and IR returning the favor by providing those companies with more ways to make money.
It really was, all things considered, one of the most perfect symbiotic relationships on Earth.
Monday evening found John enjoying a polite traditional meal at Manda's home. Tuesday he would get to check out the laboratories and Wednesday he'd be touring the manufacturing facilities. Thursday Jeff would join him and there'd be yet another day and evening full of meetings. Friday they were planning a big wrap-up shindig before Jeff headed to England. And as much as John was enjoying the business side of this trip, what he was looking forward to the most had nothing at all to do with business, and everything to do with his personal life. Come this Saturday, he'd be reconnecting with his best friend, Devrat Verma. He hadn't seen him since their nearly epic fail at Denali a year-and-a-half ago, although they'd kept in touch via email and the occasional vidphone call. But between Dev's work and John's, the men hadn't been able to connect in person since they'd almost died together in the middle of the US state of Alaska.
Dev would arrive in New Delhi Friday morning, and was going to make the forty-minute drive to Gurgaon first thing Saturday. While his primary reason for being in India was to visit extended family, he'd promised John that his first two full days in the country were all his. At least this time there weren't any frigid mountains to climb, and John had missed his best friend like crazy after all that insanity they'd lived through together. Which was why two whole days of doing nothing but reverting back to their college years together was something John had been impatiently anticipating.
Dev...the guy who'd turned him on to the Hindi language to begin with...the guy who'd managed to drink him under the table during their Harvard years. The guy who, of all the people John had ever known, was the one he truly considered a real friend. He knew they'd probably get themselves involved in some sort of crazy hijinks, and in spite of the fact that he needed to watch himself a little more closely these days now that he was so publicly 'in charge,' John couldn't wait to find out what the weekend would bring.
CHAPTER THREE: EXECUTING
As he leaned against the conference room door, John closed his eyes and exhaled. His father's deep bass voice reverberated through him when he quipped, "Thank God it's Friday?"
Grinning as he opened his eyes and pushed himself off the door, John nodded in agreement. "Bit of a whirlwind." Jeff smiled and approached his son with a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. "Thanks," John added, gratefully accepting it.
"You handled Radha's concerns well."
Hot coffee with just the right amount of half-and-half in it slid down John's throat. He savored the unique flavor of this Indian Kent variety that the employees here preferred before responding. "You warned me, so I was prepared. I had an idea what she'd try to nail me on." Jeff nodded as he downed half his mug of black coffee. Then he cocked his head at his boy and John couldn't quite decipher the look he was seeing. "What?"
"I was just thinking," Jeff said gruffly, "that I'm glad we didn't stop after Virgil."
With a confused chuckle, John asked, "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know he and Scott don't want anything to do with this end of it all," Jeff replied with a grand sweeping gesture that encompassed the entire room. "And you're damn good at it."
Feeling his face heat up a little, John ducked his head. "Thanks, Dad."
Jeff's eyes crinkled in response, and then he drained his mug and put it down on a serving table to the right of the door. He checked his watch and shook his head. "I'd better get back to the suite and get packed. Penny's expecting me in England by tonight."
"Keeps you on a short leash, doesn't she?"
Jeff whipped around looking like he was about to bark, but then he saw how John was trying not to laugh out loud, huffed out a laugh of his own and shook his head. "Just you wait. You'll find out."
Holding his hands up in surrender, John shook his head. "Not anytime soon." Jeff gave him a pointed look which John ignored. "Fly safe."
"FAB." Jeff eyed his son for a few seconds longer, then moved past him and opened the conference room door. Within seconds the elevator had seen to it that Jeff's presence there was nothing more than a memory, and John was left in an empty conference room, in a mostly-empty building, with only the low hum of electricity as his companion. He finished his coffee and put his mug next to his dad's. For a moment he just looked at the two empty mugs together as his mind wandered to his father's compliment.
Jeff had always made it clear how much he loved his boys. How proud he was of them. He wasn't overly demonstrative physically, but then again, none of the six men that comprised their family were much on running around hugging each other all the time...what guys were? But Jeff had always shown his emotions through his words, and while those words were usually short and sweet, and often not directly to the point, each and every Tracy son knew at all times precisely where they stood and exactly how important they all were to the family patriarch.
Jeff's unexpected words had warmed John's heart in a way he hadn't expected. He supposed, as he reached out and tapped his finger on the handle of his father's empty cup, that it was because this time the words had been about one of the two biggest achievements in Jeff's life. And while John was five hundred percent confident in his ability to do it...had never doubted for a second that he could...it sure didn't hurt to know that the man who'd given birth to the whole thing to begin with shared that level of confidence.
Smiling to himself, John moved to the black leather seat at the head of the long glass conference table, grabbed his light gray Armani suit jacket and slung it one-fingered over his shoulder, loosening his silk lavender tie with the other hand. Tonight he was going to dine in the Leela's ground floor restaurant and then do something he rarely had time for anymore: sit in a hot tub and read a book. He had around thirty of them waiting on his e-reader and looked forward to the fact that his only decision this evening would be which of them would occupy his time.
John was just stepping out of the shower when there was a knock at the suite door. He'd spent an hour in the hot tub and was already halfway through a new urban vampire novel. His plan after cleaning up had been to finish the book, which he was enjoying immensely, and then get some sleep. Quickly toweling his hair, he then wrapped a blue terry cloth bathrobe around himself, still tying the sash as he scooped up a cup half-full of cold coffee and moved through the suite toward the front door.
Whoever was there knocked again, and when John looked through the peephole, his curiosity as to who the hell it could be morphed into joy as he took in the face on the other side of the door. "Oh, my God," he said as he used the keypad to the left of the door to unlock it. The door slid open. "You wanted to see me that much?" he teased as he got eyes on his best friend. "You couldn't wait 'til morning?"
"No," Dev said with a shake of his head. "I have waited long enough, John Tracy."
John frowned at the odd-sounding voice and then felt the room start to tilt. Eyes. The eyes. His mind spun as fast as the world around him was spinning. "Eyes," Brains had said in a private moment of truth between them shortly after the Lake Anasta incident. "Those eyes, John."
Alarm bells started blaring inside his mind but he couldn't get his body to answer the responding will to flee. Coherent thought came and went. Losing his grip on the mug, it fell to the floor, the sound of it shattering reverberating inside his skull. John's legs buckled and he went down hard, hands slapping the hardwood floor as he tried to prevent himself from faceplanting completely. John raised his head as the man who looked like Dev crouched down to be more eye-level with him, then quickly looked away so he wouldn't get trapped in those eyes again.
For he now realized that this man wasn't Dev. And when the man chuckled, a grating sound that came from somewhere deep inside him, John knew he was in real trouble. He lifted his right hand so he could hit the emergency button on the side of the watch worn on his left wrist, but lost his balance and fell onto his side with a grunt.
The stranger returned to his full height and in the next few moments, as darkness began to crowd John's vision, he noticed that while the man was definitely well-disguised as his friend, suddenly he could see that he wasn't really shaped at all like Dev. He was much taller and much bulkier. And then the man smiled, reminding John vaguely of an insane clown in some old Stephen King movie.
"Who..?" was all John managed to whisper before his world went black.
CHAPTER FOUR: MONITORING AND CONTROLLING
SUB-CHAPTER ONE: MEASURING
John woke feeling like someone had driven a spear straight through his head from the top. He moaned, trying to shove down the pain and figure out why the hell he was hurting to begin with. Had he been on a rescue? No...that wasn't right. He hadn't been out with IR in a few weeks. Where had he been? Home? No, no, that wasn't right either. He'd been...on Corp business...right? Yes, in India!
Wait, then why was he injured?
He opened his eyes to find himself in a very small room that made him think the word 'cell.' The only light came from under a door. It didn't do much to help him see anything, so when he heard someone move nearby he bolted wide awake, making the mistake of sitting upright far too fast for his current condition...whatever that was.
He felt like he had the kind of hangover that resulted from a three-day binge. Cringing as his hands flew to his head, as if holding it could stop the agony, John felt tears leak out of the corners of his eyes even as a familiar voice quietly said his name. John peered into the nebulous darkness beyond whatever he was sitting on. He quickly figured out it was a concrete floor. And just as quickly figured out who owned the voice.
"Dev?" he breathed, afraid that trying to speak any louder would send his head flying clean off his shoulders.
"My friend," Dev replied, and John felt a cold hand touch his equally-cold bare leg. Only then did he realize he was still in the bathrobe he'd thrown on when...when that man had knocked on the door. "Are you all right?" Dev asked gently, moving to sit down next to him.
"Jury's still out," John told him. And this time, in spite of not being able to see him, he knew for sure this was Dev. The way he rolled his r's was a dead giveaway, and as John processed this information he knew that the man who'd been disguised as Dev hadn't said his name the way Dev did, with that strange twist to the r in Tracy. As much as he wanted to kick his own ass for not realizing that the moment his name had been spoken, John knew that everything had happened far too quickly for him to have really been able to do anything about it even if he had glommed onto the speech difference right away.
He felt Dev's arm come around his shoulders. "Do you know where we are?"
John shook his head and immediately regretted it. "No," he replied through a wince. "What happened to you?"
"I had hired a car to take me to a motel," Dev explained. "I was planning on sleeping off the jetlag and then coming to Gurgaon in the morning."
Dev shrugged. "All I know is that the driver of the car stopped a short distance from the airport, saying that a 'check engine' warning had appeared on the dashboard monitor. A few moments later, as he was looking at the engine, he asked me to come hold a valve open for him. After that, all I remember is his eyes. They seemed...well, to glitter, or glow somehow."
"Shit," John said, leaning slightly into his friend's body just to keep from falling in the opposite direction. "Same guy got me. Knocked on my suite door just as I was getting out of the shower."
"That explains your lack of attire."
John snorted and shoved Dev's arm off his shoulders. "I'm always dressed for success." The thought of himself wearing nothing but a bathrobe suddenly made John realize he was cold. "What'd he do, put us in a freezer?"
"I don't believe so. I've heard no hum of a refrigeration unit, though it's been cold the entire time I've been here."
"Well, if we're not in a freezer, it shouldn't be this cold," John observed. "Not this time of year, even if it's night."
"No, it shouldn't," Dev agreed.
John kneaded his temples, willing the pain to subside. "Wait a minute," he said suddenly, "If he put the whammy on you, too, then how come you don't feel like shit?"
"Clean living, my friend. You should try it." Dev relented at John's groan. "The only good news I can offer you is that it wears off after a while."
John leaned his head back against the wall. The cold felt good through his skull.
Dev sighed. "John Tracy, I would like to take this opportunity to state that trouble seems to surround you."
"Me? What'd I do, I'm a victim here just as much as you are."
"Yes, but nobody wants to hurt me or kidnap me or whatever it is this fellow is up to. Nobody cares that much about me. You're the billionaire."
John tsk'd and shook his head. "Just because I'm a Tracy doesn't mean I'm the reason we're in this mess."
He could hear a hint of amusement in his friend's voice as Dev replied, "The fact that you are a Tracy is precisely why we are always in a mess."
As funny – and accurate – as that was, John couldn't even bring himself to chuckle. Never mind the spike in his head, it was the memory of Brains' words after Lake Anasta that told him Dev had to be completely right about this. "Those eyes."
"What?" Dev asked.
"I think I know who's got us."
"Do tell. Not that this information will do us any good right now, but please, continue."
So John spent the next few minutes telling Dev about Brains' and Tin-Tin's expedition to Lake Anasta with Professor Blakely, especially about the mysterious stranger who'd knocked them all unconscious, left Brains buried in the burning hot sand to die, and had nearly killed Gordon. Leaving out, of course, any mention of International Rescue.
"So you believe this to be the same man."
John nodded, instantly regretting the move. A sharp intake of air hissed through his teeth. Dev couldn't see him anyway, he was sure; it'd been a dumb move all the way around. "Yes," he said on the exhale.
"But why? There is no treasure you're hunting. You are merely here on business. And why would he involve me?"
Why indeed, John wondered. One possibility, of course, was that somehow the man had discovered Dev and John's friendship, which explained why he'd been disguised as Dev to begin with. He probably knew the familiar visage would get him through John's door easily. Which, as it turned out, had been absolutely correct.
John couldn't help but feel completely stupid over the whole thing. Yet how the hell could he have known there was a possibility that Dev wouldn't be Dev? As logical as that fact was, in their current circumstances it offered little comfort.
"Oh," Dev said.
"This may be a crazy idea, but what have you and I both been involved with in the last couple of years?"
Turning his head slowly toward where his friend was seated next to him, John grunted, "Huh?"
"As I stated, there is no ancient treasure here, which forces me to question the reason for this attack. While I suppose it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone might wish to hold you ransom or some equivalency thereof, the fact that I was also taken means there must be another explanation. I would be of no use in a situation meant to extort money from your family."
"Well, that's true," John replied. "But I've got a splitting headache, so I'm not really following your train of thought."
"Did you and I not destroy something a year-and-a-half ago atop Denali, my friend?"
"Oh, hell," John whispered as the puzzle pieces all finally slid into place. "Revenge for us having screwed up his plans."
"If it is indeed the same man."
"But if he wants revenge, why keep us alive? He could've just killed us, and he could've done it a million times before now."
"That is where my theory runs out of steam, I'm afraid." Dev gave a palpable shiver.
"What are you wearing?"
"What I wore on the plane. Jeans, shirt, sport jacket. Why?"
"Just wondering," John said, drawing his robe more tightly around his torso. Suddenly he thought of his watch, but when his hand moved to his wrist, he found it bare. "Sonofabitch."
"Nothing." After all, John couldn't tell Dev that the watch was really a communicator in disguise. One that could've brought the entirety of International Rescue to their...well, rescue. Wouldn't that just be grand, though, John and Dev having to be rescued by John's brothers yet again?
John was starting to think Dev was right about the whole trouble thing.
"I have already searched the room. There is one door, a metal bucket, presumably for us to relieve ourselves, and nothing else. The door has no handle on our side."
Slumping backward, knowing he was lucky there was a wall right there to catch him, John leaned his head back and closed his eyes. They were well and truly sitting ducks for whoever it was that'd kidnapped them. All they could do at this point was wait to see what would happen next.
Dev seemed to come to the same conclusion as he scooted back to mimic John's posture. "Tell me you have a plan."
John rolled his head to the right. He could feel Dev's breath against his chin. "Nope."
"That pretty much sums it up."
CHAPTER FOUR: MONITORING AND CONTROLLING
SUB-CHAPTER TWO: MONITORING
The next time John woke, it was to find himself being roughly pulled to his feet by his arms. The door was open this time, allowing enough light to filter in that he could see he was alone with two goons hauling him up. "Where's Dev?" he asked, trying to jerk out of their grip to no avail. They tightened their fingers around his arms. "Where's Dev?" he repeated.
Both men were large and looked like they might be of mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage. They said nothing as they dragged him through the narrow doorway and into an equally narrow corridor that was only about fifteen feet long. There were four doors total along the hall, two on the right and two on the left. Hanging from the ceiling, a very dim bulb was set into a circular fixture covered by rusted chicken wire. At the end of the short hallway was a thick steel door standing partially open. It was dark beyond, but a blast of frigid air not only made John's teeth rattle from the resulting shiver, it told him that this door led outside.
And that they couldn't possibly have been anywhere near Gurgaon, where it had been seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit last John had checked after getting out of the hot tub.
The man on his right let go of his arm, then tried hoisting him up and over his shoulder. John fought him, kicking his legs and swinging his arms, drawing on every bit of martial arts training he'd ever had, as he heard the door being shoved open even more. Cold air blasted his bare feet and legs even as he twisted his body and landed a blow to the goon's solar plexus. The other man jerked him away and socked him in the jaw. John swept his right leg out low, knocking him off his feet. Before he could whirl to face the other man, he felt a blow to the back of his head, and was out like a light.
"—have to hit him that hard!"
John recognized the voice before his consciousness was fully online. He was even more certain now than ever that it was the one Brains had heard at Lake Anasta...just from the sheer creepiness of it.
"He was attempting to escape!"
"He must not be injured!"
Too late, John thought, unable to stop being sarcastic even when hurting as badly as he was. A sound like a fist making hard contact with something crunchable made John force his eyelids open just in time to see one of the two goons topple to the floor.
The man whose fist had knocked the other guy out cold with a single punch turned, then, and John knew instinctively that this time he was seeing his real face. Angular with dark eyes. Harsh Chinese or possibly Mongolian features. A mighty scowl. He was bald, the overhead dual-bar fluorescent lighting making his head almost glow to John's sometimes-doubled vision. He wore camouflage pants and jacket, and big black boots John was sure had to be steel-toed. He swallowed hard as the man approached, stopping at John's side and crouching down to be eye-level just like before. Remembering what'd happened last time he'd stared into those eyes, John closed his own and turned his head away, but all other senses were on high alert.
"I must apologize for the thoughtlessness of my colleague," he growled in a tone of voice that made John think the concern was less for him and more for whatever reason the guy didn't want him harmed.
He heard a rustling and then a large hand was beneath the knob of his spine. His eyes snapped open as the man gently lifted him just enough that he could place what John recognized as a cold pack under his head. He then lowered John's head back down atop it. Instantly the cold soothed the knot where the unconscious man had hit him.
John frowned. This guy had kidnapped him, but was being nice to him? "What do you want?" he hissed through clenched teeth, still not daring to look him in the face.
"It is not what I want this time, John Tracy. It is what my client wants."
The answering laugh was much less kind than the touch had been. "You will soon discover that."
John glanced at the man's face. "Where's Dev?"
"He is unharmed. It's not him I want."
"Then let him go. If I'm the one you want, you have me...you don't need him."
"On the contrary, he may prove quite useful should you choose not to cooperate."
Oh, that didn't sound good. Not good, not good.
A cellphone rang. The bald man stood, turned and crossed the room. John's head hurt too much for him to even try raising it in order to see where he'd gone. All he could do was stare at the bland beige-colored ceiling with its single office-style light.
"What?" came the man's deep and thickly-accented voice. Several moments of silence and then, "Very well. I will be there momentarily." Soon the man came back into John's line of sight. "Rest, for soon you won't be given that luxury."
Squaring his jaw defiantly, John spat, "You won't get whatever it is you want from me."
Another long, low laugh. "We shall see."
Turning his head slowly to the right, John watched the bald man as he opened the room's only door, went through, and closed it quietly behind him. Then the sound of a lock clicking into place, and John's stomach bottomed out.
Hissing through the pain, John forced himself to sit up and found that the soft thing he was lying on was an olive green inflatable mattress. The cold pack rested atop an inflatable pillow inside a plain white pillowcase. A thick blanket covered his body, but John was horrified to discover that his bathrobe had been removed, leaving him completely naked beneath the blanket. This room, at least, was warmer than the cell he and Dev had been in.
Dev. His best friend who was probably scared shitless and, if the bald man's words were to be believed, was only where he was now due to his association with John.
There was absolutely nothing else in the room except for the unconscious man who, John suddenly realized as he stared at the body, didn't seem to be breathing. Jesus...had the bald guy killed him?
It was then that John noticed the blood seeping out from under the guy's back. Rising slowly to his feet, he wrapped the blanket around himself toga-like, tucking it in to keep in place, and crept closer and closer until his toes were just beyond the already-drying red substance. He crouched, reached out and felt the man's neck for a pulse. There was none.
And soon he saw why. Sticking out of the left side of the guy's chest was the handle of what had to be some sort of hunting knife judging from the size of it. Holy shit. That crunch hadn't been a fist connecting with a jaw. It'd been a knife going through skin, muscle and ribs into the man's heart.
John had a sudden surety that he was so fucked.
CHAPTER FOUR: MONITORING AND CONTROLLING
SUB-CHAPTER THREE: IDENTIFYING
Seated on the edge of the inflatable mattress holding the cold pack to the back of his head, John cursed himself for jumping when the door lock clicked. His eyes snapped up to find the other of the two men who'd brought him here from the cell standing there pointing a semi-automatic handgun at him. The guy waved the gun in the direction of the hall without a word, but the message was clear.
So John did the only thing he could: rose to his feet, dropped the cold pack to the mattress, ensured the blanket was still tightly wrapped around his body and followed.
The corridor outside the room looked very much like the one had back in the building where their cell had been, only much longer. The best John could think to liken the place to was an underground bunker. He'd been in several over the years thanks to International Rescue work.
International Rescue. It had occurred to John that might be what this whole thing was about. But then again, it could also be about business. There was no way of telling until he finally got asked a question. Which he wouldn't answer, of course. He and his brothers had all been schooled in resisting interrogation techniques. They held so many secrets, both about the workings of Tracy Corporation and International Rescue, that their father had rightfully insisted they all be trained to handle themselves if...well, if something just like this happened.
He'd been running over the mantras in his mind, remembering them from the last refresher he'd gone through eight months earlier. Once per year, each brother underwent that and many other training sessions in everything from responding to terrorism threats to corporate espionage techniques to getting yourself out of tight situations.
Of which, John had already assessed, this was definitely one.
Lady Penelope was a kick-ass teacher, whose personal affection for Jeff's sons didn't extend to giving them an easy time in the classroom. There was no one better to learn from and no one harder to please when it came to what she did best. For the first time ever, John was unbelievably grateful for the training she'd been giving them since before IR had ever gone on their first call-out. His only thought right now was proving to her that he had what it took to pass this test of life as well as he'd passed it when it had been nothing more than a 'scenario.'
It seemed they'd walked miles, but at last they stopped in front of a recessed steel door along a matching steel wall. Underfoot, the floor was so cold that John's feet had gone numb. But instead of focusing on that, he waited tensely, all attention on what might lay beyond the door.
The man with the gun used his fist to bang on it. In short order there was a loud clank and then the door was opened inward by the bald man, who nodded once. The gunman stepped behind John and roughly shoved him into the room.
John stumbled a bit, but quickly regained his footing as the bald one stepped aside to reveal another very plain room made all of steel. In the center of the room was a metal chair with opened metal restraint cuffs on the open-ended arms of it and two more attached to its two front legs. Off to the right was a metal bench against the wall. And seated upon that bench, wide-eyed and clearly frightened out of his wits, was Dev. Their eyes met. It was all John could do not to display one ounce of emotion. He saw that Dev's wrists were shackled to the top of the bench, like you might find in old-style police stations he'd seen in movies from the 1970s.
Being the first time he'd actually been able to see him, John allowed himself a few seconds to study Dev. His normally dark skin appeared several shades paler than it should. His eyes were bloodshot and his black short-cropped hair was mussed like he'd been running his fingers through it nonstop for the past twelve hours. His clothing was thoroughly wrinkled and he appeared completely wiped out, both mentally and physically.
John turned as the door banged closed behind him, and the bald man looked left. John followed his line of sight. The room was lit, once again, by a double-bar fluorescent fixture overhead, but it wasn't actually giving off a whole lot of light. Out of a shadow in the front corner of the room stepped a surprisingly small man. He couldn't have been more than five-five tops. He wore an olive green military uniform. John immediately recognized the insignia on the upper right arm.
Scott had told enough stories about his time in that country for John's heart to skip several beats in response.
The small man stepped forward, eyeing John as though he were a prize steer the guy was contemplating adding to his herd. He removed his military cap to reveal thinning light brown hair. His eyes were a deceptively soft brown. His face was pinched like he was permanently constipated, and a thin pencil mustache completed the odd look. Two handguns were strapped to a belt surrounding his thick uniform coat and John knew from Scott's tales that the guy probably had at least three more weapons hidden on his person.
Small Man nodded once and just like that, Baldy, as John had taken to mentally calling him, was manhandling John toward the chair. One quick glance at Dev, whose eyes were glued to him, and John whirled, executing a move Penny had taught him, which Kyrano had improved upon. Baldy went down in a heap, clutching his crotch and cursing in a language John instantly recognized as Mongolian.
Two clicks came from behind him. John pivoted, gracefully moving into a fight stance. As his blanket shifted and fell away, he saw what the clicking sounds had been. Short Man had both handguns drawn and pointed directly at John's chest.
Without warning, Baldy leapt to his feet, grabbed John by the throat and shoved him back into the chair. John tried to kick him, but a whimper from his left got his attention. Short Man was standing right in front of Dev with one of the guns pointed at his temple.
That was why Baldy had taken Dev as well, and kept him alive.
John went slack in the chair, allowing himself to be cuffed at the wrists and ankles, and totally nude on top of it all. His mind raced, feeling relief as Short Man lowered and re-holstered his weapons...as Dev's eyes closed and he leaned back against the wall...as Baldy stepped back and glowered at him.
"You are lucky that General X wants you alive," he growled.
Somehow, I don't think 'lucky' describes my situation at all, he thought in response. Think, Tracy, think!
At least now he knew Short Man's name. Well, his moniker. General X.
"I am well aware that it was the two of you who thwarted what I was doing on Denali," Baldy continued. Out of his peripheral vision, John saw Dev's head snap up. And knew now for sure they were screwed. "And once the General has what he wants, you will both pay dearly for that interference."
Things were just getting better and better, weren't they?
John looked at Dev full-on and knew at once he shouldn't have. His friend's eyes were filled with tears. Steeling himself, John slowly turned back to look front and center, where X was walking right up to stand in front of him.
"You will tell me," the man said, his voice high-pitched and nasal, "what I wish to know. If you do not, Mr. Verma will die."
John glanced at Baldy, who seemed quite content to stand there with his feet planted firmly on the floor and his huge arms folded over his chest. His eyes moved back to X as he spoke again.
"You believe you will be able to resist my interrogation techniques, Mr. Tracy. But I assure you that you are wrong."
We'll see about that.
"Now," X continued, staring squinty-eyed at him. In the split second between that word and the next, John realized the guy had poor eyesight. Probably too proud to wear corrective lenses of any kind, or to even get corrective surgery. For to do so would be to admit he had a weakness, and according to Scott's accounts, no matter what was wrong with a Bereznik military man, he would never admit to having a weakness...even one that could be fixed.
"You will provide me with all details on Tracy Nanotechnology's reproducing, self-powering, artificially intelligent nanoparticles."
John didn't react on the outside, but inside came the a-ha moment. This was about business. Thank Christ it wasn't IR.
Then again, that didn't really make a whole lot of sense. John was at the higher levels of these things...the oversight, the signing of papers, the negotiating of contracts. He didn't know the kind of details that someone wanting to reproduce the technology needed. His gut instincts told him there was more to this than what the General was saying.
"If you do not tell me everything you know within the next fifteen minutes, including the location of those nanoparticles which have already been tested and are being prepared for mass production, your friend will die before your eyes and you will then experience physical pain unlike any you have ever known."
Yeah, right. You didn't see me after Five got hit by that meteor, John snarked silently in his mind. Talk about pain.
"After you have disclosed this information," X continued, leaning forward suddenly like he'd taken lessons on how bad guys should intimidate, "you will then tell me all there is to know..." He paused. Leaned in closer.
John jerked back, recoiling from the guy's bad breath. He heard the chair scrape the floor as he thought, Dramatic, much?
"...about International Rescue."
Jesus H Christ on an ever-loving crutch. Sometimes John really hated it when his gut instincts were proven right.
John glanced at Dev. His friend's eyes were wide as he stared at him in disbelief.
"Why the hell would I know anything about International Rescue?" John asked, leveling his eyes at X.
Baldy...the Hood, John knew it had to be, given that he'd admitted to being behind the Denali fiasco...just shook his head and laughed in a way that made John's skin crawl.
"Don't bother pretending you're not part of International Rescue," X scoffed. "My friend here has known since before you began operating, who you were. For his half-brother is in your midst, is he not?"
Oh, God. Kyrano.
The mysterious attacks. The way the Hood always seemed to know exactly where they'd be. The disabling of One's automatic camera detector that time.
It all made so much sense. But did Kyrano know? He couldn't...John just wouldn't believe that his father's best friend, the man who took care of them and loved them all like he'd always been a member of the family...no. He wouldn't willingly put them at risk like that. There was no way.
John could practically feel Dev's shock and fear rolling off him in wave after wave after wave. His heart went completely through the floor. Even if he gave up what he knew about the nanoparticles to spare Dev's life, the nightmare would only continue. And to say anything at all to these assholes about IR would be disclosing the biggest secret he had to the best friend he'd never shared it with, assuming they didn't just kill Dev anyway.
Bowing his head until his chin touched his chest, John fought to come up with a solution.
What the hell was he going to do?
CHAPTER FOUR: MONITORING AND CONTROLLING
SUB-CHAPTER FOUR: INFLUENCING
John knew from the way X was looking at his watch that there was very little time left. He'd tried mentally counting each second down, but his mind was both spinning and reeling trying to figure a way out of this that wouldn't involve him or Dev dying, or telling these men what they wanted to know, so he'd lost count after Minute Two.
Unfortunately, he was no closer to a solution now than he had been twelve or thirteen minutes ago. A look at Baldy...the Hood, he reminded himself...and a new fear crept through him head to toe, making his hairs stand on end and goosebumps break out all over. This was a criminal known worldwide for how many people he didn't mind killing, for the lengths he was willing to go to, in order to get what he wanted. The fact that he hadn't yet gotten his hands on IR's technology had been nothing less than a miracle, truth be told.
Until, John thought with no small measure of defeat...until now.
The only way to spare the lives of his family members...the only way to keep the technology of both Tracy Corporation and International Rescue out of the hands of a man such as the Hood...and General X, who couldn't be much better...was to let them kill him and Dev.
Grinding his teeth together, John raised his head and leveled his eyes at X, whose own eyes were on his wristwatch. He looked at Dev, then, who mouthed, "International Rescue?" very clearly. Squaring his jaw and closing his eyes, John shook his head slightly.
He wasn't going to let it end this way. For Dev or for himself. He mentally reviewed everything he knew about their current situation, determined to find a way no matter how great the odds. After all, a Tracy never gave up. At any cost.
John wasn't scheduled to check in with his family until Sunday night. He'd made it clear to them that during his and Dev's two-day mini-vacation, he wouldn't be available. So they weren't going to even be thinking about him, let alone wondering where he was. Same pretty much went for Dev's family, John assumed, as they knew he wasn't due in his hometown of Nidani until Monday morning.
Their families, then, were out. It was up to John and Dev to get out of this.
John was strapped in but good; a quick tug told him there was no give in the shackles. From the looks of Dev's, none in them, either. General X was armed and fully prepared to use what he had, and the Hood's reputation preceded him where murder was concerned.
"You have one minute to comply," nasally X announced. He made a great show of unholstering his left handgun and checking the magazine.
THINK, JOHN! he screamed at himself.
That was when he saw it. There, right there! As X shoved the clip back into the butt of the gun and leveled it at Dev's head, John could see that it wasn't fully inserted. In his haste to threaten, however, it seemed X didn't realize it. John's mind raced back to what he'd seen when he'd been shoved into the room. The chair. The bench. Nothing else.
The chair he was shackled to. The bench Dev was shackled to.
The chair. He sifted through each frame of memory, recalling every detail that he could. Metal. Four legs. Ankle shackles on silver chains looped around the two front legs.
Looped around the two front legs.
Pictures flashed through his mind. The Hood gloating...X and his handguns...leaning forward trying to intimidate him...his bad breath. John stopped that train of thought immediately. When he'd jerked away, the chair had moved.
The chair wasn't bolted down!
Every muscle in John's body tensed as X pulled back the slide on top of the barrel. There was a first click, but no second click.
X frowned and peered at the gun. John was sure he could barely see it.
The Hood's head whipped around to look at it, too.
With every ounce of strength he could muster, John wrenched himself forward. The chair, though heavy, came right up with him, hanging from his wrists and keeping his legs bent. Surprised, X stumbled backwards into the Hood's chest. Dev shouted John's name as John barreled forward, tumbling directly into X and sending all three of them into a sprawling heap on the floor. As both captors spat expletives in multiple languages, John rolled off the pile of bodies onto his side and used the momentum to spring back to his feet, albeit unsteadily. The Hood shoved himself up off the floor and John swung around in a hard left circle. The back legs of the chair smashed into the also-rising X's nose. There was a sickening crunch. Blood and spit flew outward, splattering the Hood's chest and face as John watched X go down like a stone, copious amounts of blood spurting from the vicinity of his nose.
"Dev, get up!" John bellowed, praying the bench was also not attached to the floor.
A sickening metal-against-metal scrape told him it wasn't. Inwardly he cheered even as the Hood rushed him, a large knife just like the one he'd seen sticking out of the man he'd killed headed straight for his heart.
"John!" Dev hollered, and then roared as it took everything he had to lift the bench his wrists were shackled to and whirl around in a wild and unsteady three-sixty. The left-side legs of the bench slammed into the back of the Hood's head.
A shocked look on his face, the Hood's eyes went wide as his knees buckled. He was unconscious before he even hit the floor. The knife clattered out of his hand and skittered away as Dev and John stood there, a bench and a chair hanging from their bodies, respectively. Their chests heaved. Both heads swiveled toward the door as the sound of its lock clanging reached their ears.
John nodded his head at Dev's side of the door as he moved toward the side closest to him. Dev moved as quickly as he could, but the bench was heavy and pulled him forward and down to his knees. John shouted his name as the door swung open to reveal—
John allowed the chair to thump down to the floor, and his butt to thunk right down into the seat.
For two fractions of a second, Scott stared at him wide-eyed, and then turned his attention to Dev, who was struggling to right the bench so he could right himself. Then his eyes moved to the two motionless men on the floor.
John didn't know quite what to say, sitting there naked and chained to a chair. Dev gave up trying to get the bench to turn over and plopped down onto the cement with an audible poomp. "Very nice to see you again, Scott," he said mildly, looking up at the dark-haired brother who had nothing but disbelief written all over his face. "I don't suppose you brought bolt-cutters with you."
Only because his wrists were still shackled to the chair was John unable to facepalm.
CHAPTER FIVE: CLOSING
John winced as Gordon rubbed salve on his wrists where the shackles had dug into his flesh, making it look like he'd been hacking at them with razor blades. "Where the hell are we?" he asked as Virgil did the same for Dev.
"Nanda Kot," Scott replied as Jeff entered the room with two standard IR-issue winter gear outfits in vacuum-sealed blue bags.
"Another mountain," Dev moaned. He stared at John. "You are determined to take me mountain-climbing every time we're together, aren't you?"
John cut his eye at his friend, but noted the look on Dev's face held nothing but warmth, so he allowed his own countenance to soften into a smile.
Jeff handed one of the packages to Dev, then moved to John and stopped right in front of him.
John tensed, fully expecting a tirade of patriarchal proportions.
"Are you hurt, son?" Jeff asked as he handed over the second package.
Shaking his head, John replied, "Just banged up a bit, I think."
Jeff's shoulders sagged, and then he moved in and enveloped his boy, taller than he was by two inches, into a careful hug. John felt a stinging at the backs of his eyes when his father whispered his name like he'd thought he wasn't ever going to see him again.
Which, truthfully, he almost hadn't.
"I'm all right," John reassured his father, though newly-appearing aches and pains told him that might not be altogether true.
Pulling away, Jeff eyed him for a moment, and then turned to Dev. He held out his hand, which Dev took. "I'm glad you're both all right."
"As am I, Mr. Tracy." John could tell there was way more Dev wanted to say...more likely, to ask...and the look on his face must've told Jeff the same thing, for his father turned to look at him and John knew exactly what that look meant.
"We, uh..." John hesitated, swallowing as Gordon put the salve away. "We're going to need to talk."
Jeff looked at Dev, then at John again, and John gave a small nod. Jeff took a deep breath as he released Dev's hand, and nodded curtly in response. "Get yourselves changed and let's get out of here."
"How did you find us?" Dev asked as Virgil and Scott zip-tied X's and the Hood's wrists behind their backs. Still unconscious, X's broken nose was swollen to four times its normal size, and the Hood hadn't stirred since he'd gone down.
"Well, that's a bit of a story," Jeff replied.
Dev raised his eyebrows. "We have some time," he stated as he pulled open the package of clothing, which included winter boots, a flight suit modified for cold weather and underclothes.
Scott, Virgil and John all looked at each other, while Gordon made a face that seemed to indicate he wasn't at all surprised by any of this. That should bother him in and of itself, John thought.
"Once I reached Penny's, I thought of something I'd forgotten to ask John," Jeff said, then turned his attention to his boy as John ripped open his own package. "You didn't answer your cell or your wristcom."
At that moment, Scott moved forward and handed John the item in question. He took it with a grateful smile and slapped it on his wrist.
"No answer means trouble," Jeff explained to Dev. "I had the hotel check his room. The door was ajar, no sign of John, a broken mug and coffee all over the floor...and a mask that looked like your," he pointed at Dev, "face."
Dev looked down at the Hood, then up at John, who turned away without a word to pull on the underwear and flight suit.
"Wallet still there. Clothes. So we sprang into action. Traced your GPS," Jeff continued, eyes now back on John. "We thought maybe you two had gone mountain-climbing again when that's where your watch said you were."
"I wouldn't have put it past him," Dev muttered.
Gordon grinned as he picked up the empty plastic packs while John and Dev continued dressing. "History repeating?" he quipped.
"Once we got up here," Scott said, "we saw the entrance to the bunker and figured you guys were inside...but then we found the body and knew you were in trouble."
"Dead bodies are a good indication of trouble," Dev agreed as he sat down on the now-upright bench to slide the boots onto his feet. "How did you know my size?"
"We make it our business to know everything," Jeff replied.
John's eyes widened. Was his father actually...he was going to...yes. John knew in that moment that International Rescue was about to get a new agent, in the form of his very own best friend.
However, Dev seemed to interpret Jeff's reply a little differently because he said, "This is not my fault. Just for the record."
"How the hell was I supposed to know this would happen?" John asked, thoroughly annoyed.
Dev walked right up to him, craning his neck to look into his eyes. "I already told you, John Tracy. You attract trouble like a magnet."
Annoyance turned to amusement, and John cracked a smile. "Must be why we're such good friends."
Jeff cleared his throat. "Come on, boys. Let's get off this damn mountain."
"What about these guys?" John asked, nodding toward the men on the floor as he slid his boots on.
"Oh," Jeff replied, looking at his watch. "There's a Mil-Mi 25 transport on the way thanks to Penny."
John looked at his dad appreciatively, then guiltily as Jeff leveled his eyes at him. Not that it was, as he'd said, his fault...and he knew his father knew that. Still, having IR outed to Dev wasn't something any of them...John, especially...were really prepared for.
"What is going to happen to those men?" Dev asked.
"They'll be taken care of," Scott replied in a tone of voice John recognized all too well. Boy, was he glad he wasn't the Hood or General X right now.
"One more question," Dev said as they exited the room and made their way along the hall. "Do you make it a habit to rescue those in peril?"
The Tracys all looked at each other, but not one of them said a word. Instead they stepped up and out of the bunker entrance. Jeff led them up a small rise. And on the plateau beyond sat Thunderbird Two in all her glory, high on her struts above Pod 5.
The look on Dev's face as he took in the massive craft was worth him having discovered who and what the Tracys were beyond their public personas. That Dev turned and gave John a look of complete awe was icing on the cake. John smiled broadly as the others started crunching through the hard-packed snow toward Two.
"Unbelievable," Dev whispered.
"Quite believable," John countered, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come on. Let's get outta here."
Dev shook his head, and the look of shock on his face slowly morphed into a smile. "I should have known, John Tracy."
John gave him a grin.
Sure, Dev was now in on their secret, but John knew deep down that the knowledge wouldn't change their friendship one bit from being what it seemed it always was for them: getting into trouble at the drop of a hat.
Business as usual.
Well...more or less.