Thanks to Boomercat for writing Malfunction and the follow-up stories, Aftermath and Kidnap. But what if the Hood had been behind Kidnap after all, and what if Jeff's fears over Gordon's treatment had been justified?

WARNING: Stroke of Malice is rated FRM for descriptions of m/m rape that may be disturbing to some readers.

With great satisfaction, he turned down the gain of the radio set and returned to his ornate throne-like chair. Phase one of his carefully orchestrated operation was complete. Phase two was set to begin, awaiting only the final unwitting player to set it in motion.

Regretfully, he would have no direct role in this phase of his plan, although of the four parts, phases two and three were probably the ones he looked forward to most. His commander of operations in Africa had chosen this inopportune time to finally exceed his level of incompetence and was resisting efforts to be quietly removed. To rid himself of the idiot, he must leave within the hour, before the pieces of the operation there were irretrievably lost. He would have to content himself with watching the recordings of the less important, but infinitely more satisfying, phase two of the operation in New Zealand.

Fortunately, that part of the plan was being carried out by the most weak-minded fools he had yet found, easily programmed by hypnosis to carry out his instructions to the letter. After they were all dead, he would simply drop in to pick up the result of their efforts. The transition into phase three, which he would see to personally and was looking forward to with evil anticipation, would follow. He could hardly wait to feel his hands around that man’s throat again; but not to kill, not yet, only to the point of unconsciousness. He would be temperate; he wished to enjoy that sensation many times.

Yes, he would keep the man alive for a very long time, long enough to witness the final phase and taste the bitter wine of humiliation to its last dregs. For, if all continued smoothly, and thus far, the omens were favorable, at the end of phase four the Hood would have the mighty Thunderbirds in his power at last.

His spy network had earlier unearthed the information that the Tracys relied on the services of a certain irascible dentist and that the doctor's personality created a continual turnover in his personnel. That information combined with the germ of his revenge finally gave fertility to this operation and he had nurtured it carefully. He then he determined it expedient to bring two more players into his scheme to lure their victim out from under his family's security safeguards. But he wasted no more thought for them, a greedy ex-con and his pregnant wife; what little the police could learn from them was of no consequence, unlike the other three.

After this report via radio, that the three were all now in position at the remote lodge, he would have only one last contact with them. After that, he was confident that these weak-minded fools would accomplish his purpose without further instruction. But how he was anticipating watching the execution of those instructions, even if it was only on a recording.

He looked at the chronometer and smiled wickedly; months of planning would soon be brought to fruition. In only a few hours, his revenge on Jeff Tracy and his sons, and especially the red-haired one, would begin.

It had taken much careful consideration to devise a revenge exquisite enough for this family of troublemakers. And even the most horrible of tortures was not sufficient to assuage his malice toward the man he had typically overlooked until only a few months ago. The dark-haired son had outwitted him, the brown-haired one had out-manuevered him, the tall blonde was out of reach, and the youngest, infatuated with his half-brother’s daughter, infuriated him. But it was the fourth-born Tracy son who had humbled and humiliated him, and for that there would be no mercy.

No one would humiliate him and survive for very long; Gordon Tracy had done just that, and reneged on his own word to do it. In return, the Hood had vowed he would have that man’s head, perhaps literally.

The thought plagued him for weeks, until his eye happened to fall on a article on the second page of a weeks-old newpaper. The story involved the trial of a man whose offense was heinous, yet peristed in his belief that he was guilty of no crime, since his victims were willing participants; indeed, several of his "friends" begged to testify on his behalf. In the end, it was the families of the victims whose opinions prevailed, as they insisted the boys had been "brainwashed".

That was it! Oh, it was almost too perfect! All of the Tracys were blatantly masculine; to be abused sexually by another man, a helpless object of pleasure, would be emotionally and psychologically devastating to any of them. Then, when they learned in minute detail how one of their own had been used in such a way, and that there was no hope of rescuing him, it would be the most painful torture he could have ever devised. He lost no time in finding where the criminal was incarcerated, his face twisted into a fiendish grimace, although it would be several weeks yet before he would be needed.

Locating Jonathan "Buck" Matheson-Thomas had not been difficult, nor was arranging his escape from prison at the proper time. In the same facility, he found the other necessary pawns; two cold-blooded killers serving life sentences, and very homophobic. Their escape from prison and their accommodation at the private lodge in the mountains of New Zealand was also easily arranged. He met them only once, to carefully plant his hypnotic instructions and to convince them that they were quite comfortable in that remote spot. Then he left them to carry out their assignment, certain they’d need no more supervision.

Matheson-Thomas, of course, was a slightly different matter. He had been safely ensconced in another location, until his reported arrival only moments ago. His directives had been by necessity much more subtle, including a minor adjustment in his normal method of operations. And he would find, perhaps to his surprise, that a slightly more mature ginger-haired young man was in some ways more attractive than his usual victims.

Only with effort did the Hood refrain from rubbing his hands in glee, a ridiculous act far beneath his nobility, though he might have forgiven himself this once: finally, after all these months, the plan was about to have the desired result. In the next 24 hours, Gordon Tracy would wish for death. And he would find it eventually, but not for many months, not before he saw his father and brothers, indeed all of the members of International Rescue become his slaves.

Jeff signed the contract, placed it in the envelope and sealed it. He sighed. This morning's business had taken longer than usual, and he still needed to prepare for the teleconference tomorrow. He checked his watch and frowned; Gordon was late with his check-in call. He had planned to inform them as he left the airport outside Auckland to carry out his errand.

Much earlier this morning, Jeff had watched with amusement when Gordon was reminded of his dentist appointment. After the usual melodramatic protests, Gordon set about finding a companion for the boring 2-hour flight and was thoroughly ridiculed for cowardice in the face of dentistry by his brothers and even Tin-Tin. Jeff thought he might need to intervene when even Gordon's attire for the day--forest green turtleneck, khaki chinos, and, especially his latest fashion acquisition, oxford-laced low-topped boots--came under attack.

Like the others, Jeff also thought the military style of the new footwear was incongruent with the soft sueded leather they were constructed from, but then, he didn't have the fashion sense his son had either. Of the five sons, Gordon was the fashion clotheshorse, with Alan a close second. Maybe it was another of their mother's traits that only Gordon had inherited, but he had good taste in clothes, and his older brothers often asked his advice in choosing attire appropriate for an occasion, especially a date. Even Tin-Tin occasionally sought his opinion when she anticipated making an expensive purchase, much to Alan's annoyance.

The ribbing subsided when Gordon good-naturedly retorted that his choice of wardrobe was suitable for the mild Auckland winter. Finally, with no takers for his invitation for a day in one of New Zealand’s busiest cities, Gordon cheerfully decided that he'd be his own best company after all and embarked alone in the little red jet that Tin-Tin had dubbed the Ladybird.

Clint Karner ceased drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and checked his watch again. The two hours since he saw the jeep drive out of sight from the airport had simply crawled by. He'd been too nervous to stay at home alone while Lois was at work, so he threw a few magazines in the back seat of his wife's yellow coupe and went to one of the city's many parks.

The magazines proved to have nothing in them that kept his interest for very long, and he ended up driving aimlessly, finally pulling into the parking area of a playground. He idly watched the kids come and go; it was still a shock to have learned that Lois was pregnant. Did he really want to be just another of those dads pushing the swings and standing at the foot of the slides?

He thought that things were finally starting to get back to normal again after his release from prison six months ago. Sure, he and Lois had fought almost as much as they'd had sex, but only because money had been so tight, and no one was willing to take a chance on a two-time felon to give him a job. She'd only planned to keep the receptionist job with the dentist long enough to pay off a few bills, when they were hit with the bombshell that a baby was on the way.

Then two weeks ago, he received the phone call. It turned out that he'd unknowingly made an important contact while in prison. The deal included an almost unbelievable amount of money for a seemingly tiny piece of information Lois could get from the dentist's records, and they'd jumped at it. When they received payment a week later, the agent in service to the mysterious Hood asked them if they'd be interested in taking part in a project with a much bigger pay-off.

It seemed too good to be true. For their share of the ransom, all she had to do was provide a hypodermic, all he had to do is make the phone call and pick up the money; they’d have no contact with the victim at all. Clint begged her to do it: this could let them go someplace where his prison record wouldn't be an issue, with more than enough money to live very comfortably. Lois had serious misgivings. Getting information had been one thing, but she wasn't too keen about a kidnapping.

When he reluctantly turned it down, they suddenly received a vidphone call from the Hood himself. Clint actually remembered little of the converation itself, beyond an acute awareness of the Hood’s dark eyes and penetrating gaze. Strangely enough, when the call ended, Lois had changed her mind, and all she could remember was an assurance that no one would be hurt. Then she shrugged when he asked why she’d refused at first; why, a wealthy man like Jeff Tracy would scarcely miss five million dollars.

Clint checked his watch once more, and heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, it was time. He started the car and found a telecall booth. Carefully choosing the "voice only" option, he called the number on the crumpled slip of paper in his hand. It rang twice, then a gruff, rather annoyed voice spoke.

"Jeff Tracy. Look, I'm not interested in anything you might be trying to sell," the wealthy man stated brusquely.

Clint was feeling especially glib, certain that this was a sure thing. "Oh, I'm not calling to sell anything. I'm calling in regard to your son, Gordon."

There was a pause at the other end, and a sharp intake of breath. When Tracy spoke again, his voice was filled with concern. "Has something happened? Has there been an accident? Is Gordon all right? Who is this?" The words tumbled out in a rush.

Clint almost felt sorry for him; Tracy obviously had a soft spot for his son. "No, it wasn't an accident, these plans have been in the making for some time." Unseen, he grinned at his own pun. "And Gordon is fine ... for now. He's currently enjoying our hospitality. But we're enjoying his company so much that we've considered keeping him. I don't think we could part with him for less than ... oh let's see ... How does five million dollars sound?"

"Five million ..." Jeff Tracy breathed.

"Yes," he continued, as if he were discussing the purchase of some inconsequential piece of equipment, not a man's life. "I think five million might just be enough. Don't you?"

"Ten million dollars," the billionaire blurted.

"Excuse me?" Clint was startled; who in his right mind would offer to give twice as much to kidnappers as the ransom they requested?

Jeff Tracy took a breath. "I'll give you ten million dollars for his return, but only if he is unharmed. If you so much as ruffle his hair, the deal's off ... and I'll use every means at my disposal to track you down."

The wheels were turning in Clint's mind. Here was another opportunity too good to pass up. There were five of them; each was to receive one million of the ransom money, enough to pay for their trouble and then disappear. The Hood had said he didn't care about the money, all he wanted was to give the man and his father a good scare. If Jeff Tracy's reaction so far was any indication, that part was succeeding very well. Clint's only role was to arrange for and pick up the ransom. Then he was to take his and Lois's shares and leave the rest at a drop. The Hood would deliver it to the other three at their unknown location when he picked up their victim.

None of the others would know how much money had actually been turned over. He could take out the extra five million along with what they'd already agreed upon, with no one the wiser. With a baby on the way, it only made sense to go for the extra cash. It would certainly be enough to cover a change in plans and find them a place where even the Hood, with all his apparent connections, would never find. And Gordon Tracy hadn't seen him, so he could never be linked to the kidnapping. Finally, he spoke. "Why that's very generous, Mr. Tracy. You have a deal."

"Let me speak to him."

"Sorry, I don't seem to have him with me at the moment. Let's cut the crap, here, Tracy. I don't need to tell you that if the police get involved, you'll never see him alive again. You have four hours to make arrangements for the money. I'll call you again at two o'clock to explain how it is to be delivered."

"I can't possibly get that much money together in four hours!" Jeff Tracy protested.

Clint didn't hesitate; he knew the man had more than enough clout to get what he wanted, when he wanted it. "Then we have no more to discuss," he said, and cut the connection.

As soon as the ransom call ended, Jeff contacted John in Thunderbird Five and summoned the rest of his sons. The first glimpse they got of his pale face and shaking hands told them that what he had to tell them was devastating. Thank God Grandma was on the mainland visiting family and was not aware of these events. If all went well, she would only learn of it after the fact.

Although John soon pinpointed the location of Gordon's telecom, he was distressed that his information was not more encouraging. "It's the airport, Father. From what you've told us, these guys aren't stupid. They've had more than two hours to move him from there."

It was another hour and a half before Scott, Virgil, and Alan arrived at the airport, having flown one of the family's swiftest civilian craft. They were all nearly frantic by the delay, but Jeff felt they could not easily explain a visit by Thunderbird One. Then their hopes plummeted and crashed when they discovered the contents of the Ladybird's unsealed cockpit and the presence of Gordon's antique motorcycle still parked at the hangar.

Scott raised his watch and spoke into it bitterly. "It's no good, Dad. His telecom is here, all right. So is his favorite leather jacket. But there's not a sign of him anywhere."

Alan stood nursing a bruised hand, injured when he drove his fist into the unyielding fuselage of the Ladybird in frustration and anger. Virgil had tried to put his emotional energy into something more constructive and was examining the rest of the plane while Scott and their father discussed whether there were other possible options.

"Why hasn't he used his edible transmitter?" Alan wondered aloud.

"Must not have gotten a chance yet," Virgil ventured, as he carefully studied the exterior of the little jet. "He wouldn't want the kidnappers to know we can track him." He stopped, and his fists clenched at what he had found.

"Scott!" The tone of his voice filled the others with dread. "I’ve found blood on the wing here. Not a lot, but ..." he trailed off, his eyes meeting his brothers’ with a bleak expression.

Jeff heard him and heaved a sigh. "All right boys. I knew it would be a long shot if you found him there. At least you may have found us a clue. Bring home a sample for Brains to study. Maybe he can give us some idea whose blood it is."

"If it's Gordon's," Alan growled to no one particular, "someone's gonna get hurt."

"And you’ll have plenty of help, Alan." Jeff tried to comfort his frustrated sons. "We will find him, boys, believe me, and we’ll bring whoever did this to justice. But now I need you to come home. That’s all you can do there. I've got a another scheme in mind; I need you pick me up here and get some equipment .."

"Wait, Dad. It only gets worse," Alan interrupted savagely. He had spotted something on the tarmac near the landing gear. With his handkerchief, he picked up the object he'd found and showed it to his brothers.

Scott barked a curse, as Virgil uttered his own malediction. "Alan's found a syringe, Father," Scott reported. "Apparently Gordon' s been drugged."

Jeff felt his anger burn white hot, but his voice was cold as ice. "Bring that home, too, for Brains to analyze. Maybe they left some fingerprints... and I want to know what the bastards injected him with."

Those kidnappers were going to pay ...

Gordon awoke with a pounding headache to darkness, lying on his left side on a hard surface. For some time he lay still, but gradually the painful haze in his brain cleared and he was able to make his mind work again. He tried to blink, then realized his eyes were covered with tape. His mouth too, was taped closed. His hands were in front of him, palm to palm and tightly bound at the wrists, and his ankles were secured together. He was cold and his left side, especially his scraped elbow, hurt. With good reason: first the fall at the airport and then they must have simply dropped him on whatever surface he was lying.

He longed to stretch his aching body but he didn't dare move; he could hear the voices of two men behind him, close by. He hadn't a clue who they were yet, but there were only two real options. Either they were garden-variety crooks, hoping for a quick few bucks from a kidnapping, or they had been hired by their only identified enemy, the Hood.

He desperately hoped they were only common kidnappers, no match for his brothers, and nothing more sinister. If they were the Hood’s minions, then God only knew what he was in for. The Hood had nearly killed him the last time they met. That he was still alive could only mean that the Hood had contrived some other plan. No doubt he meant to lure his family into some trap and kill all of them in the most unpleasant fashion he could devise. From what Gordon had heard, it could be horrible indeed.

He caught himself before he followed that train of thought further. A good imagination could be a dangerous thing, especially now, and he was aware that his was more active than most. That he’d seen far too many horror movies didn’t help, either. He would drive himself insane he if continued to let his musings run. They’d always been able to come out on top, sometimes by the skin of their teeth, whenever the Hood had been involved. But what if this was the one time they didn’t?

No, he told himself firmly, he couldn’t think like that. He had to keep a clear head. If his father and brothers had any idea what had happened to him, he knew they’d be moving heaven and earth to find him. Since he missed his check-in call when he landed at Auckland, they should be aware by now that something was wrong. He had to find a way to let them know where he was.

First, he had to find that out for himself. Where there’s life, there’s hope, Grandma always said. Okay, he was alive, there was that. With his eyes covered and his hands bound, the only way he could learn anything was by hearing and smell. That didn’t give him much to work with, but it was something. As long as they thought he was unconscious, they might let some information slip and he intended to learn as much as he could.

His captors were no more than four feet away. He soon realized he could tell a lot about where he was being held by the way their voices traveled about it. The room was not large, but the ceiling was high, and it seemed that there were few pieces of furniture to absorb the echoes. A fire crackled nearby, in a fireplace too far away for him to benefit from its heat; the tang of wood smoke filled the air. His cold fingers rested against the wall in front of him, which smelled of pine. From these clues he guessed that they were in a rustic cabin, and if they were still in New Zealand, that meant they had to be in the mountains.

Next, he tried to identify the voices of the two men only a few feet away, or at least memorize them so he could identify them later. Both were Americans; the voice of one was a deep throaty bass, the other spoke with a southern twang. Two men had jumped him at the airport; he’d lay odds that these were the same ones.

One had crept up alongside the fuselage of the red jet from a hiding place in or near the hangar while he finished the post-flight checks. Gordon only got a brief glimpse out the corner of his eye as he reached back into the cockpit for his jacket in the passenger seat, getting an impression of the man’s size, before he was pulled backward off the plane. As he fell, he glanced off the wing and scraped his arm, then smashed into the tarmac. While the huge man held him down, pushing his face into the pavement, the other ran from a hiding place near the hangar. Then he felt the sharp bite of a hypodermic needle, evidently injecting him with a drug that sent him spinning into oblivion.

As the men talked, he could hear a vaguely familiar intermittent flapping sound, interrupted occasionally by a curse from the southerner. Finally Gordon identified what was going on; they were playing cards, and judging by the expletives, he was losing, and badly. And their words began to give Gordon hope that the Hood was not involved.

"Whatcha gonna do with your share of the money, Win?" the southerner asked.


"Haven't decided yet," came the deep-voiced response. "You?"


"Shit, I needed that card. Yeah, that's easy. I'm gonna buy a boxing club in Peru and manage a few fighters. With my experience in and out of the ring ..."


"Hell, Jonesy, the only boxing experience you've had was in prison!"

"Yeah, and I won the lightweight title twice! Not to mention managing the heavy-weight champ for eight years!"


"So? Who's gonna want a manager who can't show his face 'cuz he'll be arrested and clapped in jail if he's ever recognized?"


"Well, maybe I’ll wear a mask. Yeah, I’ll be the Masked Manager," Jonesy finished excitedly.

He was answered by a derisive snort, and a final flapping of a card. "Gin!" the deep voice proclaimed triumphantly.

"Okay, now I know you're cheating!" There was a sudden scraping sound, a chair moving across a wood floor, as the southerner whined, "I saw you play that card earlier."

"And what if I am?" boomed Win. "Whatcha gonna do, ask the Hood to slap my hands?"

Gordon's eyebrows flew up under the tape and his heart dropped through the floor, hammering wildly. So, they were working for the Hood, and he was in very deep trouble.

Against his better judgement, he couldn’t help but review his last encounter with this very dangerous man, several months ago.

He had been aboard Thunderbird Two with Virgil, flying back from a mission. Over the Australian outback, the pod’s clamps started to fail, and they eventually lost it. Virgil barely managed to bring his big 'Bird under control and then made a forced landing. Gordon himself had found the evidence that the malfunction had been a sabotage attempt.

They soon discovered who was behind it when the Hood stunned Scott and then Virgil with a stolen riot gun prototype and very nearly kidnapped Scott. He found Virgil motionless on the ground and, after learning his condition was not life-threatening, managed to track down the Hood and successfully negotiate Scott's release from behind the controls of Thunderbird One. As part of the agreement, Gordon promised the Hood he would not pursue him, but he did deploy one tactic: he ejected a chemical marker onto the Hood, a special substance that John could track from Thunderbird Five. With it, they hoped to track his movements and perhaps lead them to his base of operations.

Unfortunately, the chemical only clung to the Hood’s clothing, which he quickly removed, and then he managed to infiltrate their camp once again, badly injuring Alan, and nearly throttling Gordon with his bare hands. If Alan hadn't come to and stunned the Hood in return, Gordon would have been choked to death.

Gordon forcibly pulled his thoughts back to the present. There had to be a way out, there had to.

"Aah, money's no good out here anyway," the twangy-voiced card player decided. "Cheat all you want, as soon as we're done here and paid, I'm off to Peru!"

"Who said we were playing just for money?" the deep voice boomed. Another chair scraped the floor. Gordon heard footsteps approach, then a hard toe dug into his back. "I was playing for first dibs on this guy."

The second set of footfalls neared; now both men were standing over him. "Well, all bets are off then," said Jonesy disgustedly, " 'cuz that Buck fella the Hood brought in yesterday is gonna get his turn first, remember? And why's he taking so long making that radio call? All he had to do was tell him Tracy was here."

"Don't know. I wish he'd hurry. This waiting around is making me jumpy."

"Yeah, me too. Know what Win? I'll be glad when this little job's done. That Buck gives me the creeps. I mean, what rock do you think the Hood found him under?"

"Cool it, Jonesy. If you let him hear you, he might decide to practice on you before he works on cutie-pie here."

"Whoa, don't even go there! Ew!" The twang wavered just a bit, as if the speaker shuddered.

Gordon’s mouth went dry, and his characteristic optimism fairly leaked away. Whatever the Hood had planned for him must be particularly gruesome, if three men each got "a turn" to soften him up. He found he didn’t want to guess what "Buck’s" part in it must be if even these two kidnappers found it repugnant. Evidently, the Hood was after far more than what he'd almost gotten in Australia in the first place. And no amount of Scott's survival training was going to help him now.

When the two retreated back to their crooked card game, Gordon realized he might not have another opportunity to summon help. Quietly he turned his left arm, trying to activate his telecom. His sleeve was stuck to the scrape on his elbow and the bindings on his wrists clung to his skin painfully. Some kind of heavy adhesive tape had been tightly wrapped so that it gripped the backs of his hands, and then spiraled to his wrists and partly over the sleeves of his shirt.

There was no way he could reach his watch ... and then he sagged inwardly, remembering; it wasn't even there. As awareness was slipping away at the airport, he felt them remove it. He still had his edible transmitter in his trousers pocket, but even if he could reach it with his bound hands, with the tape over his mouth he wouldn’t be able to activate it.

Then things went from bad to worse. A door suddenly opened, and the two men jumped to their feet.

"Well, Buck, how's tr ... uh, what's the good word?" Jonesy stammered.

"Yeah, what'd he say?" Win's deep voice intoned.

Footsteps approached and stopped behind Gordon, who was fighting now to keep down his terror. "The ransom call went as planned, so we're on schedule. We should be getting our money late tonight." Buck's voice was warm and mellow; of all people, it faintly reminded Gordon of Virgil, but with a cultured patina he couldn't quite place.

Gordon’s mind whirled; one part of him hoping irrationally that this was all an elaborate practical joke, the rest sure beyond doubt that it was not. He felt his mind slipping away from him, unable get it to settle on any one thought.

A hinge creaked above him and a wave of cold air poured down and over him; evidently he was under a window that Buck had opened to peek outside. It was all Gordon could do to keep from shivering.

"Is it snowing again?" Buck complained, still in that smooth voice. The cold air flow ceased as the hinge creaked again, and then Buck stooped down behind him. "How's sleeping beauty, here? Decided to join the party, yet?"

Buck grunted as he roughly dumped Gordon over on his back, pulling his tightly bound hands over his head. Gordon barely kept from shuddering in revulsion, as the man's hand stroked softly along his cheek, almost a caress. "Well, well. Isn't this a piece of work! Then Gordon jumped as the hand settled on the front of his trousers.

"So," Buck's voice was almost a whisper. "You are awake. How much have you heard, I wonder? Enough to move things along?" The hand probed deeper, and Gordon panicked, rolling violently away from him, forgetting about the wall at his side. Buck followed him before he could correct his mistake, planting a knee in his back so he could not roll back, and trapping him against the wall. Then he forced his hand between his legs from the rear and continued to probe. Gordon screamed in outrage despite the tape over his mouth and desperately fought to get away from him.

"Hmm, I might enjoy this after all," Buck murmured, his hand firmly taking the measure of what it had sought.

The other two shuffled their feet uncomfortably. "Yeah, well, if he's awake, let's get on with it, huh?" Win demanded.

"Yeah," Jonesy echoed, "we aren't bein' paid just to, uh, look at him."

"Okay, okay," Buck pulled away reluctantly, leaving Gordon panting in fear. "Let's see," he said thoughtfully, moving around the room. Then his footsteps stopped near the fireplace. "Where’s that rope? I think right here near the fire will do nicely."

"In the kitchen ..." Win's footsteps moved away, and Gordon heard a door creak. A few moments later, it creaked again.

Then Buck’s voice again. "Throw it over this rafter here..."

Win grunted and Gordon heard the whistling of the rope as it traveled up and then down again.

He struggled as he felt himself roughly lifted up by the two men, whipping his arms and twisting his body, until they let him drop on his back in the center of the room, knocking the breath out of him. Then one of them forced his hands over his head again, while the other stood on his chest, forcing him to expend his energy in simply trying to breathe. He felt the rope run between his bound arms, then the weight on his chest lifted as the bindings at his wrists pulled painfully and he was quickly hoisted up, suspended with his toes barely touching the floor.

"Not too high, now," Buck warned, standing very close to him. "I don't want to strain to reach him."

Gordon suddenly twisted, striking out blindly with his bound feet in the direction he heard that voice. On one level in his mind, he knew he was trapped, unable to escape the bindings around his hands and suspended in the air, but on another level, he wanted to make Buck think twice about touching him again. The tape pulled at his hands and arms painfully, as he continued to twist and kick out, making them all keep their distance, but his feet met nothing. They waited, keeping out of his way until he finally wore himself out, hanging by his arms, panting.

Then Buck spoke again from behind him. "We can't have this. Get his feet restrained."

"Gladly," Jonesy said with an evil chuckle. "Got the hammer and nails, Win?"

"Ready," the deep voice responded in an equally wicked tone.

Jonesy tackled Gordon's legs and held his feet to the floor as he struggled again to free himself. Then Win punched a nail through the end of each boot, fortunately missing his toes, and into the footbed, and hammered through them until his feet were securely fastened to the floor. The new boots were still slightly stiff, laced and firmly tied; in addition, his ankles were tightly secured together; it was impossible to slide his feet out of them, although it didn’t keep him from continuing to struggle wildly when his legs were released.

"That should hold him," said Win.

"Crude, but effective," Buck agreed. "Thank-you, gentlemen. I will take it from here, for the time being. I see you have the recording equipment in place; and it’s ready to go, I assume? Very good, then. I don’t know what you have planned for the next two hours, but you’re welcome to stay and watch ..."

The two men sounded startled by the offer. They demurred hurriedly, then there was a flurry of activity: shuffling of feet, the opening and closing of doors. Finally, with a rush of wind and a swirl of cold air that left Gordon even more chilled, Win and Jonesy departed the cabin, leaving him alone with Buck.

"Uncultured twits," Buck commented as the door slammed. Buck crossed the room, and Gordon heard the click of a switch. "There," Buck said in a business-like voice. "Since our employer couldn’t be here in person, he asked us to record our time here. He thought perhaps your father would also like to know how you’ve been treated ..."

Gordon’s mind lurched. If his father ever saw what was about to happen, it would kill him, as surely as if the Hood put a gun to his head. And he was utterly helpless to prevent it.

Then Gordon felt the man’s fingers combing up the back of his hair, sending chills of terror down his spine. "You have nice hair, Gordon. And I love the color; is it natural?" he said in a soft voice. Gordon was shaking in horror and anger, but twitched his head forward, pulling it out of Buck's hand. Buck only reached up again, this time grasping a handful of it and pulling his head back so that his ear was near Buck's mouth.

"Since we're going to become ... intimate, shall we say, I think it's appropriate that you know me a little better," Buck spoke softly, his voice like warm honey, but Gordon felt the cold knot of fear that had formed deep inside him twist even tighter. "My associates call me Buck because of the technique that I use, but my friends call me Jonathan. Some of them find the technique pleasurable, others ... less so, but I'm hopeful you will enjoy it, or learn to."

The hand in his hair loosened its grip, and then as if Buck had another thought he wished to share, gripped hard again. Then Gordon cried out in surprise and disgust as a very moist tongue explored his ear, then lips moving his throat, giving way to a sharp bite at his shoulder, his shirt pulled out of the way. Buck continued the routine, as far around his neck as the knit shirt would stretch.

Finally, Buck released him and moved in front of him, his words spoken breathily in a soft voice. "There's one thing I'm quite curious about, since unfortunately, those two ugly clods seemed to think it important that you not see them." He began to gently work away the tape that covered Gordon's eyes as he spoke. "Trust me, you haven't missed a thing ..." Gordon winced as the tape stuck to his eyebrows and the delicate skin of his eyelids, pulling painfully.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Buck sounded sincere. "They would seal it to your face. Sadistic fools ... I'll try to be more careful ... Ah ... There you are. Now open your eyes, I'm dying to see what color they are..."

Gordon glared into the warm brown eyes of a man in his mid- to late-forties. With a medium build and only slightly taller than himself, a pale thin face, medium brown hair, his appearance would give police the world over nightmares, describing a large portion of the planet's male population. There was nothing singularly unique about the man, except for his soft, mellow, almost hypnotic voice.

Buck smiled under Gordon's glower and returned the study appraisingly. "Well," he pronounced at last, "your eyes are very compelling, a lovely amber. But you are older than I had guessed from your state of fitness and physique. Speaking of which ..." Now Buck reached down to Gordon's waistband and, to Gordon's horror, began to unfasten his pants. "... Let's have a look at the rest of you ..." He pulled Gordon's knit shirt up over his head, securing it at his wrists, then jerked both his shorts and slacks down to his ankles.

As he did so, a hard, wrapped object slipped out of a pocket of the chinos, bounced across the floor and toward the fireplace. Gordon stifled a gasp of dismay; it was his edible transmitter. Gordon watched the transmitter bounce into the ashes and stop, relieved despite himself. It appeared to be intact and was hopefully far enough away from the fire to be safe.

For all the good it did him now.

Buck had also sharply drawn a breath, but he didn't seem to be aware of the object, he only had eyes for Gordon as he stared, then thoughtfully walked a slow circuit around him. Gordon was aware that Buck was studying him like a prize horse on display, and felt his face flush in fury and embarrassment. The hours of swimming, running, and weight-training to strengthen his back and prepare him for work in International Rescue had sculpted his body. Until now, he'd been rather pleased with the result on his physique and its effect on the female population; he’d never considered that it might evoke a similar response from a member of the same sex.

Buck was nodding and smiling approvingly as he completed the trip around him. He started another circuit, this time using his hands to explore what his eyes had seen: tanned, well-formed pectorals, a firm rippled abdomen, molded thighs and trim hips; all muscle and not an ounce of fat anywhere. Buck's touch was as tender (and arousing) as any woman's Gordon had experienced. All the while, the smooth well-modulated voice continued, ostensibly a conversation, but answering his own questions; with the tape over his mouth, Gordon was unable to reply.

"Most of my ... friends are much younger than you, Gordon. But I must say, you're quite a treat for the eyes ..." A hand smoothed over his chest. "You shave your body hair...hmm... So you’re either a swimmer or a body builder. Well, you’re certainly well-formed, but not muscle-bound enough for the latter, so swimmer it must be..."

Suddenly he paused in his circuit. "But you're not perfect, either, are you? I'll bet this was painful." Buck's hand stroked down Gordon's back and pursued when Gordon tensed, trying to pull away from his touch. "Whatever did you do to yourself?" Again he answered his own question, "... It must have been a terrible accident. But this wound healed, no doubt due to some skillful surgery ... more than one, wasn't there ...? He inhaled sharply. "Gordon, you're quite a remarkable young man in many ways," he said admiringly.

Now Gordon's eyes grew wide and he tensed even more. The hand that had been touching his back almost tenderly, was joined by its mate and began to explore his buttocks. "You've managed to blend the tan line from your trunks well, considering how fair your skin is." Buck stroked both hands over the rounded shapes between hips and tailbone and continued to probe. Gordon was appalled at how readily his body responded to Buck’s invasive fingers.

"Well," Buck said at last, "I think I'm going to need a little help here." He came back to the fire and warmed his hands. Then he turned around, smiling as he reached out to caress what had been so conveniently extended. Gordon pulled away violently with a muffled cry, but Buck calmly grasped him anyway, then reached lower to finger his scrotum as well. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I understand the Hood himself has plans for you himself... a pity too, now that I see what it will destroy..."

Gordon’s mind reeled. He was about to be raped by a sexual predator, and apparently the Hood planned to castrate him afterward. He’d heard that amputees often continued to feel the pain of the missing limb. Would he have to endure the sensation of this man’s hand there for the rest of what he was sure would be his short existence?

Meanwhile Buck was contemplating his next move. "If only ..." His face lit up. "Oh, of course. It's just the thing!" He strode toward one the doors from the room, and opening it, glanced back with a bright smile. "Don't go anywhere." Gordon got a brief glimpse into the room before the door closed; it was the kitchen for the lodge.

Gordon sighed and thanked heaven for the respite; then shook his head, this wasn't over yet. The situation had gone to hell in a hurry. He stared morbidly at his transmitter in the edge of the fireplace. Although he was close enough to the fire that the front of him was warm, his back remained untouched by the heat. Even if he could reach the transmitter to signal his family, it would still be an hour or more before help would arrive. It was so close, but it might as well have been on the moon.

While Buck rummaged through the cabinets of the kitchen, Gordon looked frantically around him, but there was nothing within his reach. His brand new boots were each pierced at the toe by huge nails that protruded half an inch above his feet; there was no possibility that he could free himself that way. His only chance seemed to lie in loosening the clinging tape holding his arms, but the circulation had been badly constricted at his wrists; high above his head, his hands had turned a sickly gray. He couldn’t even feel them.

Above him, several thick beams ran parallel to the fireplace mantle under the peaked ceiling of the lodge. A simple electrical light fixture installed in the central beam offered illumination to the entire room. The rope suspending him was a loop that circled another beam closer to the stone chimney, the ends tied together with the excess wrapped about his hands and holding his shirt there. Even if he could get the tape loosened, there was still the rope and his own shirt in the way of gaining his freedom.

The kitchen door and another closed door were on either side of the hearth, and there were three other doors, perpendicular to the hearth wall and opposite another wall. This last had a shuttered window and must have been where he was lying when he regained consciousness. One of the three doors was slightly ajar, revealing a rustic bedroom.

Three folding chairs and a rickety card table near the fire were the only furniture he could see in the room where he was being held. A half-eaten sandwich set on a chipped plate, two long-necked beer bottles, and the playing cards were scattered across the table's surface. Several more bottles were lined up on the floor under it near the wall. Whoever had outfitted this lodge had not expended much time or energy on furnishings.

In stark contrast, an expensive video-recording device stood in the corner by the table, its lens trained directly at him, while a small glowing dot indicated that it was presently recording his every move, and about to record all of Buck’s. He found he could not look in its direction very long.

Buck returned from the kitchen, elated, with a bottle in his hands. He strode purposefully behind Gordon, and while he was aware that Buck was humming to himself, he could also hear the rustling of clothing. Buck asked, "Are you warm enough?" and he heard the bottle set down on the floor just behind him. Then Buck rubbed his hands together noisily.

Before Gordon could wonder what it meant, the escaped criminal pressed his nude body against his backside. Gordon recoiled with a bellow stifled by tape, trying unsuccessfully to pull away from him. The man wrapped his arms around him, as a glistening substance dripped from his hands, and then he quickly slathered oil generously across Gordon's chest, over his ribs around to his back, down his back to the anal opening between his buttocks, then around his hips and finally into the area where his fly should have been.

A howl of outrage rose in Gordon's throat, thwarted by the tape over his mouth, and he fought wildly, pulling at the nails through his boots in the floor, and the bonds that held his hands, beyond knowledge or caring that he couldn’t free himself. Buck ignored his struggles, methodically massaging his body, continuing to mark neck and shoulders with his teeth.

At last, Buck tapered off from the biting, as he began concentrating more fully on the massage. "Actually, bondage is not my usual cup of tea, Gordon," Buck informed him in a voice so smooth it was almost a purr. "My friends are usually much more willing. And I usually prefer a scented oil if I can get it; this is just vegetable oil from the kitchen, but it will suffice in a pinch. I, uh, wasn't able to stop and get the supplies I wanted ..." The smooth, warm voice went on and on, with an occasional nip at his ear or shoulder, as the unwelcome caresses continued. Gordon thoughts were in frenzied turmoil, while that voice made him feel as if he was drowning in warm honey.

Then Buck took his movements below Gordon’s waist and began to stroke with both hands. Gordon violently reacted again, to no avail; he was firmly secured at hands and feet and trapped between the man's arms. Buck soon found his efforts rewarded, despite Gordon's obvious displeasure.

Under Buck's execution, the pressure was building. Gordon desperately tried to fight against it, thinking of all the things he'd do to this man if he ever got free, but Buck was nothing but patient ... and merciless. Gordon was helpless to prevent the inevitable. His heart and breath rates increased, and he gasped raggedly as the need Buck was constructing in him reached a crescendo.

"That's right, Gordon," Buck whispered in his ear, "you will come for Jonathan. Everyone comes for Jonathan." Then, just when Gordon thought his mind would burst, Buck suddenly brought his hands to the rear. Lifting his buttocks up and apart, Buck inserted his own expanded anatomy into an opening that in all of Gordon's twenty-four years had never seen more than an occasional rectal thermometer.

Gordon screamed. None of his previous injuries prepared him for abuse like this, but his cries of pain and outrage did not move Buck in the slightest. Ignoring him, and continuing his relentless monologue, Buck's right hand came around to the front again, bringing him back up and resuming what had been started, while the other reached under him from behind, cupping around and fondling his scrotum.

The ruthless stimulation finally brought about its inescapable result, and Gordon felt his body begin to jerk helplessly. Then Buck's left arm came up again to complete the circle around Gordon's hips to direct the movements into and then away from Buck in his rectum, impaling him over and over. As if that were not enough, suddenly Gordon's head lolled, and he groaned agonizingly as his release came, hissing and sizzling as it shot into the fire.

"Been awhile for you, hasn't it, Gordon?" the voice purred in his ear, and then chuckled. "You older guys are all alike, so macho, so inhibited; and it only makes it worse. Give me a thirteen or fourteen-year-old any time. They haven't quite gotten their bodies figured out yet; some don't even know what they're capable of."

Gordon’s psyche was in chaos, his breathing ragged, but Buck wasn't finished with him yet. The one hand reached underneath him again, while the other moved rhythmically in front, still coated with oil. Gordon moaned in dismay; even he was capable of more than he'd ever been aware.

"Now. We both know you were holding out on me," Buck purred. "Come on, let's see you buck for Jonathan again."

It was a phrase that Gordon would hear again and again, until Buck was satisfied he'd given all he had. And each time he would direct the force of those jerking movements, making Gordon move back and forth along him. At last, Gordon literally ran dry, bucking obliviously without relief, and Buck himself finally became aroused. He moved slowly at first, thrusting in and out of him, gradually increasing the tempo until Gordon knew he was being ripped apart from the inside out. Gordon's mind fled, unable to absorb any more.

When his mind finally came back from wherever it had been, he realized he was in pain in a way he'd never hurt before. His head was lolled back on Buck's shoulder, as he lacked the strength to do anything about it, and ... he was whimpering like child.

Buck was breathing heavily, but hugging him tight; his face pressed against his, an arm around his chest. "Jonathan hurt you, didn't he? Oh, I'm so sorry, so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you ..." Crooning the lie, he stroked his coppery hair.

Gordon's anger surged, and he drew strength from it to throw his head forward, as far away from him as he could manage. Buck took a deep breath, then reluctantly backed out of him as Gordon sagged in exhaustion and anguish. He could hear Buck behind him, donning his clothes again, and when he came around where he could see him, he was tucking the flannel shirt into his tan slacks.

"My dear boy, " Buck stated with emotion, "this has been a most extraordinary experience." Then his face became troubled as he reached up to brush the sweat-soaked hair from Gordon's forehead. "But I'm afraid this is goodbye. You see, we were only hired to soften you up for delivery. The Hood is coming himself later tonight, and he plans to take you back with him ... Oh, please don't look like that. Can't you see how hard this is for me? I'll be well-paid and out of prison, but it's almost not worth the money...Oh."

Gordon was shivering from cold and trauma, but the sudden change in Buck’s voice caught his attention. Gone was the slick modulation, his voice turned harsh and expressionless, as if some part of his mind had been taken over by another. With a chill of fear, Gordon realized that Buck had fallen under some hypnotic suggestion of the Hood’s. "I don’t care about the money," he said dully. "I just want to take you with me..."

The man’s eyes suddenly went wide, and he inhaled sharply. Then his voice changed again, back to the oily tones that he’d dropped only moments ago, completely unaware of the change. "Yes, of course..." Then he reached upward, pulling Gordon’s shirt down over his arms and fumbling with the knots in the rope. "There’s still time... If we hurry, we can be out of here before they return..."

Gordon was sick at heart. He was sure he didn’t like this new development any more than the scenerio he’d already deduced. There was no way he was willingly going anywhere with this man. There was no doubt that Buck’s change of mind was the Hood’s work, but what was he up to?

Then he had a thought, a very small hope: if Buck released him, for whatever reason, he might have a chance to retrieve his transmitter. All right, he could play along for awhile.

But his hope plummeted again, as suddenly the kitchen door swung back with a bang. They both jumped, startled.

Two men stood framed in the doorway; a tall, beefy black man and a scrawny pock-faced blonde. Both had wicked-looking pistols in their hands, and blank, wild expressions in their eyes.

"I told you that queer was gonna try something," the tall man said dully in Win's voice.

"He's uncovered his eyes," Jonesy responded, also in a flat voice. "He's seen us."

Buck backed away from Gordon, facing the two men, his hands in plain sight. "What’s the difference?" he asked evenly, trying to recover his composure, and save his skin. "What's left of him when the Hood is finished won't be able to identify you to anybody."

"Get away from him," Win said expressionlessly.

Gordon suddenly realized this was more of the Hood’s work, but the men’s blank eyes seemed to have Buck puzzled. If his mouth had not been taped shut, he might have warned him, but as it was ..

"Okay, okay," Buck said lightly, but he looked nervous. "Is my time up already?" His voice grew stronger, picking up its mellow tone again. He started to move toward one of the bedrooms "I guess then it's time I left ..."

"No, your time isn't up yet. But I think you're about finished," Win grated out.

Then everything seemed to happen all at once. Buck turned to face him, bewilderment on his face. "What do you mean ...?" was all he managed to get out before Win, his eyes narrowed, suddenly brought up the pistol and fired. The bullet ripped into the left side of Buck’s chest, spinning him around. Then he fell, almost at Gordon's feet, and didn't move again.

Jonesy and Win stood transfixed, eyes glazed, hearing the again the hypnotic voice of the Hood in their minds. Gordon stared at them in a mixture of terror and dark hope; there was nothing he could do if they turned on him next, but death was preferable to anything the Hood might have planned for him. Several seconds passed, and then even this bleak hope was dashed; both blinked and looked about them, as if wondering how they got there.

Jonesy was the first to move, seeing the gun Win was still holding up and the man on the floor. "Hey, whadja shoot him for!" He strode to the fallen man and felt for a pulse. "He's dead."

"So?" Win passed a hand over his eyes. "He was just a queer. Now there's one less to worry about."

"Yeah," Jonesy responded with a grin. "And there'll be more money to go around this way."

Then Jonesy looked up at Gordon, who was staring down at him and Buck in shock. He’d had no intention of leaving with Buck, but the abrupt disintegration of two opportunities to escape the Hood’s clutches, however remote and unsavory, tore at the little sanity he had remaining. And then as his comprehension staggered, he realized the truth. The Hood was systematically offering him avenues of escape, only to remove them; all part of a plan to drain all hope from him. He began to shiver violently, as he began to understand that the "softening up" had only begun.

"What we gonna do about Mr. Eyes, here?" Jonesy asked worriedly.

"Aah, don't worry about it. The queer was right about one thing. When he leaves with the Hood tonight, he'll never talk to anyone again."

"I still don't like him staring at me; it gives me the creeps," Jonesy stated flatly.

"Okay, okay," the burly man said impatiently. "Go get the tape and fix it, if it bothers you so much." Then he turned, a wicked gleam in his eye. "In the meantime, I'm gonna show him what I found for him while we were out."

Jonesy rolled his eyes impatiently. "Fine." The scrawny man rose to his feet and nudged Buck's body with his foot before he stepped over it to open the door on the other side of the fireplace, revealing a bathroom. "Do something with this garbage, too, willya?"

Win returned to the kitchen, and came back with a freshly cut wooden rod about four feet long and two inches in diameter, bark still clinging to it. He swung it around like a baseball bat, stopping just short of Gordon's chest.

"I think this'll hurt, don't you?" he grinned at Gordon wickedly. Gordon only stared at the rod, unable to respond, even if his mind could form the words or his mouth could speak them. In the hands of this big man, that rod could beat every bone in his body into jelly. And it wouldn’t take much to leave him paralyzed if it was used on his back.

Then Jonesy brought a first aid kit out of the bathroom and began to rummage around in it. Win laid the wood aside and gingerly dragged Buck's stiffening body by the arms to the front door, directly behind Gordon. Then he pulled the body outside. The door stood wide open for a several minutes longer, as the room grew thoroughly frigid. Any heat that the fire had been providing was overwhelmed by the cold air that poured in.

Finally, Win closed the door, and carelessly dropped an armload of firewood beside the hearth. Then he hefted a single log into the glowing coals of the fire that remained, sending sparks flying in all directions.

Jonesy finally found the tape and cut off a strip about six inches long. He carefully brought it to Gordon, stretched between his two hands.

Suddenly, the log that Win had added to the fire shifted, and even Gordon’s shell-shocked attention was drawn as a large chunk of glowing wood rolled toward the front of the fireplace. Gordon’s frail sanity slipped another notch as the hot coal stopped beside his still paper-wrapped edible transmitter. It seemed his luck was deserting him too, although the Hood could not have planned this. The wrapper flared briefly, then the candy-like coating of the transmitter glistened as it melted, and ran beneath the ashes.

It was the last thing Gordon saw before Jonesy stepped in front of him with the tape. He was so stunned that he didn't try to pull away as Jonesy pressed it over his eyes, sadistically molding it into his eyebrows and over his eyelids. Gordon's head drooped down when the little man stepped away, his heart frozen in fear and loss. He was already in pain, and about to be beaten within inches of his life. Soon the Hood was going to take him away, and use him to destroy his family and everything International Rescue had done.

Just like the transmitter had burned and melted in the fire, any hope he might have had remaining fizzled and flowed out of him. His mind closed in on itself in black despair.

Far up in orbit around the planet in Thunderbird Five, John paced from the little galley to his quarters and back again, as he bitterly racked his brain for some way to help locate Gordon. Suddenly, unbelievingly, Gordon's locator beacon sounded twice, then flared briefly on the map and went out. He stared in disbelief, then shivered as the serendipity of the moment dawned on him; if he hadn't been standing in that exact location at that exact instant, he'd have never seen it. As it was, he scarcely had time to notice what grid on the map it had occupied.

He fumbled for his pad and with shaking hands jotted down the coordinates and the map reference number, as if the map and its information might disappear as completely as Gordon had this morning, without a trace. Then he tried to compose himself and called International Rescue base and his distraught family.

The melted candy coating of Gordon's edible transmitter had momentarily completed the circuit before the heat fused the tiny device into a lump of useless metal.

"... It must have malfunctioned, Father." John reported, trying but failing to keep a tremor from creeping into from his voice. "I barely had time to see what part of the grid it indicated." His composure dissolved. "If only I'd had the enlarged map up .." he choked, well aware that his one chance to help might be too little too late.

"John, you couldn't know when Gordon would be able to signal, or that it would malfunction," Scott assured him, wishing his words alone could comfort his blonde younger brother. He longed to pull him into a tight hug; if only he wasn’t hundreds of miles and several hours away.

"That's right, son," Jeff agreed, his voice soft. "You’ve given us a place to start. Until now, we had nothing to go on."

After reassuring his son in space again, knowing his words were little comfort, Jeff turned decisively to his eldest. "That's a very remote place, there can't be many places they can hide from a thermal scan. Scott, I want you and your brothers to cram yourselves and anything else you'll think you'll need into Thunderbird One and push her to the limits -- get there as fast as you can. But, and I mean this, son -- don't take any unnecessary chances."

His expression grew bleak, his voice more gruff than usual. "I don't need to tell you the statistics... We may already be too late, but bring your brother home." He glanced at his watch; it was nearly time for the kidnapper's third and hopefully final call. "God, how I want to go with you, but I’m going to make sure those bastards pay ..."

Despite the wood added to the fire, the cabin was still cold. Win and Jonesy still had not agreed on who got the first turn. After some heated discussion, they flipped a coin. After more discussion, they went for two out of three; Jonesy won the toss.

"Finally!" Jonesy exulted. "Let me get my gloves."

Win barked a laugh. "Afraid you'll hurt your precious hands?" he taunted. "Lemme see, did you leave your piano in the jeep?"

As Win spoke, Gordon heard Jonesy walk toward the bedrooms and open a door. "Just make more of it, Win," Jonesy replied threateningly, as he returned. "I can't wait to use these on you, too!"

Win just laughed derisively and then walked toward the kitchen. "Man, it's hot in here. I'm gonna open that back door, and get some air moving." Gordon heard the kitchen door creak and then the outer door open.

"Idiot. You're the one who added wood to the fire. We're gonna cook before we're done here!" Jonesy replied in a flat voice.

Gordon felt the cold air hit him like a blow. The cabin was freezing; their bizarre behavior was certainly the Hood’s hypnotic handiwork. Thinking about the money had been Buck’s trigger, Win’s had been overhearing Buck try to release him, and Jonesy was sent over the edge by an obsession that he might be identified. The blank look that each wore as their "programming" took hold was fear-inspiring, and now they were operating under his orders without being aware of it.

"You would have been better off if you hadn't seen us, boy." Jonesy's accent was slurred; more evidence to Gordon that Jonesy was not acting entirely under his own volition. "If you hadn't seen us, I wouldn't have to do this!" The last was said with a grunt, as Jonesy struck Gordon in the face; first one eye and then the other in quick succession. Gordon gasped, and turned his face away, instinctively seeking the relative protection of his arms extended above his head.

"Oh, no, you don't," the scrawny man panted, attacking again. Now the shirt that Buck had pulled down as he fumbled to release Gordon's wrists was a liability, acting as a backstop and rebounding his head forward, directly into Jonesy’s gloved fists. He had no protection at all from the furious pounding.

Jonesy hit his face again and again; his cheeks and taped lips were bashed into his teeth, and Gordon tasted blood, a lot of it. He continued to batter at his taped-over eyes, and the rest of his face, as well as generally pummeling him like a punching bag, striking chest, ribcage, and stomach at random, but true to his boxing training, never going below what would have been his belt. After a only few minutes of this punishment, Gordon gratefully passed out. As his mind succumbed to blackness, he was relieved that he wouldn't be aware when Win began his turn.

The respite was short-lived.

Gordon was forced back to consciousness, gagging and choking as an ammonia capsule was passed under his bloodied nose. Evidently, Win wanted him awake when his turn began. The room was even colder than before.

"Don't worry, Tracy," Win's words were slurred, too; his voice taking on an alien accent that Gordon recognized as the Hood's own. "You aren't going to die, not yet. Not until all your work and everything you hold dear is ripped from you..."

With those words, Win began to silently circle Gordon, only his footfalls to be heard. Gordon found himself cringing, waiting for the blows to fall.

After several minutes of this, Jonesy spoke up impatiently from the table, evidently a spectator. "Come on, Win. You’re makin’ me dizzy."

"Shut up. You said you wanted to watch, so shut up and watch." He circled twice more, then without warning, the wooden rod struck squarely in the center of the scars that marred Gordon's lower back.

A sensation not unlike an electrical shock shot down his legs, up his arms and reverberated in his head, and Gordon cried out despite the tape over his mouth. He'd been told that the spinal injuries from his hydrofoil accident might never fully heal and additional trauma might return him to paralysis permanently. A second and then a third impact, and a sob rose in Gordon's throat that was as much terror of being truly crippled as it was from the pain.

Miraculously, Win changed position, attacking the ribs on the right side of his body. Gordon heard and felt some of his ribs give way under the swinging rod after several strokes. Win moved around to his left side, pounding as he went, and Gordon’s head drooped forward.

He had nothing left. No sanity. No strength. No hope. His mind slipped into oblivion.

Jeff listened dispassionately as the voice that only six hours earlier had demanded five million dollars for Gordon's return pleaded with him to spare his wife and the life of his unborn child. The suitcase that Jeff had left behind in the bus terminal that supposedly held the ransom money had instead contained an explosive cartridge that covered them both with a purple dye when they opened it. Jeff then coldly informed him that mixed with the dye was a potent contact poison that would kill them in a matter of hours.

"My God, man!" Clint was nearly hysterical. He glanced frantically at Lois, who stood frozen in horror. "My wife got it too. She's pregnant!"

Jeff's voice was a study in indifference, although in actuality he almost regretted the lie he was weaving; there was no poison in the dye packet that he'd had Brains rig into the briefcase. "I'll make a deal with you..."

"Anything!" the man sobbed.

"I'll give you the antidote if you tell me where my son is being held."

There was another sob, followed by a long pause. "I swear to God," the voice whispered; he was a thoroughly broken man. "I don't know."

Jeff kept his voice neutral, but he was heartsick. The one ace he’d hoped to gain by this tactic was thwarted if the kidnapper was telling the truth. "What do you mean, you don't know?"

"Just that. They loaded him into a Jeep, and told me to wait two hours before I called you. I swear I don't know where they were taking him. When the money came, I was to take out our share and leave the rest in a locker at the bus terminal. He was going to take it to them tonight when he picked up your son."


"The Hood. Look, he told us that he only wanted to give you a scare..."

Jeff''s heart froze at that name, as the rest of the kidnapper's words jangled meaninglessly.

Gordon was going to be turned over to the Hood. His mind stopped for a moment, his thoughts whirling like a shaken snowglobe. Tonight. The meaning of the word finally settled. They had to find him by tonight. How much time did they have?

"What time?" he finally managed to say. "What time will he pick up the money?"

The kidnapper sighed. "I don't know that either."

Jeff took a deep breath, trying to gather his scattered thoughts again. "All right, then. Go and tell the police everything you've told me, and I mean everything. I'll check what you've told me against what you tell them. If we find Gordon alive, I'll give them the formula for the antidote..."

"What do you mean 'if you find him alive ...'?" the kidnapper's voice full of fear.

"Just what it sounds like," Jeff said expressionlessly and cut the connection before he collapsed with his head in his hands.

Against his will, Gordon came to, shivering. The lodge was as cold as a refrigerator. From the waist up, his body was a mass of agony, his face and torso bruised, ribs cracked or broken, his arms pulling from their sockets from his own weight. Below the waist, beyond the pain from his rectum, he couldn’t feel anything, his legs useless beneath him.

His two assailants were arguing fiercely. Gordon knew they were still responding to the Hood's psychic orders, as their voices grew louder and more shrill; both abjectly terrorized by what the other wanted to do. He was helpless to do anything but listen to them fight, as their altercation reached a fever pitch.

"...Yeah, but Tracy's seen us," Jonesy hissed vehemently. "The Hood's gonna kill him anyway. We're just doin' the job for him."

"I don't care what the Hood's plans are." Win was equally impassioned. "He said he wanted him alive. You just don't cross him and live very long afterward. And he doesn't kill you right away..." His voice dropped to a horrified whisper, "...you beg him to die."

Gordon found himself fervently hoping that Jonesy would prevail. Win was right and his future looked desperately bleak. Gordon feared the weakness of his legs indicated permanent damage to his spinal cord, and he couldn't live with that knowledge, not again.

Why the Hood hated his family so much, Gordon did not understand, but he knew that the torture he'd promised Scott when he'd almost kidnapped him a few months ago still haunted Scott's nightmares. And as much as he feared that, he knew that the information that he could wring from him would mean the ruin of International Rescue and the deaths of his family. He would not, could not be party to that.

He didn't know how, but he would kill himself if he had to, before the Hood got his hands on him again.

Then Gordon felt a pistol jammed into the side of his head. It seemed his prayers were about to be answered. Jonesy was hysterical, screaming incoherently beside him, while Win was also shouting unintelligibly.

Then, instead of simply shooting him, Jonesy hauled back and cracked the gunbutt against the back of his head. Gordon careened toward unconsciousness once again. Then a shot rang out.

This is it then. Gordon felt only relief, as his thoughts fled and blackness took him.

Scott sighed as he dismounted the hoverbike under the cover of the trees. He was chilled despite his heavy parka, and discouraged. It was growing dark and this was the last of the lodges that they had seen as Thunderbird One scanned the area from high overhead. He could not comprehend how he would face his father and brothers if this one too, turned out to be a dead end. They were running out of time, and the sense of futility weighed heavily upon him. Alone, his brothers out of sight and hearing, Scott found he couldn’t be strong anymore, and leaned against a tree, his shoulders heaving in silent sobs as hot tears formed tiny pits in the new-fallen snow.

Most of his life, he had looked out for his brothers, often taking the blame for some of their misadventures, using his military training to teach them to protect and defend themselves. Only months ago, he had tried to prepare them all for any other encounters with the Hood. They all understood he was ruthless, and another run-in with the man was inevitable. When had they let their vigilance down? In the end, no training had been enough. He’d let his brothers, and especially Gordon, down.

They hadn't dared to land Thunderbird One near any of the locations they'd found, fearing they'd spook Gordon's captors, so he’d chosen a central location, as near equal distance to each of them as could be calculated. Then they had used the hoverbikes to get close enough to carefully approach each cabin on foot. The hand-held thermal imager had been a god-send, revealing the number and locations of the people in each cabin, so that they could position themselves strategically. Then Scott would cautiously approach the cabin door.

Earlier, they'd interrupted a honeymoon and a drunken fraternity party. And by the time they’d reached the other lodges, they were empty. Scott could only desperately pray that they weren’t too late, that they hadn’t somehow been detected and Gordon moved to another location without a trace.

From the front, this cabin looked deserted, too, although the presence of two 4 X 4 vehicles parked on the side and the bare wisp of smoke rising from the chimney gave him some hope. Scott fought for and regained his composure, dried his eyes, and grimly continued on his mission.

The snow had finally stopped falling and it squeaked underfoot as he stepped carefully toward the door, until he was close enough to see a light gleaming beneath it. He signaled his brothers by twisting the bezel of his watch, causing their watchfaces to flash a dim blue light. He waited a few seconds and received responding flashes, yellow from Virgil and red from Alan; they were in position. The thermal imager in his hand showed three hot spots large enough to be human beings in the building; one was only a fuzzy image motionless in the central room, as the other two moved frenetically around it.

Cautiously, he crept closer to the door. Inside the lodge, he could hear shouting. No, it was screaming; one a badly cracking baritone, the other higher and even more frantic. He'd gotten as close as the woodpile, several feet from the door, when a shot rang out.

Scott dove for cover, putting the woodpile between the himself and the house, then realized the shot wasn't directed at him. He quickly turned his telecom to three-way voice communication. "Stand-by!" he whispered as loudly as he dared. "Shots have been fired in the house. I am not injured. Repeat, I am not injured. Whatever they're shooting at is inside!"

His heart was thudding frantically. What if they’d arrived only to hear but not prevent Gordon’s execution?

Scott’s hand were shaking as he picked up the thermal scanner that he’d dropped. Something under the snow beside him caught his eye and he froze. When he ducked for protection from the gunshot, he’d pushed snow off a khaki-clad leg. Remembering that Gordon had been wearing slacks the same color only that morning, he bit his lip and hurriedly brushed away more snow to reveal a brown-haired man in a flannel shirt. The body was stiff but not quite frozen; he had been shot in the chest not more than two hours ago. As he stared at the body in shock, another sharp report came from the lodge.

He warned off his brothers again, and thought to check the thermal scanner. Now all three life signatures were fuzzy. The first was still dim and unchanged, upright in the room just beyond the door. One of the others was horizontal near the first, fading fast; a small bright glow indicated a weapon very recently fired. The third was further away, and fading more quickly than the second, with a smaller glow near it, indicating it as the weapon that had been fired first.

Scott wasted no more time, and tried the door. It was unlocked, and he cautiously pushed it open. Then he stopped dead in the doorway, stunned by what he saw. "Dear God," he whispered in horror.

Gordon hung limply by his bound wrists from a rafter in the ceiling, his head slumped forward between his arms, his shirt pulled up over his shoulders, his pants inside out over his tied ankles. His naked body was bruised and bloody. Scott was more appalled by the stain on his brother's bare buttocks that ran down the back of his thighs and the acrid musky odor that hung in the air, stronger than the smell of blood or woodsmoke. It was painfully evident that being beaten had been the least of his torment.

Scott tore his horrified eyes away from his brother and swept the room quickly. In the fireplace were only glowing embers producing no heat at all; a meatlocker would have been warmer. Two bodies were on the floor. A skinny blonde man lay curled up on his side near Gordon, shot in the stomach, a pistol clenched in both hands, as if he'd fired it from that position on the floor. A huge black man had fallen in the doorway leading to the kitchen, shot in the back.

The building's back door was standing wide open, and with the kitchen door propped open by the black man's body, cold air was pouring into the cabin. Most horrifying of all, in the corner stood an expensive video camera system. A red light above the lens indicated that it was presently recording and might also have recorded his brother’s rape and torture.

Scott roared in outrage as he grabbed a piece of firewood and began to batter the machine, barely realizing what he was doing. When it was in a thousand pieces, he stood panting as he wiped his face and eyes, regaining his composure. Then lifted his watch and spoke to his other brothers. "I've found him."

He gave his brothers an opportunity for elated responses, then began issuing orders. "Virgil, bring the EMT kit and stretcher we strapped on the back of the hoverbikes, and get them up here fast. Alan, get back to Thunderbird One and bring her on the double." Then he counted to three, waiting for the protest from Alan he knew was coming.

"Scott ..."

"Alan, Gordon's in a bad way. We’ve got to get him back to base as quickly as possible. I want you to bring the ship while Virgil and I get him ready for transport." He didn't dare tell them more about his condition or that the thermal life sign was almost gone from the scanner.

Alan's image in Scott's watchface bit his lip, his eyes wide. He could see Scott's grim face and knew he wasn't being told all. He took a breath and quickly made a decision, answering in a subdued voice. "FAB."

Scott tried to shake the horror off as he moved slowly around to see his brother's face, but his stomach turned and bile rose in his throat at what he saw. Gordon's eyes and mouth were both covered by soiled white surgical tape. His face had been badly battered and blood trickled from his nose. Another thin stream of blood had found an outlet under the edge of the tape over his mouth. Because of the angle of his hanging head, they joined, forming a circle around his chin and dripping to the floor.

Scott gingerly felt for a pulse at his brother's throat, cringing at how cold the skin was under his fingers. It was there, weak but steady, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

He knew he had to get him warm, but he couldn’t let Alan see his brother like this either. Having made this decision, he gingerly stepped over the black man's body to shut the back door, then pulled him to one side so the kitchen entry could also be closed off. Then he grabbed wood from the careless pile beside the hearth and quickly built the fire into a roaring blaze. The room was soon warm enough to remove his parka.

Almost an afterthought, he threw the battered video disk from the camera into the flames and watched for a moment as it burned. Whoever had arranged for these events to be recorded would never see it. And then the thought came to him unbidden: and neither would he, his brothers, nor his father ever be tortured by the images. He would never tell any of them that it had been made.

He turned and the sight of the tape over Gordon's face broke his heart. He couldn't stand it any longer, and tentatively pulled at the tape over his mouth. The adhesive had been softened by sweat and blood, and it pulled away with a gentle tug. He grimaced as his brother's mouth sagged open, and clotted blood and saliva flowed out between bruised cut lips. The other tape had been rubbed hard into his brows and eyelids, and the adhesive held much more securely; it was going to take time that he didn't have right now to remove.

Scott left it temporarily and entered the filthy lavatory. Finding a towel that did not appear too badly soiled, he dampened it at the sink. Returning to his brother, he gently cleaned the worst of the stain and blood from the young man's lower regions, then carefully drew his shorts up to cover him. He was untangling his slacks in preparation to pulling them up, too, when Virgil pounded through the door, startling him.

Virgil took in the state of the room with a glance and stared, shocked at Gordon's appearance. Then he wrinkled his nose and gave Scott a questioning frown; he recognized the odor, too, but couldn't bear to give it a name.

Scott gave a nearly imperceptible nod of his head and shot a glance out the open door. "Where's Alan?"

Virgil first shut the door and set the EMT box and stretcher on the floor, then methodically began checking the other rooms as he answered. "He should be halfway to Thunderbird One by now. That hoverbike was going as fast as I've ever seen one go ..." As he made his way around the room, he stooped to check the pulses of the two men on the floor. "These are both dead."

"Yeah. There's another one beside the woodpile outside, under the snow. Those shots we heard ... evidently, they shot each other." He finished pulling Gordon's pants up and fastened them. "Virg, we've got to get Gordon cleaned up. Alan'll go berserk if he sees him like this."

"Alan will?" Virgil said grimly, as he quickly unfolded and laid out the tough plastic of the portable stretcher. "What about me?" He spread one of the shiny thermal-reflecting blankets over the stretcher, then turned to help Scott free Gordon.

Scott cut the suspending rope and leaned Gordon back into Virgil's arms, carefully pulling the green shirt out of the way as he rolled Gordon's head back, then gently bringing down his arms. But when Virgil tried to lift Gordon's legs to move him toward the stretcher, he felt resistance. He looked down puzzled, and then cursed, seeing why he couldn't move him. "Scott, they nailed his boots to the floor! He couldn't even defend himself!"

"Dad was right," Scott said in a cold rage, "they were bastards." He quickly untied the bootlaces and gently pulled his brother's feet out of them. Then he helped Virgil place the still form on the blanket to assess the cuts and bruises on his torso.

"God, he's so cold, Scott," Virgil said worriedly, carefully loosening the remaining piece of tape on Gordon's face. Beneath it, he found his eyes black and blue, and swollen shut. Tears came to his eyes as he looked down on his younger brother's abused face, and he reached into the EMT box for some cold-chemical compresses to reduce the edema and bruising.

When he looked up again, he noticed the small red box imprinted with a white cross where the kidnappers had left it, next to the fireplace. Peeking out of its half-open lid was what was left of the roll of wide white tape that had been used to cover Gordon's eyes and mouth, and wrapped his wrists and his ankles.

Virgil's anger boiled over; that kit had been designed to aid people, but it had been corrupted to torture his brother. He got up with a cry and kicked it across the room, scattering its contents. Then he stood staring at the offending box, breathing heavily, his fists clenched, until he could bring himself under control again.

Returning to the EMT box, he grabbed a sterile package of gauze pads, moistening them from a bottle of antiseptic, and began gently wiping the blood from Gordon's face. All this while Scott removed the tape binding Gordon's wrists and ankles. He understood his brother's anger and agreed with the sentiment, but shoved it down as he always did, grimly continuing his task.

They'd barely gotten Gordon's damaged ribs bandaged when they heard Thunderbird One's VTOL jets. By the time Alan came through the door, they'd inflated the stretcher and covered him, ready to fasten the restraining straps.

Alan stopped at the door's threshold in shock, as they had, when he saw Gordon lying so still, his bruised face now the only part of him that he could see. "Gordon ... ?" he asked tentatively, reluctant to voice his fears, as if somehow by doing that, it would make them true.

Scott shook his head, and completed fastening the straps around his brother. "He's unconscious. And at the moment, I think that's a good thing. He might have some broken ribs."

"Alan," Virgil gently laid a hand on his youngest brother's arm and gave his oldest brother a warning glance, "he's going to be okay." He left the rest of his thought unsaid; it was going to be long road back.

Very gradually, he became aware. His first realization was that he was alive, which was somehow disappointing, though he couldn’t remember why. Slowly, other sensations filtered into his muzzy brain. He no was longer cold, but it seemed everything hurt. His face felt swollen and sore, the taste of blood was in his mouth, and he could not open his eyes. His chest and stomach were badly bruised, his ribs tightly wrapped. His back and shoulder muscles felt beaten and strained, pulled out of shape. The tissues of his rectum throbbed. His legs ... thank God, he could feel his legs, and his sock-clad feet; oddly, he couldn't feel his hands at all.

But he couldn't move. His arms and legs were wrapped tightly, as if he were in a cocoon. His legs and chest were restrained, he could raise neither. He couldn't even raise or turn his head; there was a collar around his neck, a strap across his forehead.

Then he became aware of sound, a deep rumbling all around him. He began to feel panic rising. He was beginning to remember... his edible transmitter destroyed before he could signal with it, his watch taken from him in Auckland. His brothers had no way to locate him. He had no idea how much time had passed since his beating in the cabin, but he knew the Hood had been on his way to get him ... to take him back with him ...

That sound ... He was in an aircraft ...!


If Scott hadn't been wearing his safety harness, the heart-rending cry from the rear compartment would have sent him a foot in the air. He twisted around to give Virgil a command to investigate, but saw only the belt swinging from the drop-down passenger seat Virgil had occupied.

Virgil tore into the rear compartment, galvanized by Gordon's scream. He found him rigid with terror, fighting the restraints of the stretcher, the compresses on his face askew, his eyes still swollen closed.

"Gordon!" Virgil gently laid his hand on the only part of his brother that wasn't covered with bruises, the top of his coppery head, and stroked his hair in what he thought was a soothing fashion, but Gordon only screamed again.

"Get away from me! I don't care what you do to me, I won't tell you anything! I won't let you use me to hurt my family! You'll have to kill me before I tell you anything! Do you hear me, Hood?"

Virgil was momentarily stunned. The Hood? Suddenly, the brutality of what he'd seen; his brother's torture and rape, the three men dead at the cabin; all made a wretched logic. The realization hit Virgil like a blow to the stomach: the Hood had planned to use Gordon to achieve his vow to destroy them all. By evil design, Gordon had been the only person left alive in that house; the Hood was at this moment on his way or maybe just arrived at that remote cabin to get him, intending to use him as barter for International Rescue's secrets. Virgil's heart stopped beating for an instant at how very nearly those plans had succeeded.

Gordon wailed again, breaking into his horrified reverie.

"Gordon! It's okay!" Virgil tried again, "You're safe!" He gently separated the lids of his brother's left eye, enough to see the amber disk in its bloodshot setting stop its panicked rapid movement and focus on his face.

Gordon ceased his struggles and stared out, stunned. He drew in a shuddering breath. "Virgil?" he whispered, incredulously.

Virgil grinned in relief. "Yeah, Gordy. It's me. We're in Thunderbird One; Scott's flying us home as fast as she'll go." He released his eyelid, allowing it to close.

Gordon began to hyperventilate. "No! No! Let me see you!"

Virgil placed his hand beside Gordon's face. "Gordy, your eyelids and face are swollen. We'll injure them if we keep them propped open; they need to be closed until the swelling goes down."

Tears trickled from the corners of those swollen eyes. "Okay," Gordon assented, reluctantly, "but let me lift my head ... or move my arms ... Anything .. so I' m not tied up again ..." his voice broke and he began to sob.

Virgil gently unfastened the strap at his forehead, and then the one at his chest, pulling the tightly-wrapped blanket loose around his arms. Then Gordon's pain of mind overwhelmed his pain of body and he reached out for his brother, like a child awakened from a nightmare. Virgil bent over him, desperately wishing he could pick him up and hold him, as he had a much younger night-terrorized Gordon years before. He didn’t dare lift him up, even enough to slip his arms under him, not with damaged ribs, but his own tears flowed at his brother's anguish. Gordon’s arms were clutched around him as tightly as his pain allowed. They both had to settle for Virgil’s hands cupped around his shoulders, speaking soft soothing words next to his ear.

At last, Gordon's arms dropped from him in exhaustion, but Virgil continued to lean over him. When the heaving of his brother’s chest stopped, he carefully released him and raised up, wiping his eyes. Gordon licked his cracked lips. " Can I have a drink of water?" His voice was quiet now, a child whose nightmare had ended.

It broke Virgil's heart to deny him such a simple request, but with the danger of internal injuries, there was no way he could allow him to drink anything. "Aw, Gordy, you know I can't do that. Not 'til we can get you checked out." Then he hesitated, thinking. "Tell you what, though, if you promise not to swallow it, how about just swishing your mouth out a little? Then maybe some ice chips later, okay?"

"Yeah," Gordon's voice was stronger now. "Good idea."

Virgil rose, and pulled a bottle of water from the supply cabinet and cracked the seal. "Here you go. Let me tilt you up, so you can do that."

He placed his arm under the back board his brother was strapped to, gently lifting him to a reclining position. Gordon's hands were grossly swollen and still very pale; although the dead gray coloration was fading, he still couldn't hold the container. Bracing him up on one knee, Virgil helped him get a mouthful of water from the bottle. "Okay, here's the basin." The operation was carried out with a minimum of spillage, but Virgil winced at the amount of blood that rinsed out.

"That's better. Thanks." He sighed deeply. "God, Virg, I .... I hurt all over ... Almost like the hydrofoil crash ..."

Virgil gently lowered his brother back down. "I'm going to give you a sedative and a strong pain reliever. When you wake up, you'll be in your own bed at home. Whadaya say?"

"Okay," Gordon blindly gave his brother a small smile. The tears hadn't helped his eyes, if possible they were even more swollen. Then he frowned. "Would ... would you stay here with me?"

"Sure," Virgil's voice was warm. "I won't leave you 'til you wake up again," he promised.

Gordon relaxed as the injections began to take effect. "Virg?" he asked sleepily. "Right here, Gordy." "Who ... who found me?"

"Scott got to you first, but it was John that just barely caught your edible transmitter's signal in the satellite. It must have malfunctioned."

"No ... it worked amazingly well ... better than you could imagine ... " Gordon was growing groggy, so Virgil didn't press him to explain; he'd get the story later. "Where's Alan?"

"We dropped him off at a farm near Auckland. An agent met him there to take him to the airport. He's bringing home the Ladybird." Gordon roused slightly.

"How's he taking ... all this?"

"He didn't see you until we'd gotten you cleaned up."

"Oh ... good. He'd have gone berserk ... " Thus reassured, he slept.

Virgil took a deep breath and loosely tucked the blanket around his brother again. As he did, he saw the boots that Alan had retrieved from the lodge. For a short while, his relief that Gordon had awakened put the thought of what Scott must have seen from his mind. Now it all came flooding back.

He stared down at his own hands and saw they were clenched. How long were they going to endure this? The Hood had already proven he was absolutely ruthless; what more evidence did their father need? For their own protection, they had to seek him out and destroy him before he destroyed them.

He didn't envy Scott telling their father about the operation. Virgil knew Scott had already bottled up his feelings, and that he'd have to help him deal with them later. But he wouldn't be able to do that until he himself had dealt with his own.

He sat gazing at his brother's swollen face for a long time, remembering the hydrofoil accident, only a few years ago, when Gordon had been so terribly injured that they weren't sure he'd survive. At that time, Virgil tried to emulate Scott: acting brave, keeping his feelings from showing; and it nearly tore him apart. Now he put his head in his hands and wept. He wept alone, grateful that somehow Gordon had survived again.

Why did it seem that Gordon always suffered the most? Born prematurely, he'd nearly died at birth, then there were the usual close calls of growing up on a farm with three older brothers who loved to throw him in the pond or from the hayloft, and then there'd been the hydrofoil accident. It was as if two forces were at work, one to destroy him, the other protecting him.

At last Virgil thought he could get his feelings under control again, and he looked again at his brother's injured but peacefully sleeping face. The road back would be difficult physically, and especially emotionally, but hopefully, the boisterous, joyful spirit that defined his brother’s personality would return. For now Virgil was simply thankful that they’d found him alive.

Scott was flying Thunderbird One, already the fastest craft of its size in the air, faster than he'd ever flown her before, yet he dreaded reaching home. He knew he needed to report in to their father that they found Gordon alive, but hesitated. How did he tell him the rest?

‘Well, Father, I've got good news and bad news. Gordon's alive, but he'd been hung up like a side of beef, raped, and beaten nearly to death. Oh, by the way, the kidnappers killed each other, we won't even get the satisfaction of seeing them go to prison.’ He had decided he wouldn’t tell anyone about the videodisk he’d burned.

He cringed when the comlink indicator lit, but then forgot his misgivings and felt instead a pang of guilt when he flipped the switch to respond and saw how pinched and pale his father's face was.

"Scott! Are you boys all right?"

"Yes, Father. And we found Gordon. Virgil and I are bringing him home as fast as Thunderbird One will get us there. Alan’s bringing the Ladybird..."

Scott was surprised to see Jeff's eyes fill with tears as he gripped the edge of his desk. "Oh, thank you, God," he whispered fervently.

"Dad? What's wrong?"

"Scott, it was the Hood. He was behind the whole thing."

"Oh, my God!" Scott blurted. "That explains it ..."

"Explains what?"

"The kidnappers killed each other, Father, just as we arrived."

Jeff's face paled again. "And Gordon?"

"He was the only thing alive in that lodge," Scott shuddered, remembering the horror of the three dead men they'd found and his brother hanging in the middle of the room. He took a deep breath; this was the time. Wishing he'd found time to think of some better way to word it, he gave his report. "Dad, he's in a very bad way. He was beaten nearly to death, and worse ..." his voice dropped to a choked whisper. He still couldn't say it.

Jeff closed his eyes in pain. "I was so afraid of that ..." He put his face in his hands.

How Scott longed at that moment to put his arms around his father, to feel his father's arms around him. After their mother died, Scott and his father had shared the burden of protecting his younger brothers, and he knew his father felt, just as he did, that once again they'd failed.

After a moment, Jeff drew in a shuddering breath and composed himself. "Well, we will all just have to take everything one step at a time. Just get your brother home, Scott. We'll discuss what we can do in the future when you're all safely here."

You bet we will, Scott thought grimly. The Hood’s days were numbered, if he had anything to say about it.

Ladybird was cleared for take-off from Auckland in record time, and soon Alan left New Zealand airspace far behind. He hoped it would be a long time before they got another call to that island country. Nothing personal, just that the memories were going to take a long time to heal. They'd left the bodies in the lodge. Lacking any better plan, once they got Gordon home, they were going to notify the authorities anonymously.

Alan understood his father and brothers were trying to protect him, but it hurt that they wouldn't or couldn't just come out and tell him about Gordon. He wasn't a kid anymore, hadn't been for some time. He had seen the evidence and could draw conclusions for himself, for crying out loud: his brother's battered face, the bloodied boxing gloves on the decrepit card table, the stained wooden rod on the floor, the odor that still hung in the air ... anyone who'd ever had a wet dream would have recognized that. And he himself had pulled the nails that held Gordon's boots to the floor.

What kind of men could these have been to do these things to anyone, much less his closest friend and brother?

Ladybird's nose dipped, and Alan had to force himself to pay attention. He hadn't even realized he was crying. He had to get a grip on these emotions. He needed to talk to someone. Ironically, the one person he'd have turned to was Gordon; they'd been keeping each from going psychotic ever since they were toddlers, when their mother died and Jeff nearly had a nervous breakdown. Tin-Tin was definitely out; she had her own emotions to deal with and God knew what she'd do when they got Gordon home.

Then Alan nodded to himself. He knew who else seemed to always get left out of the loop, his brother John. It wasn't on purpose, simply the sin of preoccupation; John was out of sight, out of mind for a month at a time, unless there was a rescue call. Heck, they even did it to each other, when he rotated the duty with his brother.

He lifted his watch and keyed it for the narrow band of Thunderbird Five. No one else in the family had to know what they said to each other.

John knew what he needed as soon as he saw his youngest brother's face. "Alan? You okay?"

"No. No, I'm not."

"How's Gordon? What happened? Scott wouldn't tell me anything ..."

"Brace yourself, Johnny. It was absolutely brutal ..."

Damn, damn, damn.

His rage had been so intense, so blinding, that until the explosion that threw him across the cabin, he was not aware that he had thrown everything breakable within reach into the flames of the fireplace. The bottle of cooking oil, however, had somehow managed to remain intact until its contents had begun to boil and expand, finally shattering in all directions. As he came back to his senses, he realized the hot oil had ignited as it flew through the air, splattering flames throughout the room. The wooden building was nearly completely involved in the blaze, the floor between him and either the front or kitchen doorway on fire, the front door itself in flames.

Trapped, he rose to his feet, the heat searing his face and smoke blinding him, and used his hands to feel his way along the wall. He knew there was a window along here someplace... He reached the corner and cursed.

Damn that African fool who kept him from overseeing the operation. Damn those imbecilic Americans for screwing it up. Damn that greedy convict and his moralistic slut of a wife. May their child be deformed at birth. Damn that homosexual pedophile for his weakness. And damn that red-headed Tracy pig and his thrice-damned do-gooder family of his that compelled him to make elaborate plots for their demise. Only to fail and fail again.

This would be the last time, he vowed. Failure would not happen again. His next scheme would be simple and precise...

He reversed direction, still searching for the window.

The fire crept under the kitchen door, and moved toward the back door. Flames licked at grease spilled down the side of the propane-fueled cooking range. Then the oily residue ignited, drawing the inferno onto the top of the stove, and closer to the propane valve at the rear of the cooking surface.

The same valve that Win had carefully shut off each evening; his fear of fire was no hypnotic suggestion, but a true childhood phobia. A phobia the Hood had considered exploiting, but dismissed as it did not fit in his perfect plan.

The Hood had found the window frame, and was fumbling at the simple fastenings with little success, when the heat caused the rubber gasket at the propane valve to melt and the gas to leak out. Suddenly a tremendous explosion lifted the cabin’s roof, which just as suddenly pancaked back down, flattening what remained of the cabin that continued to burn. The burning propane shot its blue flames into the air in a bright plume that could be seen far into the night.

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